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When anyone thinks of contemporary cinematic masters, if they think of anyone besides Martin Scorsese first, they should thumbed in the eye. There is likely no American filmmaker living that draws as much water as Scorsese, and for good reason. Not only is he America’s premiere director armed with an encyclopedic film knowledge and history, his efforts in film preservation and the creation of The Film Foundation go beyond the scope of what any other director does to make sure the true passion his life, film, is able to be passed along to other generations. If there was one filmmaker I’d most like to meet and have a drink with, it would be Mr. Scorsese. I’m sure I’m in no small company.

Scorsese has made so many great films, whittling down his oeuvre to my top five was very difficult as I’m sure it would be for anyone who is a fan. So, in honor of the man who just turned 70 and is still going strong (thank the cinematic heavens), here we go:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

Based loosely on the book by Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York tells the tale of immigrant struggle in the big city as “nativist” gangs and crooked politicians (Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall) fight to keep the immigrant hordes from sullying the American landscape with their neverending swarms washing ashore.  Set mostly during the Civil War times (1863, to be exact), Gangs of New York, chronicles the lives of two men in direct conflict with one another – Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Cutting, a nativist, killed Amsterdam’s father, the Priest and an Irish immigrant, in an epic opening battle sequence at the beginning of the film. He vowed revenge on that day.  After spending his youth in an orphanage, Amsterdam returns to New York to complete his mission. Unknown to all  except his old friend Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), Amsterdam impresses and is befriended by Bill the Butcher. Biding his time, Amsterdam waits to spring a trap on Bill, completing his revenge. Things don’t always go as planned, of course, and Amsterdam’s identity is revealed.  One last battle takes place in which all debts are settled, for better or worse, in a climactic scene that is plainly fabulous.

You know how I stayed alive this long? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts.

After I saw this film on January 1, 2003, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Daniel Day-Lewis‘ performance may be the best I’ve ever seen by an actor. Absolutely haunting. That says something since his turns in My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood are simply amazing and won him the Oscar (as if that means much). He totally embodies the character and tales of him staying in character throughout production are legendary. He is the best actor working in film today giving virtuosic performances each time. And to think he wanted to retire to become a cobbler in Italy before this role.

I wish I could say the same about the other two leads. DiCaprio is adequate in the role, but I think the role could have been better cast. This film cost at least $100 million to make, so it makes sense that he, the highest-grossing box office star in the world at the time was added to help with funding. Still, he never felt right in the role to me. I can’t see him as a heavy with the sand to take out a guy like The Butcher. He’s too skinny and pretty for that. It was this film, however, that led to the subsequent Scorsese-DiCaprio collaborations which have been quite enjoyable except for Shutter Island, during which I fell asleep. Cameron Diaz in the role of pickpocket/turtledove Jenny Everdeane was a tragedy to start with. More suited to gross out comedies and all-girl action flicks, Diaz was clearly out of her league with far superior talent on-screen with the likes of John C. Reilly and Brendan Gleeson. Her accent was terrible and her performance was stiff. Easily the worst part of the film.

It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you’d think.

This was a project that Scorsese had tried for years to get to the screen. This one was truly a labor of love and it shows. The sets are immaculate, the details incredible. The featurette on the DVD with him walking around the set showing all of this off is pretty incredible. What an effort. I usually revisit this film at least once a year. And it is worth it every time.

Here’s the trailer:

4) The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy is likely one of those films of Scorsese’s that is often times overlooked, which is really a shame. The film centers on aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) and his delusional, obsessive quest to become famous. Rupert lives in his mother’s basement, set up to look like the stage/set of iconic talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).  Rupert courts Jerry (who is basically Johnny Carson) after helping him through a crowd of post-show admirers. His hope is that Jerry will give him a spot on his show. Rupert, whose delusions about his relationship with Jerry spin further and further out of control as the movie wears on, enlists the help of Jerry Langford stalker and fellow deluded-fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) to help him achieve his/her goals (her’s is getting to sleep with and love Jerry). When they kidnap Jerry and hold him for ransom, things may or may not go as planned. The ending of this film is pretty amazing, but I don’t want to give it away to any who haven’t seen it.

A basement that is just as scary as John Wayne Gacy’s?

De Niro gives one of his best performances in this film, which is terribly poignant even today. Celebrity culture and worship is worse now than ever. One need only go to the supermarket checkout to see this nonsense in full force, 40 magazine covers detailing celebrity breakups, diets, drug problems, etc. I wonder why anyone gives a fuck? If I ever see another stupid ass Kardashian, it would be too soon. At least Rupert had actual aspirations for himself and Masha just wanted to be with the celebrity not be one herself. So even the extreme behavior that these two exhibit has been expanded upon in the year’s since The King of Comedy‘s release. One need only look at the shocking number of stalkers celebrities have (David Letterman, anyone?) to see how this is still applicable and something that a Scorsese film, Taxi Driver, directly contributed to (John Hinckley‘s fascination with Jodie Foster which led to him trying to assassinate Ronald Reagan).

Here’s the trailer:

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

Mean Streets may have put Scorsese on the map, but Taxi Driver solidified his place on the A-list when it was nominated for Oscar in 4 categories (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture and Best Score). Paul Schrader’s script was gypped out of a nomination and it remains one of the best ever written. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam vet who hasn’t been able to reassimilate. He enlists himself as taxi driver, seeing the extent to which New York City has gone to the birds, decaying, trashy, disgusting. While driving he is struck by the beauty of a woman Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) working for presidential candidate Charles Palatine (Leonard Harris). He courts her, but offends her and runs her off. In an attempt to get her attention, he plans on assassinating Palatine (mentioned above, this is where John Hinckley got his inspiration to assassinate Ronald Reagan). In the end, in an unexpected twist of fate, Travis ends up gaining notoriety for something completely different. Is he changed after the event? Maybe.  Maybe not. That’s for you to figure out.

Betsy – the apple of Travis’ eye.

Like Hitchcock, Scorsese frequently makes cameos in his films. In Bringing Out the Dead, it’s only his voice as the ambulance dispatcher, in Gangs of New York he’s a high society man, living lavishly. It is in Taxi Driver, however, that he makes his most famous and perhaps most shocking cameo, although he was great in Kurosawa‘s Dreams as Vincent Van Gogh. Check it out:

“You talkin’ to me? You talkin‘ to me?” There is no more iconic line from a Scorsese movie than this one. It at once gives us two clues about Travis Bickle – 1) he is disturbed, clearly not in his right mind, and 2) he is a loner, not one who has been able to assimilate into society. Apparently, this line was also improvised by De Niro. Travis is not unlike Rupert Pupkin in both of these areas. Whereas the violence in The King of Comedy is more psychological, we see a clear departure from that to the distinctly real and visceral in Taxi Driver. This is none more obvious than the shoot-out at pimp Sport’s (Harvey Keitel) place.

Travis Bickle: Hero or villain?

Watch the unhinged Travis Bickle here:

This movie has always made me feel dirty on a number of levels, yet even so, it has struck a chord that I can’t seem to shake. I used to watch this one before I would go to bed from time to time, but my wife said it was too much for her so I stopped. I guess it is a little weird for it to be the last thing I see before I start to dream. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully.” I tend to agree. I can’t think of any other film that does it as well. Paul Schrader deserves a great amount of credit for that. I was lucky enough to see him present the new 4K restoration of this film at the Indiana University Cinema last year. It was an incredible treat to have him there to talk about the film and his inspiration for it.

Much like The King of Comedy, this film still resonates today. In a time when technology removes the communal experience of things, people tend to isolate themselves more and more sometimes with tragic consequences. If you haven’t seen this film, give it whirl. It’ll blow your hair back.

Here’s the trailer:

2) Raging Bull (1980)

I’m getting the sense that De Niro and Scorsese worked well together. Here is the third installment of their collaboration to appear on this list, and damnation is it a doozy. Raging Bull is the stunning biopic of middleweight boxing legend Jake LaMotta. The film follows Jake’s rise from a guy who would fight anyone to his heyday as the World Middleweight Champion to his post-fight career and all of the disasters that come in between.

I’m gonna make him suffer. I’m gonna make his mother wish she never had him – make him into dog meat…

Raging Bull is tale that shows the fighting and violence that occurs inside the ring rarely stays there. Jake is a jealous man and when his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) mentions that she thinks a fighter he’s about to fight is a “good-looking kid,” Jake pummels him, making him pretty no more. She says that, “I look at somebody the wrong way, I get smacked”. Jake takes special exception when Jackie kisses Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), the mob boss who helps Jake get his title shot, goodbye when he comes to see Jake before the big match. He slaps her for disrespecting him. Jake’s answer to everything is violence. It all boils over when Jake suspects, incorrectly, that Vickie slept with his brother. He slaps her around, goes to Joey’s house and beats his ass then punches Jackie once for good measure. And we are suppose to root for this guy in the film? I wonder if Mike Tyson ever watched this movie?

A husband showing his kind of love…

De Niro‘s performance is one of the best ever. Scorsese obviously has the knack for bringing out the best in his actors. De Niro has never been better and the only director that ever came close to getting a performance like any of those mentioned on this page out of him is Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II. The thing is Joe Pesci‘s performance ain’t half bad either. Clearly he was just cutting his teeth because this performance foreshadows what Pesci brings to the table in both Goodfellas and Casino – a scrappy, tough foul-mouthed man to be reckoned with.

Michael Chapman’s cinematography in the film is incredible. The lush black and white film suits the material and time period (the film occurring between the 40s and 60s). The boxing sequences are still the best I’ve seen in any film. None even compare. The final Sugar Ray Robinson fight is the pinnacle of all boxing film photography, flush with brutal close-ups of Lamotta’s smashed and pulverized face and spurting blood. Have a look:

I don’t think anyone would argue with this pick and there are plenty who would list this at #1. Different strokes…

Here’s the trailer:

1) Goodfellas (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster” – the ominous first words spoken in voiceover by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Goodfellas is based on Hill’s true life events as compiled in the book by Nicolas Pileggi (who also wrote the book that was the basis for Scorsese‘s Casino). I don’t think many would argue that Goodfellas is Scorsese‘s finest film.

Tommy, Paulie, Jimmy and Henry: the goodfellas.

It starts off with a bang. We learn about Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Sicilian kid who marvels at the “made” mob guys in his New York neighborhood. They always dress to the nines, drive nice cars, and always have money. What poor kid wouldn’t want to have all of that? Henry works his way up through the ranks, doing small jobs at first for Paulie Cicero’s (Paul Sorvino) gang including Irishman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) working alongside Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Always on the lookout for a score, Henry instruments the largest cash heist ever in America. Things are sailing for all involved until Henry and Jimmy get popped for roughing up an FBI worker’s brother. They are sent to jail and it’s here where Henry picks up on the drug trade, something strictly verboten by Paulie. The deeper Henry gets into the trade, the closer he comes to risking it all. For everyone. Not only do we see Henry tailspin, but Tommy also encounters his own problems. A man with a temper like a grizzly bear, Tommy whacks a “made” man (someone who has been initiated into a crime family and thus protected by said family) because of an insult and eventually has to pay for his indiscretion. This is a theme that plays out for all characters in this film – no misdeed goes unpaid. For some, it isn’t so bad. For others…

How am I funny? Am I a clown to you?

Michael Ballhaus‘ cinematography is one of the stars of this film, as it is in every film in which he and Scorsese have collaborated (almost every film since After Hours). His lighting schemes have made it easy to recognize a Scorsese film without even knowing what it is. A no scene is more iconic of this collaboration than the steadicam shot in the Copacabana. Often imitated and referenced outright (see Swingers), this is among the best shots ever. Watch here:

This film, like most gangster films, put us as the viewer in a precarious situation. Not only do we identify with these characters, but we end up rooting for them despite the incredible amount of people they kill and numerous other despicable acts they commit. I can’t but to help cheer Henry on and it kind of makes me sad.  This is an epic tale that spans 25+ years, from the good old days of being a gangster to the days when the goodfellas turn into informants amidst serious charges that break the law of omerta, or silence, that kept the mafia safe for centuries. Henry Hill remained in the news for years after his involvement with the Lucchese crime family until he recently died this past June.

From top to bottom, this film is just fantastic. From the performances to the editing (Thelma Schoonmaker at her absolute best) to the usage of the piano exit from Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla, there are no flaws in this film. None. And to think that both the film and Scorsese lost to Dances with Wolves and Kevin Costner at the Oscars is mindboggling. MINDBOGGLING. I would easily include Goodfellas in my top 25 favorite films of all-time. It’s that damn good.

Here’s the trailer:

So there they are. My Top 5 Fave Scorsese films. I really had a hard time leaving out Scorsese‘s portion of New York Stories, “Life Lessons,” which is simply brilliant. Casino, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Last Waltz were all also under heavy consideration. And let’s be frank – the man doesn’t make a bad film. His documentary work is just as amazing as his narrative work. He is a rare gem in the cinematic field and one I treasure with each forthcoming project. Thanks for all the years of thought-provoking, interesting films, Mr. Scorsese. May you continue to make films for another 70 years!