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There have been many classic gangster movies ever since the start of cinema and the genre has seen many different approaches, from grim, gritty or realistic to highly stylized or comic. Considering there have been so many famous gangsters and eras bountiful in crime, a rich avenue of potential stories is availabe, with many becoming Oscar winners. To celebrate the release of the 1950s set Gangster Squad we look at some of the best historic gangster movies ever made. There is one rule, these movies have to be retrospective, so no movies that were made in their contemporary setting.
10. Lawless (2012)
The Prohibition-set Lawless is the most recent movie to make this list and it takes a slightly different approach than most gangster movies by being focused in a rural setting. Lawless focuses on Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who wants to join his brothers (Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) in the bootlegging business in Franklin County, Va. But he soon crosses a cruel Special Deputy, Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) who is determined to crush the Bondurants.
9. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Kung Fu Hustle is a martial arts action comedy that is entertaining and funny. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, gangs battle for the streets of city and the control of the underworld: the most powerful being the Axe Gang. In the midst of this is Sing (Stephen Chow), a young man who wants to prove himself as a big bad gangster, and an area known as the Pig Sty fights which look to keep its independence amidst the gang warfare.
8. American Gangster (2007)
From the ever versatile director Sir Ridley Scott comes the excellent crime drama American Gangster. This 70s set film follows Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a powerful but off-the-radar gangster in Harlem who was able to use the Vietnam War to import strong heroin from Thailand using caskets of the American servicemen allowing him to sell it at a cheaper price. However at the same time, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) tries to bring him down as he battles a corrupt NYPD.
7. Road to Perdition (2002)
Based on a graphic novel by Max Allen Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, Road to Perdition, is a father and son tale set during Prohibition. Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) is an enforcer for Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), whose son (Tyler Hoechlin) sees a gang murder and the two end up run before trying to bring down the mob with their inside knowledge.
6. Once Upon A Time in America (1984)
The legendary Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone was originally offered the chance to direct The Godfather but turned it down so he could make his own gangster movie. What we got was Once Upon A Time in America, a large saga spanning from the early 1920s to the 1960s. The story focuses on Jewish gangsters Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods), from being teenage street thugs in the ghettos of New York, to prohibition gangsters and the Mafia trying to get Noodles back in the game in 1968. It is a dark, violent tale with great ambition and one that offers three cuts: the American cut is 2 hours 19 minutes, the European is 3 hours 49 minutes and the original version is an epic 4 hours 29 minutes.
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Goodfellas and The Godfather Part III were not the only historic gangster movie to be released in 1990, as The Coen Brothers also brought us Miller’s Crossing. Set in the 1930s in an unnamed American city, Miller’s Crossing focuses on Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), the main lieutenant of Irish gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). Both men fall for the same woman as these Irish gangsters are preparing to go to war with the Italians led by Johnny Caspar (Jon Politio).
4. Casino (1995)
Casino is sadly dismissed by some as “Goodfellas 2” but this Martin Scorsese movie is a worthy piece of cinema and a gangster classic in its own right. Set in the 70s, Casino follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a (wait for it) Casino manager who runs it as a front for the Mafia and focuses on his friendship with Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro (Joe Pesci) who brings a more violence form of organised crime to Las Vegas.
3. City of God (2003)
The other non-American entry in this list the excellent Brazilian movie City of God. Based on Paulo Lins’ semi-biographical novel, City of God is a stylistic and brutal movie set in the 60s and 70s in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. City of God follows Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man who has to survive in these fravlas as Lil Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) runs a drug empire and sees the area known as Cidade de Deus fall into gang warfare.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas is often considered Martin Scorsese’s best movie and there is good reason why it has earned that distinction. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book Wiseguys, Goodfellas spans from 1955 to 1980, following Harry Hill (Ray Lloita), a half-Irish, half-Italian man who experiences a rise and fall within the Mafia. It's one of the best movies to show the footsoldiers and ground level of the Mafia.
1. The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990)
The Godfather is seen as the daddy of the modern gangster film and is essential watching. Its sequel is just as good and the less we say about The Godfather: Part III the better. The Godfather Trilogy truly lives up to the term saga, a nine hour journey that spanning 1901 to 1979, looking at the raise of Vito Corlene within the American Mafia and his quest for revenge and subsequently Michael Corlene’s raise within the Corlene family, the corruption of his character and his attempted redemption. The Godfather Part I and Part II are classic pieces of cinema and easily two of the best gangster movies ever made.