Director Martin Scorsese has made a good career out of depicting some very bad men in movies. After last directing the divisive cocaine-fueled business epic The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013 and the upcoming religious drama Silence, the famed filmmaker will look to continue that streak with The Irishman. The long-in-development adaptation of author Charles Brandt’s book entitled I Heard You Paint Houses was written by Scorsese’s Gangs of New York screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and tracks the life of labor union official and real-life mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who allegedly killed iconic Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa.
Besides the fact that The Irishman will be the first collaboration between Scorsese and actor Al Pacino. It also marks the tenth time Scorcese has worked Robert De Niro and the first time since 2008’s Righteous Kill that both Pacino and De Niro will be in the same production. The Irishman will be another Scorsese mob movie, which means it’ll feature some dynamic camera moves, at least one Rolling Stones song on the soundtrack, ironic voiceover, and lots and lots of people getting whacked. But it also has a good chance of being one of Scorsese’s best. He is, after all, the auteur of organized crime, and here’s the list to prove it.
6. Gangs of New York
Scorsese’s 2002 $100 million period epic — the first time he’s work with actor Leonardo DiCaprio — about the groups of nationalist and immigrant gangs that roamed New York’s Five Points in the 1800s is a glorious mess. It’s awash in gorgeously decrepit production design depicting mid-19th century lower Manhattan, and Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as Leo’s kinda-enemy, kinda-best bud Bill the Butcher is the highlight of the whole movie. But a muddled ending and a woefully miscast Cameron Diaz pushes the ranking of this movie way down in terms of Scorsese’s other sharper movies in his mob-based oeuvre. Think of Gangs of New York as a kind of prequel to all the other sympathetic organized crime stories about the personal stakes of breaking the law Scorsese has told over the years and it becomes a better movie. But as is it’s relatively lacking.
This 1995 film unfortunately suffers from being so similar to Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas that it might as well have been called Goodfellas 2: Las Vegas Nights. Pick De Niro’s character up from that movie and plot him down as a wheeler and dealer in Vegas and voila, you have Casino. It also doesn’t help that the movie was based on Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, the book by author Nicholas Pileggi whose other book called Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family provided the source material for Goodfellas. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and that’s probably what Scorsese’s plan was when he jumped into making Casino. This movie doesn’t have characters, it has tropes, and De Niro and Joe Pesci’s rival best friends are really there just to service the mayhem, which admittedly looks like a hell of a lot of fun. Go for the manic Scorsese style, stay for Sharon Stone’s standout performance as De Niro’s damaged wife.
4. The Departed
The director’s most award-winning movie is still somehow towards the bottom of the list. Granted, what’s relatively thought of as Scorsese’s worst is still better than everyone’s best on a good day. The Departed is still good — definitely Best Picture good — but it’s still somehow disconnected from the personal in-roads that make Scorsese’s other mob movies resonate more. Maybe it’s because The Departed is based on a 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, which takes away a bit of Scorsese’s auteurist ownership of the story, or maybe it’s the Irish mob Boston setting that makes it land clumsily when compared to the hits. It does, however, have the best twist on one of the key themes of Scorsese’s mob movies: family. Namely, Jack Nicholson’s incomparably twisted mob boss father surrogate to both Matt Damon’s fake cop and Leonardo DiCaprio’s fake mobster.
3. Raging Bull
Raging Bull is not a boxing movie. There is boxing in the movie, and the main character is a boxer, but it is not a boxing movie. Scorsese’s 1980 black and white classic is more about the balletic yet totally destructive dissolution of a human being than it is about a sport where two people pummel each other until a bell of one kind or another rings. Nothing more can be said about De Niro’s outstanding method performance as middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, but the character’s pride in standing up to forces out of his control, particularly the local mob racket of fixing fights, is the core of LaMotta’s self-destructive descent. While there may not be tough guys whacking each other in the movie, Raging Bull ranks up there in terms of the way Scorsese subverts the genres expected of him.
2. Mean Streets
The most personal film the filmmaker has ever made, Mean Streets is like taking a time machine back to Scorsese’s childhood even if he was never personally involved in the mob. This 1973 movie, featuring longtime Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel as an ambitious young mobster trying to work his way up the neighborhood crime totem pole, is what put both the director and co-star Robert De Niro into the spotlight. Like Raging Bull, the emphasis isn’t squarely on the mob but the individual caught up in it, Keitel’s character Charlie is perhaps the most likeable fractured gangsters in cinema history. He just wants to do good for himself, his friends, and his girl even if it’ll tear his entire world apart. Hugely influential to a variety of filmmakers working today including everyone from Richard Linklater, to Spike Lee, to Quentin Tarantino, to Wes Anderson, and beyond.
Where Mean Streets skews towards Scorsese’s own experience, Goodfellas (probably) runs in the complete opposite direction. The directors energized take on Pileggi’s source material has become some so ingrained in contemporary filmmaking that it spawned a movie that rips it off wholesale: the 2001 drug drama Blow. Its narrative may be as removed as Casino but Ray Liotta’s sympathetic convict character grounds the movie into a place where you forget youre rooting for a cold-blooded killer. It has all the right ingredients; Goodfellas is oft-imitated but never bettered.