Arguably the greatest director alive today, Martin Scorsese has built a body of work so impressive, he's basically his own movie genre. The Queens, New York native earned a master's degree in film communication in 1966, but success in filmmaking wasn't immediate. After a number of shorts and low-budget flicks, Scorsese broke through with 1973's Mean Streets, his first collaboration with Robert De Niro. The pair reunited for 1976's Taxi Driver, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first major honor in a career that has seen Scorsese win a Best Director Oscar in 2007 (The Departed) and earn another 13 Academy Award nominations.
Scorsese is not only an auteur in the purest sense, he is an advocate for cinema and the film industry. He's also a personal fan of multiple film genres, including Hammer horror films and Toho's monster movies like the Godzilla series. And yet, he isn't a fan of modern-day universe-building superhero films, as his criticism of Marvel films as "theme parks" demonstrates. He pointed out that most films offer a communal viewing experience, while "Marvel-type pictures, where the theaters become amusement parks, that's a different experience."
For years, Scorsese has spoken out to promote and support films that he feels elevate the medium. In February 2000, Scorsese joined Roger Ebert for an episode of Roger Ebert & the Movies, a new incarnation of the movie review show created after the passing of Gene Siskel. In the episode, both men named their top ten films of the 1990s and discussed their top five films in particular. Scorsese's picks are particularly interesting, and two of his top five are foreign films that most movie fans have never heard of.
Scorsese's choices for the 10 best films of the 1990s are as follows, as he ranks them.
10 Malcolm X (1992) and Heat (1995)
It seems Scorsese couldn't deny either Spike Lee or Michael Mann a place on his list, and both deserve a slot. Lee's biographical drama brings the civil rights activist to life like never before in Malcolm X, thanks in large part to Denzel Washington's Oscar-nominated performance. Lee provides a layered portrait of the man behind the icon, and the supporting cast (including Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo) is excellent.
The crime thriller Heat is easily director Michael Mann's best film, which has become a modern classic crime drama in the eyes of both critics and cinephiles. The film was hyped as featuring the first-ever face-to-face meeting of The Godfather Part II stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and it certainly delivered on the build-up, offering a tense thriller with fantastic performances from the all-star cast.
Mann's style, like Scorsese, is distinct, making his films more of an event than just a movie. Although most critics were favorable to the film upon release, it failed to score even a single Oscar nomination. Appreciation for the film only came in the years that followed.
9 Fargo (1996)
Like most moviegoers, Scorsese loves the Coen Brothers. Fargo, a 1996 Best Picture nominee, is a quirky crime drama that follows a very pregnant sheriff (Frances McDormand) in small-town Minnesota determined to solve a murder. McDormand (who is married to Joel Coen) was the perfect choice to play Marge "You Betcha" Gunderson, and the supporting cast is every bit as good, particularly William H. Macy (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).
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The cultural eccentricities of the people of Minnesota and the Coens' dark humor are an irresistible combination, winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the film. In discussing Fargo with Ebert, Scorsese said, "I liked the whole picture, because...it's a comedy of manners. It's a movie that once it's on, if it's on television I'll keep watching the whole thing. I get caught up in it."
8 Crash (1996)
This isn't the 2004 Oscar winner from director Paul Haggis. Scorsese is referring to David Cronenberg's Crash, a twisted tale of sexual deviancy from 1996. Cronenberg (The Fly, Crimes of the Future) co-wrote the screenplay about a TV producer (James Spader) who is involved in a serious car accident, only to discover a secretive group of people for whom car crashes have become a sort of fetish. Seriously strange, but also superbly acted, Crash is a disturbing deep dive into the human psyche.
7 Bottle Rocket (1996)
Bottle Rocket not only marked the directorial debut of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), it gave us the Wilson brothers (Luke and Owen), who have become movie stars in their own right.
The film, which follows three shiftless friends who try to pull off the "perfect" robbery and hit the road, is actually a feature-length version of a short the three made together while classmates at the University of Texas. Wes Anderson's quirky humor and signature camera work are already evident here, the first inkling of a career that has seen multiple modern classics and seven Oscar nominations.
6 Breaking the Waves (1996)
Emily Watson's Oscar-nominated performance (in her theatrical debut) is the heart of Lars Von Trier's (Melancholia) drama about a Scottish woman in a remote village who marries an offshore oilman (Stellan Skarsgård). After he is paralyzed in an accident, he insists she continues on with life, setting her off on a path of self-destruction. Breaking the Waves features Von Trier's unique storytelling style, which is likely what caught Scorsese's attention, and the devastating ending will stay with you for a while.
5 Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Bad Lieutenant is a dark, violent NC-17 crime drama starring Harvey Keitel as a corrupt cop who seeks a path to personal redemption while working a case involving the rape of a young nun. Keitel has worked with Scorsese six times, including his directorial feature film debut Who's That Knocking at My Door, and the director considers him one of his favorite actors. Keitel reportedly was so committed to the film, he stayed in character throughout production and improvised many of his lines, providing one of the finest performances of his career.
4 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick's final film was his first project in over a decade, following his Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket. Eyes Wide Shut stars real-life spouses (at the time) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and explores a couple's deteriorating relationship through the husband's one-night odyssey. After a painful admission from his wife (Kidman) that she is unfulfilled and fantasizes about other men, a doctor (Cruise) embarks on a surreal night-long journey of self-exploration and a disturbing realization of the social and sexual depravities of the elite class.
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Filmed under a veil of secrecy, Kubrick had complete creative control of the film, which took well over a year to shoot, resulting in a dark masterpiece completed just four days before his death. Scorsese, a self-professed fan of Kubrick, calls Eyes Wide Shut "a profound film about love, sex, and trust in a marriage, about learning to take things day by day." He also praises Kubrick's cinematic approach, saying, "It's also a film I cherish because it puts you in the authoritative hands of an old master, with a style that flies in the face of every modern convention."
3 A Borrowed Life (1994)
The outstanding Taiwanese film A Borrowed Life, by acclaimed director Nien-Jen Wu, is an autobiographical tribute to his father, a miner who struggled to provide for his family in 1950s Taiwan. The father is partial to the Japanese culture Taiwan embraced for decades, while the son is more familiar with the Chinese way of life after that country took over the island following World War II.
This clash of cultures plays out in a detailed character study, and Scorsese points out, "The camera remains still, it lives with the characters, and it observes their most difficult emotional interactions with a restraint that often becomes painful."
2 The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Thin Red Line is director Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical novel about the war in the Pacific. The film was Malick's first directorial effort in two decades (following Days of Heaven), and features an ensemble big enough and talented enough to fill two epics. Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, and Woody Harrelson star in the film centered around the Battle of Guadalcanal. It's a war film whose voice is not defined by combat, but rather by the quiet interludes between battles. Gene Siskel rates the film higher than the more popular World War II epic released that year, Saving Private Ryan, and Scorsese obviously concurs.
In his comments on the film, Scorsese marvels at Malick's unusual narrative, which is more radical in technique than his. "As you watch it you wonder: What is narrative in movies? Is it everything," he said. "If so, is there only one way to handle it? If Malick had just done a straightforward narrative, could he ever have achieved the kind of poetry he does here, or made a film where you really come to see the world as a primeval place? I don't think so." Though it was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, it didn't win a single one.
1 The Horse Thief (1987)
Scorsese's favorite film of the 1990s was actually from the 1980s. Director Zhuangzhuang Tian's morality tale The Horse Thief was originally released in China in 1986 but didn't receive a wide release in America until the early 1990s when Scorsese and many film critics discovered it.
Set in 1923 Tibet, the film stars Rigzin Tseshang as a member of a clan in a remote mountain region who is caught stealing from their Buddhist temple and banished, along with his wife and child. With his family facing starvation, the thief clings to his faith and attempts to find redemption and acceptance back into the clan.
The film offers very little dialogue, choosing instead to convey its story through stunning imagery and some fantastic performances that elevate above language. Scorsese said, "Horse Thief was a real inspiration to me. It's that rare thing: a genuinely transcendental film."
- 1 'The Wolf of Wall Street' (2013) - 569 F-words.
- 2 'Casino' (1995) - 438 F-words. ...
- 3 'Goodfellas' (1990) - 300 F-words. ...
- 4 'The Departed' (2006) - 237 F-words. ...
- 5 'The Irishman' (2019) - 136 F-words. ...
- 6 'Raging Bull' (1980) - 114 F-words. ...
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What makes him Special? Scorsese always relied on people he can not only trust, but also have likes similar to his own on a personal level, and concerns about carrying out projects that show something new, unique to the viewer. Scorsese builds his entire discourse, the whole adventure, around key pieces of cinema.