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Many of the best movies in American cinema are crime movies and gangster films. Some of our best filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, have always had a fascination with gangster films. As a result, much of their greatest work deals with the depiction of organized crime.
What is it about the best gangster movies that really hooks us in? There is certainly a lot of blood and violence, but it's much more than that. It gives many of us a glimpse into the lives we secretly wish we could live. In these films, the protagonists break all the rules, take many shortcuts, and exact their own satisfying revenge on enemies without hesitation.
They're also really entertaining to watch, and can be viewed multiple times without losing their original flavor. With crime movies, the drama is built-in, and we also get to root for the anti-heroes most often unseen in other types of movies. If you want to know the best of the best, check out this list of the best gangster movies and add the ones you don't already own to your mafia film library.
It's surprising how many people haven't seen one of the best gangster movies ever, but Reservoir Dogs flew under the radar as a cult hit for a long time after its release — it's just one of those movies you must watch. Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut is a low-budget masterpiece, and the dialogue crackles from the start.
It's about a diamond heist that goes wrong, because one of the thieves is a rat — but which one? None of them have ever met each other, nor know any of their names. After barely making it out alive, the disarray leads them all to the flophouse, where they hideout and try to figure out their predicament. It's one of the most influential independent films ever made, and inspired countless indie filmmakers.
Goodfellas details the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Sicilian boy who grows up idolizing the gangsters in his impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood. He no sooner becomes one, committing petty crimes as he rising through their ranks.
As time progresses, Hill becomes a major player in the crime family and attracts attention from the feds for outside drug dealing. Now, he has the mob and the feds coming after him. Hill is way over his head in one of the best gangster movies ever. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and features some the best scenes in the history of film making.
The Godfather doesn't really need much explanation in why it's one of the best gangster movies — or one of the best movies, period. Marlon Brando is the head of the Corleone crime family in one of the most iconic roles in all of film history.
The multi-generational crime saga focuses on Michael's return home from war and his rejection of the family business. Eventually, he accepts his father's path, along with all the mayhem that follows — mob hits, vengeance, excesses, loyalties, etc. See the film, it's sort of embarrassing if you haven't already, seeing that it's a classic.
One of the most quotable movies of all time, Pulp Fiction is far more than just one of the best gangster movies. Pulp Fiction is a classic in accessible non-linear story telling, blistering dialogue, and interesting characters.
It takes place over the course of three days in Los Angeles, and centers around a few hitmen, a boxer, and a big time gangster. Their three stories intertwine in such a dynamic way that it revitalized most of the principal actors' careers.
The Departed explains the Boston police up against an increasingly powerful Irish mafia. The authorities are faced with the prospects of sending in an undercover agent, or watching their already frail grip on the criminal underworld slip even further into nonexistence. They send in Billy Costigan, brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose soul job is to sniff out the mob's mole in the police force.
While Costigan tries to work his way into the mob's inner circle, he finds himself playing in a game of cat-and-mouse with this other infiltrator as they both try to uncover each other's true identity. With master Martin Scorsese at the helm of this film, there's no wonder it's one of the best gangster movies.
The inner-workings of a corrupt Las Vegas casino are exposed in another one of the best gangster movies from the master himself, Martin Scorsese. Casino is the spiritual successor of Goodfellas, with many of the same actors returning to the screen.
Casino depicts the end of the bloody days of Vegas, where the mob had run rampant and shootouts were the norm. It shows a very different side of the tourist city we all know today.
Al Pacino plays legendary Cuban gangster Tony Montana. Through sheer desire and an incredible amount of violence, Montana works his way to the top of the Miami drug game to ensure his infamy and wealth.
With plenty of cocaine and shootouts — and an iconic chainsaw scene that will have your heart pounding — Brian Depalma's directing of Scarface makes it one of the best gangster movies of all time. To see Montana claw his way from rags to riches is truly something to reminisce and will be remembered in film history for years to come..
Harlem drug kingpin, played by Denzel Washington, smuggles heroin into the country by hiding it in the bodies of US soldiers killed during battle in Vietnam. First starting as a driver, Frank Lucas quickly seized his opportunity of gaining importance and became on of the most infamous dealers in the country.
He would run afoul in a Narcotics Task Force investigation, headed by Russell Crowe. It's one of the best gangster movies that's based on a true story, plus it's a must see for all fans of the genre.
A career criminal considers leaving the business after one last score, while an obsessive cop desperately tries to put him behind bars in one of the best gangster movies of the 90s. Heat has an all-star cast, fronted by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and was directed by Michael Mann.
There are some intense heist scenes, as well as one of the best shootouts ever put on film. Heat will leave you on the edge of your seat up to its final, heart stopping moments.
A Bronx Tale
Another film featuring Robert De Niro and the mafia, A Bronx Tale is an instant classic. It centers around a young boy, who simply goes by C. When C witnesses Sonny (the leader of the neighborhood wise guys) commit murder, he honors the code of the streets and refuses to tell the cops.
Sonny befriends C and introduces the impressionable little kid to the perks provided by his mob connections. His father, played by De Niro himself, is an honest bus driver, who doesn't want his son going down the wrong path. He faces off with Sonny in one of the best gangster movies ever.