Ranked: Martin Scorsese Films from Worst to Best

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We reassess the entire filmography of America's greatest living director.

Martin Scorsese is America's greatest film nerd. While mob stories have been his bread-and-butter, he's dabbled in nearly every genre around, filling his work with nods to film history while bringing his own unique bent to the proceedings. He ventures into a new era with Hugo, his first children's movie and the first time he's utilized 3-D technology. In honor of this, his twenty-second feature, it's time to rank the lot.

22. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Following a move to L.A., Scorsese was having trouble finding work until this Roger Corman exploitation flick landed in his lap. The film isn't terrible from a technical standpoint, but instead suffers a greater sin: mediocrity. This is Scorsese's only true paycheck movie.

21. New York, New York (1977)

His genius evident from his early trifecta of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver, Scorsese had a blank canvas to put together any project he wanted. He went with a musical. Starring Liza Minnelli. That's two-and-a-half-fucking-hours long.

20. Kundun (1997)

This biopic focusing on the upbringing of the Dalai Lama is all well and good — you certainly can't fault Scorsese for delving into the subject with passion — but there's no electricity on display. He may actually respect his subject matter too much.

19. Shutter Island (2010)

While the first half is one of the most taut hours in horror since the opening portion of 2003's High Tension, the "shocking twist" not only makes you recontextualize everything that came before (to the movie's detriment), but is, even worse, completely predictable.

18. Who's That Knocking On My Door? (1967)

A debut film ripped straight from the director's heart. Shot, re-shot, re-structured, and re-edited over years, all on a budget barely approaching Frank Vincent's mustache-wax fee in Goodfellas, Who's That features most of Scorsese's eventual thematic obsessions: Catholic guilt, Little Italy, the lure of blondes. Problem is, he does it better later. This is a rough draft for the rest of his career. 

17. The Color of Money (1986)

No self-respecting film geek is going to turn down the opportunity to direct Paul Newman as he reprises the role of "Fast Eddie" Felson from the 1961 classic The Hustler. But while Scorsese delivers a handful of virtuoso sequences — his camerawork was made for the motions of the pool table — much of it feels like he's stuck rubbing another man's rhubarb.

16. The Age of Innocence (1993)

Getting sick of mobsters, Scorsese went as far in the other direction as possible with this tale of a doomed love affair in upper-crust, gowns-and-horses 1870s New York. The results are uneven, but evidence that Scorsese can show restraint when necessary.

15. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

You can't say this fourth collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader isn't bold. In the three nights they follow New York City paramedic (Nicolas Cage, in the thick of his Serious Oscar-Nominated Leading Man period), they try to tackle religion, the inherent violence of man, and the meaning of life itself. While only a few of those hits manage to land, the resulting work is still compelling.

14. Gangs of New York (2002)

Few characters in cinematic history are more badass than Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher. (He's perhaps only outshined by Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview.) But the rest of the movie is a bit of a hodge-podge of plotlines, Leonardo DiCaprio trying to act tough, and Cameron Diaz playing dress up. 

13. Cape Fear (1991)

There are so many issues with this movie. Robert De Niro's so over the top that Al Pacino would tell him to take a chill pill. The camera never stays still long enough to build any sustainable suspense. And the subsequent parody on The Simpsons makes fewer leaps of logic. But if this happens to stroll through your late-night-cable viewing session, just try to turn it off.

12. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taking a break from the strong male leads that dominate the rest of his career, Scorsese focuses on telling the woman's side of the story this time out. In doing so, he gives Ellen Burstyn the greatest role of her career. All the normal Scorsese camera flourishes are shelved, allowing the humanity of the characters to take center-stage.

11. The Aviator (2004)

While you could argue that Scorsese doesn't get his hands dirty enough handling the life of the controversial Howard Hughes, this is the rare extra-long overly-indulgent biopic that actually works, mostly because of the frenzied energy throughout. It doesn't hurt that Scorsese has his own OCD-like ticks to draw from in portraying the famously compulsive Hughes.

10. The Departed (2006)

The Departed isn't a perfect movie — its Best Picture Oscar win was mostly due to 2006's weak field and the Academy thinking it might be their last chance to make it up to Scorsese for the previous snubs — but there are moments in here so thick with suspense that Hitchcock would feel giddy. And there's something almost beautiful about the nihilism of the ending.

9. Hugo (2011)

The first family film from a guy better known for taut violence, Hugo is surprisingly moving. Scorsese channels his lonely childhood to tell a story of rescue that's also a loving tribute to the early days of cinema.

8. After Hours (1985)

Seen as a brainless toss-off when first released, Scorsese's only foray into making a full-blown comedy deserves its cult following. While the clothes and set design are straight relics of the '80s, the utter strangeness of and quotable moments from this story about one long night from hell are both timeless.

7. Mean Streets (1973)

Technically his third feature, Mean Streets ushered Scorsese into the fraternity of '70s "New Hollywood" filmmakers. There are hints here of the lurking menace that Harvey Keitel would later master, and Robert De Niro's never seemed so young. While the technical side isn't quite there yet, the lack of shine gives the movie a grit that's impossible to fake.

6. Raging Bull (1980)

Coming off a three-year hiatus from the commercial disaster New York, New York — as well as a near-fatal cocaine overdose — Scorsese needed to find the right material to get back on track. He found it with the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. This is the perfect character study of a broken man. Sometimes, that man's LaMotta. More often than not, it's Scorsese himself.

5. Casino (1995)

Unfairly ridiculed during its first go-round because it everyone had already seen the Joe Pesci-stomping-people-while-De Niro-tells-him-to-calm-down show, Casino holds up shockingly well. More epic in scope, slicker in shot composition and editing tricks, and grander in the characters' rise and fall, this might have been viewed as Scorsese's greatest had it come before Goodfellas. (And if it hadn't featured Sharon Stone.)

4. The King of Comedy (1983)

Instead of going over-the-top with his villain (ahem, Cape Fear), Scorsese gives us a sympathetic, yet incredibly disturbing, bad guy in Rupert Pupkin. A box-office failure and still under the radar, this darkly comedic film is as seductively unsettling as any film that's ever been made.

3. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Met with controversy from church-going folk upon its release, this is ironically the only portrayal of Jesus that a non-believer can fully admire, one that focuses on the flaws and humanity of the man rather than simply showing the emotionally-void icon of most Biblical fare. Scorsese had been building to this since his first days in Catholic school.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

Every tool in the shed's on display here. The masterful editing, both visually and aurally. The sprawling narrative. Joe Pesci kicking the shit out of Frank Vincent. There hasn't been a more influential film in the past forty years — everything Tarantino and his descendants have done can be traced to this. The only rival it has for greatest American crime movie are those two by Francis Ford Coppola. And this wins by a snub-nose.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

Not a shot is wasted in this gritty tale of urban decay. Plenty is made of De Niro's disaffected performance — and well it should — but the film's greatness lies in the margins, things you don't pick up on until the third or fourth viewing: the veiled depths of Travis Bickle's racism, the hovering specter of Vietnam, the enduring promise and inevitable disappointment of career politicians, the cryptic message of the amibiguous ending. Many directors have tried to make their own versions of Goodfellas over the years, but few have dared to touch this.