Serpico

Frank Serpico is dressed casually in Serpico (1973)

“Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”

There’s a whole sub-genre of movies about people who stand up for the right thing even when everyone else in their lives doesn’t care. Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino, takes that formula, but it does what few other movies like this dare to do: it’s not afraid to be messy, morally gray, and frustrating. If the combination of Lumet, Pacino, and a morally complex plot based on a true story sounds familiar, it’s because these things came together again in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon—a testament to how well they worked in this film. Serpico shows us the harsh reality of a world where, even in the police force, morality is not so clearly divided into good guys and bad guys, and the struggle to do the right thing can be painfully tedious.

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The Irishman

“Nowadays, young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don’t have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”

The crime genre is a prolific one, with many masterpieces already on my list. Among crime film directors, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) is royalty. So when it was announced that Scorsese, now nearing the end of his career, would be making another crime epic with acting legends Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement for this film), film buffs collectively lost their shit. With Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci having so many great films to their names but nearing the end of their careers (and, let’s face it, nearing the end of their lives), this will probably be the last time we see this director and these actors put out a film like this. The Irishman is a fond farewell to those great crime films we grew up with and loved, and it’s fitting that it deals with aging career criminals coming to terms with their lives of crime and violence. We’ve seen great human depictions of criminals, most notably in The Godfather and its sequels, but there hasn’t been an in-depth look at what happens when these criminals start aging out of the systems they created. That’s a gap The Irishman fills, and it does a brilliant job of it.

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American Hustle

The main cast of American Hustle

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”

Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.

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Mean Streets

Johnny Boy flashes a wry smile in Mean Streets

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”

With the newfound freedom afforded by loosened censorship laws, the 70s were a Renaissance of crime films. In 1972, The Godfather made a crime family as familiar as your next-door neighbors. In 1973, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) released Mean Streets, which brought crime from a family affair back to the streets, where it was untamed, unsafe, and unpredictable. Starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this film had a brilliant script, strong performances by lead actors, and some innovative cinematography that made the film seem more real than many of the earlier crime films, as well as many modern ones. This is admittedly not the best work in Scorsese’s stellar career, but it was his first masterpiece, and it holds a place in crime film history, paving the way for many later brilliant films.

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Once Upon a Time in America

Four poor Jewish kids in 1920

This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

“I’d have put everything I ever had on you.”

The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.

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The Sting

Johnny Hooker and Henry Gondorff put their hands up in The Sting

“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?

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The Green Mile

Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey look at something offscreen in The Green Mile

“I just can’t see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.”

When someone mentions a movie with miracles, that usually brings to mind some very specific images: a struggling family, an overly sentimental problem, and a religious leader, for instance. The Green Mile gives us a story showing that miracles can occur anywhere—even in a prison block reserved for inmates on death row, even in the midst of senseless brutality, even among people who can’t bring themselves to believe in a god at all. This film is adapted from a Stephen King novel and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic), and it stars Tom Hanks, David Morse, and Michael Clarke Duncan. This is an outstanding drama that will stick with you long after the credits roll, but be prepared: it’s quite sad at times and downright disturbing in a few spots. In the end, though, it’s totally worth it.

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The Dark Knight

The Joker looks brooding in The Dark Knight

“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.

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BlacKkKlansman

Flip Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth examine a KKK membership care in BlacKkKlansman

“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”

There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.

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Heat

Heat (1995)

“A guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” Heat is close to the perfect crime film, in large part because it gets all the details right. Written and directed by Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) and starring crime film legends Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, this film spends just as much time developing the antagonist as the protagonist—an idea which influenced the crime genre for at least a decade afterward. But the film got a lot of things right, from police procedures during a bank robbery and mannerisms of actual career criminals to the minutiae of failing marriages and relationships torn apart by reckless spending and substance abuse, and it did it through careful research and attention to detail that you really don’t see in most other films. This isn’t quite the most brilliant crime movie out there, but it’s probably the most detailed and it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

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