The 10 best crime films ever, ranked

Warner Bros. Pictures

Criminal masterminds are at the center of some of the greatest films ever made. Crime films featuring entertaining heists, gripping police procedurals, mafia tales, and other exciting events keep audiences coming back for more stories from the underworld. No matter which side of the law is depicted, the best films of this genre manage to surprise and captivate with their high-stakes narratives.

From the iconic neo-noir drama Chinatown to an influential crime epic Godfather, the best crime films of all time are genre-defining classics that every cinephile should see at least once. There is a satisfying variety of work in these award-winning works, highlighting different types of criminal enterprises, as well as the different methods authorities use to stop them.

10. High and Low (1963)

Three men hide under the table in High and Low.
Toho

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known for seminal works that would change filmmaking Seven Samurai to RashomonAnd High and low no different. This police procedural stars Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist involved in a complicated and hostile takeover of a shoe company. When one of his employees’ children is kidnapped, he has to make a difficult choice.

Gondo, together with Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), negotiate with the kidnapper and try to find a way to outsmart him. Kurosawa doesn’t waste a second of the film’s 143-minute running time, with every moment carefully crafted to inspire intrigue. Its twisty and enjoyable plot soon turns into a vivid and poignant commentary on class inequality that is still relevant today.

9. Zodiac (2007)

Robert Downey Jr.  and Jake Gyllenhaal sit in an office together at Zodiac.
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Real unsolved cases of the late 1960s and 1970s dramatized in neo-noir crime thrillers Zodiac. Often considered to be one of them David Fincher’s best film, the 2007 film tells the story of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dave Toschi (Bad Things star Mark Ruffalo), and the elusive Zodiac Killer himself. As the mysterious killer taunts the press and authorities with secret messages and ciphers, the race to find him before he strikes again becomes incredibly frustrating.

Everyone knows how the story ends, but Fincher weaves a heart-pounding tale that explores his characters’ obsessions and despair. Downey Jr. Chemistry and Gyllenhaal stand out, with their decisions and reactions reflecting the widespread fear and dread of the time. There’s always something unnerving about crime films based on true stories, but Fincher’s mastery of his craft really elevates the film. Zodiac to another level.

8. Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.
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Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown follows private investigator JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired to investigate what initially appears to be an adultery case. This supposedly routine show turns into a confusing conspiracy when the protagonist learns that he was hired by a con artist, which becomes even more complicated when the husband of the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) mysteriously dies.

Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown pays homage to and takes elements from classic film noir, but isn’t afraid to elevate the genre by including much darker aspects. A true neo-noir, this 1974 film is also notable for Nicholson’s outstanding performance, sharp visuals, and a tight, excellently written screenplay by Robert Towne. The film’s compelling and multi-layered story was inspired by the real-life California water war, namely a dispute over water rights in the region.

7. Rope (1948)

Characters stand in a room in Rope.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on Patrick Hamilton’s eponymous 1929 play, by Alfred Hitchcock Rope is one of the legendary director’s most prominent works. This 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, murder their friend for the fun of it. The two killers then threw a dinner party with their victim’s body hidden in plain sight, inside a wooden coffin.

Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thriller, as it benefits greatly from the master’s technical mastery of suspense. Apart from being the director’s first Technicolor film, this crime film is known for its illusions of taking place in real life or having been edited to appear as a continuous shot. Careful choreography was required to capture these long shots, which are seamlessly edited to create a gripping film.

6. Scarface (1983)

Al Pacino holds a gun in Scarface.
Universal Pictures

Starring Al Pacino in one of his best roles, scar centers on Cuban refugee Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who starts from scratch on the brutal streets of Miami and rises to the top to become a ruthless drug lord. Tony’s kingdom is full of violence and death, as he does not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way. Ultimately, paranoia and pressure from the authorities and other cartels led to the end of his reign.

scar it quickly became a pop culture phenomenon, with references in films and other music still being made to this day. The excessive use of violence in gangster films may have generated some negative reviews, but it’s that over-the-top approach that has cemented its place at the top of the genre. That and various famous Tony Montana scenes and lines, such as, “Say hello to my little friend.”

5.Se7en (1995)

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Se7en.
New Line Cinema

Director David Fincher Se7en best known today as dark crimes thriller with an epic twist. The film pairs Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young and naive rookie, and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a disillusioned investigator nearing retirement. They are tasked with investigating a series of grisly murders that appear to be based on the seven deadly sins. As the detectives become further involved in a game of cat and mouse with an elusive serial killer, things take a horrific turn.

Se7en It did have a rough start, with early reviews criticizing its bleak plot and dark cinematography, but these once-disputed 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 storylines in cinematic history.

4.Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand in Fargo.
MGM

Fargo is a subversive and very funny crime thriller from Joel and Ethan Coen. This comedic masterpiece is set in a small Minnesota town in 1987 where pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is embroiled in an investigation that takes an unexpected turn. The three murders he investigated were the end result of a stupid plan gone wrong.

Featuring hilarious, quotable lines from each unique character and brilliant performances from McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and more, Fargo has been a timeless entry in the genre beloved for its uniqueness. There’s even an ongoing FX series that takes place in the same continuity as the films.

3. Good Friends (1990)

Goodfellas cast.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Director Martin Scorsese Good friend is a hit biographical crime drama that follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who rises through the ranks of the mafia. In the process, he is guided by the charismatic Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who are by his side as he experiences the best and worst parts of a gangster’s lifestyle.

Scorsese’s trademark is on full display in Good friend, ranging from the use of voiceover narration and freeze frames to profanity and excessive violence. This film is stylish and is considered to be one of them the best mafia film of all time thanks to this electric atmosphere, as well as a frenetic pace combined with a sharp script. Of course, the career-best performances of the lead actors make this a truly outstanding film, with Ray Liotta’s complex and charming portrayal of Henry Hill being a particular highlight.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

John Travolta and Sam Jackson as Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield point guns in the same direction in the film Pulp Fiction.
Miramax / Images via Miramax Films

Pulp Fiction was the director’s breakthrough triumph Quentin Tarantino is a household name. Telling interconnected but nonlinear stories set amidst the slums of Los Angeles, this 1994 film features an eccentric cast of characters, from hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) to gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman).

Subverting traditional expectations of what a crime film should be, Pulp Fiction placing its dynamic and often bizarre characters in seemingly unrelated situations, only to ultimately reveal the connections between the disparate strands. The conversations are wonderfully written, with twisty monologues and seemingly unusual discussions, all of which come across in a very funny way. This groundbreaking film is still repeatedly referenced and discussed today, with famous lines like “Royale with cheese” immortalized as memes.

1. The Godfather (1972)

Marlon Brando listens to advice in a scene from The Godfather.
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Director Francis Ford Coppola Godfather is a film that needs no introduction. Widely considered not only one of the best epic crime films, but among the greatest films ever, the mafia drama is a first in history. an award-winning trilogy that remains unrivaled in the genre. This 1972 film 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 transfer control to his inexperienced and reluctant son, Michael (Al Pacino).

There have been many films about the mafia before Godfather, but it was Coppola’s film that added an unprecedented layer of complexity to these kinds of characters. Rather than reducing them to clearly evil villains, they are instead given sympathetic backstories, motivations, and goals. Pair that with perfect casting, beautiful cinematography, and a perfect score, and Godfather earn a place among the best.

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