Crime movies have been popular as long as movies have been around, and the world keeps providing ever stranger real-life material for them to use. It'd be hard to invent the terrifying stories behind classics like Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, or more scuzzy works like the vacation-from-hell horror movie Wolf Creek—and they didn't. In recent years, the "based on a true story" conceit has become a tired Hollywood trope, but only because these movies so masterfully blended nonfiction with the wild imaginative possibilities of the big screen. Here are the best movie based on true crimes, ranked.
Despite what the trailer and posters might make you think, American Hustle is about more than Amy Adams' cleavage. The movie stylishly riffs on the FBI's 1970s ABSCAM sting operation, and is filled with as many twists and double-crossings as era-appropriate pop songs and swishy dance moves.
Catch Me If You Can
It's not Steven Spielberg's best, but Catch Me If You Can ranks among the director’s more entertaining movies. It tracks Frank Abagnale's rise as a wunderkind conman. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been more enjoyably charming and slimy.
Zodiac wasn’t necessarily the movie horror fans—or fans of David Fincher’s previous Seven—expected. Instead, it’s a process movie about the people who tried to unmask California’s Zodiac Killer. Studiously researched and impeccably shot, Zodiac turns into something larger and more foreboding than a spate of murders.
Memories of Murder
Before South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made international thrillers like Snowpiercer and Okja, he crafted this gem of a murder mystery, based on Korea's first serial murders. He brings his signature pitch-black humor to the story of two detectives in over their heads trying to solve the puzzling killings.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The best and boldest thing about The Wolf of Wall Street, possibly Scorsese's most indulgent movie, is how fun it makes its crimes look. Scorsese and writer Terence Winter condense fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort's memoir down to basically the most sensational parts, putting you in the headspace of a man who sees other people's money as his own playpen.
Scorsese gets three movies on this list, and deserves all of them. Casino is an underrated '90s gangster effort living in Goodfellas' shadow. The cast—Robert De Niro as a low-level mobster making his way up the casino racket (based on Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal) and Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci as the wife and friend who threaten to tear it down—is entirely perfect.
Summer of Sam
An uncharacteristic movie for Spike Lee, Summer of Sam depicts the effect of the notorious murders of "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz on young men living in The Bronx in 1977. Lee seamlessly weaves the stories together, and John Leguizamo proves he's a real-deal actor.
The twisted, trashy story of South Florida high schoolers who murdered a sadistic friend who had abused them, Bully is a hard one to stomach, but director Larry Clark (Kids) gives the script the no-bullshit delivery it deserves, and Brad Renfro's performance is quietly haunting.
Dog Day Afternoon
The movie inspired by a Brooklyn robbery solidified Al Pacino's legend, in all its spittle-filled, shouting glory.
The French Connection
The fictionalized account of New York City detectives who pursue a French drug smuggler is essentially one long, glorious chase scene. But Gene Hackman's performance and the sobering ending give it moral weight.
All the President's Men
Bless them, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made journalism sexy by embodying Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they followed trails that led them them to connect a Watergate burglary to President Nixon.
One of the great horror movies of the 21st century, Wolf Creek is also the main reason I'm scared to visit Australia. Fictionalizing two different Aussie backpack murderers, it follows three sexy tourists venturing into the Outback who meet a stranger and...well, you know the rest. What separates Wolf Creek from other slashers is its unflinching directness; not since Michael Myers has there been a depiction of a man made of such pure evil.
While the assassination of John F. Kennedy remains officially solved, Oliver Stone's historical drama is such a persuasive conspiracy thriller that it will leave you convinced that something else was at work.
Anatomy of a Murder
Jimmy Stewart is as flawless as he ever was wavering between comic and dramatic in the Otto Preminger-directed courtroom drama, based on a novel written by a defense attorney and inspired by one of his cases. Few movies seem to grasp the moral ambiguity of the legal system while also being both realistic and tense.
Spotlight could've been really boring. Not because the story itself—about the conspiracy to cover up child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston—is boring. But the Best Picture-winner chooses to focus on the perspective of the journalists who unearthed that scandal by spending a lot of time at their desks calling people up. Remarkably, director Tom McCarthy's movie manages to improve on All the President's Men by not even attempting to sensationalise what these journalists do. It unravels in straightforward, stoic conversations that gradually build into almost unbearable catharsis.
One of director Brian De Palma's best movies is also one of his most conventional: Kevin Costner plays federal agent Eliot Ness, who is trying to nab Al Capone (Robert De Niro). The staircase sequence, inspired by the silent movie Battleship Potemkin, is a mini-masterpiece of suspense.
F for Fake
Orson Welles's last, great movie is ostensibly a documentary about an art forger, but it quickly fractures into something else. Welles intrudes on his own narrative to raise questions about the nature of authenticity. It's his own amusing, exceptionally clever take on postmodernism.
In the Realm of the Senses
If you watched In the Realm of the Senses without background knowledge, you might wonder what sick nutjob wrote it. But it's based on a Japanese woman who became national myth—a Geisha in the 1930s who strangled her boss/lover in the heat of passion and then, uh, took a souvenir from his body. In the Realm of the Senses artfully abstracts that tale, unfolding in long, largely silent, and sexually explicit takes.
Terrence Malick's stunning 1973 feature debut gives poetic shape to its inspiration, based on spree killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend. Sissy Spacek does justice to the dreamy, elliptical voiceover dialogue covering their courtship and crimes.
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde is such a singular, monumental movie in American history that it's as famous as the couple it's about. Which is only right: Never before had a major movie in the United States addressed criminal and sexual themes so openly and without any heavy-handed judgment. The stark, bloody climax still feels revolutionary.
Steven Spielberg clearly had a lot invested in Munich, his nearly three-hour telling of Israeli spies' revenge against Palestinian terrorists who murdered the country's Olympic athletes in 1972. It was sadly overlooked at the box office, but Spielberg not only brings his mastery of visuals and suspense to his political thriller, but also humanity and scope that sadly many such movies (looking at you, Argo) lack.
The serial-killer genre owes all its debts to German director Fritz Lang's astounding 1931 movie, which draws on murders in the country around the time and a real Berlin criminal investigator. Portraying an underworld of criminals who are out to catch one of their own in murky black-and-white photography, it's as scary and thrilling as anything released since.
A Man Escaped
The classic by director Robert Bresson is about a criminal you can root for, since he's escaping a prison in Nazi-occupied France (it's based on the memoirs of André Devigny). As in Bresson's other landmark works, it's awe-inspiring to watch how controlled the movie is while also seeming like it could be a documentary.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper's '70s grindhouse classic is loosely—very loosely—based on the crimes of Ed Gein. No, Leatherface never existed, which is almost too bad, because he would have made a hell of an America's Most Wanted episode. But Texas Chainsaw is on here because it gets its power from its faked, lo-fi sense of authenticity. It plays out like the most disturbing home video of all time, and was even promoted more or less as such, making a franchise out of the fear that there is always a monster lurking just around the corner of a country backroad.
If it's not Martin Scorsese's best movie (and it might well be), then Goodfellas is at least the culmination of what he'd been working toward for years: a time-jumping, ego- and testosterone-filled gangster epic portraying Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) life in the mafia. It's a movie no one else could have made, and one every other gangster flick will be compared to in the future.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.