With the release of his first feature film in three years Silence, being a passion project lasting over 25 years, The British Film Institute (BFI) have decided to kick off 2017 with a season celebrating cinematic colossus, Martin Scorsese. Part of that season includes limited releases of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver in glorious 4k across UK cinemas. If you’re around in old London town then BFI Southbank has plenty of other stuff to get your teeth into and BFI’s online library, BFI Player have released a ‘Scorsese collection’ which includes his fabulous documentary work and the films that inspired him.
With all this going on, it seems like a great time for Screen Critics to marvel at the wonder of Scorsese the storyteller. So here is a pick of five Scorsese films to highlight the brilliance of the man.
Mean Streets (1973)
Scorsese’s third feature film was also his breakthrough and what a breakthrough! Made on the comparatively shoestring budget of $500,000 Mean Streets set the tone of what many associate (arguably unfairly) with Scorsese cinema today. Crime, unflinching violence, profanity and machismo. However, as many pale imitators have failed to grasp Scorsese goes much deeper. His works often explore the conflicts between moral beliefs and behaviour and how he reveals the deep-seated insecurities and inadequacies that lie behind such extreme macho behaviour. Means Streets is the point in time when the crime genre entered the modern era, with its focus on gritty realism and more daring thematic narratives. It would also be the first-time Scorsese worked with one of his long-time creative muses, Robert De Niro.
New York, New York (1977)
A crudely overlooked classic and the first example of how Scorsese is a far more multifaceted and diverse director than people bother to realise. Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro are superb as two musical performers, looking for fame who fall madly in love. Scorsese delivers a wonderful musical which simultaneously deconstructs the genre and pays homage to the golden age of the Hollywood musical. Sound familiar yet? For all the talk of Singin’ in the Rain, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land owes many more thanks to Martin Scorsese than Gene Kelly. The film was a commercial and critical failure at the time but it should stand as one of the director’s forgotten masterpiece.
The King of Comedy (1983)
If you can take the intensity and unsettling madness, then try and watch Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy back-to-back. While not a narrative sequel, Scorsese’s black comedy is very much a thematic one to Taxi Driver, continuing the development of De Niro’s Travis Bickle persona as he plays the mentally unstable, celebrity obsessed, stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin. Another commercial failure and extremely divisive at the time, this film was many years ahead of its time. Scorsese’ exploration – driven by a magnificently unnerving De Niro performance – of the utterly deranged nature of celebrity has only become more prescient as the years have gone on. Scorsese’s intellectual prowess is on full display here and The King of Comedy is arguably his masterwork.
After Hours (1985)
Another searing piece of comedic satire punctuating any pre-conceived notions you might have of the director. A film that highlights the divide that often occurs between audiences and critics as it was rejected by the masses and embraced by critics, although it has been reassessed in recent years as being the director’s lost masterpiece. Once again Scorsese explores the fragile nature of the male ego. Our central character (Griffin Dunn), a white-collar worker in the rat race, drifts from one minor disaster to another after working hours one night in New York City. It’s a continuation of Scorsese’s satirising and picking apart The American Dream and a truly superb piece of work.
It’s a testament to his ability to evolve, that unlike his contemporaries such as Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s creative standards have not dropped and neither has his commitment to always making “his” films. Hugo is Scorsese’s family film and it’s a wonderful film to boot, a film straight from the man’s heart. Adapted from a graphic novel inspired explicitly by the works of French filmmaker George Melies. This film is Scorsese’s loveletter to the magic of cinema. Visually as elegant as it is extravagant and with none of the hardnosed commercialism or leering eye many so-called family films have today (Yes, I’m talking to you Michael Bay!) Scorsese constructs a world so achingly beautiful you can’t help but fall in love with, a whole 38 years after he released his breakthrough film, Mean Streets.