It’s tough to choose a “best” fictional crime family. After all, most of the crime families from movies and television traffic in human misery – they are crime families. They’re production and facilitation centers for vice and violence, oppressors of their members and their communities. Still, they can be awfully captivating.
So, “best” really means: most intriguing, most effective, coolest, biggest, and most iconic. These families are judged for their achievement, reach, and reputation.
Two notes about the rankings:
First, “family” is really a colloquialism, standing in for “syndicate”. The members of these crime families are not necessarily blood-related. Our operating definition is broader than the classic mafia structure. Any substantially-sized group of characters that commit crimes together is on the table.
Second, families directly based on real-life syndicates are not qualified for the list. Neither are criminal families from video games. They may exist in other media (comics, games, what have you), but your primary digestion of them must take place on a TV or movie screen.
These are the 15 Best Crime Families in TV and Movie History.
15. The Cody Family – Animal Kingdom
The Codys are a family, and they do commit crimes. But they don’t rate among some of the other, large scale outfits on this list.
In Animal Kingdom (now a TV show!), The Cody “organization” is a rough band of siblings and acquaintances who rob and sell drugs, all ruled over by a matriarchal grandmother named Smurf. The role of Smurf originally belonged to Jackie Weaver, who played it with a cold, Lady Macbeth-ian edge.
Smurf is not only the driving operative behind the Codys, but the film’s most intriguing character and the main force behind whatever success the Cody clan pieces together. That makes her a fantastic character. But the text’s reliance on Smurf as both a literal and metaphorical lynchpin weakens the Codys’ overall profile.
The Codys got the family part right. But they lack the business acumen and the calculating discipline to rank very highly on a list of fiction’s greatest Crime Families. Animal Kingdom is awesome, though.
14. The Ex-Presidents – Point Break
This entry is exclusively discussing the original – and only true – Point Break.
The Ex-Presidents are a group of surfers in Point Break that put on masks of – you guessed it – ex-presidents and rob banks, mostly to finance their lavish extreme sports lifestyles. Oh, and also because bank robbing is a total adrenaline rush. It’s no secret that Point Break has become a cult classic precisely because that premise is giddily insane.
But is it really so insane?
Remember, in Point Break, the ex-presidents are referred to as consummate professionals – the FBI is willing to train Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) to surf, hoping he might be able to infiltrate a surfing/bank robbing ring. Which means the Ex-Presidents are so effective that the FBI is willing to go to absurd, cartoonish lengths to quell the crew’s reign of bank robbery terror.
They are both effective and cool – so cool, in fact, that Utah (predictably) struggles to follow his legal obligation after becoming intoxicated by the gang’s extreme lifestyle. 100% pure adrenaline!
13. The Van Buren Boys – Seinfeld
The Van Buren Boys are a New York City street gang featured in one episode of Seinfeld, titled, fittingly, The Van Buren Boys. The gang is named after the 8th president of the united states, Martin Van Buren; this fact instills in them a great sense of brotherhood and respect for tradition, which we will get to.
But first, how can a one-episode bit from a sitcom land on a list of the greatest crime families in screen history? It’s a fair question.
The Van Buren Boys came late in a transitional period for the show, as harmless observations about day-to-day minutiae (romantic signals, nose-picking, finding your parking spot, etc.) gave way to bonkers storylines with characters hoarding their own blood, accidentally killing their fiancée, or running from New York gangs founded in honor of ex-presidents.
The Van Buren Boys are a seemingly small outfit, although they appear to have a reputation that precedes them. They are territorial, and doggedly protect their own. When George pulls a scholarship from an average student (his fake aspirations shifted from architect to city planner, irking George), that student falls in with the Van Buren Boys, who advocate for his further education on his behalf.
12. The Fisk Family – Daredevil (Netflix)
We don’t know much about the inner workings of the Fisk family from Daredevil, or if “The Fisk Family” is even what they call themselves. In true comic book fashion, the seemingly gigantic enterprise is represented pretty much solely by Fisk himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Fisk’s right hand mand, Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). As such, the hierarchy of Fisk’s corporation boils down to:
1. Fisk .
3 (and up). Henchmen.
Not a very strong constituency. Yet, even though we don’t know much about the dealings within Fisk’s family, we can discern a great deal about the man’s achievement and scope. Fisk deals internationally, with the heads of foreign syndicates. His motivations stretch far beyond personal enrichment, into city planning and society-building. His power and stature come (as with many comic villains) from his inherent traits, rather than circumstance or consensus. He is self-made and ferocious, but still low on this list. Fisk is a comic book villain, first and foremost – his “family” is a function of that fact. Every great villain needs an endless stream of henchmen.
11. The Warriors – The Warriors
This is the eponymous gang from The Warriors, a ’70s gangland film set in a universe where crews have cool names like “The Warriors”, “The Rogues”, “The Orphans”, and “The Baseball Furies”. Each of those gangs has their particular turf, areas within New York City where they are free from hassle.
Early in The Warriors, a leader of The Riffs calls for a city-wide truce, so all the street toughs in the city can stop fighting each other and instead fight the law. Most of the other gangs liked the idea, but The Riffs’ leader is assassinated anyway, and The Warriors are framed for some reason. In the chaos that erupts post-assassination, The Warriors must traverse New York to reach their home turf. But everyone is looking for them, because they are suspected for the heinous coup.
The Warriors is sort of ridiculous, in that charming, under-produced way. It’s a film that features loads of tough, scary gangs that are only tough and scary because the film explicitly says so. None of the characters on screen are particularly menacing; they are more corny and amusing. Still, the Warriors are an impressive gang. They make their way back home, easily winning rumbles with a handful of gangs and manipulating a few others, and eventually exonerating themselves. They are a crime family you can root for.
10. The T-Birds – Grease
The T-Birds are not a crime family, any more than the kids in your neighborhood who play baseball in the street are a professional baseball team. They do things like smoke cigarettes before their eighteenth birthday and drive cars fast, maybe fight every once in a while. But they aren’t a crime family, per se.
They are a highly organized outfit, though, and one that is defined by a criminal ethos – they are bad boys. Danny (John Travolta), is clearly the head of the T-Bird crew. Why else would the rest of the guys be so obsessed with his love life? Danny has a superior, authoritative hairdo, and gets all the prime singing slots when the music hits. His best friend, Kenickie, is the group’s number 2, mostly because of his proximity to Danny and his plagiarism of Danny’s whole look.
The T-Birds fail miserably in the crime side of the “crime-family” definition, but they are an unforgettable, electric group of vaguely disreputable characters. And for that, they must make the list.
9. The Falcone Crime Family – Batman Begins
Comic book (movie) crime families are tough to codify. Are they a family dedicated to crime? Or a family dedicated to defeating superheroes, which begets crime? It’s an important distinction, as we didn’t want the list to solely feature supervillains, all of whom employ some henchmen and could thusly be defined as a syndicate. We looked for families defined by more than just a common goal (“kill Batman“); families bonded by blood, aesthetics, ethnicity, history, etc. The Falcone family fits both qualifiers; they are modeled after the classic Italian mafia, and are also framed as a primary antagonist for Bats.
In Batman Begins, Carmine Falcone – long an antagonist in classic comics like The Long Halloween and Year One – made his big screen debut, played by Tom Wilkinson. In the film, the family essentially runs Gotham. They own the police, the Mayor’s office, and all the crime coming in and out of the city. Which made it regrettable (but predictable) when Falcone was usurped as the film’s big bad by the supervillains Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul.
Despite Falcone’s fate (rocking back and forth in an insane asylum), the broken, shattered Gotham that viewers are introduced to in Batman Begins is largely a product of the Falcone family dealings – and that has to count for something, right?
8. The Springfield Mafia – The Simpsons
The Springfield Mafia, and more specifically Fat Tony, have been operating longer than almost any other family on this list – Fat Tony’s first appearance on The Simpsons was in a 1991 episode, titled Bart The Murderer. Fat Tony (now the original Tony’s cousin Fit Tony, who has become another Fat Tony) made his most recent appearance in a 2016 episode, The Burns Cage.
The Mafia has been featured in a number of their own classic arcs and scenes throughout The Simpsons, notably when Bart went to work for Fat Tony and when the Springfield Mafia advocated on behalf of Marge’s upstart pretzel company. But the Springfield Mafia has served an equally important purpose as a comedy tool, used to spoof whatever pop cultural Mafia incarnation is in vogue at the moment. Fat Tony and his guys have been used in Godfather, Goodfellas, and Sopranos riffs at different times, in addition to their occasional role as true players in the happenings of Springfield. They are a truly timeless fictional crime family.
7. SAMCRO – Sons of Anarchy
Now we are getting into real crime families: giant syndicates populated by memorable characters who are, without a doubt, bad in every way.
SAMCRO (The Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original), are the focus of their eponymous FX drama, Sons of Anarchy. The club’s president is Clay Morrow (Ron Pearlman) and much of the series surrounds the wresting of power from Clay by his step-son Jax (Charlie Hunnam), whose father was the original founder of the club.
Okay, now that the family drama is out of the way, let’s get to SAMCRO’s resume. First and foremost, they are a national organization (multi-national, including Canada). Redwood Original is the club’s first crew and home base, making them the seat of all decision-making. The Sons of Anarchy primarily run guns, arming the drug war. They also dabble in drugs, extortion, protection, and gambling rackets. Like any crime syndicate worth their salt, they rule their community, policing their home territory while they decimate far-off communities.
6. The Costello Crime Family – The Departed
The main antagonists from The Departed, the film that finally won Martin Scorsese his Best Picture Oscar, have to rank highly here. In addition to being the lynchpins of the film that cemented its director’s legacy, the Costello family is memorable in its own right.
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) leads the gang, an Irish outfit that lords over South Boston. His character is very tangentially related to real-life Southie gangster Whitey Bulger. Costello’s gang consists of Lieutenant Arnold French, and thugs named Patrick Fizgibbons, Timothy Delahunt, and Jimmy Bags. The whole thing is very Irish-sounding.
During the events of The Departed, the gang also employed Billy Costigan (Leo DiCaprio), an undercover operative for the Massachusetts state police.
The Costello family truly stands out because of its members. Costello himself is an intriguing, charismatic figure who also sets viewers on edge with his unstable, kinetic energy. Thugs like Mr. French are fascinating, either much smarter or dumber than they appear, and terrifying either way.
The Costello family is a rogues gallery that completely lacks the polish of Scorsese’s other crime families. In Goodfellas, Ray Liotta’s character monologues about looking at the fancy gangsters with their nice cars and wanting to be just like them. Costello’s gang is the opposite, all dim, shoddy bars, adult theaters, and sad cocaine parties. Whereas Henry Hill’s journey from mobster to snitch in Goodfellas was exciting, and intoxicating, Billy Costigan’s journey from cop to criminal in The Departed was depressing, and terrifying.
5. The Montana Cartel – Scarface
There is a well-known stand-up bit by John Mulaney, in which the comedian says that comparing films like The Godfather and Scarface is no different from comparing foods like lobster and skittles. That’s pretty damning, but the truth is that Scarface is a pop culture icon– instantly recognizable, oft-spoofed, and beloved by large swaths of the population. On the other hand, despite a somewhat more positive critical revisiting, the film was largely derided upon its original release. Most opinions from both sides both sides center on the character Tony Montana (Al Pacino), the head of the Montana cartel and the film’s protagonist.
Montana and his gang are so cartoonish, in both their violence and opulence, that they have become the standard bearer for hyper-stylized fictional gangsters. They might hold that title forever, which means they absolutely have to be included on any “best crime family” list. Montana himself is a psychopathic pit bull, characterized almost solely by his will and capacity for violence. He is – and this bludgeoned into the audience’s collective head – ambition brought to life. But, over thirty years later, it kind of works. Judged only by iconography and cultural import, Scarface deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of gangster films. And Tony and his pals belong on a list of the best crime families in screen history.
4. The Toretto Family – The Fast and The Furious films
This is indisputable – the Torettos have to be on any list of the best crime families in TV and movie history, and they have to rank highly. The Toretto family is amorphous, gaining and losing members from film to film. So, for the purposes of this ranking, we are evaluating the family around the time of Fast Five, when the former street-racing truck thieves had morphed into a multi-ethnic Avengers style paramilitary organization that did things like drag a bank vault through crowded city streets in a battle with police officers.
This is the lineup we are looking at: Dominic Toretto, Brian O’Conner, Mia Toretto, Roman Pearce, Tej Parker, Han Seoul-Oh, Letty (not in Fast Five), and frenemy Luke Hobbs. Throwbacks like Vince or the Tokyo guys are just bonuses. That group, right there, is so good at crime that they eventually become a de facto rogue government arm, tasked with doing dirty work for shady espionage cells. The lineup is strong, from top to bottom, with each character shining at points throughout the Fast series. And, importantly, they are bankable: the franchise, thought to be on life support ten years ago, has become Universal’s most successful franchise of all time.
3. The Soprano Crew – The Sopranos
Top three now – and as such, the distinctions between the next three entries will largely be matters of taste.
Here’s what can be said, definitively, about The Sopranos: no other fictional crime family has done a better job of balancing the elements of crime and family than the Sopranos. Some film families have come close, but the Sopranos had the advantage of hours upon hours of TV. Hours spent combing through the minutiae of Italian organized crime and of family life in suburban New Jersey. The show gave equal weight to stories of business dealings and of marriage troubles. Tony’s wife and kids weren’t just set decoration or narrative prop, they were actual characters, with actual motivations.
The Sopranos was one of a small handful of shows responsible for HBO’s success, and for ushering in the last golden age of television – that much is well known. But The Sopranos’ standing among other organized crime fiction is also singular. The web of characters and conflict in The Sopranos and the investment the show put into small beats and little details truly set it apart from similar stories.
2. The Barksdale Organization – The Wire
There’s a great chance that reading “The Barksdale Organization” either caused you to roll your eyes, smile, clap, or even, unfortunately, to ask “who?”. The Wire is a show with a small, rabid fan base and an overwhelmingly positive critical reputation, which might make it seem either like a contrarian or elitist entry at number two on this list. But, if you’ve seen The Wire, and let it worm its way into your soul, you probably agree with it.
The Barksdales are a drug syndicate in the Baltimore of The Wire. The family is headed, ostensibly, by Avon Barksdale – a ferocious but street-smart operator, destined to burn out quickly because of his brash, proud disposition. Truly, the organization is run at least in equal part by Stringer Bell, an intimidating figure with a business bent, focused more on margins and logistics than name recognition. They have been best friends forever.
The family is also populated by a ridiculous number of memorable characters – Bodie, Wee Bay, Slim Charles, Cutty, Poot – the list is endless. The Sopranos may have been an unparalleled look at one family, but The Wire, through the Barksdales, was an unparalleled look at one city, told through intensely personal stories. It’s common to hear The Wire referred to as Dickensian, given its scope and tone. But what happened to Stringer and Avon was pure Shakespeare. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s impossible to beat the Barksdales.
1. The Corleone Family – The Godfather films
Alas, there is more to each list than just technical evaluation of storytelling, or a numerical comparison of memorable characters. We must account for cultural importance, and no fictional family is more important than the Corleones. They are more than the model for the crime families that followed after – they are a baseline, a measuring stick. Every mafia movie that will ever be released will be measured, tacitly or overtly, against The Godfather. The film is so iconic it will force itself into every conversation about the mafia, in perpetuity.
The nucleus of The Corleone family is made up of Vito (Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro) and his sons Santino (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), Michael (Al Pacino), and daughter Connie (Talia Shire). These characters, all played by giants of acting, have become archetypes in their own right. The quotable lines from The Godfather films are endless, and so well known that recounting them here would be unnecessary, and borderline trite.
The Sopranos may have been a broader and more colorful snapshot of both crime and family. The Wire may be unmatched for its storytelling and tragedy. But it is impossible to overstate the impact of The Godfather and its first sequel. The Corleones are the greatest screen crime family of all time.