After years of so-called development hell, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is finally here. It’s a landmark moment, not just for the director or lead actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, all icons of American cinema, but for Netflix and streaming platforms in general.
Early reviews are heralding The Irishman as Scorsese’s best movie since Goodfellas, and it’s predicted that it could win Netflix their first Academy Award, which would only cement their global takeover.
But before you tune in at home on November 27, the film’s global video-on-demand release date, be sure to brush up on your Scorsese film history.
Here, we break down the 13 essential Martin Scorsese movies to watch before The Irishman.
1. Mean Streets
Year: 1973 Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent
The movie that put Marty on the map, Mean Streets saw the director depict the world he knew from growing up in New York’s Little Italy. A group of Italian-American friends embroiled in gang life attempt to make sense of the dissonance between their way of life and the morals of the Catholic Church in which they’ve been raised.
It marked De Niro’s first film with Scorsese, while fellow frequent collaborator Harvey Keitel’s character was initially an extension of the role he played in Scorsese’s debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Mean Streets was highly regarded upon release, but has since grown even more in stature, proving to be a landmark film in the representation of Italian-American gangsters onscreen.
2. Taxi Driver
Year: 1976 Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent
The second collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the movie tells the story of Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle, a lonely taxi driver who becomes increasingly paranoid and unhinged as a vigilante savior.
Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and horrified audiences as much as it impressed them. Its sharp script by Paul Schrader touches on themes of social isolation, postwar trauma, and an increasingly depraved society, while De Niro’s turn as sociopath Bickle further flexed the actor’s talent, and gave us perhaps the most iconic mirror scene ever committed to film.
3. Raging Bull
Year: 1980 Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent
Widely considered one of the best American films ever made, Raging Bull is arguably Scorsese’s magnum opus – arguably only because he has so many near-perfect films it’s understandable if someone believes his best is a different one. Building on the promise he’d shown in earlier films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Raging Bull took on a bigger story that paid off. Based on boxer Jake LaMotta’s memoir, Scorsese was initially hesitant to adapt the book as he wasn’t a fan of sports. However, De Niro, who was responsible for bringing the material to his attention, helped persuade him to take it on.
After coming around to the boxing film, Scorsese reflected that the sport “was an allegory for whatever you do in life,” likening being in the ring to making movies. De Niro won the Oscar for Best Actor, while the film launched Joe Pesci’s career and earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. For sports fans fond of Scorsese’s work, The Color of Money, about a pool hustler, is also well worth watching.
4. Gangs of New York
Year: 2002 Rotten Tomatoes: 73 percent
Like Robert De Niro’s long-running collaboration with Scorsese, the last two decades have seen Leonardo DiCaprio become the director’s preferred leading man, and it began with Gangs of New York. A project Scorsese had been working on for 20 years, the epic tells the quasi-historical story of a Catholic-Protestant feud in New York’s slums some 150 years ago.
The sets depicting New York in the 1860s were impressive, while Daniel Day Lewis’ acting was highly praised. Yet despite its 10 Oscar nominations and success at the box office, Gangs of New York didn’t fare as well with critics, making it perhaps the director’s biggest film in terms of spectacle but nowhere near his best. Nonetheless, it married Scorsese’s love of New York and gang culture, and turned his attention to the Irish-American narrative, a now recurring theme in his work.
5. The King of Comedy
Year: 1982 Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent
A sleeper hit that divided critics on release and flopped at the box office, The King of Comedy is a dark satire whose reputation has grown over time, with some believing it to be Scorsese’s best work. Robert De Niro plays another disturbed character by the name of Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comedian who kidnaps his talk show host idol. It tackles themes of celebrity obsession and American media culture, a topic even more pressing now than it was nearly 40 years ago.
The film’s success lies in its nuanced portrait of dangerous ambition and mental illness. Sound like another Scorsese/De Niro vehicle? In fact the director himself has said this about the film: “Taxi Driver. Travis. Rupert. The isolated person. Is Rupert more violent than Travis? Maybe.” And the comparisons don’t stop there – Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips’ Joker has also been likened to Pupkin, while Robert De Niro, who plays a talk show host in Joker, has said his role pays homage to his character in this film.
6. After Hours
Year: 1985 Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent
Another indie film venture into Manhattan’s underbelly, After Hours is a black comedy that’s an ode to a New York that no longer exists. It depicts the misadventures of an office worker over the course of one night, as nothing seems to go right for him.
After Hours underpromises and overdelivers, earning it a cult following over the years and a host of accolades including the Best Director Award at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The often-overlooked Scorsese flick confirms that the director doesn’t need much to create compelling cinema.
Year: 1990 Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent
How many movies heralded as “one of the greatest ever made” can a director make in their career? You’d be lucky to have just one, but as they say about Scorsese: he has one in every decade. Goodfellas is his third one, and perhaps the most widely seen. Adapted from the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas is a dynamic and wildly entertaining gangster film that’s also one of the best in the genre.
Scorsese explained that he wanted “To begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it's the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it.” This neatly sums up why the film is so iconic, not only is it incredibly well-made cinema, it really makes you feel as if you’ve lived the experience.
Year: 1995 Rotten Tomatoes: 80 percent
Based on another non-fiction crime story by reporter Nicholas Pileggi and starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, you’d be forgiven for assuming Casino is just a rehash of Goodfellas. And while the films are thematically similar – Casino transposes a high-octane mob story to Las Vegas – they both showcase Marty in top form, with some critics believing Casino to be the superior movie, having built on what Goodfellas started.
De Niro and Pesci put in top work, but its Sharon Stone’s performance that was singled out, and earned her an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win. As with many of Scorsese’s films, Casino’s soundtrack full of popular music only heightens the viewing experience.
9. The Last Temptation of Christ
Year: 1988 Rotten Tomatoes: 80 percent
Depending on who you ask The Last Temptation of Christ is either an incredible film or an abomination. A passion project of Scorsese’s, he had wanted to immortalize Jesus’ life onscreen since he was a child. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel in which Jesus is tested by various temptations, the story controversially depicts the Son of Man having sex among other blasphemies.
Expectedly, Christian groups were outraged, with one radical group setting fire to a cinema in Paris that was screening the film. It was banned in several countries and still is to this day in Singapore and the Philippines. While not to everyone’s liking, Last Temptation is an important movie in Scorsese’s oeuvre, a symbol of the director’s perseverance in creating his art without limits.
10. The Departed
Year: 2005 Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent
A remake of Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (must-see viewing for fans of Scorsese’s version), The Departed is an Irish gangster film set in Boston that features an ensemble cast of top Hollywood talent. The story of two moles – one working for the police, the other for the Irish mob – whose paths cross and subsequently become entangled, was made even more gripping by basing characters on real life former-FBI agent John Connelly and gangster Whitey Bulgar.
The Departed is an excellent film that was both a critical and commercial success, winning four Oscars including Scorsese’s first as director, despite decades of incredible films under his belt. The film’s focus on Irish organized crime was a nice change from his iconic Italian mafia movies, and is considered his masterpiece of the ‘00s.
11. The Aviator
Year: 2004 Rotten Tomatoes: 86 percent
An epic biopic about Hollywood director-turned-aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, The Aviator continued Scorsese’s collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man following Gangs of New York. DiCaprio’s performance was highly praised and earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, kicking off a string of nominations that failed to garner a win until 2016’s The Revenant. Of 11 total nominations The Aviator won five Oscars.
Howard Hughes was an ambitious yet complicated man whose life became increasingly tumultuous as his mental health deteriorated. Scorsese claimed that his proudest achievement with The Aviator was that he helped restore Hughes’ name as an aviation pioneer.
12. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Year: 1974 Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent
After Mean Streets, Scorsese directed a romantic comedy-drama centered on a widowed single mother out for a better life for her and her son. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an anomaly in Scorsese’s canon – it tells a female story in a deeply moving and sincere way.
Both a critical and commercial success, Alice competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earned Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award for her lead role. Alice was Scorsese’s first proper Hollywood studio production, and for his entry into the so-called big leagues we have Burstyn to thank. After coming onboard in the lead role, she wanted to find a “young and exciting” director who could steer the film away from melodrama and offer something grittier. She asked Francis Ford Coppola, who suggested she view Mean Streets and the rest, as they say, is history.
13. The Wolf of Wall Street
Year: 2013 Rotten Tomatoes: 79 percent
Scorsese certainly has a favorite kind of source material, but he manages to always keep things fresh by switching up the tone and world that his stories operate in. The Wolf of Wall Street takes place in New York’s elite financial sphere and is based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, telling the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort and how he swindled millions through corruption and fraud. It marks Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese.
Commercially, the film is Scorsese’s most successful, grossing USD $392 million in its theatrical run worldwide. It was a big hit with audiences, but some critics cited concerns that it irresponsibly glorified bad behavior instead of denouncing it. That said, if he can still deliver a film like this after five decades in the biz, we have a lot to look forward to with The Irishman.