5. Les Miserables (2019)
While Portrait of a Lady on Fire was easily the most acclaimed French film of 2019, the Oscar-nominated Les Miserables is also a film that cinephiles shouldn’t miss. Inspired by the themes of legal injustice that are pertinent to Victor Hugo’s classic novel, the crime epic follows rookie cop Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) as he joins a squad of corrupt cops that patrol the city. Stephane’s duties become conflicted when different groups are incited into a bitter fight and the streets are thrust into chaos.
Bonnard gives a phenomenal performance that encapsulates Stephane’s dilemma; he wants to mitigate the situation in any way that he can, which may mean suppressing his fellow officers. Director Ladj Ly does an excellent job at building suspense throughout, as Stephane helplessly watches as his companions harass a group of teenagers. The film culminates in a jaw dropping final set piece, one that is not only expertly orchestrated, but bitterly inconclusive; it’s the type of ending that will linger in the viewer’s head for quite some time.
4. Complete Unknown (2016)
Complete Unknown is the type of film that takes its time getting to its main premise, and the low key approach to the different alias mystery genre may have been off putting for some. Unfortunately, the film came and went with little fanfare following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, but now that it is available to stream, hopefully more film fans will be able to check out this masterful character drama. Rachel Weisz gives one of her best performances as Alice, a woman who travels between cities taking on different identities.
What makes the story interesting is that Alice doesn’t continue changing her identity for sinister reasons, but because it’s part of her nature. The story begins to unravel when Alice attends a dinner party where she encounters Tom (Michael Shannon), a man she knew when they were in college together; as Tom tries to figure out where Alice has been for the last fifteen years, her backstory is slowly unraveled, and the audience gets more insight into both characters. Shannon is often known for his more eccentric character roles, but he’s remarkable here playing the straight man who is drawn back into a world of intrigue.
3. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
One of the best westerns of the decade, Bone Tomahawk is an ingenious combination of western movie tropes with truly unsettling horror elements. S. Craig Zahler has made a career out of stark, violent, and morally challenging thrillers, and while his later films Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete were both great, Bone Tomahawk is one of the more notable debut films in recent memory. Although it’s come to be known for the incredibly graphic ending, it never skimps on any of the period details, and does a great job at building up the relationship between four very different men that lead its story.
After his wife is kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe, wounded soldier Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) embarks on a rescue mission alongside the local Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Chicory (Richard Jenkins), as well as John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a man of questionable morals who professes his experience in taking lives.
The drastic circumstances these men are under force them to make tough decisions, and O’Dwyer in particular must fight for his place to be there when his crippling injury slows him down. Zahler understands that compelling characters are essential to western fables, and he allows the audience to become emotionally involved before the third act shenanigans begin.
2. Pi (1998)
Darren Aronofsky has grown to become one of the signature filmmakers of his time, and Pi is the exact type of game changing debut that could be expected from such a versatile filmmaker. Combining Aronofsky’s interest in paranoia, isolation, and subjective reality, Pi is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a brilliant mathematician who searches for a natural order to the world by finding an elusive constant. As Max’s search intensifies, he suspects that outside forces are surveilling him.
Shot on black and white reversal film and edited with hypnotic energy, Pi does an excellent job at getting into the main character’s headspace, and Gullette is able to rattle off the hyper specific dialogue with a sense of believability. As the story goes on, the film becomes increasingly surreal, and the audience is forced to question if Max is just hallucinating some of the patterns he sees in the world. The latent imagery and religious illusions hidden within make Pi a film that is worth rewatching again and again.
1. Hard Eight (1996)
While Paul Thomas Anderson is considered to be one of the greatest living filmmakers, his debut film Hard Eight is often not held in the same regard as the rest of his filmography. This is a shame, because not only is Hard Eight one of the best neo-noir crime thrillers of the 90s, but it features routinely excellent performances from many of Anderson’s frequent collaborators. While the scope of the story is much less epic than Anderson’s later work, the low key, intimate settings make the great dialogue stand out even more.
The film begins with a chance encounter between Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), a veteran gambler, and John (John C. Reilly), an impoverished young man who is reeling from the death of his mother. Sydney offers John a deal in which he’ll take him to Los Vegas and give him a room as they pull a gambling scheme together, and as they bond, a former security guard (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to reveal a shocking secret.
Anderson is patient in building the suspense, and the audience is invested in the characters’ bond thanks to the empathetic performances from Hall and Reilly. Even when looking at the broader context of Anderson’s filmography, Hard Eight stands out as a unique and original crime thriller.