Martin Scorsese is the true king of cinema. While most filmmakers are lucky to have just one film that stands the test of time, Scorsese has had hit after hit across five decades. Saying “the best Martin Scorsese films” is like saying “the best chili cheese fries” because even when they’re not the greatest, they’re still pretty darn good.
All Martin Scorsese movies have been accumulated here and ranked. While there are several that could easily take the top spot, there can only be one winner. Join us now for StudioBinder’s ranking of the best Scorsese movies ever.
NOTE: For this list, we’re only looking at narrative features he’s directed. He’s helmed numerous documentaries over the years, many of which are fantastic. (Check out The Last Waltz). But we’ll just focus on his 25 feature-length narrative films as of 2020 for this list. Let’s dive in.
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MARTIN SCORSESE FILMS
25. Boxcar Bertha (1972)
After seeing Boxcar Bertha, John Cassavetes told Scorsese, “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of sh*t.” While it may not be the worst film ever made, you can see some rookie mistakes. It doesn’t have that polished look that Scorsese movies would become known for. It very much feels like a training exercise for the fledgling director, so some harsh criticism may have been exactly what he needed to become the director he’s known for today.
Frank Sinatra’s hit song “New York, New York” is actually a cover of a song Liza Minnelli sings in the film of the same name. And honestly, that song’s about the only thing worth salvaging from this film. It blends together a classic musical with hard realism, which doesn’t always make for a pleasant combination. Listen to the soundtrack, but skip the movie.
Quentin Tarantino has said he’s drawn a lot of influence from Scorsese’s work. Other than the violence, it can be hard to see other than in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? It’s basically Scorsese’s student film featuring characters who have long, drawn-out conversations about old cinema. It feels like something Tarantino would have made in the 60s, which sounds intriguing, but in this particular film, it never truly rises to the occasion.
If there’s one thing you pick up from watching a lot of Martin Scorsese movies, you realize the man cares deeply about the spiritual nature of man. Sometimes he tries to go for the transcendent, but other times, he wants to dive deep and show us someone on the brink of mental collapse. That’s Bringing Out the Dead in a nutshell, which takes a Taxi Driver-esque look at a paramedic who’s too worn out from losing and saving lives over his career and how he slowly descends into oblivion.
It’s understandable why people want to avoid spoilers, but for our money, watching Shutter Island is better when you know the twist at the end. It allows you to fully grasp the themes of a man dealing with terrible guilt when you know where it’s all heading. The acting choices make more sense, and you honestly get more out of the experience. It may be predictable, but a Martin Scorsese thriller is never a bad thing.
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison was granted the privilege to sit down with the Dalai Lama to interview him about his life, and those conversations served as the basis for Kundun. Even though it feels like the least “Scorsese-y” movie on this list, it does deal with themes the director grapples with often. The film may keep its central figure in the distance, but the beauty and care Scorsese held while crafting the visuals cannot be understated.
Paul Newman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in The Hustler in 1961. 25 years later, he’d return to the role and finally win that Oscar, and unfortunately, that feels like the only reason this movie needs to exist. Scorsese’s direction is stellar for the belated sequel, but you can’t shake the sense his sensibilities would be better suited for something original.
Any time a character in The Departed is about to die, they’re marked with an “X.” It’s tiny details like that which really elevate a film, and this crime thriller that finally won Scorsese a Best Director Oscar is a cut above the usual gangster shoot-em-ups. It’s held up decently over the years despite the hilarity of hearing these characters pronounce “microprocessors” in thick Boston accents.
To ensure the portrayal of OCD (so often mocked in films and television) was accurate in The Aviator, Scorsese worked with Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD at UCLA to create a more accurate portrayal. Not only was the mental illness brilliantly portrayed on screen, it led to a more dynamic performance from Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his best roles ever. It’s a different kind of Scorsese picture for sure but a welcome one.
Martin Scorsese first came across the inspiration for Gangs of New York, a 1927 book, in 1970 and had to wait 30 years to finally get it made. He was still a young director upon discovering the work, but it just goes to show what kind of impact it had on the fledgling director. It also speaks to his craft that he didn’t rush production. He envisioned an epic, and he waited until he was finally at a place in his career where he could name his price.
Scorsese proves his skills as a director with The Age of Innocence. Most people associate him with violent gangster pictures, but underneath all that, it’s clear he’s more interested in exploring how people can thrive in a world determined to strip them of their free will. It goes to show all aspiring filmmakers out there that you as long as you know what kind of story and themes you want to tell, you can pretty much make any genre of movie you like, even an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel.
One of the greatest shots in Scorsese’s filmography is the opening shot of the antagonist, Max Cady. The score combined with the panning down of cut up images and books before landing on a muscular, tattooed man help tell the audience practically everything they need to know about him before he says a word. He’s imprisoned but laser-focused on some goal. Why else would he be working out with such intensity? It’s a great way to open a film and a perfect lesson in cinematography for aspiring filmmakers.
There’s a quote from Scorsese that goes, “The most personal, is the most creative.” When he was initially approached about directing Raging Bull, he didn’t want to do it because he couldn’t relate to the boxer and he wasn’t interested in sports. However, after a drug overdose, he saw the film in a new light. He realized boxing could be interpreted as anything. It took on a new light for him. It became personal to him, so he exercised a great amount of creative freedom on the film.
Scorsese made it clear to his costume designer that he wanted to do a different kind of gangster aesthetic than Goodfellas or Casino. The mafia here is more low-key. They feel down-to-Earth, so when you reach the final moments, what you have is all the more relatable. You have an old man reflecting on his life and all the mistakes he made. No matter what course you’re life took, it seems like we’re all destined to die with just a little regret over the things we could have changed.
Silence is arguably Scorsese’s most restrained work. There are no snap-zooms or jazzy jump cuts Scorsese is known for. Instead, the film is punctuated with long, drawn out shots, an appropriate choice for a film that is a long, steady march to a final and honest thesis about what it means to be a man of God.
Star Ellen Burstyn saw Mean Streets and knew she wanted to work with Scorsese on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It may seem like an odd pairing, hiring someone with a gritty aesthetic for a movie about a widow traveling with her son across the American Southwest. However, it proved to be a fruitful collaboration. Casting aside the darkness and violence of a film like Mean Streets, it was evident the director was someone who understood characters, and ultimately, that’s what you need for a memorable film. Ellen Burstyn taking a chance on an up-and-comer resulted in one of the best and unique films in Scorsese’s career.
That criticism from John Cassavetes we wrote about earlier helped propel Scorsese to make Mean Streets, the first feature film that feels genuinely like a Scorsese picture. Sometimes, you need a few misfires to realize what kind of stories you really want to tell. It’s a good lesson for filmmakers out there who are maybe struggling. It’s okay to make a piece of crap as long as you learn something out of the experience, and when you watch Mean Streets, you get the sense that Scorsese is no longer messing around.
There’s a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where Jordan Belfort, high out of his mind, crawls down a flight of steps to his car. The scene feels like it’s a half hour long even though it only lasts a couple of minutes. Any other director would’ve sped things up (or at the very least, the studio would’ve demanded it). But Scorsese wants us to live in that moment. We see this man who’s supposed to be the embodiment of the American hustle as he comically and sadly can’t even walk to his car. The Wolf of Wall Street shows just how in command of his craft Scorsese is, and you can either hop in or get out of the way.
Hugo had the best use of 3D ever in a film. Yes, in the aftermath of Avatar, Scorsese used technology to outstanding effect to truly put you in a state of childlike wonder, a common thread throughout the film. Even when Scorsese is out of his normal wheelhouse in terms of content, he still finds a way to put his signature stamp on a movie and push the limits of what you can do with a children’s caper.
Robert De Niro prepared for his role in The King of Comedy by talking to some of his real-life stalkers. It allowed him to get in the mind of someone obsessed with fame and celebrities, making for one of the most memorable Scorsese protagonists ever. It also just goes to show you can prepare for a role in unique ways and researching doesn’t always have to be a chore.
Say, before we jump into the top five Martin Scorsese movies, let’s take a look at some other properties Scorsese has had a hand in making. From documentaries to music videos, you may be surprised to see what else Scorsese has made over the years.
GREAT SCORSESE PROPERTIES
Martin Scorsese MiscellaniaThe Last Waltz (1978): A documentary on The Band’s last concert at the Winterland Ballroom, featuring numerous other acts on the lineup, such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.
“Mirror, Mirror” (1986): An episode of the 1980s TV show Amazing Stories. The episode follows a horror writer haunted by an apparition in his mirror.
“Bad” (1987): Michael Jackson’s famous music video.
Shine a Light (2008): A documentary concert film focused on The Rolling Stones’ 2006 performance at the Beacon Theatre.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019): A pseudo-documentary film on the life of Bob Dylan.
So now that you have some more homework to catch up on, let’s dive back into the top five Martin Scorsese films of all time.
Tim Burton was originally set to direct After Hours, but he stepped aside when Scorsese expressed interest in the material. It’s hard to see this dark comedy as a Burton movie, which is a good lesson to know when you’re out of your wheelhouse. While it’s always good to challenge yourself, in this case, it’s good Burton stepped aside because it resulted in one of Scorsese’s classic New York street films that remains just as harrowing to this day.
There’s one thing Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ does better than practically any other film on Jesus. It portrays the Savior as a real human. He has foibles, and he feels like a real man. It ruffled some feathers upon its release, but to date, it’s Scorsese’s most directly contemplative film on religion to date. Most of his films deal with faith to some capacity, but The Last Temptation of Christ feels the most profound with Scorsese saying everything he wants to say about the subject matter.
The count room sequence in Casino is a brilliantly shot work of art. We follow the movement of money from the casino floor to the room, the camera not breaking away for a second. It’s kinetic as voiceover plays over, introducing us to this seedy world. It makes a scene that ordinarily could’ve been pretty boring, just guys counting money, and makes it dynamic.
Plenty of films are great. Few reach the heights of “iconic” like Taxi Driver. An interesting insight into the film is that Scorsese compared Travis Bickle to a saint, wanting to cleanse himself of weakness. That kind of viewpoint is extremely helpful when creating stories with anti-heroes to help make the audience empathize with them, even if they don’t always agree with their actions.
Goodfellas is about as perfect of a film as you can get. Everything from the cinematography to the editing to the performances is brilliant. All that in an engaging story about a perversion of the American dream that still rings true to this day. It’s not just the quintessential Scorsese movie. It’s a quintessential American film you’re lucky to get once in a lifetime.
Martin Scorsese Directing Style
We’ve tried to sprinkle in some directing tips throughout this listicle. But if you’re still itching to learn from the master, then check out our blog on Scorsese’s unique filmmaking style. You’ll find quotes from the director as well as common motifs you’ll find throughout his filmography. It’s the perfect primer for all filmmakers wanting to learn from the best.