The Fifty Best Living Directors

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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1. Martin Scorsese

Born: 1942, Queens, N.Y.
Crowning Achievement: Raging Bull (1980)
He’s the name most likely dropped by aspiring film students as their role model, the Oscar-winning (finally!) American master crusading to save museum film programs and rescue deteriorating reels of rare classics, the burly-browed motormouth who spoofs himself in American Express commercials and inspired Rob Reiner’s loving caricature of him as rock documentarian Marty DiBergi in This Is Spinal Tap. And, yeah, he’s shot at least one movie—1980’s Raging Bull—that is damn near perfect.

As the art form of the 20th century radically transforms in the face of the new millennium and its emerging technologies, the asthmatic Catholic boy who once abandoned the seminary for the silver screen looks more and more like cinema’s greatest hero.

He’s one of the good fellas, an artist whose devotion to the medium flickers with the awestruck majesty of movies at their most epic, old-fashioned peak. He seems to have swallowed film history whole, from D.W. Griffith to Roberto Rossellini to Michael Powell to Elia Kazan to John Cassavetes. Biographers latch onto his sickly childhood spent hooked on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie, and captivated by Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. The young Marty may have been too fragile for the fisticuffs that were as natural as breathing in the Italian-American neighborhoods that nurtured him. But an obsessive self-schooling in swords, sandals and Cinemascope fired an ambition and imagination that would translate the elemental intensity of his immediate world into the visceral images, staccato verbal riffage and shattering emotional themes of his movies.

Coming of age in the 1960s and beginning his real career in the 1970s, Scorsese belonged to the generation of directors who would eventually have the same impact on American film that Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut had in Paris in the late 1950s, when they broke every imaginable rule of French cinema. Scorsese put his signature on New York stories: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—a trilogy so potent that people now probably forget he got a leg up with Roger Corman (Boxcar Bertha) and was a feminist-for-hire with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which won Ellyn Burstyn an Oscar. New York, New York would indirectly do even more for the career of Frank Sinatra (who Scorsese is soon to consider on film, says the Internet Movie Database, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Ol’ Blue Eyes). The Last Waltz may be the most cherished concert documentary ever made, a farewell not only to The Band, but ostensibly to the 1960s as a whole (although he has since cirlced back, time and again).

Regardless, the director’s Big Three pictures remain central to his legacy, partly thanks to Robert DeNiro’s coiled and crackling presence of at the core of each. Scorsese’s alter ego, playing off of regulars like Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, is a lightning rod for violence and self-destruction; whether as doomed punk Johnny Boy, psychopathic would-be assassin Travis Bickle or animalistic boxing champ Jake LaMotta, De Niro gives urgent, bruising performances that decimate the screen. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s camerawork and editing do as much to keep the pace in the grimy, neon noir of Taxi Driver’s Times Square as in the luminous black-and-white of Raging Bull’s 1940s Bronx. Guilt, loss, trauma, loyalty, betrayal, psychological and physical torture, bloodshed and redemption are all part of a machismo that can’t easily articulate itself in words—“You talkin’ to me?”—but nonetheless succeeds through dialogue as forceful, and painful, as a bare-knuckled punch.

Critics and audiences will debate all that Scorsese has given us since (which includes the new 1950s thriller Shutter Island, starring DiCaprio, his recent leading-man of choice), but the guts and vitality never left Scorsese’s pictures, even those that don’t immediately come to mind. Sometimes it’s more revealing to gauge a director by efforts thought to be less essential. The King of Comedy One of Scorsese’s very best, a stupendously cracked meditation on the nature of celebrity, and a natural sequel to Taxi Driver, with the oddest ménage a trois imaginable: De Niro, Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis, all playing it straight. The Color of Money. A key entry in the canon of Paul Newman’s “lion-in-winter” portrayals, and a scene (set to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”) that harnesses a hyper Tom Cruise with choreographic zeal. After Hours? A satirical anatomy of downtown Manhattan in the Slaves of New York era that has the sly glimmer of Bunuel—and an amazing moment with Verna Bloom. Cape Fear> De Niro, once again a menace to society, able to strike terror with four nonsense syllables: fee-fi-fo-fum. And how about Gangs of New York? A messy disappointment, but absolutely brutal commitment from Daniel Day-Lewis—with the martial mojo of Othar Turner’s Rising Star Fire & Drum Band rumbling through the soundtrack.

Even when Scorsese isn’t striking major chords, he has reached a level of mastery that can elevate almost any ordinary moment to what cornballs call “movie magic.” Goodfellas, the 1990 mob saga that is arguably Scorsese’s most enduringly popular film, blasted through the viewer’s consciousness much like the endless cocaine bumps that turned rising wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) into a jittery paranoid fiend. The movie gives you an exhilarating contact high and then faceplants you smack into Hill’s deflated reality as a gangster forced to change identities and start life anew as a total Joe Schmoe. Perhaps this is all a flashback to the director’s troubled spell after making The Last Waltz, when he was nearly consumed by his own addiction. And maybe that’s why Goodfellas’ showstoppers feel so fully visceral: the elegant, extended tracking shot in the nightclub, the manic “Monkey Man” montage.

Scorsese’s love of rock ’n’ roll, blues and vintage American pop pulses through his films. He’s made concert movies concussive with technique (Shine a Light, with the Rolling Stones) and encyclopedic documentaries (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) which will stand as the definitive word. His narrative films are sometimes such relentless jukeboxes—The Departed, Casino—that it feels like overkill. Yeah, man, I love “Layla,” too, but can I just sit back without all the rock-historical resonance and enjoy this moment with Jack Nicholson and that severed hand in the Ziploc baggie?

Then again, nah! C’mon, it’s Marty. No way do you get to sit back and study on anything. He’s reaching out with both hands and dragging you head-first into all the tension and chaos and blood and glory his characters are experiencing. And when it’s all done, you’re going to be rattled and shaken and really, really alive.

Again and again, Scorsese returns to the elemental American stories; mythologies written in the blood of immigrants and their children, and framed through the prism of film history. No other living director’s catalog is as complete, or could read so compellingly as visual literature. Maybe the notion of the Great American Novel has long gone out the window because it was such a concept of the ’50s and ’60s—the eras that shaped Scorsese—but one day we will see the passionate totality of his work for what it really is: some of the finest literature of our time, penned on celluloid. Steve Dollar