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Top 10 Crime Films

By Ally Sinyard · January 23, 2012

The crime film genre is definitely one of my favourites. Perhaps this is because there are so many different approaches to it. The lives of the criminals that we follow can either be glamorous or right down in the gutter, or bouncing in between. It can span decades of a crime family’s legacy or the single day of a bungled bank robbery. I also enjoy crime films because they are no doubt influenced by real-life happenings, and this is a world that very few get an actual glimpse into; we only hear about it on the news.

These 10 crime films that I have chosen are the 10 that I feel best represent the genre. They don’t just give you a violent and superficial look into a secret world; they absorb you into it. You learn lengthy “fictional” family histories and about how they operate. These are films that also go one step further to even question the audience’s own ideas of what is right and wrong and heavily deals with themes such as family, brotherhood and loyalty. You may notice some repeat offenders in this list, but I only speak the truth!

10. Usual Suspects (1995)

Due to its complicated plot that demands your full attention, The Usual Suspects has received some fairly bad reviews in its time. However, like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), the apparently overcomplicated plot is not without reason. Verbal Kint’s (Kevin Spacey) convoluted story of a series of events that lead to a massacre makes a lot more sense the second time round, so this is definitely one of those films that you shouldn’t fully evaluate on the first screening. You may be left scratching your head at the end, but that is where a lot of the enjoyment of this film comes from: trying to connect the dots. As a neo-noir that reminds us of such films as Double Indemnity, it wouldn’t fully adhere to the genre without leaving a few questions unanswered. Most find the film to be outstanding in the crime genre, with G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Examiner going as far as to say that “this movie has everything but Humphrey Bogart.” It is an elegant film that doesn’t rely on violence and explosions to hold its audience’s attention. It’s an excellent homage to the old noir thrillers, featuring an award-winning performance from Kevin Spacey as small-time conman Kint.

9. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

As the title suggests, this film depicts a bungled back robbery in a single afternoon. It is always refreshing to come across a crime film that spans a single day as opposed to decades of a crime family’s history. I also often find that a film that is shot in close to real-time can be a much more intense and absorbing experience. Dog Day Afternoon is certainly that! One of its most appealing characteristics is how perfectly it captures “the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom” (Christopher Null.) This was of course a time of great opposition to the Vietnam War and it is no coincidence that Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), based on real life bank robber John Wojtowicz, is a Vietnam vet. His now-famous war cry of “Attica! Attica” also further reinforces the anti-establishment sentiments of the film. Like the gathered crowds outside, we sympathise with and cheer for Sonny perhaps more than any other criminal on this list. Most of this empathy comes from Al Pacino’s staggering performance, considered the 4thgreatest ever by “Premiere Magazine.”  Dog Day Afternoon would have been incredibly lacking without him.

8. The Departed (2006)

I’m always slightly nervous when I put a recent film amongst legends, because we are yet to see the mark that it has left; yet I believe The Departed will stand the test of time. Some have already proclaimed it to be Scorsese’s “masterpiece,” but lets face it, he has one for every decade [Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas] (James Berardinelli.) Taking a unique look into the world of the Irish Mafia, Scorsese deals with issues of identity and the complexities of the father-son relationship both as a whole and within the Irish-American culture. Combine that with a wonderful, twisting narrative, Scorsese’s trademark camerawork and an outstanding cast and you have one of the best films that the Noughties had to offer. No wonder it picked up the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. The ending will also blow your head off…

7. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Normally, of all the genres that would spring to mind when I think of Pulp Fiction, “crime” wouldn’t be one of them. Yet, when I sat down to write this article, it seemed an obvious choice. The spider web of this crime world is shown to us in a creative and innovative way, and is incredibly entertaining. Collectively, the characters are some of the most original and enjoyable to watch in the genre. Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) is the right mix of comic master and cool dude, crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) finds himself in a rather awkward and grisly situation and his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) instantly loses every ounce of glamour when she graphically overdoses. Think what you want about Quentin Tarantino, but not a single person can doubt that he is an exceptional writer. From the structure to the dialogue to these wonderful characters, Pulp Fiction is an outstanding film and one of the most important and influential of its era. 

6. Heat (1995)

A lot of the hype for Heat came from the first on-screen bringing together of its two leads: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Sure, this certainly attracted me to the film but was certainly not what it was all about. So many movies use stars to bring audiences in to a mediocre film, but Heat does quite the opposite. It is an excellent film that is supported by one of the best casts in crime film history. What sets Heat apart from other films of this genre is the “extraordinarily rich characterizations” (Todd McCarthy – Variety.) We are rarely given the opportunity to study characters the way we do in this film. We learn about the effects that leading a criminal life has on these individuals. Lt Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is so driven that he stars to destroy his third marriage; and professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) has had to live his criminal life alone. These two characters and even the supporting cast avoid being “trapped by clichés,” as one often finds in cat-and-mouse movies.  We are able to sympathise with them more because we can relate to their ordinary real-life problems. For me, the character examination is the heart of this film, and is what makes it one of the best.

5. City of God (2002)

“City of God is crime drama at its most raw and powerful” (IGN). With actors pulled straight from the streets of Brazil, City of God was always bound to be an authentic and visceral experience. Depicting the growth of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, much of the power of this film comes from the fact that the criminals are often children! What’s even more stunning is the fact that the film is based on real life events. Winner of 55 awards with a further 29 nominations, City of God is a strong rival for the classic American crime dramas on this list. The American crime films often opt for a relaxed pace, slowly developing the complex story and characters. This is interspersed with grand set pieces and moments of graphic violence. On the flipside, City of God is a consistent, breathtaking thrill ride. It has energy like no other, “like a bomb exploding in a fireworks factory (Megan Lehmann – New York Post)

4. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The original director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America runs at an incredible 269 minutes! I’m sure some might call this a little self-indulgent, but I think its length can be completely justified. And this is coming from someone that is often found clock-watching and shuffling in their cinema seat! Ebert considered the 139-minute American theatrical version a “travesty” in comparison to the full-length “epic poem of violence and greed.” Set in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, it chronicles the lives of the youths within it who rise to prominence in organized crime.  We are led expertly through the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s, often jumping back and forward through time but without the distanciating self-reflexivity of a nonlinear film like Pulp Fiction. It is a film with HUGE depth, exploring many themes from friendship to lust to betrayal and featuring “towering performances” from Robert De Niro and Tuesday Weld (Emanuel Levy.) There is more than enough here to keep you occupied! Of course, there may be times when one might feel a little overwhelmed by its magnitude, but “never a time when we don’t feel confidence in the film’s narrative” (Ebert.)

3. Goodfellas (1990)

For me, a lot of Goodfellas’ enjoyment comes from its pacing. It’s one of the only 140minutes+ films around where you never find yourself looking at the clock. Crime films often have a lot of information and history to pack in, hence the running times, but Goodfellas is a near-perfect combination of story and structure. The rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family is cleverly and carefully laid out to us so that our attention is always kept and we aren’t pausing the film to look for the play-by-play synopsis on Wikipedia. The fact that the screenplay is adapted from non-fiction also goes to show that sometimes the best stories are more-often-than-not true stories. However, without Scorsese’s direction, it could have just as easily been lost in the DVD Bargain Bin at your local petrol station. Of course, there are so many other outstanding elements of this film, but there’s not enough webspace for it!   The film deservedly sits behind The Godfather as the 2ndbest gangster film for the A.F.I.

2. The Godfather Part II (1974)

The best sequel ever made. There, I said it! I cannot think of any other sequel that so nearly surpasses its predecessor. It is also the only sequel in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. But then, this is not a list about sequels. As a crime film, it is the most exhilarating and one of the most beautifully shot. For me, one of the ways in which it VERY nearly tops the list is the way that the beginnings of Vito Corleone (played here by Robert De Niro) run alongside the rise of his son Michael (Al Pacino). It is intricately scripted, structured and shot so that each story is equally engaging. Other films with multiple narratives always have a stronger and a weaker story, but I felt a surge of excitement every time there was a changeover. You should be able to guess by now who my two favourite actors are! Of course, you could argue that Godfather Part II may not have been regarded so highly without Part I to follow on from, as it expands and amplifies its predecessor, but I think it’s an exceptional standalone film. Shame about Part III

1. The Godfather (1972)

There can simply be no other. Made with a budget of $6 million, this timeless masterpiece has grossed almost $250 million. Choosing between Part I and Part II was a challenge, but I think that many would agree with my decision. Any arguments to this would be more than welcome in our comments section! This has to be one of the most influential crime films ever made, certainly influencing the work of latter directors such as Scorsese. In fact, so influential is this film that life reportedly imitated art. Real-life gangsters such as the head of the Patriarca crime family altered their speech to sound more like Vito Corleone! It is an incredibly rich film that excels in all areas, from the adaptation of the novel to the famous score to the set design to the incredibly thoughtful casting. It holds a questionable 2ndplace to Citizen Kane on “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” list, but for me there is no question that it is possibly the greatest film ever made.