What makes a great gangster movie? Is it violence? The compelling characters? It’s hard to pinpoint the definitive gangster film as each generation is defined by its own, and thus carries a heavy bias. While one person may consider The Godfather or Scarface, a younger opinion might stand devotedly by Pulp Fiction or Belly. Neither party is wrong – it often depends on which film a person is exposed to first. Either way, if it’s currently streaming on Netflix, it’s worth popping on. And we’re ready to discuss it all. Let us know what your favorite gangster movie is below in the comments section.
Mean Streets (1973)
The original Martin Scorsese gangster film, Mean Streets is required viewing for anyone who has ever claimed Goodfellas to be their favorite movie. Without Mean Streets, there is no Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, or The Departed. It all started in 1973 with a simple gangster story about Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a debt collector for his loan shark uncle, and his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), an out-of-his-league gambler struggling to pay up, as they navigate the mob-controlled mean streets of New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Starring Harvey Keitel in only his second film, and Robert De Niro in his first award-winning performance – Scorsese has since continued to cast these two local New York actors throughout the past 45 years of his career. Has your interest been piqued?
In hindsight, the auspices behind the 1983 remake of the 1932 film Scarface were too good to be true. Starring Al Pacino and a then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, with original music by Giorgio Moroder – what’s not to love about this movie? But that’s all said with history on its side. In actuality, the film received generally negative reviews due to its gratuitous violence, explicit language, and excessive drug use in telling the tale of a Cuban immigrant’s ascendance to drug kingpin.
However, no one could have ever predicted the popularity and overall cultural impact the Al Pacino-starring film would carry to this day. Thanks heavily in part to the film’s beloved reputation within the hip-hop community – Scarface has become an iconic cult classic, as well as one of the most popular films of the past thirty years.
Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
In 1984, legendary Italian filmmaker and inventor of the Spaghetti Western genre, Sergio Leone, concluded his second film trilogy with the early-mid 20th-century crime drama, Once Upon a Time in America. Starring Robert De Niro as Noodles, a New York City street kid, and co-written by/co-starring James Woods as Max, the two thugs meet and quickly form their own gang.
The film proceeds to span 50 years of time as the boys become men and endure such hardships as jail, prohibition, corruption, guilt, and death. Following Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker! – Once Upon a Time in America marked the final film in Leone’s Once Upon a Time Trilogy, in addition to serving as his final film – he died nearly five years after the film’s release.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Winner of the 1994 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, Pulp Fiction was for many viewers their introduction to the work of filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino. Now unanimously regarded as one of the greatest cinema auteurs of the late 20th and early 21st century, in 1994 Tarantino was just another independent filmmaker with a sweet tooth for profanity and violence.
Told out of chronological order, the plot of Pulp Fiction involves two hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta), a gangster and his wife (Ving Rhames and Uma Thurman), a professional boxer on the lam (Bruce Willis), and two canoodling burglars (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) as their lives intersect on one fateful day in Los Angeles. Regarded by many film scholars and publications as one of the greatest films of the past forty years, Pulp Fiction is as smart, fresh, and full of suspense today, as the day it was released 25 years ago.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
After discussing Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s first major forays into American cinema, we now find ourselves at British filmmaker Guy Ritchie’s debut movie and first of many gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Released in 1998, Lock, Stock follows Eddy, a card shark who enters a rigged card game, resulting in a £500,000 debt. With only one week to pay it off, Eddy overhears his neighbors plotting a robbery and decides to rob them following their heist.
When a pair of antique shotguns are thrown into the mix, along with copious amounts of marijuana and cash constantly changing hands, the viewer won’t know who will end up triumphant, let alone alive until the film’s final moments. Similar in story structure and tone to Pulp Fiction – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels weaves a fast-paced narrative through a laundry list of eccentric characters (including Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones’ acting debuts) as the British caper comes to its thunderous conclusion.
Guy Ritchie’s second film, Snatch, is essentially a more polished and Hollywood-ized version of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. If Lock Stock is Ritchie’s Reservoir Dogs, then Snatch is his Pulp Fiction. Instead of stolen money and antique shotguns, it’s a stolen diamond the size of a fist and a bare-knuckle boxing match. Released two years after Lock, Stock – the biggest difference between the two films is Snatch’s ensemble cast, featuring such major actors as Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina, and Benicio del Toro performing alongside returning Lock, Stock favorites Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, and Vinnie Jones.
With characters named Franky Four-Fingers, Bullet Tooth Tony, and Boris the Blade – you can only imagine the trouble these fellows find themselves in as the city of London runs amok in search of the coveted diamond. To whom will the riches befall? Go watch Snatch and discover for yourself. It’s been nearly twenty years and the British crime flick still holds up.
Layer Cake (2004)
Known for producing such British gangster movies as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsman franchise) marked his directorial debut with Layer Cake. Starring Daniel Craig, the film’s cast features a handful of future stars including Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins, and Sienna Miller. The film’s plot revolves around Daniel Craig’s character XXXX (his name is never mentioned), a cocaine dealer in London ready to walk away from the illegal drug trade. However, before he can officially get out of the business, he is tasked with two jobs.
The first is to find an associate’s drug addict daughter. The second is to supervise one final drug deal – the procurement of one million ecstasy tablets. From there all plans go to hell and XXXX finds himself caught deeper within the layer cake that is the hierarchy of the crime syndicate, than ever before. And so goes a drug dealer’s last day on the job.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The only film on this list to win the Academy Award for Best Picture – No Country for Old Men also serves as the only Coen brothers feature to win the prestigious award. Before No Country, the only Coen brothers film to win an Oscar was Fargo for Best Original Screenplay. Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men is a neo-Western thriller that follows three characters: hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin).
One day while hunting, Moss stumbles upon a botched drug deal. When he discovers a briefcase with two million dollars inside, Moss takes off in an attempt to hide and keep the money for him and his family. Meanwhile, hitman Chigurh tracks the briefcase, leaving countless dead in his wake, as Sheriff Bell works the case in his old age, reflecting more than ever on his impending retirement. No Country for Old Men is a piece of cinematic art, reliant on little dialogue, but oozing with suspense and drama.
In Bruges (2008)
Martin McDonagh’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) debut feature film, In Bruges, follows two hitmen – Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) – as they await instructions from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), following an incident where Ray accidentally shot a child. Stuck in the purgatory-like Belgian town of Bruges, the two hitmen attempt to blend in around town. To quote Farrell’s character Ray, “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”
Passing time meeting locals, messing with tourists, and evading the law, when it comes to blending in Ray and Ken have their struggles. Eventually, Harry arrives in Bruges and the dark comedy goes down a wild path only the Irish playwright, McDonagh, could have devised. Because “maybe that’s what hell is – the entire rest of eternity spent in Bruges.”
Only God Forgives (2013)
In the follow-up to his 2011 breakout film Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn brought back Ryan Gosling as his leading man and headed out to Bangkok, Thailand where he filmed the entirety of Only God Forgives on location. In the film, Gosling plays Julian, an American expat who along with his brother runs a Muay Thai boxing gym that serves as a drug front. Following the murder of his brother, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to town seeking revenge.
Similar in style and tone to Drive, Refn compared the two films at Cannes, saying, “[Only God Forgives] is very much a continuation of that language… it’s based on real emotions, but set in a heightened reality. It’s a fairy tale.” Also mirroring Drive is Gosling’s character’s minimal speaking. The character of Julian only speaks 17 lines throughout Only God Forgives’ 90-minute run time, compared to the 116 lines the Driver speaks in Drive. Of the two films, Drive is clearly the more celebrated and re-watchable film, however Only God Forgives is still worth your viewing.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Set in early ‘80s New York, J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, the owner of a heating-oil company on the rise. Following the hijacking of multiple trucks carrying thousands of dollars worth of his product, Morales’ wife, played by Jessica Chastain, suggests he fight back. But with the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) waiting in tow to bust Morales for price-fixing or tax evasion, he must act smart lest he be the source of his own downfall.
A Most Violent Year is a smart and intense thriller highlighted by performances that will leave you riveted from start to finish. Although the film was completely overlooked by the Academy Awards, the film did receive the National Board of Review Award for Best Film.
From the creative mind of Duncan Jones, director of Moon, Source Code, and Warcraft – as well as the son of David Bowie – comes Mute. The first and only Netflix Original Film featured on our list, Mute stars Alexander Skarsgard as a voiceless bartender searching for his missing lover in Berlin 2052. Co-starring Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux as American surgeons who run a black market clinic in the city, Mute received comparisons in style and setting to Blade Runner, in addition to mostly negative reviews. But when it comes to Netflix Original Films, you must watch it for yourself in order to truly determine how good or bad it is. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.