Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest, most influential, and most renowned directors in cinema history. He’s best known for his gangster movies, but has touched multiple genres—from controversial films like The Last Temptation of Christ to whimsical movies like Hugo.
Due to my personal tastes, most of my favorite Martin Scorsese movies belong to the crime and thriller genres, where Scorsese’s talents truly shine. The intense and extreme subject matters allow for themes and performances that just aren’t possible in many other genres.
True, most of his movies involve horrible people doing horrible things, but Martin Scorsese’s brilliant mastery of storytelling and refined sense of direction will draw you in and have you revisiting his films, characters, and thematic explorations time and time again.
Narrowing down his long and diverse career as a movie director is a tough task, but I’m going to give it a shot. Here are the best Martin Scorsese movies that you need to watch.
Honestly, Casino feels a lot like Scorsese was trying to recapture the magic of Goodfellas but ultimately came up short. There might be a handful of iconic scenes in this classic movie, but the overall film just doesn’t work as well as it should have.
In between some great scenes and performances, we witness the rare occurrence of both De Niro and Scorsese falling a little flat. Joe Pesci as a humorous psychopath is fun to watch, but the character is basically the same guy he played in Goodfellas.
Casino is also 3 hours long compared to Goodfellas‘ 2.5-hour runtime, and you definitely feel it. You may glance at your watch a few times.
But despite all these flaws, Casino is a great movie and deservedly a classic. It may not live up to some of Scorsese’s other masterpiece films, but when compared against all other movies of the genre, it’s abundantly clear that Casino still ranks among the best.
8. Mean Streets
Mean Streets features the same elements that made Goodfellas such a masterpiece, but we can see that Scorsese was still figuring out how to do his thing as far as dialogue and pacing. His unique style is on full display here, but it’s rough around the edges.
The improvisational approach to dialogue in Goodfellas lent to the natural feel of conversations, but it was always deliberate and served the scene and overall story. The actors and Scorsese practiced just the right amount of discipline and restraint.
With Mean Streets, the dialogue is too loose—even meandering and aimless at times. The montage scenes of barroom drinking to classic 60s music drag on long after you’ve gotten the point.
Still, Mean Streets has plenty of great performances and memorable scenes. It also looks fantastic, as Scorsese movies almost always do. With this movie, you can see the unrefined version of elements that would come to define Scorsese’s later movies.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a non-stop circus of greed-induced hedonistic excess and depravity—and it’s as funny as it is awful.
It’s a wild ride from start to finish, the kind that you invariably feel guilty for enjoying so much. It implicates you as a willing accomplice to its crimes, yet you can’t stop watching and you don’t want to admit how much fun it is.
Unlike many of Scorsese’s other movies, the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street are not killers—but they may be responsible for harming more innocent people than even his most murderous characters.
It’s an unflinching look at the kind of corruption that’s encouraged and rewarded by our financial systems, and it never bothers to moralize at any point. It shows how these guys had a great time while causing misery, and facing little to no consequences in the end.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a gross tale that Scorsese beautifully captures in what’s an undeniably entertaining film.
6. The Irishman
The Irishman is the most reserved of Scorsese’s gangster movies. The subdued tone and careful pace are appropriate to its story—that of an elderly gangster reflecting on his life of violence and criminality.
Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a hitman who works as a bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa and ultimately ends up killing him.
The story is told by an elderly Sheeran from a retirement home. His family wants nothing to do with him. Most of his friends and colleagues have met a violent end, some by his own hand.
Having committed one of the highest-profile killings in American history, Sheeran is left with nothing but regrets in the end. The Irishman is a long movie at 3.5 hours, but it’s absolutely worth the time for any serious Scorsese fan.
5. The Departed
The Departed is worth the watch for Jack Nicholson’s terrifying performance alone.
But add in all the other top-notch acting talent on display—including DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, and more—as they chew up their scenes packed full of Scorsese’s masterful tough-guy banter? You end up with a movie that any fan of the crime genre would be crazy to miss.
The Departed is a modern classic for many reasons, and Martin Scorsese knocked this one out of the park. The setup, the buildup, the explosive climax that’ll catch anyone off guard—it’s all masterfully done in a way that maximizes tension and emotional punch.
The King of Comedy hasn’t retained the same level of notoriety that Scorsese’s other movies have managed through the decades. And that’s a real shame, since The King of Comedy is a fantastic movie that should be far more well-known to modern audiences than it is.
It centers on an ambitious comic who fails to attain the fame he so desperatedly wants. That drives him to kidnap his idol and steal the spotlight for himself. This pointed examination of celebrity worship and entertainment culture is as valid today as it was in 1983.
3. Raging Bull
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It’s a hard call to make, but Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull might be Robert De Niro’s greatest acting performance of all time. His other Scorsese roles provide stiff competition, but his commitment in this movie is impressive and undeniable.
He truly transforms into the character of LaMotta, far beyond his gaining 60 pounds after maintaining a fighting weight throughout most of the movie. He becomes this character more completely than he’s ever done in any other immersive role of his.
I forget I’m watching Robert De Niro when I watch Raging Bull. He’s an entirely other person on the screen. This incredible transformation is a rare treat to see, and much of it can be attributed to Scorsese.
2. Taxi Driver
Few movies capture the grime and menace of 1970s New York quite like Taxi Driver. The haunting saxophone-centric jazz score, the night-time rain-wet streets, the low lighting that somehow accentuates both shadows and neon signs…
All of these elements combine to create an atmosphere that has influenced countless movies since. The impact of this film on broader cinema and culture to this day can’t be understated, making it a clear contender for one of Martin Scorsese’s best movies of all time.
Next to The Godfather and Scarface, Goodfellas is the most iconic and well-known gangster movie of all time.
In Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese took the styles, techniques, and unique approach to conversational dialogue that he pioneered in his earlier New York mafioso films and honed them to new levels.
This masterful demonstration of narrative expertise centers on the rise and fall of a small-time gangster turned FBI informant. And as much as this film has to say regarding its themes, Goodfellas is just downright fun to watch and rewatch.
While most other well-respected gangster movies tend to be slower-paced and overly serious, Martin Scorsese makes sure that Goodfellas never lets off the gas and remains full of laughs all the way through.