The Best Gangster Movies of All Time Show a Twisted Side of the American Dream
Few genres embody the definition of a “cult classic” quite like the mob mentality fandom of gangster films. After all, nothing builds a bond between viewer and protagonist quite like bearing witness to (and borderline aiding and abetting) their life of crime for a full two hours.
Being a fan of gangster films often requires some dedication—from keeping up with richly interwoven networks of alliances, to learning the backstories of infamous ganglords. Luckily, there’s no need to be loyal to just one. Vito Corleone can’t see you sneaking around with Antonio Montana on your watch history, and hardly even knows about everything you’ve been up to in Southie with the Irish mob. So fuhgeddabout the guilt of watching and lean in.
From Prohibition-era bootleggers to urban folk heroes, these films shine an investigative light on organized crime: both in the warm shine of Hollywood romanticization and the cold, harsh exposure of reality. These are the best gangster movies of all time.
Fans will likely debate for eternity over which film of The Godfather trilogy takes the cake. (Or takes the cannoli, for that matter.) But, if you’re new to the collection in its entirety, it’s best you meet the don himself through Francis Ford Coppola’s original installment. Set in 1940s New York, the film centers around head Italian Mafia man Vito Corleone and his family, including performances by Al Pacino, Marlin Brando, Talia Shire, and Diane Keaton.
Goodfellas is considered by many to be Martin Scorsese’s greatest film, and that’s saying something. Based on Nicolas Pileggi’s book Wiseguys, Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill: a half-Irish, half-Sicilian New Yorker who rises up in the ranks of his Brooklyn neighborhood’s mob. Despite his dedication to them in the face of legal pressure, Henry soon finds himself at odds with both law enforcement and the mobsters. The film boasts a classic cast, including Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Paul Sorvino.
Boyz N the Hood
Originally developed as a film school submission by writer-director John Singleton, it wasn’t long before his debut film Boyz n the Hood would become a major motion picture, nominated for multiple Academy Awards, added to the National Film Registry, and referenced as a key title in contemporary black cinema. Boyz n the Hood tells the story of three young men, played by Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Morris Chestnut, as they grow up in South Central Los Angeles. Despite their varying trajectories within their shared environment, their intertwined fates soon expose just how inescapable their local gang culture can be.
City of God
Adapted from Paulo Lins’s novel of the same name, City of God focuses upon the growth of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro. The narrative offers a dual perspective of two young men: one a photographer who chooses to document the area’s increasing gang/drug activity, and one who executes upon this environment by becoming a powerful drug dealer.