Since the movies began, people have always been fascinated by the action and drama that a mob film brings to the table. There is just something about family loyalties, murder for hire, and illegal activities that are looked over that tickles our fancy.
Some of these films are so memorable that they have quotable lines, which every movie buff knows whether they’ve seen the film or not. With an older generation of movie lovers, these films give an insight into some of the cultural elements they grew up with and give them a sense of pride.
Whether we are talking about the Italian, Russian, Irish, Chinese, or Japanese mob, one thing always remains the same. There is always going to be a criminal underbelly, and people are going to end up dead.
In no particular order, here are 15 must-see mob films.
1. The Godfather Part II
The second installment in a very famous trilogy, but probably the favored one, this film covers the reign of Michael Corleone as Don of the infamous Corleone family. Meanwhile, flashbacks show us the rise and evolution of his own father into a Don of his own family.
Introduced as Don Michael Corleone at the start of the film, Al Pacino’s performance stuns, chills, and excites us from start to finish. He really brings forward how loving and gentle Michael can be with his kids and wife, while also ruthlessly killing his own family.
Fans of the trilogy got to see a bit of that evolve during the first installment, but The Godfather, Part II is where Michael becomes this revered and feared figurehead of a family that has seen better days. Every movie buff knows the shock we felt when we heard Pacino deliver the world-famous line, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
This film from 1995 is one of many Robert De Niro entries on this list. What can we say? The man is a mob film legend. Focuses more on the outer ranks of a mafia-tied crime syndicate, Casino covers Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s journey as the overseer of day-to-day operations of the Chicago Outfit’s casino holdings.
Sam feels he has a good grip on what he’s been tasked with doing, but over the years Las Vegas changes, and with it, his power and standing in the casino community. It doesn’t help that the more time goes on, the more the mafia becomes involved in his management dealings.
The film is based on a true story and one of the early collaborations between De Niro and Scorsese — which is now a duo synonymous with perfection. With the added talents of Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Don Rickles, and Kevin Pollack, this film is a balanced, intriguing tale of power and money building up reputations and then ruining them.
If you think of Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Paul Sorvino, your mind immediately goes to Italian mobsters. That is what makes this 1990 film based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi so fantastic.
The entire cast is made up of heavy hitters, and their performances don’t miss because neither does the writing. Telling the story of a mob associate and his friends as they rise and fall within the ranks could easily become tired and predictable, but somehow Goodfellas never falls into that trap.
It sets the tone for the best of the best in regard to mob films. Because Liotta and De Niro play roles that are so relatable, audiences find themselves rooting for them to end up on top, despite being criminals.
Out of all the films on this list, Tony Montana is one of the most iconic gangsters of them all. And while Al Pacino is well-known for his role as Michael Corleone, it’s his role as Montana that really puts him on the mob film map.
The way Pacino draws viewers in with Tony Montana’s intense cruelty keeps them hooked as the man rises through the drug ranks from a Colombian refugee nobody to the top drug lord in Miami. While there aren’t direct ties to a mob syndicate in this film, it holds many cultural references to that type of life.
As Montana’s power grows, so does his ruthless, murderous nature. By the end, audiences have seen the man fall into the insanity of drugs, wealth, and power. Besides, who doesn’t know the iconic line, “Say hello to my little friend,” or the violent saw scene?
5. Tokyo Drifter
It is one of the few films on this list that follows criminal activities outside of the United States. This time the film follows the Yazuka, a Japanese crime syndicate.
Released in 1966, Tokyo Drifter is one of the oldest ones within the genre and still manages to hold significance decades later. The story follows an older Yazuka boss as he looks to retire and pass his operation on to his right-hand man, Tetsu.
The problem is Tetsu wants to be a drifter, a wanderer, and not commit to the criminal life anymore. What follows is an intense vying for Tetsu’s attention between his old boss and another mobster trying to step in and take over the territory.
6. The Godfather Part 1
Over the years, the name Marlon Brando became synonymous with the character of Vito Corleone. In fact, the 1972 film, The Godfather Part I has become so iconic that practically everyone knows who Vito is or at least has seen reimaginings of him throughout pop culture.
The first part in a famous film trilogy, this film is the only one based firmly on the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo. This story put not only Al Pacino on the map but, James Caan, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, and Robert DuVall as well.
It’s not just a story about the criminal dealings of an Italian-American family of mobsters, but also the transition between innocence and responsibility, naïveté and intelligence. There is love, family, tradition, and culture wrapped up amongst the violence that makes this film one to watch over and over again.
After all, if we don’t, Don Corleone just might make us an offer we can’t refuse.
7. The Irishman
The most recent film on this list, released in 2019, brings Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci together as aging mobsters. Following the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s closest friend, and alleged killer, Frank Sheeran, this film reminds viewers that we always want to be mesmerized by gangsters.
With De Niro at the helm as Sheeran and Pacino by his side as Hoffa, the film travels with the men through WWII and Hoffa’s imminent demise. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that has been part of the public persona for decades.
The Irishman is a cinematically beautiful piece of art that seamlessly transitions from one time period to the next in the hopes of diving deeper into one mobster’s life. One of the highlights of this film rests not in the storytelling itself but in the de-aging done to make these characters believable across time.
8. The Departed
One of the greatest mob films to date due to its twisted storytelling that keeps viewers on their toes until the very end. The Departed has easily joined the ranks of classic titles that came decades before it.
Set in South Boston and involving the Irish mob, this film takes us on a journey of loyalties being tested, lines being crossed, and deceptions being outsmarted. From one moment to the next, no one can really tell who is loyal to whom — not only because it changes but also because the ability of these characters to warp our sense of reality is unparalleled.
With a cast that boasts Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, and Alec Baldwin, there is something for everyone if you love political, crime, or action-packed dramas.
9. Black Caesar
After being brutally attacked by a police officer in his youth, Tommy Gibbs turns to a life of crime. This move puts him in a position to run a Black syndicate in Harlem as part of the New York Mafia.
Following Gibbs’ journey as he wages war on the Italian Mob in order to establish his own crime empire, Black Caesar proves that mob genre stories can happen in any community. In the early 1970s, there was a push to tell more Black stories on equal footing with those of white stories, and this film fits that bill.
Starring Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, and Julius Harris, this story draws our attention by putting a twist on the typical crime dramas for which there was a plethora of during this time. It redefines what we think of when we think of criminal operations, especially within a hotbed such as New York.
10. Donnie Brasco
Another Al Pacino entry on this list, this time with the added benefit of a young Johnny Depp. This film is another one based on a true story — this time regarding an undercover agent in a crime family.
Depp plays Donnie Brasco, who ingratiates himself to Lefty Ruggiero, played by Pacino, and manages to find a position within the Bonanno crime family. The line between his job as a federal agent and giving in completely to a life of crime blurs more and more the longer he spends time with Lefty.
Despite knowing this will never end well for either party, viewers can’t help but hope for more as Brasco’s actions threaten his and Lefty’s lives. Donnie Brasco is intense from moment to moment as we pray Brasco won’t be found out as a spy.
11. Eastern Promises
The only film on this list diving into the dealings of the Russian mob, Eastern Promises has an intensity and underlying paranoia not present in your typical Irish or Italian mob stories. The menacing nature of the Russians to take no prisoners and show no mercy is a change that many fans of the genre will appreciate.
The story centers not on the male members of the mob, but instead on an innocent Russian-British midwife, Anna, played by Naomi Watts, who has the unfortunate task of delivering the baby of a Ukranian prostitute, who dies in childbirth, connected to the Russian mob. When she dies, Viggo Mortenson’s character, the menacing henchman of the head of the family, comes to threaten Anna’s life.
Overall this thrilling drama never slows down and takes you along for the ride whether you are ready or not. By the end, we are rooting for Anna to be successful at finding the best option for the child left behind and gaining the love she deserves.
12. Once Upon a Time in America
Pairing up once more, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play members of a rising Jewish gang in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. Once Upon a Time in America chronicles the strong friendship between De Niro’s Noodles and James Woods’ Max as they recruit other Jewish youths to join their organization.
What follows is years of friendship and loyalty being tested by the perils of drugs and crime. Greed and betrayal take hold as these young men realize that criminal organizations are on the rise in American society, and they have to give in if they wish to survive.
One of the earliest performances of De Niro and Pesci proves these actors have earned the careers they have by working hard and molding themselves into the characters they play. The only downside to this film is its runtime (clocking in around 3.5 hours), which doesn’t always feel entirely earned, but the performances are worth it.
13. A Bittersweet Life
This film comes from South Korea and follows the story of a Korean mobster who is in trouble for not following the orders of his boss. A Bittersweet Life takes on an action noir vibe to tell a story that’s as predictable as any other on this list but stands out for its cinematic nature.
On the surface, this film seems pretty straightforward, Sun-Woo is tasked with a job by his boss Kang, keeping an eye on his woman to be sure she isn’t having an affair. However, as sometimes does in the mob genre films, love gets in the way, and Sun-Woo finds himself covering up the woman’s affair due to his infatuation with her.
It becomes a tale of choosing love over duty, only in this case, the choice can result in death. Sun-Woo realizes his life lacks meaning, and yet he still refuses to give into his boss’ torture, revealing what he knows.
Ultimately, this film gives a more personal look at just how lonely being a mobster can sometimes be.
14. The Public Enemy
Having been released in 1931, The Public Enemy is truly an American Cinematic Classic, having been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It brings to life the tale of two men trying to survive in a Prohibition-era America.
Tom and Matt, played by James Cagney and Edward Woods, respectively, find themselves assisting criminal enterprises in a bid to find protection amongst their ranks. Unfortunately, these two men can’t help being dazzled by the wealth they acquire as a result of their illegal activities, which brings undue attention to themselves.
In the end, Tom and Matt aren’t able to survive the new life they lead, which leads the film to a depressing conclusion. One of the first strong contenders in the genre, this film shouldn’t be missed due to the delicate balance it portrays between family, friends, and action.
15. A Bronx Tale
A final Robert De Niro entry on this list, which also coincidentally stars Joe Pesci, tells the tale of a young kid brought up on the streets under the influence of an older mobster. A Bronx Tale follows Calogero as he tries to decide where his loyalties lie when he meets the local mafia boss, Sonny, played by Chazz Palminteri.
The young boy grows up amongst the criminals of the local mafia boss and the hardworking immigrants, such as his father, a driver for the MTA. He is all set to be a member of Sonny’s crew, despite his father’s objections, until he falls in love with an African-American classmate.
This move alienates him from the people around him in a variety of ways and Calogero must assess who he really is and wants to become. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age tale that never gets too schmaltzy or emotional, which is perfect for a mob-inspired film.
Palminteri wrote and directed the stage production of this story, which made its debut in 1989.
What mob films do you love? Did we miss any on our list? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!