So here we are, at the end of the line of the top 5 countdowns, and here in Odessa the title of ‘best film’ goes to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. But before we get into this classic, here’s a rundown of the top 5 so far, plus a bonus of my picks from 6-10 as the best films of all time (I’m just nice like that):
- Goodfellas (1990)
- City of God (2002)
- Friday Night Lights (2004)
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2004)
- High Fidelity (2000)
- The Sting (1973)
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
- Se7en (1995)
- Fargo (1996)
So there you have it, the top 10 movies of all time for yours truly. Honourable mentions go to Almost Famous, The Thing and Ghostbusters. Anyway, onto the matter at hand.
I first saw Goodfellas about 6 years ago, and back then I wasn’t sure what was going on. My attention was partially elsewhere, and at 146 minutes running time, I drifted slightly onto other things. However, when I re-watched it about a year later, I wondered how the hell I had focused on anything other than this spectacular film.
Scorsese’s finest movie follows the life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) whose voiceover tells us, in one of the greatest single opening seqeunces in film history, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. From his boyhood days running rackets for the local gang while cutting school to his adult life as a trusted mob soldier, Liotta’s Hill runs the full gamut of gangster experiences: extortion, robbery, murder and arson to name a few. He also enjoys the fruits of a rich mob lifestyle, buying expensive gifts for girlfriend-then-wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and getting free meals at the top restaurants in New York. Showing all sides of mob life and disproving the glamorous stereotypes of gangsters, Scorsese and Liotta combine to show Henry witnessing the unwarranted brutality and utter amorality that his gangster friends Jimmy Conway (a brilliant Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (a volatile Joe Pesci) embody.
Goodfellas shows how good life as a gangster can be if you don’t mind knocking off a few rivals (and a few friends) and doing whatever your boss (in this case Paul Sorvino’s Paulie Cicero) tells you to do. Jimmy, Tommy and Henry all live like celebrities, getting what they want when they want it, but in exchange for this they commit atrocious crimes and ignore basic human decency. De Niro’s Jimmy is a great guy to his friends but a harrowingly callous killer, while Pesci’s Tommy is a time bomb who goes off at the slightest provocation, providing one of the movie’s best and most famous scenes:
All four leads (Bracco’s Karen has a major role to play) are outstanding, and it’s astonishing to think that Ray Liotta hasn’t gone on to become one of Hollywood’s top leading men based on this performance. His Henry is by turns loving and hateful, but is always believable (helped by the fact the movie is partially based on real events) whether helping Jimmy and Tommy bury some unwanted ‘evidence’ or scrabbling around trying to feed his cocaine addiction. Pesci and De Niro (who would later go on to co-star in another Scorsese picture, 1995’s excellent Casino) are both brilliant; Pesci’s utterly malevolent Tommy leaves you hoping that he’ll get what’s coming to him, whilst De Niro’s Jimmy garners some of your affection in the movie’s first two thirds before making you regret it later. Lorraine Bracco is excellent as tightly-wound wife Karen – her voiceover at their wedding is brilliantly done, and she shows that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned when she discovers Henry’s infidelity.
Scorsese, working off Nicholas Pileggi’s superb screenplay (based on his book Wiseguy), handles proceedings like the directorial master that he is, never shying away from the violent occurrences on screen and allowing his cast to carry the film rather than trying to make the camerawork the star. His understated direction makes the movie seem almost documentary-like in its realism, as the camera often sits prone observing the day-to-day lives of his gangster characters. When he does use a long tracking shot, like when Henry and Karen use the back door to a classy restaurant, it’s only to re-inforce this realistic exterior and works wonders.
For the entirety of Goodfellas’ two-and-a-bit hours running time, it’s totally beguiling. The audience finds themselves questioning their support for Henry, Jimmy and Tommy as their true personalities come to light, and Pileggi’s script prompts laughter, shock and tears at points throughout. The final third is a masterclass in tension as Henry’s coke-addled brain makes him paranoid about the police, and the movie’s final twist is among the best in Hollywood’s history. It’s a credit to Scorsese and the brilliant cast that amoral, murderous characters can be made to seem even remotely sympathetic, but they somehow manage it and the screen chemistry between the four leads never loses its fizz.
Better than The Godfather, Goodfellas is the gangster film to watch, and makes us realize that maybe our own mobster dreams of sharp suits, bags of cash and beautiful women are to some extent accurate, but also way wide of the whole truth. Goodfellas simultaneously builds up and deconstructs the gangster myth, taking us through the twists and turns of a life in the mob. Essential viewing.