Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Stratton

David Stratton retured to Sydney Film Festival in 2016 to present a program of 10 essential classics directed by the great Martin Scorsese.

The end of the 1960s represented a watershed for American cinema. The great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age had, with a couple of exceptions, retired or passed away. The studios that afforded stability and continuity were now in the hands of conglomerates. Box-office receipts had been dwindling since the end of World War II. It was time for a change, and one of the changes was the introduction of a new generation of directors, the first generation to have been raised on the great films of the past, directors who, for the first time, were film buffs themselves. This new wave of young directors included Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Demme – and, above all, Martin Scorsese.

Of these, Scorsese was the most passionate. His enthusiasm for the cinema’s past went beyond fandom or buffdom – he was passionately devoted to the rediscovery and restoration of the great films of the past, from any source. His knowledge of international cinema is vast and his memory for detail extraordinary. There’s so much information stored inside him it’s as though he’s bursting at the seams; Scorsese talks in a rapid-fire style as though he doesn’t have enough time to describe everything he knows. He’s like a character in a 1930s movie.

His films are passionate too. His best are explosive in their impact, crammed with information and detail. Take the opening twin narrations of Casino, for instance, as an example of Scorsese’s urge to convey as much information as possible. He’s the cinema’s greatest proselytiser.

Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane. On the one hand, his Catholic upbringing leads him to tackle religious subjects (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) while the Saturday matinee kid in him revels in the trashy gore of his gangster films. 

He was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York, but when he was eight, his parents moved to Little Italy in Manhattan. He suffered from asthma, which limited his ability to participate in strenuous activities, but his father took him to the cinema twice a week and his passion was ignited. He toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but the seductive power of movies – and rock ‘n’ roll – prevailed. He studied at NYU, where he made short films – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, and It’s Not Just You, Murray – in 1965. Soon afterwards, he started making a wholly independent 35mm black and white feature originally titled, Bring on the Dancing Girls; starring Scorsese’s friend, Harvey Keitel. The film finally emerged in 1968 as, Who’s That Knocking on My Door?

After making a couple more shorts and a stint in Europe – where he helped write the screenplay for a Dutch film – he returned home to America to work on the editing of Woodstock. Here he was spotted by the perceptive Roger Corman and hired to direct a Depression-era melodrama, Boxcar Bertha (1972). He followed this with the independently financed Mean Streets, which was made for $550,000 and premiered at Cannes before screening at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney, during 1974. The rest is history.

David Stratton
Guest Programmer

Film critic, lecturer and author David Stratton AM is a former director of Sydney Film Festival and host of ABC TV’s At the Movies. He is a recipient of the Raymond Longford Award and was named Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has served on the international juries in Venice and Berlin and as President of the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) jury in Cannes.

Presented by


Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese’s breakthrough feature stars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in an explosive drama about friendship and betrayal set in Manhattan’s Little Italy.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

In her Oscar-winning performance, Ellen Burstyn plays a young widow eager to re-capture her childhood. Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson and Jodie Foster co-star in this stylish melodrama.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Winner of Cannes Palme d’Or, this is one of the most iconic films of the ’70s, thanks to the towering performance of Robert De Niro as a social misfit obsessed with porn and violence.

New York, New York (1977)

Robert De Niro plays a saxophonist and Liza Minnelli a singer in Scorsese’s lavish recreation of fifties’ Big Band musicals. The knockout opening scene depicts the day World War II ended.

Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro, in his Oscar-winning role, plays the deeply conflicted middleweight boxer Jake La Motta in this superlative biopic. One of Scorsese’s finest achievements.

The King of Comedy (1982)

Scorsese satirises the obsessive characters of his earlier films in this dark comedy in which De Niro plays the ultimate superfan and comic Jerry Lewis plays a straight role as a TV personality.

Goodfellas (1990)

The Citizen Kane of gangster movies, and one of Scorsese’s finest, most disturbing films, with iconic performances from Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as jittery mobsters.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

A superlative adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film is set in New York in the 1870s and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder.

Casino (1995)

In one of his most dazzling achievements, Scorsese explores the corruption at the heart of Las Vegas in the 1970s, with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone in the leads.

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as pioneer aircraft designer and filmmaker Howard Hughes in this superb biopic, with Cate Blanchett in her Oscar-winning role as Katharine Hepburn.