Tomorrow, November 17th, one Martin Charles Scorsese turns 70. One of the most celebrated American filmmakers in the history of the medium, Scorsese first broke out in the 1970s, coming out of the mentorship of Roger Corman (for whom he made “Boxcar Bertha“) to direct the astonishingly confident “Mean Streets.” And over the years, the director has made multiple classics, from “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” to recent awards-laden triumphs like “The Departed” and “Hugo.”
The director’s currently hard at work on his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, the financial world drama “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but as he enters his eighth decade, we wanted to pay tribute to the master by picking out five of his most underrated movies from across his career. While the aforementioned movies, along with others including “The King of Comedy,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” have been rightly lauded, there are a few movies that aren’t quite held up by cinephiles in the same way, and we wanted to shine a light on them for a moment. You can read our picks below, and let us know if there’s a Scorsese picture you think is undervalued in the comments section.
And a very happy birthday, Mr. Scorsese…
“New York, New York” (1977)
Coming off the success of “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese was starting to feel pigeonholed by his trademark “gritty realism,” so to test his creative boundaries he made a 2-hour-plus musical with Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophone player. The shoot was not a great time for Scorsese personally; he was splitting with his second, and very pregnant, wife and had begun an affair with his lead actress, Liza Minnelli. As such, it’s not entirely surprising that Scorsese’s first big-budget picture was a resounding flop, financially and critically, but its reputation has been somewhat restored over the years, even if it’s still overshadowed by Frank Sinatra‘s recording of the theme tune that became a huge hit three years after the movie was released. Set in the title city in the aftermath of World War II, it’s a “Star Is Born“-ish tale of the tumultuous romance between saxophonist Jimmy (De Niro) and a singer (Minnelli) over a course of many years as they find success, even as their own relationship falls apart. Few would argue that the film is an unqualified success; it’s overlong, uneven and De Niro’s character is so unlikeable that it’s hard to really latch onto the film (given his personal issues, one can certainly see the film as a self-portrait, and it’s undoubtedly a film produced at the height of the director’s drug use). But in moments — the stunning opening scenes, the glorious “Happy Endings” film-within-a-film sequence, a tribute to Liza’s father Vincente — the film absolutely soars, with sections that number among the best things the director has ever made. Scorsese introduces the DVD by saying he was looking for a fusion of “truth and artifice,” and it’s perhaps this that proves most fascinating about the film — a mix of kitchen-sink drama and stage-bound sets is an uneasy dichotomy, but one that genuinely turns the genre on his head. It’s arguably the most imperfect film on this list, but one that no Scorsese fan should go without seeing.
“After Hours” (1985)
With passion project “The Last Temptation of Christ” struggling to come together, Scorsese headed in a new direction, taking over a former Tim Burton movie for his first (and really, at this point, only) out-and-out comedy (“The King of Comedy” doesn’t quite count). And if “After Hours,” which disappeared on release, but has found a cult audience over the years, is anything to go by, we wish the director would tackle the genre more often. Set over the course of a single night, the film follows ordinary twentysomething Paul (Griffin Dunne), who meets a girl (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. That night, he heads to her apartment hoping for a romantic liaison, but loses his money en route, setting off a string of cosmic disasters that suggests that the universe is out to get him. The same drug-fuelled energy of the filmmaker’s earlier work is present and correct, but it feels leaner and hungrier — the director shot with a small crew, and trimmed 45 minutes from the original cut, keeping up a tight and frantic piece. As a result, it’s enormously funny. Dunne is hapless and neurotic as seemingly everyone he meets conspires to end him, like a Woody Allen character in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie. Watching it now, there is a faintly unpleasant strain of misogyny in the “women be crazy!” plotting, but it’s not like the men, Paul included, are any saner. That aside, it’s still one of the great depictions of Scorsese’s favorite cities, and numbers among the director’s most entertaining movies. One can’t help but feel that, after the excess of his recent efforts, taking a film along these lines couldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the director.
“The Age of Innocence” (1993)
After “Goodfellas” and “Cape Fear” took Scorsese to some of his dark places, the director made a serious left turn for the most atypical picture of his career — the costume drama adaptation of Edith Wharton‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Age of Innocence.” As such, it’s hardly a favorite among the Scorsese fanboys who won’t truly love something unless a character pulls out a baseball bat at some stage. And yet there’s a real emotional violence going on in the picture, which easily ranks as the most romantic thing the director ever made. Set in New York in the 1870s, it sees lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) becoming drawn to Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the soon-to-be-divorced cousin of his fiance May (Winona Ryder). And while it’s a million years from “Mean Streets” or “Goodfellas,” Scorsese displays the same nous for 19th century New York manners as he does for the rules of the street in the 20th, with a supporting cast of ringers (including Geraldine Chaplin, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margoyles, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gough, Norman Lloyd and Stuart Wilson) who seem to have stepped right out of that world. Best of all are the leads. Winona Ryder, who won an Oscar nomination for the part, is heartbreakingly dull and surprisingly forceful as May, confirming at the time that she was a real talent to watch. And Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer (particularly the latter) are as superb as you might imagine, the film bubbling over with the simmering eroticism between them. Scorsese tones his trademark stylistic flourishes down, but there’s still a real grace and elegance to the way that he shoots the film that mentor Michael Powell (who’d died a few years beforehand) would surely have been proud of. Fingers crossed we get something as raw and deeply felt from the filmmaker again one day soon.“Kundun” (1997)
The optimal experience to see Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is free of expectations and context of its time. In other words, way after the fact. Easily the least seen Scorsese picture of the last 20 years (though maybe the “The Age of Innocence” comes close), “Kundun” came and went with a whimper during its day. Reviews of the time are faintly complimentary, but most politely dance around how “Kundun” is rather dull and not very engaging. Made for $28 million, the picture barely grossed $6 million in the U.S. and the director himself said Disney half-heartedly released the film, possibly due to corporate ties with China who were vehemently against what some described as a hagiography of the Dalai Lama. But free of all that burden, “Kundun” is far indolent. Featuring a rapturous and throbbing score by Philip Glass and breathtaking cinematography from Roger Deakins, “Kundun” is a spectacle, a majestic display of images and sounds, possessing a rich emotional weight. Soulful, it’s also a rather haunting meditation on the the Dalai Lama, the spirit of man and the endurance and tolerance of the Tibetan people. It’s easy to see how disinterest or apathy of the subject, written by Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) over seven years and 14 different screenplay drafts, could cause indifference in critics, as it did with audiences at the box office, but taken on its own merits, “Kundun” is a perfectly solid, engaging Martin Scorsese picture that without falling into idolatry, respectfully examines the story of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, for Marty, it didn’t have a lot of mobsters, guns, violence or cool music, but that doesn’t lessen its impact.
“Bringing Out the Dead” (1999)
As the first reunion between Scorsese and “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader since “The Last Temptation of Christ,” hopes were certainly high for “Bringing Out the Dead,” especially as it paired the duo with recent Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage, then at the peak of his star power. But the film, an adaptation of the novel by real-life paramedic Joe Connelly, received a muted response and tanked at the box office. We can see why audiences didn’t embrace it at first, but over a decade on from release, it strikes us as arguably the director’s last great film to date. Cage plays Frank Pierce, a New York paramedic in 1990, as a dangerous new form of heroin hits the streets. Over three long nights, with three wildly different colleagues (John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore, all terrific), Frank comes apart at the seams, haunted by the ghosts of those he couldn’t save, even as the reformed ex-junkie daughter of a patient (Patricia Arquette) offers a sort of redemption. Those expecting another “Taxi Driver”-style look at the seedy underbelly of NYC might not have had their expectations met, but they were probably befuddled by the tonal mix of bleak drama, pitch-black comedy and the supernatural; it owes something to “After Hours,” but it’s still quite different from anything Scorsese has ever made, particularly thanks to a haunting, uncharacteristically restrained performance from Cage. And for all its darkness, Scorsese makes the film furiously entertaining in its gallows humor and stylistic tics. Of all the director’s late period films, this one feels like the most in need of critical reevaluation.