Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Adapted from: Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Debi Mazar, Frank Vincent
Nominations: Picture, Director – Martin Scorsese, Supporting Actor – Joe Pesci, Supporting Actress – Lorraine Bracco, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
Win: Supporting Actor – Joe Pesci

Martin Scorsese is a director who manages to remain exciting and relevant more than 50 years after his feature film debut (Who’s That Knocking at My Door? [1967]).  A new film from him is appointment viewing, requiring a direct route to the theater—and there aren’t many directors these days who have that kind of pull.  While he’s dabbled in numerous genres—bio-pic, sports, comedy, thriller, comedy, historical, musical, romance, epic, documentary, etc.—he’s best known for his crime films that delve into various aspects of the mob.  There can be difficulty in determining which of his films should be considered his magnum opus, what with so many of his films often re-defining genres and film language, but I argue that Goodfellas is the quintessential Scorsese picture that captures so many of his recurring motifs and themes and filmmaking techniques.

Above all, when one thinks of a what constitutes a movie by Martin Scorsese I imagine most will point to dynamic cinematography and editing.  The opening scene of Goodfellas begins with a fast tracking shot that starts behind then races past a car, and it ends with an unexpected freeze frame before launching into the film proper.  Over the next two and a half hours, we’re treated to a handful of long tracking shots (I like to call them oners—pronounced “one-ers”), often moving from outside to indoors (always a lighting challenge), that help put us into the characters’ shoes.  The Copacabana shot is usually highlighted as a great oner, but the more effective example might be a similarly set up shot at the Bamboo Lounge.  In it, we’re introduced to many of the characters we’ll be seeing throughout the film, but they’re addressing the camera/us directly: instead of a break in the fourth wall, however, it acts as a means to pull us more into the film, truly putting us into Henry’s world.

No, it’s not nearly as long or elaborate as the Copacabana shot, but it carries a bit more narrative weight.  We have to care about these people—who are, more or less, vile criminals—so it’s of the utmost importance that we not only know who they are but that we feel like a part of the action.

The editing in the third act accomplishes a similar effect.  It’s quick, jumpy, and unpredictable.  We’re constantly on edge, waiting for the next cut.  We’re nowhere near as paranoid as Henry, of course, but unless you’ve snorted some cocaine right before the sequence it does a great job at replicating the jitteriness and hyperactivity one experiences when one a high-powered stimulant—made all the more tense and urgent with Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” driving along on the soundtrack.

It’s been 30 years since Goodfellas debuted, and it is just as fresh and original as it did then.  Arguably, it was ahead of its time: it has an energy to it that has a modern feeling and aesthetic.  Then again, that’s the hallmark of a masterwork.  It’s hard to imagine the film not standing the test of time with someone in 2050 writing about how innovative a 60-year-old film was and remains.