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The Best Gangster Movies and TV Shows

Credit - Source photos: Alamy (3); Netflix

Last week, Netflix dropped all eight episodes of The Gentlemen, a TV spin-off of Guy Ritchie’s 2019 film of the same name. Its mix of jet-black humor and brutal violence is par for the course for Ritchie, whose interest in gang life—whether small-town thugs or old families with deep pockets—stretches back to his 1998 debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But the genre is wide-ranging and diverse, with a whole variety of tones outside of Ritchie’s distinct vibe.

In putting together this list, I went for not just the most influential, frequently quoted gangster stories, but for the oddball choices that left a mark on me. It’d be easy to fill a whole list with movies from Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma alone, but I aimed to capture an array of different voices behind the camera. Here are 22 of the best gangster stories of all time—12 crime movies and 10 crime series that deliver action, suspense, comedy, romance, and heartbreak, all nested within violent narratives of greed, vengeance, and spiritual decay.

Movies

The Godfather (1972) | The Godfather Part II (1974)

It’s hard to say which of the first two entries in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the best. Both belong in the “greatest of all time” category—not just in the gangster film genre, but in the history of cinema. The first traces the rise of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from World War II Marine to crime boss, while the second continues his reign as Don alongside a prequel storyline covering the journey of his late father Vito (Robert De Niro) from his childhood in Sicily to the origin of the family business in New York City. Both have all the quotable dialogue and memorable violence you’d want from a gangster movie, but it’s the psychological realism and overarching family tragedy that give them their enduring power.

In Bruges (2008)

In 2022, The Banshees of Inisherin, a tragicomedy about the end of a friendship, won Martin McDonagh the highest acclaim of his career so far. But I think my favorite of his films might still be his 2008 directorial debut, In Bruges, whichalso stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. And the comedy is just as dark: this is a movie about a hitman who accidentally kills a young boy and the friend ordered to end that hitman’s life as punishment. It’s a bleakly hilarious movie that never gives into complete amorality.

Goodfellas (1990)

Probably the most widely loved of Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster flicks, Goodfellas perfectly paces its rise-and-fall cycle, which is wildly entertaining until everything falls apart and then becomes deeply tragic. Yes, this is a movie that showcases the romance and glamor of the life of a gangster—but it also swiftly shows us the consequences of every slide into moral decrepitude. Who can blame Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) for craving the security, love, and loyalty that comes with being part of such a tight surrogate family? Unfortunately, loyalty is never guaranteed, and anyone can be bought.

Sexy Beast (2000)

With any luck, Jonathan Glazer’s 2023 Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest winning two Academy Awards will draw more attention to the director’s excellent first three films. Under the Skin (2014) is a personal favorite, but Glazer knocked it out of the park right away with his 2000 debut. Sexy Beast follows Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) as a man visited by an unhinged former criminal associate (Ben Kingsley) who enlists him to partner up on a bank robbery. Like many on this list, there’s plenty of black comedy, but Glazer’s offbeat sensibility gives the movie an unusual energy that makes it distinct. (The movie also got a TV adaptation on Paramount+ earlier this year, though its tepid reception indicates that it’s best to dedicate your precious viewing hours to the source material.)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Who knew that just listening to merciless killers shooting the sh-t about McDonald’s could feel so fiercely original? But it’s not just the dynamic of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) that broke ground in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece. The unusual non-chronological sequencing influenced cinema for decades to come, inspiring endless copycats—and Pulp Fiction’s huge commercial success established the crucial role of independent film in the larger cinematic world.

Eastern Promises (2007)

David Cronenberg is best known for his grotesque, beautiful sci-fi horror films, especially involving mutilations and manipulations of the human body. But his mid-aughts gangster films A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), both starring Viggo Mortensen, are also real standouts of the genre. The latter film comes out on top—and not just because of the famous climactic naked sauna fight. It’s also thanks to Mortensen’s antihero Nikolai, a driver for the Russian mafia whose conflicted allegiances make him an enthralling wild card.

The Untouchables (1987)

While Kevin Costner can be a bit of a cipher at first as head Untouchable Eliot Ness, Brian De Palma’s 1987 film about the hunt to bring down Al Capone is still crucial to the canon. De Palma’s gift for memorable images and compositions, combined with David Mamet’s dialogue, Ennio Morricone’s typically excellent score, and a charismatic Oscar-winning supporting performance from Sean Connery, elevates this into the upper echelon of gangster movies.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Focused on corruption and violence among the longshoremen of Hoboken, New Jersey, this 1954 classic featured a performance that changed the craft of acting forever. Marlon Brando popularized method acting with his portrayal of Terry Malloy, a dock worker and former prize fighter whose ethical struggle sustains Elia Kazan’s film. That crisis of conscience reaches its climax in his “I coulda been a contender” speech, one of the most iconic scenes in film history.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Ritchie’s most original and captivating crime comedy is his debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which follows a group of young men (including a young Jason Statham) who rob a gang to pay off their debts. Two years later, Ritchie would follow the film up with Snatch, a more polished, stylish, star-studded version of almost the same story. But I prefer his first, rawest venture into London’s criminal underground.

Heat (1995)

Michael Mann’s movies are some of the most stylish of any living filmmaker, especially when it comes to his crime dramas. Heat (1995) may be his best, a classic epic that teams up Al Pacino (an LAPD detective) and Robert De Niro (a thief) for a fascinating, complex character study in contrasts and parallels. And don’t forget about the stunning ensemble cast, which includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, and Ashley Judd, among others.

Widows (2018)

It’s no real surprise this list is so dominated by movies made by and focused on men. But Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows stands out as a rare widely acclaimed female-driven crime thriller, putting the spotlight on a group of flawed women forced to pull off their own risky robbery to ensure their survival in the wake of their late husbands’ crimes. Come for the twisty, intense story and socially conscious themes; stay for the excellent performances from Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daniel Kaluuya.

TV Shows

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

If The Godfather is the clear king of gangster movies, The Sopranos is the king of gangster TV. Often considered the best TV drama of all time, the series revolves around the one and only Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, giving a truly astonishing performance), an Italian-American mobster based in New Jersey who begins seeing psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) for his panic attacks. As in Coppola’s masterpiece, The Sopranos is as much a heartbreaking family drama as a twisty crime story. With that perfect balance, it’s no wonder the show helped usher in the second Golden Age of Television.

Read more: Is TV Too Broken to Make Another Show Like The Sopranos?

Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)

Created and executive produced by The Sopranos’ Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire follows Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a tremendously powerful political figure who controls Atlantic City during Prohibition. The immersive period setting really shines here, along with the stacked supporting cast: Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, the late Michael Kenneth Williams, and Jack Huston, all of whom play nuanced, scene-stealing characters.

Peaky Blinders (2013-2022)

If you want to see newly minted Best Actor Oscar winner Cillian Murphy flex his range, Steven Knight’s period drama is a great option. Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby, the crime boss in charge of the real-life Peaky Blinders street gang. Stretching from 1919 through Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the show covers an unusual period of English history, and its frequent comparisons to Boardwalk Empire point to a similar interest in historical context and subjects like class struggle and corruption.

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014)

This FX drama about the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California, stuck around far too long, lasting a full seven seasons and becoming a bloated slog by the end. Despite Sons of Anarchy’s tendency to repeat itself, its first handful of seasons were good, violent, soapy fun, with Charlie Hunnam starring as Jax Teller, a biker struggling to extinguish the criminal element of his late father’s club.

Narcos (2015-2017)

This Netflix drama helped make stars out of actors like Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook, and, especially, Pedro Pascal. Initially, the show chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, portraying him as human and somewhat sympathetic while refusing to soften the truth of his crimes. By Season 3, though, the show transforms, moving on from the Escobar story and hardly suffering as a result.

The Borgias (2011-2013)

Showtime’s The Borgias may not feel like the most obvious choice for a gangster series, especially with its Renaissance-era Rome setting. But its powerful titular family, especially the scheming clergyman who becomes Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), relies on bribery and violence to maintain control just like many of the most ruthless TV villains. After all, the tagline for the series is “The Original Crime Family,” leaning into Sopranos comparisons.

Warrior (2019-2023)

Based on a concept and treatment by Bruce Lee and executive-produced by his daughter Shannon Lee, Warrior is Jonathan Tropper’s second violent drama for Cinemax, following Banshee. Set during a Tong war in 1875 San Francisco, the series stars Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm, a Chinese martial arts expert who travels to America to find his sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) and ends up an enforcer for a crime boss. Half serious period drama about immigration and cultural division, half pulpy crime story with thrillingly choreographed fight scenes, Warrior offers its own engrossing take on the genre.

Godfather of Harlem (2019 - )

Anchored by Forest Whitaker as a fictionalized version of the ’60s gangster Bumpy Johnson, the Epix drama Godfather of Harlem traces the crime boss’ war with the Italian mob family that controls the streets where he grew up. That struggle intersects with the ongoing civil rights movement in compelling ways—Malcolm X is one of the lead characters—providing a unique angle on gang warfare.

Gangs of London (2020 - )

Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery’s action thriller series about an international gang war in London is one of the best recent crime stories on TV, filled with excellent performances and visceral violence. It also centers on a Corleone-esque dynamic, with Sean (Joe Cole) as the new head of the family following the murder of his father. Sean’s search for his father’s killer intersects with the competing interests of over five different crime syndicates from around the world, making Gangs of London a detailed, vivid, and refreshingly modern story.

Justified (2010-2015)

Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) may be the charismatic, endlessly badass protagonist of this modern-day Western, but the show’s interest lies just as much with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a criminal and expert in explosives who once dug coal alongside Raylan. Justified may feature its fair share of dum-dum fraudsters and low-life criminals—miss you, Dewey Crowe!—but its patient, thorough exploration of the criminal ecosystem of Harlan County, Kentucky rarely ever relies on cliché.

Contact us at letters@time.com.