Regarding entertainment, we as viewers have always been fascinated by bad guys. Whether it is a serial killer or a career criminal, the industry has discovered that telling the tale of villains is just more entertaining. The classic mobster movie fits nicely into this category, often depicting a rising member of a crime organization eliminating whoever they cross paths with to reach the top, or instead following someone who is already a Made Man and is trying to keep it that way. Often these movies feature career-best performances from actors who refuse to break character.
Mob movies have existed for nearly as long as cinema has been around, and while they are typically grounded crime dramas, they have been known to drift over into other genres such as action and comedy. The best mob movies, though, focus on either one individual or one crime family, showcasing the events that ultimately lead to their downfall. Because in this world, no matter how good you are, it’s only a matter of time before you get whacked.
Updated on March 28, 2023, by Ty Weinert:
As proven by John Wick and the recently released Tulsa King, audiences love stories about organized crime. Whether it is about young upstarts dreaming about being gangsters or epic dramas about mafia organizations, mob movies frequently rate among the most beloved of all time. The following list contains the biggest “hits” of the genre, ranked as the capos that all other mafia movies aspire to be.
15 ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000)
Gal (Ray Winstone) is an ex-gangster enjoying his retirement in Spain as he spends his days sunbathing with his beloved wife. Their peace is interrupted by the arrival of Don (Ben Kingsley), a sociopathic former associate of Gal. Don is trying to recruit Gal for a bank heist, and is not going to take no for an answer.
One of the best British gangster movies, Sexy Beast offers a captivating alternative to classic American mafia stories. The film is elevated by Kingsley’s electrifying performance, whose terrifying turn as the violent Don earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
14 ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980)
Set in the late 1970s, The Long Good Friday stars Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand, a ruthless gangster who is trying to become a legitimate businessman. When his plans to strike a deal with visiting Americans are thwarted by a series of bombings on his properties, he is convinced there is a rat in his organization and plots to exterminate them.
Hoskins is electric as the cockney Shand, setting the template that many actors would follow when playing British gangsters. Helen Mirren also shines as Victoria, Shand’s loyal girlfriend, and the duo offer star-making performances in what many consider to be one of the best British movies of all time.
Watch on HBO Max
13 ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007)
Swapping body horror for Russian mobsters, Eastern Promises is a bold stylistic change for David Cronenberg. Far removed from his disturbing horror movies, the film follows Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who crosses paths with the Russian mafia after discovering her deceased patient was abused by them. Viggo Mortensen steals the show as mob enforcer Nikolai, whose work earned him an Oscar nomination.
Even though Eastern Promises is not a horror movie, that does not make it any less terrifying. The dangerous underworld of cruel gangsters is more horrific than anything from Cronenberg’s other films.
Watch on Starz
12 ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002)
After his family is murdered, mob enforcer Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) goes on the run with his surviving son while plotting revenge against those responsible. What follows is a touching father-and-son story in the movie as Sullivan attempts to balance his own violent nature with his desire to ensure his son does not follow in his footsteps.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Road to Perdition tells its story not just through dialogue but also via its beautiful cinematography, with its environments becoming a character in itself. The film also offers a noticeably darker performance from Hanks, who is far removed from the wholesome image the actor keeps.
Watch on Netflix
11 ‘Donnie Brasco’ (1997)
Donnie Brasco stars Johnny Depp as Joe Pistone, an FBI agent working undercover using the alias Donnie Brasco. Assigned to infiltrate a powerful crime family, Pistone quickly rises up the ranks while forming a close bond with aging hitman Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), creating an inner struggle for Pistone as he is torn between his duty and his loyalty to Lefty.
The movie works so well due to the strong performances from its two leads, with the friendship that forms between Depp and Pacino feeling genuine. Both men offer some of the best work of their career in Donnie Brasco, and it is a tightly constructed, nuanced take on classic mafia movies.
10 ‘A Bronx Tale’ (1993)
Centered around the young Calogero, A Bronx Tale follows him from childhood into his teenage years as he finds a mentor in local crime boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri) despite his father Lorenzo’s (Robert De Niro) protests. As Calogero grows closer to Sonny, he finds his life growing increasingly dangerous.
A Bronx Tale delivers a more heartfelt mob story through Calogero’s relationships with his two father figures. The film is notable for offering a different side to De Niro, with the actor playing a hard-working bus driver that is far removed from De Niro’s legendary mafia characters. The movie also marked his directorial debut.
9 ‘The Untouchables’ (1987)
Al Capone is one of the most notorious gangsters in history, and The Untouchables is a fictional take on a team of police officers tasked with bringing Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice. The task force is led by Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), and he is joined by veteran Jim Malone (Sean Connery) and rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia).
The Untouchables is a rare gangster movie where the primary focus is on the police, watching as they attempt to bring down the city’s big bad. The cast all bring their A-game to the production and deliver a set of characters who remain some of the best in the genre, with Connery’s Malone, in particular, a standout.
Watch on Showtime
8 ‘The Irishman’ (2019)
Beginning in the 1950s, The Irishman follows the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman for the mob. As he rises up the ranks throughout the years, the film centers around the relationships he builds with the surrounding criminals, particularly union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
A passion project for Martin Scorsese and one of the most watched Netflix movies ever, The Irishman is a throwback to the epic mobster movies that made him famous. Reuniting with De Niro and Joe Pesci, Scorsese once again gets terrific performances out of the pair, along with Pacino, who adds another fine performance to his legendary career.
Watch on Netflix
7 ‘American Gangster’ (2007)
Based on the life of real criminal Frank Lucas, American Gangster tells the tale of Lucas’ (Denzel Washington) rise from right-hand man to mob boss. As Lucas becomes a ruthless drug lord, he is pursued by Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a detective in charge of a task force created to target drug suppliers.
What sets American Gangster apart from other movies in the genre is its basis on a true story, even if the film is mostly fictional according to the real-life participants. With two powerhouse performers in the lead roles, the movie works by letting both actors command an equal share of the screen time, creating two equally compelling leads.
Watch on Prime Video
6 ‘Casino’ (1995)
Collaborating with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci once again, Martin Scorsese’s Casino is centered around the mob’s ties to gambling. When Ace (De Niro), a mafia associate, is asked to oversee the operation of the mob’s casinos in Las Vegas, he immediately triples their income. This success comes at a price, however, as dangerous forces threaten to remove Ace from his top position.
While Casino shares similar thematic ties to GoodFellas, its focus on the money-making schemes of the mob sets it apart from that film’s focus on rising up the mafia ranks.
Watch on Peacock
5 ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984)
Once Upon a Time in America is an epic crime saga centered around Noodles (Robert De Niro), a Jewish gangster during New York’s Prohibition era. Told in non-chronological order, the movie follows Noodles rise from street punk to professional criminal, as well as the relationships with his close friends and lovers.
Directed by Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America is a far cry from the Spaghetti Westerns the legendary director was known for. His final film before his death, Leone proves he is the master of his craft regardless of genre, creating one of the greatest crime movies of all time.
4 ‘The Departed’ (2006)
The movie that finally earned Martin Scorsese his long overdue Oscar, The Departed stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, a state trooper sent undercover to infiltrate the Irish mob. Unknown to the police, the crime family have their own mole on the inside, Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong movie Internal Affairs, and is one of the best American remakes of a foreign movie.
The Departed is a game of deception, as both Costigan and Sullivan attempt to keep their true motives hidden while working to reveal the identity of the other. Both leads are in fine form, while they are supported by a stacked cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, and Mark Wahlberg, who steals every scene he is in.
Watch on HBO Max
3 ‘GoodFellas’ (1990)
No director has contributed to the mobster genre as much as Martin Scorsese, and GoodFellas is his greatest achievement within the field. The movie follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a young petty criminal who dreams of being a gangster, and once that dream finally arrives, he realizes just how dangerous life in the mob can be.
Liotta is supported by frequent Scorsese collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and all three deliver some of the best performances of their careers. One of the best gangster movies ever and a perfect example of the genre, GoodFellas‘ influence can be felt in everything from The Sopranos to Grand Theft Auto.
Watch on HBO Max
2 ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)
Following the massive success of the first Godfather movie, a follow-up was rushed into production. The Godfather Part II works as both a sequel and a prequel, continuing the tale of Michael (Al Pacino) as he becomes the new Don of the Corleone Family, while flashbacks reveal how his father Vito (Robert De Niro) rose to power after coming to America as an orphaned refugee.
The Godfather: Part II does the impossible and creates a worthy follow-up to one of the greatest movies of all time, while also earning a place in that same conversation. Some would even argue that it surpasses the original, thanks in no small part to unforgettable performances from Pacino and De Niro.
Watch on Peacock
1 ‘The Godfather’ (1972)
One of the best mafia movies of all time, and the one that all others aspire to be. The Godfather tells the tale of the Corleone family: patriarch Don Vito (Marlon Brando) is planning on giving his criminal empire to his son Michael (Al Pacino), but attacks from rival gangs and the police put the entire family in danger.
Every mobster movie and TV show that came after The Godfather has been influenced by it in some way, either from the dialogue, the cinematography, or the general focus on “family business.” Long regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, The Godfather is an essential watch for anyone with a passing interest in the crime genre.
Watch on Peacock
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