Omerta, “whackings”, tommy guns, decapitated horses, and talk of “the old country”… the mafia film is a classic genre piece that Hollywood has refined over decades.
Today, the genre is generally associated with a handful of infamous names, actors and directors alike, who brought us masterpieces that have largely stood the test of time.
Common names on the back of the director’s chair include Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Coppola, while actors like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and of course Al Pacino.
Please note that for this list, we’ve considered any kind of organised crime syndicate under the word “mafia”, so as not to limit these films to just Italian-American crime families.
#5 - Casino
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods
IMDb Score: 8.2
A spiritual successor to 1990’s Goodfellas, Casino is a tale of excess, greed, and betrayal, set against the dizzying, glamorous backdrop of 1970s Las Vegas. The story of how the mob came to own Vegas during the mid-late 20th century has always intrigued crime historians and directors, but nothing quite does it justice like Casino.
While Goodfellas stars De Niro and Pesci as two men with similar ideas for the duration of the film, Casino instead observes the relationship between them as it slowly goes sour. At the centre of it all is one of the most successful casinos in the city, and Stone’s Ginger, a prostitute-turned-hustler with an abusive former pimp-slash-boyfriend hot on her tail.
However, despite the film’s success at the box office and good critical response, it was only nominated for a single Academy Award. Sharon Stone picked up a nod for her performance as Best Actress. Today, the film is broadly fondly remembered in Scorsese’s impressive filmography, even if it isn’t recognised as a cinematic masterpiece.
#4 - Scarface
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Al Pacino, Claudia Schiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia
IMDb Score: 8.3
Immensely quotable and unashamedly excessive, this cocaine-fuelled masterpiece is today fondly remembered as one of Al Pacino’s greatest performances.
Scarface is not necessarily an incredibly intelligent or academic film, but it is excellent fun. It observes the rise of Cuban immigrant and modern-day cultural icon Tony Montana in Miami as he ascends the blood-soaked ladder of the city’s drug cartels.
Scarface is also a film that feels like a love letter to 1980s Miami. Aside from a soundtrack composed mainly of heavy synth new wave and electronic pop, it is beyond over-the-top in its use of violence, profanity, and drug use. For a city characterised by excess and party culture at such a time, this kind of film feels oddly fitting.
It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not nominated for a single Academy Award, but in the years since its release, it has been recognised as bearing some critical quality.
#3 - The Godfather
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton
IMDb Score: 9.2
The film that many will expect to top this list comes in at third. The Godfather is in many ways a perfect film. It is an epic, delicate tale of the Corleone crime family and the challenges they face through a war with the mob families in New York City.
Al Pacino’s Michael is perhaps the most iconic character in crime cinema; his journey from straight-arrow ex-military man to mafia boss is a truly compelling one full of thrills and twists and turns. Marlon Brando’s performance as his father Vito is broadly recognised as one of the best in the actor’s career. And with James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton all waiting in the wings, there is plenty for the cinephile to feast on in The Godfather.
The Godfather picked up three Oscars at the 4th Academy Ways, after a staggering 11 nominations in total (despite three actors from the same film all being nominated for Best Supporting Actor). Brando also famously refused his Oscar for Best Actor after boycotting the ceremony alongside Pacino.
#2 - Goodfellas
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco
IMDb Score: 8.7
Featuring ahead of the first entry in the Godfather trilogy is Goodfellas, perhaps the best of the 25 feature films directed by Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas, based on the book Wiseguy by crime writer Nicholas Pileggi, is a biographical tale of Henry Hill. Hill, half Irish and half Italian, is groomed by neighbourhood mafiosi as a child until he inevitably joins their ranks (albeit informally) as a young man.
Where Goodfellas succeeds in ways that other films don’t is its exceptional self-contained narrative, which spans more than 25 years in less than two and a half hours. We are whisked from 50s neighbourhood mob cabstands to the Copacabana in the 60s, until the film concludes in the drug-fuelled late 70s, characterised in this world by mafia infighting and mass arrests.
Goodfellas picked up six nominations at the Oscars, with a single Best Supporting Actor win for Joe Pesci.
#1 - The Godfather Part II
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall
IMDb Score: 9.0
Perhaps one of film’s best known arguments (today still unsettled) is over which of the first two Godfather films is better. And while critically, The Godfather is often regarded as a perfect cinematic endeavour, there is something about Part II which feels more complex.
For starters, it has two distinct cinematic threads, taking place along two separate timelines. Alongside Michael Corleone’s struggles to take the family legitimate and his time with elderly Jewish-American gangster Hyman Roth in Havana, we also see the events which sculpted a young Vito Corleone into the calm yet decisive mob boss we remember him as.
It is perhaps for this reason that it feels like Part II offers more. Even though the quality of The Godfather’s story alone may well be better than each of these two narrative threads, together they offer more; more iconic moments, more incredible actors, and more perfect lines.
The Godfather Part II swept the Academy Awards, much like the first part of the trilogy, and became the first sequel to win Best Picture. It too received 11 nods in total, but ultimately was more successful, with five wins in total, including Best Director for Coppola and Best Supporting Actor for De Niro.
Today, these films are recognised as hallmarks of the mob film genre. They are widely recognised as being “crime epics”: each tells a complex story over a justifiably long runtime, with the rise and fall of a criminal syndicate or a character at the centre. Altogether, however, if you’re looking for something to watch this winter, you could do a lot worse than Pension Times’ five best mafia films of all time.