Martin Scorsese: My Favorites

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

From my review: Scorsese delivers a pitch-perfect comedy-drama that never once feels phony. He ends up presenting one of the most honest mother-son relationships I’ve seen in a film. Alice is by no means a conventional mother, and she regularly engages in arguments with her son that seem more appropriate for a friend. She is still a parental and is determined to keep her son out of trouble while allowing him space to mistakes and learn. The things she exposes her son to might cause some viewers to judge her for being immature and irresponsible. Tommy is present when Ben becomes violent with Alice. When Alice gets involved with David, Tommy is a part of their going out. It makes sense, though, because Alice’s life has a big chunk devoted to Tommy, so any person she might partner with is going to need to understand and get along with her child.

Ellen Burstyn runs away with the movie and delivers what is arguably the best role of her career. It’s enjoyable to spend time with Alice, and getting to know her enriches your time with the film. I’d read there were mixed opinions about the movie’s portrayal of women, and I’m confused as to what the disagreement was. The best way all people can be portrayed emotionally in cinema is as realistic as possible, especially when you are making a grounded film like this one. Alice is not a superwoman, but she’s also no idiot. She makes mistakes and lives her life. When it seems like love has come into her life, she doesn’t compromise, like with Donald. Alice clearly lays out what David will need to accept if he wants a relationship with her.

Cape Fear (1991)

From my review: I think this film also confirms that De Niro is better suited to play dark & villainous roles. From Mean Streets to Taxi Driver to Raging Bull, he does his best work when he plays violent and mentally disturbed characters. Even an early part like in The Deer Hunter isn’t very memorable with him playing “the good guy.” That film is fine, but De Niro is not remarkable in it. De Niro has picked more leading man roles that are more traditional in the last twenty years. Things like Dirty Grandpa, The Meet the Parents franchise, or when he’s cast as a cop just don’t play to his strengths. I think The Irishman was the best thing De Niro has done since the 1990s. 

In Cape Fear, he plays a different type of antagonist, more dangerously charming, while still expressing male violence. It’s easy to see how someone might be seduced by Cady at first. He has a way with words and appears completely easygoing. Yet, he’s able to convey an intensity that can be frightening but alluring. His conversation with Danielle in the auditorium is a perfect example of that. Cady expresses a great depth of intellect but in a way that connects with the problems Danielle is experiencing at home.

Silence (2016)

From my review: Scorsese delivers a film about faith, colonialism, and the way religion is twisted by political forces that does not come down on any side of the argument. He is devoted to presenting the full breadth of this argument, both the sympathetic and the abhorrent. For the first half of the picture, we are given a front-row seat to the tortures the Japanese government inflicts on the priests and the believers. Then around the halfway mark, Rodrigues is granted an audience with the Inquisitor, and we start to see the way the Japanese are viewing missions work. A parable is told about a king with four warring wives who are all seeking his attention, and in the process, they destroy his palace. The Inquisitor explains that the wives are England, France, Portugal, and Holland, and the king is Japan. To the Japanese government, Christianity is part of an advance effort to destabilize their hold on the populace, shifting the allegiance of the people to the European faith which in turn would make the nation open to further European colonialism.

This viewpoint is not wrong at all. The Vatican is infamous as a political organization, wielding vast amounts of wealth to shape policy in Europe and abroad. There’s no doubting the faith and devotion of the hearts of the priests, but they accept the words of their leaders without questioning and as a result, harm people in other lands while believing they act with good intent and that makes everything okay. Scorsese continually points out the Japanese believers’ obsession with the symbols and icons of faith, almost as if these are magic amulets that imbue them with power. One way the Japanese get them to apostatize is to step on fumi-e. This was a metal plate bearing an image of Jesus that Japanese authorities used in their inquisition. Rodrigues struggles with what he should tell the believers when their life is on the line, and they are being asked to step on this object. Is the power of faith in this image or the words of the rituals, or does it exist as something transcendent?

The Irishman (2020)

From my review: The story of Frank touches on significant moments in America in the 1960s, always orbiting around the Kennedy administration and how their policies shaped labor in the U.S. but Scorsese doesn’t turn this into an Easter Egg hunt of “spot the reference.” Everything is organically blended into Frank’s very human story. With that cast and story centered around organized crime, it’s understandable that you might be tempted into thinking this is a retread of Goodfellas and Casino. There are definitely elements these three pictures share in common.

It’s when the third act of the film hits that it becomes apparent that we are watching something much different thematically than those pictures. Goodfellas and Casino are very much about the grotesque bloating of power & ego, their ends being inevitable self-destructive. The Irishman is about the one man in the midst of all that who wasn’t gunned down in the street, taken out in a brutal hit. This man keeps living and living and living. He’s approached by FBI agents in his old age, coming once again to ask about his connection to Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank tells them to talk with his lawyer, and they reply that his lawyer passed away. The look on Frank’s face tells us he’s reached a point, whether from age or the creep of dementia that he’s not quite sure what time it is anymore.

The King of Comedy (1982)

From my review: Rupert Pupkin is a nobody. He congregates with other gawkers at the exit of a television studio every night, hoping he has the chance to catch the autographs of the guests on The Jerry Langford Show. One night, Rupert is able to protect Langford from a crazed fan and takes this is an opportunity to fish for a spot doing comedy on the show. To get Rupert to back off, Langford says to call him later and hopes that is the end of it. But Rupert is an obsessive man, and between bouts of fantasizing about becoming best friends with his idol while hanging out in his mom’s basement, he sits around the reception room of the tv studio audiences waiting for a chance to speak with Langford that is never coming. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Rupert descends to more desperate measures to become famous and rise up past the mediocrity that consumes him.

Rupert Pupkin is a confounding character, a charismatic loser that makes everyone around him uncomfortable as they try not to offend. The receptionist that deals with Rupert day in and day out tries so hard to accommodate the man while hinting that he just isn’t going to speak with Langford. The assistant producer that humors Rupert by taking a cassette of his material, tries to let him down easy but is firm. In reaction to this, De Niro delivers what might be the most quintessential Boomer performance of all-time.

Raging Bull (1980)

From my review: Raging Bull obviously digs right into the themes of masculinity Scorsese began exploring in Mean Streets. LaMotta is such a sleazy, dumb character that you almost feel sorry for him sometimes, but in the end, he makes his own bed. He cheats on his first wife when he meets Vikki but then becomes paranoid she will cheat on him. LaMotta becomes physically abusive with her, almost breaking her jaw at one point. But then he manipulates her into staying. He gets his comeuppance after she leaves him years later while planning it all out in secret, making sure it is legally airtight. He uses part of his boxing fortune to buy a club in Miami and degenerates into a complete lush loser. 

Scorsese wants us to feel some sympathy, but he certainly doesn’t believe LaMotta should be a hero. He’s an example of how horrible men can be to themselves and others. That extends out of how American culture teaches men to not communicate their emotions. LaMotta is profoundly guilty and insecure whether he would admit that or not. He doesn’t know how to express those feeling, so they stew, and he lashes out physically. He’s praised for his boxing prowess, so violence is the one way he thinks he can communicate effectively.

Goodfellas (1990)

From my review: Goodfellas is a darkly funny movie. I think that’s an aspect of Scorsese a lot of audiences overlook. In this film, The Wolf of Wall Street, The King of Comedy, and After Hours he can inject stories of violence and menace with tremendous humor. It never makes us side with his sadistic characters, but it keeps the film from descending into bleak nihilism. Tommy is a particularly twisted figure in the Scorsese pantheon, utterly devoid of the recognition of human life. He kills two people throughout the film and savagely beats many more. There’s never an ounce of remorse or guilt. His rage stems from insecurity; when he perceives someone is slighting him, there’s never an attempt to have a discourse. Tommy has learned from the society around him that you cave in the skull of people who disrespect you. As the film shows, that is a way of living that can only really end one way. When you keep killing people who are connected, eventually, someone bigger and worse will off you.

Henry is also an interesting choice of protagonist because he’s not pure Italian. This means he will never become a “made man”; he’ll always hustle and be a wise guy. Henry is resigned to be an outsider because this group of people feels more like a family than his real one ever has. He revels in the indulgences made available to him via these connections. In voice-over and on-screen, he is overjoyed about how he can just take as he pleases, and if anyone messes with them, he can beat their ass. This extends into his marriage, where he courts two mistresses throughout the film, leading to turmoil in his home life.

Taxi Driver (1976)

From my review: As much traction as the “You talkin’ to me?” scene has gotten, there are so many other quieter scenes that resonate so much more strongly (they just aren’t able to be condensed into a meme). The Murderous Husband scene where Scorsese plays a passenger that has Travis park outside the apartment where his wife is cheating on him is one moment. Not only are we hit with the use of harsh racial epithets, we observe Travis reacting to the provocative rantings of this man. Travis never judges him, but it’s clear he is uncomfortable with this expression of murderous outrage. I don’t think the husband will kill his wife, but he wants to speak to someone (preferably he will never see again) about all the horrific things he wants to do to his wife. I couldn’t help but think of the anonymity of the internet, and how it allows “mild-mannered” people, especially men, to express vile acts they would never have the guts to do in real-life (at least we can hope). 

There’s the scene outside the diner where Travis asks to speak to Wizard, and it’s the only moment where the main character tries to express what is going on inside his head. Travis is not an articulate person, so his explanation is fragmented and undercut by his own comments. Wizard is a supreme bullshitter; we see him bragging to his coworkers about sexual exploits that are obviously made-up. When he’s confronted with a real person in a real moment of need, he doesn’t know what to say or do. Wizard ends up offering Travis no real help and leaves it at that. Once again, Scorsese’s examination of masculinity in his films touches on the concept that men in American culture cannot communicate about their inner lives, which leads to expressions of violence borne out of that frustration. He doesn’t make judgments about Travis or Wizard in this scene, simply observes them.


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