Essays · Movies

Filmmaker of the Year (2019): Martin Scorsese

This year, we celebrate a perennial favorite.
Filmmaker Marty
By  · Published on December 29th, 2019

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.

Of Martin Scorsese, her partner-in-crime on 23 films over more than 50 years, the three-time Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker had the following to say in a recent interview: “Marty’s never interested in the villain or the hero. He’s interested in where most people are, which is in the middle.” This focus on the middle ground is not just a trademark of the filmmaker’s but, ironically enough, the virtue that elevates Scorsese above the rest and makes him our pick for the 2019 Filmmaker of the Year.

The thing about annual lists is that it can be easy to end up overlooking perennial favorites, but not this time. In 2019, the 77-year-old maverick wowed us with The Irishman, a fantastic example of an old-fashioned kind of character epic that we haven’t seen around in a hot minute. A number of great films made by fantastic filmmakers hit screens this year, but what ultimately gives Scorsese the edge is that over the course of 2019 he has become a beacon of moderation in an age of extremes; middle ground at a time when middle ground is a precious resource eroding away at lightspeed thanks to the algorithm-derived echo chambers of our social media world.

At first glance it might seem pretty ridiculous to put “moderation” and the filmmaker behind The Wolf of Wall Street side by side in the same sentence, but if you take a step back and recall that the “MORE MORE MORE”-ness of The Wolf of Wall Street was followed up by Silence, a slow-burning meditation on faith that premiered at the Vatican, hopefully, the picture I’m painting starts to come together. Martin Scorsese is a titan of industry who holds onto the past with one hand and reaches towards the future with the other, one of the last of the Old Guard still at the peak of his game, creating films of the same caliber as those that made him famous after more than 50 years behind the camera.

It’s his “middle ground” approach that’s at least in part to thank for that. Scorsese’s not the sort to toss out the past with yesterday’s trash, nor is he the sort to turn up his nose at the new and different—at digital, 3D, CGI. Every technique old and new is simply another tool in the cinematic toolbox, and they are all at the very least worth exploring. His open-mindedness in this regard has been crucial in his ability to consistently make impeccable films that share a clear point of view while remaining fresh and exciting.

That’s not to say Scorsese has never made any missteps. He was an executive producer on The Snowman. He cast Cameron Diaz to play an Irish person in a role that necessitated her “Irish accent” going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. When Scorsese succeeds, he knocks it out of the park, and when he stumbles, he faceplants. He succeeds far more than he fails, but both schools are represented. And no matter what the outcome, he commits. That in itself is admirable, even when the results are occasionally a big yikes.

The Irishman evidences Scorsese’s middle-ground approach with its old-school epic flavor made possible in part by cutting edge de-aging technology, but the flashpoint that truly brought this virtue front and center came elsewhere. In early November, the filmmaker suddenly found himself at the center of a storm of online discourse when his concerned response to an SEO-friendly throwaway question about the Marvel Cinematic Universe tacked on to the end of an EMPIRE magazine interview snowballed in a truly ridiculous yet utterly predictable fashion. Everyone from major news outlets to everyday Marvel diehards on social media had there two cents about Scorsese’s “radical attack” on Marvel, his “war” against superhero films.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only two points really worth noting in the whole hyperbolized mess.

The first is that if you actually go back and read the EMPIRE article that launched a thousand angry tweets—including many from high-ranking industry men who apparently had nothing better to do, but I digress—Scorsese’s Marvel comments are perhaps the least interesting part of what is otherwise a dynamic, thoughtful career retrospective. Adding a buzzword like Marvel to catch the eye of a wider audience is a strategy with which I can empathize as a freelance writer while also cringing at the resulting shitstorm of nonsense that anyone familiar with online discourse tendencies could have forecasted with enough accuracy to leave The Weather Channel jealous.

The second is the only truly vexing piece of the whole bloated picture: the “Marty vs. Marvel” narrative completely misrepresents the point Scorsese is actually making, and it’s worth going over this well-trod territory one more time to get to his actual point because it is really damn important.

Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel are not about Marvel, not really. They are about the dangers of monoculture, and how the current super-franchise minded industry is heading in precisely such a direction as Disney continues swallowing IPs whole like a cartoon mouse-faced version of The Blob. It’s a warning that we really need to understand and heed because this isn’t your standard doomsaying “cinema is dying” fare. It’s a very specific concern rooted in ongoing industry trends and backed with a solid body of evidence.

Let me give the man a chance to speak for himself with this key excerpt from the New York Times op-ed he wrote addressing the whole controversy: “So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.”

In a recently published interview with The Guardian, Scorsese repeats his fundamental concern even more bluntly. “Theatres have been commandeered by superhero films,” he notes. “[It’s] fine if you want to see it. It’s just that there’s no room for another kind of picture.”

Studios find comfort in the “too big to fail” quality of the biggest franchise fare (because that logic has worked out so swimmingly in other spheres), and there are plenty of moviegoers out there happy to go along for the ride. Scorsese isn’t one of them, but he’s not belittling those who are. He fully acknowledges the skill and talent at work in the MCU machine and respects the opinion of those who enjoy franchise fare. His concern is not about the success of Marvel, but the proliferation of the MCU and MCU-like fare at the exclusion of all others. That “exclusion” bit is the key part. He’s not trying to deny Marvel a seat at the table so much as he is concerned about leaving room for everyone else. He’s not upset about Marvel, he’s upset about monoculture, and the threat monoculture poses to movies as we know them.

Monoculture is a term typically used in agriculture to describe the practice of only cultivating one thing, often not merely crops of the same species but of the same genetically identical or nearly genetically identical strain. It’s a fitting term to borrow here because monoculture is a fundamentally harmful practice that industrial pressures and values have normalized, as is the situation that worries Scorsese. It is not natural for only one type of thing to grow. The only place this happens without human intervention, as far as I am aware, is in Devil’s gardens in the Amazon rainforest, so named because they are so incredibly creepy-looking that locals figured it must be evil spirits at work (it turned out to be ants; close enough).  Anyway, the point is that when humans insist on growing just one identical thing it is not healthy for anyone involved and tends to end poorly. Monoculture contributed to the Irish potato famine and is why bananas are fucked.

Biologically, the uniformity of monoculture is just about the worst fate that can befall any living population short of extinction, because that is precisely the fate monoculture often leads to with devastating efficiency. That Scorsese, who has often referred to cinema as a living thing, as something that must be protected and nourished and kept alive, would see a trend towards monoculture as something dangerous and sound the alarm is not only fitting but a testament to his continued astuteness regarding the state of the film industry.

In the “Marty vs. MCU” debacle, some have accused Scorsese of being, among other things, elitist, out of touch, and a gatekeeper. The thing is that there are a number of Scorsese’s peers who have come out with comments in recent years that genuinely do suggest these shortcomings, but that is not the case here. The irony of anyone calling Scorsese a gatekeeper, in particular, is off the fucking scale.

In terms of both protecting cinema’s past and seeking to ensure its bright future, there are few if any filmmakers working today who can show nearly as many receipts as Martin Scorsese. Not only did he make one of the best films of the year, but he also produced two of the others, The Souvenir and Uncut Gems, both from dynamic, independent filmmakers. He spearheaded The Film Foundation and The World Cinema Project, two non-profits dedicated to film preservation and education, the latter of which has brought a number of foreign films to the home media market that general American audiences would never have an opportunity to see otherwise.

In a recent interview, Scorsese questioned whether or not The Irishman might be his last film as a director, contrary to earlier announcements that indicate he’s getting set to film Killers of the Flower Moon, a period mystery starring Leonardo DiCaprio, next spring. For my money, I simply can’t imagine Scorsese not actively working on a film project so long as there’s breath in his body because “filmmaker” does not seem to be a hat that he wears but a part of his brain. I don’t think he could just switch it off even if he wanted to. That said, even if he were to retire, Scorsese has already given us so much to be thankful for, so many wonderful film experiences that have become woven into the fabric of our shared popular culture. He has made us laugh and cry, think and feel. Even his grandest epics feel deeply personal, and in turn, they have become deeply personal to countless others.

In sum, Martin Scorsese is not only a brilliant filmmaker who has taken moviegoers everywhere on incredible journeys for the better part of a century but a bona fide champion for the cause of film. He’s already inspired generations of viewers, and his incredible filmography is sure to continue inspiring many more to come. He’s not just our filmmaker of the year, but a perennial favorite.  He brings cinematic joy, and we will keep his filmography close to our hearts always.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.