The Greatest Crime Films Of All Time

By: Jim Halden
A police line in a city
If there’s one genre that continues to captivate after innumerable iterations on the silver screen, it’s the crime genre. Jack Berman / Getty Images

If there’s one genre that continues to captivate after innumerable iterations on the silver screen, it’s the crime genre. Tracing it’s lineage far, far back into the annals of cinema history, the crime genre has given the world many a classic flick, and that’s why we here at Goliath have tried to hone in on some classics to bring you 11 of the greatest crime films of all time, for those afternoons or evenings where you really, really want to be a gangster. Whether you’re invested in taking up a life of crime or just looking to live dangerously for an evening, these 11 films will be sure to have you hankering for a taste of the lifestyle.


15. City of God (2002)

The 2002 Brazillian crime drama City of God was adapted from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins and the plot is loosely based on real events. The film highlights the rise of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Consistently cited as a necessary film to view in your lifetime, City of God is a terrifying examination of the depths of corruption and the effects it can have on all those around it, both guilty and innocent.

The film is full of style and surprisingly effective in its development and treatment of characters, City of God exists as one of the truly disrupting and powerful experiences in cinema history. Released to near-universal acclaim, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Cinematography (rightfully so, as the film uses the beautiful Brazillian landscape as a supporting character).


14. The French Connection (1971)

Based on Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, the 1971 film adaptation stars Gene Hackman as Popeye, Roy Scheider as Cloudy, and Fernando Rey as Charnier. This gritty, fast-paced, and innovative police drama sees New York City police detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and his partner, Buddy Russo on narcotics detail, trying to track down the source of heroin distribution from Europe into the United States.

The French Connection won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the first R rated movie to ever win), Best Actor (for star Gene Hackman) and Best Director (William Friedkin). It is still considered one of the best films of all-time, period. While it hasn’t aged exceptionally well, it’s definitely a classic and absolutely deserves a spot on this list. The film made over $50 million at the box office, despite costing less than $2 million to make.


13. Fargo (1996)

Fargo is a quirky crime film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film stars Frances McDormand as a pregnant Minnesota police chief investigating a roadside homicide that ensues after a desperate car salesman (William H. Macy) hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in order to extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). In typical Coen brothers fashion, the story includes all kinds of colorful characters and interesting plot twists that make this a unique crime film that every movie fan should see.

The Coens’ Fargo was honored with an Oscar win for Frances McDormand who provides a memorable performance, and also happens to be the wife of Joel Coen. Fargo is so well done and holds up so well, that it makes for great annual viewing when winter rolls around.


12. Leon: The Professional (1994)

Leon: The Professional is a stylish and graphically violent crime thriller directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson. Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12-year-old girl living in New York City who has been exposed to the sordid side of life from an early age: her family lives in a slum and her abusive father works for drug dealers, cutting and storing drugs. When her family is killed in a raid by corrupt DEA agents led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman) she turns to her secretive neighbor Leon (Jean Reno).

Turns out that Leon is a professional hitman and reluctantly agrees to make Mathila (who’s hell-bent on revenge) his protege. One of the most unlikely duos in film history, Leon and Mathilda have an undeniable chemistry that makes this one of the greatest crime films ever produced. Besson’s first American film boasted a strong performance from Jean Reno, a striking debut by Natalie Portman, and a love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top turn by Gary Oldman.


11. Scarface (1983)

While probably not the greatest performance in star Al Pacino’s storied career, it’s certainly his most iconic. Scarface, directed by Brian De Palma and also starring Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michelle Pfeiffer, sees Pacino playing the role of Cuban refugee Tony Montana, a vicious drug dealer who comes to 1980s Miami and eventually accumulates a criminal empire built on drug trafficking and mountains of cocaine.

While originally the subject of innumerable mixed reviews (negatives identified were the excessive violence and graphic scenery), Scarface has become a foundational film within the crime genre and is often cited as necessary viewing for those looking to delve deep into that world. Complete with Pacino scene chewery and a not-so-little friend with very big bullets, Scarface is the perfect film to kick off this list due to its influence on the genre as a whole.


10. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Directed by Bryan Singer and written by the talented Christopher McQuarrie, 1995’s The Usual Suspects is a film defined by its now famous twist ending; while that’s all well and good, people seem to forget that the film preceding that twist happens to be a damn exceptional one in its own right. The Usual Suspects, which stars Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin, follows the interrogation of Verbal Kint (Spacey) as he relates to the police a harrowing tale of a heist gone bad, a heist which has since been identified as a cover for the assassination of a man who could identify the terrifying crime boogeyman Keyser Soze.

We wouldn’t dare ruin the film’s ending on the off-chance that some of our readers haven’t seen the film, but it’s a mind-blowing turn that we’d check out immediately before someone does spoil it.


9. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Loosely based on James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger, is the quintessential detective film. Following a group of L.A.P.D. detectives as they attempt to navigate the difficult line between celebrity, crime and police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles, L.A. Confidential was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two (Basinger for Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay; unfortunately for the film, it ran up against the juggernaut that was Titanic in every other category).

Released to almost universal acclaim, there are very few flaws (if any) to be found in the structure of this taut, well-structured and absolutely gorgeous thriller that combines contemporary filmmaking with noir cliché in the most organic way possible.


8. The Big Sleep (1946)

We’re taking it waaaaay back for this one and drawing attention to one of history’s most famous noir films, 1946’s The Big Sleep. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same name, the film sees his famous hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe attempting to uncover the mystery behind the consistent blackmailing of a reclusive billionaire and his difficult daughters, The Big Sleep is remembered largely as a vehicle starring real-life Hollywood couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

The screenplay, which was adapted by renowned modernist author and Nobel Prize winner William Faulker (fun fact!), is airtight and the film sees Bogart at his best, playing a sullen detective who has had better days. One of the most influential films to ever come out of the crime genre, The Big Sleep laid the foundation for many of the detective and crime films that make their way into cinemas these days.


7. Heat (1995)

Written, produced and directed by Michael Mann, 1995’s Heat was destined to be a classic. Marketed as the first film to see Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on screen together (while they both starred in The Godfather II, their characters never interact), Heat follows De Niro’s Neil McCauley, a master thief, as he attempts to circumvent the law and its most intrepid character, Detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino). Featuring a litany of other stars including Val Kilmer (in a breakout role), Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, William Fichtner, Ted Levine, Hank Azaria and even a young Natalie Portman, Heat is best remembered for its iconic downtown shootout scene, which lasts almost 10 minutes and features some jaw-dropping scenery and choreography.

The film which gave us the iconic criminal line, “Do not get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds if you feel the heat around the corner…,” Heat remains a must-see for anyone who wants to indulge their criminal instincts for a few hours (the film has a very long running time of 170 minutes).


6. Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s a testament to the strength of the crime drama that a film as influential and enjoyable as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is all the way down at number six on this list. While we were forced to make a concerted effort not to include too many of Tarantino’s films (we owe you an apology, Reservoir Dogs), it’d be impossible to discuss the crime genre without talking about Pulp Fiction.

Written and directed by Tarantino, who also makes an appearance in the film, Pulp Fiction employs non-traditional storytelling to tell the story of one mysterious briefcase as it makes its way through a criminal underworld that includes a crime lord and his wife (Ving Rhames and Uma Thurman, respectively), a boxer (Bruce Willis) and two verbose hit men (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta). As revolutionary in its storytelling as it is iconic in its imagery and visual aesthetic, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction also has the distinction of featuring one of the finest soundtracks in cinema history.

5. The Godfather II (1974)

The prequel/sequel to 1972’s The Godfather (which we’ll talk more about later), this epic film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, John Cazale and Robert Duvall, expands on the mythology of the Corleone family by presenting twin storylines which take place both before and after the events of the first film.

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards (winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay), The Godfather II was even deemed superior to the original by some critics, an opinion which is not generally shared but holds some merit in light of how strong this sequel is. Still viewed as one of the greatest in the genre’s history, The Godfather II is a worthy sequel to one of history’s few masterpieces.

4. The Departed (2006)

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese went an awfully long time and produced many a legendary film before taking home an Oscar for Best Director, which he finally did with 2006’s The Departed. An adaptation of the Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs (an excellent watch in its own right), The Departed saw Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson in a tale about the twisted criminal underworld of the city of Boston.

Also featuring Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg (who received an Academy Award nomination for his role), The Departed is one of the greatest crime films ever made and is the type of film that gets better and better upon every viewing. The film’s interplay between cop and criminal is fascinating as both sides hunt for a rat in their organization, and the three main actors deliver dynamite performances that captivate from the film’s first frame to its last.

3. Chinatown (1974)

“Forget it, Jake…it’s Chinatown.” The quintessential detective story, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, draws heavily from the noir fiction/films of the 1940s to craft a story that’s equal parts mysterious and engaging. Following detective Jake Gittes as he attempts to navigate the treacherous terrain of business, crime, and water in 1930s Los Angeles.

Inspired by the California Water Wars of the early 1900s, Chinatown is a tremendous film that cemented Jack Nicholson’s status as one of Hollywood’s premiere leading men and has since been taught as one of the finest examples in the history of screenwriting (seriously…this is the script they show you when you go to film school. Trust us, we know these things). Fittingly, the only Academy Award it won of its eleven nominations was the one for Best Screenplay (which went to Robert Towne).

2. The Godfather (1972)

This is a film that needs little introduction, so we’ll try not to meander when discussing the legacy of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster film which stars Marlon Brandon as Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the Corleone criminal enterprise and the iconic mafia boss whom most (if not all) would recognize instantly both in face and in voice.

Also starring Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, The Godfather is a film that has transcended its cinematic medium and entered the rarified air of cultural phenomena; it’s something that has to be experienced in order to assume one’s place as a fully fledged, fully operational member of society. If by some strange turn of events you’re one of the seven people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, well we think we know what you’re doing tonight.

1. Goodfellas (1990)

It was a terrifically difficult decision not to place The Godfather at number one on this list, but when push came to shove, we just couldn’t find a reason to place any crime film higher than Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film that’s a crime classic from its very first line (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”) to its last frame.

Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, the film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction text Wiseguy and follows the rise and fall of the Henry Hill, a mafia member involved with the Lucchese crime family. Stylish, violent, smart, funny, superbly acted, superbly written and incredibly enjoyable, Goodfellas is the big, bad gangster that all others aspire to be.