MoviesA Comprehensive Review of TIFF’s Scorsese: A Retrospective

dannythemoviemanJanuary 16, 2020

I had the massive pleasure of attending TIFF’s recently finished retrospective on the directorial works of Martin Scorsese, mainly in honor of the release of The Irishman. Unfortunately, I only got to see about half of the films screened for the retrospective, but in reflection of the fantastic event and in anticipation of the coming retrospective on his documentary work, this was still a good place to start. Going in order of films viewed, below are notes on the viewing experience, a brief review and rating, and their significance among Scorsese’s work for each respective film, ending with a conclusive ranking of the films from best to worst at the end of the article.

Film 1: The Departed

Notes: Viewed on December 20th, 2019, 8:35pm in cinema 3. 35mm presentation in near mint condition.

Review: Although there’s so many unique qualities in The Departed, it’s hard to come up with a conclusive reason as to what makes it stand out so much – it just does. It is vicious, probably is the most violent Scorsese film I’ve seen and one with the highest body count. Most of his films in this genre are New York set films about Italian mobsters, but this Boston set film about Irish mobsters might be his most complex in terms of how the characters are written. In addition, the “everybody is connected” structure that gets the law more involved than ever in his films doesn’t have the saturation that’s in the concept itself. The winner of Scorsese’s only best picture Oscar, and deservedly so – this is an extremely intricate, captivating, hilarious film – and absolutely the best crime saga he’s done to this date.

Rating: 91%

What Made It Stand Out? Without a doubt, The Departed is Scorsese’s most vicious film – the violence and overall griminess are off the charts. Almost every character that’s introduced in the film dies at some point, and a lot of blood is shed by the end. However, the way it’s balanced with a tone that isn’t too heavy and surprisingly quite funny allowed it to remain in my thoughts throughout the rest of the retrospective.

Film 2: Hugo

Notes: Viewed on December 21st, 2019, 3:30pm in cinema 3.

This was a stunning digital 3D presentation of the film, some of its best use I’ve ever seen. Stereographer Demetri Portelli, who worked on the effects for Hugo as well as films like Gemini Man and 47 Ronin, gave a wonderfully informative lecture before the film. Portelli broke down what his occupation while recapping his experience working on the film – and with Scorsese. Definitely one of the highlights of the retrospective.

Review: Hugo doesn’t have the endless sense of captivation that many of Scorsese’s other films do, but it still holds up decently well. It views extremely well as a love letter to cinema as a whole and the films that inspired Scorsese to get into this industry in the first place – and that charm is endlessly present. However, it becomes abundantly clear how he is out of his wheelhouse and its charm isn’t the same that makes his other films work so well. While it’s undeniably cute and entertaining, this is one of his weaker works. It’s still great, it just feels like it’s missing what I love about his films so much.

Rating: 70%

What Made It Stand Out? To this day, Hugo is the only family oriented film Scorsese has made, but in it’s entirety, it still feels very much like him – even without the cussing and violence that generally comes with his film. It’s also the only 3D film Scorsese has made to this day and it stands out as one of the best 3D viewing experiences I’ve ever had.

Film 3: Shutter Island

Notes: Viewed on December 21st, 2019, 6:10pm in cinema 2. Digital Presentation.

Review: The other film that was part of his early 2010s series of unconventional choices, Scorsese directed this brilliant mystery thriller that feels like it was directed by anyone but him – but in the best possible way. With Shuttler Island, he brings a lot of ideas that aren’t present in his other films, and bends your mind with every passing second in a way one would expect from someone like Christopher Nolan. Equal parts classic feeling and wholly revolutionary in it’s concepts, this is a flawed film – but it’s one that no retrospective on Scorsese can feel right without.

Rating: 80%

What Made It Stand Out? Scorsese’s films generally follow a very simple structure and are quite character driven, but in a good way. The films that use simplicity are some of his best. However, the fact that this is his biggest mindf*ck stands out quite significantly. He definitely has a knack for that kind of storytelling, based on the quality of this film. Shuttler Island is a film that’ll leave you questioning it’s meaning for days, which is quite admirable – considering it’s his only film that attempts to do that – and succeeds.

Film 4: The Wolf of Wall Street

Notes: Viewed on December 22nd, 2019, 3:45pm in cinema 3. 4K Digital Presentation.

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most commercially successful film, and the one that most people think of when Scorsese’s name is brought up. After it’s original theatrical release however, a decent amount of people, me included, were put off by how much more substantially graphic it was compared to his other films. However, upon this rewatch, this film worked brilliantly. The balance between satire and neutrality here is outstanding, and the Scorsese’s subtlety with how the audience is supposed to view the film is truly special. Whether you view it as a satirical film, a party movie or just a traditional crime film, The Wolf of Wall Street has as much energy as it’s coked up main character – and if you’re okay with the subject matter, you’re in for a wild ride (I don’t even know who I’m aiming this part to, everyone’s seen this at this point!).

Rating: 90%

What Made It Stand Out? Currently standing at number three among films featuring the most F-bombs, this isn’t the only reason for this film’s excess. Everything about it is graphic to the point that one can’t help but wonder how this escaped without a NC-17 rating. However, Scorsese still manages to direct all this insanity with grace, in a way that never feels gratuitous. The Wolf of Wall Street is simultaneously an extremely effective indictment of such rowdy behavior, but is consistently light and entertaining – and that balance speaks to the directorial talent of Scorsese.

Film 5: Silence

Notes: Viewed on December 22nd, 2019. 7:15pm in cinema 3. 4K Digital Presentation.

Review: At the time of it’s release, the muted reaction to Silence was confusing – I had figured a Scorsese film with such a big cast and promising seeming visuals would have got much more attention. However, after seeing it, it makes quite a bit of sense – as it’s definitely the most inaccessible film I saw during the retrospective. It’s a truly melancholy and meditative film, but it’s simultaneously so harrowing and tough to watch because of the things that happen to these characters simply for wanting to practice their religion. It’s long, and it could’ve been executed in a much more subtle way, but it’s undeniably powerful and immersive.

Rating: 72%

What Made It Stand Out? Silence is violent and aggressive like many other of Scorsese’s films, but it balances those with a melancholy tone so well. Through all of the extremely disturbing and upsetting events that occur in the film, it has a calm and mediating feel. Scorsese is a master at balance – and how he balances the disturbing nature of this film with a complete lack of stress for the audience is fascinating.

Film 6: Casino

Notes: Viewed on December 23rd, 2019, 3:45pm in cinema 3. Digital Presentation.

Review: When it comes to the endless list of Scorsese’s mob based films, Casino is his strongest. Scorsese is known for his indictment-founded tales of gangsters, showcasing some of their poor decisions and their respective falls because of their flaws. However, Casino shines because of how brilliantly written the characters are. Having Sam Rothstein’s personality being strongly heroic adds an emotional layer to a familiar story, leading to a truly strong emotional connection. You’ve heard all the praise for his other mob films, and without regurgitating that, this one is truly more special than the others due to the true emotions that is felt.

Rating: 88%

What Made It Stand Out? One of the more traditional Scorsese mob films, Casino is still quite aggressive, but it has one of his most likable characters. Rothstein is quite an agreeable man and is actually very easy to root for, but he just gets thrust into a wrong situation and gets involved with the wrong type of people. None of Scorsese’s other crime films have that emotional layer, and it’s part of why this works so well.

Film 7: The Last Waltz

Notes: Viewed on December 23rd, 2019, 7:45pm in cinema 3 and for a second time on January 1st, 2020 at 4:00pm in cinema 3 as well. Digital Presentation for both.

The screening on January 1st was the only sold out showing I attended, surprisingly enough.

Review: The Last Waltz is not only my favorite film I saw in the retrospective or my favorite film Scorsese has ever done, it’s my favorite film of all time. On paper, it may seem that concert films are easier to make than narrative films but this cannot be further from the truth. In Scorsese’s case, this was the last time The Band would ever perform together and this was his last shot to make it perfect. Not only does he capture music and performance in an outstanding way, it also feels personal, intimate and emotional. His choices regarding how he films the performance make for the most immersive cinematic experiences I’ve ever had, but it positions the audience in a way where the emotion is felt. Regardless, if you’ve never heard of The Band or you’re their biggest fan, you feel like you are a part of it all – and that is the most powerful thing a film can do. I can go on forever with this, but truly this is an experience that can only be encapsulated by fully viewing it.

Rating: 100%

What Made It Stand Out? Although Scorsese has always been most known for his crime sagas, The Last Waltz initiated something new for him to be known for – the rock doc. The man has made films on the world renowned likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and The Rolling Stones. Even though The Band may undeservedly be the least prolific group he’s covered, this is where it all started – where he proved he had an eye for musical performance, and how to film it like a master.

Film 8: After Hours

Notes: Viewed on December 25th, 2019 at 9:30pm in cinema 3. 35mm presentation in pretty solid shape.

Review: With this and The Last Waltz, it is quite interesting that my two favorite Scorsese films are the two that are talked about the least. After Hours is Scorsese’s narrative masterpiece. Even with its low budget and small scale, something about this feels more grand than anything else Scorsese’s made. Similarly to The Last Waltz, this is a film that can’t be done justice with just words on a page – it’s a film that needs to be seen to be believed. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single thing I can write about the film’s context that won’t spoil this wild ride. This was a non-stop, full throttle thrill ride that doesn’t leave your mind wandering for even a fraction of a second. With one of the best ensembles Scorsese’s ever worked with, likely his funniest script and his fastest pacing, After Hours is impossible not to fall in love with – and will leave you thinking about it’s insane spiral of events for weeks on end.

Rating: 97%

What Made It Stand Out? Many of Scorsese’s films are long, slow burn character studies, and even though there’s some heavy stuff going on in this film, it feels like his easiest watch. Clocking in as the shortest movie on this list, After Hours showed that he has a knack for pacing, showcasing his ability to direct any type of story structure with ease. This also emphasizes how fantastically he uses the city of New York in his films – considering how low budget this film is, the way that it portrays the city with such an insane scope truly showcases his love for the city.

Film 9: Gangs of New York

Notes: Viewed on December 30th, 2019 at 6:30pm in cinema 3. Digital Presentation.

Review: To be frank, Gangs of New York is easily the worst film I saw during the retrospective. It isn’t horrid by any means, but something about it just feels off and strange when grouped together with the rest of the films on this list. It definitely stands out in such a crowded group of great films, but not for the greatest of reasons. This was definitely an ambitious project for Scorsese, who hadn’t yet tackled a mix of period piece and crime film before, but this felt way too unlike him to feel great. There’s fantastic performances, costumes and production design, all of which contribute to making it feel authentic, but it’s just way too slow and way too weird for it’s own good.

Rating: 62%

What Made It Stand Out? This is a pretty effortless comment, but Gangs of New York stands out as his strangest movie? This may partially be for the wrong reasons, but it’s hard to put into words why. It just feels like a bloated period piece role play fantasy thing and it’s not the only Scorsese film that feels this way. It might be the only movie I’ve ever seen that’s weird in this way. I’m kind of stumped on this one.

Film 10: Mean Streets

Notes: Viewed on December 31st, 2019 at 7pm in cinema 3. 35mm presentation that was in decent shape, but surprisingly so for a print that’s almost 50 years old.

Review: Mean Streets was Scorsese’s third film ever, and it was really the first one with a somewhat large scale. Not to mention, it features two actors that would become his regular pawns in the near future – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. Viewing this at a point in time where Scorsese has only elevated his structure and approach does make it look weaker by comparison without a doubt. It feels slower, the atmosphere isn’t really present in the craft of it all and it does simply feels kind of amateur, but there’s no doubt regarding it’s significance, as well as it’s fantastic editing and quippy writing.

Rating: 68%

What Made It Stand Out? Mean Streets was one of Scorsese’s earlier films, and although it’s quite flawed, it set him out on a path towards mob films that would stay somewhat present for the rest of his career. It may be the weakest film he’s made in this genre, but it formed the Scorsese that we all know today – and it’s important to acknowledge this film for that reason.

Film 11: Cape Fear

Notes: Viewed on January 2nd, 2020 at 8:45pm in cinema 3. Digital Presentation.

Review: Cape Fear serves as the only remake Scorsese has done, but it’s one worthy of making – especially since it’s exceeded it’s predecessor in how iconic and renowned it’s become. It’s insane and one of the more messed up, pulpy films that Scorsese has made, but it pays off so well. In what might be my all-time favorite performance from De Niro, he plays a redneck ex-con who torments the main characters of the film. On the merits of his performance alone, this stood out in a crowded retrospective. It may be dumb in it’s execution though not in a bad way but rather one that’s immensely charming and adds to the endless captivation of the film. It’s one of those movies that leaves you feeling gross after, but is a blast to watch.

Rating: 81%

What Made It Stand Out? Cape Fear is probably Scorsese’s cheesiest film, but in an endearing and charming way. A lot of what happens in it is so blown out of proportion, but the somewhat satirical angle it takes lets it stand out in a sea of films Scorsese has made that aren’t self aware in the same way.

Film 12: Goodfellas

Notes: Viewed on January 3rd, 2020 at 1pm in cinema 3. 4K Digital Presentation.

Review: My history with Goodfellas is quite interesting – both times seeing it, I haven’t been super impressed or intrigued. A lot of the characters are extremely unlikable, it’s really long, and feels very similar to a lot of Scorsese’s films. However, both of these viewings had me realizing hours after how special it is. It’s the type of film that works best when reflecting upon it – mainly due to it’s fragmented editing style. However, after looking back on it and acknowledging how vast of a saga it’s telling – it’s truly brilliant. With it’s sharp dialogue, unique narration and brilliant ensemble, this may not be his very best film – but it’s a great one, and one that is ultimately extremely important to the entirety of his filmography.

Rating: 86%

What Made It Stand Out? Goodfellas is quite similar to many of the films that came after in it’s genre, whether from Scorsese or any other director. Because of that, it may not feel as special today – but when you acknowledge how many of the crime saga tropes in terms of editing came from this film, it’s hard not to fall in love with it – even if it’s a bit of a tougher sit.

Final Rankings

  1. The Last Waltz – 100%
  2. After Hours – 97%
  3. The Departed – 91%
  4. The Wolf of Wall Street – 90%
  5. Casino – 88%
  6. Goodfellas – 86%
  7. Cape Fear – 81%
  8. Shutter Island – 80%
  9. Silence – 72%
  10. Hugo – 70%
  11. Mean Streets – 68%
  12. Gangs of New York – 62%

*image courtesy of TIFF*

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