Gangster movies have been a popular subgenre of crime since the beginning of Hollywood, but they really hit their stride in the late 1900s with films like The Godfather, GoodFellas, and Scarface. That’s not to say that the 2000s haven’t seen their fair share of good gangster movies either, though.
Regardless, if you’re interested in the mafia, organized crime, or gangsters, the movies on this list are the ones you need to be watching if you haven’t seen them already. These films are considered hallmark masterpieces of gangster cinema and are must-watches for anyone.
Starting the list of the best gangster movies off with a boom is Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Scorsese has contributed more to the movie genre of mafiosos and gangsters than perhaps any other director, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, and other big names, Casino is a peek inside the life of a corrupt Vegas casino manager and the people that put him there.
Al Pacino has played a number of iconic roles, and Tony Montana is certainly one of his top 3. If you haven’t seen Scarface yet and you’re looking to watch a good movie about gangsters, give this one a shot. Tony Montana embodies the idea of becoming something from nothing. Tony is a poor Cuban who immigrates to Miami, where he quickly becomes engulfed in a life of crime, something he was familiar with before arriving to the USA. As the money he makes keeps piling up, so do the bodies of his associates and enemies.
This is a long one, so make sure to clear your schedule if you plan on watching The Irishman. Another Scorsese film with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, this one is based on the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a labor union official and enforcer for the mob. The Irishman is from the point of view of an elder Sheeran as he recounts his past days as a hitman for the mafia. The film received some criticism for the digital altering done to make Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino look younger, but overall this is certainly one of the best gangster films released recently.
Another masterpiece featuring Pacino, Donnie Brasco, is based on the true story of Joseph D. Pistone, who went undercover as the titular character to help bring mafiosos to justice. Pistone, played by Johnny Depp, would eventually become a close confidant of Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino). As Pistone finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the mafia, he finds it hard to walk the line between being a federal agent and a friend to Ruggiero.
If you thought we were done with Scorsese, you couldn’t be more wrong. GoodFellas is easily considered his best work and again features the dynamic duo of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, this time alongside the late Ray Liotta. Also based on real-life events, GoodFellas is a biographical drama about the life of Henry Hill and his associates from 1955 until his departure from the life of crime in 1980. Another film showcasing someone rising from nothing to being well-off, GoodFellas is a mafia classic that should be watched by all.
Gomorra is an Italian crime film that is based on the real-life feud between clans within the Camorra crime syndicate. This great piece of Italian cinema is a series of five stories, all intertwined, showcasing people that have been affected in some way by the crime syndicate and their deadly feud.
The film follows Don Ciro, a middleman who distributes money to the families of imprisoned mafia members, Toto, a young boy hoping to join the syndicate, Roberto, a waste management worker viewing corruption firsthand, Pasquale, a lavish tailor that finds himself in the middle of a fight between Chinese garment workers and the Camorra, and lastly Marco and Ciro, two wannabe-gangsters that are in way over their heads.
If you only know Viggo Mortensen for his role in The Lord of the Rings, you’re missing out on a lot of great roles he has played. Eastern Promises is one of those, where he plays Nikolai, a bodyguard, and cleaner for the Russian mafia in London. His job is to dispose of bodies and make the mafia’s involvement in crimes appear non-existent. Unfortunately for Nikolai, the man he is assigned to protect is the drunk disappointing son of Semyon, the boss. Add in a dead teenage girl with a baby and an unknown father, and you’ve got yourself a decent gangster movie from the United Kingdom.
A Bronx Tale
Robert De Niro does the directing in A Bronx Tale, along with a bit of acting as the father of Calogero (Lillo Brancato Jr.), a young boy torn between his honest, hardworking dad and a local mob boss enticing him with the “glamorous” life of organized crime. This movie is also lined with racial tensions between the Italians and African-Americans as their neighborhoods intermingle. You might recognize Brancato as Matthew Bevilaqua from The Sopranos, another masterpiece within the genre of gangster TV.
Heading back to the 80s, we find ourselves an excellent piece of cinema titled The Untouchables. Starring Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, and De Niro (if you haven’t figured it out already, De Niro is the go-to guy for the best gangster movies). It’s also directed by Brian De Palma, a renowned director in the sphere of crime and thrillers.
Most of the plot is fictionalized, but it’s based on Prohibition America and the notorious gangster Al Capone as the Bureau of Prohibition attempts to shut down his racket. De Niro plays the infamous gangster, while Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Andy Garcia play agents tasked with taking him down. It was nominated for multiple awards, with Connery taking home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Moving over to the Irish mob and Boston, we have The Departed, starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, and Alec Baldwin, among other big Hollywood names. It also happens to be another Scorsese film. Basically, if you want to watch the best mafia or gangster movies, just take a scroll through Scorsese’s filmography at this point.
The Departed focuses on Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), two new recruits within the Massachusetts State Police. The only problem is that Sullivan was groomed from a young age by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an Irish mob boss, to be his informant within the State Police. While that’s happening, Costigan is given an undercover assignment within Costello’s crew, and a game of cat and mouse ensues to find either mole, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
The list of the best gangster movies wouldn’t be complete without the masterpiece that is The Godfather. The entire trilogy is a cinematic masterpiece; although some fans consider The Godfather Part 2 to be better than the first installment, it’s still an excellent film. Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote and directed this hallmark of gangster cinema, while Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and many others helped bring the characters in it to life.
The opening scene of The Godfather, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) listening to requests on the day of his daughter’s wedding is such a classic that almost everyone has seen it or some rendition of it. If you’re thinking of watching more gangster movies, but haven’t seen The Godfather, do yourself a favor and go watch it right now.