Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Goodfellas (#29)

The Favorites - Goodfellas (#29)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Goodfellas (1990/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #29 on my original list.

What it is • This is the earliest film on this list that I actually remember being released in theaters. Don't get me wrong - I didn't go anywhere near the theaters showing it (spoilers follow, if that matters at this point). The tale of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a real life Queens hoodlum-turned FBI informant, and his pals Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), the film is loaded with foul-mouthed tirades and bloody executions, not to mention "adult themes." Seven in the fall of 1990, I was only allowed to see one Joe Pesci movie: Home Alone, in which the hot-tempered little guy's head is merely set on fire rather than shot full of holes. I was very aware of Goodfellas at the time; my father and adult relatives talked about it all the time (my dad explained the plot points, observing that Pesci plays an evil killer yet the film makes you feel sorry for him when he dies). I was old enough to glance through the newspapers and see all the four-star reviews, and to watch the Oscars (well, on videotape the next day, since they were past my bedtime) and see clips of Pesci growling, "You think I'm funny?" Goodfellas' stellar reputation has held for the following quarter-century (it marked that anniversary last year with a tempest-in-a-social-media-teapot about whether or not women liked Goodfellas too - they do). It has remained one of Scorsese's most celebrated films, providing a template, dialogue patter, and cinematic style followed by dozens, if not hundreds, of gangster/drug dealer/con artist films since, including many of Scorsese's own. While he's done a lot of interesting work since 1990, a strong case can be made that none of his subsequent films has been as influential or widely beloved. That's not to knock them; it's just to observe the cinematic juggernaut Goodfellas became in the decades following its debut.

Why I like it •
The movie lingered in the pop culture throughout my childhood (I could've sworn there was a Chuck E. Cheese parody poster joining their spoofs of Gone With the Wind and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but Google turns up nothing). I finally watched it as a teenager and enjoyed it greatly - although I remember being disappointed by the grungier, coke-fueled flavor of the final sequence, which is actually a pretty brilliant stylistic coup. I have watched the film many, many times since...this is definitely the film I'm most likely to stick with when flipping through the channels, even with all the ridiculous edits to cover up the profanity. Goodfellas is compulsively watchable, thanks to a combination of fleet-footed storytelling, absorbing subject matter, and electric camerawork and editing. Some have celebrated the film for undercutting the romanticized mythology of the Godfather saga (that Goodfellas came out around the same time as the much-criticized Godfather Part III feels like a passing of the torch). Others have condemned it for offering its own sort of romanticization, less gauzy perhaps, but no less appealing in its own way (the "ladies don't like Goodfellas" op-ed leaned heavily on this reading, but presented it in a positive light). I think both are true: the film doesn't get cute with audiences, forcing us to watch some truly terrible acts (maybe the worst being Tommy's murder of a mild-mannered underling who dares to talk back). But it would also be dishonest, as dishonest as the film is not, to deny the sociopathic charisma of these slimeballs. The movie is fun and serious, fantasized and realistic. Its patter could be appreciated as a radio show with the images turned off and as an audiovisual symphony that flows majestically even without the absorbing voiceover narration or back-and-forth banter. Of course, it functions best with all these ingredients working together. If this list, while dubbed "The Favorites", is really a collection of movies I find both deeply entertaining and truly accomplished as works of art, then Goodfellas is one of the most perfectly balanced pictures you'll find here.

More from me • Looking back six years, I see I offered some similar, but slightly shorter, thoughts on the film on its twentieth anniversary, as part of my Remembering the Movies series (the write-up also includes some quotes from Siskel & Ebert). A clip opens "A Dark Dawn", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

How you can see it • Goodfellas is available on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix and for digital rental/purchase on these sites.

What do you think? • Is Goodfellas overrated in Scorsese's canon; does it overshadow some of his more interesting later work? Can you watch the movie, or at least parts of the movie, as casual entertainment or does it seem too dark or serious for that enjoyment? Do any of the fast-paced rise-and-fall films that followed Goodfellas' forms manage to match this film's accomplishment - do some come close, or are they all pale imitations?

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Dan Heaton said...

Goodfellas is my favorite Scorsese film and one of my favorites of all time. I've read the book that it's based on multiple times and love the way Scorsese structures the film with the killing up front. Liotta and Pesci have never been better on screen, and it's one De Niro's undervalued performances. Just great across the board, with so many classic sequences.

Joel Bocko said...

You know after all these viewings I've still never read the book! Should get to it one of these days.

Dan Heaton said...

I think it's definitely worth your time. It's an easy read and gives some real-life context to Hill's story.

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