Biopics have long been dismissed by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino as an easy way for an actor to win an Oscar. But Martin Scorsese is one of the few directors making biopics that are also incredible movies, and he does this by giving a rounded portrayal of his subjects. Most biopics will be a blind celebration of their subjects, ignoring everything they ever did wrong, usually because that subject is attached as an executive producer.
What sets Scorsese apart is that he isn’t afraid to critique his subjects. Since a lot of Scorsese’s movies are biopics, here are Martin Scorsese’s 8 Best Biopics, Ranked.
Casino felt like an attempt by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi – perhaps at the behest of the studio – to replicate what worked in Goodfellas. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play a couple of mobsters moving in on the gambling scene in Las Vegas. The movie has the unforgettable scenes of graphic violence and intense marital disputes of Goodfellas, but it fails to recapture the exciting magic of Goodfellas. It doesn’t feel as innovative or energetic as Goodfellas. Unlike its predecessor, it feels overly-long, with extended sequences that should’ve been cut down and unnecessary subplots that drag out the runtime.
7 Gangs Of New York
Although it’s inspired by a few real-life figures like William M. Tweed, Gangs of New York is really a biopic about the life of America. It’s set in the 1800s, back when the United States was still in its infancy, and over the course of its grand, sweeping, epic narrative, we get the full story of how America was born.
There’s no doubt that it’s a spectacular movie with some incredible performances by a cast including such greats as Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, but its 168-minute runtime and gargantuan plot mean that it sometimes feels like a Ken Burns documentary.
Scorsese’s oft-overlooked biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama didn’t do so well at the box office, thanks to a limited marketing campaign by the studio, but it’s a really beautiful movie, helped by the subtle tones of Philip Glass’ musical score and the crisp composition of Roger Deakins’ cinematography. As Roger Ebert pointed out, Kundun doesn’t have a classically structured plot and is told more episodically across its runtime, but that just gives it a unique and understated style. The script by the great Melissa Mathison was written with the blessing of the Dalai Lama himself, so the film has a degree of accuracy that few biopics do.
5 The Last Temptation Of Christ
Themes of Catholic guilt and religious belief are all over Martin Scorsese’s filmography, so it was only a matter of time before he made a movie that depicted the life of Jesus Christ. But The Last Temptation of Christ is not what you’d expect from a diehard Catholic. Scorsese made a Jesus biopic in the way he’d depict the life of a gangster. He focuses on Jesus’ flaws and his overwhelming sense of guilt and responsibility, and resentment towards his father for sending him to be killed. In other words, he presents Jesus as a human being, just like everyone else. It’s a long movie, and some of the casting choices are unusual, but this might be the best religious movie ever made.
4 The Wolf Of Wall Street
A lot of viewers criticized The Wolf of Wall Street for supposedly glamorizing the excessive lifestyles of stockbrokers like Jordan Belfort who scam working-class people out of their money and then spend it on yachts and other frivolous things. But all Martin Scorsese did was present a neutral, impartial depiction of that lifestyle.
His film is neither for nor against people like Belfort – it merely offers an accurate representation of how stockbrokers operate and spend their free time and lets the viewer form their own opinions. Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar lead performance presents Belfort as a damaged guy whose addictions have destroyed his life, while Margot Robbie provides a star-making turn as his long-suffering wife.
3 The Aviator
Leonardo DiCaprio committed wholeheartedly to the role of Howard Hughes – the multihyphenate who directed groundbreaking films, set aviation records, tried to invent a wooden plane, and eventually went mad as his O.C.D. made him increasingly paranoid – in the movie that solidified his lasting working relationship with Martin Scorsese. The historical feel of The Aviator was created by Scorsese recreating the look of bipack color photography from the era. The production team of the movie fired on all cylinders – the acting (particularly by DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, and John C. Reilly), the direction, the score, the cinematography, the editing, everything – to deliver a remarkable cinematic experience.
2 Raging Bull
If Rocky has shown us anything, it’s that the best boxing movies aren’t really about boxing at all. It’s about why these guys feel the need to get in the ring and punch people in the first place. In Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s breathtaking drama based on the life of Jake LaMotta and shot in black-and-white, the overriding theme is jealousy. LaMotta doesn’t trust his wife and flies off the handle every time she so much as talks to another man, and he takes out that anger on his opponents in the ring. And ultimately, that becomes his emotional downfall.
Martin Scorsese went crazy with the editing of Goodfellas and it resulted in what is possibly the greatest movie ever made. The rapid pacing, voiceover narration, and all-over-the-place nonlinear plotting contribute to a moviegoing experience that captures the lifestyle of a mobster as closely as a movie can. The story of Henry Hill’s rise and fall in the world of organized crime begins right in the middle with a grisly slaying in the woods, then goes back to the beginning to show us exactly why Hill dreamed of having that life since he was a child. Goodfellas isn’t just Scorsese’s best biopic; it’s the best biopic, period.