No director expresses the same love for the medium of film quite like Martin Scorsese. A walking textbook of cinematic knowledge, Scorsese channels his admiration for all things film into each of his movies, propelling him to international stardom as one of the world’s most popular directors working today.
A pioneer of the influential New Hollywood Movement, Martin Scorsese’s career spans just over 60 years, with many of his movies now considered classics in the American film industry. In the past, he’s perfected such varying genres as romance, history, crime, thrillers, psychological horror, and Biblical epics delighting multiple generations of filmgoers in the process.
From his breakthrough films of the ‘70s to his latest projects, here are some of the absolute greatest films ever directed by Martin Scorsese, ranked from best to worst.
Martin Scorsese has released quite a few movies deemed “masterpieces” over the years, his 1990 crime epic, Goodfellas, foremost among them. A biographical film centered around lifelong gangster-turned-reluctant F.B.I. informant Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Goodfellas is a roving portrait of Mafia life in general, illustrating both the excesses that come with the lifestyle and the inherent dangers lurking beneath the surface.
Over the course of 25 years, audiences witness Hill’s idyllic life devolve into drug-fueled paranoia, his closest friends becoming his most dangerous enemies. It’s narrative storytelling at its most effective, complete with rich performances from Liotta, Robert De Niro, and a near-demonic Joe Pesci.
If Maritn Scorsese gravitates towards one genre again and again, it’s the gangster film. A thematic successor of sorts to Goodfellas, The Departed also acts as a loose remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime film, Infernal Affairs. The only film to win Scorsese the Academy Award for Best Director, Scorsese uses a massive ensemble cast to convey his main narrative, focusing on the continuous battle between Boston’s Police Department and the Irish Mob.
Featuring veteran actors like Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, The Departed elevates itself to the very top of Scorsese’s filmography, existing as his most exciting and fast-paced film to date.
After almost a decade of producing various indie films, Martin Scorsese achieved career prominence for the first time with his 1976 outing, Taxi Driver. The winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, Taxi Driver acts as a chilling character study of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a disillusioned Vietnam War working as a New York taxi driver whose mental health unravels as he witnesses the depravity of the city around him.
Relying on a nihilistic script penned by Paul Schrader, Scorsese constructs a nightmarish version of New York straight out of Dante’s depiction of Hell, filled with violence, substance abuse, and criminality everywhere you look. It’s without a doubt among Scorsese’s most depressing works, as well as one of his most engaging.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Scorsese’s most recent film sees the director tackle his most harrowing subject matter yet. Adapted from David Grann’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon explores the systematic murders of leading Osage Nation members in 1920s Oklahoma–a criminal conspiracy that soon earned the attention of the fledgling F.B.I.
Though its three and a half-hour runtime might scare away some viewers, Killers of the Flower Moon’s unflinching look at its historical subject matter ensures a movie of first-rate quality. With epic cinematography straight out of a David Lean film and some exquisite acting from DiCaprio, De Niro, and a scene-stealing Lily Gladstone, it’s among the finest films of Scorsese’s recent career.
After the unrivaled success of Rocky in 1976, Martin Scorsese created the complete antithesis of Sylvester Stallone’s inspirational underdog story with his 1980 biographical sports film, Raging Bull. Dramatizing the life and career of controversial boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), Scorsese turns the sports drama on its head, underscoring the dark side of success and fame.
Though a gifted boxer in the ring, LaMotta’s inability to switch off his macho, combative personality at home pushes everyone around him away until, at the end of the day, all he has left is his title belt, with no one there to support him from the sidelines.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Religion has always been a recurring theme in Martin Scorsese’s work. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising he turned his attention to creating a biographical film centered around the final days of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in his 1988 religious epic, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Rather than a straightforward adaptation of Biblical legend, Scorsese chose to look at the concluding chapters of Jesus’s life from a unique perspective, portraying him more as a man struggling with his own inner conflict (lust, anxiety, fear, and depression). The humanizing analysis Scorsese employs makes for a fascinating film, made all the better by Dafoe’s enthralling performance as the title character.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s most popular work of the past decade, there’s no denying The Wolf of Wall Street has earned its esteem among mainstream audiences. A larger-than-life analysis of financial criminal Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), it might just be the best performance DiCaprio has ever given in a Scorsese-directed film. (They’ve collaborated on a total of 6 films together.)
As with most of his movies, The Wolf of Wall Street relies on moral ambiguity surrounding each of its principal characters, framing them more as cartoonish personalities than as realistic people. However, therein lies the genius of the film: as far-fetched as these people are and as ridiculous as their antics might seem, most of the movie has an extensive basis in reality.
Gangs of New York
Most people know Scorsese is able to skip between genres with relative ease. On a more impressive note, Scorsese has always proven himself capable of jumping between various historical periods, doing so with his 2002 crime film, Gangs of New York.
Based on historical reality, Scorsese brings the vivid landscape of 1860s New York to life, portraying the city’s most negative qualities (large-scale gang wars, political corruption, and rampant xenophobia and nativism). Helped along by terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s among Martin Scorsese’s most impressive achievements in terms of production design.
Mean Streets might not have been Martin Scorsese’s first film, but it’s the movie that marked his maturation as a director, setting the standard for numerous conventions we associate with a Scorsese production to this day.
With a threadbare budget in his pocket, Scorsese introduced a bundle of filmmaking techniques that became common in many of his films, including slow-motion, freeze frames, sudden acts of vivid violence, and a heavy use of profanity. Winning praise from several influential critics, the film helped Scorsese gain a foothold in the world of mainstream film, laying the groundwork for his breakout success on 1976’s Taxi Driver.
Scorsese’s only family-friendly film, the genesis for Hugo came about when Scorsese expressed a desire to make something suitable for his then-12-year-old daughter to watch. The results made for Scorsese’s most imaginative film, possessing the whimsy and charm of a classic Roald Dahl story.
Staying true to the spirit and tone of Brian Selznick's original novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese’s personal admiration for cinema is apparent throughout Hugo, his enthusiasm for silent film bleeding through the screen and infecting the audience. With how remarkable a film it is, it almost makes you wonder what other child-friendly movies Scorsese could make if he were so inclined to do so.
While Scorsese focused on the seedy underbelly of New York in Taxi Driver, he offered a very different portrait of the city with his 1985 dark comedy, After Hours. A strange yet often hilarious film, After Hours might just be the most underrated entry in Scorsese’s filmography, having developed an avid cult following in the years since its release.
Offering an almost Kafkaesque interpretation of the Big Apple, Scorsese lines his film with some of the city’s most eccentric personalities (punk artists, irate cabbies, and demented ice cream truck drivers), taking viewers on an unforgettable journey into the heart of Manhattan‘s underground community. Scorsese’s most surreal piece, it’s a delightful film that will leave you baffled, confused, and terrified, never failing to entertain.
If The Irishman feels like a stylistic successor to Goodfellas, the same can be said for Scorsese’s work on Silence and its dramatic precursor, The Last Temptation of Christ. Another riveting historical narrative from Scorsese, the film explores topics Scorsese holds near and dear to his heart, examining the influence of religious belief and martyrdom from the perspective of 17th-century Jesuit priests.
One of the few films Scorsese had a hand in writing, the individual connection he feels to the script makes for an altogether personal film, as well as one of Scorsese’s best efforts in recent decades.
Along with Shutter Island, Cape Fear is the closest Scorsese has ever come to creating a full-blown horror film. A remake of the 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear benefits a great deal from Robert De Niro’s transformative performance as Max Cady, a self-educated philosophical convict seeking revenge against the attorney who put him behind bars (Nick Nolte).
Proving himself able to handle any genre he gets his hands on, Scorsese crafts an indelible thriller with Cape Fear, combining psychological horror with a Southern Gothic atmosphere to palpable effect.
In a few crucial ways, Casino feels like a semi-sequel to Goodfellas. And yet, unlike his earlier 1990 film, the movie is less about the gradual change of several characters (in Goodfellas’ case, Henry Hill and his close criminal associates), and more about a man trying to keep up with the fast-changing world around him.
Treating the setting of Las Vegas as its own distinct character, Scorsese focuses on professional gambler Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) as he tries to manage his struggling casino across multiple decades. Like Scorsese’s version of New York in Taxi Driver, Casino’s iteration of Vegas is teeming with danger and intrigue, with Ace struggling to contend with the growing number of perils confronting his casino’s operations.
The King of Comedy
A unique oddity of a movie, Scorsese reunited with his creative muse Robert De Niro for the 1982 satirical crime film, The King of Comedy. A dark comedy like no other, The King of Comedy returns to the downbeat storytelling exemplified by Scorsese in Taxi Driver, once again focusing on a character dissociated from reality, living in the grandeur of his dreams (in this case, De Niro’s aspiring comedian, Rupert Pupkin).
Suffering from burnout and exhaustion off-camera, Scorsese somehow managed to pull it together to deliver the bravest – and darkest – entry in his filmography, a rich evaluation of fame, success, fantasies, aspiration, and mental health.
Martin Scorsese’s troubled masterpiece, The Irishman might’ve been his best film if he had directed it 20 years ago. As it is, it’s difficult to see past the sometimes distracting use of CGI Scorsese introduced to de-age his principal actors.
Technical problems aside, The Irishman makes for a brilliant film, serving as Scorsese’s stylistic follow-up to his 1990 classic, Goodfellas. An intense study of life in organized crime, it provides a feasible explanation for the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), as well as his connection to the Philadelphia Mafia and his self-professed murderer (Robert De Niro).