A Beginner’s Guide to Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is a modern giant in film history, and each of his movies is appointment viewing. Scorsese's 27 films include massive hits and minor misses (though very few of the latter). We have created a beginner's guide to Scorsese, picking out twelve films that most define the director's long, storied career.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver Robert De Niro
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Travis Bickle has to be the single most memorable character who graced Scorsese's camera lens. A Marine who returns from the Vietnam War to a New York City riddled with crime, PDA, and general lawlessness, Bickle spends day and night in the concrete jungle as he drives a taxi. 

Writer Paul Schrader expertly illuminates Bickle's humanity, loneliness, and ultimate loss of control in a way that viewers won't forget. Scorsese also captures the seediness of 1970s New York City in this movie, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

2. The Departed (2006)

The Departed
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“Consistency” is the word that may most define Martin Scorsese, and The Departed was unequivocal proof that Marty had not lost his fastball. Many younger fans even consider The Departed the best of Scorsese's catalog, as the star-studded cast, compelling cat-and-mouse storyline, Boston backdrop, and perfect casting of Jack Nicholson as the Whitey Bulger character make for riveting cinema.

3. GoodFellas (1990)

Goodfellas Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Joseph Bono
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Choosing which of Martin Scorsese's films is most beloved or critically praised is difficult, but GoodFellas is undoubtedly in the top three. After making the religious drama The Last Temptation of Christ, GoodFellas was a welcomed return to the gangster thriller genre. 

Ray Liotta's rendition of Henry Hill and Joe Pesci's role as the demented Tommy DeVito are among the many reasons GoodFellas remains a timeless classic.

4. Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull
Image Credit: United Artists.

Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese are a pairing more iconic than wine and cheese, and Raging Bull might most illustrate the seamless interplay between the leading man and cameraman. Jake LaMotta is a beloved boxer with fundamental flaws as a man, making for a volatile film shot in black and white.

5. Casino (1995)

Casino (1995)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Casino did not receive the universal critical acclaim of its predecessor, GoodFellas, and that may be because some saw Casino as a derivative of GoodFellas. Though there are common themes between the two movies, the gambling- and Vegas-specific hues of Casino make it an excellent standalone film. Sleazy performances from Sharon Stone and James Woods and a predictably iconic Joe Pesci cameo make Casino a must-see Scorsese production. 

6. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Wolf of Wall Street likely caught seasoned Scorsese fans off guard. The cast of younger actors (Jonah Hill in a Scorsese movie?), Wall Street themes, and fixation with the modern-day party scene seemed utterly out of character in the context of Marty's previous films. 

Nevertheless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes more fun each year. This movie is now an anachronism from the final days before Hollywood relinquished its embrace of unbridled, politically incorrect fun.

7. After Hours (1985)

After Hours Catherine O'Hara
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Though you don't often hear After Hours in brief lists of Martin Scorsese classics, it remains one of his most highly-rated films. A low-budget movie that revolves around a single night in New York City's underbelly, After Hours highlights Scorsese's healthy sense of humor.

8. The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson
Image Credit: United Artists.

One of the seminal concert films, The Last Waltz blends Oscar-worthy filmmaking with world-class live musical performance. You don't have to be a massive fan of The Band to appreciate The Last Waltz

A narrative style with appearances from Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and other musical icons, The Last Waltz is much more than just a live concert.

9. Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets 1973 1 e1692803477198
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Only the third film in Scorsese's filmography, Mean Streets, offered a glimpse into the director's talent for capturing the gangster life authentically. A young Robert DeNiro makes a prominent appearance alongside veteran actors like Harvey Keitel. 

While it is less polished than Scorsese's later films, Mean Streets is essential for those who want to understand Marty's roots in cinema.

10. The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Scorsese decided to switch tones after the 1980 release of Raging Bull, making a movie that is hard to place in any genre. Robert DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, an eccentric New Yorker who believes fame and fortune are his destiny. Only others in the comedy world don't feel the same way.

A dark comedy that flopped at the box office, The King of Comedy has become more beloved as the years have passed.

11. The Color of Money (1986)

The Color of Money, Paul Newman
Image Credit: Buena Vista Distribution.

A Tom Cruise-Paul Newman-led pool hustling movie directed by Martin Scorsese? Is that something any self-respecting movie watcher should say “no” to?

Considered Marty's first mainstream, big-budget production, it's clear that Scorsese put his all into The Color of Money. He captures the pool hall atmosphere while portraying the difficulties of changing the guard between old heads and young bucks. 

12. The Aviator (2004)

The Aviator
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

In one of Scorsese's most financially successful films, audiences were eager to view the life story of Howard Hughes as only Martin Scorsese could tell it. The movie also became the most-nominated movie at the 77th Oscars, winning five. 

The Aviator exhibits what an eye-popping spectacle Scorsese can create with a virtually unlimited budget and runtime, and the results are spectacular in every respect.

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Sam Mire is a freelance writer who has manned a variety of beats over nearly a decade in the literary biz. He has spent weeks in the Alaskan wildlands, immersed himself in the world of Florida's homeless population, covered live sporting events, and served as a linchpin for media outlets in the legal, tech, and entertainment spaces. Sam has been published in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, AP News, Fox News, and, most notably, Wealth of Geeks. In his free time, he enjoys boxing, woodwork, petting his dog, and reveling in good company.