AFI Top 100: Goodfellas

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Goodfellas (1990), #92 on the list.

Ever since I can remember, I always preferred Casino to Goodfellas. As much as I dislike drawing immediate direct comparisons between films, it’s unavoidable here, because I think Casino, while a distinctly different flavor of its own—almost the Godfather Part II to Goodfellas’s The Godfather—expands and improves upon what Scorsese accomplishes in his 90s gangster classic. The major aspect in which it suffers, though, is through character. As great as De Niro and Stone are in Casino, they live in the shadow of Liotta and Bracco who perfectly embody Henry and Karen Hill. Their relationship, as noxious as it is, serves as the necessary emotional core of Goodfellas, with credit going as much to the actors as Pileggi and Scorsese’s excellent writing. The script is so meticulously detailed in its narration, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the initial barrage of names and references in the first act—Karen even later remarks at their wedding that she felt “drunk” by the time she’d been introduced to all of Henry’s guests. What’s brilliant, though, is none of these details matter. It all serves as a richly layered backdrop for the story which is about the fundamental cost of indulging in entitlement. Schoonmaker’s editing makes the 145-minute runtime breeze by, the performances are outstanding, and Scorsese breathes life into every sequence, as needlessly detailed as they get. There’s not a wasted minute in the film. It’s as entertaining today as it was 30 years ago, earning its reputation as one of the best gangster films of all time.

Does It Belong on the List?

This is an even tougher call than Raging Bull, because Goodfellas, though superb, barely scratches into the fifth slot on my ranking of Scorsese’s films, and I can’t justify having one director make up 5% of the list. I wouldn’t knock this off to include Casino, despite preferring the latter (pending an overdue rewatch), but I would argue that The Wolf of Wall Street serves as a brilliant (and yes, superior) update for the modern age, and I’d happily make that trade.

AFI Top 100

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