The best of the best, here are presented the ten best movies about crime which are based on true stories. They are listed in alphabetical order and each is generally a quite good movie, but what makes them especially interesting, and in some cases, very, very terrifying, is that this is not complete fiction; in fact, most of what is being portrayed really did happen…
Starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens, Jordi Mollà, and Ray Liotta, this Ted Demme directed picture tells us the story of George Jung (Depp) who goes from being the son of a lower-middle class plumber (Liotta) to drug dealer, to drug trafficker, to basically cocaine king of the United States, to inmate, to parolee trying to get back into his daughter’s life, and finally to permanent inmate. The movie is heart-wrenching and the kind of movie men will in which men watching will tear up at the end because George finally realizes that the advice his father gave him long ago, when his father’s business was in trouble, was the truth, and George has realized it too late to do anything about it. It is as tragic as it is brilliant with fantastic acting, a great cast and the never-changing excellence in direction of Demme.
2. Bully 2001 – Directed by Larry Clark
The always controversial director Larry Clark directs this 2001 picture about a group of teenagers who plot to kill another teenager who has been bullying them for years and, tired of it, they plot revenge, only to face the real consequences of such a crime in a predictable fashion. Bully features the recently deceased, but incredibly promising actor Brad Renfro in one of his best roles, as well as Rachel Miner, Bijou Phillips, and Nick Stahl. The naivete of the teenagers when contrasted with the violence and lack of innocence during the bullying scenes and then later during the scenes when the murder is occurring keep this, like all of Clark‘s pictures, incredibly controversial and disturbing, all the more so in this case since this is based on true events.
3. Casino 1995 – Directed by Martin Scorsese
The legendary Martin Scorsese-directed Casino is the story of how the Italian mafia took over Las Vegas and turned it into a goldmine, but through a combination of greed, excesses, egos, and in-fighting, ended up losing control of it all and having it taken over by corporations and turned into a family-friendly resort-town more closely resembling a theme park than a 1970s casino. As with all of Scorsese’s movies which are written by Nicholas Pileggi in book form and then as a screenplay, we find a familiar cast of actors who are all-stars firing on all of their cylinders in their performances. From Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, to Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna, Rothstein’s former-prostitute, drug-addicted wife, to mob enforcer Nicky Santoro as played by Joe Pesci, all of Scorsese‘s regulars are back and their performances couldn’t be better. The film also includes parts perfect for their cast members, including Kevin Pollak as the official, clean head of the casino who has no mob involvement, to James Woods as Lester Diamond, Sharon Stone‘s mooching, manipulative pimp, to even Don Rickles as the casino manager. Casino is a movie that has it all and on top of that: it’s based very closely on how Las Vegas truly came to be!
4. Catch Me If You Can 2002 – directed by Steven Spielberg
The story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who may be said to be one of the most prolific, original, creative, and persistent con-artists who masquerades as an airline pilot, a doctor, an attorney, and any other profession which catches his fancy. He manufactures his own identification documents and his own fraudulent checks and by understanding the financial system better than the virtually anyone else is able to amass a fortune of millions. He is constantly being chased by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who is often mocked by his peers at the FBI for what they perceive as very small, petty crime, not worthy of the FBI’s attentions. In the movie, as in real-life, when he is finally caught after a 26-country man-hunt, Abignale decides to help the FBI by joining them in a consulting role and teaching them how to catch people like him in the future and then writing a book about his escapades, which turns into this Spielberg-directed movie called Catch Me If You Can.
5. Cidade de Deus 2002 – Directed by Fernando Meirelles
This independent, Portuguese-language, Brazilian film earns a place on this list because not only does it tell the true story of the drug gangs in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, many of the extras in the film are active members of the gangs in their current form! It is a movie of extreme violence as robbery is constant and guns everywhere. Gunfights break-out all the time over the most petty matters; in one scene a group of children none older than ten argue about who should have which gun, after having gunned down a man for no particular reason at all. It is a brutal movie and that it is based as closely as is possible on the true story of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) who wants to grow up to be a photojournalist and Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino) who wants to grow up to be the gangster in charge of the slum is shocking, troubling, deeply disturbing, and makes for a fantastically eye-opening film.
6. Donnie Brasco 1997 – Directed by Mike Newell
Johnny Depp stars as Agent Joe Pistone of the FBI who goes deep undercover using the alias Donnie Brasco to infiltrate the New York mafia through a soldier named Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero (Johnny Depp) and works his way through the syndicate, ultimately meeting, associating himself with, and putting himself in a position to convict Sonny Black, a lieutenant played by Michael Madsen and the rest of his crew at trial. Pistone’s wife, played by Anne Heche portrays the stress of a woman who knows her husband is in constant danger of being killed and must remain undercover for months or even years for his job to be accomplished. The strain on their marriage puts a human face to this picture as does the frailty sometimes evident in Lefty’s character. At the film’s conclusion one can’t help, but feel either sympathy or empathy for Lefty and what he has given up in his life and what he has gotten in return. Sure, they were his choices, but that hardly removes the tragedy, does it?
7. Ghosts of Mississippi 1996 – Directed by Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner‘s 1996 hate-crime movie about the prosecution of the man who assassinated a civil rights leader named Medgar Evers in the 1960s in the 1990s. Alec Baldwin stars as Bobby DeLaughter, the prosecutor determined to put the perpetrator in prison, despite his age and the the age of the crime. Supporting Baldwin are James Woods as Byron De La Beckwith, the killer of Medgar Evers, Virginia Madsen as Dixie DeLaughter, Bobby’s wife, and Whoopi Goldberg as Evers’ widow Myrlie. The entire movie and the true story behind it are heart-wrenching and disturbing in their viciousness, even years after the crime was committed. In both the movie and in real-life, it took the determination of Myrlie and the prosecutor’s team to put away the racist assassinator of a promising young father and civil rights leader like Medgar Evers more than thirty years after the crime was committed.
8. Goodfellas 1990 – Directed by Martin Scorsese
This 1990 classic has been honored by the US government by being put onto the National Film Registry and has become as iconic as The Godfather in terms of Mafia movies, except this one is based on how it really happened. Martin Scorsese directs an adaptation of a book by Nicholas Pileggi, who also wrote the screenplay about the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Brooklyn, from his youth all the way through his life in the mafia, to his eventual settling as a middle-class schlub in the witness protection program.
Working his way up the ladder Hill meets enforcer Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), underboss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero), Frenchy (Mike Starr), Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), and others in the great structure of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of the New York City mafia. Although it is said to water down the viciousness of the characters significantly, it also said to tell the story of a man on the inside of the mafia during its heyday in New York under a trusted underboss.
Goodfellas plays like a tragic opera as Henry’s child-like innocence is blended into his beginnings in the mafia and accepted as he becomes more and more deeply connected to the mafia. When he weds Karen (Lorraine Bracco) it is like a meeting of the entire New York City organized crime family at the reception, all of them giving bundles of cash to the newlyweds. Hill’s tragic middle years where his crimes start to catch up to him, and finally to his downfall due to drugs where he rats out his associates in the mafia in return for a middle-class life of anonymity in the witness protection program.
9. Monster 2003 – Directed by Patty Jenkins
Charlize Theron‘s Oscar-winning portrayal of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her relationship with Selby (Christina Ricci), a troubled woman being housed by a devoutly Christian family in Florida. Wuornos is one of the first female serial killers in American history and her viciousness and the number of people she killed is staggering. Charlize Theron, normally an absolutely beautiful, petite woman, transforms herself into Wuornos with such accuracy that it is difficult to tell them apart in side-by-side photos.
The movie follows Aileen acting as a street-walking prostitute who suddenly freaks out and starts killing her johns and bringing the money to Selby, once her Christian family discovers their affair, so that the two of them can be together. It is a twisted story of two very damaged women: Selby, who internalizes her damage in the form of introversion, depression, anxiety, and general malaise; and Aileen who transforms hers into a desire to survive at all costs which then transforms into a general hatred of men and finally becomes the force with which she kills so many men. A stunning, accurate, gritty, and deeply upsetting look into the life of one of America’s few female serial killers’ lives.
10. Zodiac 2007 – Directed by David Fincher
Finally, a truly terrifying movie based on a true story since the killer in this movie has never been identified and may still even be alive and free in David Fincher’s 2007 horror movie Zodiac. Though poorly directed and written, even heavily dragging in some areas, Zodiac remains a terrifying horror movie for the very basic fact that it is the story of a psychopathic serial killer’s terroristic rampage through California, taunting the police in cryptic, coded messages, and the fact that this person has never been identified, tried, punished or otherwise faced any consequences for his actions. In fact, though now much older, he could very well still be alive and well somewhere, sitting and living his life in a more simple manner and we’d never know.
As for Fincher’s adaption and film, it’s not something I think he is proud of. It is not one of his finest works and despite a great cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, and Chloë Sevigny, it is a flop and more detail of my opinion on the matter may be found at my Zodiac review at FauxNixon