It’s not often that a discussion of the greatest movie in a certain genre boils down to just two movies, but the debate over the finest gangster film ever made usually comes down to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
They’re both very different movies – one is adapted from a fictional novel and the other is a true-to-life biopic, one has a conventional timeline and the other has a nonlinear structure with choppy editing etc. – but they’re arguably equally well-crafted. Here are 5 Reasons The Godfather Is The Best Mob Movie Ever Made (And 5 Why It’s Goodfellas).
10 The Godfather: A more romantic portrayal of mob life
The Corleones are not a real family, and they’re essentially royalty in the criminal underworld, so The Godfather was free to make their lifestyle look glamorous. The occasional scene like Sonny getting shot dead at a toll booth might not seem very glitzy, but they’re few and far between.
With romantic ideas about going to lavish parties and the Don giving out favors on the day of his daughter’s wedding, the movie does make being a mobster look awfully fun. No one thought gangsters were cool until Francis Ford Coppola came along and gave audiences an idealized Hollywood depiction of their lives.
9 Goodfellas: A more realistic portrayal of mob life
The biggest difference between The Godfather and Goodfellas is that, while the former glamorizes the gangster lifestyle, the latter provides a more realistic portrait of it. The characters of Goodfellas are often shown doing the dirty work that the Corleones rarely have to get involved in, and while the Corleone family has more money than they know what to do with, the characters of Goodfellas don’t get very rich.
The movie ends with one of the mobsters selling out all of his friends to secure his family’s safety in the Witness Protection Program. The look on their faces as they get convicted sells the point of the film to us. This is the inevitable ending, and it’s not worth it.
8 The Godfather: More nuanced acting
Ray Liotta’s performance as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, a guy who adores the gangster lifestyle, constantly cheats on his wife, and slowly lets the hooks of drug addiction get into him, is phenomenal – it’s intense, and we believe every emotion – but Al Pacino’s turn as Michael Corleone in The Godfather is simply more nuanced.
Where Henry will loudly yell what he’s feeling, Michael will tell us everything in a single facial expression. Add to that the subtle performances of supporting players like Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Talia Shire, John Cazale, and Diane Keaton. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci provide riveting support in Goodfellas, but it can’t compare to the ensemble of The Godfather.
7 Goodfellas: Faster pace
One of the main criticisms of The Godfather from people who are willing to admit it’s not perfect is that it’s too slow. The pacing in Goodfellas, on the other hand, is much quicker. The plot moves by at breakneck speed, jumping back and forth along the timeline of the narrative to make sure you’re only getting the information you need at any given moment.
The choppy editing of Goodfellas, the fact that no scene is more than a couple of minutes long, and the way it throws you into the story at the deep end with a corpse in the trunk all contribute to a pace that’s much faster than The Godfather’s.
6 The Godfather: More striking imagery
Obviously, there is plenty of striking imagery in Goodfellas, because Martin Scorsese is one of cinema’s giants and his keen attention to detail has helped him to get there, but The Godfather is in another league. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose work has been called a “milestone in visual storytelling” that “defined the cinematic look of the 1970s,” composed some gorgeous shots that could stand on their own as works of art.
The shot of a murder with the Statue of Liberty way off in the background, poking out from behind the long grass, says everything this movie has to say about the American dream in one frame.
5 Goodfellas: Humor
While The Godfather is a terrific film, it’s also a humorless affair. Goodfellas, however, is a hilarious movie, mostly thanks to the actors’ improvisation. From Joe Pesci’s “How am I funny?” monologue to the introduction of Jimmy Two Times, there are plenty of funny moments in Scorsese’s masterwork.
And not only that, the humor is often used to dramatic effect with striking juxtaposition, such as the central trio’s discussion of Tommy’s mothers painting (“One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy’s sayin’, ‘Whadda ya want from me?’”) while they have a guy bleeding out in the trunk.
4 The Godfather: Better-crafted plot
This one isn’t really fair to Goodfellas, because that movie was based on a true story, while The Godfather was a fictional story, so while Mario Puzo could shape and reform his novel until it had the perfect structure, there was only so much wiggle room Martin Scorsese had with the true-to-life story of Henry Hill.
Still, The Godfather’s script is a masterclass in screenwriting. We meet our protagonist, the tragic hero Michael Corleone, and watch for three hours as he is slowly corrupted by his family’s lifestyle. His transformation is marked by murdering the crooked cop at the midpoint, exactly when a character’s viewpoint is supposed to turn in a screenplay.
3 Goodfellas: Better soundtrack
The musical backing for The Godfather, written by the great Italian composer Nino Rota, is a breathtaking film score. However, there are few movies whose soundtracks hold a candle to that of Goodfellas, which is basically a mixtape of Martin Scorsese’s favorite songs.
(He even wrote some songs into the script, conceiving the scenes with the music he would score them to in mind.) From Tony Bennett to Aretha Franklin to Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton’s bands Cream and Derek and the Dominos, the Goodfellas soundtrack contains tracks by some of the greatest artists of all time, and they all suit the scenes they’re assigned to perfectly.
2 The Godfather: Stronger historical context
While Goodfellas has a real place in history, being based on a true story, The Godfather has a better hold on its historical context. It’s about fictional characters, but it’s rooted in very real history. It takes place between 1945 and 1955, and this post-war setting forms a lot of the plot.
Michael has just returned from war when he attends his sister’s wedding in the opening scene. This sets him up nicely as the wayward one who isn’t going to get into the family business – until he does. The Corleone family came over from Sicily at the turn of the century, and The Godfather has a lot to say about immigration.
1 Goodfellas: It’s endlessly rewatchable
You have to be in a certain mood to watch The Godfather. It’s long, it’s heavy, there’s a lot to take in – you have to really strap in if you’re going to sit through it. Goodfellas, however, is endlessly rewatchable. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or what kind of movie you want to watch – it’s never a challenge to get into Goodfellas.
When you’re channel-hopping and you see that a movie’s on, it’s easier to stop and watch the rest of Goodfellas than it is to stop and watch the rest of The Godfather. It sounds silly, but that’s important.