Film noir (“black film”) is a (sub)genre of film which exploded in the post-WW II era. Not restricted exclusively to America, the movement was typified by films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of Evil (1958). Neo noir films, which have seen a spike in popularity in the last two decades, both utilize and subvert the archetypal film noir characteristics and mechanisms (morally ambiguous protagonists, drastic lighting design, femme fatales, etc.). Here are our top ten neo noir films:
10. Sin City (2005) dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, Sin City essentially embodies every noir convention imaginable while also showing off Robert Rodriguez’s talent as a filmmaker and love of visual effects. The film is heavy on character voiceovers, stark black-white/color contrasts and characters who aren’t entirely good or bad. Though it’s a purely surface level production, it’s quintessential neo noir.
9. Brick (2005) dir. Rian Johnson
Director Rian Johnson exploded onto the cinematic scene with this bizarre and risky take on the noir genre. Johnson’s experiment paid off thanks in large part to his brilliant, fast-paced script and crew of young actors (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who could effortlessly pull off the mile-a-minute dialogue. The film is set in a high school, but hits all the elements of noir including a standoff-ish “detective” (Gordon-Levitt) who is trying to solve the death of his true love. Brick is perplexing at first, but impossible to stop watching.
8. The Last Seduction (1994) dir. John Dahl
The Last Seduction is a great example of how neo noir takes a convention and flips it on its head. The film’s protagonist, played by Linda Fiorentino, is also the femme fatale in this crime/mystery where only one person truly knows what is going on. The film was almost slapped with an NC-17 rating upon release due to the explicit sex scenes involving Fiorentino and Peter Berg. Dangerous sex was always an underlying, though rarely shown, theme of film noir and relaxed ratings standards have finally allowed filmmakers to openly address what was always only alluded to in the old days.
7. Following (1997) dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, which was barely released in the U.S., focuses on a struggling writer who begins following strangers as a way to get his creative juices flowing. When he follows the wrong guy one day, he quickly discovers the criminal underworld of London. Nolan shows off his skills as a director and storyteller with a nonlinear structure which is at first confusing but ultimately rewarding. Shot in black and white, Following is a subtle, but powerful, entry into the neo noir genre.
6. Mulholland Dr. (2001) dir. David Lynch
David Lynch is one of the most divisive directors working today. His films are not easily accessible even to the most astute students of film. Mulholland Dr., possibly his most well-known film, has so many layers and metaphors that it’s difficult to appreciate on first viewing. What’s clear, though, is the way he takes a normal noir convention (an amnesia-struck character) and weaves a story which is as frustrating to watch as it is rewarding to finish.
5. Blade Runner (1982) dir. Ridley Scott
One of the greatest science-fiction films of all time, Blade Runner is also a masterful neo noir tale. Set in a dystopian future, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a detective who is charged with running down replicants (robots that are indistinguishable from humans). This dark and gritty existential film would be classic film noir if it wasn’t for the robots and flying cars. This close adherence to the genre’s characteristics demonstrates how much fun filmmakers can have within the constraints of noir.
4. Memento (2000) dir. Christopher Nolan
Nolan’s follow up to Following blew away critics, audiences and practically every other film released in 2000. Memento’s “horseshoe” trajectory and backwards storytelling are difficult to comprehend at first, but Nolan, a master filmmaker, makes it easy for the audience to go along for the ride. Alternately between color and black and white, Nolan toys with noir conventions through his visuals and highly unreliable characters.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson
If you miss even the first five minutes of this film, you might as well skip it. The plot of L.A. Confidential is so well-crafted that every image and line of dialogue is crucial. Curtis Hanson’s film is about as close as it gets to classic film noir. If it wasn’t for the purposely vibrant colors and bright imagery, it would be easy to mistake it as coming straight out of the 1940s. The acting is terrific across the board, especially Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey as two cops on opposite ends of the law.Hanson’s film is smart, fast and endlessly entertaining.
2. Dark City (1998) dir. Alex Proyas
By far one of the most inventive science-fiction films ever made, Dark City is a riddle inside an enigma. The film’s protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), wakes up in a bathtub in a strange room unable to recall how he got there or who he is (amnesia again, or is it?). On his journey to uncover his identity, John constantly runs into brick walls, figuratively and literally. To give away any more would cheat the viewer and insult director Alex Proyas. If you haven’t seen Dark City, do so immediately. Once you have, go back and listen to the brilliant DVD commentary by Roger Ebert which deconstructs the film scene by scene.
1. Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
No other filmmaker or filmmakers have contributed as much to the neo noir genre as the Coen Brothers. Since their startlingly impressive debut, Blood Simple, in 1984, the Coens have consistently elevated the noir genre while playing with audience expectations. Whether pushing the boundaries of chiaroscuro lighting (The Man Who Wasn’t There), breaking down typical storytelling (No Country for Old Men) or riffing on what it means to be a private eye (The Big Lebowski), Joel and Ethan Coen are by far the most important neo noir filmmakers working today.