As alluded to in the introduction to my previous articles on the best neo-noir films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, getting cinema lovers to agree as to what films should be called horror films, suspense thrillers, classic film noir and neo-noir is a difficult if not impossible task.
The equally Herculean task of determining the best films in a genre category is driven by the same individual taste that drives all film writing on every level. Readers disappointed by not seeing their personal favorites in previous installments of this best of neo-film noir series may disagree with the omission of such titles as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) from this piece.
Regarding other intentional omissions, there are no Johnnie To titles in this article. For a must-see list of this popular director’s work, check out Emilio Santoni’s in-depth Johnnie To piece here. The grim essence of classic film noir is alive and well beyond the 2009 cutoff for this article.
Be sure to catch up with recent neo-film noir classics made in 2010 and later including Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), Fred Cavaye’s fantastic Point Blank (2010) which is not remake of the 1967 John Boorman/Lee Marvin favorite, The Chaser director Na Hong-jin’s severely underrated The Yellow Sea (2010) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011).
As is the nature of genre labeling, it should be noted that a number of films mentioned in this article could also be classified in other genres such as heist film, suspense thriller of moral confrontation or even psychopath horror in some cases.
Excluded from consideration were films that take place in a period setting. Also excluded were films that despite the presence of modern noir elements actually fall firmly into the suspense thriller category such as Daniel Espinosa’s highly entertaining Safe House (2012).
Note: The films listed are in chronological order by release year.
1. The Crimson Rivers (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2000)
Screenplay by Kassovitz based on the Jean-Christophe Grange novel
Vincent Cassel and Jean Reno play a pair of detectives investigating a series of murders in an isolated university town in this highly atmospheric French film that culminates in a tense mountainside climax.
Cassel and Reno make a great acting team, the murders-seen in aftermath-recall the best of Italian giallo and the cinematography by Thierry Arbogast is superlative. Arbogast frequently works with director Luc Besson and had previously shot Besson’s Leon: The Professional. A very poor sequel to Crimson Rivers was made in 2004, starring Reno but not Cassel.
2. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Screenplay by Nolan based on the Jonathan Nolan short story “Memento Mori”
Issues of memory are frequently found in classic film noir as seen in pictures like Roy William Neill’s Cornell Woolrich adaptation Black Angel (1946) and both screen versions of the Woolrich story “Nightmare”-Maxwell Shane’s 1947 Fear in the Night and Maxwell Shane’s 1956 Nightmare. As accomplished as those films are, Christopher Nolan’s complex and outstanding neo-film noir Memento rightfully stands as the king of memory-oriented dark crime films.
The film is told in reverse order as it begins with the ending and Guy Pearce delivers a great lead performance as a man with chronic short-term memory loss in search of his wife’s killer. If Cornell Woolrich were alive today, Memento would probably be his favorite film.
3. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
Screenplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto
Ray Winstone stars as a retired British gangster named Gal who now resides in Spain with his wife. His past explodes into his present as his old colleague Don shows up unexpectedly and tries to recruit Gal for an ambitious bank robbery back in England.
Ben Kingsley’s Academy Award-nominated performance as the vicious Don Logan is a sight to behold and Ray Winstone is always solid but Sexy Beast also features a great supporting performance by veteran actor Ian McShane as crime boss Teddy Bass.
The film could do without the brief, superfluous fantasy sequences that occur at several points in Sexy Beast but the film is must-see for fans of British crime cinema and contemporary neo-noir. Ray Winstone and Ian McShane reunited with Sexy Beast screenwriters Mellis and Scinto in 2009 for the very disappointing revenge film 44 Inch Chest, which comes off more as a stage play than dynamic crime cinema.
4. Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001)
Screenplay by David Ayer
This film’s tight and compact narrative takes place over the course of one day as a young police officer named Jake played by Ethan Hawke is taken under the wing of veteran detective Alonzo Harris played by Denzel Washington.
As the events of the day take a very dark and dangerous turn, Jake slowly discovers that Alonzo has much bigger plans for him.
Ethan Hawke’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Training Day may not make a great deal of sense but Denzel Washington’s Best Actor Oscar win for this film does as it is one of the most accomplished and memorable performances of his career. Be on the lookout for an almost unrecognizable Cliff Curtis in a brief but outstanding performance as a Latino gang member.
5. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Screenplay by Chan-wook, Lee Jae-sun, Lee Jong-yong and Lee Mu-yeong
Having delivered an award-winning performance in Park Chan-wook’s 2000 military drama JSA: Joint Security Area, actor Song Kang-ho reunited with the director for this grim story of the kidnapping of a young girl that turns into a violent downward spiral for all involved.
Song Kang-ho’s great acting anchors the film and the talented actor would appear as a hitman in a brief cameo in Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance (2005) and play the lead in the director’s vampire film misfire Thirst (2009).
6. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Screenplay by Chan-wook, Lim Chun-hyeong and Hwang Jo-yun based on the Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi graphic novels
Recently imitated and nowhere near duplicated, director Chan-wook’s brutal tale of revenge features a fabulous lead performance by veteran South Korean actor Choi Min-sik as a man searching for whoever kidnapped him and imprisoned him in a hotel room for fifteen years.
The actor also appears as the villain in Park Chan-wook’s disappointing third entry in the Vengeance Trilogy Lady Vengeance (2005) which cannot match the quality of the unique screenplays of the first two films.
7. 36th Precinct (Olivier Marchal, 2004)
Screenplay by Marchal and Franck Mancuso
Called “The Michael Mann of France”, actor turned screenwriter and director Marchal uses his real-life experiences as a police officer to inform this tale of corruption and revenge starring the great Daniel Auteuil-one of the best screen actors in the world-and revered veteran performer Gerard Depardieu as rival cops.
This outstanding film is unjustly overlooked by most but, unsurprisingly, an American remake that sets the story in the world of the Los Angeles Police Department has been announced.
8. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
Screenplay by Stuart Beattie
A hitman named Vincent played by Tom Cruise forces a cab driver named Max played by Jamie Foxx to transport him to a series of paid killings over the course of one night. The film was directed by Michael Mann, one of the great neo-film noir directors with such classics as Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995) to his credit.
Jamie Foxx, clearly the lead character in the film, received a rather puzzling Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Collateral when Tom Cruise deserved that accolade for what is one of the best-if not the best-performance of his career in the supporting but top-billed role of the ruthless hitman.
9. The Aura (Fabian Bielinsky, 2005)
Screenplay by Bielinsky
An epileptic taxidermist who believes he has an infallible photographic memory gets tangled up in a robbery plot in the severely overlooked The Aura. Having starred in screenwriter/director Bielinsky’s clever but decidedly lighter crime film Nine Queens (2000), the great Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin plays the lead here in one of the great performances of his highly accomplished career. Bielinsky’s untimely death in 2006 robbed the cinematic world of a very talented individual and a director/actor collaboration that had incredible potential.
What Daniel Auteuil is to French cinema and Javier Bardem is to Spanish cinema, Ricardo Darin is to Argentinian cinema and be sure to catch his outstanding performances in Juan Jose Campanella’s Academy Award winning The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Pablo Trapero’s underrated neo-film noir Carancho (2010).
10. A Bittersweet Life (Kim Jee-woon, 2005)
Screenplay by Jee-woon
A crime boss’ right hand man played by very popular South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun puts his life in danger when he disobeys a set of orders. With its focus on ideas of loyalty and honor, A Bittersweet Life is reminiscent of the 1980s and early 1990s golden era of Hong Kong gangster films and if that piques your imagination, be sure to seek out this film.
Lee Byung-hun reunited with director Kim Jee-woon for the unforgettable and incredibly violent neo-film noir I Saw the Devil in 2010 also starring Oldboy lead actor Choi Min-sik in a tremendous performance as a psychotic villain.