The 16 Best Modern Noir Films
The whole genre of noir films can be neatly bound by just a few decades, the late 40s to early 60s. However, even after the original movement had ended, that didn’t stop people from wanting to watch hardboiled crime and detective stories, filled with moral grays and impressionist cinematography. Thus was born modern noir or neo-noir, the vast and sprawling genre that covers pretty much everything noir influenced that’s been shot in the latter decades of the 20th century.
16. The Big Lebowski
The storyline of the Big Lebowski sounds like it should be out of a classic film noir — it’s just turned on its ear. There’s the kidnapped wife with a sordid past, abusive thugs, the wretched millionaire, a ransom, doublecrosses, getting slipped a mickey. Yet all of this happens in the 90s in California with the least likely protagonist the world has ever seen — the Dude. He’s about as far as you can get from your typical hardboiled detective, an under achieving slacker if ever there was one. So part of what makes his story so good is that he’s so completely the wrong person to be in the story — which is in itself a noir cliché.
15. The Long Goodbye
The Long Goodbye is a classic Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe story, temporally relocated from the 50s to the 70s, and with all the drugs and sleaze that had happened since. Elliot Gould was a surprising choice for Marlowe, but played the noir private dick to a tee. 1973 was only a few short decades since the peak of noir, so trying a neo-noir story in this environment wasn’t guaranteed the success that it deserved, which the movie played up. Marlowe was played as a leftover from the 50s in a much more modern and changed LA in the 70s. It wasn’t as critically acclaimed as it should have been, but later became a cult classic.
14. The Late Show
1977’s the Late Show was a neo-noir comedy with Lily Tomlin as a thoroughly modern woman and Art Carney as an aging PI from the noir days of the 50s. Much like The Long Goodbye, The Late Show played with the difference between the modern and the traditional characters, but pushed much more heavily into comedy and even romance with it. That doesn’t stop it from being a surprisingly good detective story, a heart warming comedy, and blisteringly smart without treating the viewer like they’re stupid. It was universally adored by critics, and won a bucket of awards.
U-Turn is a bit of an oddball of a neo-noir, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight and more. Yet even with this all star cast, it was critically slammed, even being nominated for Golden Raspberries. I can’t help but feel like there’s a gem of a really good story in here. It was part of a early-90s neo-noir revival, filled with stories that were smart, self aware, and funny. There’s always double crossing, femme fatales, crazy folk, and weirdness — and U-Turn has all of that in spades. Given the killer cast, it should have been a runaway hit, but just wasn’t. It’s still worth catching if your expectations aren’t too high.
The Coen brothers pop up a lot on this list, because more than just about any modern film-makers, they worship noir, and fit it into the most unlikely settings. Their hugely successful Fargo was at its heart a neo-noir murder mystery, but the snow covered 90s-era Midwest in the place of the rough and tumble big city of the 40s and 50s. Filled with the Coen’s trademark dark humor and oddball characters, Fargo is a magnificent inversion of the literal darkness of noir against the brightness of Minnesotan snow. And watching an incredibly pregnant Frances McDormand solve the twisted web of lies, kidnapping and murder at the heart of the story is just wonderful.
11. The Usual Suspects
It’s a shame that everyone now knows the twist in the Usual Suspects, because it’s such a brilliantly paced twisted little thriller, an ever more complicated story of death, revenge, double-crossing, lying, triple crossing, and bloody, bloody violence that marks so much of neo-noir. Filled with moral grey areas and a mystery that nags at your brain until the finale, and a modern classic, even if you know who Keyser Soze is. Sure, it’s been spoiled and you can’t avoid that, but watch it with the knowledge, and you’re still in for a hell of a ride.
10. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came out in 2005 when Robert Downey Jr wasn’t up to much, and Val Kilmer was pretty much completely forgotten, and yet somehow they managed to turn out this utterly brilliant pitch-black comedy of a neo-noir thriller. It has all the requisite twists and turns of the noir story, but with that dash of comedy and self-depreciation that made it so damn funny and perfect. Kilmer as a gay detective and Downey as a crook turned actor both play their parts perfectly — and it’s one of the smartest comedies in years.
Payback and the classic noir film Point Blank are both based on the same novel: The Hunter, written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. While the trailer above portrays it as violent and comedic, the actual movie was incredibly dark, with visceral and bone crunching violence in a story of revenge and money. The torture scenes were horrific. What’s really curious about this film is that the director’s cut is completely and radically different — the studio forced a much less dark plotline into the movie. While it’s visually much more boring, the director’s version is bloodier and more ambiguous, and some would say much better.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There
Of all of the Coen Brothers’ noir influenced movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There is their most direct. Lovingly shot in black and white film, it’s a gorgeous love letter to the genre. As beautiful as it is, it’s also a horrible and dark story, twisted and bleak, fill of moral grays and ambiguity that take up so much of the Coen Brothers’ work. It’s as labyrinthine as any other noir movie you’ll ever see, but so much more sedate, and so much more dark that in the end you’re left feeling completely and utterly hollow.
This was the film that convinced me Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a good actor. It’s a phenomenal transplant of a traditional noir story of wealth, drugs, corruption and violence into the environment of a California high school. A true hardboiled detective story, just with a much younger cast of characters. Shot on a shoestring over just 40 days, many of the special effects had to be improvised with no time and no money, but were incredibly successful anyway. Director Rian Johnson even managed to transplant old American slang into this new setting, for one of the best neo-noirs of the last decade.
6. Red Rock West
Of the early 90s neo-noir revival, Red Rock West is arguable the best and most successful — and also hails from that period when Nicholas Cage was actually a decent actor. Before he went completely off the rails, he was a pretty reliable star, as this art-house flick proved. As a drifter trying to find work, he finds himself mistaken for a hitman, and embroiled in a back-stabbing story of love and money. Abysmally marketed and shown almost nowhere, it was a gem of a film that had trouble finding an audience, because no one knew what to do with a western neo-noir. It’s worth seeing if only for the wonderfully confusing ending.
Long before Christopher Nolan got his hands on Batman or started sending Leonardo DiCaprio into people’s heads, he made Memento, a fantastic movie which hinged on a single point — the protagonist couldn’t remember anything for more than five minutes. We the audience were forced into his short-term amnesia in his ongoing quest to try and find the killer of his wife, and all the twists and turns along the way. The DVD version of the movie has an option to tell the story in chronological order, in which case it’s remarkably mundane, but in cinematic form it’s fantastic.
4. LA Confidential
Wait, two Guy Pearce movies in a row? Huh, didn’t see that coming. LA Confidential did something I really wouldn’t have though possible — it took one of James Ellroy’s incredibly dense and wonderful novels, and turned it into a film that was not only coherent, but utterly fantastic. Set in LA in the 50s, like many classic noir stories it takes aim at the hypocrisy and seedy underbelly of Hollywood — especially old Hollywood. It was nominated for nine academy awards, and of all the movies on this list was probably closest in content to a traditional noir, just with modern sensibilities towards blood and sex allowed on screen. Full of corruption and sex, it’s almost pitch-perfect.
3. Blade Runner
One of the strong points of the neo-noir movement is its ability to transport the genre into completely different settings. Blade Runner (in any of its many, many cuts) is essentially a noir story in the dystopian future. The grizzled detective, the femme fatale, the group of killers, the moral grayness and self-doubt. Even the sets are pure noir, from Ford’s trademark coat to the constant dark and rain. One of the greatest movies of the 20th century, it’s pure noir, just with replicant killers, plastic clothing, artificial snakes, and a very real question about the nature of humanity and love. “You’re in the desert, you see a tortoise lying on its back, struggling, and you’re not helping — why is that?”
2. Body Heat
1981’s Body Heat starred William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and a young Ted Danson, and launched Turner into superstardom. Heavily based on the noir classic Double Indemnity, Body Heat was deliberately filmed as a post-modern pastiche, combining visual styles from a number of different time periods, making it feel timeless but at the same time disjointed. The Florida locale of the movie was as much of a character as any of the actors, and the sexual chemistry between Hurt and Turner was utterly incredible. Plus a twisted and dark plot, murderous intent, a sharp script and absolutely incredible acting. Sexy and dark, it’s a modern classic.
What Chinatown managed to do was put all the bits into film noir that the censors pulled out originally. The sex, the blood, the drugs, the real scandal of LA in the late 40s. While noir films had to dance around those issues, the dark and violent content was allowed into this 1974 classic — which cemented both Polanski and Nicholson has Hollywood greats. Surprisingly for such a famous film, the great twist at the end hasn’t been spoiled the way so many other famous movies have, which means that if you haven’t seen it before, you don’t know the shocking ending. Because of this, it’s lost none of its punch, and I think there won’t be anyone out there who disagrees that it’s the greatest modern noir movie of all time.
Written by Tim on October 4th, 2011 | Tagged as: Popular Culture