Wednesday, September 10, 2014

AFI Top 100: #92 "Goodfellas"

Joe Pesci & Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (1990)

It doesn't surprise me that our screening of the #92 on the AFI Top 100 list, Goodfellas, had a pretty full house. The Martin Scorsese-directed gangster flick is easily the filmmaker's best film from the '90s, and arguably one of the best of his career (though I'm a huge Departed fan, myself, and don't subscribe to the idea that Scorsese 'lost his touch' after Goodfellas, but I digress.)

A small anecdote before I begin this review: I saw Goodfellas only once back in the day, back when DVDs couldn't hold much data, and this 145 minute movie needed to be put on both sides of the disc. I popped that baby in and dismissed how perplexed I was by what was going on ("it's probably just edited all out of order?") until the credits rolled less than an hour later. I'd watched Side B before Side A. *head slap* I embarrassingly turned the disc over and watched the beginning, going "Oh, I get it..." every 5 minutes. Needless to say, the ending made a lot more sense.

The point is that I was long overdue for a refresh on this filmand this time, viewing it in the right order. I still liked the movie immensely back then, and thought it was astounding how well the story was constructed, holding up even taking into consideration my faux pas.

The story is simple, and the plot is loose. Based on the true story of Henry Hill (played brilliantly by Ray Liotta) and his involvement over three decades in the Lucchese crime familymore specifically, the crew within the family run by "Paulie" Cicero (Paul Sorvino). The film begins with Hill and his associates placing a 'hit' on an unknown man, with no context other than Hill's famous line that caps off the scene: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

And that's the movie. The tale of how teen Henry grew into adult Henry, becoming an influential associate in the mob family along the way. The true story is complicated and intricate, including so many moving parts and individuals, and covering such an expanse of time.

Scorsese manages to wrangle all these details into a focused film, while still giving every character their due time on screen. The narration by Liotta's Henry Hill is the bones of the movie, and it keeps everything from falling apart. It's likely the most dynamic and purposeful film narration I've ever seen, and it's never used as an obvious crutch or coping mechanism for the screenplay or editing.

Instead, the screenplay is lean and quick, the editing is spot on (of course, it's Thelma Schoonmaker) and even the music plays a significant role, all-encompassing for each decade that passes. The actors are also in their finest form. This is particularly true of Joe Pesci (who plays the insane and wise-cracking hit-man, Tommy DeVito) and Lorraine Bracco as Hill's long-suffering but dedicated wife, Karen. Pesci is ludicrous and violent, which makes him simultaneously unpredictable, terrifying, and hilarious.

Bracco is probably the most relatable character (she even takes over the narration on a few occasions), because it's easy to see through her eyes how one could get sucked into the glamour and excitement of mob life, even when it gets really, really bad. In fact, being a gangster in the 50's and 60's seemed undeniably fantastic according to Goodfellasand as long as you could keep drugs out of the picture come the 70's and 80's, it probably would have continued to be worth itas long as you stayed in line, of course.

That's the incredible thing the movie does. These people do horrible, despicable things. They murder and cheat and lie and steal, yet the life of luxury and excess they live is clearly a draw, even for an audience that knows better. There are themes here that pop up in Scorsese's most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street, that have the same impact. The characters are awful. But I totally understand why.

If I could describe Goodfellas in just three words, it would be "organized, maniacal cackling." Because that's how it handles the unapologetic violence that litters the film. The audience can stomach the endless stream of beatings and 'hits' and shootings, because when the characters are laughing like lunatics (as they do every time they're together in response to the insanity surrounding them), it cuts the edge of the scene and makes us laugh, too. Even if just in disgust.

I find this movie far more entertaining than the other Scorsese pictures on the AFI Top 100, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, which sit happily at #4 and #52, respectively. It wouldn't surprise me to see Goodfellas make a considerable jump on the 20th anniversary list in 2017. However, I also believe that it isn't for everyone, nor is it written to be appreciated by the massesunlikable protagonists will do that. But being the Scorsese fan that I am, I can't ignore its brilliance, and nor should you.

Rating:  ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for #91 on the list, Sophie's Choice.

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