The process of gathering a shortlist of recommended films can be a daunting task when talking about a self-declared cinephile with such a longstanding knowledge about the history of the medium like Martin Scorsese. There’s probably no director dead or alive who has been so vocal about his passionate love for cinema as the Italian American, and after decades worth of interviews and articles recollecting his thoughts, it felt necessary to narrow them down to some extent.
Our primary source for this list comes in the form of an extensive, four-hour long interview carried out by Fast Company in 2012 where Scorsese spoke at length about eighty-five of his all-time favorite movies. Additionally, there’s a 39-movie list personally compiled and sent by the auteur to a young filmmaker called Colin Levy almost a decade ago, in which he intended to provide a solid introduction to the wonders of foreign cinema. At last, we also have all-time rankings such as his ten favorite titles in the Criterion Collection and his top ten films sent for a Sight and Sound poll, plus further interviews with legendary critic Roger Ebert and The Daily Beast.
With no further ado, let’s take a look at ten of Martin Scorsese’s all-time favorite thrillers, from neglected masterpieces to films that served as boundless source of inspiration and could be traced back to his own work.
1. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
From obnoxious stockbrokers and abusive boxers to deranged vets and murderous gangsters, there’s no shortage of troubled antiheroes within Scorsese’s filmography. One of his strengths as a director stems from how he manages to craft multilayered characters that defy a simple label of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but who rather fit into a more nuanced scale of moral greys instead.
It’s easy to get carried away by Scorsese’s energetic storytelling and mistake his films as judgements of character. Far from endorsing their heinous acts, his films are not as interested in preachy moral takeaways as they are in laying out the whole picture, both the good and the ugly, of their three-dimensional characters.
Directed by Paul Schrader, the same man who penned Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation of Christ, comes this sweeping biography of Yukio Mishima, one of the most controversial but influential Japanese writers of the past century. The movie approaches a figure clouded by ardent nationalism and a profound connection with art as a form of expression, through a brilliant retelling of his life and demise intermixed with segments from his literary works.
The result is a visually stunning and poignant epic that was rightfully regarded by Scorsese as a ‘deeply inspiring masterpiece’ and one of his 85 essential viewings listed during his lengthy interview for Fast Company.
2. Ace in the Hole (1951)
By any means, this movie was ahead of its time. As a razor-sharp hit piece on the predatory sensationalism that corrupts journalism, Billy Wilder’s classic is closer to modern thrillers like Lumet’s Network or Gilroy’s Nightcrawler than it is to any of its contemporaries. Scorsese highlighted how modern a reporter Chuck Tatum (brought to life by the great Kirk Douglas) is, in that “he’ll do anything to get the story, to make up the story! He risks not only his reputation, but also the life of this guy who’s trapped in the mine”.
The movie follows a morally rotten journalist who exploits a fortuitous accident near the outskirts of Albuquerque for his own gain, creating a media circus around it with no regard for the victim’s survival. Scorsese cited it among his 85 essential films during his interview for Fast Company, noticing how “tough and brutal” Billy Wilder was in its cynicism and attributing the movie’s dark themes to its sudden death at the box office.
Wilder, one of the brightest directors to ever pick up a camera, received countless praise from Martin Scorsese throughout the years. Marty lauded him as “our last great link to the old classic Hollywood cinema” and met the Vienna-born legend for the last time in 1998.
3. The Player (1992)
It’s hard not to think about Robert Altman with the recent controversy that’s emerged between Martin Scorsese and the army of corporate apologists who took to heart his voiced opinion against studios’ risk-averse business model that currently favors creatively bankrupt sequels and written-by-committee scripts. The rift between a legend who champions auteurism and artistic integrity and those who worship media conglomerates and box office monopolies is a cultural war years in the making.
Robert Altman knows a thing or two about Hollywood’s rotten principles, being blacklisted himself for over two decades before coming back in style with this unapologetic satire on the entertainment business. The Player follows an insufferable studio producer who starts receiving death threats from an anonymous screenwriter who he recently rejected. This kickstarts a self-aware witch hunt that’s deliberately presented to challenge our preconceptions of the film industry and take a good jab at Hollywood’s formulaic system that ostracizes creativity and talent.
Scorsese mentioned The Player among his 85 essential films for Fast Company, claiming that all the narrative approaches that Altman experimented throughout the years culminated with this movie and “took him onto a whole other level”.
4. Death by Hanging (1968)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more thought-provoking film than this political thriller courtesy of Japanese master Nagisa Ōshima, featured in Martin Scorsese’s shortlist of 39 essential foreign movies. Death by Hanging is an open letter against capital punishment and oppression, raging with the sense of urgency of a movie trying to erase decades-worth of prejudice and blind imperialism.
The premise of the story is fairly straightforward; a Korean man is sentenced to death and hung by Japanese officials, with the twist that he survives his own execution, losing all his memories and identity in the process. The movie swiftly shifts from a playful legal drama to a full-blown thesis on self-identity, chauvinism and the vicious cycle of hate that has clouded modern Japan.
As “R”, the Korean prisoner, gradually pieces together his past, he finds that neither of the preconceived ideas pitched by the hateful Japanese officials truly define him. Considering himself neither a foreign intruder nor a righteous martyr, it’s only when he realizes how shallow and arbitrary concepts like ‘nation’ are that he’s able to find his own self; by refusing to be killed by the same abstraction that led him to a life of misfortune.
5. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Back when he was a young filmmaker making his way through the New York indie scene, one director showed Scorsese the ropes like no other; the great John Cassavetes. Not only was he a direct inspiration to his gritty underground style, but he helped him with his scripts, let him sleep at one of his shooting locations and gave him an assistant sound editor’s credit for one of his movies.
Simply put, there’d be no Scorsese without John Cassavetes. To this day, Scorsese deeply admires what he meant to him and to American cinema. As Marty puts it, “Cassavetes wiped away the old vocabulary of doing films and exemplified independence in doing what he felt and what was in his heart, always looking for some kind of truth, maybe even a revelation”. He refers to him as “fearless renegade that embodied the emergence of a new school of guerrilla filmmaking in NY”.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie follows a charming nightclub owner who runs into trouble with some local loan sharks after falling into debt in one of his degenerate gambling sprees. As is the case with the rest of his work, Chinese Bookie puts us in the shoes of a dysfunctional character embroiled in an almost unbearable scenario. Similarly to Scorsese, Cassavetes’ characters were deliberately problematic, morally ambiguous and deeply flawed, but also infinitely relatable, in an attempt to force the viewers to, if not pity, at least sympathize with them.