Scorsese Special: A Modern Day Master

Martin Scorcese: A Modern Day Master

Okay, so it might be a bit of a stretch to label Scorcese as a “modern day” master, given his career began in the 60s, but it's a career that has gone from strength to strength throughout the decades,  and he's still pumping out Oscar worthy films to this day – his latest being “The Wolf of Wall Street”. With this piece, I'm going to take a look at a selection of what I think are his greatest films.


Arguably his first big hit and still one of his most well known films is Taxi Driver, released in '76 and starring Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and a young Jodie Foster. De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran who, thanks to insomnia, now works nights as a – you guessed it – Taxi Driver. Bickle is disenfranchised with society, believing it to have deteriorated into a veritable cesspool of drugs, sex and violence. His increasing mental instability leads to violent urges and paranoia, and he becomes obsessed with “saving” runaway 12 year old prostitute, Iris (Foster) from her pimp and lover, Sport (Keitel). Nominated for four Oscars (but winning none, and Scorcese didn't even get a nod for Best Director), Taxi Driver was a masterclass in surreal cinematography, score and atmosphere. De Niro and Foster were both nominated for multiple awards for their gritty and memorable performances, and the film has some great quotes – none more famous than De Niro's brilliant “Are you talking to me?” at his reflection in the mirror.

Four years later, Scorcese followed with another instant classic, Raging Bull. This time, he took a look at the world of sports; specifically Boxing. Robert De Niro once again took the lead role (Scorcese has shown a tendency to stick with leading actors that he likes) as Jake LaMotta, a champion boxer who obliterates his opponents in the ring, rapidly climbing the ladder of success. What makes this such a powerful film – and likely the greatest boxing film ever made – is the juxtaposition of LaMotta's career, where his fury and power make him a King, and his private life, where the same personality threatens to destroy everything around him. Paranoid and violent, he nevertheless craves the love of his family, and his struggle to reconcile his personality, his career and his private life proves to be powerful cinema. What makes this film so great is the combination of sublime direction, masterful editing, the unusual move of shooting entirely in black and white, and a tour de force performance from De Niro. The film gained 8 Oscar nominations, including two wins for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Editing – although he got a nod for Best Director this time round, Scorcese didn't win. 

In 1988, Scorcese caused controversy when he made “The Last Temptation of Christ”, a hard hitting tale of the life of Jesus Christ. What was so controversial about it was that it represented Jesus as a man, like any other, plagued by difficulties and temptations just as any other man would. This humanisation of such a holy figure sparked outrage from Christians around the globe, and was quickly dubbed “blasphemous”. Interestingly, Scorcese is a devout Christian himself, and stated that he had wanted to do this film for a while, but put it off because he didn't feel ready. He cast Willem Defoe in the lead role, and Harvey Keitel as Judas, both of which gave incredible performances. Whether you believe it to be because of the controversy or not, this film only received one nomination at the Oscars – for Best Director, which once again Scorcese missed out on. To me, this is one of the greatest pieces of cinema not because of quality – although that was certainly there – but because of its divisive and polarising nature, and such a human, heartfelt look into Christianity.

Two years later, Scorcese returned with what is arguably his most famous film to date: Goodfellas. Casting Robert De Niro once again, joined this time by Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, the film follows the rise – and fall – of a trio of gangsters. Ray Liotta's Henry Hill is the protagonist of the film, who dreams of being a big shot gangster. With his friends, Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), he begins the climb to the top, but soon becomes affected by his friends success. Featuring world class performances across the board, Goodfellas is a stark look into mob life, and, in typical Scorcese fashion, shies away from little – if anything. Credited with ushering in an era of crime thrillers, it was nominated for 6 Oscars, with Joe Pesci the only winner for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Scorcese once again getting the nomination but not the win for Best Director. Scorcese returned to similar themes with his '95 “Casino”, starring De Niro, Pesci and Sharon Stone (who won an Oscar for Best Actress for her part) in a Las Vegas setting.

2002s Gangs of New York saw Scorcese team up for the first time with Leonardo DiCaprio, the man who would become his perennial leading man in years to come. A 19th century tale of revenge, Gangs sees DiCaprios Amsterdam Vallon return to New York to enact a plan to get close to Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting and kill him for killing his father, 'Priest' Vallon, years ago. Gangs is a visceral and chilling tale with a beautifully constructed 19th century setting. DiCaprio is good in the lead, but the real star of the show is the ever amazing Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill; his performance is full of menace and power and barely suppressed rage. The film received a whopping 10 nominations at the Oscars, but, surprisingly, failed to win any. Still, it was a fantastic achievement for Scorcese, and whilst the themes were familiar ground for him, it showed that he could handle himself just fine in a variety of settings. 

2004 saw Scorcese tread unfamiliar territory in his biopic of legendary inventor Howard Hughes, The Aviator. A powerful and compelling look into the lives of one of the finest minds of the early 20th century, Scorcese's focus on the fallacies of the man, juxtaposed against the genius, is what makes this film so great. DiCaprio took the leading role and gained an Oscar nomination for it – interestingly, DiCaprio seems to have inherited Scorcese's Oscar curse with no wins to date – with a performance that many thought should have easily won the award. His absolute immersion to the character, along with Scorcese's brilliant direction, created a truly memorable film that went on to win 5 of the 11 Oscar nominations it received, and is arguably the launching where the Oscars finally began to recognise Scorcese's contribution to film.

2006 was a crucial year for Scorcese, as it finally saw him win the coveted Best Director Oscar for what is my personal favourite film by him, The Departed. Another film with mob themes, this time Scorcese approaches it from the angle of the police and undercover roles. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a police recruit who is essentially forced into undercover work with Jack Nicholson's mob boss, Frank Castello, and puts in another tour de force as his character lives a life of stress, paranoia and fear. Conversely, Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a son figure to Castello who joins the police to infiltrate them. The dichotomy leads to a cat and mouse chase, where both parties are attempting to discover the mole without the other knowing. The entire cast is fantastic, with DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen all putting in stellar performances that really drive the narrative. Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga, as well as other supporting characters flesh out a huge ensemble of mind games and questionable allegiances, all brilliantly brought together by Scorcese. I honestly cannot recommend this film more.

Shutter Island was Scorcese's next big flick, this time taking a step into a more pure psychological narrative. DiCaprio took the lead role again as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who is investigating the disappearance of an inmate at a mental institution for the criminally insane. What follows is a harrowing tale of madness and mind games, where everything is not at all as it seems. DiCaprio nails it again in this film, and the supporting cast – particularly Mark Ruffalo – are great. What makes this so important in Scorcese's repertoire is that it is a lot different to his normal style and themes; sure, there are similar elements like suspicion, paranoia, etc, but never before and never again has Scorcese gone so deep into the psychosis of someone so unhinged, and crafted such an excellent psychological thriller. 

The final film I'm going to mention is The Wolf of Wall Street. I'd mention Hugo, but honestly, the film never really appealed to me – it was clearly a labour of love for Scorcese, and I would never begrudge him that, but just not my cup of tea. Moving on! The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorcese's latest piece, and has garnered several nominations at the Oscars this year. It is a biopic of Jordan Belfort, a man who rose to infamy in 90s Wall Street (despite not actually being IN wall street) for his dubious stock practices that saw him, his friends and his business become incredibly rich, incredibly fast. It is a drug-fuelled, bacchanalian orgy of riotous colours, criminal activities and scandalous meetings that is absolutely unrelenting in its depiction of Belfort's very own highway to hell. An absolute laugh out loud film that I urge anyone to watch, take a look at exactly why in my full review of the film. I sincerely hope DiCaprio takes the Best Actor Oscar for this role; not just because he has – criminally – yet to receive one, but also because the performance in its own right deserves it.

All in all, Scorcese has had a colourful and diverse career that has literally spanned decades. With more classics than anyone has a right to, he is, without a doubt, one of the giants of film directing. Here's to another 10 years of Scorcese films!

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