My recent traverse through my Criterion Collection for crime movies got me well and truly into a crime movie watching mood. In years past I usually spend January almost exclusively watching old film noirs (in what I have dubbed “Ja-noir-y”) but due to the extenuating circumstances (read: my lack of planning) I didn’t get to do that this year. The Criterion post helped scratch my noir itch but to truly make up for my lack of noir in January, I decided to dive into crime movies from this century right at the tail end of the month. And to celebrate that mini-noir excursion, here is my pick of the best crime movies of the 21st century:
This was an extremely hard category for me to narrow down. Originally I planned to just do a list of “Best Crime Movies” but found that task close to impossible as the shortlist for the top approaching close to sixty potential movies. Unfortunately narrowing it down to just movies from this century did not make my task that much easier and there are some truly great movies on that missed out on the top 10 (in alphabetical order).
Bernie – The comedic eccentricities of Jack Black are put to much more sinister use here as Richard Linklater weaves a quirky story about a beloved mortician, the elderly widow he strikes up a friendship with (Shirley MacLaine), a grisly murder, and the prickly D.A. (Matthew McConaughey). It is a truly tragic tale, but it is also so much fun to watch.
Blue Ruin – Easily one of the best directorial debuts of the 21st century, Jeremy Saulnier’s dark revenge tale is nasty, brutish, and short as a complete amateur undertakes the task of avenging his murdered parents but quickly finds himself completely in-over-his-head, to extremely bloody results.
Collateral – It’s hard to believe right now as he traverses from Mission:Impossible movies to Jack Reacher movies to attempts at singlehandedly creating a cinematic universe (disastrously) but there used to be a time when Tom Cruise would mix into his usual blockbuster fare lean and mean movies in which we just got to see the guy act. And man, is he great at it.
The Dark Knight – Take away the guy in a batsuit, the guy wearing clown make-up, and the former DA with half his face burnt off, and this movie would easily be one of the best crime stories ever put to film. Unfortunately, the movie does have all of those elements so I have to at least handicap it against the pure crime movies eligible for this list. But for what its worth, this is the movie that earns the (dis)honourable “Last One Out” award for the Top 10.
Eastern Promises – The second of the strange and wonderful combination of body-horror specialist David Cronenberg, a non-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen, and crime films is a great movie but for reasons that will be apparent soon won’t make the list.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer star in the closest thing to a classic hardboiled tale in the 21st century about the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, where future female stars go missing, dreams are dashed with great aplomb, and the good guys come out on top but not unscarred. Oh, and it’s also Christmas-adjacent.
Pain & Gain – Yes I know it’s a Michael Bay movie. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie about a bunch of meathead criminals. And though there aren’t a bazillion explosions, just about every other Michael Bay trait is present. But I can’t help it. I love this movie and I’m only slightly ashamed to admit it.
Sicario/Hell or High Water/Wind River – Writer/director Taylor Sheridan has carved himself a pretty great unofficial trilogy of crime movies in the last few years and if all three of these were eligible for one slot, I would have them in the Top 10 in a heartbeat. But alas, an honourable mention will have to do for these pretty great films.
(Note: During a recent revisit of “In Bruges” I came to realize that I have severely undervalued this movie and have thus corrected the list – it is now a Top 11 instead of a Top 10).
11. OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Ocean’s Eleven does not try to accomplish anything beyond what you see onscreen. There is no deeper commentary, no delving into the human psyche or the darkest recesses of society. This is nothing more than a spurned thief (George Clooney) wanting to get revenge on the man who put him behind bars (Andy Garcia) by robbing him blind. And he accomplishes this by bringing together the coolest heist crew ever assembled to pull off the most audacious crime. And they just look like they’re having the greatest time in the world pulling it off, which is efficiently infectious for the rest of us.
10. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017) dir. Chad Stahelski
While Chapter 1 of the movie focused more on Mr. Wick dipping his toes back into the criminal underground world he left behind, Chapter 2 finds him diving into an immersive alternate reality with its own currency and economy, blood rituals, code of honour, and irrefutable laws. It is almost as much fun seeing the way this criminal world is set up as it is seeing Keanu do his thing. And what is most impressive about this world is that it is grounded in reality just enough that it could exist, a parallel universe that resides close to our own realm. Combine this immersive world with some of the best action choreography in decades and the best use of zen-Keanu Reeves ever and you get what is for me the sleeper hit of 2017.
9. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) dir. David Cronenberg
The original collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen is also their best one. Shockingly grounded for a Cronenberg flick it tells the story of the owner of a diner in a small town who, thanks to an act of heroism, finds himself in the sights of the mob and haunted by the ghosts of his past. Mortensen owns this movie as a cornered predator who is trying his very best to protect himself and his family, a Jekyll and Hyde where his usual genial small-town pleasantries are instantaneously replaced by rapid-fire moments of shocking brutality. It begs the question as to which side is his true identity, and therein lies the usual twisty touch that we expect from Cronenberg making it much more complex a movie than its simple premise might hint at.
8. BABY DRIVER (2017) dir. Edgar Wright
Baby Driver is the kind of movie that is so effortless that for awhile it fooled me into thinking that its pleasures are only skin deep. But then I revisited the movie and was blown away by the absolute control with which Edgar Wright weaves and choreographs this tale. It is true that the story is simplistic but that hardly matters when it is told with this much propulsive energy and precision. Every chase scene in this movie is a masterclass in cinematography, the soundtrack is filled to the brim with surprising song choices and perfectly syncs up to the action, and it is all held together by the smooth Edgar Wright style that makes all of his movies endlessly rewatchable.
7. MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) dir. Bong Joon-Ho
By far my favourite movie to come out of the excellent Korean New Wave, it follows two detectives as they try and solve a grisly series of rapes and murders in the South Korean countryside. It starts out as a direct procedural with most of the tension coming from the fact that local detective Park is joined by a Seo, a younger big city detective with much more experience. But as a suspect for the killings proves elusive and the investigation goes longer, things start to take a brutally taking toll on the detectives as their methods get more ethically questionable and desperate which inevitably muddies up the question about whether any form of justice will ever be served even if they catch their killer.
6. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
Here is a Spielberg movie that is so deceptively simple in its plot. It is, as the poster to the left suggests, the “true” story about a serial con-man (Leonardo DiCaprio) being constantly pursued by an FBI agent (Tom Hanks). The most remarkable thing is that the movie begins like a lighthearted caper as DiCaprio evades Hanks’ best traps much to the FBI agents chagrin, but halfway through the tone takes on a more poignant tone as the serial con-man finds himself completely unknown by all the people who are close to him. DiCaprio and Hanks are truly two of the best of our living actors, and to see both of them have so much fun in their roles is a joy to watch.
5. IN BRUGES (2008) dir. Martin McDonagh
Two Irish assassins hide out in Bruges after a hired killing goes horribly wrong, one of them a gruff wizened veteran who has seen it all (Brendan Gleeson) and the second is a hot-headed young shot wracked with guilt and antsy over their shared confinement (Colin Farrell). What could possibly go wrong? Things inevitably go south, but the way the movie gets there is highly inventive and dictated much more by who the principal characters are than by any plot dictates. In Bruges is also as much a meditation on guilt and redemption as it is an action thriller and features Gleeson and Farrell at their absolute best as they eventually end up tearing apart and shooting up one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Ralph Fiennes unexpected performance is simply the icing on the cake.
4. DRIVE (2011) dir. Nicholas Wending Refn
The opening chase of this movie is worth the price of admission alone. Where lesser heist movies might try and settle for high-speed chases, multiple crashes, and several explosions, this chase is all about a strategic game of chess in which the cold-as-ice getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) outsmarts what seems to be the entire LAPD without ever breaking a sweat. By the time the heavy ’80s synth score kicks in at the end of this scene, we know everything we need to know about the nameless driver. Though he is outwardly vacuous, he is probably smarter than you, definitely more dangerous than you can imagine, and undoubtedly much, much cooler than you.
3. THE DEPARTED (2006) dir. Martin Scorsese
Sure, it is undeniable that Scorsese winning all of his Oscars for this movie was more a case of the Academy ratifying its past mistakes than anything about the movie itself, but that line of thinking detracts from the fact that hands down this is the best mob movie made this century. It is also the paragon of casting, starting at the top with Jack Nicholson as the deadly Irish mob boss, the dual-agents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in their respective organizations, and a cavalcade of supporting actors led by Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga who help infuse this gritty tale with more than enough of the murky morality needed to make this a truly great Boston mob film.
2. ZODIAC (2007) dir. David Fincher
Zodiac is an exercise in procedure and proper order. When the Zodiac Killer drops off an encrypted letter to the San Francisco Chronicle taunting the police over their failure to capture him it sets off a chain of events in which a wide and varied crew of people try to investigate and unearth the killer’s identity. It is a crew led by extremely intelligent, brave, and determined people who go through extreme lengths and even putting themselves in danger in order to shake the killer loose. And yet, what is so fascinating and frustrating about this movie is that ultimately it is about the best efforts of the brightest people coming up short and the wreckage that that failure leaves behind in their lives.
1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
The classic film-noir is typically one that, despite its potential glamorizing of the underground life, is ultimately a genre that is most interested in the maintaining of social order. Bad guys get caught and killed, the good guys survive, the innocent are protected or avenged, and the world is a slightly better place by the end of the film than it was in the beginning. And while there have been films previously that chipped away at that mythos, nothing has so thoroughly demythologized the morals and mores of the crime film more than No Country For Old Men. Here the one that need to be protected by the good guys are barely worth protecting, the good guy whose worldview is black and white hardly knows what to make of the contemporary world, and the bad guy is such a purely evil person that he defies comprehension and reasoning. And after all the dust is settled, what we are left with is a dark crime thriller in which there are no heroes but plenty of bodies in its wake. It is arguably the best Coen film ever made, and that is truly saying something.