Few genres are able to cover as many diverse movies as the crime genre. By only needing a central crime or criminals or law enforcement as the main characters, these films can include a wide variety of tones, themes, plots, and goals. With so many movies that can fit into the crime genre, choosing the greatest of all time can be a difficult process. Everyone has their own preferences concerning what they want to see in a crime movie or in any film in general. But whatever the preferences may be, the best crime movies take the thrills, relatability, and human nature at the center of crime and tackle them from exciting angles with incredible precision.
In the first half of the countdown, I went through crime films dating back to the heyday of film noir all the way to modern takes on cops and robbers. These movies each have their own reasons for being classics in their own rights, but the Top 15 ranked here are the best of the best. These are true classics that define what the greatest films of all time, not just crime movies, can truly be. From bank heists to serial killers to twisted mysteries, these films are truly the best of the best.
Have your own favorite crime movies? Let me know in the comments below. For #30 to #16, visit Part 1 of The 30 Greatest Crime Films of All Time!
15. Pulp Fiction
Is writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction anything more than a stylish homage to the nasty novels and comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s? Maybe not, but it’s still an incredibly well-done crime anthology. The film weaves multiple narratives, each tracking a different story with unexpected results. Thanks to the nonlinear storytelling used, characters die in one sequence and then return in the next and the many revelations are not completely revealed until the end. It’s also filled with the writer/director’s signature pop-culture centered dialogue and homages to countless other films. Add in a great soundtrack and many memorable performances and Pulp Fiction is simultaneously shocking and fun.
Best Moment: Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) confront several double crossing criminals, leading to Jules’ frightening Ezekiel 25:17 speech and bullets flying everywhere.
14. Silence of the Lambs
Equal parts horror film and crime thriller, Silence of the Lambs is most well-known for actor Anthony Hopkins’ spine-tingling take on the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. But the film succeeds on so many levels, including Jodie Foster’s in-over-her-head Clarice Starling and the twisting (and twisted) story. The idea of using an imprisoned serial killer to catch another may be a commonly used concept now, but it was Silence of the Lambs (and the novel it was based on) that originally gave life to this thrilling concept. As the tension cranks higher and higher as Starling pursues Buffalo Bill and Lecter manipulates from behind the scenes, the scares reach higher and higher heights. It’s thrilling and chilling from start to finish.
Best Moment: Starling travels into Lecter’s underground cell where she encounters the strange and scary killer for the first time. Even behind a glass barrier, Lecter is chilling and incredibly frightening.
13. The Godfather Part II
Following soon after the events of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II follows the continued rise of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the Don of the Corleone Family. But as Michael descends into more desperate and violent means, the film shows the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) as he rises to power. The themes of family and corruption influence both the past and present narratives, showing how even crime done out of love can eventually destroy everyone involved. While the first Godfather is the beginning of a good man’s decent, this is the depths of hell for Michael and the Corleones, full of betrayal and devastating murder.
Best Moment: As Don Fanucci walks through a neighborhood festa, young Vito stalks him from the rooftops, surprises him outside his apartment, and shoots him. It’s the turning point in Vito’s life that will define much for the Corleone family for generations.
Many films could have tackled the true story of the Zodiac Killer and the unresolved investigation that gripped San Francisco for years in a way that was more about shoot outs and cheap thrills. Instead, director David Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt created a story that focused on the people who had their lives taken over by the obsession to find out who it truly was that killed ruthlessly in the fog-bound city. Specifically, the journey of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of obsession and paranoia that leads to many close calls and thrills. Add in astounding CGI work that recreates a moody San Francisco as time passes by and Zodiac is gripping in so many ways.
Best Moment: Graysmith enters the basement of a contact who knows a Zodiac suspect. Underground with no one else knowing he’s there, creaking footsteps mean someone else might be in the house. But is it Zodiac, or has fear completely taken over?
A couple of brutal idiot criminals kidnap a woman in Fargo, Minnesota as part of her husband’s scheme to get rich, but they didn’t count on the nicest and smartest police chief around to be on their trail. The Coen Brothers’ have a knack for create unique and compelling characters as well as thrilling films that are somehow just as funny as they are brutal. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is well-rounded and compelling, being friendly and endearing but also incredibly capable, all while being seven months pregnant. Fargo is a twisted and compelling crime story in its own right, with the unraveling of stupid plans leading to terrible deaths. But it’s the quality of characters throughout that bring it to the next level.
Best Moment: Marge questions Jerry at his car dealership once again in light of a revelation, but the husband of the kidnapped woman panics and flees. It’s Marge’s shocked and hilarious reaction that really makes the scene so memorable.
Taken as strictly a crime film, tracking a private investigation and seeming suicide, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo would be an incoherent and strange mess. But it’s much more than just a simple mystery. This is a mind-bending take on the relationships between men and women, with private investigator Scotti Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) becoming obsessed with the mysterious Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). Is she possessed? Is there such a thing as reincarnation? The symbolism that Hitchcock infuses into every aspect of Vertigo makes it an incredibly layered and challenging experience. Plus, his invention of the “Vertigo shot” has been copied in countless films and television shows ever since. This is not an easy movie, but it is a very rewarding experience.
Best Moment: The very end of the film. Scottie’s obsession to understand what has happened to him and to recreate his tragedy only lead to the same occurrences happening all over, compounding his losses while also ending his case of vertigo.
9. The Shawshank Redemption
Adapted from Steven King’s short story, writer/director Frank Darabont spins a story of friendship and healing in the midst of brutality behind bars. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentence to life for the murder of his wife and his placement in Shawshank Prison helps to change the life of fellow inmate and eventual friend Ellis “Red” Redding. Through it all, the idea of trying to find hope while being forced to face violence and many terrible acts manages to take what could be a simple story about the horrors of prison and turn it into something actually beautiful. The grisly developments and devastating losses make this into half-real world tale/half fairy tale.
Best Moment: After decades behind bars, Andy escapes in the middle of a storm, finding freedom and redemption at last. Despite all the violence and trauma, it is this moment that makes Shawshank into something beautiful and uplifting.
8. Rear Window
When L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is forced to stay in his apartment for months due to a broken leg, his curiosity ends with him spying on his neighbors, but his peeping and paranoia lead him to believe that the man who lives across the way has murdered his wife. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a deft blend between mystery, comedy, and commentary on the relationships between men and women, with Grace Kelly as Jefferies’ capable and tenacious girlfriend. It’s an incredibly well executed story, with witty writing and continued twists keeping it moving at just the right place. Hitchcock’s direction and use of one giant set is an amazing piece of production that builds an intimate little world.
Best Moment: With everyone taken by the police for questioning, Jefferies is left alone in his apartment with his neighbor aware that he was watching him the whole time. The door is unlocked, the killer approaches, and all Jefferies has to protect himself are flashbulbs.
7. The Godfather
It’s one of the most classic films ever made, with countless scenes and lines burned into the public consciousness. The Godfather is just about crime as it is about family and how those two elements intersect and threaten to destroy everyone involved. It’s hard to spotlight what makes director Francis Ford Coppola’s mob epic so great, but it’s the combination of performances, writing, and directing that fire on all cylinders every step of the way that make it hard to find fault with any part of the movie. From brutal murders to quiet moments between father and son, there is always something to love here, but it’s the very human emotions at the center of it all that makes it as great as it truly is.
Best Moment: Michael has dinner with the two men who orchestrated the hit on his father with a handgun stashed in the restaurant’s bathroom. His murder of the two men is not just revenge, it’s his first real step into his family’s mafia life.
6. The Departed
It’s rats against rats when an Irish mobster plants a mole in the Boston Police Department at the same time they place one in his gang. Director Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Japanese crime film Infernal Affairs has his trademark stylish direction and editing, as well as his brutal violence that shows crime is no game. But it’s the leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson that bring power to every scene. But every actor owns his or her role, making each brutal death feel like a punch in the gut as cops and mobsters risk everything to bring the other side down. It’s the movie that brought Scorsese his long-deserved Best Director Oscar, and it was well deserved.
Best Moment: Costigan and Sullivan finally confront one another, both desperate to survive the situation they have been put in. But just when it seems like Costigan finally has what he needs to get free and clear, one of the most shocking moments in recent films comes out of nowhere.
5. The Dark Knight
Just as much a crime film as it is a superhero movie, director Christopher Nolan’s Batman opus is a tremendous tale of the vigilante and his greatest enemy, The Joker. But The Dark Knight isn’t just some big punch-out battle between men in colorful costumes, it’s about anarchy, obsession, The War on Terror, and what people will drive themselves to over their beliefs. It’s not just a movie chocked with amazing stunts and unforgettable characters, it’s filled with moral choices that have audiences thinking about the ideas of right and wrong long after the credits roll. This is a movie that takes the best of two genres and makes something unique and unforgettable from the combination.
Best Moment: Batman and The Joker collide in easily one of the greatest chases on film ever. From the opening chaos to the destruction of the Tumbler to the truck flip, it’s incredibly intense and jampacked with jaw-dropping moments.
4. The Big Lebowski
It’s a crime movie where the central crime doesn’t actually happen. It stars a protagonist who refuses to be involved in the actually narrative of the story. Like some stoner version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the experience, laughs, and characters add up to a strange and appealing philosophy at the center of The Big Lebowski. There’s just something very appealing about a man who is both a loser and a winner at the same time. While the story of Bunny Lebowski’s kidnapping may turn The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) life upside down, the real enjoyment comes from seeing all the strange and relatable characters at the center deal with a mystery that are not prepared to deal with at all. In the end, all The Dude ever wanted was his rug back.
Best Moment: The Dude and Walter decide to spread the ashes of their late friend Donnie at the beach. But Walter’s insistence on memorializing The Vietnam War and an unfortunate sea breeze ruin their good intentions to hilarious effect. Also, every other moment in The Big Lebowski.
Despite being a chilling and disturbing story about a serial killer who chooses victims based on them committing one of the seven deadly sins, director David Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s Sevenkeeps you coming back again and again. That’s because it’s impeccably plotted and thrillingly directed. In short, despite Sevenfeaturing all number of gruesome deaths, it’s a beautiful looking movie, dripping with mood and filled with tension around every corner. There’s a sense of dread in the rain-soaked city that Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) patrol in pursuit of John Doe (Kevin Spacey) that does not let up until the final fatal moments. The disturbing payoff is worth every moment.
Best Moment: After five of the seven deadly sins have been fulfilled, the killer known only as John Doe turns himself into the police in the middle of the day. But he’s covered in blood that is not his and there are still two sins left. Finally seeing Spacey onscreen so far into the movie is both thrilling and disturbing.
Writer/Director Michael Mann’s Heat one of the greatest crime films of all time, filled full of incredible heists and a thick mood that pervades each scene. Of course, it’s also known for stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally starring in a movie together, respectively playing a life-long bank robber and a detective who find their lives colliding on the streets of Los Angeles. Both men have a code of honor that makes them the best there is at their jobs, but also destroys their personal lives. Their obsessions lead to great loneliness in an incredibly busy city that empties out at night when they both go to work. Heat is an incredible looking movie that is just as thrilling in its action-packed scenes as it is in the quiet moments in nighttime L.A. Watch it again and again. It only gets better.
Best Moment: The final heist goes terribly wrong, with the crew being surrounded by police and leading to a glorious and brutal shootout. With both sides of the conflict being amazingly brought to life, it’s impossible to completely root for either police or criminals, leading to shocking deaths and intense thrills.
Director Martin Scorsese and writer Nicholas Pileggi’s Goodfellas is a mob movie that isn’t just about the appeal of crime, but the rotten nature of it. Tracking Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) as they toil at the bottom rung of the mob, Scorsese’s movie rips along at the speed and style of a movie trailer without sacrificing character and meaning. There are no good guys here, no redemption, just a thrilling story about bad people doing bad things, and often getting away with it. Unlike The Godfather, there is no glamour here, just death and lies. But Scorsese manages to make this incredibly enjoyable and even darkly hilarious as unreliable narrators and skewed perceptions on right and wrong mess with audience perceptions. No other crime movie is as complete or thoroughly enjoyable as Goodfellas.
Best Moment: The fallout of a heist results in the classic montage set to the coda of Derek and The Dominoes’ “Layla.” Dead bodies riddled with bullets and strung up in refrigerator trucks are beautifully filmed to Eric Clapton’s music, illustrating the contradiction that is life in the mob.
Honorable Mentions: Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, In Bruges, Casino, The French Connection, Mean Streets, Psycho, Inside Man, The Town, The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2, Collateral, Road to Perdition