Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill, an Irish-American growing up in Little Italy. It charts his history with the Mafia - fascination, involvement, ascent, incarceration and eventual descent into despair and betrayal. It is a story told with such energy and obvious skill. More than any other, this movie is why I worship Martin Scorsese.
The obvious comparison is with the other great gangster movie, The Godfather. Just about everyone who has watched both movies have a side to take. Despite occupying the same lerger canvas (i.e., the Mafia), the two movies are different as chalk and cheese. While The Godfather is moody, atmospheric and rests on an almost Samurai-like protocol, Goodfellas has a more contemporary feel, and crackles with energy in every frame. Each has its own strengths, and uses them wonderfully well. I love both movies, but if it came down to it, I'd pick Goodfellas as my favourite.
One of the interesting things about the movie is its visual strategy. In the first half, you get the feeling of being in a lot of open space, whereas towards the end, you feel kinda hemmed in. The editing becomes choppier as you go along, the external noises get louder, conveying, in some sense, the turmoil in the protagonist's mind. Little things that go a long way.
Aside: A similar strategy is adopted in Insomnia, where the protagonist's sleep-deprived state slowly reflects in the editing and camera movements.
A scene that perfectly conveys the sort of power and influence Henry Hill wields as part of the mob is the one where he takes his girlfriend out on a date. They go to a posh restaurant which would ordinarily be very difficultto get into. But Henry takes her through the back entrance, through the kitchen and eventually to a table that materializes right in front of the stage. The entire sequence is shot in one continuous movement and is so smooth that it conveys everything you need to know about the upside of being in the mob.