The other day I saw a conversation on Facebook -- the place where all quality human interaction takes place -- about Mafia films. More specifically, people were debating why "The Godfather Part III" wasn't that great, more than two decades after it was released.
That's an easy one: because it wasn't either of the first two movies. It also came out the same year as "GoodFellas." If people are still picking on poor Sofia Coppola's performance in "Godfather III," let me point out that, with or without her, the movie never had a chance in what was probably the greatest year ever for mob movies.
Because I'm a man, and all men like to watch Italian guys shoot at each other, I love mob films. There's a law that says when at least three men are together in a group for at least 20 minutes, they're required to quote entire scenes from "GoodFellas."
And we also know there are three all-time great Mafia movies: The first two "Godfather" films and "GoodFellas." Period.
More than guns
Good mob movies aren't just about violence, though certainly some violence is required to demonstrate what's at stake in characters' actions. Plus, it's just fun to watch. No need to go into the psychology of why men are fascinated by watching Joe Pesci kick the snot out of poor Frank Vincent.
But good mob movies also have characters torn with conflict. They're well-mannered, immaculately dressed, seemingly civilized men of power who can erupt with extreme emotion at the drop of a hat. They feature characters with qualities we men love in other men. They love their families and form bonds we wish we had with other men, but they can turn nasty in a heartbeat. These films keep us on the edge of our seats, wondering who will betray whom and, ultimately, who comes out on top.
Did I mention we also love the violence?
While we have the great triumvirate of mob movies at the top, there are some lesser-known quality gangster movies from the early '90s, which was a mini golden age of mob films.
Another favorite came out in 1990: "State of Grace," with an intense cast including the morally torn Sean Penn, Gary Oldman (who played an incredibly unhinged character in one of my favorite film performances ever) and a seriously evil Ed Harris. Though "The Departed" won more acclaim for its portrayal of an Irish gang with a traitor in its ranks, "State of Grace" was more intense and felt far more real.
I don't know what was in Hollywood's water in 1990, but that was also the year "Miller's Crossing" was released, which was the Coen Brothers' take on the Irish mob. Gabriel Byrne was startlingly good, and the film featured one of John Turturro's best performances (a good year for him -- he was also in "State of Grace").
And while its "facts" are highly debatable, and it sometimes comes on a bit strong, "Bugsy" (1991) is underrepresented when critics talk about great mob films. It's definitely one of the most watchable. Though it had holes in the storyline, it's difficult not to like Christopher Walken in 1990's dark, sometimes crazy "King of New York."
And even though it was eviscerated by critics, another '90s favorite of mine is the Wesley Snipes, get-out-of-crime-while-he-can story "Sugar Hill." It was silly at times, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. It proves that even in a genre where men are shooting, stabbing, kicking, punching, garroting and double-crossing each other, you can still stumble on to a guilty pleasure.