As mentioned in the introduction to our previous articles on the best neo-noir films of the 1970s and 1980s, arguments will always exist over what films should be called horror films, suspense thrillers, classic film noir and neo-noir. Those disagreements naturally extend to what should be the considered the best of a genre or subgenre.
Readers disappointed at the omission of neo-noir favorites such as William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Gordon Parks’ Shaft, Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat from the previous articles may disagree with our choice to omit several films generally considered classics from this list including Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996).
Those that are should be reminded that film writing on all levels is a game of knowledge filtered through individual taste and other neo film noir enthusiasts would certainly make their own choices for a “best of” list as they research the dark crime films of any decade that followed the classic film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s.
As is the nature of genre labeling, it should be noted that as with the previous articles, a number of films mentioned here 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 such as The Coen Brothers’ entertaining Miller’s Crossing (1990), Carl Franklin’s excellent Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and Curtis Hanson’s superb L.A. Confidential (1997).
Also excluded were films that despite the presence of modern noir elements actually fall firmly into the suspense thriller category such as Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1993) and Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993).
Note: The films listed are in chronological order by release year.
1. King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
Screenplay by Nicholas St. John
Christopher Walken delivers one of the great performances of his legendary career in this tale of a crime boss named Frank White being targeted by a trio of police officers upon his release from prison. The film also features a spectacular supporting cast including Laurence Fishburne as White’s trigger-happy right hand man and David Caruso, Victor Argo and Wesley Snipes as the cops targeting White.
Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) garnered high critical praise, primarily for the courageous lead acting performance by Harvey Keitel, but King of New York is a far more successful film.
2. Q&A (Sidney Lumet, 1990)
Screenplay by Lumet based on the Edwin Torres novel
Timothy Hutton plays a young district attorney trying to connect a corrupt police detective to a murder in this overlooked gem.
The film features an excellent performance by Armand Assante as a Puerto Rican crime boss but the film’s greatest strength is the acting of Nick Nolte. The highly respected actor delivers the performance of his career in this film as investigation target Captain Mike Brennan.
3. State of Grace (Phil Joanou, 1990)
Screenplay by Dennis McIntyre
Looking for a film about an undercover cop inside the Irish mob that’s better than Martin Scorsese’s The Departed?
You found it with State of Grace. Director Joanou’s film may not have the complex screenplay of Scorsese’s Hong Kong film remake but it does feature better overall acting across the board courtesy of Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and Ed Harris. Director Joanou would return to the world of neo film noir in 1996 with the solid Heaven’s Prisoners starring Alec Baldwin.
4. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
Screenplay by Rick King and W. Peter Illiff
This story of a young FBI agent who enters the world of Southern California surfing culture in pursuit of a group of bank robbers is a film with so many strong elements that it survives the weak lead acting performance of Keanu Reeves.
Aside from an excellent screenplay, Point Break also features the late Patrick Swayze in the best performance of his career as the surfing guru villain Bodhi. Soon to be victimized by an inevitable remake, Point Break is a crime film classic.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Screenplay by Ted Tally based on the Thomas Harris novel
Here’s the problem with this highly regarded film about the hunt for a twisted serial murderer: when Anthony Hopkins or Ted Levine aren’t on screen, The Silence of the Lambs loses steam. The Jodie Foster lead performance is overrated and the film is really in the hands of its now legendary villains, both of which are brought to life by the riveting acting of Hopkins and Levine as lethal psychopaths Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb.
The follow-up film Hannibal, again based on a Harris novel, severely drops the ball by missing the opportunity to bring author Harris’ Will Graham, a far more interesting character than Clarice Starling in every way, into the hunt for Lecter.
6. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
Screenplay by Yin Nam
Casting aside the wilder and more acrobatic approach to action sequences favored by Hong Kong colleagues such as John Woo, director Lam instead employs a gritty, hard-edged style in this story of a betrayed criminal out of revenge. Star Chow Yun-Fat had previously worked with Lam on the influential City on Fire (1987) as well as Prison on Fire (1987) and Prison on Fire II (1991) and veteran Hong Kong actor Simon Yam is unforgettable as the deadly villain Judge.
When looking at Hong Kong crime cinema, Full Contact tends to be unfairly overlooked in favor of the works of John Woo and Johnnie To.