The Oscars are arranged annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements. Although the academy typically favors drama, it has also embraced other genres in the past, most notably gangster movies.
Bonnie and Clyde changed the game in 1967 by becoming the first gangster film to be nominated at the Oscars. Since then, timeless gangster movies like The Godfather and Pulp Fiction to recent films like The Irishman have received multiple nominations and even claimed some major victories at the Oscars.
Here is a list of violent but insightful gangster movies that have cemented their place in Oscar history.
Top 10 classic gangster films that made Oscar history
1) Bonnie and Clyde
Directed by Arthur Penn and written by David Newman and Robert Benton, this 1967 biographical neo-noir crime film was based on the real-life criminal duo of Bonnie and Clyde, who were known for their robberies in the Central United States during the Great Depression.
Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons, the film chronicles the criminal duo's story from their early meeting to their criminal escapades, leading to their eventual deaths in 1934.
The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress, going on to win for Best Supporting Actress for Estelle Parsons and Best Cinematography for Burnett Guffey.
2) Pulp Fiction
This 1994 film is probably director Quentin Tarantino's most popular and celebrated film. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis, this postmodern classic has become a staple of popular culture as one of the wackiest gangster films ever made.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Travolta, Jackson, and Thurman also received Academy Award nominations. The film ultimately won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
3) The Godfather
This 1972 film is probably the most iconic gangster film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Based on Mario Puzo's novel of the same name, the film depicts the Italian-American mafia Corleone family under patriarch Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) from 1945 to 1955, and the rise of his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), from a family outsider to a mafia boss.
The film also stars other big names such as Richard Castellano, James Caan, Sterling Hayden, Robert Duvall, Richard Conte, John Marley, and Diane Keaton. It received 11 Oscar nominations, ultimately winning three: Best Adapted Screenplay for Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, which the actor refused, and Best Picture for the year.
4) The Godfather Part II
The 1974 film is the second installment of Francis Ford Coppola's gangster trilogy. The film showcases two stories, the first depicting how the young Vito (played by Robert DeNiro) rose from being a Sicilian immigrant to the boss of a powerful New York crime family, and the second depicting how his son Michael (played by Al Pacino) continued to run the family business.
The film also received 11 Academy Award nominations and became the first and only sequel till date to win in the Best Picture category. It received six Oscar wins, including Best Supporting Actor for De Niro, Best Director for Coppola, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Coppola and Puzo.
5) The Godfather Part III
This 1990 film is the final film in Francis Ford Coppola's gangster series. Starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, and Sofia Coppola in the main roles, it finishes the story of Michael Corleone, the patriarch of the Corleone family, who attempts to legitimize his criminal empire.
Despite not receiving massive commercial or critical success like its predecessors, the film received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Music, and Song.
6) The Departed
Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by William Monahanz, this 2006 film earned the legendary director his first and only Oscar statuette as Best Director. The film earned him his first Academy Award for producing the year's Best Picture. It also snagged two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
Based on true events, the film follows Colin (played by Matt Damon), who is instructed by Boston crime boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) to become a mole within the Massachusetts State Police, while Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanded by his captain (played by Martin Sheen) to infiltrate the Costello gang.
Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, this 1990 film is widely regarded as one of the best gangster films of all time. Starring Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, the film follows Henry Hill's rise in the criminal world and subsequent downfall.
Scorsese's universally-acclaimed mobster film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, with Pesci winning Best Supporting Actor.
8) The Irishman
The successful trio of Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci returned in 2019 with another gangster film, titled The Irishman.
The nearly three-and-a-half-hour epic gangster film is based on Charles Brandt's novel I Heard You Paint Houses. The film follows Frank Sheeran (played by De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman for mobster Russell Bufalino (played by Pesci) and his crime family, which includes having to work for Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino).
The Irishman received 10 Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and dual Supporting Actor nominations for performances by Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Unfortunately, the film did not win any awards.
9) The Untouchables
Director Brian De Palma's 1987 crime film The Untouchables stars Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert DeNiro, and Sean Connery. The film earned four Oscar nominations, winning Best Supporting Actor for Connery's performance as Jim Malone.
The plot revolves around Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (played by Costner), who wants to bring down legendary crime boss Al Capone (played by DeNiro), who has built an empire through the sale of bootleg alcohol. Eliot eventually formed an elite group of incorruptible lawmen known as the Untouchables to accomplish this task.
10) L.A. Confidential
The 1997 neo-noir crime film was directed, produced, and co-written by Curtis Hanson. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the film follows three LAPD detectives as they investigate multiple murder cases and discover corruption within their own police department.
Starring prominent actors such as Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and Kim Basinger, the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Kim Basinger won in the Best Supporting Actress category.
If you think we missed any other crucial movies in the genre, let us know in the comments below!