Martin Scorsese is one of the best and most acclaimed movie directors of all time. His body of work spans decades and he’s given us some of the greatest movies ever made. He’s known as the guy who makes violent gangster flicks, but his films are so much more than that. He tells stories about life in New York with themes of Catholic guilt and redemption and jealousy and greed and the rise-and-fall life stories of some of the most infamous world figures who ever lived. Scorsese has made some fantastic movies over the years – in fact, you could argue that he’s never made a bad one. Here are all of his movies, ranked from worst to best.
24. Boxcar Bertha
As Scorsese’s second ever feature film, you might expect that Boxcar Bertha might not be his best work, and it’s not. But the movie’s shortcomings come mainly from the fact that it was produced by exploitation genre mastermind Roger Corman. At this point in the career, Scorsese had to take whatever job he could and do his best with it. He directed Boxcar Bertha wonderfully and gave us some great character arcs and told a fantastic story, but then Corman shrouded all of that in his typical sex and violence, so the film deteriorated into mindless, blood-soaked, erotic junk during the post-production stage. But it did pave the way for Mean Streets…
23. New York, New York
The plot of New York, New York is about a jazz saxophonist who falls in love with a pop singer and marries her, but his aggressive personality puts a strain on the relationship, and then their first baby is the final straw and their marriage falls apart. In the hands of Martin Scorsese, this should be a masterpiece. But the problem at the core of New York, New York is simply that it’s a musical. The sensibility and skillset of Martin Scorsese are not suited to a musical. The movies that he was born to make are much darker and grittier than that. It’s a shame, because the story of the downfall of a marriage is perfectly suited to Scorsese – he could’ve given us a cinematic kitchen sink drama! It’s just a shame that the execution of it as a musical tribute to New York City totally botches it.
Of all the people that Martin Scorsese has made a movie about – gangsters and boxers and stockbrokers and eccentric billionaires – the last one you’d expect him to do a biopic about is the Dalai Lama. Scorsese is famous for dark and violent films, which go against the peaceful teachings of the Buddhist faith. The cinematography by Roger Deakins in Kundun is beautiful, but at the end of the day, the movie is ultimately let down because it just doesn’t feel like a Martin Scorsese movie. Plus, the movie also has relatively no plot. Things happen in it, but they just seem to plod along, bit by bit, with no real drive behind it.
21. Bringing Out the Dead
With Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese reteamed with Paul Schrader to essentially do another version of Taxi Driver, but instead of Robert De Niro as a cab driver, it’s Nicolas Cage as an ambulance driver. This is an interesting area to explore, but the movie doesn’t come anywhere near matching its inspiration. An examination of the psyche of the people who spent their nights and days watching people bleed out and die is a pretty great idea for a movie, but Cage’s character Frank Pierce is no Travis Bickle, and of course, Nicolas Cage is no Robert De Niro. It feels like an inferior version of something that was literally conceived and put together by the same guys.
20. The Color of Money
Martin Scorsese has never made a sequel to his own movies, since he makes his films very precisely so that they tell a full story from beginning to end without any wiggle room, but he’s not above making sequels to other people’s movies if they made the mistake of leaving them open to one. The Color of Money is the sequel to the Paul Newman classic The Hustler, and sees his character “Fast Eddie” Felson as he’s a little older and more grizzled and takes on a protégé in the form of young hotshot Tom Cruise. It doesn’t live up to The Hustler, but it is an enjoyable film.
19. Gangs of New York
We all love a good Martin Scorsese epic, but Gangs of New York is too epic. The director finally bit off more than he could chew in telling the gargantuan tale about how American became America and the founding of modern American democracy. The movie has some great scenes – and some great performances by the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio – but ultimately, it just rambles on and becomes far too sprawling to keep track of the plot. It takes on a boatload of different themes – way too many to make any kind of meaningful statement about any of them – and over the course of a whopping 168 minutes, it outstays its welcome.
18. Who’s That Knocking at My Door
A director’s debut feature (in layman’s terms, their first ever movie) needs to be good enough and distinctive enough to serve as their calling card. It has to show where their talents lie and that they actually have talents, so that studios and producers will pay them to keep making movies. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is a prime example of this. Martin Scorsese’s debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, a dark drama about a guy coming to terms with a secret that his girlfriend is keeping from him, serves as a great calling card. It’s not perfect and it’s clear that his filmmaking abilities have yet to fully develop, but both the creative and technical elements here are fantastic, and the raw talent of Scorsese elevates the film head and shoulders above its contemporary competition, even if it doesn’t quite hold up to this day.
17. Cape Fear
It’s not like Scorsese to make remakes, but he is a huge fan of the original Cape Fear. He was initially worried about stepping on toes or not living up to expectations, but then he just took the leap and went for it. In the end, he gave us a movie that does have its moments, but doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. While it’s not Scorsese’s best or most mature work, it is gripping and thrilling and the plot keeps moving forward and it gave Robert De Niro the opportunity to play one of the most iconic villains in the history of cinema. And hey, as a Scorsese movie, it’s head and shoulders above most thrillers.
16. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
The last word that you would use to describe a Martin Scorsese film is ‘sweet.’ But his early film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is the exception that proves the rule. It’s the story of a woman whose husband dies and then she travels across the country with her young son in search of a second chance at happiness. It’s a really beautiful movie with a touching and heartfelt story, which is lovely, and a pleasant surprise, considering what kind of movies Scorsese normally does. Who knew that he would be able to swap bombastic violence and yelling and abuse for the subtleties of the contemplative melodrama? But he did it!
It can be a real shame when a director spends years trying to get their passion project made, and when it actually makes it to theaters, it’s a box office flop that doesn’t live up to expectations. This story of Christian missionaries working in Japan was Martin Scorsese’s passion project, and the poor guy worked on it for a grand total of 27 years before it actually made it to release – and then it failed spectacularly at the box office. The directing and the acting and the cinematography are all really great, but the script is a little boring and, sadly, the subject matter just isn’t all that interesting.
14. After Hours
After Hours is, to date, Martin Scorsese’s only attempt at a full-on comedy movie. This is like the Scorsese take on a premise like Superbad or Risky Business or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. It’s crazy! Just for the fact that it’s that, it’s definitely worth checking out. But also, simply by being a screwball comedy, it’s not the most layered or nuanced or rich of Scorsese’s filmography. No matter how successful it is as a comedy, it naturally is not as fulfilling as a cinematic experience as the likes of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street are. Still, it is pretty funny.
When Martin Scorsese finally accepted that the film format was dead and that everyone had moved on to digital filmmaking techniques, he dove right in the deep end of the digital pool for his first fully digital movie. He shot it in 3D (with little flip-down 3D lenses on his own glasses on the set) and filled it with all kinds of CGI effects. It was also sweet that he made his first digital movie a sort of tribute to the first guy who ever made a narrative film at all, Georges Méliès. As we delve into his life and career, the movie takes a detour into documentary territory as Scorsese decides to spend a few minutes exploring the history of cinema. Why not? Oh, and Sacha Baron Cohen is, as always, hilarious as the comic relief and Chloë Grace Moretz’s British accent is more or less flawless.
The problem with Casino is that it is trying too hard to be Goodfellas. Scorsese wrote another gangster movie with Nicholas Pileggi based on an important true story, got the dream team of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci back together, and started rolling the cameras. But you know what, so what if it’s derivative of Goodfellas? All the right people are involved and it’s a different story. We should thank the heavens that we got a second Goodfellas! It might not be as taut or engaging as Goodfellas, but the acting is great and the movie has some very memorable scenes (particularly the one with the guy’s head in the vice).
11. Shutter Island
Diehard Scorsese fans might disagree that Shutter Island should be so high up on the list, but who can resist such a dark and intriguing thriller? Scorsese never made a full-on horror movie. Cape Fear was scary, but it was more of a straight thriller. Shutter Island is a horror movie! It’s terrifying. Everyone who Leonardo DiCaprio and the underrated Mark Ruffalo meet as their investigation goes on is absolutely terrifying. The midnight walks through the woods in the pouring rain and the murderers trying to get through their bars to kill and the overwhelming sense of confusion through the whole thing are all really, really spooky. And the harrowing war flashbacks and the mind-blowing plot twists only add to the experience of this disturbing and unnerving film.
10. The Age of Innocence
Most of the time when Martin Scorsese attempts to direct a movie outside of his usual crime movies about life on the streets or the gangster lifestyle, it fails – not in an awful way, but they’re not usually the masterpieces that his gangster movies are. But be that as it may, his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic Edwardian romance novel The Age of Innocence for the big screen stands as one of his best. It’s definitely his best non-crime movie. The colors of the cinematography and the nuances of the screenplay and the acting and the set design and the costumes are all so rich.
9. The Departed
When Martin Scorsese won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed, many critics said that it was more of a lifetime achievement award, as the Academy voters realized that Scorsese’s talent deserved recognition in spades and they hadn’t yet rewarded him for it. And sure, he had made better films before The Departed that he should’ve won for instead. But The Departed is not a bad movie – far from it, in fact. The intricate tale of two cops in the same department – one corrupt and working as an informant for a crime syndicate and the other undercover infiltrating that same syndicate – trying to figure out who each other are is a deviously complex cat and mouse and mouse and cat thriller, but Scorsese’s direction makes it engaging and easy to follow.
8. The Last Temptation of Christ
The Last Temptation of Christ is a very interesting movie, because despite the fact that Martin Scorsese is a devout Catholic and peppers this throughout all of his movies, his first ever movie that was actually about Jesus Christ is not a Biblical movie. It’s not like The Passion of the Christ or Noah in faithfully adapting the word of God. Instead, Scorsese chose to adapt a darker version of the Messiah’s life story, Nikos Kazantzakis’ semi-fictional novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which is riddled with blasphemy and vulgarity and infuses the character of Jesus with the perverted sexual theories of Sigmund Freud. In other words, Scorsese made a biopic of Jesus in the same way that he made a biopic of Jake LaMotta or Howard Hughes or Henry Hill – and it’s just glorious.
7. The Aviator
Very few people have lives that have been so varied and so interesting that they actually do deserve biopics, but Howard Hughes is one of those few people. He was a filmmaker and a pilot and an inventor and a philanthropist and he had a severe case of OCD and eventually lost his mind. If that’s not worth making a movie about, then what is? The guy had such a wide-ranging life and there was so much stuff to cover and you’d have to go really deep into his flaws and his shortcomings, which a director with less talent than Martin Scorsese would totally screw up. But luckily, the story struck a chord with Scorsese and he made one of the most incredible biopics – or just movies in general, really – ever made.
6. The King of Comedy
Martin Scorsese is not a comedic director. He’s too interested in the human psyche and the criminal underworlds of America and the concept of Catholic guilt to throw all of that aside to make a screwball comedy. However, he can study interesting psychological and socio-political themes in a dark movie about comedy. The subject can be comedy. In The King of Comedy, Scorsese tackles society’s dangerous obsession with celebrities and the psychology of a man whose ambition doesn’t match his talent all in one movie. Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the lead role Rupert Pupkin is so weird and watchable, thanks to his dedication to the character, that it makes the whole unusual film more palatable.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
When The Wolf of Wall Street was first announced, you may have been skeptical of Scorsese’s tonal approach to the material. He was making a biopic of one of the most morally corrupt stockbrokers who ever lived and he decided to mix his typical rise-and-fall storyline with R-rated raunchy comedy. The critics described this as “Goodfellas meets The Hangover.” It doesn’t sound like something that would work. But it did! That’s just the Wall Street lifestyle – it’s hookers and drugs and swearing and screwing around in the office with money to burn. Scorsese captured that perfectly, and combined with the committed performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, it resulted in one of the director’s most entertaining films, if not his finest or most poignant.
4. Raging Bull
Ever wondered how Martin Scorsese makes such terrific and timeless biopics? Well, it’s actually very simple. He whittles his subjects down the core of who they are, identifies their deepest flaw, and uses that to form a contemplative and layered character study. He never did that any more brilliantly than in Raging Bull, his film about the troubled life of Jake LaMotta, whose biggest flaw was jealousy that led to domestic violence against his wife and eventually his downfall. Scorsese’s decision to shoot in black and white made the film more raw and powerful, but it’s Robert De Niro’s committed performance as LaMotta that really makes the movie.
3. Mean Streets
Mean Streets was the third movie made by Martin Scorsese, but it feels like his debut feature, because it’s the first seriously Scorsese-ish picture. It’s the first one he did that was set in Little Italy and told the dark story of some criminals and really humanized them and dug deep into their relationships. And of course, it’s riddled with the theme of Catholic guilt. It was also the first of many collaborations between the director and both Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. This movie is brilliant. Scorsese had developed exactly what kind of movies he wanted to make and then crammed all those ideas and his own personal experiences from his upbringing into a script and took the moviegoing world by storm with it.
2. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese never made a Vietnam War movie. His films all reflect the paranoia and the rebellion of the time, but he never following in the footsteps of his other gritty contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone and made a sweeping epic about the soldiers in ‘Nam. But he did make a movie about the psychological effect that the war had on its troops when they came back to the States. He did so by having an unstable, insomniac cab driver get outcast from society, roam through the streets of New York, become sickened by the crime and the degradation, and take justice into his own hands, armed with nothing but a Smith & Wesson Model 29 and the will to save a child prostitute. The film is a dark, gritty masterpiece, showing the height of Scorsese’s talent to combine an intimate character piece with a wider study of a serious social issue.
The Godfather may get touted as the greatest gangster film of all time, but Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is without a doubt the coolest gangster film of all time. Telling the true story of a mobster who ended up selling out his friends to save his family, Scorsese filled the movie with humor and fast cuts to keep it chugging along at a rapid rate. The voiceover narration smooths over the boring bits and all we’re left with are the most powerful moments. Ray Liotta is perfect for the lead role, while the supporting players Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci bring us sides of themselves that we’ve never seen before (De Niro as the calm and collected Jimmy Conway and Pesci as the psychotic and irrational Tommy DeVito). This movie deserves all the praise it gets – it’s Scorsese’s crowning masterpiece.