Staff Picks: The Masterful Martin Scorsese

Today marks the birth of one of the most influential American filmmakers in the history of Cinema, Martin Scorsese. To commemorate this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen to examine some of our favourites from his filmography; from his early breakout work, to his later modern masterpieces.

Mean Streets (1973) By Jacob Calta

Mean Streets can best be described as one of the definitive pictures in American independent cinema. Encouraged with some legendarily tough love from the father of the American independent film, John Cassavetes, Scorsese moved on from his studio-bound exploit, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha (produced under the wing of the Pope of Pop Cinema himself, Roger Corman), to create one of his most personal films, and I argue, one of his finest.

Mean Streets tells the tale of a hoodlum played by the great Harvey Keitel, a man struggling to balance his Catholic faith with his criminal deeds on behalf of his uncle, and his friendship with his increasingly unhinged friend Johnny, played with showstopping zeal by a young Robert De Niro. Everything about Scorsese that one recognizes is here, from kinetic performances by Keitel, De Niro, and Richard Romanus as a particularly compelling loan shark, to the use of popular music for the soundtracks, with such classic needle drops as the Ronettes classic “Be My Baby” to the Rolling Stones hit “Jumping Jack Flash,” to some incredible camerawork by Kent Wakeford that balances urban grit with rich nocturnal style. All of it is pulled together by Scorsese in a rich, compelling, and entertaining way that still resonates to this very day.

There is no denying the charm, energy, and sheer guts of this landmark motion picture of the 1970s. It was the one that would put Scorsese on the map as one of the freshest voices in filmmaking. A fact that still remains to this very day.

Taxi Driver (1976) By Amos Lamb

Taxi Driver, much like the majority of the cast and crew, has a legacy that speaks for itself. Scorsese’s most infamous film has remained a hit since it’s release, garnering overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and fans alike, eventually leading to 4 Oscar nominations as well as the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Despite this success, the film did draw criticisms from notable critics over the casting of Jodie Foster, who was only 12 at the time, as a child prostitute, as well as a controversy when it was revealed that the film formed part of a delusional fantasy of John Hinckley Jr who attempted to shot Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress the real world Jodie Foster. But despite these, the film has remained a staple of pop culture and is still revered as one of Scorsese’s best films.

For me Taxi Driver was a film I watched fairly young, just because I was so eager to see it after seeing it referenced so much in TV shows and other movies, but never went back to for years after my first watch. It was only earlier this year that I finally rewatched the film, and I was blown away once again by just how well it held up. The way Scorsese and Chapman work together to frame New York is fantastic, with a vibrant use of neon colours that still manage to shows the lifelessness and bleakness of New York during that era. Meanwhile De Niro’s performance encapsulates a sense of rage of the disenfranchised working-class in a post-Vietnam world, and the way the narrative highlights how society and culture can distort that rage into misguided places (for example; Travis’s racism, sense of vigilante justice, etc.), which makes this film such a powerful commentary on society and the nature of extremism. Even the supporting cast like Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel and Cybil Shepard all give unforgettable performances that strengthen the film’s narrative, and play off of De Niro’s performance perfectly to enhance the deterioration we see of his character in their own ways. In many ways I see Taxi Driver as Scorsese’s magnum opus, it really is a fantastic film that has stood the test of time superbly, and one that I know I will never forget.

Raging Bull (1980) By Amos Lamb

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull, is easily one of the most compelling sport biopics ever made. The blurred line of sympathy and disgust that the film creates for LaMotta as it follows his career demonstrates a powerful display of filmmaking from Scorsese and his crew. As we experience the highs and lows of LaMotta’s career we’re presented with an array of fiery displays of emotion both in and out of the boxing ring. With LaMotta finding success due to his ability to take the bulk of his opponent’s attacks before firing back with his own explosive punches, but in his personal life it only takes the smallest emotional slight, for example his wife overcooking his steak, for his emotions to explode into bursts of emotional and physical abuse against the people, mainly women, in his life. Robert De Niro does a fantastic job of balancing the different aspects of LaMotta’s life, coming across like a sleek predator stalking his prey in the ring, before turning into a jealous nervous-wreck in his home life, before suddenly exploding into a violent outburst, and De Niro conveys all of these with the same level of intensity and passion in every scene. This range of emotion is captured perfectly through Michael Chapman’s cinematography, with LaMotta’s everyday life being framed flatly using naturalistic lighting, which punctuate the horrors of his violent abuse, meanwhile the boxing fights are framed and shot so stylishly, to evoke the sense of grandeur, and with each strike and blow, or every fast cut, or to the fluid camerawork weaving between the fighters, all come together make these fights feel like a spectacle, purposefully clashing with the presentation of the violence we see in LaMotta’s personal life. While you could certainly draw similarities between Raging Bull and some other Scorsese films, especially in terms of their “rise and fall” nature, but what makes Raging Bull such a powerful film is how raw and powerful the emotions that Scorsese and De Niro manage to display are, even when it comes through in a subtle tone shift or rogue line of dialogue that alters the whole atmosphere of a scene. I firmly believe that Raging Bull is one of Scorsese’s best films and ranks highly among his already stacked filmography.

GoodFellas (1990) By Jacob Calta

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

It is with these words that Ray Liotta as real-life mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill sets in motion one of the great modern masterpieces in the history of cinema.

Say what you will about Goodfellas, but there is no denying that Martin Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing when creating what is objectively one of the liveliest biopics of the past three decades, as well as creating one of the finest gangster pictures. From his immaculate direction to the incredible performances from everyone in the cast, with Liotta, the iconic Robert De Niro, and the impeccably fiery Joe Pesci coming out legends all the more for starring in it, to the dynamic camerawork of Michael Ballhaus, this beloved tale of growing up and into a life of crime never ceases to captivate, humor, and shock even upon repeat viewings. It also may be one of Scorsese’s finest hours as a soundtrack curator. He makes incredible use of period-accurate pop, rock, jazz, and R&B in a consistently effective way that always compliments the scenes they are applied to, on top of gelling away from the film as its own unique listening experience.In the end, Goodfellas remains a true triumph of not only his career, but of the medium as a whole, and remains a profound testament, then as now, now as always, to his chops as a filmmaker.

Age of Innocence (1993) By Saoirse Selway

One of Scorsese’s best and earliest examples of challenging himself is costume drama romance The Age of Innocence. Here, Scorsese’s normal violence and gore is replaced with emotional violence. The saturation and bold colours is here replaced with the rich and intricate pallets that show he has a strong visual sense in any setting. The brooklynese he’s known for here replaced with the ornate and vaguely arcane language of 1870s high New York society. Instead of the complexities of gangster life, here it is the labyrinthine social quirks of the idle classes that are to be navigated at great cost. Daniel Day Lewis gives one of his best performances in a career of great performances as Newland Archer, who plans to marry the respectable young lady of Winona Ryder’s May Welland, but romantic entanglements are inevitable and complex, in no part due to the involvement of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Ellen Olenska, all three of whom give towering performances. The magnificent scope of this movie is breathtaking, and look of the film is immaculate, and the script is gorgeous, giving not only a wonderful social satire but also an aching investigation of longing, ageing, and love. The final scene is like, jaw droppingly sad. An utterly devastating movie that absolutely cements Scorsese as one of the most versatile filmmakers working. 

Casino (1995) By David Alkhed

Friendship, sin, copious amounts of violence, loyalty, trust and greed. All of these are elements that can be traced to Scorsese’s 1995 epic three-hour gangster opus Casino. Reteaming once again with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci with the additional casting of Sharon Stone, many people saw this as just another Goodfellas but that is a major disservice to what is one of the greatest and most entertaining films of Scorsese’s career. It uses the style of Goodfellas as a jumping off point and pushes it to the very limits of what we generally conceive of as conventional narrative cinema with the film almost playing out like one endless montage. Scorsese brings virtually everything to the table in the filmmaking department employing cranes, his beloved push-in dollies, elaborate steadicams, dutch angles, slow-motion, silhouettes, irises etc. I mean, hats off to everyone in the crew but especially Robert Richardson and Thelma Schoonmaker whose work here is god-tier great. Alongside the superb filmmaking, Scorsese does what he does better than any filmmaker working today: depict incredibly flawed yet realistic human beings. De Niro and Pesci are superb as expected, but Sharon Stone is the one to watch in this film. She starts the film as a superbly confident prostitute with enough charm, wit and looks to die for. But as the film evolves and the years pass, this is revealed to be nothing but a facade to hide the fact that she is a truly damaged person, still the tall 14-year old girl with braces wooed by her pimp Lester Diamonds (played perfectly by James Woods). So even though she is an awful person and incredibly toxic, it’s really sad to see this person being destroyed and used by everyone around her and being caught in one terrible situation or circumstance after another, just like a lot of Scorsese’s characters in fact. They’re left on this Earth to fend for themselves, there is no god or angels that will save them. They’re living in America, and in America you’re on your own.

Kundun (1997) By David Alkhed

When I first heard about Kundun I had virtually no interest in ever seeing it. It was touted as dull and slow and being one of Scorsese’s weakest films. And the subject matter didn’t exactly intrigue me either so it took me a long time to finally see Kundun. A few years later I had learned more about Buddhism and has since become very fascinated with it and it’s philosophies. Then I heard that an art house theatre was showing Kundun as part of a series of religious-themed films. I decided to go, mostly out of respect for Scorsese, and I found it to be one of his most beautiful, compassionate and most importantly, transcendental films in his career and my personal favorite out of his so-called “religious trilogy” alongside The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence.

What makes Kundun deliver for me is in many ways the filmmaking and the experience of watching it. Indeed, if you ever get the chance to see it on the big screen I highly recommend it as it’s a truly transcendental experience in ways few films are, especially the final section of the film dealing with the escape from Tibet to India. The film completely negates the notion of a traditional narrative and instead takes on the notion of a dreamlike poem, seeing things not necessarily in the order they happened but rather as the Dalai Lama would remember them. This is when Scorsese is at his very best for me, taking the structure of documentaries and applying them to fictional narratives. It doesn’t hurt either when he’s aided by lush cinematography from Roger Deakins, superbly detailed sets and costumes from Dante Ferretti and a truly brilliant score from Philip Glass, which ranks in my book as high as Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver. The film is also deeply respectful of Buddhism and the Tibetan people, a struggle often neglected in western society. Scorsese doesn’t dumb anything down so that a western audience can “get it.” He wants to immerse us in their world and culture by showing it for what it is, not for how we may perceive it.

Kundun is indeed a piece of genuine transcendental cinema delivered to us by ironically the god of cinema, Martin Scorsese.

Hugo (2011) By Saoirse Selway

My favourite Scorcese films, purely by coincidence tend to be the ones where he’s subverting his own image. They’re the ones, for me, where he really proves himself as a genius filmmaker, when he isn’t beholden to the tropes and conventions of his filmmaking. When a filmmaker doesn’t have access to their box of tricks, that’s when you see their metal. One such film is Martin Scorcese’s Hugo. In truth it was the first Scorcese film I fell in love with after not really connecting with some of his other classic pictures like Goodfellas. Whereas the episodic nature of Goodfellas stopped me getting involved in the plot, in Hugo, the fact at many points seems like it’s a throwback to those more episodic family stories like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or Rob Reiner’s adaptation of The Princess Bride, means that that element really works. It also helps that many scenes, like the one where a top drawer Sascha Baron Cohen gets his boot stuck in a train, channel those short non-sequitous silent sketches by the great silent clowns like Chaplin and Keaton. This brings you onto the first point, the stellar cast, first of all, I would die for Emily Mortimer. She is just such a luminous and magnificent presence in anything that that needs stating out right. That being said, even in minor roles you have a beautifully comic and self effacing Sacha Baron Cohen, with Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jude Law, Kevin Eldon, Helen McCrory, and Richard Griffiths. All of whom completely get the measure of the material. They are playing what is ultimately a single cog in a larger fantasia. Scorcese is purposefully capturing a world of nostalghia, but nostalghia for whom? It’s not like a lot of people watching Hugo were conscious or particularly aware of the world at the time when this film is set, fewer still where the movie is set and in the culture in which the movie is set. This is where the three main plays, played by Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, and importantly, Ben Kingsley, playing godfather of cinema, Georges Méliès. In the film is a Méliès and bitter old man, embittered about his lot in life and how, like so many others at the time, his cinematic ingenuity was stolen and buried by American capitalists, and it’s this child eye view that makes him realise how great his work was, and restores his faith in cinema. The person who is nostalgic for this time in this movie… is cinema itself. We all share point of view of the cinema whenever we watch a movie, and here we are taken back to cinema’s golden age and even back to its origins to be indulged in the simple pleasures of not only childhood but the naivety of the very earliest forms of cinema itself, made by a man who was sixty nine at time of release, who maybe himself is removing the bells and whistles of the cinema he is known for, just to celebrate the medium. 

That’s what a master can do.

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