If there’s one movie genre that audiences keep coming back to time and time again, it’s the casino movie genre. Movies about gaming, whether set in a high stakes casino or following grassroots players as they bluff their way to the top, are relentlessly engaging. There’s something about the inherent drama of watching high-risk real-money gaming play out alongside a compelling storyline that just keeps you hooked.
The casino has featured in movies for as long as there have been ‘talkies’, but it was the period between the 1960s and late 1990s when casino movies reached their peak. While Hollywood moved on to other things at the turn of the Millennium, thanks to the global boom of free online poker and pro tournaments that emerged following Chris Moneymaker’s legendary WSOP win, by the 2010s poker and blackjack made their way back into co-star position.
More recently, A-listers Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba have led us into the shadowy world of celebrity poker in Molly’s Game. And just last year, Paul Schrader released The Card Counter to critical acclaim.
All things considered, the past 50 years have provided quite the list of casino and poker themed movies. But which amongst them have emerged ahead of the pack? Let’s take a look at the definitive movies every casino fan needs to watch.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Back in 2001, Steven Soderbergh upped the casino cool factor when he unleashed his glamourous reworking of this Rat Pack caper. Casting George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the lead roles was no small accident, and with its supporting cast made up of Hollywood’s finest character actors, Ocean’s Eleven is, well, irresistible.
Make no mistake, this is not a movie concerned with the intricacies or moral code of casino gaming or even realism. It is, however, a rip-roaring ride through a Las Vegas fantasy that we all wish we could be part of.
Let’s face it, no list of the definitive casino movies would be complete without mention of this eponymous release. As if the electric combination of Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci wasn’t enough, Scorsese’s intricate drama takes us on a ride through the evolution of Las Vegas from a mobbed-up town to the entertainment capital of the world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a casino fan who hasn’t watched this gem at least twice.
Featuring a crop of fresh-faced young actors (Kate Bosworth, Jacob Pitts and Jim Sturgess in the lead role) alongside heavyweights Laurence Fishburn and Kevin Spacey, 21 tells a somewhat-embellished story of the MIT Blackjack Team. Remember those pesky US students who toured the finest casinos in the world with their card counting antics?
Ok, so Robert Luketic’s effort to take us into the world of blackjack and card counting may not be quite as compelling as Martin Scorsese’s award-winner, but nevertheless, 21 deserves its place amongst the best casino movies of the 21st century. And, for all its faults, this is the perfect blackjack movie to chill out in front of on a Sunday afternoon.
California Split (1974)
As a director, Robert Altman has amassed a truly meaningful body of work. While California Split won’t rank alongside 3 Women or The Long Goodbye anytime soon, it still remains an underrated classic and a prime example of the “hangout cinema” produced during the 1970s.
Exploring bromance before it was a thing, California Split is a buddy movie that happens to feature a fair amount of casino gaming. Starring George Segal and Elliot Gould, the film does earn props for its detailed presentation of games like poker, roulette and blackjack.
Molly’s Game (2017)
Based on the memoir of Molly Bloom, aka Hollywood’s Poker Princess, this 2017 release marked the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin. Starring Jessica Chastain as the titular character, this is a fast-paced, slick thriller that is also immensely watchable. Although it may be littered here and there with Sorkinisms that are far too clever for their own good, nevertheless, Molly’s Game delivers an adept, adrenaline-fuelled ride through the underground high-stakes poker games of LA and New York.