100 Movie Challenge: #92 Goodfellas

B+

Goodfellas 1990
Goodfellas 1990

It’s our third straight crime-thriller and this one splits the difference. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 neo-noir gangster staple, Goodfellas, was one of those films on the list that inspired me to take the 100 Movie Challenge. As a fan of the ever-evolving gangster archetype, from the classical era to modern day, Goodfellas was a film I had always wanted to see, and it certainly did not disappoint.

Like last week’s film, The French ConnectionGoodfellas is based on a nonfiction, true crime book, Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. The story follows the life of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), an Irish-American born into a blue-collar family who managed to reach his dream of becoming an associate of the New York Italian mob family, the Luccheses. The film follows Hill as he works his way up the mob-hierarchy.

Liotta is complimented by a stellar supporting cast, including acting elite, Robert DeNiro, an Oscar nominated performance by Lorraine Bracco, and a show-stealing, Oscar-winning performance from Joe Pesci. Pesci’s performance was so good, it even outshined his other famously brilliant performance of 1990, as burglar Harry Lime in one of my favorite movies of all time, Home Alone. (How he missed a double nomination that year, I’ll never know).

The film simply has great scene, after great scene, after great scene. According to Pesci, the spectacular screenplay by Scorsese and Pileggi was enhanced by countless improvised lines. Whether it’s the brilliant dialogue of the “How am I funny?” scene or the brutally nonchalant manner in which heinous crimes are carried out, the script rarely displays a moment that is anything short of excellent.

Pesci's beloved "Am I funny?" scene
Pesci’s beloved “Am I funny?” scene

And it goes without saying, but the performances are masterful. From top to bottom, each actor delivers a compelling interpretation. The quality performances take an action-driven biopic and make it deceptively poignant.

My only gripe with Goodfellas is perhaps, partially, a byproduct of the film’s “based-on-a-true-story” foundation. The climax of the film falls flat for me. At risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say only that it comes with an unconventional twist, which is drawn from the true life story of Henry Hill. My complaint isn’t with the twist, indeed it is what makes Hill’s story so interesting and offers a noteworthy question on liberty and loyalty, but after so many consecutive great scenes, one would expect the climax to blow you away. Instead it leaves something to be desired. The audience (or at least I) was left with the feeling that the greatest scenes of the film were found early on, while the rest were there simply to complete the story. It certainly didn’t destroy the movie for me, as I would still highly recommend it as one of the greatest gangster flicks of all time, but it is perhaps what kept Goodfellas in the 90s of our list rather than higher up.

Ending or no ending, Goodfellas earns a quality B+, and with a plot that addresses the underbelly of corruption and the breakdown of individualism, our #92 film ranks a 7 on the Liberty Scale. For the performances, the screenplay, the style, and the impact on the gangster paradigm, Goodfellas certainly merits its location amongst the greatest films of all time.

Our familiarization with acting’s elite continues next week with Meryl Streep in #91 Sophie’s Choice.

Are you a fan of Scorsese’s Goodfellas? Or does it shrivel in comparison to some of the other gangster-greats? Let us know!

To see the rest of the list click here.

Richard Mattox

Richard Mattox is the head editor of Smash Cut Culture and a 2013 alumnus of the Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop and Internship program. Currently pursuing a Masters in Professional Writing (screenwriting emphasis) from USC, Mattox is an avid film-junkie, a singer-songwriter, and a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan.

  • Matt Edwards

    Richard, you’re killing me! Perhaps these last few films on the list suffer from too many imitations in the decades since their first arrival on screen. Because this one Scorcese’s finest. I also thank the silver screen Gods that Leo wasn’t old enough to play Henry Hill.

    • Richard Mattox

      Haha I love it! And I know, I don’t want to downplay how much I loved it. This is definitely one of the cases I refer to in the introduction to the segment, acknowledging that all of these films are A or A+ films. I’m just being extremely nitpicky. Under any other context it is an A without a doubt and probably an A+.

      And Andrew, I look forward to discussing Raging Bull and Taxi Driver with you. Both are on the list!

  • Andrew Leigh

    Nice try, but everyone knows that Scorsese’s finest was Taxi Driver. Can a movie be both klieg-light brilliant and Bible-black? Taxi Driver epitomizes the nihilistic existentialism of the ’70s intelligentsia, an artistic punch to the gut that packed a bigger wallop than all of the fight scenes in Raging Bull.

    And yet I’d still rank Jake LaMotta a close third, after Goodfellas which holds a comfortable second position in the Scorsese oeuvre. Beyond these big three, there is an unfortunate drop in quality and (often) seriousness.

    One that deserves some new appreciation is The Aviator. Carbon-counting environmentalist Leo DiCaprio delivered a sympathetic portrayal as oddball airline and oil magnate Howard Hughes. For the politically minded, two scenes are worth your time — Howard Hughes standing up to some sleazy politicians who want to regulate him out of business, and a delightful confrontation at the dinner table with Kathryn Hepburn’s (played by the always numinous Cate Blanchett) family, typical limousine liberals who’ve never had to struggle for a living. It was great cathartic fun to watch Leo grow a pair and rip the smug Kennedyesque elites new ones.

    • Matt Edwards

      Well I used this as Scorcese’s finest in the mainstream way. The use of popular music, slick camera moves, a kind of comedic approach to the violence made this true crime story accessible. While Taxi Driver was a fictional but brilliant mirror of what you described. I appreciate Taxi Driver a lot more than Goodfellas. But as to which film I throw on repeat…

      I’ll have to watch Aviator again, but honestly, I don’t believe DiCaprio in any roll he’s ever done for Scorcese. Plus, the over lit set are beyond distracting.