With the release of his latest opus Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese has entered his seventh decade of filmmaking. Although he’s known primarily for his gangster films and large-scale (and long! Killers of the Flower Moon is 206 minutes!) epics, many might be surprised by the extent of his career: Oscar winners, documentaries, short films, remakes – he’s even the star of TikToks now.  

But those just getting into his filmography need to start with the most important entries. Thus, here is the latest edition of 5 Essential Movies


Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese had some critical and commercial successes at the beginning of his career, but it was the rough cut of Mean Streets (1973) that convinced the folks behind Taxi Driver that Marty was the man for the job*. It went on to be his biggest hit to that point, grossing nearly $30 million on a budget of just under $2 million while garnering four Oscar nominations.

Taxi Driver has become ubiquitous in our pop culture. Taxi Driver posters live next to Scarface posters which live next to Animal House posters in dorm rooms across the country. Also, the critically acclaimed Joker (2019) is just a Taxi Driver ripoff. The film has become so ingrained within our psyches that we kind of forget the craft and artistry in the filmmaking until we watch it a second or third or fourth time. Every shot, every frame, every moment is developed to make you feel uneasy. You never feel comfortable as you follow Travis Bickle, the lonely Vietnam vet turned taxi driver who feels a need to clean up the “scum” and “filth” of ’70s Manhattan. Even when things are calm or seem to be going alright for Travis, you always feel like you shouldn’t be there to witness the things you see him do or hear him say. You know throughout the entire movie that it has to end badly, because Scorsese never lets you off the hook. Add in Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and you’ve got a masterpiece of alienation and disillusionment – Scorsese’s first masterpiece … at just 33 years old.

*And that De Niro was the guy to play Travis Bickle.


Raging Bull (1980)

I contemplated leaving Raging Bull off this list because I already wrote about it in 5 Essential Boxing Movies, but it just didn’t feel right. It’s so important to Scorsese’s career trajectory. 

Taxi Driver was a smash, but New York, New York (1977) was a box-office bomb. Since Hollywood is such a fickle place, Scorsese was already on the outskirts again by ’78. In response, he turned to drugs and fell into a depression. 

He needed Raging Bull, but it’s made by a guy who almost doesn’t know that. After a commercial flop, why would you make a black-and-white movie with (aside from De Niro) relatively unknown actors about a sport you don’t care about? But damn if Marty doesn’t know how to make a movie, and he pulls it all off. After earning Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Oscars (De Niro won Best Actor), he was back on top. Too bad his next movie was The King of Comedy (1982), a movie the critics hated


GoodFellas (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” begins the most essential of Scorsese’s crime epics. That’s the narration of Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, whom you will watch for the next 145 minutes in what is the rise and fall of the American gangster.

The biggest criticism of Scorsese’s work is that he glorifies violence (the film opens with the murder of a man thought to already be dead, bleeding out in the trunk of a car as he is transported to his makeshift grave). His devotees argue that his work could never glorify such immoral behavior, and that he instead uses his subjects to question our very humanity.

That very well may be true (it is), but on my most recent re-watch, I couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be to be a gangster! I can see why Ray Liotta would want to hang out with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro all the time! Front row seats at the Copacabana, you know a guy for everything, all the spaghetti you can eat and wine you can drink, cops in your back pocket, Saturday for the wives but Friday for the girlfriends, more money than you can spend – it’s awesome! Sure, your life’s work is futile and there’s a ticking clock on your inevitable premature death, but don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

As long as you understand that these are badfellas who do badthings, it’s okay to wish that you could also hang out with Joe Pesci.


The Departed (2006)

Is The Departed essential Scorsese? It’s a personal favorite, and I’d be willing to argue it’s Scorsese’s best, but I’m largely alone on that one. On paper, it doesn’t seem to have much that doesn’t appear somewhere in his other work. It’s a 150-plus minute crime epic, it has an all-star cast, it’s got a Rolling Stones needle-drop…

But it is essential because it’s Scorsese’s first (and only) Oscar win for Best Director. At the time (2006 – a notably lightweight year for “Oscar” cinema), it was awarded to him just like Tommy Lee Jones’ win for The Fugitive, almost like a Lifetime Achievement Award. “This isn’t your best work, but you don’t have one of these yet and there’s no time like the present when it comes to giving you one.” Almost like the exclamation point of a long and tumultuous, yet celebrated and provocative career. Little did they know that Scorsese, who was 64 in 2006, was nowhere near the end.


Hugo (2011)

I know that you want me to put The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) in the final spot.

I understand. It’s a masterpiece, and I would definitely argue that it’s one of his five (maybe 3?) best movies. But this isn’t a list of best movies and I can’t find much in Wolf that isn’t present in his other films. At a certain point, this would just be a list of the same five movies on every other list. 

Hugo is the film he made before Wolf. It’s a peculiar entry in his career, largely because it’s a children’s film. But it needs to be here for one main reason: it’s about movies and loving movies. It’s the story of a kid who discovers (and falls in love with) the work of George Méliès, one of cinema’s earliest pioneers. 

Who better to tell that story than Martin Scorsese? The guy whose IMDB page lists 73 directorial credits. The guy with a ridiculously diverse resume, from ’60s and ’70s New Hollywood to making movies for Netflix and Apple to critical successes to commercial bombs to concert films (many consider The Last Waltz (1978) to be the greatest concert film ever) to television pilots to three-hour long documentaries. The guy who has been a groundbreaker in film restoration and preservation since he founded The Film Foundation in 1990. The guy who created The World Cinema Project in 2007 to preserve underfunded films from around the globe. 

The guy that makes movies because he really loves movies.

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