Mafia movies never go out of style. Whether we’re talking old-fashioned Sicilian cosa nostra, its American descendants, or international criminal gangs across the world, it seems that filmmakers (and audiences) never tire of the genre.
But what’s got top rankings on Rotten Tomatoes? Is it your old-school 1970s-style gangster family movie? Slick, neo-noir gangs? Something from the other side of the world? These are 10 of the top-rated mafia films on Rotten Tomatoes, from gritty, black and white thrillers and grim foreign gangster pics to your more classic, tried-and-true crime clan movies.
10 The Killing (1956) – 96%
Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film was released in 1956 and still rates a whopping 96%. Black-and-white, it stars Sterling Hayden (who also played Captain McCluskey in The Godfather, see below) as Johnny Clay, a gangster ready to leave the life and get married, if he can just pull off one last big job first. He decides to delve into the world of organized crime and rob a racetrack of its betting money in the middle of a race, recruiting a dodgy cop, a racetrack worker, and a sniper to shoot the horse that’s touted to win.
But Clay doesn’t count on the betting teller blabbing to his wife, and the disgruntled wife telling her lover, who decides he’d like to rob the robbers. The initial heist is successful, but the second robbery ends in carnage, and although Johnny initially escapes with the money, his luck runs out pretty quick.
9 The Godfather II (1974) – 96%
Ranking at 96%, this seems to settle the eternal question of which Godfather movie is truly the best, the first or the second (The first (see below) being rated at 97% and number three not even a contender, coming in at a measly 66%) The second episode of the franchise has two storylines that it plays between:
We see the early life of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and his rise from poor immigrant to mafia don, coming full circle from fleeing Sicily after his family is killed to returning to avenge their deaths; we also see his son Michael (Al Pacino) and his expansion of the Corleone family business, which also necessitates the destruction of his family. It’s an undeniably grand epic, just coming in that one percentage point behind the original film.
8 Goodfellas (1990) – 96%
Should Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic be ranked just a little bit higher? Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s classic book Wiseguy, it’s the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a rare non-family member who worked his way into what was the Lucchese crime family (although they’re not named as such in the film). Standout performances from Liotta, Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco, and Joe Pesci, along with the stellar direction of Scorsese, make this one of the most famous mafia movies ever made.
Hill experiences every perk the gangster life has to offer before his drug problem spirals out of control and leads him to take absurd risks. His only option to avoid being killed? Becoming an FBI informant and getting into the witness protection program.
7 Mean Streets (1973) – 96%
Coming in equally ranked with Goodfellas, Scorsese’s earlier effort predated it by 17 years, and also starred Robert De Niro (the first of many times the two would work together). De Niro plays Johnny Boy, a wild, hot-headed layabout who pals around with Charlie (Harvey Keitel), and both have mafia connections: Charlie because he works for his Uncle Giovanni, and Johnny because he owes money to some mafia loan sharks.
Their friendship manages to survive even though they are going further in different directions: devout Catholic Charlie is increasingly uncomfortable with his mob work and is secretly in love with Theresa, Johnny’s outcast epileptic cousin, while Johnny, always rash, is spiraling out of control, engaging in risky and violent behavior with all the wrong people.
6 A Prophet (2009) – 96%
French auteur Jacques Audiard received a slew of awards (including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival) and nominations for this gritty crime drama set in prison. French-Algerian teenager Malik (a remarkable Tahir Rahim) ends up with a six-year sentence after attacking police officers. He is utterly alone, and he can’t read, which makes him an easy target for a vicious Corsican gang that he falls in with.
The don (Niels Arestrup) forces him to kill a young man from the rival Maghrebi gang, and Malik subsequently rises to a position of power. But when he becomes close with a Maghrebi gangster who teaches him how to read, Malik begins to turn the tables on the Corsican don, making plans for his eventual release from prison.
5 The Godfather (1972) – 97%
Francis Ford Coppola collaborated on the screenplay for The Godfather with the author of the novel it’s based on, Mario Puzo, thus setting in motion one of the most influential films ever made, a pervasive part of our popular culture, and the first in a wildly successful trilogy. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it at 97%, although it’s hard to find flaws in the epic story of the Corleone family, of hot-tempered oldest son Sonny (James Caan), of ineffectual middle son Fredo (John Cazale), and eventual scion Michael (Al Pacino).
From the opening scene of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) doling out favors to the guests at his daughter’s wedding all the way to Michael’s transformation and ascension to head of the family, the film has certainly earned its place in movie history.
4 Scarface (1932) – 98%
No, not that Scarface. That one only has 79%. The one with 98% was released in 1932, before the Hays Code, and was directed by Howard Hawks (and the 1983 Al Pacino-vehicle is based on it). It’s based on a novel of the same name, which itself was loosely based on the life of that most notorious gangster of all, Al Capone. Paul Muni stars as a Chicago gangster named Tony Camonte, whose ruthless and violent rise runs parallel to his pursuit (and eventual winning) of his boss’s girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley).
Veering from the Al Capone story, Tony dies in a shootout rather than in prison, but there is a depiction of the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, which Capone’s gang took part in. Being a pre-Code film, it’s likely more violent than one might expect for a movie of its time, and it was banned in several states and cities upon its release.
3 Ash is Purest White (2018) – 99%
Acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhangke based his 2018 Palme d’Or competitor on a gangster he had admired in his childhood. Guo Bin (Liao Fan) has a girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao), who takes the rap for him on an illegal gun charge and goes to prison for five years, during which time he doesn’t visit her. When she’s released from jail, she goes to find him, but not only does he have a new girlfriend, he refuses to see or talk to Qiao. When she finally forces a meeting, he insists that he’s not a gangster anymore, and their relationship is over.
It’s a very different type of gangster film than American audiences might be used to, with Zhangke’s signature style and emphasis on the intricacies of Chinese society and the way that it’s changing in the modern era. It also made Barack Obama’s always-anticipated list of favorite films of the year.
2 Brother (1997) – 100%
This neo-noir drama enjoys cult status (and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) after becoming a huge hit in Russia. It stars Sergei Bodrov, Jr. as Danila, a veteran of the Chechen War who travels to St. Petersburg to find his older brother, Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), who’s living a successful life in the city. What Danila and his mother don’t know is that Viktor is a gangland assassin, and that not only has he been tasked with killing a Chechen mafia boss, but Viktor’s own boss wants to kill him to avoid paying him.
Viktor cajoles Danila into doing the job for him, and the two brothers seem trapped in an eternal cycle of crime and violence. The film’s highlight is Bodrov’s performance as Danila, but the actor tragically died in 2002 when an ice slide obliterated the site of a film shoot where he was working, killing 155 people in all.
1 The Public Enemy (1931) – 100%
Another pre-Code hit, The Public Enemy starred the inimitable James Cagney as Tom Powers, a Chicago gangster during Prohibition. Although his brother Mike (Donald Cook) has spent years trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, Tom would rather make money as a bootlegger with his childhood friend Matt (Edward Woods). Tom and Matt flaunt their wealth all over town, with girls on their arms (in a well-known scene, Tom shoves a grapefruit into the face of the girl he’s about to drop).
Tom starts going around with Gwen (Jean Harlow in a star turn) and Matt gets married, and everything seems great until tensions mount between their gang and a rival group, and a gang war is set in motion. And as it was predestined from the start, Tom dies by violence, bringing to an end this highly romanticized portrait of gang life that still holds a perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes 92 years after its release.