Here’s an offer you can’t refuse: A quick and dirty list of the best gangster movies of all time. You’ve probably seen a few of them, but you can’t really say you’ve seen everything the genre has to offer until you’ve given all 15 of these classic mafia movies a spin. So if you are in the mood for action, intrigue, betrayal, and some of the best cinematography the silver screen has ever seen, today is your lucky day.
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Related Reading: The Most Notorious Real-Life Gangsters
Ever since Little Caesar and, The Public Enemy came out in the early 1930s, the mobster film genre would never be the same again.
The depiction of organized crime became truer, and the bad guys suddenly became human, even larger than life. Critics have accused many films of romanticizing crime and turning crooks into honorable men.
But this has never been the intention.
Still, people have always identified with the charismatic protagonist who goes from rags to riches despite his moral ambiguity. Whether it’s Scarface, The Godfather, or any other film about making money at any cost, these movies tap into something deep inside us.
There’s an inclination toward greed and violence lurking just below the surface of all human beings. And what better way to explore those impulses than through watching a mobster flick?
The Best Gangster Movies of All Time
Mobster movies are not only entertaining, but they also teach us about the history of crime. From the depictions of Al Capone to John Gotti, these films will keep you on the edge of your seat while simultaneously giving you an education.
The best gangster movies are the ones that make you feel like you’re in the middle of a good old-fashioned gang war. The kind where things get bloody, and someone ends up in the dirt.
That’s why we’ve assembled this list of the best gangster movies ever made for your viewing pleasure.
1. The Godfather (1972)View in gallery
The Godfather is arguably the best mobster movie of all time, and on most short lists of the top movies ever made. It follows a mafia family and sees them turn from small-time gangsters to powerful and ruthless tycoons.
The best part about this film is the attention to detail and the overall realism that we don’t see in modern films.
This movie gives us a chance to really look into how mafia organizations go from building their empire to falling apart. It’s interesting to see how Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) takes his low-level mafia group and turns it into the most powerful criminal organization in New York City. .
2. The Godfather: Part II (1974)View in gallery
The Godfather part II was released in 1974, and it is now recognized as one of the best sequels ever made. The movie starts out right after the end of part I, with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) taking over his father’s business.
It is immediately evident that he is not the same as his father; he is much more ruthless!
The movie tells two stories at once. One thread follows Michael as he turns away from his family and becomes the new Don Corleone. The other thread follows his father, Don Vito back in the old country.
The story takes us from the early beginnings of the Corleone family moving from Italy to New York and taking out their rivals in order to gain control over the drug trade.
Michael’s story shows him slowly realizing that he doesn’t want to be part of it anymore and how no matter what kind of a man Corleone is, he can never escape his fate.
3. Goodfellas (1990)View in gallery
Goodfellas is a 1990 crime film by legendary crime director Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta. The film shines a spotlight on Henry Hill (played by Liotta), a half Irish and half-Italian son of an abusive and alcoholic father who grows up in Brooklyn in the 1950s.
Henry lives across the street from a popular mafia hangout joint. With their suave suits and sleek cars, they are the embodiment of everything Henry wants to be.
He starts skipping school so he can run errands for the mobsters. It is not long before he starts doing serious crimes and living the “good life.”
Nonetheless, this is no fairy tale for Henry, as he eventually finds himself running from both the law and his psycho friends.
4. Boyz N the Hood (1991)View in gallery
Boyz N The Hood offers viewers an honest portrayal of the struggles that black youth face living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It’s a story of drugs, gangs, violence, broken families, absent fathers, and corrupt institutions.
We follow Tre as he struggles to mature into adulthood. He fears becoming a product of his environment. However, he isn’t sure how to avoid it.
The film is littered with symbolism and metaphors. These transform it from a generic coming-of-age story into a powerful social commentary on the state of black America.
5. The Departed (2006)View in gallery
The Departed is an American crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson. The film takes place in Boston, where it pits two “rats” against each other.
Colin Sullivan (Damon) is a gangster acting as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. On the other hand, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is a police officer who goes undercover in Sullivan’s syndicate.
While both are attempting to complete their respective missions, neither is aware of the other’s identity.
The film premiered on October 6, 2006, in New York City and went into general release on November 9. The Departed opened to a mostly positive critical reception. Scorsese won the Academy Award for Best Director. It was also nominated for four other Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
6. American Gangster (2007)View in gallery
American Gangster is one of those classic crime movies based on true stories, focusing on Frank Lucas’s rise during the 1970s.
Lucas rose to power in New York City’s underground crime scene after developing a new way to smuggle heroin into America from Southeast Asia.
With this new way of smuggling, he was able to undercut the prices of his competitors. Consequently, Lucas soon became one of the most successful crime bosses in America.
Meanwhile, Russell Crowe, as Detective Richie Roberts starts tracking Lucas to take down his heroin empire. However, it doesn’t help that Frank has almost the entire police force in his pockets. Will Detective Roberts prevail? Watch and find out!
7. Scarface (1983)View in gallery
Scarface is a crime drama written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma.
The film’s main character, Tony Montana, has gone on to become a pop-culture icon for his outstanding portrayal of a deranged mobster. He also has some of the most memorable quotes in cinematic history, such as the infamous “Say hello to my little friend”.
The film follows a Cuban immigrant who finds opportunity in crime selling cocaine. Tony eventually finds himself in the middle of a gang war as his past comes back to haunt him.
Critics throughout the years have rightly praised the film’s cinematography, score, and screenplay.
8. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)View in gallery
Once Upon a Time in America is an ambitious crime drama set mostly in New York City. The film is a sprawling and complicated detective story that features multiple characters, intersecting plotlines, and a surprise ending.
The movie’s main characters are best friends Noodles and Max, who grow up in the Jewish ghetto of New York City during Prohibition.
They fight, drink together, and party hard. However, Max betrays Noodles by going after his girlfriend. After that, things become murky, with Noodles spending most of his time trying to rise in the criminal world.
A few years later, they meet again, and Noodles plans to get even with Max for his betrayal. Meanwhile, federal agents are closing in on the gangsters.
9. The Untouchables (1987)View in gallery
Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, and Sean Connery star in this gangster flick. The Untouchables is yet another film about the infamous Al Capone. However, this flick does not focus on the infamous mobster.
Instead, it focuses on one police officer’s struggle to stop corruption within the police department, which is intertwined with his quest to bring down Al Capone.
Despite the movie’s serious tone, it is humorous, suspenseful, thrilling, and at times even outright funny.
10. The Irishman (2019)View in gallery
The Irishman is a book adaptation about the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who was a mob hitman under the leadership of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
In those days, these men would kill as needed and without thinking too much of it. But as time goes on, they realize that some discretion is required. At first glance, one might think this movie is about Sheeran or his associates, but it’s not.
This movie covers the mafia from roughly 1960 to 1980. It also focuses on Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who is the head of the Teamsters union, and how he got help from the mafia along the way.
The Irishman feels like a very typical Scorsese film. The film is full of slow-moving shots, subtle dialogue, and detail to little things that most people won’t notice until subsequent viewings.
11. Reservoir Dogs (1992)View in gallery
Reservoir Dogs, a 1992 American crime thriller film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Here, a group of criminals plans to rob a diamond store. However, one of their own sets them up, and their plan goes awry.
Reservoir Dogs is thought to be one of the most iconic films in the Crime genre. Along with Pulp Fiction, they are considered some of Tarantino’s best work. His unique filmmaking style gives this movie its own identity in a genre full of classics.
12. OldBoy (2003)View in gallery
Old Boy is a particularly brutal Korean mobster movie about a father who wants to find his son. It is based on the Japanese manga of the same name.
In this movie, vengeance is a central theme in Gang-Soo’s life. He believes that he must take revenge for what was done to him and his family, even if it means going against societal rules. This movie shows us how a man can be willing to fight against everyone and everything to get justice for those he loves.
The single-shot corridor fight scene is absolutely legendary–a must-see for action enthusiasts and film nerds alike.
13. Carlito’s Way (1993)View in gallery
Carlito’s Way is a 1993 crime drama film based on the novel of the same name by Edwin Torres. The movie was directed by Brian De Palma and starred Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, and Viggo Mortensen.
This movie has all the elements of a classic mobster film: drugs, guns, sex, and an anti-hero protagonist.
Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), a Puerto Rican criminal, vows to go straight and to retire in paradise. However, his past catches up with him. He is soon dragged back into the dark world of drugs and violence that he desperately tried to leave behind.
The film was a critical and commercial success. It saw to Al receiving his third Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Carlito Brigante.
14. City of God (2004)View in gallery
City of God is one of the most powerful films ever made. It is a documentary-style account of life in Rio’s biggest slum, the titular City of God.
It shows how, for many young people there, violence has become the only way to survive. City of God tragically chronicles kids who are smart, talented, and dangerous. They kill people with the same casualness that others go to the movies.
The setting is Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s through 1970s. A young photographer begins taking pictures on the street of petty crimes, gradually getting closer to drug dealers and killers.
As he becomes involved in their world, our protagonist realizes that–while some few can leave it behind–most other lives are destroyed by it.
15. Casino (1995)View in gallery
Casino is arguably the most definitive mobster film from Martin Scorsese.
This movie tells the story of Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro as they try to make their way through the Las Vegas world of shady deals and ever-shifting alliances.
As the true power becomes evident, it becomes clear that their pasts are about to come back to haunt them.
Best Gangster Movies: Conclusion
Mobster movies are thrilling because they depict a world that is so different from our own–yet superimposed directly on top of it. They provide us with the opportunity to watch people act in ways we would never condone or understand, while also giving us insight into their motivations and morals. (Due to their rawness, watching gangster movies makes for a surprisingly good date idea, as well.)
The best gangster movies make you reflect on what could happen if your moral compass shifted one way or another. How far would you go? What lines would be drawn for yourself? If these questions have sparked any curiosity within you about the psychology of crime, then it’s worth looking at some of the movies on our list.
What’s your favorite mobster movie? Did we miss any of the classics in your opinion? Or, got a mob flick that you consider criminally underrated? Shoot us a comment below.