Warner Brothers built their studio on gangster and crime films, romanticizing life in the mob to make it exciting, even glamorous in the thirties and forties. Yet there was always the end when the criminals died or went to prison, they always got what they deserved. ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931), ‘Scarface’ (1932) and ‘Little Caesar’ (1931) were the best of the early gangster films, and there were many through the decade and beyond. Never though was there an intimate, inside look at how the mafia or organized crime worked, and just how it impacted the men who were operating it, and their families surrounding them.
So really the gangster film, if there is a true gangster film, began with ‘The Godfather’ (1972), Francis Ford Coppola‘s magnificent look at the mob, a perverse study of the American Dream turned upside down and the story of a father and his three sons. Coppola drew on his own heritage as an Italian American and brought to the film an intimacy that might not have otherwise been there in the hands of another director. Of course, he brought a great deal more to the mix as well, casting (refusing to buckle), an epic seep yet intimate feel to the film, and we seemed to be on the inside of the dimly lit rooms where murder was discussed like going for groceries. The film allowed Marlon Brando to create one of the most iconic characters ever put on film, and win a second Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as a second coming of method acting and actors, with Al Pacino emerging as one of the important actors of the seventies.
The sequel, made just two years later, would surpass the first in every way, no mean feat, yet Coppola and writer Mario Puzo made it deeper, more complex, darker and near visionary. Both films won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Coppola twice won DGA Awards for his work, and their box office take was incredible. What the two films made clear, was the crime was just a business, no different to the men operating it than running as massive company, the difference being killing was art of the everyday routine, and was never taken personally. The best of the gang films followed suit, exploring how the business operated, and how the police were truing in one way or another to infiltrate the mob. Here is the list of top gangster, crime and mafia movies ever made. Good luck finding these best gangster movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
20. City of God (2002)
I saw ‘City of God’ for the first time only recently, and I found it to be an exceptionally gritty examination of the life of crime and deceit, which in turn makes me feel good, as I have a masterpiece such as this to start my list off with. Capturing rural life in Rio de Janeiro with a raw, unpolished style, the film tells a dark tale of the lives of two brothers, who separate and go in different directions career-wise, one of them becoming a drug-dealing gang-lord, while the other slowly steps into the art of photography. It’s interesting, the way this film uses tools like narration and editing to communicate the various stages in the growth of the brothers, how they drift apart, and what eventually takes place when they meet each other again. The majority of South American, particularly Brazilian films I’ve seen, I’ve enjoyed for their brash approach towards filmmaking. In that sense, ‘City of God’ takes a relatively more formal path, but the impact it has on the viewer is still striking, and well worthy of applause.
19. White Heat (1949)
‘White Heat’ has always been one of my favorite film noirs ever made. Not many films in the genre try to dive deep into the psychological imbalance of their characters, forcing them to display the psychopathic traits they do, largely because noirs of the time had defined themselves as cold, unforgiving, and distant films, not bound by the tensions of personality development. ‘White Heat’ changed all that, with its icy, sadistic protagonist Cody Jarrett, a mentally disturbed gang leader with a strange appreciation for his mother, one that could be labeled abnormal thanks to its uncomfortable intimacy. Currently imprisoned, he communicates from within the prison walls to his henchmen, two of whom are hell-bent on double-crossing him and taking over his seniority. The film details his escape and the subsequent heist he directs his gang to perform, wherein things go terribly wrong, and it is all wrapped up with a climax that is nothing short of iconic.
18. Blood In, Blood Out (1993)
A good couple of gangster movies that I’ve seen deal with the lives of its protagonists in full, rather than focus on any particular events they create or encounter, perhaps because it is in the interest of filmmakers to capture the growth of their characters into notoriety, usually from humble, respectable beginnings. ‘Blood In, Blood Out’ is one such film, portraying simultaneously the lives of three cousins, whose lives change for the worse when they step up the ladder of drugs and crime, advancing from being members of their own street gang to much more brutal affairs. In a sense, the film is an attempt to understand the reasons as to why the leads have chosen to become what they have, captured with a noticeably low-budget touch to it all. The acting of this underrated film has been heavily criticized because of how unrealistic it is, and I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think the same in parts. The film succeeds primarily because of the strength of its story and the focus in its direction.
17. Mafioso (1962)
The simplicity associated with the mainstream Italian cinema of the ‘60s has a flair that is all its own. Taking the case of ‘Mafioso’, I love the way Antonio Badalamenti, the protagonist of this film, is built up. The film starts with him working a normal 9 to 5 job and taking care of a small family, but it is when things are slowly revealed about his past that the film shows a darker version of his character, not to mention that of his previously considered soft and harmless small family.
Throughout the picture, there’s this seamless understanding that nothing taking place in its runtime is worth considering too seriously, something that is portrayed with a light-hearted, almost self-mocking tone in style. I do however have issues with the way the film tries to take its humor one step further with unnecessary outbursts from characters, which was perhaps the norm in the formative years of Italian mainstream cinema, though it feels extremely dated today. Alberto Sordi shines as the protagonist, playing a role that requires him to sway from comedic to comically dramatic.
16. The Untouchables (1987)
Many people have told me that ‘The Untouchables’ is a film that wasted potential energy for a simplistic storyline. Now I’m not one to disagree with that statement, but in making its story easier and less researched than it could’ve been, Brian De Palma gives you an experience that’s immensely entertaining. Following federal agent Eliot Ness and his various attempts at capturing the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone, the film is smart in how it continues to stay fresh and energetic for the entirety of its runtime. I love the way they show Ness getting his team together, after several failed plans and strategies at bagging the ruthless Capone due to the latter’s immense influences and sources of information around the city. I agree that the film would have been more interesting had it been presented with more attention paid to the details of the case, but as it stands, ‘The Untouchables’ is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in my life, and I feel myself coming back to it every time I feel like I need to relax.
15. The French Connection (1971)
The Best Picture winner at the 1972 Academy Awards, ‘The French Connection’ happens to be one of the tightest crime dramas I’ve seen in my life. Its runtime is more-or-less engulfed in this cat-and-mouse game between two nihilistic cops and a drug smuggling underworld team. This film has, as its primary source of energy, two magnificently written characters as the protagonists, played exceptionally by Gene Hackman, in what could be considered a career-best performance, and Roy Schneider.
Though it was considered extremely violent for its time, I wonder if the film will be treated with that same eye in today’s world, where we’ve been witness to several films that are bloodier and more gruesome than ‘The French Connection’ could ever have been. William Friedkin directs one of his best films ever with a strong balance of action and drama, unafraid to get slow at times when characters require their dose of development, and the plot asks for better grounding. There are few films out there that are as thrilling, nerve-wracking, and highly rewarding as this.
14. The Usual Suspects (1995)
I’ll be honest and tell you that I haven’t found ‘The Usual Suspects’ to be as good as the popular opinion claims it to be. It’s still a magnificent feature, but this is why I haven’t placed it higher on my list. Told with a reflective narration familiarising the audience with a series of events that lead to a shocking climax, it is often said that ‘The Usual Suspects’ has one of the greatest film endings ever written. I like the final reveal here (despite having it spoilt for me long before I’d had the chance to peek at it myself) because, upon a second viewing, more things begin to make sense, including character motivations and actions. Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie take very evident “inspirational” material from other similar films, walking the fine line between plagiarism and mere homage, which I didn’t appreciate on the whole. Overall, I think it’s a fantastic movie that is a little like many other movies that I’ve seen. Whether that makes the film worth checking out or not is entirely up to you.
13. Donnie Brasco (1997)
It’s a question that can come up often among the do-gooders among us, one that probably won’t have an answer without a complete understanding of human nature: why do people turn bad? ‘Donnie Brasco’ follows a young undercover cop named Joe Pistone, who attempts to infiltrate a mob family by assuming the film’s title as his own name and slowly gaining the trust of its most prominent players. Above all a subtle character study of the individuals involved, this adaptation of a true story is a soulful drama that asks the aforementioned question posed by do-gooders with its wonderful plot, though it does little to answer the same.
As time goes by, Al Pacino‘s character (the professional hit-man in the family), who is oblivious to Brasco’s real identity, begins to influence the young man well enough to make him consider the positives of working with the mafia, the very one he was supposed to try and put an end to. I like how complete the different characters in this film are, not just because of the excellent performances, but also because of how clear their motivations are made, and how justified this makes their many absurd and un-absurd decisions.
12. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
The very essence of the life of a gangster is how daring and unafraid it is in relation to the law and its keepers that help maintain a society. The plot to ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ ended up inspiring tons of similar films about shoddy people, including the underrated masterpiece ‘Sleepers’ (1996). Dealing in part with the upbringing of a couple of street boys, whom the local priest attempts to reform and make better, the film focuses on their admiration for a man with a criminal background named Rocky Sullivan (played by James Cagney), who is cheated out of money by his lawyer (Humphrey Bogart), to which Sullivan seeks to respond with cold-blooded revenge.
This was, perhaps, Cagney’s first great performance, and it fetched him several major awards. The final scene to this film is exquisite, and though I will not spoil it for you, I will tell you that it deals with a punishment, presented quite dramatically albeit strong with its dialogue and direction, leaving you with a moment that strikes deep, and hopefully justifying its position in a list of this kind.
11. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
‘Boyz n the Hood’ is a film about many things. On the surface, it tells a tale about growing up parentless in the ghettos of urban areas in the United States, investigating how such a background can end up influencing the individual, shaping his mindset and outlook on things. Using this, ‘Boyz n the Hood’ finds its roots in the gangster genre, outlining the violence, abuse, and lawless lives survived by the many who enter into the hood, either with or without their knowledge. With exceptional casting and direction, the film flows masterfully through its wonderful script, capturing the underbelly of downtown Los Angeles with an eye that isn’t afraid to show it like it is.
10. A History of Violence (2006)
Based on a graphic novel, directed tautly by David Cronenberg, this powerful little film explores what happens when a small town family man erupts with violence when two bad guys come into his diner late one night to cause trouble. Gunning them down he becomes a celebrity overnight, which brings MORE very bad guys to town searching for Joey, a hitman from Philadelphia. When they threaten his family, he again erupts with fury and guns them down, showing his wife who he is for the first time. He travels to the city to make peace with his brother, portrayed with frightening intensity by William Hurt, but it is far too late for that. Viggo Mortenson is brilliant as Tom Stall, also Joey, bringing to his performance a world-weariness of a man who did too much and saw too much in his criminal days and prefers married life and peace.
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9. Bugsy (1991)
Warren Beatty gives the finest performance of his career as the psychotic Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, who in the late thirties and early forties came to Hollywood, fell in love with it and never left. In the middle of the desert in Nevada he had a vision of a gambling haven called Las Vegas and he built the Flamingo Casino which became the first major hotel in Vegas, and gave birth to one of the worlds most extraordinary cities. Bugsy did that, yet never lived to see what his vision brought forth. A tough as nails and dangerous mobster, he was the muscle for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and would be gunned down in his home by his own people. Beatty is ferociously good as Bugsy, charismatic and explosive, Kingsley superb as Meyer Lansky and Annette Benning excellent as Virginia Hill, Bugsys other obsession. Nicely directed by Barry Levison.
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8. American Gangster (2007)
A biographical crime epic based on the life of Frank Lucas, portrayed expertly by Denzel Washington, a crime lord out of Harlem who for years imported heroin into the US in the coffins of dead young soldiers. We watch Lucas move up the criminal chain ruthlessly, taking what he wants with force, bringing his entire family close to him to work for him because he trusts no one. Hot on his trial are the narcotics squad, led by job obsessed Russell Crowe, who will not rest until he brings Lucas down. It is a big, sprawling film that moves about the world, from the stifling streets of Vietnam to the colorful Harlem ghetto, to the hot jungles of Cambodia. All of it anchored by a superb performance from Washington and an equally good one by Crowe, each knowing that at some point they are going to go toe to toe with one another.
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7. Casino (1995)
When first released there were obvious comparisons to ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) from critics (including me) but now with some distance and time, the film stands well on its own and is a frank and extraordinary glimpse into the world of Vegas. Robert De Niro is well cast as Ace Rothstein, a brilliant odds maker sent to Vegas by the mob to watch over their interests, but is hampered by the arrival of the vicious, murderous Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) who turns Las Vegas into the wild west. The woman between them is Ginger, portrayed superbly by Sharon Stone in the finest work of her career. It is a big sprawling film about how the mob becomes undone in Vegas, often brutally violent, but a careening, bouncy film delving deep into the minds and world of the people who inhabit Vegas. Far better than it was ever given credit for being. De Niro is superb, Pesci brilliant and frightening, Stone is a miracle and James Woods sleazy and perfect.
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6. The Departed (2006)
A remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, director Martin Scorsese, transplanting the story to Boston, creates a crime epic spanning thirty years. Jack Nicholson, working with Scorsese for the first time is superb as an out of control gang leader running South Boston, with a mole in the police department, portrayed by Matt Damon, and without knowing one in his outfit, portrayed to perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio. There are strong supporting performances from Martin Sheen as a fatherly police captain, Mark Wahlberg as a vulgar assistant to the Captain, and Alec Baldwin, but it is Nicholson who dominates the picture. The tension is kept at its tightest throughout as discovery for both young men means death (or worse). One can sense the growing paranoia impacting a terrified DiCaprio as he edges closer to nailing Nicholson, but also to being found out, which means death. It is as good as he gets.
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5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Set in the world of crime, the lord being Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), this is a non-linear work about those surrounding him and how they fit into his criminal empire. The two most likable in the film are a couple of hitmen, beautifully portrayed with grave intensity by John Travolta and fiery rage by Samuel L. Jackson, who go hunting for a renegade boxer played nicely by Bruce Willis. Superbly written, directed with brash, bold strokes, drawing inspiration from the seventies cinema and Hon Kong films, it is a wild ride that grabs you by the throat and never let’s go. Directed with energetic flare, it is a masterpiece of new cinema. No one, I repeat no one writes like Tarantino.
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4. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
A rich, haunting epic that spans forty years in the Jewish mob where we follow the rise and fall of Noodles (De Niro again) and Max (James Woods) two partners from boyhood who hook up and move quickly through the ranks to the very top of the organization. It’s bloody, no question and misogynistic in its treatment of women, but once it has its hooks in you I defy anyone to let go. Long at four hours (see the original version as the director intended) it has a leisurely pace and some strange choices (an endlessly ringing telephone) but manages to come together in its telling of an unusual story about loyalty and betrayal. De Niro and Woods are terrific as is Tuesday Weld, but Elizabeth McGovern is woefully miscast. Breathtaking cinematography and a haunting score are highlights. One of De Niro’s best pieces of acting.
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3. Goodfellas (1990)
Director Martin Scorsese grew up watching wise guys in his New York world, the small time mafia boys who ran the neighborhood. Based on the best-selling book about Henry Hill, the subject of the film, a real life button man who betrayed his buddies and entered the Witness Protection Program, the film is a jaunty, almost bouncy journey through thirty years of life in the mafia. Hill saw it all and did it all, working close with some of the most prolific crime figures of the time, portrayed in the film by Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Joe Pesci, who is terrifying as an out of control killer. The picture beautifully captures the life of a mobster in their home, including interactions with the wives and children, and the hell they experience when their men go away. The movement of the camera creates an energy that is infectious as we watch all of this unfold, including some of the most brutal killings put on the screen. One of the most remarkable American films ever made. Directed with sublime confidence by Scorsese.
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2. The Godfather (1972)
The one that revolutionized gangster films and the film industry itself, a massive success, soaring past Gone with the Wind (1939) as the highest money-maker of all time, and bringing to pop culture the mafia and Don Corleone. Francis Ford Coppola directed the film to perfection making both a film about the American Dream becoming perverse, and the story of a family whose business just happens to be crime. Presiding over the Corleone family is Don Vito (Marlon Brando), who after being shot will come to realize his son Michael took revenge and is now working with him to be the chief of the family. They will take down the other families in New York to solidify their power.
Brando might have won the Oscar for Best Actor but Pacino dominates the film with an extraordinary performance. In fact like the sequel, the picture is loaded with great performances, from the two leads through to Robert Duvall as the loyal adopted son, John Cazale as Fredo, James Cann as hot-tempered Sonny, and Diane Keaton as Kay, the woman Michael will marry and betray. Like the sequel, a remarkable film.
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1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Arguably, the best American film ever made, the greatest film ever made. Stunning performances from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg and John Cazale dominate this remarkable film that explores the depth and reach of the Mafia as well as the immigrant experience. There are few more moving sequences than the boat sliding past the Statue of Liberty, hope and awe etched on the faces of the new Americans. Pacino was never better, his dark intensity dominating the film, radiating danger as he never has before or since.
In every way this film is a masterpiece, from the acting, direction and writing, through the cinematography, score, art direction and editing, it is flawless. Watching De Niro become the character we know will be portrayed by Brando in the first film is startling, it is such an achievement of performance, while Pacino as Michael, grasps the power and cannot shake it. An astounding, brilliant work of art, that has the sweep of a grand epic, and yet the intimacy of a love story. Genius.
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