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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

You guessed it. Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" is one of the greatest gangster movies ever made.

Take the cannoli and a look at the five best gangster flicks


It's time to start ending all of your sentences with a nasally "see?" It's time to wear paperboy caps and fedoras and give your friends nicknames like Chaz Two-Times, Whistles McGillicutty and Cue Ball Carl Vito. It's time to bust out your finest Marlon Brando impression and tell people that you have a proposition they will find hard to resist.

The point I'm laboriously trying to make is that "Gangster Squad" comes out this weekend, bringing old school mobster action back to the big screen. In order to celebrate the film's long-awaited release, let's take a gander at five of cinema's greatest tales of goons and grifters.

"Road to Perdition"

In a genre filled with exemplary films (two or three of the entries featured here would easily land on my list of the best movies of all time), I think Sam Mendes's "Road to Perdition" is an under-appreciated gem. For one, it's gorgeous, bringing 1920s Chicago to mesmerizing life with beautifully dark and bleak visuals. Mendes has always had an eye for captivating visuals – from the rose petals in "American Beauty" to the Shanghai sequence in "Skyfall" – and this gangster drama is no different, bringing the audience into the story the way only the best in the genre can.

It's a story worth getting sucked into as well. The tale told in "Road to Perdition" is a rich journey to redemption with several father-son relationships hanging in the balance. As the featured duo on the run from the Irish mafia, Tom Hanks and young Tyler Hoechlin create a wonderfully genuine bond. They're only matched by Hanks and Paul Newman, who plays Hanks's surrogate mafia boss father, whose soulful friendship takes a tragic turn when Hanks's loyalty to Newman gets challenged by his loyalty to his son.

Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall bring the visual wonder, and the story and performances provide the emotional punch needed to stick out in a genre crowded with stellar entries.

"Miller's Crossing"

Quentin Tarantino is known for kicking the gangster movie into slick, smart modernity with his signature dialogue and blasts of intensity and violence. A few years before his cinematic revolution, however, the Coen Brothers weren't far behind with the immaculately styled "Miller's Crossing." The Tommy gun-quick dialogue peppered with gangster lingo is just as quick and sharp as Tarantino's, but in this film, it's used to propel a cold, chilling gangster saga that is filled to the brim with twists, turns, double crosses and then more double crosses.

Toss in some gorgeous imagery and a pack of great, understated performances – including Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and a terrifically wormy John Turturro ­– and "Miller's Crossing," on an obviously smaller scale, helped bring a new level of frosty, witty cool to the retro gangster movie, similar to what "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" would bring to the modern. And while we're on the topic ...

"Pulp Fiction"

The 1994 game-changer isn't a gangster movie in the classic Tommy guns and trench coats vein. Nevertheless, "Pulp Fiction" is a gangster movie and a magnificent one at that. Tarantino's dialogue simmers and crackles off the screen, creating some of modern cinema's most famous lines in the process. Say "You, flock of seagulls," mention a royale with cheese or ask for a tasty beverage to wash a burger down amongst a pack of film junkies, and you'll instantly make friends.

It's not just the dialogue, though (it's mostly the dialogue, but there's obviously more to like too). Tarantino's ability to develop memorable characters is fully on display. Even his minor characters are deservedly iconic. Combine that with his tone-defying jumps from humor to violence to almost unbearable tension and back again that somehow never fail to satisfy, and "Pulp Fiction," even almost two decades after its debut, is still a cinematic shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.

"The Godfather"

Well duh. For the sake of variety, let's just consider this entry a nod for both "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II." Both films are amazingly epic while taking the audience into the inner workings of a mafia family, both in regard to the mafia aspect and the family part. Director Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed drama provides all the thrills that a viewer would want from a gangster drama (horse heads in beds, tense mob hits, taking cannoli, etc.) while also delivering a complicated, amazingly acted and frighteningly immersive look into the sometimes caring, sometimes vicious – eh, mostly vicious – soul of the mafia. It's a predictable pick for this countdown but also an entirely deserving one.

"Goodfellas"

Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" takes what "The Godfather" started and perfects it. It gets all of the rich, immersive details of "The Godfather" – the allure and the horrific gut-punching violence, the familial ties and the vicious politics – but packs them into a running time that's 30 minutes slimmer. What results is arguably one of the greatest movies of all time, providing a character-driven rush that doesn't just bring you into the mob but also brings you into Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) head.

Part of that is thanks to the script that takes the audience through an astounding trip through the mafia, capturing the intoxicating glamour, the inner conflicts, the humanity, the draining amorality and the growing paranoia. All the while, Scorsese's camera captures every nuance of the life for maximum immersion. The Copacabana scene is famous for a reason. It's brilliant, not only in its planning and intricacy but in its ability to put the viewer into the scene, entranced by Hill's power, influence and massive community at his beck and call.

But that's just one scene in a film filled with incredible moments. The jail cell dinner. The cocaine-fueled car ride of intense paranoia. The "funny like a clown" conversation. The list goes on, and they all add up to a terrific movie.

Talkbacks

High_Life_Man | Jan. 10, 2013 at 1:52 p.m. (report)

A fairly common list. Take a chance! The Long Good Friday Sexy Beast (how Ben Kingsley did not win an Oscar for this role is criminal) In Bruges All are excellent!

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emills81 | Jan. 10, 2013 at 12:08 p.m. (report)

John Woo's HardBoil. Still the best gun fight scenes in a movie to this day. It doesnt get better than a shoot-out in a cafe that is full of caged Canaries. Over all, good list. @ Aj - dont forget about Menace to Society and King of New York

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littletinyfish | Jan. 10, 2013 at 11:01 a.m. (report)

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing you not to include The Usual Suspects in this list.

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TosaJim | Jan. 10, 2013 at 8:46 a.m. (report)

I took my wife out for Sweetest Day to see Goodfellas. I told her it was a gangster movie but that it was not too violent. She hates violent movies. So the opening scene is Joe Pesci stabbing a guy to death in the trunk of his car....the "Mood" was broken.

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AndrewJ | Jan. 10, 2013 at 8:38 a.m. (report)

You should probably change the name of the list to "mob gangster flicks", otherwise you're missing the likes of Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City. Then again, this can't possibly be a list of mob flicks either if it doesn't have Casino on it.

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