The Best Noir Films Made in the Past 20 Years
With Noirvember now in the rearview, perhaps you’ve gained an appreciation for the subgenre. If so, we can certainly understand it; noir films are excellent. You may want to keep chasing that experience with films of a more recent vintage.
If that sounds like you, we have great news for you. Below is a list of the top 10 noir films of the past 20 years. With so many to choose from, we kept things English language purely for easy wrangling. However, if you make it through these and want to move into foreign noir movies, by all means, let us know. We’ll be happy to put together a list for you on that. In the meantime, however, we think these ten will absolutely scratch that “noir but make it modern” itch.
Image Credit: Focus Features.
10. In the Cut
Our first selection, director Jane Campion’s In the Cut, is definitely our most sexual entry. Freed from the Hayes Code that forced noir to convey its libido through implication, Campion and co-writers Susanna Moore and Stavros Kazantzidis embrace the opportunity. As a result, Cut presents sex as confounding, inappropriate, and utterly delicious, often at the same time.
Meg Ryan, very game to sully her “America’s Sweetheart” persona, proves an excellent star for the film. Her reputation allows her to character, an academic named Frannie, with a certain naivete. The way the film adopts her confused by undeniably intrigued gaze upon witnessing a semi-public act of oral sex in a stairwell thoroughly links the viewer to her perspective. Therefore, when she begins to succumb to her ill-advised desires, it’s arresting in its transgression.
The object of her infatuation, Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Giovanni A. Malloy, reverses the classic noir femme fatale dynamic. In Cut, Frannie is the dupe. Malloy is the equivalent of the leggy dame walking into the office late. The way this reversal also redefines how the typical beats of noir unfold is interesting as Frannie must not only struggle with her attraction to a man who seems to be clearly no good but also the inherent power differential—that can tip easily into sexual menace—between men and women in intimate encounters.
Image Credit: Pathé Distribution.
There’s plenty to recommend this 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn directed, Hossein Amini written adaptation of James Sallis’s novel of the same name. However, any list of positives must include the soundtrack. It sounds like how neon looks. It’s as though composer Cliff Martinez and musical acts like the Chromatics found a way to convert that throbbing light into pulsing notes. In its music, Drive achieves all the coolness noir promises.
The fun of Drive, if this wonderful but grim affair can support such a word, is witnessing how a different kind of protagonist upends noir trappings. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a blunt instrument of affectless violence. As in classic noir, he finds himself in a situation he doesn’t fully understand. Given the sheen of emotional disconnection Gosling gives the character, it seems possible he may not even be capable of fully grasping the nuances of the situation.
However, because The Driver is not a classic noir protagonist, he shatters the plot. He doesn’t try to outsmart his antagonists. He doesn’t try to outthink them or beat them at their own game. Instead, he steamrolls through the situation. He unleashes a devastating brutality on them, ensuring that they never pull one over on him even as he struggles with blood loss.
Image Credit: FilmDistrict.
8. The Lookout
Noir protagonists often find motivation in their desire to escape the frustration of their day-to-day life. If they could just be happy with their spouse, kids, and white picket fence, they’d never find temptation with the quick score or the attractive person they’re very much not married to flirting with them.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—yes, that’s his name, no as far as the film suggests, this Chris Pratt doesn’t attend Zoe Church—has the frustration but none of the stability. Once an athlete likely bound for scholarships and more, Chris now struggles just to hold a job at the local bank. A reckless choice while driving took the lives of two of his friends, led to the amputation of one of his girlfriend’s legs, and left him with a Traumatic Brain Injury.
His parents’ financial support means he’ll never go hungry or struggle for shelter. Still, in all other ways, Chris feels utterly cut off from the possibility of even a life of typical suburban ennui. So when the opportunity comes to perhaps change things, including sticking it to a job that won’t let him advance and offers another chance at sexual intimacy, Chris is easily led astray.
Gordon-Levitt is tremendous as Chris, a character who struggles to understand himself, never mind the people around him. The performance never pities Chris but does offer the character understanding even when he’s at his worst. Jeff Daniels is similarly in fine form as Chris’s one true friend in the world.
Image Credit: Miramax.
7. A History of Violence
Often there’s a moment in noir films where it seems that the characters have gotten away with “it”—whether “it” is hiding a murder or pulling off a heist. Then, after that mirage of success, things go downhill in a hurry for our leads. A History of Violence essentially begins at that moment.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town sort of guy. He runs a diner, has a couple of kids, and he and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) have kept the passions aflame. If not an ideal existence, it’s ideal adjacent at least.
That is until a robbery attempt ends with two dead criminals and Tom unharmed. The event catches news attention leading to several people thinking that maybe Tom Stall is also Joey Cusack, a Philadelphia hitman who seemingly disappeared years earlier.
From there, Tom (or is it Joey) finds that near-perfect “got away with it” existence shredded by crime bosses, family, distrust, and further acts of violence. Can he save his life? Does he even deserve it?
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.
6. Gone Baby Gone
A missing girl kicks off a blood-soaked tale of drug dealers, bad parents, corrupt cops, and a P.I. arguably too pure for the job. Gone Baby Gone is noir at its most downbeat.
When Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) agree to search for apparent kidnapping victim Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), they think they’re dealing with a relatively straightforward situation. Amanda’s mom Helene (Amy Ryan) and Helene’s boyfriend Ray are drug addicts who frequently work for local drug dealer Cheese. When Ray turns up dead, and Helene reveals the couple stole 130 grand from the dealer, it seems clear that Cheese took Amanda to force the return of his money.
The pieces begin to fit increasingly poorly together as Cheese initially denies taking the girl before seemingly calling the police to arrange for a swap. Before long, Cheese is dead at the site of the drop. Police also assume Amanda dead, drowned in the quarry, despite a lack of body.
Patrick can’t leave well enough alone in the grand tradition of noir heroes. He keeps digging and quickly uncovers details that threaten his life, his relationship, and may lead to the wrong people “winning.” However, Patrick made a promise. Even if keeping that pledge means he has to make things worse, his moral code demands he follows through.
Image Credit: Miramax.
Strangely, the one pick on this list that puts high school students front and center is, in many ways, the most direct descendant of the classic ’40s noir style is Rian Johnson's Brick. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon Levitt, making his second appearance on this list) and his peers speak in the same hard-boiled slang of gumshoes in dime-store novels. Likewise, the visual signifiers of haze, deep black shadows, and askew shooting angles pepper the film.
Frye is chasing after the truth about his dead ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) despite her having moved on from him long before her apparent murder. To do so, he must attempt to infiltrate a local drug dealer’s operation, a choice that gets him repeatedly bruised and concussed.
As the beatings mount, Brendan realizes how much of Emily’s life he knew nothing about; how he cast her as an innocent when she had fallen into some fairly dangerous situations. Only Laura (Nora Zehetner), popular and flirtatious, seems to be there for him. However, this being noir, can Brendan afford to trust anyone, never mind a pretty classmate with a sudden crush?
Image Credit: Focus Features.
4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
From his own script, Shane Black’s directorial debut sees him returning to his favorite time of year, Christmas, with the funniest selection on this list.
It’s a wrong man scenario multiple times over as petty criminal Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) stumbles into an audition while evading police capture. The film company assumes he’s an actor, wrong man incident #1. However, when he plays along, he seems to wow them and gets cast on the spot.
Soon, Lockhart finds himself with compounding wrong man situations. It begins with him studying under real P.I., Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), an act that pulls both of them into a murder mystery. Then Lockhart tells a childhood crush, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan, another double entry on this list), that he is, in fact, a detective to impress her.
As the bodies pile up, Harry, Perry, and Harmony find themselves tumbling deep into an especially red Christmas.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
3. You Were Never Really Here
Brutal and disturbing, You Were Never Really Here compels but will likely prove an uncomfortable sit for most. The film features a Joaquin Phoenix miles more frightening than his performance as the Joker. His Joe is a violent veteran and former FBI agent who splits his time between locating and saving sex-trafficked children and caring for his aging mother.
In searching for a Senator’s daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), he finds a shadowy conspiracy that feels so vast that it becomes almost impossible to discern its purpose. As with Drive above, this film brutalizes typical noir conventions by having Joe act without regard for the larger mystery. He only cares about the machinations of these figures in so far as they affect his life and have led to Nina’s abduction. Whatever it may be, the truth is an abstraction he has neither time for nor interest in.
Image Credit: Amazon Studios.
2. In Bruges
While Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the funniest film on this list, In Bruges gives it a real run for the title. As scripted and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film puts delightfully vulgar language in the mouths of actors like Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. The result is a black as pitch comedy that fully indulges in the nihilism of noir.
McDonagh merges noir visual motifs with Hieronymus Bosch-esque allusions, further emphasizing Ray’s (Farrell) experience of feeling trapped by the hellish (to him anyway) Bruges. This adds to the film’s sense of resignation as both we and Ray anticipate the inevitability of his death and the hands of his very unhappy boss Harry (Fiennes).
Again, however, the real star of the show is McDonagh’s dialogue. In much the same way Rian Johnson’s Brick script merges high school with hard-boiled, McDonagh gives his bumbling killers for hire a gift for lyrical back and forth, ever enhanced by their reckless use of the word “fuck.”
Image Credit: Focus Features.
Noir often deals with the inevitability of defeat and death at the hands of a system that’s been several steps ahead of the protagonist from the start. Collateral takes that idea and sinks it entirely into one man, the hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise). He’s an all too human Terminator, draped in steel grey that starts with his tailored suit and travels all the way up to his hair. He’s not literally a metal man, but he sure looks and moves like it.
Director Michael Mann and writer Stuart Beattie further turn the typical wrong man concept on its ear by having us witness how our hapless dupe Max’s (Jamie Foxx) night with Vincent changes him for the better. At least, initially. Even as we–and Max–know that the evening will likely end with Max either framed for Vincent’s killing spree or dead, we can feel the chemistry between the two grow.
Mann’s use of digital photography, still a new technique at the time, adds exciting wrinkles to the film’s noir trappings. Light and shadow move differently on digital than on film. Given the relatively untested nature of the approach, it gives the film a sense of unpredictability. In the same way, Vincent preaches a gospel of “rolling with it,” you can feel the filmmaker doing the same.
That sense of improvisation runs throughout the film. Even as the film seems to be on an apparent “wrong man” trajectory, it still surprises the viewer with blistering supporting performances, surprising moments of humanity, and ruthless violence.
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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.
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Featured Image Credit: FilmDistrict.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.