So let's get to my personal top 5 films of Martin Scorcese.
5. Raging Bull
This one might draw some fire for being fifth on my list. To be honest, Raging Bull should not be on my list at all. I personally am not a fan of Raging Bull. The film tells the story of embittered boxer Jake LaMotta and his turbulent life in and out of the boxing ring.
The reason I say that Raging Bull should not be on my list is because I personally do not enjoy the film. I feel that Raging Bull has an extremely unlikable main character and tries to make you want to follow along with him on his journey in life. As I do not enjoy Jake LaMotta, I did not enjoy the journey that the script provided.
The reason that I put this film on my list, though, is the amazing performance by Robert De Niro and the great directing by Martin Scorcese. Robert De Niro truly earned his Oscar for this film, not even by shedding the 60 some-odd pounds for the role, but he dived head first and immersed himself into the world of Jake LaMotta. His performance as a tough loser is remarkable and a highlight in this film.
Besides Robert De Niro, the real reason for this film being as good as it is lies squarely with Martin Scorcese. Martin infuses life and style into what is a really depressing story. Shooting the film in black and white to the amazing boxing scenes, this is an amazing film in Martin Scorcese's resume. It has all the feel of a classic Scorcese film, (which it is) but the style shines through what is a very dark film.
Martin Scorcese and writer Paul Schrader return to the grungy, dirty days of New York City made famous by them in Taxi Driver (see #2). Nicolas Cage stars as Frank Pierce, a New York City paramedic who is burnt out. He wants to quit his job, but finds himself stuck working over a weekend that will change everything.
This is a forgotten Scorcese gem. Bringing Out the Dead provides the dark, Taxi Driver-esque New York City with some comedic elements that can be traced to After Hours. Bringing Out the Dead takes place over 3 days, and teams Frank up with a variety of quirky paramedics (Ving Rhames, John Goodman, Tom Sizemore). During this time, Frank also finds solstice and comfort with the daughter of a heart attack victim (Patricia Arquette).
This film was entirely forgotten when initially released, which is a shame. Nicolas Cage provides, for the most part, a quiet, nuanced performance while being surrounded by urgent and crazy people and situations. This is not Martin Scorcese's best film, but provides everything you want in a classic Scorcese film. And when ranking Scorcese films, this should always be a high consideration.
3. The Departed
The film that finally provided Martin Scorcese with that elusive Oscar for Best Director along with Best Picture. The Departed is a crime drama about 2 Boston police officers; one who is an honest undercover (Leonardo DiCaprio) within the mob and the other, a corrupt cop (Matt Damon) working with the mob. Both police officers work closely with the Boston crime boss (Jack Nicholson).
Martin Scorcese returns to the crime genre, which he knows so well, and provides us exactly what you would expect from him. The film is filled with Scorcese archetypes: freeze-frames, jumps in time, Rolling Stones songs, etc. I really enjoy The Departed overall, but it does feel like a step down from Goodfellas. If Goodfellas had never been made, I think The Departed would be talked up almost as high as Goodfellas is today.
Unfortunately, I feel The Departed will forever be linked as a "gimmie" to Martin Scorcese as he should have obviously won at least one Oscar prior to this film. As it is, The Departed is a well made crime film with obvious Scorcese touches and anchored by the strong performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg.
2. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro take us to a darker version of New York City in Taxi Driver. Possibly Martin Scorcese's most renowned film, it tells the story of Travis Bickle, an unhinged taxi driver who becomes disillusioned with the city and its persons. After meeting an underage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster) Travis takes it upon himself to try and help the girl escape her current life and her pimp (Harvey Keitel).
With recurring collaborator, writer Paul Schrader, Martin Scorcese places us into the darkest part of New York City: the 1970's. Full of drug dealers, pimps and lowlifes, we are exposed to every element that Travis experiences. We feel the environment and sometimes can even agree with how he feels. Though after a chance meeting with Iris, his mission in life becomes a psychotic version of saving Iris' life.
Robert De Niro shows us a transformation of a man sick with the life he is in all the way to a psychotic man who is willing to do anything to save a life. Along with the infamous, "You talkin' to me..." sequence, this film is filled with darkness and we are unfortunate enough to ride along with such an unhinged main character.
Martin Scorcese's dark, violent and often funny tale of a lifetime in the mob. We follow Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from childhood through his downfall in the Italian mafia. Along the way, he works for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and makes friends with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
Based on the true story of the late Henry Hill, Martin Scorcese uses all the tricks he has learned through the years and uses them in this film. The usual freeze frames along with time jumps and more Rolling Stones songs lets you know your are in Martin Scorcese's world. We follow Henry, in this almost 3 hour film, from a curious teenager to a drug-addled gangster all the way through mob informant and the film never bogs down. This is a testament to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, along with Scorcese, who zip us through this world at a breakneck pace yet completely immersing us within this world.
Goodfellas is a culmination of all the best Scorcese traits. He continues to use his good luck charm, Robert DeNiro and also stays within the genre that he is best known for: the crime drama. This is a close to perfection film and, as Roger Ebert has said, is "the best mob movie ever".
I know people will wonder where Hugo, or The Last Temptation of Christ or Mean Streets might be. As stated, this is my preference and I certainly do like a lot more of Martin Scorcese's films. When it comes down to it, though, these 5 films are the films I identify with Martin Scorcese and feel are his best works.