Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors in movie history. His works are eclectic and his passion for portraying the lives of real people is applauded by critics. He’s poured his heart and soul into each and every one of his movies and he’s got a unique dedication to actors that he works with with continued collaboration spanning decades. There’s certain themes Scorsese is drawn to, sure, and we’ll look into those as we delve into the rankings. But there’s also themes he’s willing to experiment with, see New York, New York or Hugo, for instance.
Scorsese’s been making movies since the 1960s and he’s not letting up anytime soon. In fact, the fight for his newest works still creates bidding wars across streaming services. In 2022, he signed a massive deal with Apple TV Plus, to secure his next movie Killers of the Flower Moon, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and planned for a 2023 release. It’s a beautiful horizon for Scorsese, but we’re here to rank his works from best to worst. So, let’s hustle.
25. Boxcar Bertha
One of Scorsese’s earliest movies, Boxcar Bertha, follows a Bonnie and Clyde-esque storyline of two train robbers-slash-lovers as they live out their lives constantly running from the law. As one of his first directorial works, it shows off some of the skills that Scorsese would later quite spectacularly hone. But, it wasn’t quite there yet.
There’s not really a weakest link when it comes to the works of Scorsese. Each one in its own right adds something to the director he has become today. But, it’s quite commonly agreed that Boxcar Bertha is one of the least cherished, hence its position on our list.
We don’t really talk about Kundun… Scorsese’s depiction of the 14th Dalai Lama (the one we all know) and the plight of Tibet threw him into some hot water politically and almost severed ties entirely between Disney and China’s leaders. In fact, Scorsese was banned from ever entering the country again.
Some say it eventually led to the deal of Shanghai Disneyland opening up, so at least there’s that. When it comes to Kundun, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner famously said: “The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it.”
23. Who’s That Knocking at My Door
Part of Scorsese’s student project at NYU and his first ever movie, Who’s That Knocking at My Door was shot in 1967 in gritty black-and-white.
A young Harvey Keitel fronts the movie as JR, a scorned man upset after finding out his girlfriend is in fact not a virgin as he was led to believe. Set on the streets of the Italian-American communities Scorsese grew up within, the director illustrates his penchant for exploring the theme of Catholic guilt and Who’s That Knocking at My Door is a great early exploration of. There’s a lot more to follow.
22. New York, New York
Quite out of sorts for Scorsese’s directorial credits up to this point sits the music-filled flick, New York, New York. A movie that came as somewhat of a shock for his fans as Scorsese chose this title as his next foray into film following the famed Taxi Driver. Starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro as a saxophonist and singer who embark on a romance whilst finding fame, New York, New York was certainly a different style for the director that drew mixed reviews from critics.
Scorsese himself was said to have turned to this genre in a step away from the stony realism he had become known for and in wanting to pay homage to the musical side of Hollywood. The making of this movie coinciding with the sharp end of Scorsese’s troubles with cocaine and production was a mess, with the movie running over budget and flopping at the box office.
21. Bringing Out the Dead
We can imagine a movie such as this would do quite well in the box office today given the success of 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Unfortunately, for Scorsese, Nicolas Cage wasn’t yet the icon he is today. In Bringing Out the Dead, Cage stars as an ambulance paramedic haunted by the patients he couldn’t save. Yes, you heard us correctly.
Battling to survive and retain his sanity over three tumultuous and nightmarish evenings, Scorsese creates some epic shots depicting Cage’s constant hallucinations on the backdrop of the murky New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. It’s actually quite iconic really, but we can’t give it too high a place.
20. The Color Of Money
The Color of Money brings two movie icons together in a tale of teacher and student, embarking wisdom from one acting legend to another. Or, in this case, one pool hustler to another with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise starring opposite each other.
Strangely, this is Scorsese’s only sequel and it’s not even for a movie he made himself, with The Color Of Money acting as a reprise for 1961’s The Hustler, which also starred Newman.
Set in a pool hall, it’s all about learning the tips and tricks of pool hustling. Another experimental work for Scorsese focusing more on potting balls than popping enemies. Very 80s, very hammy, very fun.
19. After Hours
Scorsese spent almost all of the 1980s working in New York, the city where he has made his finest work. After Hours, shot in the city’s SoHo district, has become known for being an integral part of cinema’s ‘yuppie nightmare’ genre. In simple terms, a yuppie nightmare is when a young professional comes under threat.
In this case, Paul Hackett, an ordinary computer data entry worker, finds himself embroiled in a horror evening strung together with a series of unfortunate events. He’s invited to visit a girl he meets in a coffee shop and there lies the last normal part of his evening. The timeline quickly turns into one full of threats, assault, and kidnapping.
Martin Scorsese is not known for making family movies, in fact, he’s still not. But, for Hugo, he made an exception. Set in Paris in 1931, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living secretly in the Gare Montparnasse.
Whilst servicing the train station’s clocks, he uncovers a mystery regarding his late father (Jude Law) and an automaton that sees him embark on a quest for the truth. It’s a tale completely different from one of Scorsese’s usual style as well as being his first foray into 3D – following on from Avatar’s success.
17. The Age of Innocence
When it comes to a Scorsese movie set in New York, we’re used to seeing the mean streets, mobs, and crime of the lower classes. In The Age of Innocence, Scorsese illustrates that no matter where in society he sits, New York is his playground.
This entry is a tale of 19th century high society as adapted from the novel of the same name by Edith Warton. The story follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who, after marrying the safe, but uninspiring May Welland (Winona Ryder), becomes infatuated with the mysterious Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). A movie that proves Scorsese’s ability to direct love as well as hate.
16. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Following on from her iconic part in The Exorcist, Scorsese cast Ellen Burstyn in the lead role of Alice Hyatt in this movie. And she clearly did a stellar job, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1975.
Alice is a widowed, single mother who embarks on a journey across the southwest US in the hopes of becoming a famous singer. Joined by her son, David (Kris Kristofferson), the pace is slowed down and the emotion is turned up in a step away from Scorsese’s usual style and violence-fuelled movies to simply tell a tale of a mother and her son trying to move on as best they can.
Scorsese developed Silence for over 25 years, finally committing to it after filming on The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. Up to this point, Scorsese had also worked on The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, taking on the themes of religion, struggles with the challenges of faith, and the burden of Catholic guilt.
In Silence, two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are followed on their travels to Japan to spread the Catholic faith in a time where such acts were punished. Scorsese clearly gave himself time to develop this movie to its eventual release and the pace of the movie reflected that with almost three-hours of long drawn out scenes and storytelling.
14. The Last Temptation of Christ
As mentioned above, another of Scorsese’s tales of religious figures is 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ starring Willem Defoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas adapting the tale of Jesus Christ for the big screen.
Scorsese took a risk here and one that was met quite widely with criticism for depicting the Gospel in the way that he saw fit. A bold move and one that arguably wouldn’t be taken today, but one that 164 minutes of screentime depicting Jesus as a man and the battles he faced when tackling his hopes to spread Christianity.
13. The Aviator
You’ll begin to notice a trend as we head to the upper echelons of our ranking list, the appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio in a lot of Scorsese’s most famed works. His second time working with the actor, The Aviator sees Scorsese’s take on a biopic about the legendary director and, of course, aviator turned recluse, Howard Hughes.
Lauded for being an honest representation of a man struggling to cope with his meteoric rise in fame and affected by his own personal mental health, The Aviator is a great representation of why Scorsese and DiCaprio continue to this day to create more movies together.
12. Shutter Island
You won’t know whether you’re up or down once you’ve visited the remote asylum of Shutter Island and the impressive work of a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration.
US Marshall, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) travels to the hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the escape of a woman who drowned her own children. Shutter Island is a neo-noir psychological thriller teetering on the brink of full-on horror with a fantastic twist to captivate audiences as much as it pushes them to look away.
11. Cape Fear
1991’s Cape Fear sees Robert De Niro front and centre as convicted rapist, Max Cady, released from prison after 14 years and set on a vengeful, foreboding path to terrorise the lawyer that was meant to defend him.
Feeling let down by the system and wrongfully convicted, Max wants revenge and how better to do so than stalk Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family, including his teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). It’s a fantastic remake of the 1962 film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and one that saw Robert De Niro take on the role of ex-con with disturbing prowess.
10. The King of Comedy
Once again, Robert De Niro takes on the lead role, but this time swapping his prison uniform for that of a desperate stand-up comedian, Rupert Pupkin, a man obsessed with the idea of appearing on a late night TV talk show.
A satire still mirrored in today’s society around the yearning for fame, celebrity status, and money, over two hours viewers watch Rupert descend into chaos resulting in an ill-planned kidnapping plot alongside fellow stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). Hard to watch, masterfully executed.
9. The Irishman
With a whopping $160 million budget from Netflix, Scorsese was finally able to make a movie he’d been planning for more than a decade. Surprisingly, it’s not Netflix’s most expensive purchase, but one that’s definitely up there. Scorsese used the cash to tell the story of hitman Frank Sheeran and his decades working within the Buffalino crime family and teamster, Jim Hoffa.
With such a big budget came some of the biggest names including mafia stalwarts Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. But, even with such a budget, came some questionable de-ageing as the story used the same actors spanning decades of time. Not as great as the standout Scorsese mafia classics that top our list, but still hugely impressive.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
When Scorsese decided to tell the true story of Jordan Belfort, a former stockbroker and financial criminal, he opted for his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio to do so and what a fantastic casting it was.
Coming in at almost three hours, it’s the build up, success, unravelling, and subsequent demise all wrapped up into the lavish and shameless behaviour of the movie’s cast. After The Wolf of Wall Street, you’ll be left confused on where you even stand. Or you’ll just be thumping your chest and humming.
7. Gangs of New York
It’s 1862 and the roost that is New York is ruled by warring gangs – the Irish Catholics and the Protestants hell-bent on taking each other out (and in some incredibly gory ways). After his father is stabbed to death, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks revenge against the killer.
And, whilst this may be the first of many Leonardo DiCaprio collaborations for Scorsese, the standout performance in Gangs of New York is that of the chaotic, terrifying, and incredibly violent Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting. His scenes are iconic and make a movie worthy of watching all over again just to bear witness to the role Scorsese created.
We’re truly in the thick of it now in terms of the huge acting names Scorsese can bring to his movies. In 2002’s Casino, he’s got De Niro, Pesci, Sharon Stone, and James Woods all in starring roles. Demonstrating that Scorsese shines outside of the Five Boroughs of New York City, Casino is set deep in the gambling world of Las Vegas.
Casino operator Sam Rothstein (De Niro) struggles with running a gambling empire whilst falling for former prostitute, Ginger McKenna (Stone) and a complicated friendship with mafia mobster, Nicky Santoro (Pesci). Not quite as good as Goodfellas itself, but close enough.
5. The Departed
The Departed marks when Martin Scorsese finally won himself an Oscar and there’s many good reasons for that. A touch over two and a half hours, 2006’s The Departed is a real hunt for the rat as undercover cop, Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and mafia mole, Colin (Matt Damon) go head to head trying to uncover each other’s truths before being caught themselves.
Featuring more twists than a turkey twizzler, Scorsese sits viewers perfectly on the edge of their seats throughout while nourishing his mob vs police vision in full, beautiful force.
4. Mean Streets
Mean Streets is an example of when Scorsese’s work really started to build momentum. We’re talking the year after Boxcar Bertha, which sits 25th on our list, Scorsese followed up with this. He had the budget, he had the names that he would prove to be big ones, Keitel and De Niro, and he had the vision.
A tale of Little Italy’s mafiosos as petty criminal, Charlie, fights to protect his friend Johnny who’s found himself in the deep end with the loan sharks. Torn between his Catholic faith and working for his mafia boss uncle, he struggles to find the balance between his warring values.
3. Taxi Driver
Fed up with society, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran still suffering from his time in service, is filled with deep set rage that follows him throughout the edgy, smoky, and melancholic streets of 1970s New York City. His fury and detest for the rich and lavish that ride in his cab leads him, ultimately, to decide to try and assassinate not one but two people – a presidential candidate and a pimp.
With a low budget, lead actors Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd both agreed to take pay cuts for this movie and thank God they did with outstanding performances from both throughout this top-billing Scorsese movie.
2. Raging Bull
Four years after Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again collaborated with Robert De Niro. This time for Raging Bull. A turn to a sports biopic for the director, Raging Bull tells the true story of champion boxer Jake LaMotta whose own faltering personality leads to his personal relationships suffering, an eventual arrest, and somehow a stand up comedy career.
Although initially reluctant to work on such a movie, Scorsese developed the script alongside De Niro and then Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ) adapted it. It was this teamwork that led to one of Scorsese’s most formidable movies.
Based on real-life gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Goodfellas follows his life working for the Luchese crime syndicate alongside his mob partners Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). And the trio moulded a movie full of unforgettable scenes.
You’ll have a hard-fought battle to win an argument that Goodfellas isn’t Scorsese’s best work and one of the greatest depictions of the multigenerational mafia in film. It made the mob life glamorous and even at times humorous (“Funny how?”).
Scorsese’s choice of music throughout is also widely praised for being the perfect scene-setters as well as being chosen by Scorsese himself to be chronologically accurate to the story. The top of our Scorsese list and we won’t hear otherwise.