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No genre illustrates the evolution of cinema better than the crime film. As recently as the ’90s, Hollywood regularly released stories of cops-and-robber showdowns and mystery-thrillers based on best-selling novels — but as the middle class continues to disappear from Hollywood films, smart crime stories moved to television (see: “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Night Of,” et. al.).
Outside the studios, there is a longstanding tradition – from the B-movies to the Coen brothers – of new directors showcasing their filmmaking chops with dark, stylish, and intense crime sagas. A surge of new filmmakers in the ’90s brought fresh interpretations to the genre, from the pastiche of “Reservoir Dogs” to the unnerving realism in “Boyz n the Hood.”
These days, many of the best contemporary directors — including Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Mann, the Coens, Park Chan-wook and Spike Lee – still love the genre, which has created some of their best work. This list surveys many of those recent highlights.
Please note: Since so many film plots incorporate crime, we stuck to films that involved criminal enterprises, solving a crime, or the cat-and-mouse games of crooks and law enforcement. We also disqualified heist films, like “Fast Five” and “Baby Driver,” which have their feet more firmly planted in the action genre.
20. “Spring Breakers” (2012)
In Harmony Korine’s luscious and totally insane crime drama, a group of four college-aged friends head down to Florida for a spring break trip unlike any other. Doused in social satire and dripping with empowered teenage sex appeal, “Spring Breakers” flips nearly every script on its drug and sex-fueled joy ride into the most hedonistic depths of humanity. Deliberate with every move, Korine cast three beloved teen stars as girls gone certifiably wild: Ashley Benson (“Pretty Little Liars”), Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”), and pop star Selena Gomez. (His wife, Rachel Korine, rounds out the group). When they meet drug dealer Alien, (an unhinged James Franco in one of his best roles), they indulge every desire and descend into the dark underbelly of spring break. What’s so striking is Korine captures both the sense of danger and cultural emptiness with hypnotic neon-colored cinematography (DP Benoît Debie) and an ephemeral Malick-like camera that almost feels poetic. –JD
19. “Winter’s Bone” (2010)
One of the strengths of “Winter’s Bone” is an extremely strong sense of place as it welcomes the audience to the rural Ozarks, a world we don’t often see on screen. Buried in the cold and mountainous woods, director Debra Granik introduces us to a culture that’s defined by poverty and meth and cut off from the rest of the world. From here, Granik creates a moving story of the incredibly self-reliant and determined 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) – responsible for two younger siblings and her mentally disturbed mother – who sets out to find her father in an effort to stave off her family’s eviction. As she starts knocking on doors and asking difficult questions, Ree finds herself on the doorstep of the criminal meth world that warns her to head back home. John Hawkes turns in a remarkable performance as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, which captures both the familial small-town community and the threat of violence that lies just beneath. However, it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s debut that leaps off the screen, giving her character an inner strength and determination that leads us into the dark underbelly of these woods. While no one could have predicted the indie film would lead her to an Oscar nomination and the star-making role of Katniss in the “Hunger Games,” the depths of her talent were evident from the start. – CO
18. “Brick” (2005)
Setting a hard-boiled detective yarn in a high school seems like a comically bad idea. However, Rian Johnson’s film uses teen cliques and movie cliches to weave a serpentine pulp story that is clever and deeply involving. Key is Johnson’s invented noir language, in which the characters’ intelligence is defined by their ability to play Johnson’s quick-witted dialogue. The first-time director squeezed a unique brand of noir atmosphere out of ordinary settings (the rich kid’s house party, backstage of the school musical, the basement of a drug dealer who still lives with his mom) to give the film genuine intrigue. Like any Philip Marlow or Sam Spade story, the film’s heart belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s loner; his don’t-give-a-shit veneer is exposed when he dives into danger to protect his ex-girlfriend, who’s caught up in a world of drug dealers. “Brick” not only introduced the film world to a fresh new talent in Johnson – writer/director of the next “Star Wars” chapter, “The Last Jedi” – but also made people wonder if their wasn’t more to that kid from NBC sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun.” – CO
17. “Gone Girl” (2014)
David Fincher’s career has long explored the underbelly of human impulses, but this might be his most fully defined cat-and-mouse trick. Gillian Flynn’s dynamite script preserves the same misdirection that made her novel a smash hit, while Fincher added a layer of self-aware humor. Rarely does a crime story get the chance to dig as deep into the Amazing Amy psyche as Rosamund Pike does, and the film affords that same insight to the people left in her wake, from husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to her torch-carrying ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris). Filmed in the muted palette that’s Fincher’s trademark, “Gone Girl” pulses through each break in the missing-persons’ case. Backed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ hypnotic score, you can practically hear the film’s brain churning. –SG
16. “City of God” (2002)
There are any number of marvels in Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s “City of God,” but nothing about this ferocious gang epic leaves a greater impression than the body count. Based on real events in the favelas of Rio de Janiero, Meirelles and Lund’s relentless crime saga makes it clear that life has little value in the City of God. People are shot out of revenge, they’re shot by accident, and they’re shot for mildly inconveniencing the wrong guy. As the movie barrels through the decades in its desperate bid to keep pace with a sociopathic drug dealer named Li’l Ze, the corpses stack like trash on the sidewalk. By the time the favelas explode into all-out civil war, the film has been consumed by the feeling that death is the natural state of things — as simple as sneezing — and life is the exception. “City of God” crackles like a roaring fire, but that’s ultimately only because Meirelles and Lund create such a palpable vision of hell. — DE
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