The gangster movie genre is a double-edged sword. It's a massive genre, which is great because there are so many gangster movies to pick from, and you can go back many decades.
But the popularity of the gangster movie genre means that it runs the gamut from abysmally awful trash to some of the greatest movies ever made—with a lot of mediocrity in between.
Which ones are worth your time? Here are the best gangster movies of all time, ranked for your convenience.
6. Sexy Beast (2000)
A lot of heist movies are based around the "one last big job" that will allow the criminal-protagonist to finally retire somewhere sunny. Sexy Beast does it the other way around.
The movie opens with the main character Gal (Ray Winstone) basking poolside in the Spanish sun without a care in the world. He lives in a beautiful villa with his wife, enjoying good food in the company of friends. It's the ideal situation for a retired gangster.
Then an old colleague shows up in the form of an unhinged, terrifying Ben Kingsley who shatters his paradise by asking him to return to London for one last job. He's not taking no for an answer.
This entire movie is fantastic, but if I had to give one reason why anybody should watch it... it would be to experience the force of nature that is Ben Kingsley as Don Logan.
I don't think I've ever been as legitimately intimidated by a character on screen as I was by this maniac. He's a really small guy, but it doesn't matter. He makes you feel like you're trapped in a cage with a raging wolverine. That's Don Logan's vibe.
Ben Kingsley was asked what kind of physical training he did to transform into the menace that is Don Logan—and he said he didn't do anything but change his posture. I don't know what to make of that, other than to say that the man is certainly one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema.
5. King of New York (1990)
Christopher Walken's character Frank White in King of New York might be the coolest he's ever been on screen—and that's saying a lot for an actor like him. Yeah, he's a menacing, power-obsessed, cold-blooded killer... but that doesn't stop him from coming across as almost supernaturally cool.
There's a scene where he interrupts a rival crime boss's card game. Before he shoots the guy dead for challenging and insulting him, he lays down a large bet on a round of high-card. He pulls the Ace of Spades and smiles as if to say, "Well, what did you expect?"
He carries himself with an air of invincibility and his actions reflect his demeanor. You believe he's invincible; he believes he's invincible. But reality eventually comes home to roost.
We won't spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that you need to see this movie. There just aren't enough gangsters who are as terrifying-yet-cool as Frank White.
4. Heat (1995)
To this day, the ending shootout in Heat still maintains its reputation as one of the best and most accurate portrayals of a firefight on film.
Seriously, it's shown to USMC recruits as an example of proper and rapid reload, as well as how to accurately retreat under fire.
But even from a cinematic point of view, it's an experience. The sound production during that scene alone is incredible. Watch this with a good sound setup!
Of course, everything leading up to that final climax is great as well, making Heat an easy choice for one of the best gangster movies of all time. You won't regret watching it.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas set the bar for modern gangster movies and I don't think any movie has been able to reach that standard since.
If there is one inarguable quality that you could attribute to this movie... well, it's just really entertaining. Be warned, you're going to have a really good time watching terrible people do terrible things for two and a half hours. Its what Martin Scorsese does best.
2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino debuted as a director with this surprisingly minimal yet dense movie about diamond thieves and a heist gone wrong. It's still one of his best movies made to date.
There's not a lot of action in Reservoir Dogs. Not many locations, not many sets, not many actors...
But none of that detracts from how awesome this movie is. It's driven by its dialogue, by its character relationships, by the phenomenal acting and robust story.
It's a film like no other, and one you need to watch if you want to see how great a low-budget gangster movie can be.
1. The Godfather (1972)
If you haven't seen The Godfather by this point, you either live under a rock or are intentionally avoiding it. And if you're avoiding it because you think it couldn't possibly live up to the hype? I suggest you put that notion aside and watch it ASAP.
I admit that The Godfather is often hyped up, but it honestly deserves its reputation as one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Godfather is a masterpiece and I'm not sure we'll ever see a film quite like it made again. Hollywood just doesn't put its resources behind this type of movie anymore. It hasn't been that way for a long time, and it may never be again.
Some say the movie's pacing is slow; I say it takes its time. Some say the lighting is too dark; I say it matches the mood perfectly. Some say it's morally reprehensible; I say it's an honest portrayal of a cold-hearted, murderous criminal family.
The Godfather is a must-see. Not only because it's the greatest gangster movie of all time, but so you can experience it first-hand to understand its cultural relevance and impact on cinema.