best film: Goodfellas from Martin Scorsese
Goodfellas is narrative and stylistic cinematic bliss. I could watch it once a week. It has everything from some of the more memorable characters of the back-half of the twentieth century (acted to perfection by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and the rest of the cast) to a sustained visual brilliance throughout the entire running time. A cinema enthusiast could write an entire paper on the Copacabana shot/sequence which is amongst the greatest shots of all-time. The opening freeze-frames are fantastic as are Scorsese’s work with slow motion tracking shots (usually to The Rolling Stones and usually in a bar).
- One of Scorsese’s three finest films (spending too much time arguing between this, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver is not fruitful) which puts it up there all time with any film (it is my current #22 film of all-time as of 2019). I would argue that it is the most rewatchable film of all-time- I don’t think there’ is a faster 142 minutes in cinema history.
- She’s a hell of a writer but you have to laugh at Pauline Kael’s take on Goodfellas– “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so.” Haha.
- Like Taxi Driver soaked in yellow with a believable color design mise-en-scene motif here we are bombarded with reds throughout the film—the exaggerated red tail lights is the first thing you see after the credits (the simplistic but strong credits by Saul and Elaine Bass)—in that scene when they go around to the trunk, I mean the break is not on so the red is accentuated by Scorsese and DP Michael Ballhaus—and the red is pouring out of the trunk, too.
- The flashback sequences of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill coming of age act as almost their own short film. It is a series (formally so sound– it is not just a one-off) of voice-over narration with freeze-frames and then killer lines of dialogue like the famous “As far back I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” and “The way I figure it, everybody takes a beating” and the line about how his mother got respect at the grocery store. I believe there are six freezes, the one on Henry’s face, one of his father beating him, mailman in the oven, car exploding, De Niro handing him $20, and then the “broke your cherry” freeze – the series of freezes in this short film flashback opening marks some of the greatest uses of the freeze frame film technique in cinema history up there with The 400 Blows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jules and Jim.
- the trademark Scorsese pop/rock/doo-wop (from Who’s That Knocking in 1967 it’s been a Scorsese signifier of authorship) music, Cadillacs, nostalgia (while still being a Scorsese film with violence)
- After the flashback sequences of Henry Hill’s youth—we get the tracking shot in on Ray Liotta at the airport and the virtuoso style on display, though it pivots in technique (we’re done with the freezes), it does not let up
- Scorsese is smart enough to surround himself with an impeccable cast and crew—Pesci puts on an early mesmerizing display (in his Oscar-winning role) with the “Funny guy” routine. It is a testament to De Niro, Liotta, Bracco and Sorvino that Pesci does not simply blow them off the screen completely.
- Scorsese switches narrators 29 minutes in — passing the baton from the voice over of Liotta to Lorraine Bracco – she passes the baton back later– it is a bold choice and has proven to be incredibly influential (one could write a book on the influence of Goodfellas on Hollywood cinema in the last 30+ years from Boogie Nights to American Hustle).
- The standout set pieces are relentless- Scorsese whisks us off to the shine box scene with Frank Vincent and Pesci’s Tommy—a volcano of Napoleonic rage.
- In a transition, Liotta’s face is isolated and washed out in red
- The camera is always moving- another tracking shot along the bar as they plan the first heist and yet another shot (which would be the best single shot in almost any other film) is the introduction of all the other gangsters at the Bamboo Lounge including the “get the papers, get the papers”. You are spinning at this point.
- 88 minutes in and we’re doing coke and listening to Scorsese’s Rolling Stones (yep, they are his)
- the date in the form of black and white titles—the May 11, 1980 –113 minutes marks the start of another short film within a film. Scorsese takes the story to the 1980s with blow and the paranoia with the helicopter. Liotta is fatigued, sweaty and Scorsese is utilizing jump cuts galore and wild zooms as the world is closing in on Henry. This is the fall.
- During the sequence with De Niro and Liotta at the diner Scorsese uses Hitchcock’s zoom-in, dolly-out Vertigo shot to great effect.
- And then again, Scorsese flouts form breaking the fourth wall with Liotta talking to the camera.
- It makes for such an interesting counterpoint to The Godfather (came out in 1990- the same year as the much anticipated The Godfather: Part III).
- It is visually and narratively audacious, ambitious muscular filmmaking.
most underrated: I guess I’m not shocked Dick Tracy is still not in the top 1000 of all-time on the consensus TSPDT list. The film had mediocre reviews when it first came out and it is a comic book adaptation. With the talent involved, I think audiences (and critics) probably wanted more prestige and “importance.” However, for those that think what should be important is not the content of the material being covered, but the artistry displayed in the delivery of the content, this would be an impossible film to leave off the top 1000—and it is easily the most underrated film of 1990.
Dick Tracy is not the only underrated film of 1990. Paul Schrader has already been mentioned in this category twice with American Gigolo in 1980 and Mishima in 1985 and he is here again with The Comfort of Strangers. This film still has a negative Rotten Tomatoes score- ridiculous.
- It has some of Schrader’s trademark erotica fetishism, visually he deftly channels Visconti, Ozu, and Antonioni to deliver exhilarating cinematic style.
- If anyone thinks Schrader is merely a screenwriter this is as good a place as any to start to put an end that falsehood—this actually doesn’t have the best writing- I don’t know if its Ian McEwan’s novel or Harold Pinter’s screenplay to blame, but the intriguing premise, and brilliant visuals, are often let down by the mediocre dialogue.
- like Schrader’s Mishima, expressionist colors like this exaggerated blue neon sign and day for night
- Ornate ceiling opening—stunning, tracking shot looking through interiors and camera gliding through doorways of an opulent residence—a tapestry bounced off a mirror
- Venice- gorgeous establishing shots after the Walken voice-over (which makes a nice bookend). It’s a fascinating role and narrative form as we get the voice-over and then we don’t see Walken again for 20 minutes.
- Walken loves his monologues—and this one has a long one- but again the writing just doesn’t give you anyone to grab onto or admire in it.
- use of the archway here- Pawel Pawlikowski would do this decades later in Ida (a film Schrader would greatly admire and inspire him to make First Reformed actually) really strong
- The crew assembled behind the camera is as good as it gets. Michael Mann’s go-to DP Dante Spinotti, Lynch’s go-to composer– Angelo Badalamenti, Armani does the clothes
- Mirren is ok, Miranda Richardson fine, I think Rupert Everett leaves a little to be desired—Walken is great. I don’t know what that accent is, but he’s perfect as a spine-chilling stranger
- Shot through doorway with Walken in a Death in Venice-like white suite at 17 minutes- this is Ozu—even a teapot in it!
- Schrader- an Ozu acolyte in practice– striking interiors
- There’s an eerie golden orange lighting at night- really beautiful
- the characters are empty vessels on purpose– its in the text here as they peer into a shop window
- The green hue in the bedroom like Vertigo
- The one spot of dialogue I absolutely love is at the 91-minute mark when we finally see the reveal, the collage of pictures in their room and Mirren delivers the perfect “We are on the other side of the mirror”- whoa
- Gob-smackingly impressive slow-motion reverse crane shot murder- a triumph– at 96 minutes
most overrated: There really is not a choice here for this category I am comfortable with in 1990. I am sure others would argue the opposite, but I do not count Kiarostami’s Close Up as fiction. It walks the line of documentary and fiction very finely, but I have seen the film multiple times and am happy keeping it out of the archives. I am also going to refrain from picking An Angel at My Table from Jane Campion. I have not had a chance to see it in ages and was recently very impressed by Campion’s Sweetie so want to wait here.
gems I want to spotlight: Days of Being Wild from WKW and Slacker from Richard Linklater feel like the beginning of something special. Whit Stillman is not nearly as well known as either of the previously mentioned auteurs and Metropolitan is a film worth seeking out if you have not yet seen it. I also think Joe Versus the Volcano is a film that needs to be saved a little. It was the least commercially successful of the three Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan movies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) and certainly the least well known. Joe (Tom Hanks’ character)’s depressing arrival to work to Eric Burdon’s “Sixteen Tons” and then the little skit opening with the horrible lighting at the office has stayed with me—not to mention Hanks’ work alone on a raft luggage reaching for the moon and then dancing by himself to “Come Go With Me” by The Del-Vikings.
trends and notables:
- 1990 was supposed to be known as the year of The Godfather: Part III but Goodfellas from Scorsese swooped in and became not only the best film of the year but one of the best films of all-time. Coppola’s film is very good—but cinematic high-water marks like Goodfellas come alone once or twice a decade at most. These two films were not alone in the gangster genre. The Coen Brothers highly anticipated (and they delivered!) third feature Miller’s Crossing is from 1990 as is Abel Ferrera’s King of New York.
- Ghost and Pretty Women are the biggest movies in North American at least in 1990. These films made Julia Roberts and Demi Moore A-listers.
- As mentioned above in the gems section both Linklater and WKW had their first archiveable films with Days of Being Wild and Slacker (true debut for Linklater). Anthony Minghella made his first archiveable film with Truly Madly Deeply.
- There is just not much as far as first archiveable films for actors. I am not sure about the reason why but we have to dip to Annette Bening (in both The Grifters and Postcards From the Edge) and Brendan Gleeson (The Field).
- There is certainly something in the air in the early 1990s Indie movement with Linklater, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and some others (Hal Hartley, too).
best performance male: The top slot here is a virtual tie between two actors in the same movie. I have thought long and hard about this and there is no wrong answer picking either Ray Liotta or Joe Pesci for their work in Goodfellas as the performance of the year. If forced to choose, I would go with Pesci for his undeniably dominant presence– but I can hardly finish this sentence without changing my mind, so I’ll just move on. Behind those two I think there is enough room here for Robert De Niro’s work as well. He is clearly third behind Pesci and Liotta (or maybe even fourth counting Lorraine Bracco in the female category) but if the ultimate goal is to be an strong part of a superior work of cinema then I cannot not mention De Niro in Goodfellas. After we get past the Goodfellas trio stealing the show (and I have half a mind to put Paul Sorvino here, too) I’d get to Al Pacino in Dick Tracy. Pacino blasts poor Warren Beatty off the screen (and anyone else in the cast is also left in his wake). Pacino clearly took the roll seriously despite the costume and prosthetics. Who would have thought coming into 1990 that Pacino land in this category for playing Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice over Michael Corleone? Lastly, 1990 has two smaller (screen time) performances in wonderful films that warrant attention. John Turturro does not play the lead in Miller’s Crossing– he does not get second or third billing either– but his scenes are absolutely pivotal, and he is as good as any actor in 1990 on a minute for minute basis. Matching Turturro is Willem Dafoe as the unforgettable Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Dafoe’s achievement isn’t quite to Hopper’s level in Blue Velvet– but their characters, and their performances, are related.
best performance female: It is a shut out here for Goodfellas in 1990. There is nobody that compares to Lorraine Bracco’s work in this category. Her transformation from quiet beginning to the wild, coke-infused third act finale thoroughly astounds. Behind Bracco, the second best female acting performance of 1990 is Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart. Once you stop thinking about Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, you’ll be haunted by the performance of Ladd (stealing a spot in this category over her daughter Laura Dern) as David Lynch’s Wicked Witch of the West.
- Wild at Heart
- Miller’s Crossing
- Dick Tracy
- Days of Being Wild
- The Match Factory Girl
- The Comfort of Strangers
- Total Recall
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Bullet in the Head- Woo|
|Alice – Allen||R|
|An Angel at My Table- Campion||R/HR|
|Arachnophobia- F. Marshall||R|
|Awakenings- P. Marshall||R|
|Cyrano De Bergerac- Rappeneau||R|
|Dances With Wolves – Costner||HR|
|Days of Being Wild – WKW||MS|
|Dick Tracy – Beatty||MS|
|Dreams – Kurosawa||R/HR|
|Edward Scissorhands – Burton||R/HR|
|Europa Europa- Holland||R|
|Goodfellas – Scorsese||MP|
|Hidden Agenda- Loach||R|
|Home Alone – Columbus||R|
|Internal Affairs- Figgis||R|
|Joe Versus the Volcano – Shanley||R|
|Ju Dou- Yimou Zhang|
|La Femme Nikita- Besson||R|
|Life is Sweet – Leigh||R|
|May Fools- Malle|
|Miller’s Crossing – Coen||MS|
|Misery – Reiner||R|
|Mr. & Mrs. Bridge – Ivory||R|
|Postcards From the Edge – M. Nichols||R/HR|
|Presumed Innocent- Pakula||R|
|Reversal of Fortune – Schroeder||R|
|State of Grace- Joanou||R|
|Taxi Blues – Lungin|
|The Comfort of Strangers – Schrader||HR|
|The Field- Sheridan|
|The Freshman- Andrew Bergman||R|
|The Godfather: Part III – F. Coppola||R/HR|
|The Grifters- Frears||R|
|The Hairdresser’s Husband- Leconte||R|
|The Hunt For Red October – McTiernan||R|
|King of New York- Ferrara||R/HR|
|The Match Factory Girl- Kaurismaki||HR|
|The Russia House- Schepisi||R|
|The Sheltering Sky- Bertolucci||R|
|The Witches- Roeg||R|
|To Sleep With Anger- Burnett|
|Total Recall- Verhoeven||HR|
|Vincent and Theo- Altman||R|
|Wild at Heart- Lynch||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
Andy Garcia is a revelation in Godfather part 3.
The biting of Joey Zasa’s ear,the brutal killings at the apartment,the killing of Zasa during the street festival,becoming the don of the Corleone family.A lot of the film’s standout scenes involve him.It’s probably his career best work too.Don’t you think he deserve a mention in the best male category?
What is the better performance Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas or Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost?
Nobody can compete with Bracco this year, not only is it an incredible performance, it’s also in the best movie of the decade
Do you think Ray Liotta should have won the academy award for best actor for Goodfellas?
Misery is one of the best films of 1990.One of the best film adaptations from a Stephen King book.Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes is the best female villain to reach the screen since Louisie Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched.Kathy Bates not getting a mention in the best female category is a joke.
@Malith— appreciate the comment here. Thanks for the feedback
Misery is a masterpiece.Plain and simple.
I’m sure Misery is a masterpiece as well.Even though Shining had more stunning images Misery is the better film.It’s one of those films where It’s perfect from start to finish.Even though lot say The hobbling scene is the most disturbing.It’s actually the killing of Richard Farnsworth’s character.Freaked me out.Way more realistic than Shining and Dead Zone as well.Rob Reiner made two of the best films of the year back to back so how is he the 241st best director of all time.
Have you seen Francis Ford Coppola’s new version of The Godfather Part III?
It seems that Goodfellas may contain the best direction, screenwriting, male and female acting, editing, and camera movement of 1990. That’s a staggering lineup. Are there any other best-of-the-year films with such a clean sweep victory (excluding the 1910s-20s and much of the 30s where there weren’t quite enough movies to provide suitable competition)?
@Graham – Lost in Translation comes to mind (perhaps there’s another film from 2003 though with better camera movement).
Great movie, but I’m not sure I’d give it the top spot in any of those categories (it’d be close in a couple), much less all of them.
Agreed. I like the film very much but I’d probably just give it the acting and screenwriting spots.
I would argue Raging Bull although some would argue that The Shining is strong enough in the acting categories and in most years it would but De Niro as Jake Lamatta is a top 3 performance ever and maybe even # 1
And in editing, camera movement, directing, and screen writing I think it’s the best
I think Vertigo might have it in 1958 but Touch of Evil bests it in editing and perhaps even cinematography and direction. Two unbelievably close films there.
Here are some suggestions of well-rounded year winners that have yet to be mentioned, though most likely lose in a few of the categories:
Rome, Open City
The Third Man
Pierrot le Fou
2001: A Space Odyssey
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Once Upon a Time in America
In the Mood for Love
The Dark Knight
The “best male and female acting” is a pretty major killer here. It took me a while to even come up with Vertigo since there’s just not that many with both; most have one or the other. And some that have both fall even just slightly short in other aspects; In The Mood For Love comes out in the same year as Werckmeister Harmonies, for example. Chinatown too comes out in the same year as The Godfather Part II. I watched Bonnie and Clyde maybe a weekend or two ago and loved it, but I’m not sure either it or The Graduate hold a clean sweep of all the categories in 1967. Annie Hall is probably a solid mention. Pretty shit year there so shouldn’t be too hard even if it is going up against Star Wars.
Interesting fact, Lorraine Bracco was offered the role of Carmela Soprano in “The Sopranos” but turned it down for the opportunity to play the role of the therapist, Dr. Melfi. Bracco said she didn’t want to play the mob wife again, and instead was interested in a new challenge, good for her and good for us Sopranos fans as Melfi was one of the best and most interesting characters on the show.
By the way, she’s far from the only Goodfellas actor/actress to play in “The Sopranos”. Here are all 27 of them:
And Ray Liotta almost played Tony Soprano so they could have been a husband-wife pair there as well.
@Harry – funny, I didn’t know that. Can’t imagine anyone but James Gandolfini, he’s so iconic at this point. There is actually a Sopranos prequel coming out, The Many Saints of Newark. It is a movie rather than an entire series. Looks interesting, Gandolfini’s real life son, Michael Gandolfini, is going to play Tony Soprano.
Great page as always.
During my WKW study Days of Being Wild was a revelation and as much as I loved As Tears Go By (1988) this feels like the 1st true WKW style film and it’s not a coincidence that it’s WKW 1st collaboration with Christopher Doyle.
It’s such a phenomenal mood piece with brilliant use of green and blue palette.
Yuddy is a fascinating character, his ridiculous confidence around women (the coke scene and one minute friends speech is amazing) is contrasted with the hurt and pain of maternal rejection and in some ways the rejection of love by a mother is 10X more devastating than rejection from a lover.
While set in the 1960s it seems to exist in a timeless place (great time related motifs, clocks)
Some thoughts I posted on the WKW page:
“Similar to In the Mood for Love (2000) much of the film feels as if it is set in enclosed spaces; hallways, small apartment rooms, etc. When Yuddy goes to the Philippines it initially feels like he’s headed toward new opportunities and open spaces. But shortly after his biological mother rejects any possible involvement in his life he is back in a dark cramped apartment. The reference to a bird with no legs who is forced to spend his entire life flying is brilliant and very WKW.
Love the jungle shots and just the entire color palette. Does any director do scenes in the rain better than WKW”
@James Trapp- Thanks– happy to hear you enjoy the page update
I’ve only just discovered this site yesterday, and I must say, it’s revitalized my love for real cinema. Nothing wrong with a good popcorn flick, don’t get me wrong – but browsing the archives here has kick started my thirst for some classics. I’ve been updating my Letterbox’d watchlist non stop!
Thanks drake – I’ll be watching.
@mfwilli2- Welcome to the site- thank you for the comment and for visiting.
@mfwilli2 – good for you, it took me a little while to post on the site, I think I was following for several months before my first post. A lot of great discussions on a huge range of films. I have learned a ton.
My favourite part of the week is when the new yearly archive post drops. Cant believe we are already in the 90s
@Big chungus- What a nice thing to say- thank you. I’ve been trying to pick up the pace a little- 1991 coming soon.
“You could justifiably write an entire paper on the shot…”. Yes, yes you could. *cough*
@Matt Harris- haha- this is me shining the bat signal for you
I’ve not seen the movie yet but I’ve heard that Maggie Cheung in days of being wild was superlative. Don’t you think she deserves a mention in a weak year for women like this.
Also I’ve seen the movie & I think that Gong li was superb in 1988’s red sorghum. Again in a weak year, don’t you think she’s mention-worthy.
@MASH- You could be right on both of these but I’ll have to wait for another viewing. One improvement (at least as I see it) is not letting the variable strength or weakness of the year have any influence on who does or does not get a mention. Some years I may have 0 or 1, some times I may have 10