By Tyler Aquilina
November 01, 2019 at 07:30 AM EDT
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Credit: Everett Collection (3)

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be hankering to turn your viewing of The Irishman (runtime: three and a half hours) into a double feature, the release of a new Martin Scorsese movie might inspire you to delve into the legendary director’s filmography. Fortunately, it’s hard to make a bad selection there. In addition to more than a few in-the-canon classics — Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas — Scorsese’s body of work contains many other outstanding movies that, for one reason or another, have garnered less attention since their initial release. Whatever his thoughts on Marvel movies, he’s a master filmmaker, with a rich, deep well of fantastic work produced across his multi-decade career.

Below, we’ve selected a few under-the-radar favorites that deserve to be ranked among Scorsese’s best films. Only one fared well at the box office (two were outright bombs), and though they have their supporters, these movies are not widely beloved, or even widely known in some cases. (Two of them remain unavailable on Blu-ray, though all are available to rent on digital platforms.) Read on for a crash course in some of Scorsese’s under-sung masterpieces.

After Hours (1985)

After Hours begins simply enough, with office-drone yuppie Paul (Griffin Dunne) journeying to New York’s SoHo for a rendezvous with a woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). But the film quickly spirals into an absurdist nocturnal odyssey, as Paul finds himself unable to get home and experiences the worst night of his life. Relentlessly entertaining, After Hours is one of Scorsese’s most energetic, unpredictable rides, proving his bona fides as a comedy director long before The Wolf of Wall Street came along. It careens from scene to scene, throwing nonstop obstacles and misfortunes, and the ultimate revue of eccentric characters, at Paul. (Among the film’s top-notch supporting players are Teri Garr as a vindictive waitress, Catherine O’Hara as an unhinged ice cream vendor, and Cheech & Chong as a pair of art-loving burglars.) We won’t describe the plot further; you’ll be better served knowing as few of the film’s zag-zigging, ping-ponging twists and turns as possible. One subtle yet brilliant touch to watch out for, however: Scorsese, Dunne, and writer Joseph Minion make Paul just enough of an a—hole to be a realistically flawed character, selfish and desperate and confused as all people are. It’s not for nothing that the whole mess starts because he’s hoping for a hookup.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

What do we talk about when we talk about The Last Temptation of Christ? Thirty-plus years after its release, the controversy around it still seems to overshadow the film itself, even as its reputation has steadily improved. At the time, many prominent Christian groups condemned Last Temptation over supposedly sacrilegious elements in its source material (a 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis), causing several theater chains to refuse to screen the film and sinking it at the box office. The irony, as has been pointed out time and again, is that Last Temptation is a thoughtful and deeply earnest film, a powerful spiritual experience, and a work born out of profound religious faith. Scorsese was raised Catholic and for a time considered becoming a priest, and this film is his attempt to examine the humanity of Jesus Christ, to look at the Son of God as a flesh-and-blood person while still taking his divine nature seriously. What must it have been like, Last Temptation asks (and attempts to answer), to be tasked with being the Messiah? To follow a path, to an early and painful death, laid out by a higher power? What went on in Christ’s head? His heart? His soul?

Last Temptation spends much of its runtime retelling the Gospel narrative through this perspective. Mileage will naturally vary for viewers of different religious upbringings, as will tolerance for the film’s eccentric touches — David Bowie playing Pontius Pilate, for instance. But anyone and everyone can appreciate Willem Dafoe’s extraordinary performance as Jesus. He carries the film, playing Christ as a man wrestling with doubt, struggling to understand his place in the universe — as a human being, in other words. It’s an admittedly theatrical performance (underplay, he does not) but no less affecting for it. Scorsese shot this film quickly on a tight budget, forcing him to abandon his usual bag of tricks; watching the film, though, it seems he knew Dafoe’s face was all he really needed.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

It’s not hard to see why The Age of Innocence was a box office flop; after all, would anyone ever expect a romantic period piece from the director of Goodfellas? But Innocence, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer-winning novel, is quite simply one of Scorsese’s finest works. Set among New York City’s aristocracy in the late 1800s, The Age of Innocence concerns Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who finds himself irresistibly drawn to his fiancée’s cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen is a thrilling, free-spirited opposite to Archer’s young, sweetly naive bride-to-be (Winona Ryder), but also a pariah to the city’s moralistic, custom-obsessed social elite, having fled from her husband in Europe under murky circumstances. One of cinema’s great smolders ensues, as Archer — a helpless cog in high-class society’s machine of repression and conventionality — struggles mightily to keep his passions under wraps.

This perpetually simmering romance makes for a surprisingly sensual film. In Innocence’s context, the bubbling tension between Archer and Ellen is sexier than any explicit eroticism could hope to be — you can see, and feel, their violently amorous ids struggling against the many layers of mannered decorum holding them back. (It surely helped that Scorsese had Pfeiffer and Last of the Mohicans-era Day-Lewis at his disposal.) That’s just one masterstroke in a film full of them: Michael Ballhaus’ ravishing cinematography; a powerfully wistful coda; Wharton’s wry, mannered prose transposed near-verbatim into an omniscient narrator’s sharp-tongued voice-over. And praise be to the great Winona Ryder, whose role (Innocence’s version of the “disposable fiancée,” if you will) may seem thankless at first glance, but it allows for a performance full of subtleties and complexities that lay plain how utterly Stranger Things has wasted her. (Sorry, not sorry. Do better, Duffers.)

We could go on and on; there are a great many layers to this film that have gone tragically underexplored in the discourse. (We’ve barely touched on the film’s dissections of the rich’s social customs; like the book, it’s almost a work of anthropology.) Perhaps more than any other on this list, it deserves a spot of much greater honor in the Scorsese pantheon, and film pantheon, than it’s thus far been accorded.

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

The elevator pitch for Bringing Out the Dead is After Hours meets Taxi Driver: The film chronicles three misery-soaked nights in the life of bleary-eyed paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), roaming New York City in an ambulance and encountering all manner of outlandish characters. (Not least of which are his rotating shift partners, played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore.) Though obviously similar to those earlier films (not coincidentally — Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader wrote this film as well), Bringing Out the Dead is extraordinary in its own right. Frank is no Travis Bickle-esque misanthrope, but he’s wracked by insomnia, grief, and guilt, haunted by the memories of lives he couldn’t save. Cage is great in the role, weaponizing his oft-maligned bipolar intensity to embody a live-wire portrait of a man teetering on the edge of madness. And he’s matched by the madness of the movie around him; there’s little else in Scorsese’s filmography as chaotic as the scenes in a hellish New York emergency room, patients wailing in agony, nurses and doctors near exhausted collapse.

But the moments of grace in that chaos are what truly set Bringing Out the Dead apart. In Scorsese’s roster of tortured male protagonists, Frank is the rare one actively striving, always, for redemption: He wants so badly to save someone, you believe his soul depends on it. He shines a bright light of humanism through one of the director’s grimiest, darkest movies, saving it from becoming an unremitting, soul-crushing bleak-fest (though the film’s keen sense of gallows humor also helps on that front). For all its superficial resemblance to Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead is something else entirely: an unexpectedly poignant, deeply humane piece of cinema.

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The Irishman

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