There are few names that make as much of an impression as Martin Scorsese’s. Whether a dedicated cinephile or casual viewer, everybody has seen a Scorsese masterpiece at some point or another.
He is recognisable for the first half of his career being earmarked by Robert De Niro appearances, whereas the second part is dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio. But no matter which Scorsese era you watch, you’ll never be disappointed.
His newest film, The Irishman, is set for release later this year and stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Who is he?
As a key figure of New Hollywood, Martin Scorsese is an Italian-American filmmaker who grew up in New York City’s Little Italy. This can been seen in his earlier work, which predominantly takes place in the same urban setting Scorsese was born in. Attending the Tisch School of Arts, Scorsese grew a passion for film at a young age and began making short films during the 1960s. Later, he became the Oscar-winning director he’s known for today.
Style and Auteurship
Other than his prevailing collaborations with Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, Scorsese is known for various cinematic trademarks. Many of his films – especially earlier works – are set in the streets of New York City, naturally drifting into the gangster genre. Thematically, Scorsese explores the darker side of life: violence, obsession and corruption recur throughout his films, often leading to his characters’ mental strife.
In terms of technical auteurship, Scorsese favours a mix of long takes and fast editing. His signature freeze-frame technique can be found in films such as Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), embedding the characters into viewers’ minds. Scorsese is also fond of the in-media-res method, beginning the narrative mid-way through a scene or conversation.
Scorsese’s Best Movies
Shutter Island (2010)
As Scorsese began to move away from the urban gangster genre, Leonardo DiCaprio emerged as his newest collaborator. From Gangs of New York in 2002, to The Aviator in 2004, DiCaprio and Scorsese prove a dream team of cinema. One of their most universally loved collaborations is Shutter Island.
A psychological thriller set on an island for the criminally insane, US Marshal Teddy Daniels must find the whereabouts of an escaped prisoner (with help from his partner, played by Mark Ruffalo).
Shutter Island is famed chiefly for its shocking plot-twist, deeming the film a second watch for an entirely new experience. But whether your watching it the first-time round or are searching for clues on your third viewing, Shutter Island is an all-round crowd pleaser, with its roots in the noir genre.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Scorsese paints a controversial picture of corruption in his 2013 biopic The Wolf of Wall Street. Again starring Leonardo DiCaprio (alongside Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Matthew McConaughey), The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild ride from start to finish.
Following the true story of Jordan Belfort, who defrauded Wall Street investors out of millions, Scorsese’s epic comedy drama is brimming with drug-fuelled energy.
The scale of Belfort’s illustrious, millionaire lifestyle is mirrored in Scorsese’s filmmaking. Tracking shots, intense party scenes and anamorphic lenses are used to embroil viewers in Belfort’s extravagant world of sex, drugs and heaps of cash. Improvisation also played a large part in the acting on The Wolf of Wall Street, as Scorsese often encourages.
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull is an early masterpiece by Scorsese, adored by critics since its release in 1980. The boxing movie is filmed completely in black-and-white, telling the story of a middleweight champion from the Bronx climbing his way to the top. Raging Bull perfectly exemplifies the magic that can come from fusing De Niro’s acting talents with Scorsese visionary eye.
Raging Bull is perhaps Scorsese’s greatest biopic – a genre he has dabbled in many times, and with great success. Raging Bull is legacised as a Scorsese classic, using flashbacks, intense editing and piercing silences to embody the anger of its anti-hero. The iconic fight scenes and complex character arc of De Niro’s boxer arguably make Raging Bull the best sports movie ever made.
As one of the most influential gangster movies in history, Goodfellas plays on all Scorsese’s early conventions.
Urban crime is at the heart of Scorsese’s mob movie, depicting the story of a gangster recruit trying to advance his way to the top of the food chain. Drugs, family conflict and a classic New York City setting enable Goodfellas to grip audiences in a culmination of all Scorsese’s best skills.
Signature freeze-frames and endlessly quoted lines (“Funny how?”) make Goodfellas a monument to Scorsese’s career. Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Goodfellas is a memorable, well-performed classic, exploring the notion of organised crime with wit and energy. Undoubtedly one for the Scorsese watch-list.
The Departed (2006)
Remakes are rarely ever on par with the original movies – except when Scorsese is in the director’s chair.
Based on the Hong Kong crime thriller Internal Affairs (dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002), The Departed boasts a cast list including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. Scorsese adopts a new perspective toward his recurring theme of crime, showing how an undercover cop attempts to infiltrate the mob.
Identity and guilt play key roles in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning crime drama, claiming Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing at the 2007 Academy Awards.
Some controversy was sparked over the heavy-handed symbolism of a rat that appears just before the credits, gaining a $4,000 campaign to have it digitally removed. In spite of this, The Departed is still remembered as a gem in the modern gangster genre, as well as the only time Scorsese has won an Oscar for Best Director.
Taxi Driver (1976)
An award-winning neo-noir psychological thriller, Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese. What more could you want from a film?
Taxi Driver stars a young Robert De Niro and even younger Jodie Foster, which generated some controversy over the film’s depiction of child prostitution. Generally, however, Taxi Driver was a critical and commercial success, winning the prestigious Palme D’Or in 1976.
Taxi Driver solidified Scorsese’s reputation as a filmmaker, as well as igniting a chain of collaborations with De Niro. Travis Bickle – a now iconic anti-hero – spirals out of control when returning from the Marines to drive the sleazy New York streets.
Bickle is a contradiction of himself, often saying one thing while behaving the complete opposite. It’s Scorsese’s complex character portrait that has sparked decades of analysis and film criticism, with Taxi Driver being dubbed a “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant film by the US Library of Congress in 1994.
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