While you could definitely make a case for the western, there’s probably no genre more American than the gangster movie. These stories tell us something about our ruthless pursuit of success, our obsession with violence, and our need to always have more. The following gangster movies and shows on Netflix are a sampling of the best the genre has to offer in the U.S. and abroad. Most of them are a bloody good time. Some are just bloody.
The best gangster movies on Netflix
1) The Godfather Saga
It’s difficult to even talk about The Godfather without considering the monumental impact it had on cinema and pop culture at large. The first film defined the gangster genre and gave us icons in Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. The second film subverted and redefined the expectations set by the first one while also making newcomer Robert De Niro a star. The third film… well, the less said about the third film the better. Regardless, Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy still stands as one of the finest American movie epics of all time. A defining immigrant story, a revelatory take on the nature of violence, and a profound meditation on family and power, The Godfather is all it’s cracked up to be and more. —Chris Ostendorf
If The Godfather is the best movie ever made about the American mob, then Goodfellas is number 1.5. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic about Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his rise and fall in the Italian-American crime syndicate that ran New York for three decades is as good as it gets. There’s the amazing soundtrack, some of the most iconic sequences in all of cinema, and a fantastic ensemble that includes Robert De Niro as Jimmy “the Gent” Conway and Oscar-winner Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, just to name a few. There are no wasted moments in this movie. It’s it’s all forward motion: a delicate, propulsive, sometimes reckless ballet of camera movement and action. In fact, Goodfellas is one of the first movies to cut scenes about doing cocaine to the rhythm of actually being on cocaine. —C.O.
If you’ve already seen Goodfellas, you may feel compelled to skip Casino. Martin Scorsese teamed back up with writer Nicholas Pileggi for this film that’s essentially a retread of their previous masterwork. However, while Goodfellas is definitely the superior movie, Casino is not without its merits. A chronicle of the mob in Las Vegas as told by Robert De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, the film has an unforgettable opening, a wonderfully gonzo performance from Sharon Stone, and one of the most memorable death scenes of all time (spoiler alert: here’s looking at you, Joe Pesci.) At almost three hours long, it isn’t exactly so much Goodfellas-lite as it is Goodfellas’ spiritual sequel. While the runtime is daunting, each hour into Casino gets better, till you arrive at a final act, which is non-stop madness. —C.O.
4) City of God
This 2002 Brazilian film about growing up under corruption, poverty, and violence in Rio de Janeiro moves as fast as a Martin Scorsese gangster movie despite containing enough tragedy for 10 depressing documentaries. Director Fernando Meirelles (with help from co-director Kátia Lund) imbues the film with such a sense of gritty realism, it could only be based on real-life experiences. At the same time, the film is so highly stylized, it’s also a unique cinematic experience, whether you watch it at home or in a theater. Instead of being buried under the weight of these contradictions, City of God thrives on them. —C.O.
5) Gangs of New York
Obviously, Martin Scorsese has made a lot of gangster movies. But although it received 10 Oscar nominations when it came out in 2002, no one really counts Gangs of New York as one of his finer entries in the genre. Perhaps that’s because this movie, based on the real gangs who ran the “Five Points” area of New York City in the 1860s, feels more like a historical epic. It’s also truly a strange film. Bloated and violent and full of gigantic sets that feel like something out of the old studio era, the movie is definitely trying to make some grand statement about America. And while Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are pretty wooden in it, the movie has a great supporting cast and features a fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, one of the most unforgettable villains in Scorsese’s canon. —C.O.
The best gangster shows on Netflix
1) Breaking Bad
To even put Breaking Bad in the gangster genre seems like a misnomer, given that the show is so much more than what comes to mind for most people when they think of traditional “gangster” stories. Yet the story of terminally ill chemistry teacher Walter White’s descent into evil as he rises to power as a drug lord is ostensibly still a genre show. Breaking Bad is not a conventional crime thriller, but it does fit into a category the same way that The Sopranos or The Wire do—which is to say, not neatly. The show succeeded because, like so many other TV dramas from this era, it used genre tropes as a way in to explore deeper ideas. It’s the reason why 10 years after it first premiered, Breaking Bad is still routinely called the best television show of all time. —C.O.
Narcos chronicles the rise and fall of legendary drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, as well as the men tasked with bringing him to justice. Where does the show go from here? Obviously, the war on drugs wasn’t just a war on one man. While Narcos could easily have finished Escobar’s story and then bowed out, there’s plenty more real-world drama to be explored in our country’s controversial and seemingly never-ending battle against narcotics as we gear up for season 3. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and the Cali Cartel are set to become the new “big bads” of the show. The producers have also hinted that the action will eventually turn to Mexico and another legendary drug kingpin: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. But start from the beginning: Narcos will make you root for Pablo, and it’s full of sweltering action as it rolls to its inevitable end. Narcos season 4 has already been confirmed, and it appears to be heading south of the border.—David Wharton
Beneath the charming sarcasm of Jason Bateman’s exterior, there’s always been a hint of malice. That makes him the perfect lead for this attempt at prestige drama. Financial adviser Marty Byrde flees Chicago with his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two children for Lake of the Ozarks, where he’s tasked with laundering $8 million for a Mexican drug cartel. Marty is in over his head almost as soon as Ozark begins, and he struggles to keep from drowning throughout the 10-episode season. As is always the case with this kind of show, that’s the sick fun of it. —C.O.
This German-made pre-WW2 drama takes viewers back in time to the Weimar Republic in the Golden Twenties. Creators Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten, and Achim von Borries recreate the atmosphere with stunning detail. With production costs exceeding $40 million, the show is the most expensive German TV series and non-English language drama series ever. The end result is Cabaret meets crime television. It also offers Americans a dire warning. As the plot progresses, heroes must choose between their morals and nationalism. Babylon Berlin shows us how a progressive nation can crumble when it allows bigotry and intolerance to fester. —Tess Cagle
5) Drug Lords
Each episode of Drug Lords explores the life of a different narcotics boss, as well as their organizations and the law enforcement officials who eventually brought them down. All of these stories have been fictionalized at least once, so the best part of the series ends up being the comparisons it invites to the Hollywood retellings. Many players from these events are interviewed, with results that range from extremely candid and revealing to by-the-book recounts of historical events. —C.O.
Through a bounty of interviews with cops, criminals, and addicts, Dope makes one thing clear: The war on drugs is, and always has been, horrible. The casually depressing way America’s narcotics policies are portrayed in this show makes it a frustrating watch, shocking and completely unsurprising at once. But, despite its other faults, it’s worth watching. —C.O.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.