Like a piping hot plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a great gangster movie is eternally satisfying.
Maybe it’s the fact that we all just like to be the bad guy once in a while, or just see how they live. But remember: Most of these films were made before 2001; that’s pre-Grand Theft Auto, so watching The Godfather was as close as you could get to being a mobster without having to whack a guy.
To love gangster movies means you need to love Pacino, De Niro, Scorcese, bloody shootouts, and the oxymoronic concept of ruthless killers adhering to a “code of honor.” Luckily, we eat that stuff up like the aforementioned pasta special. Check out our list of the 25 best gangster movies of all time, in no particular order, and mangia!
Many years ago, The Godfather entered a rarified stratosphere of American films; that is, no one disputes its greatness, and certainly no one should doubt its status as the greatest gangster movie of all time. Francis Ford Coppola turned Mario Puzo’s classic novel into an unforgettable epic, led by Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone and a young Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. It hasn’t lost an ounce of its power, even decades later.
The legendary Martin Scorcese handled Goodfellas like Michael Jordan handled a basketball, with directorial skills so strong, even people who don’t even think about things like camerawork and editing came away from this classic buzzing. Based on the real life story of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), the film spans 25 years and grips you tightly from start to finish, with Joe Pesci’s performance burning an indelible mark in your head.
It’s a crime that Carlito’s Way made only $36 million in the US, because Brian DePalma’s tension-packed tale of an ex-con (Al Pacino) trying to keep his nose clean is just excellent. Sean Penn is great as Carlito’s coke-addicted lawyer buddy, and the soundtrack is as tight the building suspense.
Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus features razor-sharp dialogue and his trademark take on violence as he weaves together a story involving two mob hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), a desperate boxer (Bruce Willis), and a gangster’s wife Uma Thurman). It may not be the quintessential gangster film, but being that it’s close enough to the genre and so darn good, it’s on our list.
The Godfather: Part II
This sprawling gangster epic sits very close to The Empire Strikes Back when it comes to the best sequel of all time. What the franchise loses with no Brando, it gains with a young Robert De Niro. The flashback-heavy plot takes its time, but you hardly mind when Al Pacino is working his charms as well as he does.
Smart, morally complex, tense, and well-directed, you might know Infernal Affairs better as its American counterpart, The Departed, but this Hong Kong smash came first and deserves even more praise. The story is ripe with intrigue, as a police officer joins a triad and a gang member joins the police force, with both looking to score intel on the other organization.
The first “talkie’ gangster movie to wow crowds, Little Casar catapulted the fast-talking Edward G. Robinson to fame. Here he’s a small-time crook who begins working his way up the ladder of organized crime. It’s a rough watch in today’s HD world, but on the Mount Rushmore of gangster films for its pioneer status.
The severely underrated Brian De Palma helmed this over-the-top but memorable take on the “Chicago way,” with Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and the federal lawmen who made it their mission to bring him down. Kevin Costner is the honorable Eliot Ness, with Sean Connery as upstanding officer Jimmy Malone. If you see just one baby-carriage-falling-down-the-steps scene, see this one.
Film fans know that for 50 years, the word Scarface meant this dark and aggressive classic from the early days of cinema, not the 1983 version. Al Pacino even admits he was paying homage to Paul Muni’s performance here as Tony Camonte, an up and coming mobster during the Prohibition era. Based loosely on Al Capone, the film was produced by eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes.
Five years after the massive success of Goodfellas, Martin Scorcese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi teamed up again for Casino. And while it fails to sniff the shorts of their previous greatness, it’s still a damn fine film. Loud, obnoxious, and violent, this fascinating look at the mob’s run in Vegas leans again on Robert De Niro and Jose Pesci, with Sharon Stone giving one her the best performances of her career.
Bonnie and Clyde
“They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people.” Extremely influential, Bonnie and Clyde decisively moved the needle towards more graphic violence. Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway star as the notorious outlaws that robbed and killed their way across the US during the Great Depression. This was also one of the first movies that used squibs—those fake blood mini-explosives that simulate bullet hits.
One of the early gems from the Coen brothers, Miller’s Crossing sees them apply their trademark mix of dark humor, violence, and stylish filmmaking to this dense Irish mob tale. John Turturro is great as bookie Bernie Bernbaum. The fact that it made only made $5 million is shockingly inappropriate.
The debut from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs showcased what he’d be creating for decades to come: hyper-raw, violent, stylized storytelling that’s uniquely recognizable. A botched jewelry store robbery leads a ruthless crew of criminals to suspect a rat is among them. Empire magazine called it “the greatest independent film ever made.”
The Public Enemy
The legendary James Cagney’s star-making turn as a young man’s ascent through the ranks of the Chicago underworld crackles with energy and really helped lay the groundwork for the gangster genre. We can almost hear Cagney reading this Variety review from December 31, 1930: “There’s no lace on this picture. It’s raw and brutal. It’s low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow.”
The legendary De Niro-Scorcese began right here in this story about what it’s like to grow up gangster. A classic New York City movie, Mean Streets is as authentic as it is original. Both De Niro and Harvey Keitel excel, but this one is special for being Scorcese’s announcement to Hollywood that he was a real talent.
When you think mafia movie, you naturally picture something Godfatheresque. But Gomorrah turns that image on its head, diving into the jarring realities of the modern-day crime family circuit in Naples. The paths of multiple characters are followed in this gritty foreign film, with all of them being connected by organized crime. Intense.
Road to Perdition
This one’s sometimes easy to forget, because, come on, who pictures Tom Hanks as a gangster? But yea, Road to Perdition is some really good stuff. Adapted from a graphic novel, the story takes place during the Great Depression, as a hitman and his son seek revenge against a mobster who murdered the rest of their family. Paul Newman is really good, despite being all of 77 during the film.
Ridley Scott hit it out of the park when, after a career including Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, he dipped his toes into the gangster genre. Of course having Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe to lean on doesn’t hurt. Based on the true story of Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who rose to power in the 1970s, American Gangster delivers a smooth throwback vibe to go with A-level acting.
James Cagney is the maniacally ruthless Cody Jarrett who has a weird thing for his mom as well (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!). Featuring what is probably Cagney’s best gangster performance, the impact of White Heat’s explosive style and emotional depth can still be observed in today gangster flicks.
Pacino. De Niro. The hype was high for Heat, with these legendary actors squaring off as cop and robber, and while they didn’t share much screen time, the film delivers in other ways. For an action-crime-thriller movie, Heat is surprisingly invested in the dialogue of its characters. It runs a little too long, but has one of the best shootout scenes ever.
Once Upon a Time in America
Famed Italian director Sergio Leone had huge ambitions with Once Upon a Time in America, but the suits at Warner Bros. absolutely butchered his original and very lengthy cut of the film for its US release, from 229 minutes to 139 minutes. But if viewed intact, the movie excels at telling its story of four childhood friends who grow up to be gangsters and get their loyalty tested.
Even the biggest fans of Scarface, of which there are an insane amount, have to know deep inside that it’s overrated. Have you heard that music? Or Pacino’s accent? But if you’re putting your inner critic on pause and just looking for that over-the-top, so-bad-it’s-good, Telemundo-style insanity, than it’s tough to top Brian De Palma’s F-bomb fest of a remake.
Had any director other than Martin Scorcese chose to remake a movie that was only four years old, we would’ve sighed, passed, and searched out the original (Infernal Affairs). But (arguably) the best gangster film director of all time turned in a strong effort here with a beefy cast (Jack Nicholson, Leonardio DiCaprio, Matt Damon) and plenty of twists and turns. The relentless gunplay at the end might’ve been a bit much though.
A solid (mostly true) story and two acting greats fuel Donnie Brasco to its very solid standing in the pantheon of mob movies. Johnny Depp is an undercover FBI agent who befriends and an aging, low-level hit-man played by Al Pacino. Both are in fine form here, with dashes of humor and eloquence in their performances.
City of God
City of God is an ultra-violent and visceral look at young lives gone wrong in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Director Fernando Meirelles really does some innovative things with the camera, and even though he’s guiding a cast of unknown actors, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that from their raw performances.
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