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Yes, I’m Talking To You, And I’m Ranking The Ten Best Gangster Movies
At their best, gangster films act as fascinating, vicarious experiences of an incredibly high-stakes, lawless world. We as viewers are cautiously curious to see how such a violent, care-free environment works, partially because we know it often stems from real life. Films like Scarface work better as entertaining showcases of the excesses of the lifestyle, whilst works like Once Upon A Time In America lean more towards the grim reality and psychological repercussions. The best gangster films showcase both the allure and horrific truths in fairly equal measure. For this list films within the heist sub-genre such as Le Cercle Rouge and Reservoir Dogs were considered, as well as broader crime films such as Heat and Pulp Fiction. Still, I primarily focused on straight mob films, the best of which tend to focus more comprehensively on the figure and lifestyle of the gangster.
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#10 Scarface (1983), Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s rise and fall narrative is an incredibly entertaining film, made especially so by a forceful, iconic performance by Al Pacino. It is confidently directed – De Palma is excellent at composing delicious, painterly frames and Scarface is no exception (the final showdown is a memorable showcase of visual excess). Even if you haven’t seen Scarface you have likely heard it being quoted, and for this iconography alone it deserves a place on this list.
Its sense of silliness provides great comedy, though I am unsure how intentional it is (The “Push It To The Limit” montage is funny after decades of parody but I’m not sure it was supposed to be.) Scarface is slightly limited by insufficient emotional resonance – it is an exercise in style-over-substance for the most part, and its brutality often tips into glorification. That being said it is still entertainment personified and is an undeniably essential entry into the gangster genre, hence its inclusion.
#9 The Departed (2006), Martin Scorsese
The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s worst gangster film – but it’s still great. Based on Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong crime film, The Departed provides a ridiculously twisty, immediately engaging plot. Both the Boston police department and the mob have been infiltrated by moles, with each side racing to identify the respective culprits. Matt Damon stands out as the villainous gangster-posing-as-a-policeman in an incredibly despicable, against-type role. Leonardo DiCaprio adds extra star power as the undercover cop, and Mark Wahlberg is also very funny as a straight-and-narrow policeman.
Though it stretches the limits of believability, the central scenario is very well-milked and results in some tense scenes and character dynamics – the pivotal elevator sequence is still shocking. For fans of the genre, watching a Martin Scorsese gangster film is like putting on a warm blanket. You know you’re getting something of decent quality, and The Departed is certainly that. It feels like Scorsese simply focusing on having a fun time, which is a notable feature, albeit perhaps also its main drawback. Jack Nicholson hilariously lets loose as mob boss Frank Costello, yet arguably too much – his “gnawing rat” monologue is iconic but massively overblown. The Departed also twists itself to death by its finish, but it is incredibly fun and engagingly well-plotted nevertheless.
#8 Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets is a low-key drama about the day-to-day gangster lifestyle. Its hyper-grounded tone acts as a useful lens into a seemingly impenetrable world. In it, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) navigate the struggles that come with their lifestyle over the course of a few days. They are both regular crooks rather than mob bosses. Their tense relationship is therefore the basis for much of the film’s drama. Without much happening, you still feel that the climax will have huge repercussions, and it is this quiet sense of foreboding that keeps Mean Streets engaging. Mean Streets perhaps lacks the verve and pomp of Scorsese’s later works yet it brilliantly lays the groundwork for what he would go on to build with those projects.
#7 Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s debut is a fantastically simple tale about the brutal fallout of a heist gone wrong. As a showcase of the brutality of gangsters and by extension human beings, Reservoir Dogs is scorchingly effective. The central situation in the safe-house is really tense and pays off explosively. The cast is fantastic – Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen all give standout performances – the latter’s ‘Stuck In The Middle’ moment is still one of Tarantino’s most effective uses of violence. The narrative interweaves in a manner that Tarantino would later perfect in Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs is cool, stylish, and simple. It presents a challenging group of characters whose plight is still dramatically engaging, a balance only the best gangster films manage to strike.
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#6 Casino (1995), Martin Scorsese
Casino is an epic tale about the mob’s involvement in the Las Vegas gambling scene. It centers on Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with Mafia strong-man Nikki (Joe Pesci). Rothstein is a more reluctant gangster than what De Niro is usually known for playing, and is immediately likable as such. His marital situation is engaging – you feel for his hopeless pursuit of Ginger (Sharon Stone) in spite of its’ unethical nature. Joe Pesci is fantastically reprehensible as Nikki – perhaps even more so than he is as Tommy Devito in Goodfellas.
The dialogue between himself and Ace is where the film truly excels. Casino is very stylish and is perhaps one of Scorsese’s most eye-popping films. Ginger’s characterization has drawn criticism for its gender politics – being the only female, it is noticeable that she is one-dimensionally slimy and less nuanced than the other two protagonists. Still, Ace isn’t glorified either (though you side with him) and their relationship gives Casino its distinguishing sense of heart. The main problem with Casino is that it feels incredibly similar to Goodfellas (though there are worse flaws) – its structure and tone are almost identical and thus it feels occasionally overly familiar. Casino isn’t quite a classic, but it is still very strong.
#5 The Irishman (2019), Martin Scorsese
Once again Scorsese delivers the gangster goods, however this time through a more meditative and moving story about the life of “house-painter” Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). The Irishman is about the regret (or lack thereof) that inherently results from a life built on murder. The deaths in this film are more morbid than ever before – you really feel the loss of those killed. The Irishman feels like a necessary update on the gangster genre and provides an existential sensibility that has rarely been present to this extent in Scorsese’s previous mob films.
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It combines the morbid, near-religious sensibility of newer Scorsese works like Silence with his familiar gangster template. The final act is extremely moving and includes an equally poignant concluding scene. Pesci and DeNiro are fantastic. The cast also includes a good cameo from Harvey Keitel and the added star-power of Al Pacino. I don’t feel it’s too long. The Irishman’s only true defect in my opinion is its’ shoddy, increasingly distracting CGI De-Ageing. Aside from that, it is a fantastic and necessary entry into the genre.
#4 Once Upon A Time In America (1984), Sergio Leone
Once Upon A Time In America is Epic with a capital E. Its time-jumping narrative spans decades in the life of Noodles (Robert De Niro) and centers on his pivotal, ill-fated friendship with Max (James Woods). Similar to The Irishman, Once Upon A Time In America is notable for re-imagining gangster tropes through a more challenging lens. The protagonists’ flaws in no way add to their charm – they are genuinely reprehensible in their violence towards women, and no apologies are made for their behavior. Still, you can’t help but be engaged by their plight, much of which owes to the nuanced performances, character development, and beautifully operatic Ennio Morricone score. Though the last act is slightly less gripping than the first two, Once Upon A Time In America is still an incredibly engrossing tale filled with haunting images, memorable moments, a timeless score, and a moving central relationship.
#3 The Godfather Part II (1974), Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part II is one of the best sequels ever made, to the extent that nowadays comparing any sequel to it is an immediate validation of a film’s quality. It continues Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)’s story and dives further into his familial history through the portrayal of a young Vito, played excellently by Robert De Niro. This parallel storyline structure is unusual but it works well; the connections made between the two are subtle yet relevant enough to be emotionally powerful. Michael’s decline is occasionally hard to watch, but it feels very natural and true to his character. The film is colder than its predecessor and thus feels like less of a romanticization. Though this is ultimately a good thing, it is also the reason I prefer The Godfather, which provides a more emotionally varied viewing experience. Still, it would be difficult to think of how else The Godfather Part II could match up to the first film as well as it does. It shares its operatic style and family-centric drama and continues the story in a natural and emotionally satisfying manner.
#2 Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese
Choosing between the best two gangster films is difficult, and Goodfellas only narrowly misses out. Regardless, it is an explosive telling of the life of real-life gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his relationship with fellow wise-guys Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Goodfellas is extremely entertaining – it has a brilliant sense of dark humor coupled with a genuinely dramatic story about the true violence behind the wise-guy lifestyle. It switches between horror and comedy expertly and finds time to also be a nuanced depiction of the central figures.
It can be rewatched endlessly – each time you do you will notice that it has more detail than you initially thought. It has an endless amount of memorable moments – “Funny How?” is one of the best scenes ever, and the long take in the restaurant is a fantastic example of visual storytelling. The soundtrack also acts as a brilliant guide through the story. Ray Liotta’s slimy performance as Henry is underrated, De Niro is suitably sinister as Conway, and Pesci steals the show as the incredibly volatile Tommy.
#1 The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola
That’s right – in my opinion, The Godfather is the best gangster film of all time. It marries the sense of perverse, romantic curiosity mob films inevitably provide with a genuinely heartfelt and familial storyline. It has a grand, operatic tone that still feels rooted in a believable reality. Michael Corleone’s evolution may be the greatest character arc I have ever witnessed in a single film. He changes so much in the space of the story yet in hindsight his destination seems inevitable. Solazzo’s death scene and the hospital sequence are two brilliantly intense moments of transformation.
His relationship with the titular Godfather (Marlon Brando), as well as with the rest of the family, is a consistent source of poignancy. As with Goodfellas, there are a handful of unforgettable sequences such as the severed horse head scene and the long, theatrical opening wedding. Nino Rota’s score fits the tone seamlessly and is grand and grounded like the film, which balances the grit of Mean Streets with the operatic scale of Once Upon A Time In America. The Godfather may not be as immediately entertaining as Goodfellas but it more than makes up for this with superior character depth and stronger drama.
A History Of Violence (2005), David Cronenberg.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Jean-Pierre Melville.
Le Doulos (1962), Jean-Pierre Melville.
Bob Le Flambeur (1956), Jean-Pierre Melville.
Eastern Promises (2007), David Cronenberg.
Carlito’s Way (1994), Brian De Palma.
City Of God (2002), Fernando Meirelles.
Heat (1995), Michael Mann.
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Amhara Chamberlayne is a graduate in English Literature from Warwick University who shares Hollywood Insider’s passion for cinema. When he is not watching films he is writing about them. Uninterested in gossip and agenda, Amhara instead believes in sharing his honest individual reaction to cinema. He enjoys the multi-variant reactions films elicit and believes his take is just as valid as others. For Amhara, the joy lies in the exchange of opinions.