The Movie Waffler Ranking Paul Schrader’s Top Films | The Movie Waffler

Ranking Paul Schrader’s Top Films

While Martin Scorsese has cemented himself as a household name, one of the director’s closest (and most influential) colleagues is rarely recognized. Paul Schrader has penned some of Hollywood’s most atmospheric and touching films—often working as a writer-director duo with Scorsese.

However, Schrader’s work as a solo writer-director stands on its own. In fact, starting with 1978’s Blue Collar, Schrader proved his worth in writing and working behind the camera. Most recently, Schrader released The Card Counter, a dark look at a blackjack specialist who takes on an unlikely position as a mentor.

The film draws inspiration from blackjack, which remains one of the most ubiquitous card and strategy games in North America. Today, the game is largely played online; the availability of virtual blackjack means there are multiple variations available on most gaming sites. However, card counting still occurs on the floor at in-person casinos.

Schrader’s main character is a conservative card counter, which helps add atmosphere and nuance to the plot. When the film debuted in November 2021, it received positive reviews, racking up nominations from a variety of film critic circles. Oscar Isaac, as card counter William Tell, received particular acclaim.

Still, the film isn’t likely to go down as one of the director’s top flicks. Keep reading for the top five projects from the prestigious writer and director, in either role.

First: Taxi Driver (1976)

While most credit for Taxi Driver is offered to director Scorsese, there’s an undeniable ambiance that he captures when working with Schrader scripts. At the forefront of the movie is a gritty material exploration and visual dedication common to Scorsese’s work—but it all falls back on the edgy script and story penned by Schrader. 

Schrader is the one who captures the raw energy of a Gotham-esque New York City, which was in part informed by the dissolution of his personal life at the time of writing. Add in an unforgettable anti-hero, and Schrader has helped create one of Hollywood’s most lasting characters.

Second: Blue Collar (1978)

Once again, Schrader finds himself at the crossroads of social commentary, working-class settings, and characters in chaotic situations. As a director, Schrader imbues this drama with the mundanity of everyday life—just served with an extra side of risk and self-loathing.

What makes Blue Collar stand the test of time is its moral complexity. Just like Taxi Driver managed to endear audiences to Robert De Niro’s disturbed vigilante, Schrader manages to handle a topic like union corruption with greater nuance, and context than other contemporary projects.

The main characters are decidedly human—they’re angry, courageous, and radicalized. Not to mention, the film captured one of Richard Pryor’s most poignant on-screen performances, in which he plays one of the down-and-out assembly line workers.

Third: First Reformed (2018)

When it comes to logging in the third-best film from Schrader, Raging Bull, Light Sleeper, or American Gigolo are all solid options—and they’re often mentioned in articles that create Schrader rankings. However, First Reformed is regarded by some critics as Schrader’s masterpiece.

The film is one of few that touches on the writer’s own origin story. Schrader was raised in a highly conservative family and didn’t see his first film until he was a young adult. At the time, he wasn’t a fan of cinema—and wouldn’t be until he dove into mid-century European directors who influenced his interest in film noir. 

First Reformed hits on multiple notes from Schrader’s most formative years. First, the film explores a small parish in a rural outpost, harkening back to certain features of his own upbringing. Second, there’s an undeniable influence from the mid-century European directors that once stoked Schrader’s interest in film.

Both films American Gigolo and The Card Counter featured endings reminiscent of Frenchman Robert Bresson’s work, along with influences from Danish director Carl Dreyer and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. However, First Reformed offers homage to these directors while affirming Schrader has put his own mark on film noir.