3. Brick (2005)
A moody teenage loner discussing ex-lovers, parties, and secret cliques with classmates in his high school’s parking lot doesn’t quite scream hard-boiled noir. Yet, as banal and anachronistic as this particular milieu might sound on paper, Rian Johnson made it work against all odds — striking gold by displacing the seedy underworlds of 1940s detective novels into the muddled teenage-infested ecosystem of Southern California suburbia.
Awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize in 2005 and instantly jettisoning the director and breakout lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt onto the world stage, this modern feat of DIY filmmaking more than makes up for its shoestring budget ($450,000) with a slick screenplay and taut editing. It also helps that ‘Brick’ looks absolutely gorgeous; proving that no matter the size of the budget at his disposal, Rian Johnson has always had a keen eye for visuals. Right down to Levitt’s ice-cold Bogart impersonation, ‘Brick’ is noticeably modeled after Golden Age film noirs. But if the film tips its hat, it does so with tongue in cheek — presenting all these genre clichés and archetypes of yesteryear only to flip them all over their head.
Though somewhat rough around the edges, Rian Johnson’s debut is a fascinating prism as to which view his subsequent projects — a brisk and thoroughly engaging crime mystery that glimpses at many of the artistic flourishes that the director would refine and expand upon throughout the years.
2. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)
It was only a matter of time before Netflix came knocking at Johnson’s doorstep with hopes of devising a sequel film to the 2019 murder mystery that took the world by storm three years ago. Much has changed since the original ‘Knives Out’ hit the multiplexes, including a global pandemic and a dire theatrical landscape that has made it commonplace to dump films of this caliber on streaming after just two weeks of a theatrical run.
But if the ripple effects of the pandemic on the entertainment business continue to be distressing, the current state of affairs provide a delicious backdrop for Rian Johnson to lace his satirical jabs on everything from masks, media influencers, cancel culture, and cryptos in ‘Glass Onion’. Much like its predecessor, Benoit Blanc’s latest escapade casts an unwavering eye on a sundry batch of wealthy but irrevocably self-centered individuals, all of whom become prime murder suspects throughout the course of an ill-fated weekend at a luxury private island.
Though very much a standalone film that will prove engaging to any newcomer, ‘Glass Onion’ is propelled by the same type of misleading narrative engineering, socially-charged subtext, and wry humor that defined the first installment, as well as a stacked line-up of Hollywood A-listers all at the top of their game. Joining Daniel Craig this time around are Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr, Kathryn Hahn and Janelle Monáe, each impersonating a thinly-veiled caricature of filthy upper-classers, from Elon Musk to Joe Rogan.
Although Johnson makes his anti-rich tenor clear with the subtlety of a meataxe, the director makes good on his promise with an engaging and cleverly executed caper that never disappoints and will leave fans anxiously waiting for more.
1. Knives Out (2019)
Classic whodunits in the traditional sense were few and in between in the past decade, at least, that is, until Rian Johnson decided to single-handedly breathe new life into this dead genre midway through 2019. In an eventful year packed with instant classics, arthouse masterpieces, and record-breaking box-office juggernauts, ‘Knives Out’ broke into the mainstream to become a word-of-mouth hit that swiftly struck a chord among general audiences thanks to a deliciously provocative script and all-star cast.
Not since Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 seminal cult classic ‘Clue’ had a film inspired such an appetite for star-studded murder mysteries as ‘Knives Out’; a caper with enough twists and turns to satisfy any Agatha Christie aficionado that centers around the sudden death of a renowned crime novelist found dead on his luxurious estate. Paying homage to the whodunits of yesteryear while deconstructing its clichés and updating the formula to today’s audiences, ‘Knives Out’ is held together by a murderer’s row of pitch-perfect performances by Hollywood’s heavy-hitters, especially Daniel Craig as cinema’s favorite debonair sleuth.
Key to the positive reception of Johnson’s red herring-filled maze is that the film is at once sturdy and intricately woven, yet never seems to take itself too seriously. It’s within those playful lines that ‘Knives Out’ ends up winning you over. Whether you opt to focus on filling in the gaps and putting all the clues and pieces together, or just sit back and enjoy watching unlikeable leeches spew venom at each other for 130 brisk minutes, ‘Knives Out’ is one of cinema’s purest delights.