As much as people want to categorize him, Martin Scorsese has never let himself be boxed in. More so than almost any of the other members of the “movie brat” generation who reshaped Hollywood in the 1970s (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, De Palma), he established a style and a favored subject matter within in a few years and then spent much of the rest of his career kicking those preconceptions to pieces. For every Goodfellas there’s a New York, New York, for every Casino, there’s a Kundun. Although the curious but nevertheless inflexible rules of public memory ensure that he will be remembered forever as a chronicler of gangsters, Scorsese has spent the past three-odd decades proving that he’s not a filmmaker who likes to be told what he can’t or shouldn’t do. Music videos, kids’ films, documentaries, religious dramas, historical epics – there’s hardly a genre that he hasn’t dipped into and that hasn’t been enriched by his attention.
#5 - After Hours (1985)
Comedy was never the first thing that comes to mind with Scorsese’s filmmaking. It’s telling that his nails-on-a-chalkboard creep-out drama The King of Comedy (1983) has one of the most ironic titles in film history. A couple years after, Scorsese was looking for something to do after the studio pulled out of his first shot at making The Last Temptation of Christ. He came across this odd script about a lonely office worker (Griffin Dunne, a study in yuppie panic) who goes looking for a woman he meets in a coffee shop (Rosanna Arquette) and ends up ping-ponging through nighttime Soho from one absurd situation to the next. It’s all jangled nerves and coal-black humor, as though Scorsese was channeling the blank irony of the No Wave directors who had been prowling those same hipster alleys for years. Not necessarily a comedy, but funny nonetheless, in the way that a car accident where nobody gets seriously hurt can be. Also, the soundtrack features the Bad Brains, always a plus.
#4 - The Age of Innocence (1993)
Coming at the tail-end of the vogue for lushly-produced arthouse period pieces, Scorsese’s take on Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about prim, married man (Daniel Day Lewis) who can’t quite bring himself to have an affair with his true love (Michelle Pfeiffer) was practically destined not to find an audience. Those who came looking for another epic of rage and alienation was going to wonder why everybody was talking so properly and repressing to urge to beat somebody’s head in. Also, those wanting a prettily-decorated drama about would-be lovers kept apart for years because “those were the times” (yes, Entourage’s Ari Gold had it right about Wharton) would find the film a little chilly in tone, not to mention far too nakedly raw in its emotions. At the very least, the film deserves credit for bringing Scorsese together with Day-Lewis, who would prove to be the dynamo that electrified his comeback film, Gangs of New York. But aside from that, Scorsese shows here that he’s just as adept at limning the different strata of power and class in turn-of-the-century upper-crust Manhattan as he is at laying out the workings of a crime syndicate in Casino—it’s all just money and status, no matter how nice the china is.
#3 - Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Following his excursion into the Himalayas for the Dalai Lama historical epic Kundun, Scorsese returned to New York for another red-eyed exercise in burning the candle at both ends. Based on an autobiographical book about an ambulance driver (Nicolas Cage, harrowed) who’s pushed to the edge and then some by a series of late-night shifts that leave him literally begging to be fired, the film tears through the bum-littered and siren-smeared streets like a black angel. Since his boss won’t send him home (“c’mon, the city needs you, get out there!”), Cage’s driver endures one manic partner after another (Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, John Goodman, all superb) in a Paul Schrader-scripted midnight-odyssey that all too clearly starts looking like the stations of the cross. It wasn’t liked at the time, to put it mildly, with many preferring the tidier view of decay as seen in Taxi Driver. Here there’s no avenging Bickle to turn to. This is Dante’s Inferno with a cackling laugh and a Clash-blistered soundtrack.
#2 - Public Speaking (2010)
To call Scorsese a chronicler of New York is the worst kind of cliché but is nevertheless true. The depth of his love of the city is hinted at in his decision to make this charming, completely engaging documentary about Fran Lebowitz. A litr’y raconteur who is about the closest thing that the city had to a Dorothy Parker figure in the 1980s, Lebowitz has seemingly nothing to do with the brawlers and hoods of many of Scorsese’s more famous films. But as he lets her tell stories and deliver opinions on just about any topic she feels like, Scorsese’s kinship with this hard-nosed writer becomes more clear. In their passionate dedication to the arts as a force for humanity and purpose for living, not to mention a clear inability to reside anywhere else in the world, they are both as intrinsically New York as the streets which Lebowitz stalks through in her dark coat and glasses, wishing all those tourists would just give up and go home.
#1 - Hugo (2011)
The trailers promised something horrible. A film that would be touted as “a holiday treat the whole family will enjoy,” full of forced whimsy and genteel old actors earning a paycheck and bright-eyed ingénues looking for a breakthrough. It’s not to say that there is nothing of that in Scorsese’s adaptation of the Brian Selznick graphic novel about an orphaned boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), living inside the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s. But once the hammy slapstick with Hugo’s policeman nemesis (Sacha Baron Cohen, who wrings some grace notes out of a stock scenario) gets out of the way and the mystery of the mechanical man Hugo is trying to fix is fired up, the film takes on a certain magical momentum. The feel is fairy-tale but with a real-world backdrop. The threat of being cast out into the streets or into a jail-like orphanage hangs like a dark cloud over the drifting-snow jewel-box beauty of Scorsese’s lavish 3D compositions. By the time the film gets to its real purpose, several set-pieces on the surreal genius of early film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), Hugo has turned into a truly odd but captivating spectacle: a kids’ movie about film history and film preservation. This is a film that never should have worked, but somehow it did, and because of that it’s hard to argue that there is really anything that Scorsese can’t do at this stage. Except maybe direct a sitcom. Now, that would be something.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.