The 1990s was an incredible decade for American cinema. In the early ’90s, new voices in the indie scene, such as John Singleton, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino, released Boyz n The Hood, Sex Lies and Videotape, and Reservoir Dogs respectively. Together, those films made the idea of independent cinema more mainstream and inspired young artists to pick up a camera and demand that their voices be heard. Action classics such as Point Break, Speed, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day were brought to cinemas. Stanley Kubrick released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and Paul Thomas Anderson—in one film, Boogie Nights—gave Burt Reynolds the performance of a lifetime, launched the acting career of Mark Wahlberg, and made Rick Springfield “cool” again.
But before all of that…
There was Goodfellas.
On September 19th, 1990, Martin Scorsese’s 13th feature film, Goodfellas, was released. The film chronicles the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and his life as an Irish-American gangster from the 1950s to the 1980s. A critical darling, Goodfellas was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and took home one for Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito). Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film Four Stars, calling it the finest gangster film of all time. And Ebert was right—after 30 years, Goodfellas endures as a masterpiece of cinema, an iconic piece of American pop culture, and the most influential film in American filmmaking in the past 30 years.
The film starts in media res, in 1970, with Henry Hill (Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), and Tommy DeVito (Pesci) driving along the road. Suddenly, a loud thumping noise emerges from nowhere. Hill and his friends are initially very confused, wondering if they hit a deer. They pull over and find the noise is coming from a bloodied man in the trunk of their car. The gang rather brutally “takes care of it”, and Hill slams the trunk of the car shut as his narration starts up: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. In one of the most electrifying openings in movie history, Scorsese pulls the viewer in immediately, grabbing them by the throat. The film flashes back to Henry as a child, chronicling his life from wide-eyed kid to up-and-coming gangster in the Cicero family. The film introduces most of the major players in the first 15 minutes, showing everything the viewer needs to know and characterizing Hill’s world through gorgeous visual storytelling and brilliant writing and structuring. Narration is often seen as a lazy tool in filmmaking, used when writers don’t feel like showing, instead choosing to tell. Not in Goodfellas. The narration gives the viewer essential context in a film that’s so reliant on visual storytelling, without becoming the crutch that narration so often becomes.
While it may seem like a cliché to call Goodfellas a perfect movie, it really is. The film is perfectly paced; although it runs for two and a half hours, I would challenge anyone who watches it to feel bored for a second. It never drags, moving from one iconic scene to another, held together by a pop soundtrack and brilliant editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. The film is shot beautifully, utilizing camera movement in a way that is not distracting but always mesmerizing. The most famous shot is the Copacabana long take, in which Henry takes his girlfriend Karen through the back entrance of a nightclub, and the camera tracks them for an astonishing 3 minutes, providing her perspective into a world that, to the outsider, is sleek, sexy, garish, and exciting.
Goodfellas is my favorite film, and by a long shot the film I have seen the most over the course of my life (at least 14 times). It never gets old; The film is so intricately crafted that it is hard not to notice something new. I did not notice most of the subtle foreshadowing the first time I saw it, but upon further examination, I realized how much the film lays itself bare in the first act. Early, seemingly insignificant details make the film’s direction clear from the start. Expertly written, shot, directed and acted, the film is a masterpiece from top to bottom, a genius exercise in storytelling.
Goodfellas’ influence is so broad that it’s hard not to find a recent film that wears its influence on its sleeve. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs has tons of similarities—chatty gangsters who commit horrific acts of violence just to laugh about it? Pure Goodfellas. Paul Thomas Anderson, widely hailed as one of the best directors working today, used much of Goodfellas’ template in making his breakout film, the aforementioned Boogie Nights, from the long takes to utilizing pop music to create tension and anxiety (see here—you will never hear “Jessie’s Girl” the same way again). This template can even be seen in Scorsese’s own films, from Casino all the way up to The Irishman.
Goodfellas has stood for the past 30 years as a masterpiece and a defining moment in American cinema history, together with Citizen Kane and The Godfather. Watching it is an utter joy, and as it turns 30, I encourage anyone who has seen it to rewatch it, and anyone who has never seen it to give it a watch. Trust me—you will not regret it.