To say Martin Scorsese is the greatest director of all time could well be seen as a bold claim. To say he’s the greatest living director, however, might not be. He’s been working steadily since the late 1960s, and continues to push cinema forward with every new film he makes. Age doesn’t seem to slow him down either, and since turning 70 in 2012, he’s made several films that stand among his greatest works.
The upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon will be his 27th feature film, with its 2023 release making now the perfect time to look back on his previous 26. The 80-year-old director has made almost nothing but hits, making a definitive ranking difficult, given how Scorsese’s films tend to be pretty good at worst, and genuine classics at best. The following can be considered a ranking of good to greatest, because when all’s said and done, just about everything Scorsese’s done is worth watching.
26 ‘Boxcar Bertha’ (1972)
When ranking the films of Martin Scorsese, one has to be at the bottom, and Boxcar Bertha serves as the sacrificial lamb here, so to speak. It’s a low-budget mash-up of the crime and romance genres, set in the 1930s and following a woman and a member of a union teaming up to take down a corrupt railroad organization.
It’s a scrappy and gritty film, potentially reflecting small aspects of Scorsese’s style here and there, but it ultimately ends up pretty forgettable. It’s certainly not awful by the standards of an early 1970s B-movie-type film, but it only represents a fraction of what Scorsese ended up being capable of.
25 ‘New York Stories’ (1989)
New York Stories is an interesting outlier of sorts in Scorsese’s filmography, because he wasn’t the only director. It’s an anthology film made up of three short stories belonging to the dramedy/romance genres (all of them taking place in – you guessed it – New York), with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen directing the other two segments.
The film as a whole is really brought down by Coppola’s contribution, which is well below his usual standards. Allen’s and Scorsese’s segments are decent, but still not outstanding, making New York Stories a worthwhile curiosity for fans of these directors, but hard to recommend to more casual viewers. At least Wes Anderson likes it (apparently), for what that’s worth.
24 ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door’ (1967)
For a feature film debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door certainly isn’t bad. It’s also notable for being the first collaboration between Scorsese and Harvey Keitel, who would go on to star in several more Scorsese features, including most recently in 2019’s The Irishman.
Despite being released before Boxcar Bertha, it feels more in line with Scorsese’s later films that would better define his style. The plot here is simple, following a man who struggles with his faith and a sudden romance, and overall, it’s pretty good for a down-to-earth, low-budget 1960s movie.
23 ‘New York, New York’ (1977)
By 1977, Scorsese and Robert De Niro had already done two successful collaborations together, with both being well suited to the crime genre they’d been exploring. But it was 1977 that saw them trying to shake things up, because that was the year they did a musical (of sorts) together: New York, New York.
To anyone who’s seen La La Land, it’s basically the same premise, only not as comedic and also not quite as satisfying or direct. Admittedly, it came first, and was certainly ambitious, but it’s a slightly messy film that begins strong, but does start to become a little exhausting by the final hour of its 163-minute runtime. Nowadays, its title song (sung here by Liza Minnelli) is likely more well-known than the film itself.
22 ‘Kundun’ (1997)
Martin Scorsese may have a reputation for being a gangster movie director, but he’s broken away from the genre on multiple occasions. Few films represent as drastic a change of pace as 1997’s Kundun, which focuses on the life story of the 14th Dalai Lama, particularly centering on his life as a child and then a young adult.
It’s certainly not a bad film, and works pretty decently as a biopic/historical drama. It’s possible to feel as though Scorsese is a little out of his element, as it’s not quite as captivating or consistent as some of his better historical movies, but it’s certainly quite good for what it is.
21 ‘Shutter Island’ (2010)
Scorsese’s take on a psychological thriller with Shutter Island makes for a good watch, though it ultimately isn’t among his very best works. The less said about the plot the better, but the central premise involves a detective investigating a patient’s disappearance from a high-security psychiatric facility.
The protagonist’s dark history and some interesting plot twists certainly make the film more interesting than it initially appears to be, though Shutter Island is certainly a slow-burn, with an emphasis on the “slow.” It’s all worthwhile by the end, because the film does have a very effective conclusion, but it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Scorsese’s greatest efforts.
20 ‘The Color of Money’ (1986)
The Color of Money stands out for being a Martin Scorsese-directed sequel, and a sequel to a movie he didn’t direct, to boot. It’s a follow-up to 1961’s The Hustler, centering on Paul Newman’s character, Fast Eddie, taking on a young pupil of sorts, here played by Tom Cruise.
As far as distant sequels go, it’s surprisingly good, with Newman returning to the role with ease (and winning an Oscar in the process). It’s worth it for the acting prowess on display, especially because the film’s screenplay isn’t anything spectacular, though at least it finds a decent enough hook to place a sequel to The Hustler on.
19 ‘Cape Fear’ (1991)
Five years after directing a sequel with The Color of Money, Scorsese made a remake: Cape Fear (1991). He goes for broke, making a wild and unpredictable horror/thriller movie, and also directing Robert De Niro in one of the most menacing and over-the-top performances of his career.
It centers on De Niro’s character – a recently released prisoner – targeting and tormenting a lawyer who let him down 14 years previously. The reign of terror he enacts also extends to the lawyer’s family, and it escalates in an expected – but also very nerve-wracking – fashion throughout. It’s Scorsese making a clear, old-fashioned thriller, but doing it in a way that’s mostly entertaining, and consistently suspenseful.
18 ‘The Aviator’ (2004)
Martin Scorsese’s favorite lead actor throughout the 20th century was Robert De Niro, but in the 21st century, it’s arguably been Leonardo DiCaprio. The Aviator is one of their numerous successful collaborations, with the film being a biopic of Howard Hughes, who was a film producer, pilot, and philanthropist.
It’s extremely well-made from a technical perspective and has an impressive cast all doing some of their best work. It adheres quite rigidly to the biopic formula and feels a tad overlong at 170 minutes, but there are a ton of things to appreciate in The Aviator, making it a worthwhile mid-tier Scorsese movie.
17 ‘Hugo’ (2011)
Hugo is the rare Scorsese movie that could be classified as a family film… though it helps if viewers have an interest in the history of silent cinema, because that’s what the film is largely about. It centers on the titular character – a young boy – befriending Georges Méliès, a pioneering director in cinema’s early days.
The film is at its best when looking at the power that cinema has, and as a love letter to the medium that Scorsese himself clearly adores, it can be a passionate and moving film. Some of the more kid-friendly elements – like an awkward comic relief character played by Sacha Baron Cohen – make it sometimes feel tonally inconsistent, but the emotional center and awe-inspiring visuals generally deliver.
16 ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ (1974)
Most of the time, Martin Scorsese makes movies with male protagonists, but his earlier films sometimes clashed with that trend. Boxcar Bertha was one example, but Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an even better example, and also generally just a much better film than Scorsese’s 1972 effort.
The film follows the titular Alice, a single mother who’s trying to care for her son while also chasing her dreams of becoming a singer, however unlikely those dreams might be. It’s a grounded but compelling drama, and a perfect showcase for how Scorsese has always been excellent at making films that contain a great deal of empathy.
15 ‘Casino’ (1995)
Of all Scorsese’s gangster epics, Casino is arguably the most violent, gritty, and difficult to watch. It pulls no punches in depicting the brutality of the mobsters who ruled Las Vegas during the 1970s, largely because most of the city’s lucrative casinos were run – either partially or completely – by the mob.
It’s a relentless, even exhausting movie at a point, clocking in at three hours while also never slowing down for a second when it comes to pacing. It’s arguably not one of Scorsese’s best crime movies as a result, but it still features flashy editing, great music, compelling performances, and memorably profane dialogue. All the ingredients here have been used to better effect in other Scorsese crime films, but Casino is still more than solid.
14 ‘Gangs of New York’ (2002)
Gangs of New York is a potentially divisive movie in Scorsese’s filmography. It’s an ambitious and explosive revenge-themed historical epic, with many high points contrasting against some odd creative decisions. It is far from a seamless, easy watch, but it’s undeniably fascinating.
It’s also elevated immensely by Daniel Day Lewis’ over-the-top villainous performance as Bill the Butcher, with the movie being fantastic whenever he’s on-screen. DiCaprio isn’t as strong in the lead role, but would come into his own in later Scorsese movies. The film might be messy, but so is the concept of revenge, and overall, there’s much more good in Gangs of New York than bad.
13 ‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993)
Believe it or not, one of Martin Scorsese’s historical dramas is also a romance, and an unapologetically big-hearted/old-fashioned one at that. The Age of Innocence is unique among Scorsese movies, and effectively tells the story of a young man in New York’s high society being torn between two women during the 19th century.
It was the first collaboration between Scorsese and Day-Lewis, though he plays a very different character here to who he played in Gangs of New York. Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder are also both very good, with The Age of Innocence additionally benefiting from fantastic production design and its overall subtle storytelling and emotional impact.
12 ‘Mean Streets’ (1973)
Mean Streets was the first Martin Scorsese movie that established what a great filmmaker he could be. It might not be his greatest movie, but there’s an argument to be made that it was his first genuine classic.
It’s a gritty story set on the streets of New York (a city Scorsese loves to feature as a setting) and follows several small-time criminals who are all looking to make it in the mob as made guys. Its narrative is loose, but the characters and style of the movie are bold and distinctively Scorsese-esque, and it features a killer soundtrack to boot.
11 ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ (1999)
Featuring one of Nicolas Cage’s best and most underrated performances, Bringing Out the Dead also functions as an underrated Scorsese film. It follows a paramedic who has a particularly hectic few days spent on the job, all the while grappling with personal demons and visions of those he failed to save.
It’s a dark and very intense movie, and stands as one of the most in-depth psychological drama/thriller movies Scorsese ever directed. It also can’t be overstated how good the cast is, especially Cage in the lead role, who delivers a memorable and very realistic performance that’s a far cry from the sorts of goofy, bombastic roles he’s best known for playing.
10 ‘The King of Comedy’ (1982)
Despite being called The King of Comedy, this 1982 film isn’t really a comedy. Sure, it centers on a man who wants to do anything he can to become a famous stand-up comedian, but the story takes numerous dark turns to the point where this is a very dark comedy if one’s feeling charitable, and a genuinely unnerving psychological crime/thriller by any other definition.
De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, and his love of stand-up comedy drives him to stalk, annoy, and eventually kidnap his favorite comedian, Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). It’s a deeply uncomfortable and awkward film by design, and that Scorsese can create such a visceral, tense movie without resorting to graphic violence or horrific visuals is a testament to his filmmaking skills.
9 ‘Silence’ (2016)
All things considered, Silence is a little slept-on. Maybe a slow-paced film about two Jesuit priests searching for their mentor in Japan during the 17th century doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but the acting and the exploration of the characters make this a very compelling watch for patient viewers.
Adam Driver is good as always here, but it’s Andrew Garfield who makes the movie his own, in the process delivering what might be the best performance of his career so far. He shines in a movie that takes its time, but emerges as a brilliant and thought-provoking work that thoroughly explores the nature of faith in a unique and compelling way.
8 ‘After Hours’ (1985)
If one was to rank Martin Scorsese’s funniest movies, After Hours would undoubtedly have to appear near the top of the list. It’s a movie that follows one of the unluckiest men in the world as he has a genuinely terrible night, being thrust into a series of misadventures in a surreal – and even nightmarish – version of New York City.
Naturally, this means it’s a dark comedy, given there’s a ton of misfortune and tense moments throughout. But for those who like their surreal and absurd humor to also be kind of bleak, After Hours truly delivers, and it presents a distinct and modern take on what could otherwise be an old-fashioned farce/screwball comedy.
7 ‘The Departed’ (2006)
With The Departed, Martin Scorsese finally won a Best Director Oscar at the Academy Awards, and also at last had one of his movies win Best Picture. Does that mean The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s genuine best picture? No. But is The Departed still an incredibly good picture? Absolutely.
It’s an American remake of the intricately-plotted cops vs. robbers story found in 2002’s Infernal Affairs, but changes enough to make both films worth watching for fans of crime thrillers. It features a fantastic cast and a fast-paced, plot twist-heavy narrative that’s a ton of fun to see unfold, and proves to be yet another great crime movie in Scorsese’s filmography.