And so we arrive at the final day. Hopefully everyone’s kept up well enough through all the madness of the last four days, but you might be sitting there scratching your head. “Matt,” you say, “you’ve talked a ton about Scorsese, sure, but I’m not nearly as crazy as you. When it gets right down to it, what should I do if I want to experience the magic without a huge commitment.”
Well, that’s what I’m going to answer today. I’ve always kind of been wary of ‘must see’ lists, because they smack of a sort of intellectual dogma that rarely does anybody any good. But in reality, a director like Scorsese has movies that have had such a wide-reaching impact that its hard not to pick a couple. There are three movies, I feel, that everyone should see no matter what. I have my favorites, to be sure, but these movies are different. They’re the best of the best, and they deserve a section all their own.
Also, I’ll admit, they’re the famous ones that get name dropped the most often. In what can only be a good sign for the human race, it turns out the really popular movies in Scorsese’s filmography are also probably the most interesting and worthwhile.
The Three Scorsese Movies Everyone Should See
A movie about the deepest, darkest part of the 70s, a time when movies seemed content to explore the darkest parts of human nature, Taxi Driver survives in the modern era as a portrait of a man pushed to the edges of society. Travis Bickle is a man the film tries to understand, to relate to, even as he slowly descends into a place where most sane people are hesitant to go.
These days Travis Bickle would be called a sociopath or a terrorist, but in Taxi Driver he’s a sympathetic anti-hero. He’s a broken man for a broken world, someone who sees the corruption and evil nobody else is doing anything about and decides to lash out against it. It isn’t a commendable act, but it’s an understandable one. There is only so many things a person can take, and as I watched De Niro go from a quiet, seemingly normal guy to an avenging spirit, all muscle and mohawk and large guns, I couldn’t help but wonder just how deeply buried similar impulses are in all of us. Less than we might think, perhaps.
Boxing movies seem to be rife with potential for awards bait and critical acclaim. From Rocky to The Fighter, something about the plight of boxers has always seemingly gone hand in hand with cinema. But Raging Bull is more than that. The real-life story of Jake LaMotta isn’t one of boxing (though certainly boxing exists in the film and is presented in a unique, subjective way I haven’t seen before or since), but one of a man of rage struggling to control himself in a world that has little use for it.
LaMotta is a man who builds himself up and undoes himself by the same gifts: the ability to charm, the swagger that comes with a quick temper and the ability to use it against others, a sense of struggle that hangs around him inside and outside the ring. He wins over women who would never give him a second look, only to lose them by his all-consuming jealousy. He makes mob connections with the help of his brother (played by Joe Pesci in one of his first major roles) only to descend into violence and burn all his bridges. It’s a perfect example of a man who is his own worst enemy, and by the end we’re left with something between pity and respect for this man, who had it all and lost it all and can laugh about both parts of his life.
Special note has to be given to the way this movie’s shot, easily one of the best looking movies in Scorsese’s filmography. The movie’s filmed in black and white, with heavy use of slow motion and minimalist design, especially during the fight scenes. There’s a grace to the movie that I’ve never seen in another sports movie, something that turns boxing into a cinematic equivalent of dance, and the blood and violence of fighting into black notes on a white canvas. It is a visual marvel.
Any movie person worth their salt has a few opinions that fly in the face of good, common sense. So here’s one of mine: Goodfellas out-Godfathers The Godfather. It’s a better movie, a better representation of mob life, it’s better researched and better acted and has far more to say.
Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas is a kinda-true-to-life story of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta). It opens with Hill talking back to his childhood, seeing local mobsters living a life of respect and power in his neighborhood. This story, as Scorsese will readily admit, comes from his own childhood growing up in New York, seeing gangsters as part of the fabric of his life. But while Scorsese decided to make movies about them, Hill wants to become them.
The movie charts Hill’s rise to power in the 60s, as he is taken under the wing of the local mob head and teams up with Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), to rob their way into the big time. As most mob stories go, things eventually go south as younger and hungrier guys show up and Tommy steps over a line by beating a ‘made man’ to death, marking all three of them within the family.
Success dissolves, people age, Henry does jail time only to come out in a world that’s changed. Picking up a drug habit and descending into the depths of paranoia, Hill finally folds and decides to turn informant to escape the death that was surely waiting for him in the mob. He enrolls in Witness Protection, which lead to the creation of the book based on his experiences, and gives up all his success and power for a life of being a nobody.
Let’s go back to where I dropped The Godfather. Certainly there’s an art to Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, a rich operatic family film that achieves something larger than life. It’s a fantastic period melodrama, to be sure, but there’s a sense of romanticism to the whole thing that doesn’t really mesh with the gangsters we see on the news and in the papers.
Which is where Goodfellas steps in and claims the crown of The Gangster Movie. It’s a violent life, full of petty thugs and businessmen trying to operate outside the law, and it smacks of all the brutality and casual indifference of real bad guys in real life.
Despite the more grounded scope of the film, Goodfellas covers more ground, the rise and fall of one man, and does it in a way that never feels like it betrays the truth. Whereas The Godfather speaks to our romantic ideals of the criminals we only hear, Goodfellas speaks to the reality. These are people same as we are, doing things most of us wouldn’t and suffering the consequences.
The truth is that movie projects are a lot of work, and more often than not they aren’t rewarding. So much of movie making is compromise, few directors can pick their projects and have almost full creative control. As such, getting a good sense of the person behind the camera is rare enough that when you do find it, you treasure it.
Martin Scorsese has been the most rewarding movie project I’ve undertaken. Film after film is amazing, and each one fills in another piece of the picture about the man who makes them, because almost all of them are movies that Scorsese chose to make, projects that were close to his heart and that he was obviously passionate about. Even the lesser films are made with a confidence and care that make many movies look embarrassing in comparison.
A lot of people call Scorsese one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living filmmaker. Certainly one of the greatest American filmmakers. And while I don’t feel like I have quite the background to make such blanket statements, I’m inclined to agree. Rarely has one of these endeavors been so profound, made me think so much about the intent behind the films, and explore the places they come from.
In that sense, the Scorsese project has been a wild success. And hopefully all of that thought and energy came through in some limited way in all these articles. If you’ve never seen a Scorsese film, or if you’re an expert, I’d be pleased if a fraction of my enthusiasm has made it through to you, and you feel compelled to maybe watch one of the many, many movies I’ve talked about.
Because really, when I get right down to it, the whole idea of this project, both in watching and writing about it, is to share the passion for cinema, to gain the experiences and broaden horizons and then share it with like minded people. That social experience is inherent to film, I feel, and I hope that never changes.
In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying a Scorsese film again this Holiday, when his latest film hits theaters. I can’t wait.