Iconic film director Martin Scorsese is as well-known for his masterpiece films as for his Favorite Films lists. Beyond directing thriller and true crime classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990), he’s a passionate cinephile and advocate for film appreciation and preservation. He refreshingly seems to enjoy watching films as much as he enjoys making them. In fact, his touching 2011 film Hugo is a love letter to the medium. Magical, fantastical, Hugo sums up the transformational quality and importance of film, tracing movies back to their dusty early 1900s roots in an emotionally poignant way.
There are a multitude of great Scorsese Favorite Films lists out there, and this list focuses on some of his favorite English-language films across various genres and decades. You’ll see Scorsese loves all genres of film, from horror to science fiction, mystery and beyond. He also enjoys both classic and modern film.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Who doesn’t appreciate the brilliance of Citizen Kane? Often topping Best Movie lists alongside Gone With the Wind (1939), this film is a triumph in telling its story from unique points of view, and with unique visual techniques. The mysterious word “Rosebud.” What does it mean? And why is it significant to the elderly publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane played by the legendary Orson Welles? Watch it to learn how this awesome mystery is unraveled. Storytelling at its best, and black and white cinematography at its best, Scorsese knows a good movie when he sees one. This movie is an extremely strong “director’s vehicle,” and as an acclaimed director himself, Scorsese can vouch for its top quality.
2. Black Narcissus (1947)
Scorsese famously calls Black Narcissus “a cross between Disney and a horror film.” This Brit flick chronicles Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr in possibly her most riveting performance, as she leads her fellow nuns in transforming an ex-harem in the remote Indian Himalaya Mountains into a reputable convent. How do the sisters fare? Not well. Is Mopu Palace haunted? Or are the women mentally ill? It’s an insightful “nuns on the edge” story (quite literally) full of emotional depth and stunning cinematography.
This color film has a distinctive “painterly” visual quality that’s intoxicating, and its use of flashback is masterfully chilling. If there is an Oscar for Best Flashbacks in a film, Black Narcissus would win. There are also spooky wind chimes, and one treacherous cliff. And if you view The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, you even get Scorsese providing commentary on why he feels Black Narcissus is a masterpiece.
3. The Red Shoes (1948)
Another Brit classic, and also directed by iconic filmmaking duo Powell and Pressburger who made Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes is the crown jewel of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography. There’s simply no other movie like it. A story about a beautiful ballerina torn between her love for dance and her love for a man, it’s a visually dazzling Technicolor masterpiece like Black Narcissus, and like the aforementioned flick, it also confronts an emotional dark side. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a girl whose red shoes overtake her, causing her to dance until she dies, this movie takes you into a kind of “fever dream” of music and dance. You almost forget you’re watching a movie.
Disorienting, captivating, romantic, obsessive. Just a few words to describe The Red Shoes. No wonder Scorsese is a fan. He tapped into all of these adjectives to varying degrees when making films like Taxi Driver (1976) and The Age of Innocence (1993). No matter how sharply different those two films are, they both have a pervasive emotional quality similar to The Red Shoes. Can we as humans handle our strong emotions, or are we instead at their mercy? These films ask this important question.
4. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
No surprise, Scorsese loves this “bad boy” film. Starring icons James Dean and Natalie Wood, this movie explores juvenile delinquents in 1950s California. Though not a Mafia movie like Scorsese is known for with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Rebel Without a Cause still has its share of bad behavior and tough moral questions. Scorsese was a New York City kid growing up in the 1950s, and you can’t help but think this movie had a big effect on him. The 1950s were all about the nuclear family of Mom, Dad, and little Mike or Suzy, and respectable meat and potatoes at dinner.
Rebel Without a Cause must’ve turned the public on its head, something Scorsese would later do during his own film directing career. Noteworthy – part of the mystique of this movie is that actor James Dean died tragically in a car accident just days before the movie hit theaters. He was a wild child even in his personal life. How devastating.
5. The Searchers (1956)
Yes, Scorsese even loves a good Western. But The Searchers isn’t just good. It’s phenomenal. It’s actor John Wayne at his swaggering, spur-heeled best. Relentless, epic, and boasting some of the best panoramic landscape shots of the American West ever captured on film, The Searchers is a Western ‘experience.’ It’s not just a film. It was even deemed historically significant by the US Library of Congress. If you like Westerns, or even if you don’t like Westerns, you’ll love this one. Noteworthy – Natalie Wood has a small part as a “White girl-turned-Indian” upon being kidnapped. Her real-life sister, actress Lana Wood, also has a small cameo.
6. Vertigo (1958)
Everyone has their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film like Rear Window (1954) or Psycho (1960) or The Birds (1963). By all accounts, Vertigo is Scorsese’s favorite. The mystery, the plot twists, the symbolic use of vibrant color, not to mention the film’s ability to convey ‘vertigo’ by using a new cinematic technique. How breathtakingly dizzying! Then add in traditional good guy Jimmy Stewart playing a bad guy (or at least a morally ambiguous man), who’s obsessed with Hitchcock’s trademark ‘icy blonde babe’ played by Kim Novak, and it’s a potent must-see film. It’s Hitchcock at his 1950s peak. Vertigo also boasts amazing shots of San Francisco, everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Palace of Fine Arts.
7. The Innocents (1961)
Taken from a Henry James story called The Turn of the Screw, this film is horror at its best. The horror genre has many sub-genres (supernatural, slasher, monster, etc.), and The Innocents is a classic ghost story. Scorsese has named it one of his Top 11 Scariest Film picks. Aside from a ghost story told in a compelling way, where you don’t know if the house is truly haunted by ghosts or if the governess is imagining all of it, the film is aesthetically one of the most exquisite black and white horror films. The edges of the shots are purposefully dimmed, giving the viewer the impression of watching through candlelight. It’s magnificent, and thoroughly creepy. Watch it with your lights off and I assure you’re in for one hell of a spookfest.
Noteworthy – Deborah Kerr plays the governess in The Innocents. Similar to the earlier mentioned Black Narcissus (1947), she finds herself in another horror film possibly driven by female ‘neuroticism.’ She depicts a supremely interesting character study in The Innocents. For Deborah Kerr lovers, it’s as fascinatingly thought-provoking as it is scary.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The majestic visuals, the sparse dialogue, the classical music, and finally, the intimidating prospect of humankind’s future, this film is quite possibly the ultimate in sci-fi. Like Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese, director Stanley Kubrick is another director renowned for inspiring a favorite pick. Lolita (1962) or The Shining (1980). There’s also Spartacus (1960) and his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). But Kubrick wasn’t just an expert in successfully tackling diverse genres and themes, he was visionary in consistently sending an important message through film, even if the message was uncomfortable for his viewers. And 2001: A Space Odyssey is possibly his most ambitious, bold film. Take a large monolith, track it from prehistoric times to the future, and see what happens.
Filmed in the late 1960s, this film is like an LSD drug trip steeped in existential profundity. It’s deep, poetic, and mind-bending. It tackles space and time, and everything in between. Scorsese concurs with the rest of humanity that 2001: A Space Odyssey is important. Watch it and be transported beyond your wildest imagination.
9. Heat (1995)
People often wonder what true crime films make the cut for Scorsese, given his own true crime acclaim. Heat is, for lack of a better word, “hot.” A star-studded cast with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, and more, it’s most known for its reunion of The Godfather II (1974) superstars Pacino and De Niro. Pacino’s a Los Angeles cop on the tail of De Niro’s bank robber. Though these two powerhouses don’t have much screen time together, it’s golden and spellbinding when they do.
Scorsese enjoyed Pacino and De Niro so much in Heat that he unsurprisingly reunited them for his own film The Irishman back in 2019. With Pacino and De Niro, you can’t go wrong. Heat released at the peak of true crime films of the 1990s, and it takes the archetypes of Cops and Robbers to a brilliantly new, insightful level.
10. Fargo (1996)
Scorsese is a master at crafting an all-enveloping world through his characters, plots, but also settings. His movies saturate the screen in the best way possible, giving you the feeling like you’re truly in his world, no matter how degraded, crime-ridden, or long-ago that world might be. That artistically coveted suspension of disbelief? He achieves it time and time again. His Taxi Driver (1976) is a dark, haunting definition of New York City, and Fargo by the Coen brothers is another film that successfully tackles location. Fargo, as in the city of Fargo, North Dakota, is black humor and true crime, all set in America’s northern heartland.
If Scorsese creates a legendary New York City, then the Coen brothers create a remote, snowy purgatory that’s fascinatingly singular. Scorsese understands first-hand the impact of a story’s setting, and Fargo does, too. Watch this movie and get drawn into a world that makes you shiver, and not just from the cold temps! Noteworthy – Frances McDormand of recent Nomadland (2020) fame earned her first Best Actress Oscar for Fargo.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.