best film:   There are a treasure trove of best film options for Joe Pesci. Pesci is on his list because of his work helmed by Martin Scorsese so one has to start there – in quality and chronological order: Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Irishman (2019). Both Raging Bull and Goodfellas, in particular, have a very strong argument to be called the best film of their respective decade. But there are two other films here to consider at least. Pesci is not a main cog in wheel of Sergio Leone’s crime epic Once Upon a time in America (1984) – but it has to mentioned here – it is a masterpiece. Pesci, is a major piece in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). As David Ferrie, Pesci is spellbinding – mimicking a hummingbird’s movements – he zips around his apartment in a drug-infused rant.


Raging Bull is one of the best films of all-time and Pesci is spectacular in it standing next to probably the best performance of all-time by Robert De Niro. Pesci worked with De Niro for six archiveable films (an additional two archiveable films outside of the collaborations with Scorsese). Goodfellas is not the only Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci film with a Copacabana scene. Raging Bull has a Copa scene and here it is Pesci’s turn to carry the film. Pesci is crazy good for the entire film – what a revelation in 1980 to have the acting chops to spar with De Niro and not get blasted off the screen is almost unfathomable (think of poor Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood – that does not happen to Pesci). In the Copa scene in particular, Pesci is just fine owning a chunk of the film without De Niro in it at all.


best performance:  Goodfellas is the answer without much hesitation but each of Joe Pesci’s top four (4) performances are among the best of their respective year, so if the choice here is really no choice at all, it is because of just how good he is in the 1990 gangster saga. Pesci’s Tommy DeVito is a magnetic sociopath. Pesci won the Oscar for his work here and rightly so. He outdoes the great Robert De Niro and delivers an absolute tour de force performance. His “funny how?” sequence is a justifiably classic scene and it is brilliant because of Pesci’s acting – not Scorsese’s or even Ray Liotta’s contribution to the scene really. One could pick out any number of other scenes in the film (the sadistic scene with Spider, the shine box scene with frequent sparring partner Frank Vincent). Pesci masterly weaves a tapestry of comedy and dread – quite often in the same scene.


Pesci as Tommy – a volcano of Napoleonic rage. 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 “How am I funny?” routine.


stylistic innovations/traits:   Joe Pesci has nine (9) films in the archives and there is strong evidence to support that six (6) of them are masterpieces. This per-film ratio is enough to make Daniel Day-Lewis jealous in some ways (and Pesci only has roughly 30 film credits overall). Pesci is close to John Cazale’s superior 1970s run of quality films – but Cazale does not have a Goodfellas (Cazale’s Fredo would probably be closer to Pesci’s Joey from Raging Bull achievement). If Pesci, Scorsese and De Niro are The Beatles (and they are not – the director is far more important than any one Beatle) – then Pesci is definitely George Harrison – but that is a compliment. The knock on Pesci’s resume is certainly that lack of depth (there are fine actors with twenty to thirty archiveable films and some big staggering performances – still left off this list) and that criticism is fair and should be recognized. We all wish we had more Pesci (it felt like a gift to get the late 2019 The Irishman turn). Pesci was late bloomer (not quite Anthony Hopkins late) getting his first archiveable performance at thirty-seven (37) and his big year (1990 – a box office smash in Home Alone and an Oscar win for Goodfellas) comes at the age of forty-seven (47) and it made him a legit Hollywood player and star for a few years in the 1990s (some big lead roles in this strech and roughly 12 of his 30 total films happen in that six year period). One last thought here, if De Niro is the best actor of all-time (and he is) – how about Pesci outdueling him (not that it is a contest) in potentially three of the four big Scorsese collaborations (the irrefutable De Niro win would be for Raging Bull)? That makes for a compelling case for Pesci.


from Casino (1995) – the three (3) leads (Robert De Niro, Pesci and Sharon Stone) are doing top-level work. De Niro is very strong, Pesci riffs on his Goodfellas performance – he adds some physicality to character – like a bulldog. Stone is the only one who got a nomination but that is a shame – De Niro and Pesci are doing great work. Here, Scorsese’s flowing camera glides from one side of the Gold Rush store location, past all the members of Pesci’s crew in medium shot, then ultimately to Pesci in close up


directors worked with:  Martin Scorsese (4), Sergio Leone (1), Olivier Stone (1). Those collaborations with Scorsese obviously make Pesci’s career. However, he is part of a Christmas tradition film (Home Alone) showing off some comedy range and of course JFK is so important to his case – proving he clearly has the chops even without Scorsese. Plus, subtracting a director from an actor (whether it is Anna Karina, Toshiro Mifune or Klaus Kinski) is just an impossible game to play.


from The Irishman – this is a major add to Pesci’s overall resume (which is not quite on the level of costars De Niro or Al Pacino). Pesci’s Russell Bufalino character is the opposite of his Tommy in Goodfellas or Nicky in Casino. He is not a volcano. He is pensive, calculating – he is playing chess – closer to Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Pesci has some of the best lines in the film like “It is what it is”,  “He has no choice”, and “I don’t need two roads coming back to me.”


top five performances:

  1. Goodfellas
  2. Casino
  3. Raging Bull
  4. The Irishman
  5. JFK


archiveable films

1980- Raging Bull
1984- Once Upon a Time in America
1990- Goodfellas
1990- Home Alone
1991- JFK
1992- My Cousin Vinny
1993- A Bronx Tale
1995- Casino
2019- The Irishman