Martin Scorsese’s Best Movies (Ranked)
Celebrate the ‘Taxi Driver’ director’s 80th birthday with his greatest hits
Martin Scorsese isn’t slowing down as he approaches his 80th birthday on Nov. 17. He’s finishing what he calls his “first Western,” a $200 million 2023 adaptation of the true-crime book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. He tells AARP that filmmaking still feels like swimming upstream, and that pretty much every one of his films had been a “knock-down, drag-out fight” to make.
But what riches have come out of those fights! Below, in honor of his birthday, we present a watch list of the Scorsese films that rank as his best and confirm his status as a great — if not the greatest — living director, plus a few others you simply must see.
7. The Age of Innocence (1992)
Scorsese’s good friend, critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks, told him that Newland Archer, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel who gives up his chance for true happiness in order to do the right, or “proper,” thing, was an embodiment of Marty. In one of the director’s most beautiful and nuanced achievements, Daniel Day Lewis’ Archer, trapped in a loveless marriage, is swept away by the “exotic,” slightly scandalizing beauty of Michelle Pfeiffer’s countess. It’s a period tragicomedy of manners in which not a voice is raised, not a hand is lifted — but in its quiet way, this is one of Scorsese’s most emotionally violent movies.
Watch it: Hulu, Prime Video
See also: Hugo (2011), an even more elaborate period film about the birth of cinema, and Scorsese’s most family-friendly picture. Watch it on Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max.
6. Taxi Driver (1976)
American films of the 1970s teemed with urban hellscapes, from gritty police dramas (The French Connection) to deliberately offensive shock comedies (Where’s Poppa?). Taxi Driver almost belongs in their company, but ultimately it’s too irrational and surreal, as poetic as Rimbaud, Ginsberg or Genet. Writer Paul Schrader, actor Robert De Niro and director Scorsese all left their definitive signatures. Bickle, a man with no friends and no loves, stuck in a kind of run-out groove glitch of endless nights endangering himself, is so blinkered and socially inept he believes that a porn movie house is an appropriate first-date venue (with Cybill Shepherd). When he finally makes a move, in an attempt to “rescue” teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster, in a great performance that still raises hackles), it’s the wrong one. And of course it winds up making him a hero. An always harrowing account of the loneliness that leads down a tunnel culminating in violence, Taxi Driver was always meant to make its viewers uncomfortable. And it still does.
Watch it: Prime Video
See also: Shutter Island (2010), an even more lurid (if such a thing is possible) account of a man-monster in isolation. Watch it on Google Play, Prime Video.
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5. Mean Streets (1973)
Scorsese’s third feature is where he decisively finds his voice, with a vengeance. A partially autobiographical tale set in Manhattan’s Little Italy, it’s not a coming-of-age movie. The young men are fully of age — they’re just not inclined to grow up, even as their adolescent games turn deadly. Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, a Scorsese surrogate, is conflicted about being a bag man for his mobster uncle and about his friendship with Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, who’s anarchy personified. His crew also includes a bar owner and a wannabe loan shark. They’re funny at first, but grow so hateful you start to think some of them have got it coming. But when they do get it, there’s no catharsis, no sense of accounts settled. This wrenching film boasts any number of formal innovations — pay attention to the use of music and the way the camera moves — and it’s all in service of a from-the-gut honesty. And, of course, De Niro is absolutely electric.
Watch it: Prime Video, iTunes
See also: Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967), Scorsese’s first feature, also starring Keitel, a kind of dress rehearsal for Streets. Watch it on Apple TV, Prime Video.
4. The King of Comedy (1982)
Robert De Niro gives one of his most unusual performances as an outsize schlub in this cauterizing, mordantly funny movie. He plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand-up comic whose fixation with famed comedian-turned-talk-show-host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, superbly disciplined playing a chilly man not unlike his own self) turns criminal. Another movie with no physical violence to speak of, but capable of tying viewers into uncomfortable knots. Not just a skewering of celebrity culture but a relentless examination of the loneliness on either side of the border between frustrated anonymity and much-labored-for fame. Brilliant, but a film so unpopular it put Scorsese in “director’s jail” for years, making studios reluctant to deal with him.
Watch it: iTunes
See also: The 1986 pool-shark epic The Color of Money, a different kind of parable of ambition starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, and the movie that helped get Scorsese out of movie jail. Watch it on Prime Video.
3. The Last Waltz (1978)
This is perhaps his purest act of cinematic love. And also a cautionary tale. Robbie Robertson, the ostensible leader of the protean American rock group (and onetime Dylan backing combo) The Band, summoned Scorsese to record that group’s farewell show, with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John and a host of others including Dylan himself. Scorsese wrangled a murderer’s row of great cameramen, and got Hollywood legend Boris Leven to design the stage set (and a soundstage where musical numbers, like a definitive reading of “The Weight” featuring the Staples Singers, were shot). The result is one of the best concert films ever, weaving in a narrative of The Band’s life and times. Some of the most inspired bits in the film were accidental: The camera holding steady on a mesmerizing Muddy Waters happened to be the only one with film in it at the time the blues legend hit the stage.
Watch it: Prime Video, iTunes
See also: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019), a hilariously deceptive piece of cinematic sleight of hand, featuring killer resurrected footage of Dylan’s 1975 tour with Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Roger McGuinn and others. Watch it on Netflix.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
The true tale of Henry Hill, a mob foot soldier who lives through some exciting, harrowing, horrifically amoral times before the Witness Protection Program sentences him to live the rest of his life “like a schnook.” Goodfellas not only turned Scorsese’s moviemaking fortunes around, laying the groundwork for his current status as a cinema titan with one foot in Hollywood and the other in his own thing; it redefined the gangster genre. Without Goodfellas, no Sopranos, and without The Sopranos … well, a lot of cable TV channels wouldn’t even exist today, for better or worse. The movie is a fast, funny, sometimes genuinely (if guiltily) exhilarating ride, with Scorsese’s movie camera, quick cutting and always on-target use of music all reaching new heights of innovation.
Watch it: HBO Max, iTunes, Prime Video
See also: The Departed (2006), a frantic crime movie in which the quick cutting accelerates to a point of head-spinning near abstraction. Watch it on HBO Max.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Its protagonist, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, behaves appallingly, brutalizing everyone closest to him, including his brother-manager Joey (Joe Pesci) and his wife–erotic obsession Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). And yet. Scorsese’s clear-eyed portrait of a man who ultimately hurts himself the most is cinematically virtuosic in its dissection of a very sick soul. De Niro gained 60 pounds to portray LaMotta in his gone-to-seed years, and that’s emblematic of the commitment everybody involved with the film applied to the work. De Niro kept foisting it on Scorsese, who said he didn’t want to make a “sports movie.” It wasn’t until Scorsese was hospitalized, having nearly died of drug abuse, that De Niro confronted his friend about his self-destructive behavior, and the director found the key to the material: “I could make it about me.” He did, and he gave the world a masterpiece that continues to galvanize us.
Watch it: Prime Video, iTunes
See also: A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Film (1995), about where the director is coming from, by way of where he’s been, cinematically. Watch it on DVD via Amazon.
Glenn Kenny, a regular AARP film critic, is a contributing critic for The New York Times and RogerEbert.com, former chief critic for Premiere and MSN Movies, and the author of Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas.