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Monday, March 2, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 4 - Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas (1990; Warner Bros.)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Peleggi
Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro

Scorsese returns for his final film on my list.  Goodfellas is the astoundingly-told odyssee of a man’s rise through the ranks of a local crime family, and his ultimate fall.  Henry Hill (Liotta) grew up admiring the local gangs.  The mob guys were the ones with the fancy clothes, nice cars and most of all, the respect.  As he grew up, his ties to a local heavy-hitter named Jim Conway (De Niro) and his association with the violent and unpredictable Tommy (Pesci), drove him to climb the ranks in the Family, at his peak becoming a successful and respected leader.  All seems well, but as a shaky marriage crumbles, and addiction consumes his life, Hill’s legacy becomes a faded memory barely filling an otherwise hollow shell.

As I said in my article on Casino, Scorsese knows how to tell an epic character study that spans many years.  Goodfellas’ narrative is told from the perspective of a man who always loved what he had become, until finally we see what he becomes by the end of the story.  It seems like it may have even been glorifying the life of a gangster, until we see what happens to those who are deep inside.  It’s a hard-edge look at the lives of a few powerful guys and how everything can all so easily fall apart.

Liotta gives a career-defining performance here.  I’ve always liked him as an actor, but I have yet seen him recreate the excellence he showed here.  Scorsese can often bring the best out of his performers and Liotta seems like he was just right for this role.  Good looking, smart, fast, a strong commanding voice… everything he needed was there and he didn’t just take it and run, he owned it.  Every scene he is in is highlighted by a subtle acting style that reflects mood and tone so well that you feel sucked in.  Joe Pesci gives his most famous (and Oscar-winning) role here, notably in the classic “Am I funny to you?!” scene.  Lastly, De Niro gives one of his more understated performances here, never going too far into the extreme, rather finding a nice soft balance.  His emotional scenes are so good, and he has just enough presence to not be overshadowed while never feeling like he’s trying to steal the show, as De Niro is occasionally want to do.  

Goodfellas has gone down as one of the greatest films of all time, and like many movies that share this title, it was heavily snubbed by the tone-deaf Academy.  It received a number of nominations, but Liotta was snubbed his nomination shot, and the film lost the Best Picture nod to the absolutely dull Dances With Wolves, a film that only has a legacy of being the movie Avatar rips off.  1991’s awards have somewhat become notorious, and deservingly-so.  Have YOU heard of most of those movies?  Probably not.  Dances with Wolves, sure.  Awakenings was a good movie, yes.  However, Goodfellas’ Oscar-snub is just another mark on an already messy and unreliable record for The Academy Awards, with most of the more winning films going down as forgotten or mediocre pieces, while the movies that got the finger tend to be highly praised… I’m talking to YOU How Green Was My Valley?! (If you don’t know, look it up)

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