“Those of us who know him knew that he thought one time of becoming a priest, but I really know that his vocation was to become what he is today, the high priest of film,” Robert De Niro concluded his speech saluting Martin Scorsese when the Academy awarded him the AFI Life Achievement Award, and those words couldn’t be truer and more deserved.

Martin Scorsese not only influenced cinema as we know it today with dozens of masterpieces that seemed to blend the beautiful old with the revolutionary new but dedicated his money, efforts, and time to film preservation, restoring and saving films that were thought long-dead or on the verge of oblivion; his passion for film is awe-inspiring, to say the least.

His 2019 film, The Irishman, didn’t win any awards at the Oscars, but it was met with a lot of praise and acclaim, so this seems like an opportune time to make a list of my favorite films by him that could serve as an introduction to people wishing to get more familiar with his work and discover the wonders he has been making for more than five decades now.

15. Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese filming Hugo

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Even though the argument that Scorsese can only make gangster films died long before the release of this film, Hugo is the ultimate nail in the coffin as it sees the legendary filmmaker taking on a genre that is the complete opposite of the films he is known for and used to make. A warm adventure that tells the story of a boy living in a Paris railway station, Scorsese crafts a film that manages to be both a beautiful adventure film and a heartwarming tribute to cinema. Hugo is Scorsese’s Cinema Paradiso.

The plot revolves around an orphaned boy and his friendship with a girl named Isabelle as they discover a notebook by her grandfather, Georges Melies, the godfather of motion pictures. They then embark on an adventure, which ultimately serves as a loving tribute to the art of cinema. The interesting thing about Hugo is Scorsese’s graceful use of 3-D. Scorsese has never shied away from embracing new technologies in his films, but unlike most filmmakers, he never lets the technology drive the film; therefore it is never really the focus point, but merely a sweet little addition that wouldn’t affect the viewing experience much with its absence.

14. After Hours (1985)

Martin Scorsese directing After Hours

If you ever wonder what is Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film, then After Hours is the first and obvious answer. This is an incredible film that rarely gets the love it deserves. The 80s was one of the biggest decades for our legendary director: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ are just some of his achievements in one decade, so naturally, After Hours rarely gets the spotlight. Let’s fix that.

The plot revolves around an ordinary worker, a word processor to be exact, who simply has the worst night of his life. It all begins when he meets a girl by the name of Marcy, who then invites him to her apartment, where she lives with a sculptor. Unfortunate events begin to fall upon our protagonist, ranging from losing money to having his hair shaved into a mohawk by a group of punks.

After Hours is a neo-noir gone comically wrong…and dark. It does not include any of the classical noir tropes yet shares the same premise: an ordinary man against a world of trouble. It is whacky, entertaining, and nerve-wracking. It’s a film you wouldn’t believe was made by Scorsese if you did not know it beforehand.

13. Cape Fear (1991)

Martin Scorsese filming Cape Fear

Cape Fear – a remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 movie – is Scorsese’s first foray into psychological thriller territory, long before making Shutter Island. The original Cape Fear was released in 1962 and starred Robert Mitchum as a rapist who has just finished his jail sentence and is out for revenge against the lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) who sent him there, stalking and threatening him and his family.

Scorsese’s version does not differ in plot, but it takes the feelings of fear and anxiety and turns them up to 11. Mitchum was a master at portraying villains; his performance as the preacher in The Night of the Hunter is a masterclass in terror, but DeNiro manages to outclass him and bring new dimensions to the character that were unimaginable in the 60’s.

12. The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese directing The Departed

Even though it is ranked this low on the list, that takes nothing from the power and originality of The Departed. Perhaps it is not as memorable as something like Goodfellas or Casino, but Scorsese tried something new with this film, and the result is something singular– even in the midst of Marty’s impressive catalog. Coupled with one of the strongest casts in all of Scorsese’s filmography, starring names like Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin…The Departed is not a film you want to miss out on.

It tells a story about a double infiltration: the police have sent one of their own to investigate the Irish Mafia, and the latter has done the same thing. This is a dilemma of trust, conspiracy, and, in Scorsese’s simple street terms, who is the rat? The director’s previous films all had some similar element of treason: think back to that iconic diner scene in Goodfellas when Henry Hill’s character knows he is being suspected and the camera moves ever closer to reflect his impending doom; but here, it is the main focus, and what Scorsese does with it is beyond impressive. Still, it is a little ironic that his first Oscar for best directing came from a remake.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

11. Mean Streets (1973)

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” And so Mean Streets starts with a declaration of its focus, its quest, and its dilemma. The film’s unorthodox opening scene may be taken to mean that the director is forcing his take and view on the film on his audience, but for me, it serves as a way to fortify the film’s main theme and, therefore explore it more thoroughly without fiddling with other potential themes that are not even there, I mean, why search for answers when there aren’t even any questions asked, right?

Related to Martin Scorsese: How Mean Street Explores The Theme Of Penance And Salvation

Mean Streets is a 1973 film revolving around a small-time hood, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who must choose between rising in the mob and concurring to his uncle’s wishes, continuing to look out for his younger reckless friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a small-time gambler who owes money to pretty much everybody, and a secret love affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa. Mean Streets established Martin Scorsese as the master of the crime thriller, a film made by a person who has a massive passion for films, with a unique and light visual style, incredibly complex and intriguing protagonists, a captivating and fun plot and a nod or two to the big fans of this fabulous director. 

10. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

A film that was met with a lot of success and controversy, this three-hour epic telling the story of Jordan Belfort as he cheats and frauds his way to the top of Wall Street is some of the best work Marty has ever done. Incredibly exciting, funny, and even erotic, this film manages to make three hours fly by and offers an obscene amount of fun.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill here give career-best performances and grant the film its liveliness and raw sense of danger, while Martin Scorsese’s directing, coupled with the work of his long-time friend and collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, make the film feel like a literal joyride. While it is not for the young or the weak-hearted, The Wolf of Wall Street is something that should not be missed, a fun time dissolving morals in an attempt to redefine them more clearly. 

9. Shutter Island (2010)

best films of martin scorsese 09

This is a film to forever shut up those who say that Martin Scorsese only makes gangster movies. A psychological thriller with heavy neo-noir influences, Shutter Island, tells the story of two US marshals who go to a distant island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from an asylum, only to uncover shocking truths about the place.

With an ending that gives new meaning to the word ambiguous, dim cinematography that somehow manages to convey a feeling of doom and claustrophobia and an incredibly powerful performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, this film is both heartbreaking and tense, establishing two branching plots that continuously intertwine in the protagonist’s head, and leading to a grand finale that answers but one question: everything happens in one’s mind only.

8. Casino (1995)

Very few films open with an ending, and those that do have a very clear goal in mind, “This is what the film is about, nothing else.” As we see Robert De Niro’s character, Sam Rothstein, blow up in his car just as the film starts, it is very clear that this is a film about the inescapable force of destiny and the fatalism that naturally comes with it.

Related to Martin Scorsese: Why Casino Is Better Than Goodfellas?

Casino tells the story of Spade, a casino owner in 1970s Las Vegas, as he tries to balance work and family, the thrill of craps, and the pressure of overseeing an organized crime family. Extremely violent in every sense of the word, blending physical brutality with mental warfare, this intensifying epic has stood the test of time for 25 years now and remains one of the best films Scorsese has ever made. 

7. The Irishman (2019)

best films of martin scorsese 07

Watching Martin Scorsese’s 2019 mafia epic The Irishman leaves you no choice other than to feel the deepest appreciation for the craft of filmmaking. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, the holy trinity of gangster movies, assemble to bring life to an epic story spawning decades revolving around the wrongdoings of the organized crime families, their deep power and influence over the biggest of matters, and the lives they led outside the corruption and bloodshed.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Related to Martin Scorsese: Needle Drop In Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019)

With a runtime of three and a half hours, The Irishman (subtitled I Heard You Paint Houses) doesn’t exactly fly by; what it does, instead, is take its sweet time to tell a story rich with details in the most complete of ways. It is exhilarating, compelling, emotional, and truly, truly mesmerizing.

6. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Martin Scorsese filming Killers of the flower moon

Epic. If I were asked to describe Scorsese’s 2023 film Killers of the Flower Moon, then the word I would use is epic. A story bathed in history and rich in lore and mystery? Check. A lengthy runtime that feels just perfect for a tale of this proportion? Check. Incredible performances by an incredible cast convey the emotional depth and variety that this film requires. Check. Masterful directing by the greatest living director? Check and double-check. Killers of the Flower Moon is a statement: Scorsese makes masterpieces, and that has not changed with time or age.

The plot follows members of the Osage tribe as they are infiltrated by a small group of white men aiming to take advantage of their fortune and oil. What commences somewhat calmly quickly escalates into a series of murders as the Osage drop dead one after the other–forcing the FBI to get involved in what is the Bureau’s first case. Killers of the Flower Moon is a rollercoaster of emotion; it drifts seamlessly between anger and sorrow, conspiracy and justice, and by the end of its three-and-a-half-hours runtime, one feeling is stronger than all else: appreciation for cinema.

5. Goodfellas (1990)

best films of martin scorsese 06

Goodfellas is the definition of a classic, a film that is deeply imprinted into the psyche of film lovers all around the world and a masterpiece that people have kept revisiting year after year for three decades now. Telling the story of Henry Hill as he climbs from a petty criminal to a first-rate gangster in New York, Goodfellas’ plot spawns over thirty years and implements Scorsese’s notions of righteousness and morality perfectly, making sure justice is always delivered.

Related to Martin Scorsese: 10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Goodfellas

Goodfellas is famous for many things: the genius red lighting in the opening scene that inspires terror and a twisted alteration of glamour, the “funny how” scene that somehow manages to portray and emphasize the fear-inspiring status of the tough guy more than anything else in the film, and the completely improvised dinner scene with De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese’s mom, and it is the combination of all these things that make Goodfellas the timeless classic it is.

4. Raging Bull (1980)

A film about boxing but not really, Raging Bull tells the story of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) as he climbs through the ranks to get a shot at a boxing title while his personal life gets more and more messed up. Martin Scorsese was at that time Michael Powell’s protégé, and he advised him to shoot the film in black and white, a decision that came to fruition and achieved its goals of glamourizing the subject matter while, at the same time, dramatizing it.

Also Read: 25 Best Sports Movies of All Time

This film is an example of perfect cinematography and manages to make a boxing match just as exciting as a heated argument; the camera work here is unmatched. Raging Bull is more a character study than a boxing film, taking a deep dive into Jake LaMotta’s psyche and exploring notions of grandeur and self-esteem, the quest for redemption, and the sacrifices it requires. 

3. The King of Comedy (1982)

Although The King of Comedy is my third favorite Scorsese picture, I am completely convinced that this is Robert De Niro’s best performance ever. His portrayal of Rupert Pupkin perfectly depicts the desperate fascination this character is built upon. The film is about a hack comic who is utterly obsessed with a talk show host (played by Jerry Lewis) and is ready to succumb to any means possible to get an audience with him.

This is the film that directly inspired Todd Philips’ Joker and “lent” it several scenes, mainly the one in which Rupert is daydreaming about being the host of his own TV show and having thousands of people call him The King of Comedy. An honest portrayal and study of the human desire for recognition and the desperate measures one can be driven to. A masterpiece.

2. The Age of Innocence (1992)

best films of martin scorsese 02

Even as it placed this high on the list, I still feel a little bad about not giving it the number one spot. The Age of Innocence is something singular; even within Martin Scorsese’s unique and varied filmography, it is sensual, elegant, and mesmerizing. Telling the story of a lawyer who is happily engaged and deeply conflicted about another woman he loves, with incredibly powerful performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer and gorgeous set and costume design, this period piece remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking renditions of love and sensuality ever put to screen.

This film is further proof of Martin Scorsese’s wider-than-life range, a man who can make an instant classic gangster epic and, two years later, craft an achingly beautiful film about a completely different society and still make it seem just as lively and exciting as anything he has ever done.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

best films of martin scorsese 01

Right from the opening sequence of the film, where we see the foggy nightlife of New York, coupled with Bernard Hermann’s stellar score, we know that this film is something special. Taxi Driver is one of Martin Scorsese’s earliest films and the best thing he has ever made. It tells the story of Travis Bickle, a taxi driver who works nights to keep busy and keep himself from his thoughts, as he continually observes what he refers to as the scum of the city, and as he experiences love and compassion, and as his rules clash with the city’s, we are treated to an awe-inspiring portrayal of one man’s descent into madness.

Related To Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver: Themes Of Masculinity And Ignorance

While it concerns itself with many subjects thematically, all of them worthy of noting and discussion, I think it is more essential to talk about the stylistic and aesthetic value of the film and its genius cinematography. One thing to note is the way New York is shot, grim and foul, and the way Travis observes it, for when we are treated to his point-of-view, the camerawork is always in slow motion to convey the heightened sense of observation of this character.

Best Films of Martin Scorsese according to Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic

Similar Posts