Remember a few months back when I had my friends help me make lists of movies I haven’t seen? Well, I was going to compose a list of movies from those lists that I planned to watch this year. Then Micah and I remembered that there were still lists of movies I hadn’t seen that needed to be written. Below, you will find 11-ish gangster movies that he believes to be must-sees complete with commentary by web designer and citizen of the Just Tegan Empire, Micah Pearson.
The Godfather Trilogy
This Is a total cheat in order to squeeze in more movies, but in this case it’s totally appropriate. The Godfather Trilogy tells the singular tale of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Hell, the three films were even edited into a single film called “The Godfather Trilogy” at one point. But that’s not what I’m recommending, so enough of that. Let’s get to the actual recommending:
The Godfather (1972) – is, hands down, one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. The use of deep shadows fills the air with a palpable mood that permeates every inch of the screen, and it’s that more than anything else that sets the film apart from the rest. The story of a good man pulled into the dark moral pit of the family business is well handled here as well, as are all of the spot-on performances, headlined by what is Marlon Brando‘s greatest turns. It’s also of note that this film shows Al Pacino before he really became “Al Pacino,” and his subdued performance here is great in how understated it is. Every film following shows him becoming more and more of the bombastic scene chewer to which we’ve grown accustomed. Of all of the films, this is the one most beautifully theatrical in its staging and pace.
The Godfather: Part II (1974) – Arguably containing a better script, and many of the more memorable parts of the franchise, I have to admit my shallowness when I say it’s not my favorite solely because of the Director of Photography’s terrible lighting. I’ve always thought the film looked like a poorly staged 80’s television show, and it kept it from hitting as hard as the first did when I saw it. That said, the intercutting flashbacks to Robert De Niro evolving into Marlon Brando are fantastic.
The Godfather: Part III (1990) – Look. If we just start off acknowledging that A) Francis Ford Coppola only made this movie because the studio drove up a dumptruck full of money to his house when he was in the middle of filing for bankruptcy. B) Sofia Coppola only ended up in the movie because Winona Ryder dropped out at the last minute, so her performance is relatively forgivable. That taken into account…this is still not that great a film. But it’s not completely terrible, and it’s only considered as such because the previous two were legitimate classics.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Look. Just because this film is a mashup of a bunch of others (most notably, City on Fire ) doesn’t make this any less of a great piece of cinema. A Heist film that never actually shows the heist, Reservoir Dogs is about the all about dialog…and ear mutilation. In what’s going to be the running theme of this list, the movie features some seriously tour-de-force performances, namely from the thieves Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi.
This here, right here, is the Al Pacino we’ve come to know. For better or for worse (I lean towards “better”). This movie has absolutely no reservations about what it is, and it goes for it in a spectacular fashion. Bloody, operatic, insane, and completely 80s. Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio all completely go for it, and yet it’s still Al Pacino‘s completely manic over-the-top performance that carries the film.
Honorable Mention: Carlito’s Way (1993)
Director Brian DePalma and Al Pacino teamed up together again to create a spiritual successor to Scarface, showing a more weathered and world-weary Pacino gangster, and while the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of their previous collaboration, it’s still a fine film worth watching.
This one is right up there with The Godfather in terms of cinematic importance and brilliance, and while the titular “fellas” (Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Paul Sorvino) all give standout performances, it’s Martin Scorsese‘s sure-handed direction that steals the show. From his long tracking shots (which is also a Brian De Palma hallmark), moody lighting (see Godfather), use of pop music, great transitional cuts, and pacing, this film showcases everything that makes Scorsese Scorsese.
Honorable Mention: Casino (1995)
In a lot of ways, this is simply a more polished, slicker version of Goodfellas. That doesn’t stop it from being a classic in its own right, but if I had to choose, I’m going with the previous one.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Much like Casino is a refined retread of Goodfellas, Director Guy Ritchie‘s Snatch (2000) can easily be considered a refined do-over of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This is why you should see it, though. It’s more raw and frenetic, as Ritchie clearly made a film where he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So he went for it. You can also see ideas he later refined in the Sherlock Holmes films, and will more than likely be hallmarks for his entire career. It’s a fascinating look.
Matthew Vaughn would later go on to big budget Hollywood pop fare like X-Men: First Class, and the more subversive Kick-Ass, but it’s again here, in his debut, where you can see him taking every chance and making something truly special. With a great understated performance by future-Bond, Daniel Craig, this film oozes slickness and style…on a 6.5 million dollar budget. While I hate the ending, it’s still completely worth it.
Ray Winstone, Ian Motherfucking McShane (I’m sorry, but that’s his full name, and I dare anybody to argue with me about it), and a completely BUGNUTS Ben Kingsley. What? You need more? The directorial debut (noticing a pattern yet?) of Jonathan Glazer, who since went on to make the amazing Under The Skin (2013), this film again takes every possible chance to tell a chilling story of a retired safe-cracker pressured to come out of retirement to do one last job for his old boss (McShane). The pressure comes in the form of his “old friend” (Kingsley), who comes to stay and…well… you really need to see this movie.
First of all, I want to note that this is based off a comic book, once again proving that they are a great resource for story material other than spandex. Tom Hanks is gloriously understated in this movie as the enigmatic father of Tyler Hoechlin as they travel the road on the run from Paul Newman (in his final live-action film role). Perfectly executed 1930s aesthetic, amazing score by Thomas Newman (no relation), and a soft touch from director Sam Mendes all combine to make a brilliant must-see of a film. And since I’m name dropping, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Though I really think I could have safely stopped at ol’ Blue Eyes (I’ve always wanted to be able to write that).
Look. Did you like Scorsese‘s The Departed? Did you think it had potential but was disjointed? Did you think it could be better? Well there’s good news for all of you: There’s a much superior version! The Departed was a mashup remake of the Infernal Affairs Trilogy. I’m not going to do a full breakdown like I did with the Godfather films (Tegan is already looking at the Google Doc and complaining about how verbose I am), so I’ll just say: See all three. They’re a bit uneven, but still worthwhile.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
I know this is a controversial thing to say, but this is probably the most historically significant film on this list. While several of the other films on this list are fine pieces of art that deserve their classic status, Boyz n the Hood actually brought the day to day life of inner-city Black America into the international spotlight, and guess what? It’s not a pretty look. Another directorial debut (and frankly, John Singleton‘s best film), another film that takes bold chances to great effect. Dripping with authenticity and purpose (because it was made by black Americans who grew up in these environments), this is beyond anything else on this list as a must-see. Outstanding performances all-around, from Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and even Ice Cube. Really, I actually mean that. I guarantee you will never see those words from me again about Ice Cube.
New Jack City (1991)
In a similar, but different vein, New Jack City is all about the blazing performance of Wesley Snipes, an actor of some serious chops back when he gave a damn. There’s also a heartbreaking turn from Chris Rock, of all people. Again with the directorial debut, this time from Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin, who was mentioned the last time I dropped in on the site), the film mythologizes the birth and spread of crack cocaine in New York. While it’s more stylized than Boyz n the Hood, it manages to be a movie about high-end drug dealing gangsters that doesn’t actually glorify their lifestyle. It would be horribly reductive and unfair to call it “the Black Scarface,” but if it will get you to see it, consider it said.