top of page
  • Nate Lemann

LISTS: LIFE OF CRIME MOVIES

Updated: 7 days ago

In honor of the release of Jeff Nichols "The Bikeriders", we rank the best films at capturing the sweeping saga of a life of crime.


by Nate Lemann

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert DeNiro in "Goodfellas"
Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert DeNiro in "Goodfellas"
 

For this list, we take a look at the best movies that follow the life and/or rise to power in the criminal underworld. These films typically span over a longer period of time, and not focused on a single moment or incident, painting a broader portrait of these criminals. We will not be included films that are more focused on the police or serial killers (those deserve their own categories). Films are judged by how they function as a sweeping crime saga and not overall quality or critical reception. So strap in and lets chart the rise to power of some of cinema's most iconic criminals.


 

1) GOODFELLAS (1990)

Ray Liotta & Lorraine Bracco in "Goodfellas"
Ray Liotta & Lorraine Bracco in "Goodfellas"

Martin Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece is the epitome of the idolization of the criminal lifestyle ("For as far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster" literally opens the proceedings here). It's fun and exhilarating, but also doesn't shy away from the terrible dark side of this life.


 

2) THE GODFATHER (1972)

Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"
Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"

Francis Ford Coppola's timeless tale of crime and family is a sweeping epic charting the rise of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from reluctant heir to crime kingpin in the most soul-shattering depiction of the corrosive nature of the criminal lifestyle.

 

3) THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974)

Robert DeNiro in "The Godfather: Part II"
Robert DeNiro in "The Godfather: Part II"

The sequel to the 1972 classic is a far more complex depiction of the dark soul at the heart of the Mafia, as we follow both Vito's early days as an immigrant looking to make his way in America and Michael's further decent into the dark heart of man.


 

4) CITY OF GOD (2003)

Alexandre Rodrigues in "City of God"
Alexandre Rodrigues in "City of God"

Fernando Meirelles's under-seen 2003 masterpiece is dark tale about two friends in the slums of Rio, whose path diverge, as one looks to become a photographer and one slowly becomes a new crime kingpin. It's brutal and tragic in the best ways.


 

5) CASINO (1995)

Robert DeNiro & Don Rickles in "Casino"
Robert DeNiro & Don Rickles in "Casino"

1995's "Casino" doesn't get the respect it deserves, living in the shadow of "Goodfellas" but is a wildly entertaining and often funny retelling of the rise of he Mob's control of early days-Las Vegas. It's as intense a portrait of the dark side of crime as there's ever been, with truly horrific consequences.


 

6) GOMORRAH (2008)

"Gomorrah"
"Gomorrah"

2008's "Gomorrah" takes us back to the roots of the Italian Mafia, showing us through different perspectives the dark hold the Mafia can have on an Italian town.


 

7) ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

Ben Mendelsohn & Joel Edgerton in "Animal Kingdom"
Ben Mendelsohn & Joel Edgerton in "Animal Kingdom"

Australia's take on the crime family drama is a dark and manipulative masterpiece of the crime genre, anchored by scene stealing performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver.

 

8) THE BIKERIDERS (2024)

Tom Hardy & Austin Butler in "The Bikeriders"
Tom Hardy & Austin Butler in "The Bikeriders"

Jeff Nichol's biker gang drama is intimate portrait of living life on the edges of society and the tragedy of losing control of a thing you lovingly created.

 

9) MEAN STREETS (1973)

Robert DeNiro & David Proval in "Mean Streets"
Robert DeNiro & David Proval in "Mean Streets"

The film that put Scorsese on the map is a tale of two friends in Little Italy struggling with their faith and the dark nature of their work and ambitions.


 

10) AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Denzel Washington & Co. in "American Gangster"
Denzel Washington & Co. in "American Gangster"

Ridley Scott's underrated drama documenting the rise and fall of notorious Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas as he spits in the face of racism and convention to build an empire as the biggest heroin dealer in all of New York City.


 

11) BONNIE & CLYDE (1967)

Warren Beaty in "Bonnie & Clyde"
Warren Beaty in "Bonnie & Clyde"

The first entry not about a crime organization, this film pushed the envelope at the time with its brutal depiction of violence and a passionate couple on a horrific crime spree that took a nation by storm.


 

12) ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

James Woods & Robert DeNiro in "Once Upon a Time in America"
James Woods & Robert DeNiro in "Once Upon a Time in America"

Sergio Leone's final film following the rise of two Jewish gangsters, as one has returned home in the future to reckon with their violent past.

 

13) PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)

Johnny Depp in "Public Enemies"
Johnny Depp in "Public Enemies"

Michael Mann's portrait of famed bank robber John Dillinger follows his journey in-and-out of jail and on the run from the law, while also becoming a folk hero in an era where criminals were as big as movie stars.


 

14) SCARFACE (1983)

Al Pacino in "Scarface"
Al Pacino in "Scarface"

Brian de Palma's coked-out tale of a cuban immigrant's violent and wild ride, rising to the top of 1980's Miami's cocaine drug world through fear and a campaign of bloody carnage.

 

15) THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

The Gang from "The Outsiders"
The Gang from "The Outsiders"

Coppola's adaptation of the classic novel about a gang of troubled youths up to no-good in greaser era Americana, boasting one of the most stacked casts of budding young stars of the 1980s.


 

16 ) THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano in "The Irishman"
Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano in "The Irishman"

Scorsese's examination of the Mob's relationship with famed and brash union leader Jimmy Hoffa is a dark meditation on regret and growing out of relevance in your later years.


 

17) KING OF NEW YORK (1990)

Christopher Walken in " King of New York"
Christopher Walken in " King of New York"

Abel Ferrara's wild tale of a former drug kingpin's return from jail to take back control of his empire, while using his new power to maybe do some good for the community.


 

18) BLOW (2001)

Johnny Depp in "Blow"
Johnny Depp in "Blow"

Depp's second entry on this list is about the pioneer to help bring the Medellin Cartel's cocaine to America in the 1970s, establishing the U.S. market for the dangerous drug.


 

19) LORD OF WAR (2005)

Nicholas Cage in " Lord of War"
Nicholas Cage in " Lord of War"

Cage's entertaining look into the dark world of arms dealers in the late-80s and 90s, as the end of the Cold War presents an unprecedented opportunity for dealers looking for once forbidden weapons to now hit the open market.

 

20) BADLANDS (1973)

Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek in "Badlands"
Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek in "Badlands"

Malick, Sheen, and Spacek's announcement as major talents in Hollywood is a tale of a mid-20s greaser and his teenage girlfriend as they make their way across the Dakotas while going on a killing spree is a dark tale of young love turned perverse.


 

21) BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)

Cuba Gooding, Jr. & Morris Chestnut in "Boyz n the Hood"
Cuba Gooding, Jr. & Morris Chestnut in "Boyz n the Hood"

The late John Singleton's timeless classic follows three friends growing up in the Crenshaw area of L.A., as they navigate racism and the vicious and violent lifecycle everyone around them seems to fall into.


 

22) MONSTER (2003)

Charlize Theron in "Monster"
Charlize Theron in "Monster"

Charlize Theron's academy-award winning performance as prostitute-turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos is the only exception to this list's "No Serial Killer" rule as this film follows what the oppressive world of sex work eventually drove this real life woman to do.


 

23) LAWLESS (2012)

Shia Labeouf & Jason Clarke in "Lawless"
Shia Labeouf & Jason Clarke in "Lawless"

This early 2010s crime saga explores the world of southern bootleggers, following a local family's struggles dealing with competitors and the law, who can often be more cruel and corrupt than the criminals they hunt, with one of the most stacked casts of all-time.


 

24) AMERICAN MADE (2017)

Tom Cruise in "American Made"
Tom Cruise in "American Made"

This little seen Cruise and Liman joint is one hell of a fun time, following real life pilot Barry Seal's work for both the CIA and the Cartels to bring in drugs to America and weapons to the Contras. Truly an inspired and funny as hell, too crazy to believe tale of greed run rampant.


 

25) BLACK MASS (2015)

Johnny Depp in "Black Mass"
Johnny Depp in "Black Mass"

Depp's towering portrayal of James "Whitey" Bulger is truly a sight-to-behold in this dark tale about the deal with the devil the FBI made with this Southy gangster to let him continue to rule with an iron fist as he fed information to bring down his rivals.


 

For the Letterboxd version, check it out here.


 

Let me know if I missed anything in the comments below.

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


About Me

image_edited.jpg

Hi! I'm Nate and I love to talk all things movies. I'll be posting new reviews, recent rewatches, and much more on this site. So come on and let's talk movies! 

Posts Archive

Tags

No tags yet.
bottom of page