Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Martin Scorsese

If I were making a list of my top ten favorite directors, Martin Scorsese would be high up there. It's actually pretty amazing how much he has done throughout his 40-year career. I mean, he has had his ups and downs and fits and starts, but you can't deny his vision, his innovation, his bravery, how much he loves working in movies and his love of movies in general. To listen to him talk is pretty infectious.

Scorsese and Tarantino should get together and interview each other, kind of like a modern day Fran├žois Truffaut-Alfred Hitchcock interview. It would be amazing.

So here are my top ten favorite Scorsese movies in chronological order:

1) Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese not only showcasing people from his old neighborhood but also attempting to work through his issues with his Italian-Catholic upbringing. One thing he and Tarantino can discuss in my mind's hypothetical conversation is how he came up with the idea to pair a violent scene with a pop song. Check out that poolhall fight. His use of music would spawn a million imitators; only one is worthwhile.

2) Taxi Driver (1976)

I saw this for the first time in high school at the height of my De Niro obsession with a side of a Scorsese complex. I re-watched this recently around Halloween time. It is almost like a horror movie as De Niro, as Travis Bickle, descends into his own personal hell set in what can only be described as a hellish landscape of 1970's New York. What a nightmare that place was! Check out this location scout who does a comparison of New York in "Taxi Driver" and how it looks now. Pretty awesome.

Interesting too, some people have a theory that the very last part of the movie is actually a fantasy sequence in which Travis dreams he is dying after the hallway shootout. Weird.

3) Raging Bull (1980)

Speaking of innovation, this movie is not only brutal but kind of oddly beautiful to look at. Scorsese obviously likes focusing on severely flawed human beings, and you might not find someone who fits that description better than De Niro's Jake LaMotta. From the black and white cinematography to the way the fights were staged, it is just amazing. I know it's an old argument that doesn't need to be rehashed, but it was most definitely robbed at the Oscars. Without a doubt one of the best of the eighties.

4) The King Of Comedy (1982)

I don't know the whole story, but it seems like Scorsese needed some carthasis after delving into something as heavy as "Raging Bull." A funny, sad, kind of creepy movie about the obsession for fame. Probably the last time anyone felt bad for Jerry Lewis, too.

5) After Hours (1985)

"After Hours" showcases Scorsese's other favorite subject: New York City. It's as much about New York as being a stranger in a strange land - even if you are just coming from uptown. Griffin Dunne goes to the Village with Patricia Arquette, where things go horribly awry.

6) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Here's the one that consigned Scorsese to Hell in the minds of so many Christians. It makes me angry how some people tried to keep this away from other people when, in fact, they have never seen it. It contains questions, sure, but it is a thousand times more honest than "The Passion of the Christ." Frankly, the crucifixion scene is way better, as it delves into questions of faith, humanity, and how Jesus himself would feel being both God and Man. Scorsese even said in the beginning that the story didn't follow the Gospels, which still wasn't good enough for people. And like Roger Ebert said at the time, maybe if it wasn't explicitly said in some text, why wouldn't Satan try to tempt Jesus at his exact weakest moment?

Being brought up Catholic, this was an interesting case for me.

And having rewatched it fairly recently, it bumped "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" off the Top 10 list. I would like to get the Criterion Collection edition to hear what Scorsese himself has to say on the commentary track.

7) Goodfellas (1990)

Next to "Casino," this is probably Scorsese's most popular movie. And one that also got robbed at the Oscars. "Dances With Wolves" my ass.

Anyhow, it was an innovative look at crime throughout the 70's and 80's that offers more narrative than "Oh hey, everyone's doing coke!"

Again, love his use of music in the "Sunshine of Your Love" scene as De Niro contemplates the murder of Morrie. There is a reason why that scene is so popular; it's yet another example of how many imitators were spawned.

8) The Age of Innocence (1993)

It must have given people whiplash back in the early 90's for Scorsese to go from "Goodfellas" and the "Cape Fear" remake to this subtle drama of 19th Century high society in New York with great turns by Michelle Pfeiffer (she was kind of on fire at this time) and Daniel Day-Lewis. The ending still frustrates me which, I think, speaks to its power in general.

9) Casino (1995)

Yeah, yeah, I know. Sort of a "Goodfellas" retread and another insane Joe Pesci performance. But there is something kind of awe-inspiring about the scope and operatic quality he gives to a bunch of thugs and bookies trying to run a casio and life in general. It's a different sort of tragedy writ larger than "Goodfellas," although both are about men who were given things that they ultimately couldn't handle. It might as well be high Greek tragedy. With more bats to the head.

10) The Departed (2006)

Like I said, it was tough to pick just ten, so "The Aviator" missed out, which I enjoyed it quite a bit. But I like (and apparently the Academy liked) Scorsese delving into more pulpy territory with his remake of the Japanese "Infernal Affairs." I saw the original at the Brattle, and let met say, the remake is better. It's the second best movie made in and around and about Boston, second only . Despite a few bad Boston accents, a mediocre actress, and that ridiculous last shot on the balcony, it is still an enjoyable movie. I still would like to hear the explanation for that last scene because, yeah, Marty, we get it, a rat.

I can't wait to see more of his pulpy tendencies in "Shutter Island." I am really curious to see what he does with that. Should be interesting to say the least.


  1. I had a hard time getting over Winona Ryder's awful acting in "Age of Innocence" in the same fashion I can't get past January Jones' lousy acting in "Mad Men."

  2. But I agree with you about the rat. It reminded me of that Verizon commercial where the girl is holding up a mannequin's arm and leg and actually says to the camera that her cell phone plan costs....wait for it....an arm and a leg. It's like, "Yes, we get it. You're holding an arm and a leg!"

  3. you know, After Hours is such an incredible film. i think i rate it even higher because it doesn't seem to get anything like the attention or respect it deserves. it means more to me than any of the other movies he has done because it really is a one-off.

  4. also, it is amazing the number of easily recognizable memes that have come from his body of work. so many quotes, images and scenes that have become part of the wider shared pop culture vocabulary.