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 20th 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 BlowsButch 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 Copacabana shot is breathtaking. Is it the best oner in cinema? Best 3 minutes in cinema? I think it is.  You could justifiably write an entire paper on the shot but it obviously as a technical marvel and whisks you away (like Bracco’s character) which impacts the mood, narrative and character—there’s also Scorsese’s red focus decent into Hell motif in the production design and Henry Hill goes from the lush greens at the beginning of the shot as we enter the club and then he is surrounded by the reds of Hell. The shot has everything.

  • 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.

Red lights exploding from the car and earth seemingly as they dig up the body– expressionism from perhaps cinema’s greatest artist

  • 88 minutes in and we’re doing coke and listening to Scorsese’s Rolling Stones (yep, they are his)

a slow-motion tracking shot of at the bar of cinema’s greatest actor (and call back to Mean Streets)– enhancing the gymnastics going on in his head- in another film, maybe even another masterpiece, this is the best shot of the film

  • 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.

 

Warren Beatty has only directed five films, and this was his first one since 1981’s Reds. He puts all his energy into it here. It is his best film as a director. The film won the Oscar for art direction and make-up and should have won costume (Cyrano De Bergerac won). It’s a marvel of mise-en-scene and shot by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist).

a beautiful split diopter deep focus shot – Beatty and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro almost seem unburdened by the weight of source material and the gravitas of the history of Reds – their previous collaboration

another from Dick Tracy– the film everyone forgets about when discussing the greatest comic book adaptations

 

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

20 minutes a slanted overhead shot through the alley— this is Antonioni’s La Notte—gorgeous shot

  • 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

Shot of 100 minutes through the doors of Walken with police—this is Antonioni again—magnificent

 

 

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.

 

from Days of Being Wild– WKW achieves a rarity in cinema history where he is both formally rigorous (like a Jarmusch or Eisenstein) …

…but also cinematically romantic with his stylistic flourishes (perhaps more like a Ophuls. Truffaut or Renoir).

Richard Linklater’s Slacker is at once the announcement of a new auteur and another confirmation of the 1990s Indie cinema revolution.  This ensemble piece borrows from Altman (like Nashville this is a tour of a town  without a real forward moving narrative).  The bold camera work on display here is not a trait Linklater would come to be known for but the unique writing (on history, surrealism, pop culture, politics) echo Generation X  without feeling trapped the time. It helps set the tone for Linklater as an artist to come and develop in later works. It is such an original creation.

Tom Hanks on a raft made out of luggage in Joe Versus the Volcano- a tiny little surprise gem in 1990

 

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).

 

epic photography from Dean Semler the photographer, and John Barry’s luminous score– Dances with Wolves may not be Goodfellas, but it is an excellent film and debut for Kevin Costner (riding so high in 1990) as director.

while some were working outside the Hollywood system during part of the early 1990s indie movement, Paul Verhoeven was crafting a really solid body of work from the inside- this here is from Total Recall 

Laudable expressionistic touches from Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands (the pastel houses, the gothic castle) and a fine Johnny Depp performance (and Diane Wiest is solid as well)

a sumptuous photograph from Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky

 

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 Crossinghe 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.

 

Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Some masterpieces have a brilliant narrative, some have two to three show stopping formal or stylistic high-water marks… Goodfellas has one of cinema’s ten greatest narratives and is wall-to-wall virtuoso-stylistic, auteur cinema — there are a dozen highlights at least.

Willem Dafoe as Bobby Peru (along with Laura Dern) here in Wild at Heart. The shot choice, character, and performance is all connected to Blue Velvet– auteur cinema and another surrealism nightmare from the mind of David Lynch

one of the best sequences in 1990 here with John Turturro as Bernie Bernbaum- pleading in the woods in The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing

 

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.

 

top 10

  1. Goodfellas
  2. Wild at Heart
  3. Miller’s Crossing
  4. Dick Tracy
  5. Days of Being Wild
  6. Slacker
  7. The Match Factory Girl
  8. The Comfort of Strangers
  9. Metropolitan
  10. Total Recall

 

seek out the film from a director after a watershed masterpiece- David Lynch’s 1990 Wild at Heart here- his follow up to 1986’s Blue Velvet

a fine composition from Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table

The third film in the Proletariat trilogy from Aki Kaurismäki is The Match Factory Girl here after Shadows in Paradise in 1986 and Ariel in 1988– Kati Outinen (a staple in Kaurismäki films) as the lead- Iris- the title character. The frame at 59 minutes is Fassbinder- one of Kaurismäki finest like the kiss in the doorway in Shadows in Paradise—a total wow—and he knows it holding on it for one minute and then cutting to a flower after that scene. It is easily the film’s high-water mark.

Rob Reiner is responsible for two of the very best Stephen King adaptations- 1990’s Misery and 1986’s Stand by Me.

Christopher Walken had a big year in 1990 – here in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York as Frank White, and in Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers

 

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
Ghost- Zucker 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
Metropolitan- Stillman HR
Miller’s Crossings – 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
Slacker- Linklater MS
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
Trust- Hartley
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