Film Noir and Crime Films were very popular on the 40’s. These films portrayed with gritty realism the life and activity of criminals and those around them. Typically, these films focused around bank robbers or gangsters, other times morally bankrupt characters working outside the law, forced by desperation into making all the wrong choices, most times leading to nihilism or tragedy.
Film Noir introduced a new style (both visually and thematically) to the aforementioned crime film genre, usually in a detective or mystery story formula, with post-war cynical commentary, dark, moody atmosphere and glorious cinematography, that boldly played with shadow and lighting, day and night (hence the name Film Noir). But as the genre evolved, so did the rules and conventions.
Stories were no longer limited to hoodlums and robbers, now being focused on the hard boiled heroic detective, later on violent, misanthropic figures and with the revival of film noir, dubbed as Neo-Noir we saw a wide ensemble of characters, mostly focusing on your average ordinary man, trapped by situations beyond his control, often giving you that despairing feeling that film noir gave you so good back in the day.
However, there are some films that get to explore a wide arrange of themes and issues, within the parameters of what would be considered a crime film. With brooding melodramatic atmosphere, offbeat humor and innovative, stylish visuals or narrative, these films go beyond your typical crime or film noir. Most of the time intellectual or emotionally devastating, these films draw you into an only existing world… that of the own film, with always something to say more than what appears on screen.
Examples of this emerging tendency in films can be linked to the film Drive (2011) directed by visionary Nicolas Winding Refn. Stylized action, slow, arthouse atmosphere and disjointed, fragmented narrative, with more complexity than a normal action or thriller film; which usually give the viewer a sense of dreamy, surrealism. More than an exercise in style, these type of films intend to reach ambitiously new territory never before touched in this genre of films, (that as most of the genres) suffers from obnoxiously cliches and trends.
For artistic merits and personal motifs, these films tend to be relatively obscure or underrated. But it is precisely that unconventional sense and often offbeat style that make them so worthy of being watched, and far more recognized. Exploring themes like morality and mortality, identity and other existential issues, all the films included here are an essential view for anyone interested in crime films or cinema in general.
And while the themes and the stories present in these films were nothing new to a genre filled with such bleakness as it is a crime noir, they were not touched with such depth, unusual style or so radically, well explored until these films made it to the big screen.
While some of the films included cross the line between surrealism and naturalism, go straight for the artsy avant-garde techniques or just bend genres masterfully, they all have in common to feature ideas recurring and echoing in the gloomy past and shadows, featuring very troubled characters tangled in criminal behavior and a life of despair.
Note: the term offbeat here represents unusual, stylistically different crime or noir films, that break the rules and conventions of such genre to bring us artistic or personal refreshing ideas, or simply touch themes in a new manner, rarely seen in such films. These are 20 Offbeat Crime Films That Are Worth Your Time:
20. Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2014)
Audiences were wildly divided at Cannes Film Festival regarding Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River. The film takes place on a desolated, ruined Downtown Detroit following Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two sons Bones and Franky.
To save her family from being evicted, Billy accepts to take a mysterious job with bank accountant Dave, who is also a mob who runs a weird Lynchian burlesque club, where women “perform” getting maimed and tortured theatrically for the viewers fun. Her son Bones gets in trouble with local criminal and vicious thug Bully (played deliciously creepy by Matt Smith), all while trying to break the town’s curse… from there on things start getting stranger and stranger in this dark fairytale.
Sure the film is pretentious, but it is such ambition that makes it so unusual and visually stunning, with some very attention worthy performances. This is not a “crime film”, at least not in your traditional sense of the word.
Gosling’s Dark Fantasy becomes an exercise in both the gorgeous and the horrific, with a strictly mystery thriller, noirish vibe. Hugely atmospheric, this very underrated film has all it needs to become a cult classic, and proven to be a highly divided, polarizing experience: one of the films you totally hate or totally adore. Very weird and a formal assault on the senses, in a very good way.
19. Killing Zoe (Roger Avary, 1993)
Killing Zoe is a darkly funny, ultra-violent heist film starring Eric Stoltz as Zed, an American safe-cracker who travels to Paris in order to help childhood friend Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) on a bank job. The film became notorious for being produced by Quentin Tarantino and officially becoming “Generation X’s first bank caper movie” (Roger Ebert).
After an anarchic wild night of drugs and booze, the team decide to continue with the heist on the Bastille Day thinking it’ll be safer on that day. Everything spirals out of control and under erratic, drug fueled behavior led by the sociopath Eric the heist gets bleaker and bleaker, all contrasted with large doses of pitch, black humor.
The film gained some controversy for its highly violent content, and portrayal of nihilistic youth. What makes it appear on the list? Besides its unusual hybrid of crime and comedy in a highly stylized, European vein, the first half of the films features no crime or heist at all, but instead an introduction to the team of junkies and maniacs, who are going to partake in this failed-from-the-start crime.
The camera glides into the gritty streets of Paris and shows us a darker, meaner side to them. Not exactly likable characters, but insanely funny without a doubt, the films artsy take on this type of films, with its blend of other genres and claustrophobic, manic editing make it a worthwhile recommendation.
18. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
Shot with a low budget and with no ensemble star cast, Jules Dassin’s Rififi has been considered one of the greatest French Film Noirs of all time. The film is most known for its almost half hour heist, shot in stark black and white without any dialogue, music or sound, except those of the tools or the cracking, or some footsteps.
Copied all over the world in real life crimes, this very detailed and professional robbery became a centerpiece and a key influence to most arthouse crime films later to be mentioned on the list. Very minimalist and gritty film, it features realistic violence, and heavy themes of morality that gets to our hearts, in a heartwarming, despairing way.
With clever use of dialogue and music, masterfully directed by Dassin, the story follows ex-con Tony (Jean Servais) and his friends on this caper crusade. Trust issues start to arise, as ambition and paranoia make the perfect crime become a perfect nightmare, on this meaner than usual caper noir. Not only one of the most unusual, offbeat crime films ever to grace the screen, but one of the best and finest masterpieces of the genre.
17. Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)
No film has showed us a grimmer, dirtier and nihilistic, brutal portrayal of moral decay and police corruption as Abel Ferrara’s nightmarish neo-noir Bad Lieutenant. This moving and deeply shocking cop drama featured Harvey Keitel as the main character, The Lieutenant is starkly and devastating real, a performance very intense and noteworthy of any film aficionado.
Originally rated NC-17, the film shows us a man of the law working outside of it. You’ll see his dirty schemes, illegal gambling, stealing, doing all the drugs he can get his hands of: and in one disturbing scene sexually harassing a couple of young women.
It doesn’t get any bleaker than this, a fable of morality and dark cop drama of redemption, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Features some of the most stark imagery and allusions to Christianity very unusual for this type of films. They will linger and echo on your mind for a while.
16. Amantes (Vicente Aranda, 1991)
This erotic thriller shocked both audiences and critics alike when it came out, for both its audacious and brutally honest sex scenes, tale of obsessive love and take on film noir conventions with a modernist style. Taking place in Madrid on the 50’s we are introduced into the love triangle of Luisa, Trini and Paco.
The rules of film noir are followed firmly on this film, as you’ve got the femme fatale, the plan for “the perfect crime” and a depth in character analysis, following closely their desolate lives. Victoria Abril played exquisitely the widowed “Luisa” on one of her many collaborations with Aranda.
In contrast to most of the films featuring graphic or explicit sex scenes, here not a single one feels or is gratuitous. In fact, all of this are filmed so elegantly that have an artistic feel to them. Not a single shot is wasted and the camera never feels to afraid to back out of what you’re witnessing.
The film’s main themes and analysis deal not only with the emotions or the psychology of the three characters portrayed on this tale of obsession, but in fact catholic religion plays an important role, and how this affects the morality and sexual lives of the individuals. More than an erotic film noir, this is a prime example of World Cinema and a glimpse at a very unusual, offbeat drama.
15. Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
Gozu opens quickly with a Yakuza meeting but then as fast as it started descends into a maelstrom of insanity and more yakuza horror! When thug Minami is ordered to “take care of” Ozaki, (played respectively by Hideki Sone and Show Aikawa) his close friend (something else maybe?), moral questions about loyalty and friendship arise, and Ozaki becomes increasingly more paranoid and erratic.
Later on they visit a sordid place… a town so bizarre that appears to have come out from a Lynch nightmare, Ozaki vanishes without a trace, leading Minami on a quest to find him.
From there on the film is just plain weird, but highly symbolic. Every character somehow represents a tradition or moral aspect of Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy. One of Takashi Miike’s finest piece of works, what starts as a gangster thriller becomes a surreal modern masterpiece, rivaling the likes of Jodorowsky or Buñuel, in one of his least accessible works.
The film isn’t too clear if it is a gangster noir or a mystery drama, or a surreal comedy horror film… all those aforementioned genres are present here, and you will see images so strange that will with you for a while, even disturb you.