30. Suburra (2015)
Our criteria here is films featuring actual mobsters and the organised crime milieu – as opposed to hitmen, heists or bank robbers. Stefano Sollima’s punchy neo-noir, set in 2011, fits the bill with its imbroglio of crime families, political corruption and Rome real estate. Financed by Netflix, this is essentially a feature-length pilot for the addictive Suburra: Blood on Rome prequel series.
29. Brother (2000)
Writer-director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano plays a Japanese gangster forced to relocate to Los Angeles, where he muscles in on the local drug operation by shooting everyone in sight. Unfortunately, this rubs up the Italian-American mafia the wrong way. Brace yourself for splattered brains, chopsticks up nostrils and chopped-off pinky fingers.
28. Casino (1995)
Martin Scorsese seems almost to be parodying himself in this portrait of a Las Vegas bookie running a mob casino, but it’s a wild ride with non-stop needle drops. Robert De Niro wears natty threads; Joe Pesci crushes someone’s head in a vice; Sharon Stone and James Woods steal the show.
27. Dead or Alive (1999)
Takashi Miike turns what might have been a routine yakuza yarn into a dazzling (and sometimes revolting) burst of film-making adrenaline, the first of a trilogy. If the opening eight-minute cocktail of cocaine, noodles and carnage makes most Hollywood action movies look arthritic, the climax will make your head explode.
26. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Kim Jee-woon followed A Tale of Two Sisters with this stylised neo-noir starring Lee Byung-hun, exhibiting Alain Delon levels of inscrutable male beauty as a high-ranking enforcer for the Korean mob who is asked to spy on his boss’s mistress, precipitating a series of decisions that ends in a bloodbath.
25. The Public Enemy (1931)
Whether mashing a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face or making his nightmarish final entrance, James Cagney scorches the screen in his astonishingly modern breakthrough performance as Tom Powers, working his way up through Chicago’s bootlegging fraternity. One of the pre-Hays Code Warner Bros pics that set the tone for gangsters to come.
24. Scarface (1983)
Brian De Palma pumps up the rise and fall of a lowlife Cuban immigrant into an operatic Bildungsroman brimming with Hawaiian shirts, chainsaw massacres, enough cocaine to rot the septa of the entire population of Miami, and Al Pacino burbling in a garbled accent. “Say hello to my leetle friend!”
23. New World (2013)
Park Hoon-jung followed his script credit for I Saw the Devil by writing and directing this terrific South Korean variation on Infernal Affairs. A cop in deep cover with a major crime syndicate begs for reassignment, but his police chief prefers to keep him in play as a pawn. With ironic results.
22. The Funeral (1996)
Two cult Christophers – Walken and Penn – play brothers of a recently murdered mafioso in Abel Ferrara’s intense study of a 1930s New York mob family in mourning around the coffin. Claustrophobic tension mounts as they plot revenge, watched anxiously by their wives. A powerful chamber piece with a shocking climax.
21. Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973)
Before Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaka injected his raw energy and restless camera into a series of five films collectively known as The Yakuza Papers. The first in the pentalogy shows mobsters filling the lawless void of postwar Japan with gambling, macho posturing and murder. Includes a useful primer in let it dry, or pinky-chopping.
20. The Irishman (2019)
An elderly war veteran reflects on his long career in crime, from the Bay of Pigs to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The subject of Scorsese’s sorrowful crime epic is nothing less than America itself: who has power, what they do with it – and why it’s crooks who call the shots.
19. The Long Good Friday (1980)
Bob Hoskins gives a Cagney-sized performance as Harold Shand, the cockney mob boss whose plans to develop Docklands (with a little help from the American mafia) are spectacularly derailed by mysterious rival gangsters. Helen Mirren plays his posh girlfriend, and Hoskins gets one of the all-time great extended facial closeups.
18. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung and Farewell My Concubine’s Leslie Cheung play brothers on opposite sides of the law in this John Woo gun-fu blockbuster bromance, but all eyes are on Chow Yun-fat as Lung’s triad comrade-in-crime, the epitome of cool in the film that put him and the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre on the map.
17. Black Caesar (1973)
Fred Williamson rocks a dandy hat as head of an African American crime syndicate taking on Italian mobsters and racist cops in this blaxploitation classic, also known as The Godfather of Harlem. Larry Cohen directs with low-budget verve; James Brown and Fred Wesley provide the score: “Paid the cost to be the boss …”
16. The Traitor (2019)
Marco Bellocchio’s biopic of Tommaso Buscetta, a Sicilian mobster who turned informant when the Cosa Nostra started killing his family, exposes the truth about their hypocritical codes of honour. Notable sequences include the 1986 Palermo “maxi-trial” and sickening mafia celebrations after the assassination of the judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife and bodyguards.
15. The Second Breath (1966)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of a José Giovanni novel opens a window on to the French underworld: its loyalties, networking (the mysterious Orloff) and louche nightclubs with dancing girls. Lino Ventura, never better, stars as Gu, who escapes from prison and takes on the proverbial “one last job” down in Marseille.
14. Eastern Promises (2007)
London midwife Naomi Watts strays into the perilous orbit of a borscht-loving clan of thugs in David Cronenberg’s dreamlike descent into an underworld of human trafficking and throat-slashings; it’s Casualty meets the Russian mafia. Highlights include Viggo Mortensen’s fight to the death in a Turkish bath, clad in nothing but tattoos.
13. Election (2005)
Johnnie To’s dense drama exposes the inner workings of Hong Kong triads (and injects sly political subtext) as they prepare to elect a new “godfather” amid ever-shifting allegiances and double-crossings. No guns are fired, though some poor bastards are nailed up in crates and rolled down a hill. The ending is a kicker.
12. Scarface (1932)
Howard Hawks’s pre-Code gangster pic stands up brilliantly, thanks to dynamic directing, proto-noir cinematography and a primal performance from Paul Muni that makes his successor, Pacino, seem almost restrained. It feels very immediate – prohibition and bootlegging were still going on – and also pretty daring when Tony exposes his sister’s bra strap.
11. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Mike Newell’s grungy mob pic showcases Pacino as a has-been hitman at the scrag-end of the food chain. Trying to impress his peers by mentoring a newcomer, he’s tragically unaware his protege is an undercover FBI agent, nicely played by Johnny Depp in the days before he started with the tiresome overacting.
10. The Mission (1999)
A perfect introduction to the films of To, godfather of Hong Kong action cinema, and a must-see for fans of Melville and Woo. A triad boss hires five bodyguards (played by To regulars including Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Suet Lam) who must ultimately decide where their loyalties lie. A catchy score, super-stylised shootouts and male bonding aplenty.
9. King of New York (1990)
Walken lords it in Ferrara’s organised crime epic as a gang boss who lives at the Plaza hotel and travels by limo, flanked by female bodyguards who look like Helmut Newton models. He decides to give something back to the community by financing a children’s hospital in the Bronx, and only has to kill a gazillion people to do it.
8. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
When his boss retires, a loyal enforcer finds himself targeted by rival gangs in a yakuza fantasy of mad camera angles, fever-dream colour schemes and more talk about real estate than you might expect. It also has an earworm theme song. After this and Branded to Kill, the Nikkatsu studio fired the director, Seijun Suzuki, for making “incomprehensible” movies. Nonsense: they may be nuts, but they’re perfectly clear.
7. Touch Not at Grisbi (1954)
Trust French mobsters to have the best lifestyles. Jean Gabin revived his flagging career in Jacques Becker’s mob pic about a middle-aged Paris gangster who appreciates a nice paté and wears jim-jams to bed when he’s not hijacking gold bullion. Lino Ventura makes his film debut as the antagonist; Scorsese cited it as one of the films that influenced The Irishman.
6. Gomorrah (2008)
Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s bestselling exposé strips all the glamour from the gangster genre in its meticulous depiction of the workings of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia; this is a bleak but gripping picture of how organised crime permeates every level of society. Handheld camera and natural lighting give it a fly-on-the-wall docudrama feel. Immense and harrowing.
5. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Forget The Departed; accept no substitute for the brilliant original, starring Tony Leung as a cop in deep cover with the triads, and Andy Lau (no relation to co-director Andrew Lau) as a triad embedded in police HQ. Each is assigned by his respective boss to flush out the other mole, leading to escalating tension and identity crises all round.
4. Once Upon a Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece is a Jewish gangster epic, spanning 50 years, with a Proustian approach to time and memory. De Niro plays a guilt-ridden thug seeking the truth about a botched heist that left his friends dead. A Lower East Side childhood gives way to prohibition-era violence and political corruption, set to one of Ennio Morricone’s most sublime scores.
3. The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s magisterial mobster epic is packed with dialogue and scene-settings that have since been enshrined in the gangster movie lexicon. But my favourites are the little things: Michael noticing his hand doesn’t shake when he lights a cigarette, or the bodyguard’s sidelong glance as Michael’s lovely Sicilian bride prepares to start the car. None of it ever gets old.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Ray Liotta provides voiceover as the outsider inducted into an Italian-American crime syndicate in Scorsese’s everyday story of extortion, robbery and murder by guys who aren’t as smart as they think they are. Pesci gets the showy loose-cannon role, but it’s De Niro who is the really scary one as he sits at the bar, silently plotting to kill his friends.
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Part two of Coppola’s peerless gangster saga surpasses its predecessor as it takes the Corleone family in two directions: back into the past to trace Don Corleone’s rise from orphaned Sicilian immigrant to Little Italy crime lord, and forward into the 1950s with his son, who consolidates his power but, in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, destroys his family in his process.