Criminal masterminds are at the center of some of the greatest movies ever made. Crime films that feature entertaining heists, gripping police procedurals, stories of mobsters, and other gritty goings-on keep audiences coming back for more tales from the underworld. No matter which side of the law is on display, the very best movies from the genre manage to surprise and captivate with their high-stakes narratives.
From the iconic neo-noir drama Chinatown to the influential crime epic The Godfather, the best crime movies of all time are genre-defining classics every cinephile should see at least once. There’s a satisfying showcase of variety across these award-winning masterpieces, which highlight different types of criminal enterprises, as well as the various methods authorities use to stop them.
Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known for crucial works that would change filmmaking, from Seven Samurai to Rashomon, and High and Low is no different. The police procedural stars Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist engaged in a tricky hostile takeover of a shoe company. When one of his employee’s kids is kidnapped, he has to make a difficult choice.
Gondo, along with Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), negotiates with the kidnapper and attempts to figure out how to outsmart him along the way. Kurosawa wastes no second of the movie’s 143-minute runtime, with each moment carefully crafted to inspire intrigue. Its delightfully twisty plot soon turns into clear biting commentary about class divide that is still just as relevant today.
The real-life unsolved case from the late 1960s and 1970s is dramatized in the neo-noir crime thriller Zodiac. Often considered one of David Fincher’s best movies, the 2007 film revolves around newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), reporters Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dave Toschi (Poor Things star Mark Ruffalo), and the elusive Zodiac Killer himself. As the mysterious murderer taunts the press and authorities with cryptic messages and ciphers, the race to find him before he strikes again becomes unbelievably frustrating.
Everyone knows how the story ends, yet Fincher weaves a heart-pounding tale that explores its characters’ obsession and desperation. Downey Jr. and Gyllenhaal’s chemistry particularly stands out, with their decisions and reactions reflecting the dread and fear that was so widespread at that time. There’s always something chilling about crime movies based on true stories, but Fincher’s mastery of the craft truly elevates Zodiac to another level.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown follows private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who’s hired to look into what initially seems like a straightforward case of adultery. This supposedly routine gig turns into a puzzling conspiracy when the protagonist learns that he was hired by an imposter, which is further complicated when the real Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) husband dies under mysterious circumstances.
Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown pays homage to and takes elements from classic noir films, but isn’t afraid to elevate the genre by including much darker aspects. A true neo-noir, the 1974 film is also known for Nicholson’s incredible performance, gritty visuals, and a tight screenplay masterfully written by Robert Towne. The film’s compelling, multilayered story was inspired by the real-life California water wars, which were disputes over water rights in the area.
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s eponymous 1929 play, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is among the legendary director’s most distinct works. The 1948 psychological crime thriller tells the twisted story of Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), who, inspired by a lecture about Friedrich Nietzsche, kill their friend for the thrill of it. The two murderers then host a dinner party with their victim’s body hidden in plain sight, inside a wooden chest.
Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers, as it greatly benefits from the master of suspense’s technical mastery. Aside from being the first of the director’s Technicolor films, the crime movie is known for its illusion of taking place in real life or having been edited to appear as a continuous shot. Meticulous choreography was necessary to capture these long takes, which were seamlessly edited to create the gripping movie.
Starring Al Pacino in one of his best roles ever, Scarface is centered on Cuban refugee Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who starts from scratch in the brutal streets of Miami and rises to the top to become a ruthless drug lord. Tony’s empire is full of violence and death, as he doesn’t hesitate to murder anyone who gets in his way. Eventually, his paranoia and pressure from the authorities and other cartels lead to the end of his reign.
Scarface quickly became a pop culture phenomenon, with references in other films and music still being made to this day. The gangster movie’s excessive use of violence may have earned it some negative reviews, but it’s that same over-the-top approach that has cemented its place at the top of its genre. That and Tony Montana’s numerous infamous scenes and lines, like, “Say hello to my little friend.”
Director David Fincher’s Se7en is best known today as a dark crime thriller with an epic twist. The movie pairs Detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young and naive rookie, and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a disillusioned, nearly soon-to-retire investigator. They are tasked with looking into a series of gruesome murders seemingly based on the seven deadly sins. As the detectives get deeper into a game of cat-and-mouse with the elusive serial killer, things take a horrific turn.
Se7en did have a rough start, with initial reviews criticizing its bleak plot and dark cinematography, but these once-debated aspects have helped turn it into a critically acclaimed masterpiece. The crime film has become synonymous with its legendary ending, which helped revitalize Fincher’s career and is still considered one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history.
Fargo is a subversive and darkly humorous crime thriller from Joel and Ethan Coen. The comedic masterpiece is set in a small town in Minnesota in 1987 where the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) gets involved in an investigation that takes unexpected turns. The triple homicide she’s examining was the end result of a dimwitted plot gone wrong.
Featuring no shortage of hilarious quotable lines from every single quirky character and brilliant performances from McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and more, Fargo has become an enduring entry in the genre that’s beloved for its uniqueness. There’s even an ongoing FX series that takes place within the same continuity as the film.
Director Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a renowned biographical crime drama that follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who rises through the ranks of the mob. In the process, he’s guided by the charismatic Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who are alongside him as he experiences the best and worst parts of a gangster’s lifestyle.
Scorsese’s trademarks are on full display in Goodfellas, from the use of voice-over narration and freeze frames to the excessive profanity and violence. The film oozes with style and is considered one of the best mob movies of all time thanks to this electric atmosphere, as well as its frenetic pacing combined with a sharp script. Of course, the main actors’ career-best performances make the film truly exceptional, with Ray Liotta’s portrayal of the complex and charming Henry Hill being particularly noteworthy.
Pulp Fiction is the groundbreaking triumph that made director Quentin Tarantino a household name. Telling interconnected, but nonlinear stories within the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, the 1994 film features a cast of eccentric characters, from hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) to the gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman).
Subverting traditional expectations of what a crime movie should look like, Pulp Fiction places its vibrant and often peculiar characters in seemingly unrelated situations, only to eventually reveal the link between its different strands. The conversations are written fantastically, with winding monologues and seemingly off-kilter discussions all coming together in a bizarrely amusing way. The innovative film is still repeatedly referenced and discussed today, with its famous lines of dialogue like “Royale with cheese” becoming immortalized as memes.
Director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a film that needs no introduction. Widely considered not just one of the best epic crime films, but among the greatest movies ever, the mob drama is the first in the award-winning trilogy that remains unparalleled in the genre. The 1972 movie is based on Mario Puzo’s 1968 novel and follows the Italian-American crime family, the Corleones. It specifically focuses on the powerful, but aging patriarch, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who seeks to transition control to his inexperienced and reluctant son, Michael (Al Pacino).
There were numerous movies about the mafia before The Godfather, but it was Coppola’s film that would add an unprecedented layer of complexity to these kinds of characters. Instead of reducing them to clearly evil criminals, they’re given sympathetic backstories, motivations, and goals. Pair that with impeccable casting, gorgeous cinematography, and a flawless score, and The Godfather earns itself a spot among the very best.
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