5. Overlord (2018)
Overlord is an absolute blast of a B-movie, serving as a great tribute to World War II epics and old school zombie fare. The film moves between the genres quite impressively; the opening D-Day drop sequences is realized in gritty fashion with a surprising amount of detail granted to the historical elements, and the slow unraveling of the supernatural plotline is woven in well with the soldiers and their mission. The film is taught in how it reveals its scares, saving the most grizzly and disturbing moments for the end.
The film is also filled with some breakout performances; although none of the characters deviate from war movie tropes, the ensemble feels like a realistic battalion of soldiers, and their comradery and dynamics make the story worth investing in outside of the action. In particular, Jovan Adepo’s role as lead paratrooper Edward Boyce is the type of expressive, emotional audience avatar that the story needs to ground itself.
4. Jarhead (2005)
Although some expected a war movie from Sam Mendes to be an action-packed epic, Jarhead proved to be a much different film. Part satire and part grizzly dose of realism, the film explored the lives of a group of soldiers that are deployed to the Arabian Peninsula in the early stages of the First Gulf War. Eager for combat, the men are disappointed to find themselves going through endless drills and stalling any real action, leading to a growing sense of madness and isolation.
Sam Mendes is a filmmaker who excels at showing gradual tension, and even the most meandering of sequences in Jarhead help to show the feelings of powerlessness that these soldiers feel. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances as Anthony Swofford, a talented sniper who initially struggles to connect with his fellow soldiers, but gradually becomes accepted within their culture.
3. Red Eye (2005)
Wes Craven is often acclaimed as being one of the greatest horror directors of all-time, but Red Eye is a film done in the style of classic Hitchcockian suspense tales. It’s a lean and incredibly effective thriller; the film follows a young hotel manager, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), who takes a late flight from Dallas to Miami after a stressful day. At the airport, she meets a charming stranger (Cillian Murphy) who becomes her seatmate, but she soon learns that he’s been targeting her for sinister reasons.
Craven is incredibly judicious with his time; even the early scenes of Lisa going through the airport end up communicating something about her character, and at a brisk 85 minutes, the film has no excess material. McAdams is terrific as a terrified yet highly competent character, but the real standout is Murphy; effortlessly turning from charismatic to creepy, Murphy is able to manifest a confident character who always seeks to have the upper hand.
2. Layer Cake (2004)
Layer Cake is often cited as the film that landed Daniel Craig the role as James Bond, and it’s easy to see why. Craig delivers a star making performance as a cocaine dealer whose attempt to leave the business goes awry when he’s tasked with finding a boss’s drug-addicted daughter and overseeing a major deal with a dangerous gangster. Craig excels at playing a character of questionable morality whose survival relies on his ability to outwit his rivals.
The film was also the directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn, and established him as auteur of witty, violent action films with zippy style and dark humor. Vaughn spent many years working with Guy Ritchie, and while there are similarities with Ritchie’s earlier films, Layer Cake often feels like a classier approach in how it deconstructs British crime culture. Craig’s performance is the reason to watch, but the film also features memorable side roles from Michael Gambon, Tom Hardy, Colm Meaney, Sienna Miller, and Kenneth Cranham.
1. End of Watch (2012)
While his name now has a more negative connotation due to the failures of Suicide Squad and Bright, David Ayer’s early work was often exemplary in their depictions of realistic, emotional crime stories. Ayer directed several notable films, but his most impressive work to date was the 2012 cop thriller End of Watch, which merged a police procedural story with a found footage element. The film follows the friendship between two cops, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena), and shows how their lives are bound together both on and off the job.
The film excels at making the day to day activity interesting, and it never loses the viewer’s attention thanks to the phenomenal performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena; their chemistry makes every activity interesting, and by the end their emotional bond is evident. Ayer also does a great job at building rising action without sacrificing the docudrama style of filmmaking, and there’s a lot of great comedic banter that helps balance the tone. A poignant take on the buddy cop movie, End of Watch is an achievement in crime movie realism.