The Top 10 Crime Films of All Time


     If there’s another film genre more appropriate than Martial Arts films for a Ten Best List by myself and Jon Gentile, it’s the Crime Drama.  Given both our professions, as well as the sheer amount of great films in this very broad category over the last 40 plus years, the Crime Drama delivers very much the same kind of characters we have dealt with nearly every day of our careers. Both of us find it interesting to see how well the filmmakers of the past and present are able to translate the realities of the streets, courtrooms, prisons, and briefing rooms to film and how accurately they are able to accomplish doing so.  The criteria of our lists only required the depiction of crime in some manner with any setting, thus ensuring our lists would almost certainly be different while fostering some friendly debate.


10.  Fargo  (1996) Watch the Trailer

     Taking place in a world not familiar to most and certainly not me, “Fargo” is the Coen Brother’s crown jewel within their highly accomplished filmography.  Perhaps those from the region may not think so, but the characters who populate this film are some of the most richly drawn in all of cinema history with cast members Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi all on top of their respective games bringing them to life.  I can’t think of a better example of a film that uses it’s setting so effectively, as the Coen’s weave a tale of murder that spins way out of control.  Nominated for 7 Oscars and winning 2 for McDormand’s performance and the Coen’s screenplay, “Fargo” stands as one of the most original films of all time and is both highly quotable and memorable.

9.  Seven (1995) Watch the Trailer

     Not long after his directorial debut “Alien 3”, David Fincher brought a truly haunting vision of a serial killer’s attention to detail and the two homicide detectives charged with hunting him down in the film “Seven”.  The killer, played with a scene stealing wit by Kevin Spacey, meticulously constructs each murder based on the seven deadly sins.  As the killings begin to add up, veteran detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) realizes how the killer is patterning the murders and is joined by his partner, Mills (Brad Pitt), in a race against time to determine where he might strike next.  In all of cinema history, is there a more harrowing sequence than Somerset (and the audience) discovering the contents of a box delivered to the detectives at the request of the killer and Mills begging Somerset to reveal what’s inside?


8.  The Untouchables (1987)  Watch the Trailer

     Brian De Palma’s masterpiece tells the story of Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his hand picked team charged with stopping and ultimately prosecuting Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) during the Prohibition Era.  Featuring Sean Connery’s Academy Award winning performance as Chicago lawman Jim Malone, the film captures the nostalgic atmosphere of the time and the tactics necessary to bring down the mob, who bragged of having numerous politicians, judges, and cops on their payroll.  Functioning as a mentor to Ness, Malone sets the tone for the film early on when he tells him “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way.” 

7.  Scarface (1983)  Watch the Trailer

     With “The Untouchables” on the list and several other classic crime films to his name  (“Body Double” and “Dressed to Kill” also come to mind), Brian DePalma has proven to be a staple within the genre.  His epic film “Scarface” proved to be one of the most violent and brutal depictions of organized crime ever and stands today as a unique and highly watchable film about the rise and fall of the American dream.  Put simply, “Scarface” is a film like none other, featuring a standout performance by Al Pacino as Tony Montana along with an outstanding supporting cast and set within the crime ridden streets of a early 1980s Miami. Montana begins as a street level thug and expertly works his way up to one of the biggest cocaine distributors in the city, killing anyone who dares get in his way.  It’s the ultimate story of how lust and power can overcome sanity and send someone down a path of self destruction.  As graphic violence goes, few sequences can possibly match the gut wrenching suspense and sheer horror created when one of Tony’s guys is tortured in a bathroom by way of chainsaw.

6.  The Godfather (1972)  Watch the Trailer

     Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” stands as the best mafia film of all time, easily outpacing the many works of Martin Scorsese who clearly stood to benefit from the foundation created by this 1972 Best Picture winner.  In perhaps his most notable and iconic role, Marlon Brando plays the aging Don Vito Corleone in the story of a powerful organized crime empire and the need to transfer control to his son Michael (Al Pacino), who seems reluctant to take the reigns of the family business.  The film is chalk full of top level performances, including James Caan’s hot head Sonny Corleone and Robert Duvall’s even tempered family attorney Tom Hagen. Nino Rota’s score is likely the most recognizable of any film on this list, playing along with some of the most quoted dialogue in all of film history.

5.  True Romance (1993)  Watch the Trailer

     In order to get his famed film “Reservoir Dogs” made, Quentin Tarantino sold his “True Romance” script to Warner Brothers who hired the late director Tony Scott to make the film.  With an all star cast in tow, Scott created one of the very best crime films of our time, in a sort of “Bonnie and Clyde” story infused with signature Tarantino dialogue and a level of violence that had the MPAA up in arms. Whereas quoting some of these films is normally limited to a phrase, quoting “True Romance” requires memorizing entire scenes with multiple characters.  Perhaps the most famous of these scenes is an exchange between Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) in which we see what happens when two actors at the top of their respective games are given the kind of meaty dialogue most only dream of.

4.  A Few Good Men (1992)  Watch the Trailer

     Represented well amongst the many subcategories within the crime film genre is the courtroom drama.  No film in history represents the courtroom better than Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men”.  Based on Aaron Sorkin’s stage play, the film chronicles the aftermath of a hazing incident gone wrong at the Marine Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Two Marines are charged with murder and their fates are decided within the military court system.  Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore have rarely been better and Sorkin’s screen adaptation allows each actor to shine not only in certain moments, but each and every time they are on screen.  There isn’t a single dull moment and literally every word spoken matters to the story.  Another highly quotable film and one that has stood the test of time, now 22 years old, “A Few Good Men” is a riveting piece of filmmaking that maintains a tone as rigid and disciplined as the Marine drill team that performs during the opening credits all the way through to it’s climactic third act.

3.  Wall Street (1987)  Watch the Trailer

     Of course, not all crime films involve street level violence and yet blood shed is what grabs all of the headlines.  Director Oliver Stone has made a living predicting the future of America.  In 1994, he predicted some 20 years in advance the lust our mass media would have for murder and the appetite the news world has created in society for everything from the motives to the play by play tactics of today’s mass shootings with “Natural Born Killers”. Stone also predicted another watershed moment in America’s history when he made “Wall Street”.  Featuring Michael Douglas’ Academy Award winning role as Gordon Gekko, the film features an important speech about greed which proved to foreshadow the thinking behind what caused the Great Recession.  White collar crime effects each and every one of us, yet no one talks about it.  The story of an up and coming stock broker who is willing to take short cuts to get rich, regardless of who loses on the other end, is an age old story that has happened millions of times over the years.  We all seem deeply concerned about the gangster who holds up the local liquor store, but as a crime film, “Wall Street” will teach you who the real criminals are.


2.  Heat (1995)  Watch the Trailer

     From beginning to end, films just don’t get much better.  Michael Mann’s Los Angeles crime saga “Heat” is a tour de force in filmmaking, featuring two of our generations most iconic actors performing in roles they were made to play.  It’s a true hollywood heavyweight prize fight between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with, at the time, the first on screen appearance together in a classic coffee shop scene that sets the stage for one of the finest action sequence ever filmed, period.  As a true cop film, Pacino’s Vincent Hanna leads a squad of Robbery/Homicide detectives as they attempt to track down a high end crew led by De Niro’s Neil McCauley.  Mann presents the relationships these men have, both at home and at work and how each lives their lives in a manner that best suits what they are trying to accomplish.  Obviously this means complications in both of their situations, but you get the idea quickly that both of them will give up everything to achieve their goals.  For Hanna, that means several failed marriages.  For McCauley, he’s willing to walk away from anything or anybody if it means not getting caught. Essentially, Mann’s film has two fascinating character studies who live on opposite sides of the law, each painted with a realism rarely seen in films anymore.

1.  Pulp Fiction (1994)  Watch the Trailer

     To this day, it bothers me.  Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece “Pulp Fiction” garnered 7 Academy Awards nominations, but only won for Best Original Screenplay.  With several losses in major categories to “Forrest Gump”, including Best Picture, I feel the Academy got it wrong.  One of the very best litmus tests of a film’s overall worth is to measure it’s impact on popular culture, both at the time of it’s release and then years later.  No disrespect to Robert Zemeckis, but every fledgling filmmaker who has made a crime film in the last twenty years has tried to both write like Tarantino and create those one of kind shocking, yet hysterically funny, moments a film like “Pulp Fiction” is full of.  Nobody has tried to emulate anything about “Forrest Gump”.  Fact is, no one will every make a film as consistently engrossing and original again.  “Pulp Fiction” is the ultimate crime film, utilizing characters who would easily blend into our everyday lives.  Unlike typical mob films that feature stereotypical larger than life characters, “Pulp Fiction” draws up a plethora of unique people who just happen to be on the wrong side of the law, and yet you could picture yourself having a conversation with any of them.  Most films would love to have a moment like the famous “adrenaline shot” scene as their film’s centerpiece, but “Pulp Fiction” actually has three scenes that are equally as exhilarating, with both the Zed’s Pawn Shop sequence and the hilarious “I think I shot Marvin in the face.” scene.  Add in the fact that Tarantino not only relaunched John Travolta’s career, but also got him dancing again and you have all the makings of not only the best crime film, but one of the best films of all time.

Honorable Mention:  Reservoir Dogs, Silence of the Lambs


1.  The Usual Suspects (1995)  Watch the Trailer

     Sleek crime drama. "Who is Keyser Soze?” The lineup of the crooks in the beginning of the movie sets the stage to a great who done it drama. Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey with an all star cast. Dark humor, gritty and  impeccable acting.  A story of mystery to the end that will keep you thinking.


2.  The Shawshank Redemption (1994)  Watch the Trailer

     Great drama focusing on a prisoner who eventually turns the table on some rather mean, cruel, and corrupt prison guards. Tim Robbins with Morgan Freeman----great movie.


3.  Seven (1995)

     Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are detectives investigating a serial killer. Great contrast between the two detectives and Freeman is superb. The movie is dark with a very surprising ending sure to leave you shocked!


4.  Donnie Brasco (1997)  Watch the Trailer

     A story of a law enforcement agent infiltrating the mob based on the true life of Joe Pistone (FBI agent). Meeting Joe in real life and seeing the movie really made me give this one props.  Stars Johnny Depp as Joe Pistone and Al Pacino.


5.  L.A. Confidential (1997)  Watch the Trailer

     Kevin Spacey, Russell Crow, and a great cast make this movie stand out. The movie was based on true events which occurred in LA. 


6.  Heat (1995)

     An  explosive and action packed crime drama. Several great scenes stand out such as the coffee shop meeting between Pacino  and De Niro and one of the better shoot outs depicted in a movie. A must see!


7.  The French Connection (1971)  Watch the Trailer

     Heroine smugglers beware Detective Popeye Doyle is near and watching you. Gene Hackman plays a relentless detective after drug smugglers. Great car chase, one liners, surveillance, and of course shots fired. Same director would later make “To Live And Die In LA.”  Worth researching and renting.


8.  Training Day (2001)  Watch the Trailer

Stylistically very slick. Denzel Washington is an off kilter undercover detective cunning like a fox.  A tale of breaking all the rules and training a rookie (or tempting one) to join you. Luckily, it doesn't end up that way.


9.  Dirty Harry (1971)  Watch the Trailer

Where it all started. Fed up with crime.....well this movie made you feel good. Street justice and a dislike for the system Dirty Harry was there. Started a series of movies to follow representing good v evil. Lets not forget all the one liners. " Go ahead,  make my day".  


  1. To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)  Watch the Trailer

     Secret service agent will do anything to get his man. His man is William Defoe who play a sleek , smart, criminal. Great plot that has lots of turns and another fantastic car chase. The movie is suspenseful leading up to the last scene which you won't want to leave your seat. “CSI's” William Peterson plays Chance, a do anything to get the bad guy secret service agent. Lots of action in this drama. The movie had an subject matter expert (Secret Service Agent) help with the plot and counterfeiting scenes. 


Honorable Mention:  Die Hard, Leon: The Professional