top 5 gangster movies of all time

No genre has influenced the public’s perception of criminals more than Gangster Movies. For more than 80 years, the best gangster movies have fascinated and allured the minds of millions; from Prohibition-era pre-code crime to 21st Century gang life. Our list of the 5 best gangster movies of all time includes films that span the globe and were produced in different time periods, with very different budgets.

5. The Public Enemy (1931)

The pre-code era of film from the late 1920s to 1934 produced some of the most interesting Hollywood films ever made. Pre-code exists after the silent era but before the advent of censorship guidelines. Perhaps no film is more iconic of this short time than The Public Enemy.

This was an era of fundamental transition for the American people. The wealth and grandeur that pushed the 1920s through, exhausted itself entirely for the decade to come. The Great Depression was a time of intense strife and complex moral decisions.

The Public Enemy put these issues center stage while telling one of the first large-scope stories of gangsters in cinema history.


Once Upon a Time in America is one of the craziest films ever made. It was the final film of Sergio Leone’s legendary career and the only film he completed in the last thirteen years of his life.

He originally wanted the film to be split into two three-hour features but the studio told him he had to cut it into one film. Leone cut it down to 269 minutes but the studio was not satisfied with his attempts at shortening it. He conceded to a 229-minute version but the American version was further cut without his permission to 139 minutes. 

The result of the cuts was mass confusion amongst audiences. If the confusion wasn’t enough, the film was further censored for explicit content. It wasn’t until 2012 that the restored 255-minute version was made available to the public — which is a shame because it’s such a terrific film.

It’s a decades-spanning story of friendship and loyalty in the mob in New York City. De Niro gives one of the best performances of his career as a conflicted, opium sick, mobster dreamer. Some of the content is extremely heavy and pushes the boundary, even for a gangster film. But when all is said and done, the full cut of Once Upon a Time in America is one of the top five best gangster movies of all-time.

3. The Godfather (1972)

Saying something against The Godfather is like complaining about winning a million-dollar lottery — nobody wants to hear it. Francis Ford Coppola’s undeniable masterpiece is an adaption of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name. Marlon Brando gives his all-time great performance as Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the Corleone crime family.

This is the most iconic gangster film ever made. Every cinema fan knows the image of Don Vito holding the cat, the horse in the bed, or Michael shutting the door on his former life. And for good reason, these are some of the most expressive and emotional moments in film history. Puzo and Coppola’s brilliant screenplay is like a cherry on top and if there’s any argument against The Godfather, it’s that its story wasn’t fully told in the first film.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas is a film that I’ve watched nearly a dozen times and have found a new way to appreciate it every time. Martin Scorsese directed the film based on an adaption of the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pillegi.

The film begins with Liotta as the narrator saying “as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” From there, the film takes you on a tour of the Brooklyn Italian crime world, and halfway through it, you’ll probably want to be a gangster too.

There’s sex, drugs, and vice galore — and the wiseguys on-screen seem like they’re having the time of their life. But by the end of the film, Scorsese does away with the glamorized view of gangsters and cripples his protagonist to the one thing every gangster hates — a rat.

1. The Godfather Part II (1974)

No shot in film history has sobered me more than that of Pacino’s Michael Corleone, fist over the face, pondering the choices that have led him to this moment.

The camera zooms towards him, and all we hear is silence. Michael’s eyes gaze into oblivion. Then, the unforgettable music swells and the tragedy of both Godfather films wash over you like a monsoon. Perhaps no character demonstrates the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely” more than Michael Corleone.

Over the course of two films, we see how his gangster ascent correlates directly to his moral descent. Both films are masterclasses, but it’s The Godfather Part II that takes the top spot on this list, for its flawless execution of gangster film themes.

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