What is it that makes for a great crime film? Is a movie a crime film simply because it deals with illicit characters? In that case, couldn’t a lot of political films be classified as such? Or what about corporate life? Aren’t these people infinitely worse than the robbers, thugs, and gangsters that continually saturate our media? These are all questions that I don’t readily have answers for, but they were what I pondered as I assembled this hypothetical ranking.
For this list, I left off at least one avant-garde film with film noir elements (*cough* Mulholland Drive *cough*) as well as perhaps a superhero film that possessed the gravity of a crime picture (rhymes with The Mark White). Also, I wasn’t too partial towards listing Westerns or straight-up action films here (although you might catch some exceptions).
I wanted this list to really represent the crime film at its most unfiltered. The kind of hardboiled goodness that would make Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler cackle in glee. The stuff that presents a dark and treacherous world so enunciated yet believable in every regard. Therefore, without further ado, here are my picks for our young century’s best crime pictures:
10. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Shane Black had made a name in Hollywood for scripting movies like Lethal Weapon (as well as playing Hawkins in Predator), but his true artistic talents have only fully been utilized once as far as I’m concerned. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great Hollywood sendup as well as possibly the funniest buddy-action movie ever made (it’s a shame Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer haven’t worked together since).
But beyond that, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was perhaps the first mainstream American film of the new millennium that had a working knowledge of film noir. Shane Black’s screenplay is twisty and violent like all great pulp should be, and its wicked sense of humor doesn’t detract from the harrowing nature either. Shane Black has gone on to direct more successful films since this, for sure (Iron Man 3 currently ranks as the world’s 12th highest grossing film), but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is likely to remain his very best work.
9. Headhunters (2012)
Norwegian film that’s about as European as crime thrillers get (sometimes that means being violently unhinged). Based off a novel from native author Jo Nesbø, the movie is a potent allegory for corporate competition. But it’s more memorable for how delectable its sex and violence is and for its ingeniously clever story. Filled with scene after scene of darkly humorous pleasures (including possibly the most gag-worthy set piece to ever involve human feces), Headhunters often feels like a Coen Brothers’ movie on meth—and if you know me, you know that’s nothing less than the highest of praise.
8. The Departed (2006)
Easily the pinnacle of Martin Scorsese’s latter-day catalog (with all respect to Silence). A remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, William Monahan basically lifted the action of that film and put it in Boston, and it made for a film that both respected its source material as well as created its own identity. With an all-star ensemble cast, a complex-yet-not-convoluted storyline, and some of the most satisfying mobster whackings this side of The Sopranos, Scorsese’s long-awaited return to gangster pictures proved to be a fairly unexpected success that earned critical respect, box-office results, and his long-coveted Oscar win.
7. A Prophet (2009)
French prison drama that might be the most spiritually-minded film on this list. Jacques Audiard’s film is suitably brutal and epic (in a way that got the film some immediate comparisons to The Godfather), but it’s more intimately about the progress of its character. Tahar Rahim (a newcomer at the time) shines as a young Algerian inmate who gets in deep with a crime lord, and his journey towards self-awakening is as intense as it is mesmerizing. One of the most masterful French crime films since the days of Jean-Pierre Melville.
6. Starred Up (2013)
British prison thriller that’s much more than just Oz with a cockney accent. Focusing on an 18-year-old inmate’s transfer to an adult prison that happens to house his career criminal father, Starred Up is a surprisingly tender father-and-son story underneath its rough exterior. Starred Up is truly augmented by an electric performance from the young Jack O'Connell—rarely do crime film protagonists come off as terrifying-yet-sympathetic as his—and director David Mackenzie (who made his American debut last year with Hell or High Water) directs in a style that’s foreboding even when the outbursts of violence aren’t happening. One of the most realistic prison films ever made.
5. Drive (2011)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s dreamy neo-noir has acquired its detractors since it became a cult favorite back in 2011 (“It’s all fucking style!”; “It feels just like an exercise!”), but there’s no denying that it’s an impeccably made piece and a subtlety affectionate one. Claiming to have been particularly influenced by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Refn gave Drive the tone of a bedtime story—something that screenplay writer Hossein Amini likely wasn’t intending—which probably unearthed the film’s strongest card: the elusive love story. While Gosling holds the entire movie with his portrayal of the enigmatic “Driver,” the best scenes involve him and co-star Carey Mulligan and are romantic in the most intoxicating way. Savagely brutal and relentlessly stylized, Drive isn’t necessarily a picture for everyone (what is?), but those that like it are likely to see it as the closest we’ve come to post-modern noir.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy’s neo-Western novel No Country for Old Men was not his only work that had the potential for a cinematic realization, but it was perhaps his only novel where the material read better as a film. The venerable Coen Brothers were indeed able to be very faithful to McCarthy’s prose while also delving into experience from their entire filmography to make a crime picture that’s entertaining, gripping, and ultimately haunting.
No Country for Old Men is a thinking man's chase thriller in the most literal sense—while certainly not bereft of a body count, it also asks the audience to make their own theories about character fates (some more obvious than others). Also, Javier Bardem shines as antagonist Anton Chigurh, one of the eeriest and unpredictable psychopaths in film history.
3. Kill Bill (2003)
One may call it unwieldy on Tarantino’s part to make a four-hour movie based on a simple revenge storyline, but anyone familiar with Tarantino’s work will attest that he’s a filmmaker that always knows … well, how to make things interesting. A film that seemingly incorporated all of his interests (kung-fu meets spaghetti Western; exploitation meets arthouse), Kill Bill is a vibrant and blood-soaked fantasy as well as more respectfully a tome regarding motherhood. Tarantino’s magnum opus. Here’s hoping he’ll return to this universe again.
2. City of God (2002)
Brazilian crime saga that stands alongside The Wire as being the most beautiful and heartbreaking looks at inner-city violence. It’s an epic story that spans generations without coming off as unwieldy for a second, and it never falls short of visual splendor. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund direct City of God with such an artistry that it’s hard to believe it showcases so many horrific acts; it just posses such human characters to it. Just as great a gangster epic as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and twice as poetic.
1. A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s neo-Western may seem like an odd choice to put at number 1 on this list, at first assumption. The director—who had been known primarily for his body-horror films—may have seemed like an odd choice to mount a crime film with a fairly pedestrian setup, but he bestowed on it a psychological undercurrent that gave it a gravity which few contemporary films have.
Let’s face it, cinema has exposed us to so much fictionalized gunplay at this point that it has desensitized us to an unflattering degree—yet A History of Violence comes off as so unnerving. The reason for this lies both in Cronenberg’s adjustments to the script that further explore the character psychology (the film’s two sex scenes were indeed entirely his creation, and they do have strong thematic weight) and an impeccably nuanced performance from Viggo Mortenson that displays more layers on repeated viewings. It’s an unsettling doctrine on violence in the media as well as humanity’s propensity to commit unspeakable acts, and it’s nigh unbelievable to consider the volumes it speaks. There are other films on this list that are more ambitious and complex in their plot structures but none that are as directly effective or universal as A History of Violence.
Honorable Mentions: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Animal Kingdom, Eastern Promises, Baby Driver, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Pusher II and III
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.