As the 20th century ended, Martin Scorsese had achieved a rollercoaster of great success and great failure. While he began the 1980s and 1990s with masterpieces in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, he ended both decades with critical and/or commercial disappointment. Throughout the 1990s, Scorsese had entered a major period of genre experimentation – jumping from one style to another to the surprise of even his loyal fans. He had taken chances with filming a lavish 19th-century romantic drama, and even surprised everyone with a biopic on the Dalai Lama. His partnership with actor Robert De Niro had reached a break (though hope for another film remains eternal), while he took on new collaborations with other esteemed directors and actors. When Scorsese reached the 2000s and the 21st century, his career would undergo a major renaissance – with a golden reward that would come along the way.
Scorsese began the decade as more of a behind-the-scenes presence, first co-presenting the Kenneth Branagh musical Love’s Labour’s Lost with legendary director-choreographer Stanley Donen. He was also executive producer on Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 Oscar-nominated drama You Can Count on Me, and Scorsese would later be asked to assist the writer-director in shaping an edit for his 2011 drama Margaret. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Scorsese filmed a love letter to New York City life with The Neighborhood – which would be presented as part of the epic “Concert for New York City.”
In 2002, Scorsese was back on the big screen with the epic drama Gangs of New York. This film was significant, as it was the director’s first effort with Oscar-nominated superstar Leonardo DiCaprio. He starred as Amsterdam Vallon, a young Irishman in 1860s New York bent on avenging the death of his father by taking out the notorious Bill the Butcher. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Bill, and he & DiCaprio were joined in the cast by Cameron Diaz as the beautiful prostitute caught between them. Despite budget and length issues, Gangs of New York was a critical and commercial success. It earned ten Oscar nominations, including a fourth Best Director bid for Scorsese. He and the film would walk away empty-handed.
2003 saw the rebirth of Scorsese the music documentarian, years after tracing Woodstock and The Band’s farewell with The Last Waltz. He stepped onto PBS as producer of The Blues, a seven-part series about the evolution and history of blues music. Scorsese directed the opening episode, while other installments were directed by the likes of Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood. In 2005, he came back to PBS for No Direction Home, an Emmy-nominated epic documentary on the early years of Bob Dylan – as he rose from Minnesota-born folk troubadour to American rock and roll superstar.
In 2004, Scorsese focused his energies on the life of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes with the biopic The Aviator. DiCaprio returned to the Scorsese fold to play the title role, and he had two powerhouse leading ladies to fall for – Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner & Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. Scorsese’s film traced Hughes over a 20-plus year period, from his days as a movie producer to his work in the aviation industry – even as his psychological state was falling apart due to his suffering from OCD. The Aviator was another critical and box office hit for Scorsese, and unlike Gangs, it would walk away with five Academy Awards (including one for Blanchett’s performance). Despite better overall luck on Oscar night and a fifth bid for the directing prize, Scorsese was shut out again. He would end 2004 with a voice-over role as a shark with crime ties in the animated hit Shark Tale – joining with Will Smith & Angelina Jolie, and reuniting with old friend Robert De Niro.
Scorsese then looked to the Hong Kong cinema world for inspiration for his next film – as Andrew Lau’s 2002 crime thriller Infernal Affairs provided the idea for what would become The Departed. He would set it in Boston, and DiCaprio returned for his fourth go-around with the director – joined by Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and the legendary Jack Nicholson. The Departed follows a young officer (DiCaprio) working undercover in a mob boss’ unit, while that same boss (Nicholson) has one of his own (Damon) getting deep into the inner workings of the Boston police force. The cat-and-mouse games proved to be irresistible for critics and audiences, as The Departed became yet another modern classic in the Scorsese canon. The film would be Scorsese’s first Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, and it also broke the director’s legendary losing streak for the Best Director prize. After six tries, he finally landed the coveted statuette.
The rest of the decade would have Scorsese dialing his directing duties back a bit. In 2008, he filmed the Rolling Stones inside New York’s historic Beacon Theater for the concert film Shine a Light (named after a song on the band’s seminal 1972 album Exile on Main Street). He also directed and starred in the 2007 short The Key to Reserva, presented the 2008 Italian film Gomorrah, and was also an executive producer on the 2009 biopic The Young Victoria. Scorsese would also reunite with Mark Wahlberg, his co-star in The Departed, by making a cameo as himself on the Wahlberg-produced HBO series Entourage. He also returned to his work of preserving film history with the founding of the World Cinema Foundation in 2007, joined by a group of international filmmakers including Wim Wenders, Guillermo del Toro and Wong Kar-Wai.
The 2000s was a great time for Martin Scorsese, as he achieved unprecedented heights – even for a director of his legendary stature. His new partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio provided some of his best box office numbers, while also landing him Hollywood’s most coveted prize. Scorsese also gained a reputation for being a great profiler of musical icons and styles, from the blues to Bob Dylan. As the 21st century took hold on the world, one of the 20th century’s most respected directors had seemingly re-established himself as a filmmaking force. The power of Scorsese was back, as strong and perhaps more relevant than at any point previous.