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The Most Underrated & Overrated Films By Martin Scorsese

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
May 9th, 2008 9:25am EDT
Martin ScorseseMartin Scorsese. The name, like no other director of the modern era, is completely synonymous with quality. A trailer branded with "A film by Martin Scrosese" instantly becomes a must-see for cinephiles, no matter what clips preceded the title card.

Images of dramatic shootouts scored by classic rock and sharp-tounged dialogue of the underworld enter people's minds when they think of Scorsese. The man has changed much about the way films are made. His use of popular music inspired a generation long before MTV, and the way he made violence pop off the screen was a direct antecedent of the great Sam Peckinpah.

Scorsese is known mostly for his gangster films, but he's tackled comedy and period pieces with his own unique touch and delivers a classic more often than not.

Still, some of Marty's movies have gained an incredible amount of acclaim, while others have been largely ignored by critics and film fans alike. The following are the most overrated and underrated films by Martin Scorsese.

OVERRATED

5. "Mean Streets" (1973)

Usually a director's first major success is either forgotten or undeservedly hailed as a classic. "Mean Streets" falls firmly into the latter category. The film does feature an incredible performance from Robert De Niro but nothing much beyond that. This is a neighborhood film and minor Scorsese at best. Many consider it an essential entry in the director's canon, but there really isn't a whole lot beyond De Niro's performance to get excited about.


4. "Cape Fear" (1991)

This isn't Scorsese's biggest money maker anymore, but it is arguably his most commercially popular film. This film exhibits one of the most surefire signs of overratedness: it isn't as good as the original. This is certainly a good movie with lots of thrills and a deeper examination of the themes posed in the first movie. Still, it just doesn't have the sense of creepiness of the original and seems like Scorsese trying to do a mass-appeal movie the whole. Throw in Robert De Niro getting nominated for a performance that was nothing more than scenery chewing with a bad accent and you have a undeniable recipe for being overrated.


3. "The Color of Money" (1986)

It's not really Scorsese's fault that "The Color of Money" grew to be so overrated. This is purely a result of it featuring Paul Newman's only Oscar-winning role. The movie itself is stylish sports movie schlock with not much to offer in terms of substance. It is probably Scorsese's worst movie (a film the director admitted to making only to finance "The Last Temptation of Christ"), yet it lives on as a classic because it's a sports movie and the award won by its leading man.


2. "Casino" (1995)

When "Casino" hit screens in 1995 it was largely dismissed as an overlong mob movie inferior to "Goodfellas." This is a pretty accurate assessment of the film, but something happened over the decade-plus since its release. First, Sharon Stone earned an inexplicable Golden Globe for Best Actress. A few years later, the film hit cable, and that's when it truly began to become overrated. Every time the film airs on either TNT, or USA, or Spike TV it is hailed as a "crime classic" or "one of the best mafia movies ever made." While these claims may have been met with laughter at first, they have quickly evolved into gospel. Now you see rappers on "MTV Cribs" with posters and DVDs for the film all over their house, and any fan of mob movies lists it among their favorites. "Casino" is a case study in how some false claims can eventually evolve into a movie's becoming overrated.


1. "The Departed" (2006)

This choice was pretty obvious. This is the only Martin Scorsese movie to win Best Picture and earned the director his first Oscar. Too bad it isn't even in the top ten of Scorsese's canon. There's no denying that "The Departed" is a great movie. It's a ton of fun with great performances from nearly the entire cast, especially Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg. The movie is extremely violent but very funny at the same time. The problem is that the story meanders wildly, especially after the death of Frank Costello, and its continual endings become almost silly after awhile. Throw in a closing shot of a rat for overwrought symbolism, and you have a film that doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts. Despite all its shortcomings, this will live on (maybe forever) as the film that won Scorsese his Oscar. It's clear that this would not have even happened if Scorsese had won for either "Goodfellas" or "Raging Bull," making this movie overrated by design.


UNDERRATED

5. "The Aviator" (2004)

Between the much-lauded "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed," Scorsese delivered this gem on a similarly epic scope. Marty does an excellent job of evoking old Hollywood, recapturing the glory inherent in Howard Hughes' many accomplishments. The director also brought forth Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance to date as the swashbuckling Billionaire. The film earned an astounding 11 Oscar nominations but became almost a footnote after the release of the inferior "The Departed."


4. "Kundun" (1997)

A lot of people think Martin Scorsese took a period of extended absence between the release of "Casino" and "Gangs of New York," but he actually made two films during that time: The impressive but uneven "Brining out the Dead" and this minor masterpiece about the young life of the Dalai Lama. The film is similar in theme and scope to the highly-acclaimed film "The Last Emperor." Scorsese tells the tale with a grand sweep worthy of David Lean without losing Scorsese's usual intimacy. It's not a fantastic movie, but it definitely deserves more credit.


3. "After Hours" (1985)

One of Scorsese's rare forays into comedy is a darkly funny odyssey through the streets of SoHo as a man tries to make his way home without any money following a botched romantic encounter. Scorsese uses this framing device to explore nearly every aspect of the city, and while it is funny, the director makes no effort to shield the audience from the harsh ugliness of mid-80s Manhattan. This may be the only screwball black comedy ever made, and it is both a ton of fun and an interesting study of the city.


2. "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974)

A lot of people may not even know that Martin Scorsese directed this film because it such a drastic departure from his usual stuff. "Alice" is the story of a single mom who relocates to Arizona in order to start a new life with her kids. No New York, no gangsters, and no male lead, not what you'd expect from Marty, but that doesn't mean it isn't great. This is a truly empowering film that gleans inspiration from its stark depiction of a woman on her own rather than trying too hard to be an uplifting story. "Alice" is Scorsese's first truly great film, but one that's often forgotten.


1. "The King of Comedy" (1983)

Outside of "Raging Bull," this is probably both Robert De Niro's and Martin Scorsese's best work, but they aren't even the best things about the movie. Jerry Lewis is an absolute revelation as Johnny Carson-inspired talk show host Jerry Langford, a performance that undoubtedly was just as much the work of the director as it was the actor.

The film mines territory similar to "Taxi Driver" as De Niro portrays one of the dozens of mentally disturbed characters in his storied career. The main character, Rupert Pupkin, is much different from Travis Bickle in that he is not outwardly dangerous or violent and really appears to be a genuinely nice guy on the surface. Scorsese explores his psychosis with a series of elaborate fantasy sequences that differ in no way whatsoever from the real-life scenes in the film. Scorsese's blurring of this line is very effective in that it shows how detached Pupkin is from the world around him and how he inhabits his fantasy life with the same aplomb he does his reality. When Pupkin's ambition causes his life to finally spiral out of control everything seems perfectly natural because of the deft way Scorsese has presented his main character up to that point.

"The King of Comedy" is an absolute masterpiece that deserves the same acclaim as "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull", and "Goodfellas" but somehow got lost in the shuffle of the director's great work. It could be because Pupkin's obsession with fame hit a little too close for home for most audiences or just because there are no gangster elements at all in the movie. Whatever the case, "The King of Comedy" is a real gem that's received the same treatment as a cubic zirconia.


Make sure to check back next week for the most overrated and underrated solo musicians of all time.

Andrew Payne
Story by Andrew Payne

Starpulse contributing writer