30 Best Gangster Films of All Time
Gangster films have been their own glorious genre since around the beginning of Hollywood. There is something satisfying about routing for the bad guy, especially when they are just like us, human beings trying to take care of the ones they love. Between the intense action, the incredibly intricate stories and sticking it to the man, these movies make for some top-shelf Entertainment. Below you will find our list of the top 30 Best Gangster Films of all time.
The great Tom Hardy plays twins in this true life gangster story about real life twin brothers Ronald and Reginald Kray. They were a ruthless pair and kings London organized crime in the 1950s and 60s, dabbling in murder, robbery, arson, protection and assaults. The storytelling in the film lags a little but the incredible style and great performance of Tom Hardy x2 make this an easy candidate for the best gangster films list.
Another true-life story ripped from the headlines, Hoffa stars the great Jack Nicolson as Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971. His organization was stacked with corruption and organized crime from the time he started up until his disappearance in 1975. The film was directed by Danny Devito and written by David Mamet. It was an incredibly interesting story but the film failed to deliver on greatness. The film is told via multiple flashbacks and it just lacked some of the excitement you might expect. It was met with mixed reviews but still has enough going for it to cement it with a place in this genre’s history.
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#28 Get Shorty
Continuing on the Danny Devito train but in a completely different way is Get Shorty. This film is one of the few on the list that is actually a comedy versus a more serious drama. The story follows a cool middle manager organized crime type (John Travolta) who comes to Hollywood, meets some interesting characters and decides this Hollywood producing thing isn’t so hard. Crazy situations and mishaps ensue. A little cheesy but this one is a lot of fun and an easy add to best gangster films. The film spawned a sequel called Be Cool and a tv show with the same name, both also lovely.
This one gets enough credit for being the masterful director Terrence Malik’s (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) directorial debut, but it really is a great film. Staring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, this film is loosely based on the true murder killing spree of Charles Starkweather and girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate in 1958 (though not acknowledged by the film). Still to this day, this 1973 film is considered a masterpiece of film and raved by critics.
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#26 Get Carter
This film was remade in 2010 but don’t waste your time, the 1971 British film starring Michael Cain is where it is at. The lead character, Newcastle-born gangster Jack Carter, is a career criminal who becomes unsatisfied with an investigation into his brother’s death and investigates himself. This puts him head to head with the criminal organization he has always know and an all-out war ensues. Even though this film is 40 years old, it holds up today and is one of the coolest performances ever done in the lead Michael Cain. This pic easily has a place in history for best gangster films.
Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Sleepers) directs this romantic drama about real life gangster Bugsy Siegel and his relationship with Virginia Hill. Starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, this film is a little softer than some of the other films on the list of best gangster films but still a very relevant and satisfying one. The film was nominated for every Oscar under the sun in 1992 though it only went on to win best art direction and best costume design. This film is fantastic, but it isn’t as “ganster” as some of the others on the list of best gangster films, resulting in the lower ranking on this particular list.
#24 Miller’s Crossing
Miller’s Crossing is a 1990 film written and directed by auteur filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) and starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and John Turturro. The film centers around the protagonist played by Byrne who is caught in the middle of a power struggle between two gangs and subsequently tries to play them both. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat and always guessing. All set against a stylish Neo-noir backdrop, this is a “best gangster films” that may not be as well known as the others here, but definitely delivers.
#23 The Untouchables
Finally, a gangster movie that is more about “the good guys”, The Untouchables is told through the eyes of the good guys taking down organized crime during the Al Capone prohibition era. The film was made in 1987 and does absolutely everything right. Directed by the great Brian De Palma (Scarface) and written by David Mamet (Hoffa), from the dialogue to the pace, to the sets, everything is executed flawlessly. And to boot, it features an amazing cast of Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery as the Untouchables and Robert De Niro as the villain Al Capone. A slam dunk for best gangster films.
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#22 The Boondock Saints
This is a cult classic that came from nowhere and was discovered much later after the small theatrical release. A diamond in the rough, people responded to the witty dialogue, violent action and ultra cool anti-hero protagonists played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus. Fed up with a wave of crime in their home town, two Irish catholic brothers take to the streets as vigilante’s killing in the name of God. Don’t be fooled by the premise, this is in no way religious propaganda and actually quite fun. This was only the lower budget side of our best gangster films list, so additional bonus points to this little production that could.
#21 Once Upon a Time in America
Released in 1984 and starring the top of their games Robert De Niro and James Woods. The film follows best friends David “Noodles” Aaronson (De Niro) and Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz (Woods) as they lead a group of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to power as gangsters in New York’s world of organized crime. The characters are great and the intricacies of the crime are very entertaining to get caught up in. This one is gangster through and through and an easy addition to the list of best gangster films.
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#20 The French Connection
The French Connection was well ahead of its time in 1972 and still holds up today. The film follows detective Jimmy Doyle, played by acting great Gene Hackman, and fellow policeman taking down wealthy French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier. This gritty action thriller was the first R-Rated film to win the best picture Oscar and it didn’t stop there, it also took home a statue for Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), Best Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg), and Best Actor (Gene Hackman).
#19 Black Mass
Black Mass is the story of ruthless 1975 gangster Whitey Bulgar who during his peak ran most of the South Boston Mafia and at his downfall hid from the US government for 20+ years only to finally be caught outside his one bedroom apartment at age 81. Johnny Depp plays the lead and went through a dramatic transformation to take on the role, he is hardly recognizable and delivers a career-best for him. The movie succeeds because it was well done and this true life story is one of the most interesting ones in the history of organized crime lore. The film was released in 2015 to pretty solid critical and commercial success.
#18 Mean Streets
Some might call him one of the masters of the genre, this is another classic brought to you by the great Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver). Starring a very young Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, this film follows a small-time criminal (Keitel) who aspires to work his way up the ranks of a local mob. Caught up in his family troubles and internal struggles, the young lead eventually flees and has a big showdown with the crime (and real life) family he once loved. The film came out and was an instant hit with critics. It may not hold up to time as well as some of the other old titles on our list of best gangster films, but it is very much worth a watch to see all these amazing people early in their career.
#17 Road to Perdition
Road to Perdition comes from the directing great Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and stars America’s treasure Tom Hanks (great stuff for the last 20 years). Released in 2002, this is a period piece about a mob enforcer’s son who witnesses a murder, forcing him and his father to take to the road, and his father down a path of redemption and revenge in 1931. The film was incredibly well received and was nominated for a slew of Oscars. It only took home one for Cinematography but the film was good enough to cement it in history as one of the greats.
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#16 A Bronx Tale
One man that is featured quite heavily on this list is the great Robert De Niro, who has been a staple to most of the best gangster films of our time. In a Bronx Tale he not only stars but steps behind the camera for an amazing directorial debut. A Bronx tale is about a kind in the namesake city who grows up amongst the mob, idealizes it and though his family disapproves, gets caught up in it. This one comes off as more of a coming of age story mashed with the gangster genre and we do not mind. This one came out in 1993 and continues to be constantly referenced as one of the best gangster films of all time.
#15 Donnie Brasco
As far as based on true life stories goes, this is one of the more unbelievable ones. In the 1970s, real-life FBI agent Joseph Dominick “Joe” Pistone went undercover for six years to infiltrate the New York City Mafia. He was so deep undercover that the line of him being an officer of the law and a criminal became increasingly blurry. The film stars the great Johnny Depp as the internally struggled agent and Al Pacino of the career criminal that trusts him and brings him in. This constant dilemma of a double life makes for a constant tense moment that you have a hard time breaking free of. The film has style, performances and story, everything you could want in a great film.
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#14 Public Enemies
This based on a true story comes from the master of gritty crime fare Michael Mann (HEAT, The Insider, Collateral) and stars frequent star of this list Johnny Depp. Set during the Great Depression, the film follows the final years of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) as he is pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), Dillinger’s relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), as well as Purvis’ pursuit of Dillinger’s associates and fellow criminals Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). This film has the style you would expect from the great Mann and delivers on an interesting story in the time of organized crime.
#13 Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 gangster heist film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Django Unchained) in his feature-length debut. It stars an all-star cast of Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Tarantino, and criminal-turned-author Edward Bunker, as diamond thieves whose planned heist of a jewelry store goes terribly wrong. The film depicts the events before and after the heist. The film incorporates many motifs that have become Tarantino’s hallmarks: violent crime, pop culture references, profanity, and nonlinear storytelling.
#12 King of New York
King of New York is a 1990 Italian-American neo-noir crime thriller film, starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Victor Argo, and Giancarlo Esposito. It was directed by independent filmmaker Abel Ferrara and written by Nicholas St. John. If nothing else, watch this for Christopher Walken. This is one of his best career performances and the ultra-ultra-ultra violent and ruthless crime lord Frank White.
#11 True Romance
True Romance is a 1993 American romantic crime film directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino. The film stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette with an ensemble cast including James Gandolfini, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Walken. The critical response was largely positive. It holds a “Certified Fresh” score of 92% on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.5/10, based on 53 reviews. The site’s consensus states: “Fueled by Quentin Tarantino’s savvy screenplay and a gallery of oddball performances, Tony Scott’s True Romance is a funny and violent action jaunt in the best sense”. It is so fun to watch this two hander of the very talented Slater and Arquette solidifying this as a definite mainstay in best gangster films.
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#10 On the Waterfront
This cinematic classic is a 1954 American crime drama film, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. The film is based on “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson, a series of articles published in 1948 that won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. It focuses on union violence and corruption amongst longshoremen while detailing widespread corruption, extortion, and racketeering on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. The film won over both critics and audiences. It received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan.
#09 White Heat
One of the oldest titles on the list of best gangster films is this 1949 classic starring some of the biggest talents of the day in James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Edmond O’Brien. The story follows a psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist. Shortly after the plan takes place, events take a crazy turn. Historians have long praised this film to be one of the greatest gangster films of all time and we agree.
#08 Carlito’s Way
Carlito’s Way is a 1993 American crime film directed by the great Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables), based on the novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours by Judge Edwin Torres. The film stars Pacino as Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican criminal who vows to go straight and to retire in paradise. However, his criminal past proves difficult to escape, and he unwittingly ends up being dragged into the same activities that got him imprisoned in the first place. Carlito’s Way received a mixed response from critics, with a similar lukewarm result at the box office, but has subsequently become a cult film. Both Sean Penn (who played Carlito’s sleazy lawyer and best friend) and Penelope Ann Miller (who played Carlito’s ballet dancer / stripper ex-girlfriend) received Golden Globe nominations for their performances.
#07 American Gangster
You may have noticed something on this list, lots of white people. So finally, it is with great pleasure to talk about the amazing 2007 biographical crime film American Gangster. Academy Award winner Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, a gangster from La Grange, North Carolina who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. His nemesis is do-gooder detective Richie Roberts played by the Academy Award Winner Russel Crowe. The film follows Frank on his journey to the top of this volatile crime organization. Produced and directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, The Martian) this film was both a critical and commercial success even garnering two minor Oscar nominations.
#06 Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction, from ultraviolet and stylish writer/director Quentin Tarantino, was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It can be argued that the most would be the non linear storytelling of many different Los Angeles crime stories that all weave together in very interesting and unexpected ways. Next you need to look at the cast – John Travolta (whose career was completely revitalized by this role), Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, and Uma Thurman just to name a few. It was an amazing line-up with unique and top notch performances. Next look at the dialogue, even today people quote it. “SAY WHAT AGAIN.” We could go on and on but this one is just good. Original, entertaining, stylish, elevated to an incredible level.
#05 The Departed
Martin Scorsese wanted to come back to his organized crime routes after years with The Departed and he nailed it. It was the best cast together in one move for years. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio go against each other, both play both cop and criminal to impress and win over the big Irish crime boss played by Jack Nicholson. There is lots of cat-and-mouse intrigue but also big theatrical cinematography and twists and turns for days.
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Director Brian De Palma and writer Oliver Stone bring us this Al Pacino South Beach cocaine-fueled crime epic. Pacino plays a Cuban refugee arriving in Miami in 1980 when Castro put all their criminals on boats and shipped them to America. He finds a drug delivery job that should lead to his death but he finds a way to get both the drugs and the money and win the day. Pacino gets higher and higher in the criminal world and turns his back on everyone who helps him. This movie has so many over the top scenes and quotable lines, you should watch it just for that, but layered on top is a fantastic movie. “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!”
Ultra violent and with some of the coolest characters of all time, Casino cracks the top three for best gangster films of all time. Starring Robert De Niro as the reliable career gangster put in charge of a Las Vegas casino for the mob, he is forced to deal with his out of control best friend (Joe Pesci) and former druggie love of his life (Sharon Stone). Forced to do what they need to do to survive, the war between everyone is the expected outcome. This flick starts out by De Niro taking a hammer to the hand of the card counter in a back room. This is their type of justice. Another Martin Scorsese film on the list, this has the characters, story telling, music, crime and overall grit that you most certainly want.
Surprise, surprise, another Martin Scorsese film (Casino, The Departed, Mean Streets). For the man with four films on this list, it is hard to play favorites but we select this one as best. There is no crazy out-there concept, it is just about a group of friends who grew up on the wrong side of the law and the tremendous ups and downs that went with it. The lead trio is cool under pressure and smart James Conway (Robert De Niro), suave and charming Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and fly off the handle psychopath Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). This “slice of a criminal’s life” story is like some of the other films on the best gangster films list, but it excels because it comes across bigger and with greater stakes. And the dialogue is some of the best on the list… “Funny how, like a clown”.
#01 The Godfather 1 & 2
The Godfather series, barring a universally panned third film, is one of the greatest pieces of cinema since the beginning of time. Brought to life by the amazing Frances Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The Conversation) this series has multiple “best picture” Oscars which is UNHEARD OF! Both the first film AND the second film won the top prize at the Oscars. This is in addition to the many many other Oscars it was nominated for and won. This is the story of a 1920s crime boss and his family. Staring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan to name a few, this piece of history had no shortage of good things going for it. Everyone agrees that this is it, this is perfection when it comes to Gangster cinema. Quite easily #1 on the best gangster films list of all time.
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