The reason that Martin Scorsese has remained the most important and unpredictable American filmmaker currently working is that he makes movies that feature varied, wise questioning of major subjects like faith and violence while also conveying why those subjects are so popular. In Shutter Island, it’s clear that Leonardo DiCaprio’s nerve-wracked detective has lost connection to reality to erase painful memories, and Scorsese both shows the lengths of his madness and the unrelenting terror that those remembrances bring to him. His movies are entertaining without compromising the intellectual backbone of the narrative, which puts him in the same league as artists like David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh.
As fans of his films already know, Scorsese is a fan of classic rock, crooners, and soul music, and his usage of certain songs have become iconic at this point. When The Clash’s immortal “Janie Jones” comes on in Bringing Out the Dead, the immediate cutting and rush of the imagery of New York City streets seems to embody Joe Strummer’s reckless anger and skepticism better than any music video ever did. The same thing with his use of “Gimme Shelter” or Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Scorsese’s best films have the same feeling as these timeless tunes in both their complex political concepts and societal urgency as well as their essential, unyielding entertainment value that can be felt by any viewer.
For those getting ready to start with Scorsese’s filmography, I suggested to start with GoodFellas, The Departed, and Raging Bull, arguably his three most universally admired films. 2006’s The Departed brought him his first Oscar, while nearly every crime film since GoodFellas has more-or-less cribbed ideas wholesale from the masterpiece. After those, to get deeper into his style and variety of tone and texture, I’d go with Taxi Driver, one of the very best films of the 1970s; The Wolf of Wall Street, his wild take on Wall Street culture through the lens of notorious trader Jordan Belfort; and The Last Waltz, the filmmaker’s most well-regarded documentary that chronicles The Band’s last rollicking concert. Finally, following these six major titles, I’d get into less celebrated fair like Bringing Out the Dead and Shutter Island, two great movies that got less love from critics and audiences alike. By the time you get to those titles, however, I can only imagine you’ll rightly want to see everything the man’s ever helmed.