Paramount’s 50th-anniversary celebration of The Godfather, along with the release of its beautiful 4K restoration of The Godfather trilogy, has not only been a celebration of that essential masterpiece, but also a reminder of the great tradition of mob movies in American cinema.
Perhaps because they hold up a mirror to the traditional American preoccupations of family and business, showing us that our values may not always be as virtuous as we would hope, we tend to regard them as some of our most cherished cinematic achievements. Of course, there are many great crime movies — cop thrillers, heist capers, prison flicks, street gang chronicles, etc. — but organized crime movies tend to loom above them all in our popular consciousness. Here are the greatest American mob movies, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
9. (TIE) A History of Violence (2005) – 87%
At the turn of the century, Canadian auteur David Cronenberg pivoted away from the sci-fi/body horror movies he was known for (The Fly, Scanners, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ) to work in other genres. The results included a pair of critically acclaimed mob movies: Eastern Promises, about the Russian mob in London, and A History of Violence.
Both films star Viggo Mortensen, subverting his hero image from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released just a few years earlier. Here he plays a small-town family man with a mysterious past who is drawn into a showdown with the Irish mob out of Philadelphia, including a couple of psycho gangsters played with great relish by Ed Harris and William Hurt. Critics praised Cronenberg’s exploration of the way that human beings condemn violence while also craving it.
9. (TIE) Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – 87%
Starring Robert De Niro and James Woods as child friends who rise together in the world of organized crime, Once Upon a Time in America is notable for chronicling Jewish mobsters in New York City, as opposed to the typical Italian and Irish gangers depicted on screen.
An American/Italian co-production from the great Italian director Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), the movie didn’t have the most illustrious beginning in the United States, as it was released in a truncated version (139 minutes down from 229 in Europe) that critics and audiences found incoherent. But once the full version was restored with help from Martin Scorsese, the film’s greatness became apparent to American viewers and Once Upon a Time in America took its place among the pantheon of crime epics.
8. Donnie Brasco (1997) – 88%
After looming large over 1970s cinema with crime classics such as the first two Godfather movies, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino came roaring back in the 1990s with a clutch of hard-edged movies that recalled his classic ’70s work. These included The Godfather Part III, Carlito’s Way, Heat, and Donnie Brasco, based on a true story of an FBI agent (a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depp) who infiltrated a top New York crime family and gained the confidence – and unexpected friendship — of a hitman played by Pacino.
Critics appreciated the well-crafted suspense, as well as Pacino’s strong character work. The movie also contributed the classic line “fuhgeddaboudit” to immortal Pacino gangster quotes that include “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” from The Godfather and “Say hello to my little friend!” from Scarface.
7. The Departed (2006) – 90%
The mandate to the casting director on The Departed must have been to get all the movie stars they could find for this remake of the 2002 Hong Kong gangster classic Infernal Affairs. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin dig into juicy roles in an entertaining yarn about a mole (Damon) who infiltrates the Massachusetts State Police on behalf of Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson), while a troubled undercover cop (DiCaprio) simultaneously infiltrates Costello’s gang in an attempt to take him down.
After years of failing to give Scorsese an Oscar when many felt he deserved it (for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, among others), the Academy went all-in on The Departed, awarding it Best Picture and Best Director for Scorsese, as well as several other Oscars.
6. (TIE) Miller’s Crossing (1990) – 92%
Joel and Ethan Coen have made many crime films, including Burn After Reading, Blood Simple, and Raising Arizona, but Miller’s Crossing is their only bona fide gangster picture. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, and John Turturro, the highly stylized film chronicles the Prohibition-era war between the Irish and Italian mobs, and the midlevel gangster (Byrne) who tries to play them off each other for his own gain.
Though it isn’t considered as great a Coen Brothers crime classic as Fargo or No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing remains an esteemed part of the brothers’ oeuvre, and a worthwhile watch for the filmmaking alone — including the famous tracking shot of a man (Turturro) pleading for his life in the woods.
6. (TIE) Little Caesar (1931) – 92%
Warner Brothers became known for hard-edged, tough-talking gangster pictures in the 1930s and Depression-era audiences couldn’t get enough of them. Little Caesar was among the first and most famous of the films, and it made a star (and a caricature) out of Edward G. Robinson, who plays Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, aka “Little Caesar,” a small-town hood who guns his way to the top of the Chicago mob.
As with other Pre-Code gangster pictures — the film was made before the Production Code Administration began to dictate content on screen in 1934, mandating the way that Hollywood depicted crime and violence — a great deal of social anxiety existed over whether the film was glorifying gangsters or condemning them. Either way, Little Caesar helped define the American mob movie.
6. (TIE) Pulp Fiction (1994) – 92%
There’s not much new to say about a film this beloved and famous, except perhaps that it’s easy to forget just how shockingly fresh Pulp Fiction felt when it arrived in theaters almost 30 years ago. Yes, there actually was a time before pop culture became inundated with references to five-dollar milkshakes, Big Kahuna burgers, bringing out the gimp, “correctamundo,” the glowing briefcase, the gold watch, a Royale with Cheese, and quoting “Ezekiel 25:17” before putting a cap in somebody’s derriere.
Tarantino’s genius was to make a comedy of his crime material, not a broad farce like Sylvester Stallone’s mob comedy Oscar from a few years earlier, but a bizarre romp through an alternative Los Angeles underworld in which it was perfectly normal for two mob hitman (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) to discuss the decorum involved in giving a foot massage on their way to a gangland execution. Few films in any genre have remained this influential.
5. The Irishman (2019) – 95%
Director Martin Scorsese had wanted to make the story of a mob hit man (Robert De Niro) with connections to the Teamsters union and its famous president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), for decades. He finally got the financing he needed (reportedly as high as $200 million) from Netflix, which was then hoping to get into the prestige motion picture game. The film received a lot of press for this, as well as its use of de-aging technology to make De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci – who came out of retirement to appear in the film – age convincingly over the decades depicted.
Fortunately, the media whirlwind surrounding the production didn’t compromise what’s on screen, with critics hailing the film as another near-masterpiece from Scorsese. Netflix also had their wish granted when The Irishman earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
4. (TIE) Goodfellas (1990) – 96%
When Hollywood unceremoniously released three mob movies during the same week in the early fall of 1990 — the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, State of Grace (starring Sean Penn and Gary Oldman), and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas – no one could have predicted that the latter of them would enter the canon of great American movies and still be revered today for Scorsese’s dazzling filmmaking, its volcanic performances (especially that of Joe Pesci as the psycho mobster Tommy DeVito), and rousing rock and roll soundtrack.
Based on the book by journalist Nicholas Pileggi about a real New York crime outfit, Goodfellas (Scorsese’s third film on this list) stands with the first two Godfather films as among the great cautionary tales depicting the soul-destroying consequences of a life of crime.
4. (TIE) The Godfather Part II (1974) – 96%
After the huge unexpected success of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola quickly turned out this epic sequel that won him the Best Director Oscar he had failed to win for the original two years earlier. The movie intersperses Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) attempts to steer his crime family into legitimacy in 1950s Nevada with flashbacks that show his father Vito as a young man (played by Robert De Niro) coming to power in New York’s Little Italy.
Coppola was working with a bigger budget, and it shows in the massive, intricately choreographed set pieces not only of Little Italy and Lake Tahoe, but also Ellis Island and Cuba during Castro’s revolution. Some critics, including Roger Ebert, found the film to be less than the sum of its parts, but overall, the sequel has endured as a classic companion to the original.
3. The Godfather (1972) – 97%
Few movies have been the cause of more spilled ink than The Godfather over the course of their existence. And legions more recent articles have affirmed its merits, influence, and status while celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary theis year. Meanwhile, the recent Paramount+ series The Offer chronicles the famously troubled production and proclaims the film’s very existence as something of a miracle.
Given all that, there’s precious little new ground to cover when discussing writer Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola’s multigenerational family crime epic. If there is perhaps an area in which the movie hasn’t quite gotten its due, it is in setting the template for criminal antiheroes – bad guys so charismatic, relatable, and sympathetic that we can’t help but root for them. Without The Godfather, the Peak TV era of the 2000s featuring antihero-driven shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men, etc., might have looked very different.
2. Scarface (1932) – 98%
The 1983 version of the film starring Al Pacino as a Cuban immigrant becoming a drug kingpin in Miami is much more famous with contemporary audiences, but the original was a sensation in its day. Directed by Howard Hawks, Scarface was loosely inspired by Al Capone and his criminal exploits in Chicago, including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, an Italian immigrant who muscles his way to the top of the Chicago mob while becoming romantically obsessed with his boss’ mistress.
Along with Little Caesar and the number one movie on the list, The Public Enemy, Scarface was one of the defining early pictures of the gangster genre. All three films battled censorship and controversy over their depiction of criminal activities and were pressured into substantial changes by organizations that feared the films glorified crime, even though the producers insisted they were condemning criminal activity as a means to achieve the American dream.
1. The Public Enemy (1931) – 100%
The Public Enemy, directed by William Wellman, is the third of Warner Brothers famous triptych of Classical Hollywood gangster films on this list. This one stars James Cagney in a powerhouse performance as Tom Powers, a bootlegger who rises to wealth and power during Prohibition. Like Scarface, the movie chronicles the ways in which Tom’s criminal violence tears apart the family he hopes to protect and maintain. In doing so, it helped establish the narrative emphasis on family that many other mob movies, such as The Godfather, would follow.
In addition to its perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, the Library of Congress selected The Public Enemy for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It remains a raw and captivating look at the Depression-era fascination with crime.