17. Spring Breakers (2012)
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers took me and a lot of people by complete surprise in 2012, with its neon-lit delusion taking on empty contemporary American ennui and fashioning a run-down but delicious rainbow with it.
Vanessa Hudgens is Candy, a college student who, along with her shallow pals, Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez), find themselves penniless leading up to spring break, and so they ill-advisedly rob a dinner to afford a trip down to Florida. Befriending a drug dealing, wannabe rap artist named Alien (James Franco), the gang allude the law and embrace a bizarre life of crime, until… well, perhaps the less said the better.
A word of advice for those who try watching this film and are easily put off by the film’s bratty slow build, work past the first 30 minutes and wonderful and very worthwhile awards will await you. Spring Breakers does spin a seductive web, hewn with immense and colorful artistry in what Huffington Post critic Emma Seligman describes as “Scarface meets Britney Spears.”
16. Eastern Promises (2007)
The most startling and memorable takeaway from this much-acclaimed gangster film from David Cronenberg, has got to be the uncompromising, unforgettable and unflinching bathhouse brawl––featuring a notorious au naturel knife fight with Viggo Mortensen––that once viewed can never be unseen. This extraordinary follow-up and comparable companion piece to 2005’s A History of Violence (located further on down this list), Eastern Promises is a darkly disturbing, morally complex, and frighteningly enigmatic masterpiece.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a Russian-British midwife living in London who is soon drawn into a shocking and upsetting world of Russian mobsters and nasty ne’er-do-wells after a drug-addicted 14-year old prostitute dies in childbirth. In a much deserved Oscar-nominated performance is Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin, a strong-arm thug for a messy mobster named Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is the loose canon son of a Russian godfather known as Semyon (Vincent Cassel).
But man, no matter what you think or say about Eastern Promises, all discourse must circle back to that intensely unforgettable knife fight. Holy shit. Roger Ebert ecstatically proclaimed that it “sets the same kind of standard that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark,” and who are we to disagree?
15. Brick (2005)
Writer/director Rian Johnson made his energetic debut with the pastiche-heavy teen-centric thriller, Brick. Equal parts The Big Sleep and The Breakfast Club, Johnson’s film moves the Raymond Chandleresque narrative from the sun-soaked streets of crime-addled Los Angeles to the modern California suburbs and, more specifically, into the high school halls.
Truthfully, it isn’t just the Chandler milieu that Johnson dips his toes into here, the whole gritty gumshoe genre gets revisited and reworked—Dashiell Hammett is given a lot of love, too—and the results are glorious.
In the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade mold, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “detective” Brandon Frye, a high school student snooping around after the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend.
One of Johnson’s biggest coups lays in his transferral of high school stereotypes into the hard-boiled detective world of dames, thugs, and stoolies, the end result is a shadowy, surreal visage of the suburban landscape, one eerily absent of adults, overrun with rhythmic, gutter poetry (his dialogue bristles with nuance and style in the two-fisted tradition) and hard-edged aplomb.
14. Prisoners (2013)
Beastly horrors lurk in the behind-closed-doors narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which reteams the director with Jake Gyllenhaal (who also starred in his intense 2013 psychological thriller Enemy). Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki on the case of two missing girls in an emotionally complex ensemble piece that also stars Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Hugh Jackman, and Viola Davis.
Prisoners is a haunting, deep-seated and disturbing film, the kind you carry around afterwards, processing and pondering it all, and makes for a very rewarding experience.
Buoyed immeasurably by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the framing is sharp, bristling with energy and a compulsive panache that makes turning away all but impossible, even when some of the more nightmarish aspects of the film perturb and exasperate the viewer. It’s not always easy to take, especially with the subject matter, but Villeneuve is a gifted and calculating craftsman, and while his film may take no prisoners, it also sets the viewer free with a purgative wheeze and an audible gasp.
13. Nightcrawler (2014)
Writer-director Dan Gilroy makes a startling debut feature with Nightcrawler, a neo-noir character study in sociopathic bad behaviour via Jake Gyllenhaal’s fascinating anti-hero, Lou Bloom. Living the life of a petty thief in Los Angeles, Bloom soon finds himself down a new career path as a cameraman taking nocturnal voyages through la la land, in search of grizzly crimes and accidents scenes.
Describing himself as a freelance video journalist who makes a killing selling his footage to the local news, Gilroy takes the audience through some dimly lit detours in the darkly comic journey into the abyss––which also doubles as a satire of our current oversaturated media culture.
Also sharing Gyllenhaal’s spotlight are smart turns from Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, and the late Bill Paxton in this scathing, deeply serrated, and whip-smart thriller.
12. Femme Fatale (2002)
Perhaps Brian De Palma’s most underrated film, Femme Fatale is a Euro-trash treasure that fearlessly manipulates the viewer into a time warping mystery with sexual excitement front and center.
Long-legged Laura Ash (Rebecca Romijn) is a career criminal losing track of all the people she has double-crossed in a botched diamond heist. This chic shocker also inserts a nosy photographer named Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), a sexy supermodel named Veronica (Rie Rasmussen) and a wealthy Parisian blueblood named Lily (Romijn, again) in a self-aware thriller that oozes style, drips danger, and if the adventurous viewer is game for it, throws some twists that are either absolutely bonkers or a stroke of inspired genius, depending on how you feel about De Palma, one supposes.
In my books, this is one of his most provocative and daring detours that rewards repeated viewings due to how the story spirals alter one’s perceptions and mixes up the meanings behind everything we think we know. Don’t miss it.
11. 25th Hour (2002)
Reworking Game of Throne’s showrunner David Benioff’s 2001 novel “The 25th Hour” was a smart step for Spike Lee, who’s had an impressive string of crime films over the years (including 1995’s Clockers, 1999’s Summer of Sam, and 2006’s Inside Man).
Lee’s film updates the setting somewhat from Benioff’s book, presenting one of the first mainstream post-911 films, unraveling in the days following September 11, 2001, as New York City and the country at large still reel from the recent terror attacks. Edward Norton is impressive as Monty Brogan, a convicted drug dealer about to serve a seven-year prison sentence and spending his remaining hours trying to patch things up with his thankless girlfriend, Naturelle Riviera (Rosario Dawson), his dad, James (Brian Cox), and his closest pals (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper).
Emotionally resonant, stylistically strong, cleverly scribed, and weighty like a true urban historical document, 25th Hour is one of Lee’s finest hours, and a major accomplishment for all involved. Crime doesn’t pay, but the personal connections one makes sure as shit do.
10. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s lascivious and exhilarating The Wolf of Wall Street, is a pitch-black comedy that chronicles the rise, fall, and rebirth of real-life New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Based off of Belfort’s memoirs, it’s obvious right off the bat, as DiCaprio talks directly into the camera, that this is a somewhat biased, altogether lecherous, and unreliable narrator whose greed is matched only by his grandstanding.
As Belfort, DiCaprio gives one of his best ever performances as a nasty, bellicose douchebag. Belfort begins at the bottom but soon cheats, swindles, and sneaks his way into the big leagues with his brokerage firm and cadre of money-worshipping accomplices, which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P.J. Byrne) and more Quaaludes and coke then you can conceptualize.
The more successful Belfort and his buddies become the more Sodom and Gomorrah things get, convening a new wife for Belfort in the form of Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), and attracting the attention of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler).
It’s all a fast-paced film, teeming with nudity, f-bombs, endless drugs, and populated wholly by reprobates, these ridiculous and grotesque criminals deserve their undoing. All told, The Wolf of Wall Street is an elated and unruly howl from a refreshed American master.
9. A History of Violence (2005)
Canadian iconoclast David Cronenberg tackles and takes apart violence, human nature, and the valued American mythology around self-reinvention in this masterful and messy psychological thriller, that’s also one of the best crime films of the 2000s, hands down.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town family man who runs a diner and who proves startlingly efficient at deadly force when two sadistic thugs (Greg Bryk and Stephen McHattie) turn up at his eatery looking for trouble. His lethal reprisal suggests a secretive past; his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello), his teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and his daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) suddenly see him with new eyes; and there is unwanted attention from the national news media––and from a formidable Philadelphia gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), with one hell of an ax to grind.
Cronenberg’s most universally-acclaimed film, A History of Violence also received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Josh Olson) and Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt)––and truthfully it deserved plenty more.