The American Film Institute seems to have trouble telling the difference between a genre and a subgenre. A genre encompasses a type of film with a number of distinguishing traits (in this case, a Crime film, a film which focuses on criminals, whether a specific one, or a group of them). A subgenre is one specific group of genre films (in this case, a Gangster film, which is a Crime film that focuses on gangsters, as opposed to other subgenres of crimes films which include True Crime, like In Cold Blood, or a Heist film, which I think is fairly self-explanatory). When AFI did their lists of the top 10 in 10 Genres, they kept using subgenres. My goal is to include the genre as a whole. Thus, I give you the 25 best Crime films.
With a slight caveat. My spreadsheet uses on genre for each film, and all Foreign films get swept up in Foreign. So these are really the 25 best English Language Crime films. The Foreign films that would have probably found a spot on this list would be Shoot the Piano Player, City of God and M. But I’ll cover them all in Foreign Film.
There are a few films that AFI put in the Gangster genre that are good enough for this list but I don’t consider Crime films. If the primary focus is on the cop, rather than the criminal I don’t consider it a crime film (eliminating The Big Heat and Touch of Evil). Bullets over Broadway and Some Like It Hot are comedies that happen to have gangsters. And On the Waterfront is a drama.
25. The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichten) – 1951
The Ealing comedies are, of course, comedies, but these first two films are also primarily Heist films, making them Crime films. Just because they’re hilarious doesn’t mean the characters aren’t criminals.
24. The Ladykillers (Alexander McKendrick) – 1955
The Lavender Hill Mob are nice guys who want to steal some money. The Ladykillers, on the other hand, have no problem killing each other. It doesn’t make it any less funny. Just deadlier. A perfect example of what a pristine comic actor Alec Guinness was.
23. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks) – 1967
The crime is recreated again in Capote and Infamous, but it’s the original film, in black and white, which makes it the most horrific.
22. Atlantic City (Louis Malle) – 1981
Burt Lancaster never got his full appreciation as an actor. Yes, he won an Oscar. But he was so amazing for so long, as he proved so perfectly in what would have been his swan song had he not also been so brilliant years later in Field of Dreams.
21. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) – 2007
The fight in the steam baths got all the attention, but everything about this film is pitch perfect, especially the two lead performances (Viggo got a nomination, but Naomi got snubbed yet again). Every two years (2001 – Mulholland Drive, 2003 – 21 Grams, 2005 – King Kong, 2007 – Eastern Promises), Naomi is amazing (she doesn’t always make us wait – 2006 – The Painted Veil), and she has one nomination to show for it.
20. Badlands (Terrence Malick) – 1973
Everybody always talks about who the next James Dean will be (in music, it’s the next Bob Dylan). The closest anyone has come is Martin Sheen in this sort of true crime story about the Starkweather homicides. Bruce Springsteen (who was once the next Bob Dylan) has one fantastic song inspired by this film (“Badlands”) and one that describes its plot (“Nebraska”).
19. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick) – 1956
One of the great heist films of all-time, starring one of the great under-appreciated actors of all-time (Sterling Hayden). The first great film by the man who would become the greatest director.
18. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino) – 1997
“I didn’t know you liked the Del-fonics.” The joy of Tarantino films is their dialogue, and since all of his films are Crime films in one sense or another (Reservoir Dogs would have been #26), it makes them some of the most enjoyable films of the genre.
17. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh) – 1998
Entertainment Weekly just placed this on its list of the 50 sexiest movies (which is correct), but it does it without any nudity. It simply does it with amazing chemistry between the two stars (the only time I have really like J-Lo on screen and the beginning of Clooney as a full time star) and fantastic dialogue. It is also a prime example of the importance of editing.
16. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton) – 1991
Singleton actually broke Orson Welles’ mark as the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Director, but the rest of his career has been, to understate it, disappointing. It’s interesting to look at this film and remember that Cuba Gooding once used his talent. And that Ice Cube could really act.
15. Miller’s Crossing (The Coen Brothers) – 1990
A somewhat modified version of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, except with the mob, which actually makes it closer to its spiritual inspiration (Dashiel Hammet’s Red Harvest). Completely ignored by the Academy, which I suppose could have been expected in the same year as GoodFellas and the third Godfather.
14. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet) – 1975
By ignoring True Crime films, the AFI did a great disservice to this film. Because it is a classic of the heist genre, in a different vein than The Killing, because it’s the heist itself that goes wrong instead of the aftermath. It’s interesting to look back now and remember that for a few years, Al Pacino was as good as it got in the film industry (72-75, when he made The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II and this).
13. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg) – 2005
I am not a fan of Cronenberg’s early gore-filled horror films. But he showed talent (especially when he made Dead Ringers) and starting in the late 90’s with Existenz, he started making truly good films. I hope it lasts and his next few films are more on a par with this and Eastern Promises. Maybe he should just cast Viggo in all of them as well.
12. Scarface (Howard Hawks) – 1932
Not the Pacino film. I repeat, NOT THE PACINO FILM! This is the brilliant gangster film, the one that almost single-handedly forced the Production Code upon the industry, the much tighter, more focused, better acted film.
11. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola) – 1974
In a sense this film has been over-rated because there are many people who proclaim it to be better than the original. It’s not. But that’s because so few films in history are better than the original. But it adds depth to the Corleone saga and contains one of De Niro’s best performances.
10. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh) – 2000
I didn’t actually expect Crouching Tiger to win Best Picture, but when Traffic won it’s first four nominations, I sure expected it to win and would have been happy. I’m still stunned that Gladiator won. Traffic is such a great, intimate look at the drug trafficking world. It would have been such a better choice.
9. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer) – 1995
“The hardest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
“How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?”
“Keaton used to always say, I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.”
Three of the greatest quotes in film history.
8. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese) – 1973
The film that made De Niro and Keitel important actors, the film that made Scorsese a star director, the film that established how brilliantly you can begin a film with a song. This film gave us so much.
7. The Departed (Martin Scorsese) – 2006
I’m still stunned that it took them so damn long to finally give Martin Scorsese his Oscar. It was weird that it finally came, not with a New York film, but with a Boston film after I had moved to Boston.
6. No Country for Old Men (The Coen Brothers) – 2007
The Academy got it correct in back to back years. In my opinion it was the first time that had happened since 92 and 93 when they picked Unforgiven and Schindler’s List.
5. Fargo (The Coen Brothers) – 1996
It was so hard to finally pin down a genre. In the end, the focus is on the various crimes, and even though Frances (and her deservedly Oscar winning performance) is the primary character, it’s the criminals who are more in the center. And I’ll never look at wood chippers the same.
4. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) – 1994
Yes, films that started in the middle and ended in the middle had been done before (La Ronde), and yes, people had been hip in a film before, and yes, there had been ridiculous violence, but there had never been a film like this. There still hasn’t, in spite of the imitators. The shooting of the teenager by Travolta is still one of the most surprising moments on film and the Christopher Walken speech one of the most mystifying.
3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn) – 1967
Much like Pulp Fiction, a new kind of film. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers. It caused the ouster of Bosley Crowther as film critic of the New York Times. And in the end, of the “Pictures of the Revolution,” it is far and away the best.
2. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese) – 1990
The single best film of the 90’s. In fact, since Chinatown was released four months before I was born, we’ll go ahead and call it the best movie made in my lifetime.
1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola) – 1972
AFI realizes the importance of this film – they routinely place it at the top of the list. It was ranked third all-time in the first list, second in the second list, and ranked first among the Gangster films. On the IMDB, it has the second highest ranking. I rank it as the third greatest film ever made. The top 1000 films site which collates various lists has it ranked sixth. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing one of the essential films in history.