Organised crime, baby – there are few premises more seductive to the movies than the power struggles, turf wars, and moral quandaries of the mob. The best gangster movies are slickly entertaining, endlessly stylish, and a worthy addition to a genre which boasts some of the most iconic films in our cinematic history.
To settle the debate we’ve compiled the top 10 gangster movies, from the obvious ones you’d be hard-pressed not to find on your film bro friends’ Letterboxd top 4, but also some more unconventional, unsung classics. Say hello to our little friends.
10. The Godfather (1972)
Surprise, surprise! But it would actually be criminal to not pay our respects to The Godfather, first and foremost. Appearing on every Greatest Films Of All Time list ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is the gangster movie. A titan of cinema with the kind of immense legacy few other films can lay claim to, it follows the Corleones and its patriarch as they conduct the sprawling family business of crime, love, war, violence, Italians. You know it well. Amazon.co.uk
9. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy might not immediately come to mind when you think ‘gangster movie’, because it’s told from the perspective of the man who’s been psychologically tortured by unknown captors for 15 years, locked up in a hotel room, and fed the same dumplings every single day for reasons unknown to him. But when he is suddenly released, he’s hellbent on getting answers and revenge: and that lands him squarely in a web of violent crime that, among other things, sees him beat the shit out of dozens of gangsters in a narrow corridor in one of cinema’s greatest fight scenes of all time. Mubi.com
8. Bound (1996)
“I want out,” says gangster’s moll Violet, a deliciously subversive femme fatale played by poker legend and scream queen Jennifer Tilly in the Wachowskis’ exhilarating debut feature, Bound. A lesbian neo-noir that follows two lovers who hatch a plan to steal from the mob, buying their way out of its web of macho violence, this is a stylish mafia tale told from the perspective of those who want to break free from its chains. One of the sexiest movies ever made. BFI.org.uk
7. Goodfellas (1990)
Another heavy hitter in the gangster movie pantheon, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas has become synonymous with that iconic trio of Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci – and is considered by many to be the best film Scorsese has ever made. Telling the true story of Henry Hill, a young man in Brooklyn who makes it his mission to climb his way up the ranks of the Sicilian mafia. This mob masterpiece is utterly exhilarating from start to finish. De Niro says it best: “C’mon, fuckos, let’s go for a ride!” Amazon.co.uk
6. Le Samourai (1967)
Cool, slick, and as dispassionate as a shark, Jean-Pierre Melville’s ultra-stylish Le Samourai stars Alain Delon as Jef Costello, a professional hitman attempting to unveil the identity of his unknown employers while the police close in on him. Painted in stark tones with the dramatic contrast of a graphic novel, Le Samourai is a film of few words – but its breathtaking style, cold gaze, and killer instinct cuts deep. Amazon.co.uk
5. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Hell yes, hell yes: Hong Kong makes some of the best mafia movies we have the wicked pleasure of enjoying, and Infernal Affairs is one of them. Starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs follows two young men caught unknowingly in each other’s orbit: one, a police officer gone undercover in the mafia, and the other, a young mafia member who’s infiltrated the police. Martin Scorsese would go on to remake this enthralling premise in 2006’s The Departed, but you should seek out the OG’s beguiling and surprisingly moving beauty for itself. Amazon.co.uk
4. As Tears Go By (1988)
Another Andy Lau gangster movie! But Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut, As Tears Go By, is here for a much different reason: sometimes, gangsters really are just losers. Forget the glamour and the slickness, because this rough-around-the-edges small fry mob story is intimate and steeped in humanity, and a reminder that good filmmaking is all about making the smallest of stakes feel utterly engrossing. Plus, Andy Lau very much makes the case for gangsters wearing very short shorts! BFI.org.uk
3. The Untouchables (1987)
Style maverick Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables lands us in the Prohibition era, right in the backyard of infamous gangster Al Capone – and the ragtag team of police officers assembled to try and bring him to justice. They give themselves a very cool name, which is also the name of the film, and no matter which side of the “Is Kevin Costner Good Or Terrible In This Movie?” debate you subscribe to, it’s undeniably fun to watch. Amazon.co.uk
2. Eastern Promises (2007)
In quite a different vein from the body horror that David Cronenberg’s name has become synonymous with, Eastern Promises is the renowned Canadian auteur’s mafia film – and though an outlier in his oeuvre, some Cronenberg fans get behind this one as one of his best. Turning the director’s penchant for incredibly visceral gore away from sci-fi and towards the gritty realisation of Russian mafia violence in London, Eastern Promises is touted as one of the most realistic, detailed, and thrilling gangster films of all time. It follows a midwife who finds herself ensnared in Russian mafia activity after delivering the baby of a teenager who dies during childbirth, leaving clues to her rapist in her wake. Amazon.co.uk
1. Election (2005)
Mob politics have never been more enthralling than in Johnnie To’s Election, which finds two gang leaders in a power struggle attempting to become the chairman of the Wo Lin Shing gangster triad. Wildly entertaining, it is also an incisive commentary on the way democracy, tradition, and honour are mere ideals that ring hollow in the face of brute force and greed – a bleak microcosm of the devious way power operates in all forms of governments, mafia and otherwise.