Thursday, January 20, 2011

Top 10 Gangster Films of All Time

"The Hit" Inks on Bristol / 2008
Today in New York City, the FBI executed its largest one-day bust on organized crime in history.  127 people were arrested in connection with organized crime- that's a pretty large-scale operation.  A small business in the United States averages about 25 employees with wages under $50,000 per year.  Frank Lewis (American Gangster) was worth over $50 million.

This is just one reason we're crazy about Gangster cinema in America.  Money is glamorous baby and people will go to extremes to secure it (and its sources.)  Mafioso in all forms across the world for hundreds of years have protected their communities (often times against local authorities and governments.)  Gangsters are in a sense revolutionaries going against the grain and against the rules.  They provide simple but effective services.  If the local system of law can't do justice to a situation, they step in.  This is also also why eventually much of their action got focused on illegal businesses such as gambling and drug trafficking this past century (again, just providing a service where there is a demand.)

Cinema in America and gangster culture have a give and take relationship.  This is prevalent in literally every race and culture here in our little melting pot of a country.  Movies glamorize the stories of men who get rich quick in a morally questionable capacity... and sometimes they don't make it look too hard (especially if you got the guns.)  I find it no coincidence that the sale of certain brand firearms in our country among inner city youth skyrockets as they are represented through various entertainment medias.  People learn from watching these movies which set up entire business and power structures, leaving little to the imagination.  You can rent a half-dozen movies, take some notes, and essentially know how to run a criminal empire.  The more the stories are produced, the more films will get made about them.  Wild huh?

So here's my own Top 10 Gangster Films of ALL TIME...

10.  A Bronx Tale (directed by Robert De Niro) 1993
A father tries to step in as a local gangster takes his son under his wing.  Set in the 1960's and taking on several different themes over the course of its story, we see the tale of Sonny, the youth and central character who is taken into the mafia world at a young age.  He gets caught between the appeals of the lifestyle he sees on the street and the solid moral ground of his father.  The movie also takes on the theme of race relations between African-American and Italian neighborhoods including Sonny's relationship with a girl from Harlem.  Along with The Good Shepherd (2006), this is one of only two movies directed by Robert De Niro.

9.  Love, Honor and Obey (directed by Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis) 2000

This movie is a hilariously fun ride with gangster karaoke parties and masked robberies as a London postman gets caught up in a gang's activities.  It's a great story with a lot of twists and turns.  A great ensemble European cast deliver the movie with razor precision (Rhys Ifans, Jude Law, Jonny Lee Miller and Ray Winstone.) The original plan for the movie was a trilogy but unfortunately it didn't gather enough interest and money here in the states to follow up.  It's the perfect blend of dry comedy, heist, and gangster elements.

 8.  Miller's Crossing (directed by The Coen Brothers) 1990

Here is another film with a terrific ensemble cast (Albert Finney, Michael Jeter, Steve Buscemi, John Turturo, Gabriel Byne, Marcia Gay Harden, and even some Coen Brothers regulars to go along.)  This creative duo are among my favorite directors and their homage to gangster cinema had to make the list.  The film is set in the prohibition era and tells a rich and twisting story like only they can do.  A tasty little morsel of trivia is that the brothers got a case of writer's block while writing Miller's Crossing.  They finished up after taking a break to write Barton Fink (a movie who's central character has writer's block.)  They came back and finished up just fine with this one.
7.  State of Grace (directed by Phil Jonou) 1990

Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Sean Penn, Robin Wright, John Turturo, and Michael C. Reilly head up a blockbuster cast which tells a beautiful and tragic story across the backdrop of warring Italian and Irish gangs in New York's Hell's Kitchen.  State of Grace is just one of those movies I could watch 1,000 times and catch something newly significant with each and every run-through.  Many of the violent scenes in this one were based on actual testimony taken from real-life mafia trials. Watch it for the volatile performance of a lifetime from Gary Oldman.


6.  Blood In Blood Out (directed by Taylor Hackford) 1993

Three brothers growing up in East Los Angeles experience the trials of street and gang life as the film follows them out of their violent youth and into their separate paths as adults.  One goes to prison, where he's emerged further into a much harsher gang life.  One becomes a cop and the other other an accomplished street artist with drug problems.  This movie qualifies as an epic in my book at three hours long.  A large theme here is the effect of culture on a person in making them what and who they are.  The incarcerated brother is actually white and raised in a Hispanic household, so he considers himself to be Hispanic.  Through the three brothers' stories, the entire spectrum of life in East L.A. and at San Quinten is told in a full and rich way.  Keep your eye out for Danny Trejo (who actually served time at San Quinten) and Billy Bob Thorton (who plays one of his first roles as an Aryan gang member in the prison.)  The story is also based on real life experiences from the mind of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.  At the time of it's release, Disney (of all companies) picked the film up for distribution and renamed it Bound By Honor (and has since reverted back to original title.)

5.  Snatch (directed by Guy Ritchie) 2000

Underground boxing promoters, Irish gypsies, Russian gangsters, Jewish jewelers, and other nearly-incomprehensible characters converge in this pulp tale of a priceless diamond's journey.   Again, borrowing from real life, the escapades and mishaps of the characters of Sol, Vincent, and Tyrone are based on real-life crimes gone wrong from reality television shows.  This movie is just great all-round.  Richie takes a complicated interconnected story and makes a symphony with laughs, violence, boxing, squeaking dogs, flesh-eating hogs and all sorts of maniacal bedlam.

4.  Pulp Fiction (directed by Quentin Tarantino) 1994

Another ensemble cast of epic proportions ran this movie through a gauntlet of awards in 1994 including an Oscar for Best Screenplay, The Saturn Award, and the Golden Palm at Cannes.  I had a real hard time on whether to represent the director here with this film or Reservoir Dogs.  In the end, Pulp Fiction is a much  more important movie (though I'll always be partial to the first.)  It made and re-made the careers or all the actors involved.  It became a cult phenomenon and injected a very healthy dose of independent cinema into the mainstream, broadening the scope for American movie tastes.

3.  Goodfellas (directed by Martin Scorsese) 1990

This movie masterpiece and modern classic follows the rise and fall of three gangsters through the Mafia hierarchy.   Again, I wanted to represent a director and had to juggle between impossible choices on this one with Casino, The Departed, and Mean Streets all from Scorsese.  In the end, this is the Casablanca of gangster cinema.  It tells the quintessential  tale of all things Mafia.  Keep an eye out for Samuel L. Jackson in a very early role amidst another blockbuster cast headed up by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci and several actors who end up playing later on in The Sopranos.

2.  Boyz In the Hood (directed by John Singleton) 1991

Off the heals of a floodgate of gangster rap into the mainstream music industry, this film shocked white America with its realistic portrayal of inner-city life and gangs in Los Angeles.  Much of the experiences written about in this film are drawn from Singleton's own life including the self-hating black police officer.  He felt it was important to also reflect black-on-black racism in context.  He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director at the age of 24 (making him the youngest to ever get such a nod.)  This is one of the most socially important movies on this list.

 1.  The Godfather Trilogy
(directed by Francis Ford Coppola) 1972 / 1974 / 1990
I'd never dare start a debate on which Godfather movie is the best, which is why I lumped the story of the Corleone family into one entry as our top pick on this list.  Parts I and II won the Oscar for Best Picture and Part III was nominated for the same award (along with Goodfellas the same year.)  What can you say about The Godfather that hasn't been said?  From the acting to the story to the gorgeous cinematography (finally done justice with the newly released Coppola restorations,) this movie crosses the world from New York City to Miami to Cuba to Italy.  These movies are a staple in our culture now with references literally everywhere from movies to The Sopranos to The Simpsons.  The original movie was based on the best selling novel of the same name written by Mario Puzo just a year before.  Puzo went on to release a prequel of sorts in The Sicilian (which is a story of the original Mafioso and set in Italy.)  He also wrote the screenplays for both sequels with Coppola.

1 comment:

  1. I do have to give Honorable Mentions to Scarface, The Untouchables, King of New York, and Carlito's Way. What others did I miss?


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