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The 30 Best Gangster Movies in Cinema History

08 May 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Joao Vieira

The Godfather (1972)

Since the early days of cinema, the gangster movies began to play an enormous role in cinema history, not only in American, but also in the European and Asian cinema. The gangster figure is not something acquired. It can vary from classic and subtle approach to a Tony Montana kind of approach.

The gangster is someone who fought to ascend in life, someone with a conduct, and if we are talking about the Italian Mafia, a group conduct ruled by the Omertà code, silence is a must have.

The mob persona is, above all, able to take difficult decisions, he’s usually someone you can call “tough raised”, whom as faced some sacrifices and ignores the law, not bound by legal systems. He is a man who surrounds himself with things he desires; money, power and/or women are normally the most common fetishes.

Commonly adorned, sometimes a raw portrait of organized crime, this mob persona is represented in various ways from Irish gangster to a yakuza member, from drug dealer of a cartel to a classic Italian/American figure: Powerful, a family patriarch in most of the cases with Italian roots that are shown by typical Italian food on the table and family cohesion (which means he keeps his mistresses in secret).

Generally grown in a poor neighborhood, starts to gain their power through extortion, murder and/or corruption. This is where the differential line between gangsters seems to blur until they organize themselves in bigger numbers.

From television series, like Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, to novels (Mario Puzo’s classics), the references began to grow in the latest society at the same pace as the gangsters began to grow significantly due to the increased criminal activity caused by social phenomena (such as the Prohibition Era in the USA) or ethnic conflicts in the struggle for territorial control in some cities.

From the early days of cinema (even during the Production Code) to present, this is a compiled list of films that shaped the gangster genre. It’s an “offer you can’t refuse”.

 

30. Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962)

Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

This neo-realist Italian movie directed by Francesco Rosi about the dead of the Sicilian bandit and real life ‘gangster’ Salvatore Giuliano had to be part of the list. It has huge influence in the Italian cinema (Martin Scorsese, a usual suspect in this list, named Salvatore Giuliano as one of his favorite films and a direct inspiration for his epic Taxi Driver) and established Rosi and his political filmmaking directly in cinema history.

The use of real locations and people from Sicily (some of these non-professionals couldn’t even read the scripts), as well as a non-linear narrative create the perfect atmosphere brought by a flawless and astonishing photography. All these resulted in a cinema treaty of filmmaking with elements of different styles and techniques holding together and flowing in a perfect way.

 

29. New World (Hoon-jung Park, 2013)

NEW WORLD

New World (or Sin-se-gae) has 134 minutes of excitement, entertainment, plot twists and flawless acting in form of a gangster film. This South-Korean craziness has Min-sik Choi (most well-known for his role in Oldboy and I Saw The Devil) which by itself should be a reason to be seen, but in this New World Jung-Jae Lee and Jeong-min Hwang steal the show with top notch acting.

Police, mob, an undercover cop are the screenplay guidance for an absolutely enjoyable adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

 

28. A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

A Better Tomorrow

The film tells a great story of two brothers separated by ideological differences: one is a famous gangster with a lifestyle that does not fit with the ideology of the younger brother, an ambitious new member of the police task force and when he discovers the older brother’s activity, he doesn’t want to be related with him anymore.

The story develops with the older brother trying to reconnect with his sibling, but with the world of the Mafia always pulling and avoiding him to go on the easy way. The relationship between the two brothers whom, like all the lead roles, are excellently played by the actors and the action scenes is where resides the strength of this movie.

 

27. Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

This Seijun Suzuki stylish gangster film has the essential condiments of all within the genre. In what it stands out? It’s badass like few others.

The way this film stylized violence is something that until this day occurs mostly in the Oriental cinema. With a simple plot (a former yakuza member is forced to fight for the survival along with his previous yakuza boss), it’s pleasant, enjoyable and entertaining. Pure action, pure fun in form of violence, it’s impossible not to be satisfied by the end.

 

26. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)

City of God

An Oscar nominee movie from Brazil that brings the viewer the growing of two boys in the slums settled in Rio de Janeiro. This masterfully directed movie by Fernando Meirelles is a positive attack on the senses of the viewer, in form of visceral and raw scenes acted by young, yet vibrating cast.

The relentless use of guns by the adolescent killers who are nothing but misdirected kids, lost in this economical and social isolated criminal community surrounded by poverty and drugs, exist so we can see how normal for them is to struggle for their lives since a young age, an almost predetermined path to those children without an easy escape.

For these kids, the obvious choice is to become a member of a clan. That gives them street credibility and power in form of a gun held in young hands. The movie culminates in a war between two gangs who continue the cycle of life in the favela, but will there be a winner?

 

25. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)

Donnie_Brasco

The cast of Al Pacino and Johnny Depp should already be a good reason to see this movie. If not, it has a great story too. You’ll get yourself wrapped up and absorbed by Joe Pistone’s (Donnie Brasco) inner torment as he gets absorbed into the mafia mindset.

Johnny Depp is a FBI undercover agent in the mob. As he and Al Pacino (who plays Lefty Rugiero), a local New York mafia member and his mentor in the mob, create a tight relationship, Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco as his undercover name) seems to be engaged more than he should with the life in the mafia.

As the group grows (with the help of Johnny and his peers) and the months go by, the marriage of Johnny Depp and his wife (played by Anne Heche) falls apart as a consequence of his engagement with his work. In consequence of his new “marriage” the line with his work and his undercover life seems to blur, he is forced to make choices if he wants the people he likes to stay alive.

 

24. Snatch (Guy Ritchie, 2000)

snatch-1

Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, Dennis Farina are some of the great names in this explosive cast resulting in an entertained (to say the least) movie directed by Guy Ritchie.

This British gem is among the best ever done about gangster movies. From the loose cannon gypsy-boxer acted by Brad Pitt to the boxer promoter (Jason Statham) passing by a mad Russian guy played by Rade Serbedzija, it’s a movie with a complex plot which nothing appears for no reason as a result of a great direction and an awesome writing, all the characters seems to engage the viewer. And you have the damn dog too.

Boxing promoters, bookmakers, a Russian gangster, Irish gypsies, a stolen diamond and things going from bad to worse, prepare yourself to a good laugh and some great action in this authentic savagery.

 

23. Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Carlito’s Way (1993)

Al Pacino and Brian de Palma join forces to do another gangsters movie ten years after Scarface. This time the movie is about Carlito Brigante, an ex-con with Puerto Rican roots.

Carlito Brigante who was imprisoned due to drug dealing was, before that happened, one of the major dealers in his New York area. After leaving prison, Carlito tries to get away from the life he had before and tries to earn enough money to get out of New York and start from scratch, but everything that surrounds him seems to suck him back into old habits.

In a movie that also has the presence of Sean Penn in a fantastic performance and Viggo Mortensen in a small but excellent participation, this is a movie forgotten sometimes much due to comparisons with Scarface. Comparisons aside, Carlito’s Way has a more excellent performance of Al Pacino which, as always, steals the show.

 

22. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

mean streets

This movie is more than something about gangsters, it’s about sin and search for forgiveness, and consequences of the behaviors and moral that we are represented by metaphorical color games full of symbolism and camera plans that put us directly in this sinful environment.

This is an early Martin Scorsese film that would influence other films about the day by day modus operandi gangster in the streets. With his personal touch and an environment of human nature sometimes raw and wild, Scorsese already showed a remarkable quality in the direction that would be enhanced by Taxi Driver, another masterpiece of his.

This is also a film that marks the beginning of one of the most successful collaborations between director and actor, in this case between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who would become the star and leading man of some of the most iconic films directed by Scorsese.

 

21. Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Le Samourai

A French classic made by Jean-Pierre Melville, this film influenced directors around the world, among them are some of the most recognized names in the genre like John Woo, Scorsese, Tarantino and the Coen brothers, to mention a few.

In this minimalist movie, Jef (played by Alain Delon) is a professional killer who always plans his murders in a meticulous way but this time nothing occurred the way Jef had planned it and he is left to solve the problems he found himself stuck into.

With no gunfights or big action scenes, which are considered for many a must in this genre, the movie stands for itself because of the elegant work by Melville behind the cameras. The dialogue is sometimes lacking but great when it appears.

 

 

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  • Xanian

    Once Upon a Time in America has to be first. Godfather has arguably had much more of an impact on gangster filmmaking but OUaTiA is hands down the better film in nearly every aspect. Also, Mean Streets deserves to be higher, in the place of Miller’s Crossing maybe?

    • Harsha Raman

      Amen.

  • John Davidsson

    Awesome list, could have included American Gangster, A history of violence, Eastern promises, Ichi the killer, Kill Bill and others, anyways the list is great!

  • jackspuke

    A Dirty Carnival is my favourite, and it should at least have made the list.

  • Hiram Manrah

    A Bittersweet Life ….??

  • Hal Dunn

    Great list of thug movies. Some of my very favorites: Goodfellas, The Godfather I & II, Miller’s Crossing, City of God, Donnie Brasco, Carlito’s Way, Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Rififi, Reservoir Dogs. I’m a huge Pacino fan, but Scarface was horrible.

  • x x

    Nope, Godfather 2 is better than 1.

    Goodfellas is made up a lot of stylish vignettes and doesnt really tell

    a….(cant think of the right word) story. Dont like it that much.

  • marcel

    Glad to see New World in your list but have you missed watching A Bronx Tale? Or maybe forgot about it? 🙂

  • Shishuraj

    Le Samourai should be higher and untouchables should be much lower!!!

  • Javier Salinas Barros

    Easter Promises, Drive (noir revival, but still), 9 Reinas (con-artist in buenos aires) and some funny ones like Kill Bill.

  • Kevin

    Good list. I would have included the original Scarface (1932) and the silent Underworld (1927), which is among the very first gangster flicks and set the template for the genre.

  • Seth

    Great list! I would have liked to see White Heat on the list, which in my opinion was a more exciting and well-done film than The Public Enemy, and it also features Cagney’s best performance. All in all, good job!

    • sol

      I agree. White Heat is better

  • Bryton Cherrier

    … How the fuck is Heat a gangster flick? It’s a heist movie.

  • frank mango

    white heat with james cagney

  • Xanian

    Le Samourai on 24? Seriously? Needs to be at least top 15.

  • Muhammed Ameen Noushad

    Where’s Animal Kingdom ?

  • Harsha Raman

    Pretty awesome list. Glad to see Casino amongst top 10.

  • Still D.R.E.

    Le Samourai Miller’s Crossing and Casino are underrated masterpieces

  • Giovanni Calvo

    Worst list I have ever seen posted on this website. “The Godfather” at number 1 (even worse, right one step above Leone’s masterpiece) says it all. And, seriously, “The Departed”?! Is this a joke?
    #thumbsdown

  • Nithin M Sivan

    The top 6 movies star either Al Pacino or Robert De Niro

  • Chrisychipz

    City of God and Le Samurai should be higher. And what happened to Sonatine??

  • Miroslav Maric

    Le Samourai and City of God should be waaay higher on the list

  • garden variety

    Tuff list to pin down.
    Where’s animal kingdom?
    Most episodes of the sopranos are better than half of these cinematicaly.
    The departed is a joke.

  • Tiago Nunes

    City of God and Le Samurai should be higher. Is a fact!

  • Relf

    Reservoir Dogs number 8? Hahaha, better than Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rougle…. hahah. RD is just a shameless rip off from “City on Fire”. Where is the original?

  • Joe Montoto

    I would be tempted to add SUPER FLY to this list. It is highly underrated and under appreciated. The no-win frustration of Ron O’Neal’s Youngblood Priest is often missed by those who just dismiss this movie as a drug culture glorification exploitation film.

  • Jorge Assunção

    White heat??? The killing of a chinese bookie?

  • Boudewijn

    I expected The long good Friday.

  • Top_Goner

    Where is American Gangster and Lawless?!