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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #6 Goodfellas

#6. Goodfellas (1990)  What is it about gangster movies that we can’t get enough of them?  Since the days of D.W. Griffith, stories about mobsters have persisted to the point where the gangster genre has long since overtaken the western as the archetypal American metaphor, and like the western, it’s a malleable framework on which to hang just about any kind of story.

Martin Scorsese’s trilogy of gangster films, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino, rank among the best ever made, with Goodfellas as good as anything Howard Hawks, William Wellman, or even Francis Ford Coppola ever did.

Goodfellas is the true story of the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a foot soldier in a New York crime family.  But it’s also much more than that.  It’s about men and power and codes of honor and how people will abandon those codes to save their own skin.  It’s about consequences, and how we’re more often than not the author of our own ruin.  It’s a story that could have come from Shakespeare or Wall Street, so universal are the themes.

Goodfellas gets its ideas across through the actions of a rich cast of characters.  One of Scorsese’s great gifts is a knack to find the right actor for every role in his pictures.  Goodfellas has a large number of speaking roles, and even though the story belongs to the principle characters, who could ever forget the scene with Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Tommy (Joe Pesci)?  “Go home and get your f*#@ing shinebox!”  Or Morrie (Chuck Low), the toupee salesman with the cheesey commercials who’s always busting Jimmy Conway’s (Robert DeNiro) chops about one thing or the other.  And then there’s Scorsese’s very own mother, Catherine, who plays Tommy’s mother and the straight man in a very funny dinner scene that takes place in the wee hours of the morning while a half-dead body bangs around in the trunk of Henry’s (Ray Liotta) car. Watching Scorsese’s movies, I get the sense that he worries over these minor characters with the same obsessive attention to detail that he does his stars, a move that pays off in richly textured stories that give the illusion of depth to what are actually two-dimensional characters on paper.

As memorable as the minor characters are, they never upstage the stars.  At least not for long.  Ray Liotta, who’d recently broken through as Melanie Griffith’s crazy, ex-con husband in Something Wild, holds his own against Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci.  He wasn’t a popular choice to play the Henry Hill, the central character, but the sense of a barely contained intensity that became his trademark, was perfect for the character.  I saw an interview where the real Henry Hill described his life in terms of not knowing when you woke up in the morning if you’d live to see nightfall.  As the years begin to take their toll on Hill, Liotta perfectly captures that sense of living on the edge and about to explode – either from an assassin’s bullet or a stroke.

Hill’s last day in the mob is especially fun – and nerve-wracking – to watch.  Scorsese orchestrates a jittery sequence of events where Hill attemps to make a homemade Italian meal for his disabled brother, prepare his flaky drug mule for a flight across the country, sell some hand guns to Jimmy Conway, prepare a shipment of coke, and finally, to convince his wife that a helicopter has been following him all day.  The cuts, the music, the acting all add up to Mulligan’s Stew of paranoia and suspicion that something bad is about to happen.

Robert DeNiro towers over the movie like King Kong, but when you stop to consider his performance, it’s easy to underestimate it.  By that I mean that DeNiro has become so synonymous with a string of memorable New York characters, from Vito Corleone to Jake LaMotta to Jimmy Conway, that it’s easy to mistake him for those characters and thus underrate the job he does as an actor.  It’s a common judgment from those not in the know, to brush aside a performance by deciding that the person in question wasn’t acting but merely being himself.

DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway oozes charisma, something that DeNiro, judging by his clumsy acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Gold Globe Awards, sorely lacks (so much for the actor just being himself).  His Conway is one of those guys who seduces you into thinking that it would be cool to be a mobster.  He’s a big tipper, a sharp dresser, and has a reputation for being as deadly as a cobra.  DeNiro’s performance captures the essence of a self-assured manliness that most guys wish they possessed.

My favorite DeNiro moment in the movie is one where he doesn’t say a word.  It’s late in the movie and Conway has had enough of Morrie’s ball-busting.  He’s also paranoid about the Lufthansa job, the biggest heist of all-time, which he put together.  DeNiro’s at a familiar haunt. He steps up to the bar and the action goes to slow-motion as Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” plays.  It’s a vintage Scorsese moment that calls back to Raging Bull and Mean Streets.  DeNiro is dressed in a suit.  His graying hair is brushed straight back.  He’s at the height of his power.  He takes a drag on a cigarette and turns a quarter-turn to stare at Morrie, who’s leaving the bar.  At first, there’s no expression on his face, but a slight smile pulls his mouth taut.  He looks down, perhaps to tap-off a cigarette ash, then looks back to consider the man he’s thinking of killing.  His eyes narrow as he takes a last pull off the cigarette.  There’s no dialogue.  No narration.  Just music and behavior.  And yet, DeNiro conveys what Hill describes a few seconds later – “That’s when I knew Jimmy was gonna whack Morrie.  That’s how it happens.  That’s how fast it takes for a guy to get whacked.”  That’s what DeNiro brings to the table.  He so inhabits his characters that he’s always being the character, and so it is that within a few seconds of silence we are witness to an internal dialogue that results in the condemnation of another character.  DeNiro’s work is so complete that it render’s Henry’s narration, a few moments later, superfluous.

I think that’s why you don’t see DeNiro on stage.  Where Al Pacino, a fine actor prone to fits of flamboyance and volume, thrives in the theatre, whether he’s doing Mamet or Shakespeare, DeNiro is an actor who lives in small, quiet moments that don’t translate to a darkened theatre with no closeups and certainly no slow motion.  That’s not to say that Pacino is a better actor than DeNiro, but that Pacino has greater range.

Speaking of flamboyance and volume, the most memorable performance in Goodfellas belongs to Joe Pesci who landed the role of a liftetime as Tommy DeVito, Henry Hill’s partner in crime and Jimmy Conway’s protégé.  Tommy is one of those roles that actors love, but often screw up by playing it too over-the-top, but Pesci maintains control of Tommy throughout the movie, taking him to the edge of caricature.  Tommy is a despicable human being – murderously brutish, loud, and sociopathic.  Pesci plays the biggest Napoleon complex ever captured on film, and Scorsese slyly tones down the horror of this animal by playing his psychosis mostly for laughs.  It’s a shrewd move, and I’m sure that’s the way it was played in real life by the guys close to the real Tommy.  How else do you deal with such a guy except to shrug off his craziness as just that – craziness.

An example of Tommy’s friends shrugging off Tommy’s behavior comes in two scenes dealing with a minor character named Spider, played by Michael Imperioli.  Spider is kind of an apprentice mobster.  He waits on the older guys just like Henry did when he was coming up.  One night, the guys are playing cards and Tommy feels disrespected by Spider’s lack of servitude towards him.  Tommy motivates Spider to move more quickly by pulling a hand gun out of his waistband and firing it at Spider’s feet.  Tommy shoots Spider in the foot, but shows no remorse.  In his mind it was Spider’s fault for not respecting him more.  Later, with Spider’s foot in a cast, the guys are playing cards in the same basement.  When Tommy teases Spider about moving slowly, Spider tells him where he can go.  The guys all laugh and turn to Tommy and ask if he’s going to tolerate such disrespect.  Feeling cornered and challenged, Tommy quickly draws his gun and shoots Spyder many times, killing him of course.  And once again, Tommy returns to his chair and refuses to take any blame for the incident.

Perhaps the most famous scene in Goodfellas is the “funny” scene, where Henry compliments Tommy on a story by telling him he’s a funny guy.  Tommy turns on Henry and ruins a lighthearted moment, with all their friends around, by boring in on him to find out what he meant by “funny.”  It’s a scary moment that establishes much of what happens later in the film.  It’s also a beautiful piece of acting and filmmaking.

The scene begins with the funny story that Tommy tells.  Scorsese shoots it with two cameras and no close ups.  This brings the gang into the action, and we get to see how things go from light and funny to tense and scary through their reactions to what is going on.  These are hardened criminals, and even they are freaked out by Tommy’s unpredictability.  The tension is ratcheted up with every re-phrasing of Tommy’s question –“What do you mean I’m funny?”  Henry backpedals, groping for traction against the pressure from his psychotic interlocutor until at last he stands his ground and calls Tommy’s bluff.  It’s an elegant set piece, but it’s also so much more.

Scorsese himself is like an actor in the story because of what he brings to the table as director.  His bag of tricks adds up to what is arguably the finest technique in American cinema.  In addition to directing a fine cast of actors, Scorsese employs many other elements that add layers of texture to Goodfellas.

The period detail is spot-on.  We go to movies in part to escape, and what sucks is when you’ve bought into the fiction of a movie set in 1964, say, and then a ’72 Dodge Charger pulls into the frame and essentially pours a bucket of cold water over your suspension of disbelief.  Goodfellas takes us from the late 40’s/early 50’s to the1980’s without a single hiccup.  From the vintage tractor trailers that Henry and Tommy rob to the flashy clothes the mobsters wear to the vintage Cadillacs that Henry parks as a boy for local wiseguys, it all looks real.

Music conveys much in a Scorsese movie – time, mood, pacing – and no one is better than Scorsese at finding the right song for the right moment, like the way “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals adds a sense of drama, nostalgia, and irony to the Billy Batts bar scene.

The Billy Batts scene, along the with the “funny” scene, is emblematic of the way Scorsese uses humor in his movies.  The heaviest scenes in the movie are also accompanied by some of the funniest moments.  One function is to lessen the shock of what these men do.  It’s a device that injects some humanity into these guys so we can still care about them.  It’s also, by many accounts, the way these guys were and are.  Nicholas Peleggi, in the commentary track that accompanies the dvd, says that the guys depicted in the movie were descended from a part of Italy with a strong oral storytelling tradition, and what we have are a bunch of men who are hardwired for stories like the one Tommy tells before he turns on Henry and scares the hell out of him.  It’s to Scorsese’s credit that he masterfully takes a real life trait and uses it as a tool, a trick to seduce us into liking these guys, if only for a while.

Thelma Schoonmaker has edited movies for Scorsese going back to Raging Bull and Who’s That Knocking on My Door.  I mention her because of the editing that she, and I presume Scorsese, did to heighten the storytelling in Goodfellas.  The camera moves all over the place in this movie, and it’s all put together beautifully.

Scorsese is a bit of a showy director, and Goodfellas is full of flourishes that are as nervy as they are breath-taking.  In addition to the camera work, he employs many freezes in the action, usually to introduce a bit of narration by Henry.  They are like Robert Capa war photos, often blurry or dramatic in some way.  Similarly, he uses slow motion, as described in my favorite DeNiro moment, to spend more time filling in a character.  The same technique is used to great affect in Mean Streets, when we DeNiro enters the bar to the open notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”

There are many long SteadyCam takes in Goodfellas, like the introduction of the gangsters at the Bamboo Lounge where the camera becomes Henry Hill as the guys greet him in turn as he walks through the restaurant.  But the most famously complicated shot in the movie has to be Copacabana scene.  The camera follows Henry and Karen as they leave his car with a valet on the street and descend a flight of stairs to the basement of the building and enter a maze of halls that take them through a bustling kitchen and finally to the show floor, where the captain greets them and has a table set up beside the stage.  It’s all done in one take, and is amazing to watch.

The funny thing about Goodfellas is that not one of these guys has any real depth.  None of them change, other than they get caught or killed.  Even Henry Hill, in the closing moments of the movie, laments the loss of the life he enjoyed as a gangster.  He’s completely unrepentant, and only changes because it’s forced on him by the Feds.  Despite what would be a deadly flaw in the hands of most directors, Goodfellas is a truly great film.

This brings us back to the question of what the movie is really about.  On the surface, it’s about the inner-workings of the mob, but the real story goes deeper, of course.  Scorsese’s movies have a morality to them, and even though these men are lawless, they operate by a strict code.  And when these guys run afoul of the code, there are consequences, which lead to Scorcese’s trademark violence.

Real life is much the same.  There are rules we’re required to follow in our various spheres, and as long as we follow those rules, we mostly get along.  But when our appetites get the best of us, we expose ourselves to the consequences of violating those rules.  Most of the time, we just get called out, but sometimes it results in getting fired or maybe divorced – which to many people would be as bad as getting busted by the Feds or whacked.

And so it is that Goodfellas has transcended its genre roots and become a classic of American cinema.  Movies can only do that when they go deep and speak to something basic in those who see it, and I challenge anyone to watch Goodfellas and tell me that it’s nothing more than a good gangster flick.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #8 Nashville

#8. Nashville (1975)  There are two movies I remember from when I was a kid that I was too young to see at the time but wanted to because of the fuss that the grown-ups made about them – Chinatown and Nashville.

The fascination with Chinatown had to do with the weirdness of hearing about a guy getting his nose slit open.  Nashville was something else all together.  My mom and her friends from the neighborhood were scandalized by the movie – by the sex, of course, but more so, I think, by the assassination of one of the stars, a woman who was shot on-stage.  Years later, when we got our first VCR and the Video Vault opened on Dixie Highway, these were two of the first movies I rented with my own money.

Robert Altman is one of my heroes, and Nashville is my favorite of his movies – bold and joyful, like its creator – a cross between Evel Knievel and Jackson Pollock.

Though it was released in 1975, Nashville was shot a year earlier, as Nixon was resigning from office because of the Watergate debacle.  In the decade prior to that, there was Viet Nam, political assassinations, and the emergence of groups like the Weather Underground and the John Birch Society.  And so, Altman’s Nashville is his take on our country’s collective nervous breakdown in the wake of those unprecedented events, characterized by  the chaotic interweaving of about two-dozen lives over the course of a few days in Nashville during a heated presidential campaign.

The movie itself is a wild ride of stops and starts and intersecting characters that are in or on the fringes of the country music business.  To try and describe the plot is impossible because there really isn’t one, at least in the conventional sense.  Nashville opens with a white van pulling out of a garage.  It’s painted up with campaign slogans for third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker and outfitted with a loudspeaker system that plays a continuous loop of his campaign rhetoric.  The van shows up throughout the movie, like a mechanical Greek chorus, serving as what Altman called connective tissue, connecting the many strands of the story and giving them a sense of unity.  A few of the characters serve the same purpose, like Jeff Goldblum, as a hippie chopper riding magician or sorts, who never utters a line of dialogue, but interacts with a few of the characters nonetheless.  There’s also Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a reporter from the BBC, who stalks, badgers, or sleeps with just about every character in the story.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is the king of country music, a kind of Roy Acuff in a Nudie suit, who is being heavily recruited by a political front-man (Michael Murphy) to headline a benefit concert for Hal Phillip Walker, of the Replacement Party, a populist candidate who wants to change the National Anthem and ban lawyers from serving in congress, among other things.  Think Ross Perot on quaaludes.

Haven is pre-occupied with his protege Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who has recently recuperated from a freak accident.  She’s also on the verge of nervous collapse, but is pressured by her husband/manager to perform at numerous local engagements, including the Walker campaign rally.  Does that sound a little like Loretta Lynn?  In addition to the Coal Miner’s Daughter, we get alternate versions of Charlie Pride and Lynn Anderson, and a song out of the Merle Haggard songbook.

Lilly Tomlin is a local gospel singer who goes astray with Keith Carradine, who is one-third of a popular folk trio, a narcissistic womanizer who also beds Opal and Mary (Christina Raines), the second-third of his trio, who also happens to be married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third-third of the trio.

Ned Beatty is Lilly Tomlins husband.  He’s also Haven Hamilton’s lawyer, and is being used by Michael Murphy to recruit Hamilton,  as well as other musical acts and even some strippers for a fund-raising event.

Suelleen Gay (Gwen Welles), is an aspiring singer who couldn’t sing her way out of a wet paper bags shot full of holes, but she plugs away, willing to do anything to be like Barbara Jean – even some stripping for the local Rotarians/Lions/Mooses at a “political meeting.”

Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) is a local elderly man with a sick wife in the same hospital where Barbara Jean ends up.  His neice Martha (Shelley Duvall) flies in from LA looking like a cross between David Bowie and Olive Oyl, but never has time to see her sick aunt – she’s too busy running off with whatever guy catchers her attention.  Mr. Green also rents out rooms in his old house to young people who are often aspiring musicians.

David Hayward, Barbara Harris, and Scott Glenn all play visitors to Nashville, who have their own relationship with or desire for celebrity.

All the actors sing their own songs, and most wrote them as well.  In fact, Keith Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy.” It was a ballsy move, and the results are mixed.  Lilly Tomlin, whose acting performance was wonderfully textured, gave an equally poor showing with her gospel number.  She’s no singer.  But that was beside the point, really.  Nashville is not a documentary about the country music scene, though it looks like one at various points.

All of these characters gather at the Parthenon for a concert/political rally where candidate Walker is due to give a speech that will never be delivered.  A violent act will shatter the frenzied tension of these lives, as well as the movie.  It’s a jarring conclusion that was shocking in 1975.  Today, it’s an eerie precursor to John Lennon’s murder – a bit of prophecy we could have done without.

In the wake of this act, one loser becomes a winner, if for only 15 minutes, when she seizes her opportunity to sing for the stunned crowd.  The remnants of the crowd come together as the song – an omnipresent top-40 hit – progresses.  Tomlin’s gospel choir assembles on stage and sings backup.  It’s a moment not too unlike the images of the crowds that gathered outside the Dakota on the night that Lennon was shot, seeking community to cope with a senseless tragedy.  With a ragged Pied Piper leading them, they all sing the chorus “it don’t worry me” over and over.

As they do this, Altman shows us images of children in the crowd, one after the other, clueless and innocent.  Rather than taking this as a sign of hope, I see it as a cause for alarm.  These little ones will inherit a world we’ve prepared for them – a world of violence, compromise, and shallowness.  It should worry us.  A lot.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #9 Breaking Away

#9. Breaking Away (1979)  Breaking Away will always have a spot on my top 10 favorites list because of the influence it had on my life.  I saw it with my family when it came out in ’79, and it sparked a passion for cycling that has never burned out.

The story, set in Bloomington, Indiana, is about a group of four townies who are stuck in the no-man’s land between high school and adulthood.  They are referred to by the college kids as Cutters, a derogatory reference to their blue-collar fathers who work in the nearby quarries.  And so, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about class, and more specifically, identity.

Dave Stoller is a Cutter.  He’s a dreamy, goofy kid with only one noticeable talent – cycling.  His backstory involves some undisclosed illness in which a bicycle aided in his recovery.  The bike has become an extension of his identity, and to his friends and family, he’s a harmless eccentric.  But he’s got real talent.  His obsession with cycling is manifested in his devotion to all things Italian.  His room is filled with posters.  He listens only to Italian opera.  He even speaks broken Italian with an exaggerated accent.  Did I say he was a bit goofy?

His friends include: Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who also played Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears movies), a dirty, sweaty, dog-loyal redneck with a heart of gold, Cyril (Daniel Stern, from Diner and The Wonder Years), a lovable loser, and Mike (Dennis Quaid).

Mike is the former quarterback/captain of the football team who can’t come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a real team to lead.  He desperately tries to keep the four guys together, even insulting and badgering them as they start to feel out new directions in their lives.  He becomes the archetypal ex-jock – soon to be the old guy with the beer gut who was once the muscle-bound hero for the local team.

And so all of these boys struggle with identity as they grope their way into the next phase of their lives.

As a kid, I identified completely with Dave.  Untouched by the harsh realities of life – in contrast to his cynical, hard-working father (brilliantly played by Paul Dooley) – Dave lives in a dream world where he passes himself off as an Italian exchange student in order to escape his drab existence and possibly win the love of a beautiful coed at Indiana University.

This carefree, head-in-the-clouds existence is galling to Dave’s father, who resents his son’s optimism and worries about his future.  And there to mediate this generation gap is Evelyn/wife/mom (Barbara Barrie, in an Oscar nominated performance), who knows how to encourage her son’s dreams while soothing her husband’s frustration.  She’s a cross between June Cleaver and Henry Kissinger.

Dave gets his dose of real-life soon enough when two events come together at once.  First, he has a hand in his father’s heart attack in a comic scene where used-car salesman dad argues with a dissatisfied customer who tries to return a lemon.  The second, and perhaps more damaging, incident occurs when Dave finally gets to race against his heroes from Italy’s Team Cinzano, who are touring America in exhibition races.  When the Italian’s can’t out-ride pesky Dave, they resort to dirty tricks and cause him to wreck.  In the process, they rob him of his innocence.

From there, things start to unravel for Dave.  He confesses his true identity to his coed girlfriend, who rejects him.  In turn, Mike loses confidence in himself and just about gives up his struggle against the smug college boys.  Moocher threatens to break up the team by secretly getting married.  Cyril is…Cyril.

Potential redemption comes in the form of yet another bike race.  Because of the bickering between the college boys and the Cutters, the school decides to open their annual bike race – The Little 500 – to a team from the town, which sets the stage for either cathartic revenge or crushing humiliation.

If the story sounds conventional, well, it is.  But it’s in the telling of the story – Steve Tesich’s writing, the acting, Peter Yates’ directing – that it rises above cliche and becomes something special.  Breaking Away has lost none of its resonance or charm.  Even after 31 years.