When it comes to favorite film genres, it’s hard to go past gangster movies. Since the first black and white movies came out of Hollywood, audiences have been obsessed with mob movies. There’s something about these machine gun-wielding baddies that attract movie fans. Whether it’s sharply dressed mafioso members in black suits with black sunglasses, color-coded bank robbers, or Yakuza enforces killing cops, the gangster movie genre has delivered some classic movies over the decades. So what are the best gangster movies of all time?
To be honest, it’s not easy compiling this list. Just when you think you’ve got the list sorted, another movie pulls you back in. This article showcases a great collection of classic mob pictures, modern day masterpieces, and a few outliers that might surprise. So get your best Robert de Niro impersonation ready and settle in with the best gangster movies to watch before you find yourself being made an offer too good to refuse.
- 1 25. New Jack City (1991)
- 2 24. Layer Cake (2004)
- 3 23. Mean Streets (1973)
- 4 22. Election (2005)
- 5 21. The Irishman (2019)
- 6 20. Gomorrah (2008)
- 7 19. Sexy Beast (2000)
- 8 18. The Departed (2006)
- 9 17. Get Carter (1971)
- 10 16. Casino (1995)
- 11 15. American Gangster (2007)
- 12 14. Eastern Promises (2007)
- 13 13. Donnie Brasco (1997)
- 14 12. King of New York (1990)
- 15 11. Carlito’s Way (1993)
- 16 10. White Heat (1949)
- 17 9. City of God
- 18 7. A Bronx Tale (1993)
- 19 6. The Untouchables (1987)
- 20 5. The Long Good Friday (1980)
- 21 4. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
- 22 3. GoodFellas (1990)
- 23 2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
- 24 1. The Godfather (1972)
25. New Jack City (1991)
Mario Van Peebles’ directing debut is a wonderfully gritty gangster flick about the crack epidemic in 80s New York City. Wesley Snipes stars as Nino Brown, a charismatic drug lord who is rising up the ranks of the local crime scene. Hot on his trail is detectives Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) and Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson) who vow to put an end to his reign of terror.
New Jack City is a cautionary tale of how drugs impacted the ghetto in the 80s with strong performances from all its leads. Special mention must also be made of Chris Rock, whose cameo as “Pookie” Benny Robinson, a crack addict turned police informant, is amazing.
24. Layer Cake (2004)
Before dressing in smart suits and sipping vodka martinis, Daniel Craig got his big break in the crime caper Layer Cake. Craig is a drug dealer who is about to retire when he’s cleaned out by a mysterious rival. This sets in motion a chain of events that finds Craig looking for a kidnapped girl while trying to offload a shipment of stolen ecstasy tablets with the Serbian mob on his tale.
Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut is a fast-paced gangster movie with a colorful cast of characters that includes the likes of Tom Hardy, Colm Meaney, and Sienna Miller.
23. Mean Streets (1973)
While not strictly a gangster picture, Mean Streets is set in the world of the mafia. Havey Keitel stars as Charlie, a young Italian-American caught between his catholic guilt and working for the mob. Along with his self-destructive friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), the two find themselves neck-deep in trouble with their lives at risk.
Mean Streets is another Martin Scorsese classic regarded as one of the best American films of the 70s. The cast is all brilliant and it’s easy to see while watching that Scorsese was destined for bigger and better things as a director.
22. Election (2005)
This one is a little bit different. A gangster movie where no guns are fired. Election is about two gang leaders who are vying to become the head of a Hong Kong Triad. The film premiered as an “Official Selection” at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and received rave reviews. Focusing more on themes of honor and trust amongst thieves over typical violent mobster epics, this is an interesting take on the genre. It also spawned a sequel, although it’s not as good as the original.
21. The Irishman (2019)
Martin Scorsese got the band back together for the Netflix original The Irishman. A Scorsese vanity project, the mafia movie reunites the director with his Goodfellas alumni Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Also along for the ride are acting greats Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel, and fan favorites Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, and Domenick Lombardozzi.
The film is adapted from the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. It concerns the friendship between mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). While Hoffa is seen as an alley of the mafia at first, his outspoken views and stubborn personality soon find him at loggerheads with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is stuck in the middle and made to choose between the two.
The Irishman spent years in development hell before finally getting the go-ahead from Netflix. It cost somewhere in the region of $150-$250 million, thanks in part to the de-aging technology used to make the leads look younger. While far from a commercial success, it was a big hit critically.
20. Gomorrah (2008)
Heading to the heartland of the mafia, this Italian production deals with the Casalesi clan. Based on the real-life Faida di Scampia (Scampia feud), Gomorrah intertwines five different stories that show how all types of people were impacted by the vicious war between the families. There is lots of handheld camera work and gritty locations that help emphasize how dark and grimey a life in organized crime really is.
Gomorrah won a raft of awards when released and much praise from critics. A TV series was commissioned in 2014 and ran for six seasons. Although going by the same name, it is unrelated to the film, but still based upon the same book.
19. Sexy Beast (2000)
Another British classic, Sexy Beast is director Jonathan Glazer’s feature directorial debut. The movie follows Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), a retired gangster living in Spain who gets a visit from a former colleague, the psychotic Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley). Logan demands Gal be a part of a bank job back in London and won’t take no for an answer. Ian McShane also stars as a London crime boss.
Sexy Beast is an interesting film that, like most gangster movies, features incredible performances (especially Kingsley) as well as solid character development. It also features an odd ending that is somewhat unusual for mob or gangster movies, making Sexy Beast stand out as unique among the rest.
18. The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese is at it again with arguably his best gangster movie (yes, maybe even better than Goodfellas) entitled The Departed. The movie is actually a remake of a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, while also being based on some true events, all the while exceeding all your expectations. It’s also known for including some of the greatest on-screen performances from top stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg.
Taking place on the streets of Boston, The Departed follows Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson), his mole in the Massachusetts State Police Colin Sullivan (Damon), undercover state trooper Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), and his Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam (Wahlberg). Confused? Don’t worry, the film will explain it to you. The Departed is dark, funny, and all-around one of the best times you’ll have watching a gangster flick.
17. Get Carter (1971)
Moving across the pond, Get Carter, the directorial debut of Mike Hodges, takes London gangster Jack Carter (an incredible Sir Michael Caine) and throws him into his hometown in rural England only to learn of his brother’s accidental death. This sends Jack on an investigation as he suspects foul play. The film has been critically praised by auteur filmmakers such as Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino and Snatch mastermind Guy Ritchie, which stirred a rise in popularity.
Get Carter is a great film that dives deep into the English gangster scene rather than the well-known, often oversaturated American one. It was even remade with Sylvester Stallone in the leading role (with Caine returning as a supporting role), which apparently is so bad that it should never be spoken of again. Just goes to show that oftentimes the original is always better.
16. Casino (1995)
Another Martin Scorsese epic, Casino features the director’s regular collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesic. Based on the non-fiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi (the same fella who helped Scorsese write Goodfellas), the film is about gangsters in Las Vegas.
Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is sent to the Strip by his Chicago bosses to run a casino. The film follows him over the years as he overseas the Tangiers Casino while dealing with mob interference, his psychotic buddy (Nicky Santoro) Pesic, and love interest Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone).
This is another Scorsese classic full of quotable dialogue, explosions of violence, incredible acting, and a memorable turn from comedian Don Rickles. Gangster movies don’t get much better.
15. American Gangster (2007)
American Gangster is a powerhouse drama about the real-life drug trafficker Frank Lucas and the detective, Richie Roberts, who led the task force to stop him. Lucas is played masterfully by Denzel Washington with Russell Crowe portraying Roberts. This film is insane and does a fantastic good job explaining Lucas’ connection to drugs, the Vietnam War, and his family.
Ridley Scott, well-known for films like Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven, and Gladiator, composes an incredible gangster picture (certainly his best one), forcing us to almost root for Frank Lucas as he goes from drug trafficking to helping Roberts expose corrupt NYC cops. It’s a drawn-out tale that will certainly keep you guessing throughout.
14. Eastern Promises (2007)
David Cronenberg directed his own gangster film in the early 2000s called Eastern Promises, which, based on the names attached, promises to follow through. Viggo Mortensen stars alongside Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel in this gangster piece that might make your skin crawl.
The film tells the story of Russian-British midwife Anna (Watts) as she delivers the baby of a drug-addicted 14-year-old Russian prostitute who dies in childbirth. After Anna learns that the young mother was forced into prostitution by the Russian Mafia, the baby’s life is threatened and she does all she can to escape. It’s definitely the scariest film on this list, showing the Russian Mafia’s true colors as well as the advanced dangers of human trafficking and sex slavery. It’s a rough one.
13. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Donnie Brasco is based on the true story of an undercover cop who helped take down the Bonanno crime family. Johnny Depp plays an FBI agent masquerading as a jewel thief who earns the trust of Al Pacino’s aging gunman. As he gets deeper involved with the mafia, Depp begins to cross the line between cop and criminal, all while leading Pacino to his inevitable demise.
This is an engaging look at what happens when an agent of the law finds themselves in too deep and the consequences his actions have on those around him. Deep and Pacino are great as always, but it’s the supporting cast that really shines. Michael Madson, Anne Henche, and Bruno Kirby are wonderful, while Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson have small but memorable cameos as FBI technicians.
12. King of New York (1990)
Coming back across the pond, King of New York is an independent neo-noir crime thriller that speaks for itself. Film legend Christopher Walken is an absolute boss in this movie as drug lord Frank White, the self-proclaimed “King” of New York City. Walken plays the role fabulously, fully committing to the mob boss role and creating a version of Frank White that you kind of get attached to.
Now, if Christopher Walken isn’t enough to sell you on the film (which, he absolutely should be), King of New York also stars Laurence Fishburn of The Matrix fame, David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, and Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul legend Giancarlo Esposito. This film has one of the best non-traditional gangster casts out there, so don’t forget to check it out.
11. Carlito’s Way (1993)
No list of the best gangster movies is complete without mentioning this flick. The first of two Brian De Palma films on this list, Carlito’s Way was written by David Koepp and is based on the Judge Edwin Torres novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours. The film stars Al Pacino as career criminal Carlito Brigante, who is recently out of jail on a technicality, as he attempts to leave the life that put him in prison in the first place. Alongside Pacino is Sean Penn as his close friend and lawyer David Kleinfeld.
While many gangster films are about the gangster working to get out or retire from life, none compare to Carlito’s tumultuous journey here. Throughout the film, Carlito, called “Charlie” by Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), works hard to escape his destiny and remove himself entirely from his life of crime. Carlito’s Way wasn’t well-received critically at the time but has since garnered a strong cult following.
10. White Heat (1949)
The oldest film on this list from the Classic Hollywood era of film history is White Heat. Starring iconic actor/dancer James Cagney and Virginia Mayo, White Heat follows a noir story originally by Virginia Kellogg and directed by actor/director Raoul A. Walsh. White Heat, like the original Scarface, no doubt paved the way for the gangster pictures of the 70s and 80s.
Cagney plays a ruthless criminal and leader of the Jarrett gang, Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, who seems to have some “mommy issues” as the film goes on. This noir crime drama is intense, with lies, murder, and revenge as the core tenets of not just the film, but Cody’s life. There’s a reason White Heat is featured on many lists as one of the greatest gangster films, so there’s no way we could ignore its impact here.
9. City of God
This incredible foreign flick focuses on organized crime in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The film spans three decades from the 60s to the 80s and tells the story from two different points of view. There is Rocket, the narrator who is a keen photographer who is trying to escape a life of violence. On the other side of the coin is Lil’ Ze, a bloodthirsty gangster who wants control of the drug trade.
No other gangster movies have captured the bleakness and horrifying violence that occurs in the favelas quite like City of God. It received rave reviews when released, won numerous awards, and helped put Brazilian cinema on the map.
7. A Bronx Tale (1993)
It should come as no surprise that Rober De Niro’s directorial debut is a gangster film. But unlike some of the violent mafia flicks he’s starred in, A Bronx Tale is more concerned with the impact gangster culture can have on the youth. Based on the play by actor Chazz Palminteri (who also stars in the film), A Bronx Tale is a coming-of-age drama about Calogero (, a young American-Italian kid growing up in the Bronx.
Calogero (Lillo Brancato, Jr.) is befriended by Palminteri’s mob boss and must choose between a life of crime or listening to his father (Robert De Niro) and staying away from trouble. Along with a terrific cast and incredible script, De Niro’s work behind the camera is notable, with A Bronx Tale an underrated gangster movie gem.
6. The Untouchables (1987)
Coming off the heels of his remake of Scarface (starring Al Pacino), new Hollywood director Brian De Palma helmed one of the best crime films of the century: The Untouchables. Based on the book of the same name, The Untouchables tells the story of 1930s Prohibition-era Chicago in which Bureau of Prohibition agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) works to take down mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). James Bond himself, Sean Connery, also shows up as an Irish cop who lends Ness a helping hand.
Costner, in a stand-out performance as the famed Elliot Ness, stars alongside De Niro in this “mobsterpiece” that is equal parts exciting and fictional. While The Untouchables is based on true events, many of the situations in the film were heavily fictionalized by writer David Mamet. All-in-all, The Untouchables is an exciting thrill ride that will keep you wanting more until the very end.
5. The Long Good Friday (1980)
Another British gangster film, The Long Good Friday stars Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren and weaves together various political and socio-economic events and concerns of late 1970s Europe. The film touches on political and police corruption, IRA fund-raising, British industry displacements, the UK’s membership in the EEC, and the free-market economy. It’s also chock full of violence and cockney rhyming slang that makes it stand out from the crowd of gangster flicks.
Hoskins and Mirren are the obvious stars of the film, bringing a human and emotional element to these cold and heartless topics. The Long Good Friday is widely considered one of the greatest British films in history and has an ending that will leave you stunned.
4. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone, though most well known for his Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, made his own splash on the gangster genre with his Italian-American venture Once Upon A Time In America. The film stars gangster heavy-hitters and legends Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and James Woods, with Elizabeth McGovern in tow.
The film follows best friends “Noodles” (De Niro) and “Max” (Woods) as they lead a group of Jewish youths from the ghetto to prominence in the world of New York City organized crime. It was Leone’s final film before his death, as well as the first feature he had directed in over a decade.
What makes it so good? Besides the talented performances, immaculate score, and Leone’s clear fingerprints, it’s the themes of friendship, betrayal, grief, and the rise of the mob that really stand out. A nearly four-hour epic that really is that good.
3. GoodFellas (1990)
One of the most beloved gangster movies ever committed to film is 90s Warner Bros. classic GoodFellas. GoodFellas is a biographical gangster film (co-written by the non-fiction writer of Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, Nicholas Pileggi) about the rise and fall of mob boss associate Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) across three decades. GoodFellas, living up to its name, is truly a good time.
The film also has a stellar cast, including gangster film legends Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, who do incredible work under famed gangster director and filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver). GoodFellas remains one of Scorsese’s best and is often regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made (Quentin Tarantino is a big fan), particularly in the gangster genre.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
On par with the original, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga continues with The Godfather Part II. Just as engaging as the first, this mafia movie features Robert De Niro as a young Vito Corleone. Al Pacino returns as his son, Michael Corleone, who is now in charge of the family business. The Godfather II is a fascinating look at two different time periods as the lives of Vito and Micahel are chronicled during the film. We get to see how Vito came to power and how Micahel will do anything he can to cling to it. Despite not having any scenes together, De Niro and Pacino deliver the only way they know-how. This is another powerful mediation on family and what one man will do to protect his.
And let’s not mention The Godfather Part III… although at least the new version is a little better.
1. The Godfather (1972)
The most famous gangster film on this list, there’s a reason The Godfather has become so iconic and synonymous with the best of cinema. Between a killer performance from film legend Marlon Brando, a well-crafted story about the rise (or fall?) of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), an incredible score, and that scene that will make you cautious before getting out of bed, The Godfather is certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. They don’t make gangster movies like this anymore.