If someone were to compile a list of absolutely perfect films, Goodfellas would fit firmly in the second place slot (the first, of course, going to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Goodfellas is a masterpiece, without a doubt. With a perfect marriage of form and content, Martin Scorsese reminded us why he is the foremost American filmmaker of his generation.
The movie, based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, is a true story of ex-mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Half Irish, half Italian, Hill got himself into organized crime as a youngster, doing odd jobs for the local racket. As he gets older, he gets more important jobs, and meets two partners in crime: Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). He also meets a feisty woman (Lorraine Bracco), and quickly falls for her. As time passes, Hill becomes completely embroiled in the gangster life. He's with the in-crowd, doing what he wants with who he wants. He's making more money than he can spend, even though sometimes he's got to rough some guys up. Of course, everything that goes up must come down, and so is the case with Hill.
But there's no point in relaying the plot, because the reason the movie works is due to Scorsese's incredible visual sense. The camera in this film is perpetually in motion, like it's a roving, restless, living thing. Scorsese uses every trick at his disposal, but none of it feels like it's forced or fake. When you watch Goodfellas, you feel like there's no other way this particular story could be told. Scorsese's direction is so masterful that all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
And a ride is exactly what this film is. The natural rhythms of the film propel the story forward. But at the same time, the film never feels like it's being rushed. When it needs to take its time, it does. When Henry goes to prison, we get a very exacting sequence where Hill describes how a gourmet Italian meal was made for dinner every night. The scene is leisurely and easygoing, but at the same time, that underlying sense of forward motion is always there. The film runs two and a half hours and covers three decades, but it glides by so seamlessly that it feels like a 90 minute picture.
Of course, the story is helped along by an utterly immaculate cast. Ray Liotta had never before, nor ever has again given a performance so down to earth, so human, so thoroughly convincing. Scorsese really coaxed the best out of him, and while he's never been a bad actor, he really shines in this role. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci of course show the brand of acting telepathy they've developed with Scorsese and each other. Lorraine Bracco matches Liotta note for note. The rest of the cast is a veritable who's who of the mobster movie world. Almost every cast member of The Sopranos is here, as is Paul Sorvino and even Samuel L. Jackson. If the camera is Scorsese's tool, then the cast was his clay, to be shaped into perfect forms.
Goodfellas has so many factors clicking into just the right places that it's simply an astounding picture. Scorsese had shown in the past that he's capable of truly amazing work, but this film manges to top them all. Everything that needed to go right went right and then some. At the heart of it, there's that indefinable something that turns a good movie into a career-defining masterpiece that forever marked everyone involved.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Goodfellas comes to us courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in a 1.85:1 1080p VC1 transfer. Scorsese has always favored the gritty side of life, and he shoots his film in a gritty way, as well. Between the grain and the muted palette, the film isn't necessarily the best candidate for HD. However, there are some clear benefits. Look at the scene where we first see Henry as a child. We can see the slight beginnings of moustache hairs on his upper lip. When Karen threatens Henry with a gun, you can read every letter on the barrel of that gun. Scenes in broad daylight have excellent color reproduction. The dark scenes tend to fall off too quickly, and even the best looking scenes only look so good. It's a good reproduction of how the film originally looked, but it's not the best HD transfer I've ever seen.
Despite having a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, Goodfellas has a very front-centric mix. Dialogue is at the forefront, even when several characters are talking at once. In some scenes, there are several conversations going on while the voiceover is going on over the top, and you can hear it all. So that's a plus. On the negative side, the sound effects lack power and bass. Surrounds are almost never used. The only time the mix really opens up is when the music kicks in, but even then, it never envelopes you.
Goodfellas is a seminal work in American cinema, and Warner Bros. pays homage to it with a wide selection of strong special features.
There are two commentaries on the disc. The first is a compilation of previously recorded comments by almost everyone involved, including Scorsese, Liotta, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and more. The comments themselves are very much worth hearing, but the fact that they're not scene specific is quite disappointing. Furthermore, there's a section with no comments by anyone whatsoever for seemingly no reason.
The second commentary is actually by Henry Hill and the Edward McDonald, the FBI agent who got him into the Witness Protection Program. This is an absolutely fascinating, utterly engrossing track. Hill treats the film as if it were a documentary, chronicling exactly how events went down. Hill and McDonald get along very well, and the track must be heard.
"Getting Made" is a thirty minute documentary on Goodfellas from the genesis through to release. Scorsese talks about how he got interested in the material. Author Nicholas Pileggi discusses how thrilled he was to work with Marty. Vintage interviews with De Niro and Joe Pesci reveal their thoughts on the picture. New interviews with Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Ballhaus, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and more shed light on all the aspects of production. After the commentary, it doesn't give too much new information, but if you choose not to listen to the commentary, it's worth a watch.
"Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy" is a short featurette where several filmmakers (including Richard Linklater and Jon Favreau) discuss how much they enjoy the movie. It doesn't go much further than that. After hearing Thelma Schoonmaker and Ray Liotta talk so eloquently about the more intricate details of the production, it's a bit of a letdown to see these filmmakers give base praise without deeper analysis. Of course, it's only 13 minutes, so how much can they really say?
"Paper Is Cheaper Than Film" takes scribbles Scorsese made on a working draft of the film and compares them to the final scenes. Every so often you can see a resemblance between the drawing and the final shot, but mostly you can't make heads or tails of it.
"The Workaday Gangster" discusses how close the film was to the reality of being in the mob. The answer? It's really very close. Very very close.
And finally, there's a theatrical trailer. None of these special features are in high definition.
Goodfellas is one of the high watermarks of cinema. Scorsese poured his heart and soul into this movie, and his reward was a film that will forever be remembered as one of the greatest movies ever made. I'm giving this movie five stars, but really, I could give it a thousand stars and it still wouldn't be high enough praise. While I've seen better picture and audio quality from Blu-ray, this is still the best way to see the movie. Add in a group of informative special features and you get a disc that comes Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.