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There will be blood—and lots of it.
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, obsession with violence, and need to always have more. The following gangster movies on Netflix (and Netflix gangster series) are a sampling of the genre’s best, 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) 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 uniquely 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. —Chris Osterndorf
2) The Departed
Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Irish mob drama gets a bad wrap sometimes for beating Little Miss Sunshine at the Oscars, The Departed is one of the best, not to mention most fun, films he’s made in the past few decades. The Boston-set gangster movie features classic Scorsese touches—most notably, expressive camera movement and a great soundtrack—as well as a top notch cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Jack Nicholson. —C.O.
3) Once Upon a Time in America
Hey, you look like a person who’s got four hours! Why not watch this classic crime film from Sergio Leone? If you can get past the length, this epic starring Robert De Niro as prohibition-era Jewish gangster David “Noodles” Aaronson is worth it. The final feature he completed before his death, the film is filled with Leone’s classically cinematic imagery, not to mention another legendary score by his longtime collaborator, Ennio Morricone. Eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino. Leone owns the “Once Upon a Time” thing forever. —C.O.
4) L.A. Confidential
Despite being an homage to classic film noir, L.A. Confidential is also classic ‘90s. From the violent, masculine themes to the cast of rising and established stars (some of whom are better left unmentioned), it’s an ideal time capsule of the decade. Even the movie’s loss to the lesser Titanic (sorry everybody!) at the Academy Awards feels like a piece of ‘90s history—though it’s worth mentioning that Kim Basinger did pick up Best Supporting Actress for her first-rate turn as a prostitute who’s a lookalike for Veronica Lake. —C.O.
Mexican crime film The 4th Company doesn’t rise to the level of genre mainstays like Goodfellas, City of God, and A Prophet, but you can see what co-directors Mitzi Vanessa Arreola and Amir Galvan Cervera are aiming for. The film, set in the late 1970s, follows Zambrano, a young man with a passion for American football who gets sent to the Mexico Distrito Federal Penitentiary for car theft. Zambrano joins the prison’s football team, Los Perros, which doubles as the warden’s personal goon squad, the 4th Company. Arreola and Cervera are clearly determined to show the corruption of the prison system. Unfortunately, that means the football aspect of the story feels like an afterthought. But if you enjoy crime films, this one will scratch your itch until the next one comes along. —Eddie Strait
6) Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’ great recovered masterpiece. Infamously butchered by the studio upon its initial release for being too dark, Welles’ film noir about about police corruption and murder in a Mexican bordertown was re-released in its original form in 1998. Since then, it’s gone on to earn the rightful reputation of one of the greatest movies ever made. There’s a lot to praise in Touch of Evil, from the tight script to the fantastic cast, which includes a strong supporting turn from Janet Leigh, memorable cameos from Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton, Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, and an iconic leading performance from Welles himself as Police Captain Hank Quinlan (pretty much everyone is great except Charlton Heston, unconvincingly playing Mexican.) But as always, it’s Welles’ direction that steals the show. The movie is worth watching for the opening crane shot alone. —C.O.
Heat would be significant only for putting movie legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together onscreen for the first time since The Godfather: Part II (and even that doesn’t really count). But it happens to also be a really great film on its own merits. Director Michael Mann has never been sharper than with this story about a group of bank robbers and the cops chasing them, crafting one intricate sequence after another. Heat is not a short watch, but somehow the movie whizzes by its nearly three-hour runtime. —C.O.
8) American Gangster
Though overstuffed and filled with too much of Russell Crowe’s Detective Richie Richards, American Gangster succeeds because of Denzel Washington’s fierce turn as real-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. Violent, angry, yet methodical, there’s something unknowable about the way Washington plays Frank. We’re never entirely sure what’s driving his unquenchable thirst for power, but there is certainly something American about it. The movie is also worth checking out for one of the final performances from the great Ruby Dee, as Frank’s mother. —C.O.
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The best Netflix gangster series
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 many other TV dramas from this era, it used genre tropes 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: Mexico shifts the focus north, from Colombia to Mexico, exploring the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel during the 1980s. Diego Luna stars an enterprising trafficker who rises to head the Cartel thanks to his shrewd intelligence and a willingness to take huge risks in attempting to form an alliance between a circus of violent, competing criminal fiefdoms. Opposing him is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), an ambitious DEA agent with no patience for “established protocols” that only serve to secure the status quo. Their strong performances anchor a twisting, addictive narrative that proves that Narcos is in no danger of running out of steam—or compelling subject matter—anytime soon. —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 two children for Lake of the Ozarks. Once there, 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.
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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, inviting comparisons to their 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 show’s casually depressing portrayal of America’s narcotics policies makes it a frustrating watch, shocking and completely unsurprising at once. But, despite its other faults, it’s worth watching. —C.O.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.