For fans of the crime genre, the 21st century has thus far been an exciting, variable, and enjoyably unpredictable era. Certain prolific filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese, has continued to make some of the best gangster films around, making good on the potential he promised in the 90s with masterpieces like Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995), and the same can be said of David Fincher, for instance, who made past genre films like Se7en (1995), which clearly set him on course for such gems as Zodiac (2007) and Gone Girl (2014).
Other notable directors like Francis Ford Coppola, who’s Godfather films (1972–1990) made the template for so many films that have come since, may be thus far underperforming as of late, but who’s influence still holds dominant significance and particular sway. Much of the 21st century’s finest crime sagas on cinema owe their antecedents to those who’ve come before, and this adds a richness to their already impressive arrangements.
The films on this list show a wide-ranging assortment of crime-centric stories which includes auteur-driven vehicles, influential movies, astonishing international fare, a few blockbusters, and distinctive arthouse gems, too, each of which represent the very best of the cinematic artform as it narrows its focus on stylish approaches to crime drama and thrills.
PLEASE NOTE: While listing a mere 25 films means that many worthwhile films and filmmakers had to be left by the wayside, there is a lengthy honorable mentions section at the end of the list you’d be remiss not to check out.
25. John Wick (2014)
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a shit ton of fun with this pastiche-addled neo-noir thriller about retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), who’s mourning the death of his wife when he is reluctantly pulled back into the fray after being wronged by cocky criminals who kill his puppy, Daisy (how dare they!!) and swipe his vintage 1969 Mustang.
There’s an awful lot of awesome in John Wick, from its mad props to forebears like John Boorman, and John Woo –– maybe these are who Keanu’s hitman is named for? –– to its detailed underworld cosmology which memorably contains a hitman hotel straight out of some surreal fantasy world.
Alfie Allen’s arrogant bad guy is easy to despise, making the revenge all the more sweeter, and great performances from Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane also add immeasurably to the proceedings. John Wick is a crime-strewn revenge thriller chock-full of savoir-faire and imagination. Not to be missed (and the sequel is pretty excellent, too).
24. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
This artful ensemble heist picture from Steven Soderbergh is all kinds of fun as he riffs on the 1960 Rat Pack film, Ocean’s Eleven––hey, I’d take George Clooney over Frank Sinatra in the acting department any day of the week, fight me.
The dashing Danny Ocean (Clooney) is a likeable crook and a dapper man of action, who, barely into his parole from the pen eager to roll into his next scheme, an elaborate casino heist. Following his three rule credo (“Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal from anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and play the game like you’ve got nothing to lose”), Danny puts together an ace team (played by such big league Hollywood superstars as Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Andy García, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts) to take out three Vegas casinos for one huge honkin’ payday. And guess what? The results are a ring-a-ding-ding!
23. Monster (2003)
Patty Jenkins’ distinguished directorial debut, which she also wrote, was too disturbing to make her a household name (though 2017’s Wonder Woman has clearly fixed that) as she detailed the harrowing real-life story of Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, in a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance).
Monster picks up shortly after Aileen, a sex-worker, has relocated to Florida. Here she soon meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a younger woman, and the two fall in love. When an aggressive john named Vincent (Lee Tergesen) brutally attacks Aileen, she kills him in self-defense and decides to finally give up prostitution.
A series of financial setbacks and Aileen’s wanting to protect and support Selby leads her back into hooking men and, secretly from Selby, she murders the men who seek her services.
A challenging, deeply troubling, intense, and tragic film, Monster is a riveting work. While Theron’s performance is overwhelming and gilt-edged, Jenkins deserves credit for solid direction, tightly composed frames and well-orchestrated frights. A haunting, hard and effectual film that’s not easy to shake.
22. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Perhaps best known as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning, Boston-centered crime opus from 2006, The Departed (check our Honorable Mentions listings for it), this Hong Kong crime thriller from duo directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak is a complex caper that garnered critical acclaim and a mammoth international box office.
Tony Leung is Chan Wing-Yan, an idealistic and fresh-faced police cadet who is recruited by no nonsense Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) to infiltrate the dangerous criminal Triad society by becoming a deep cover agent. Simultaneously, Triad crime boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang) has planted Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau), who will be a long-time mole, he will fully embrace the police force, and grow to become an invaluable asset for the Triad society.
Infernal Affairs leaps a decade ahead and finds Chan and Lau each enmeshed into their aliases, but both become vulnerable of having their respective covers blown unless drastic and deadly measures are taken.
While it’s a sad fact that most Western audiences would rather watch the English-language Scorsese version, which is a high quality reworking, with A-list Hollywood stars, it’s the Lau and Mak original that started it all. Infernal Affairs offers up intelligence, excitement, chills, and surprises in the tradition of vintage Michael Mann and John Woo. Recommended.
21. Miami Vice (2006)
This beautifully lensed. incredibly stylish, and imminently tragic mingling of art film and crime thriller from writer-director Michael Mann is a slick re-working of his zeitgeist-defining 1980s TV series of the same name, Miami Vice. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are well cast as undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, respectively, as they hunt murderous drug lords in South Florida. As the case gets all the more Byzantine, Crockett finds himself romantically linked with Isabella (Gong Li), the gorgeous Chinese-Cuban wife of Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), a major trafficker of arms and drugs.
While fans of the TV series will find little of the 1980s nostalgia in this thoroughly modernized update, Mann continues to present a mesmerizing, atmospheric, visually sensational, occasionally meditative, and extremely entertaining action film with a Shakespearean flourish of doomed love for added zip. And while Phil Collins’ air-drumming staple “In the Air Tonight” doesn’t grace the soundtrack, a decent cover from the band Nonpoint appears during the final credit scroll.
20. Sicario (2015)
Gifted Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s visually arresting drug war epic, Sicario, teases a hard, washed-out look, one teeming with realistic sophistication and immediacy courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Marking Deakins’ second film with Villeneuve (after Prisoners, which is also on this list), they complement one another incredibly well in what is a ravishing, and savagely beautiful spectacle.
As Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) joins an elite U.S. governmental task force warring with Mexican drug cartels, Villeneuve creates visuals of archetypal urgency and chimerical potency as in a standout sequence in a nocturnal tunnel that obtains a mythic Orphean quality that subtly places Kate in a Eurydice-like position. Another action scene, at the Bridge of the Americas, is one of the most intense and fist-pumping firefights in recent memory. Sicario is formidable and ferocious, its moral and political slant making for compelling cinema of the highest pedigree.
19. Blue Ruin (2014)
Jeremy Saulnier’s second film, Blue Ruin, really made a big blip on indie cinema’s radar, indicating that a new and insistent filmmaker had startlingly broke the surface.
Succeeding into full-on auteur as writer/director/cinematographer of this instantly engrossing shocker, Blue Ruin stars Macon Blair––who also surprises and stirs the pot in Green Room––as Dwight Evans. Near homeless and wracked with anxiety, Dwight lives in his rusted-out, beaten-up old blue Pontiac Bonneville––the literal “blue ruin” of the title––making him instantly endearing and strangely sympathetic. Very soon a string of ill omens and bad news sends Dwight to his old haunts to revenge the deaths of his parents years ago.
Dwight’s tit for tat bloodbath doesn’t play out as you’d expect it to, and amidst the unforeseeable outcomes and dramaturgy Saulnier shows us a post-9/11 rural America that’s obsessed with guns, disintegrating values, diminishing dreams, and all sorts of blood and thunder. As a dark hymn to family, pained poetry, frustrated fury and fractured grace, Blue Ruin is an indistinct treasure.
18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
An artful and audacious female-led neo-noir that’s also a tad self-conscious, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nevertheless transcends a few requisite genre trappings via impressive stylization, abstraction, and a brilliant turn from Noomi Rapace at the titular heroine, Lisbeth Salander.
Adapted from Swedish author/journalist Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published best-selling novel, director Niels Arden Oplev (We Shall Overcome) expresses a fair bit of existential angst and punk rock attitude as we follow Lisbeth, a rape survivor and avenging angel, of sorts, who’s also a brilliant hacker and surveillance agent with an agenda and an axe to grind.
The first film in the Millennium trilogy – each starring Rapace and Michael Nyqvist (as journalist and junior detective Mikael Blomkvist) and directed by Oplev – it was also given an excellent American remake treatment courtesy of David Fincher in 2011.
While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is incredibly violent and deals with sensitive subject matter – the rape/revenge scenario is harrowing enough but the sexual sadism doesn’t end there – it offers great fascination, deeply realized and relishable characters, catharsis and shattering suspense. Believe all the hype, this film doesn’t disappoint.