The 8 Ball 04.01.14: Top 8 Neo-Noir Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 04.01.2014
From Memento and Chinatown to L.A. Confidential, The Last Seduction and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 neo-noir films
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Neo-Noir Films
Welcome back to another edition of the 411 Movie Zone 8 Ball! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas, and this week Captain America: The Winter Soldier hits theaters. I was tempted to do a comic book film-related list to go along with that, but I have plenty of opportunities to do that coming up so instead I decided to go a different route: neo-noir. Obviously the Marvel sequel is not an entry in that genre, but there are things about what we've learned of the plot which suggest shadowy motives, a cynical attitude and moral shades of grey, and for whatever reason it pushed me in this direction. Noir is one of my absolute favorite genres of film, and neo-noir has taken those elements from those classic films and presented them within the modern era quite effectively. This week we're going to take a look at the best examples of modernized noir films.
Caveat: Film noir as a genre has been debated, defined and argued over ever since the term was first used by the French to describe this darker trend in American filmmaking. Following the end of World War II, European countries found themselves open to American films in a way that had been suppressed during the Axis' run across the continent and they were surprised by the new cynicism that was leaking its way onto the screen underneath the auspices of the oppressive Motion Picture Production Code. There have been many definitions presented, but there are a few accepted conventions:
1. A cynical outlook on the world in terms of morality. Film noir tend to present their characters as firmly within shades of grey or full-on black hearted villains. There are no white knights in noir movies.
2. A visual style that uses shadows and lighting to great effect. They are usually (but not always) very dark pictures visually.
3. A sensibility that grew out of the feel of old pulp novels and intricate plots where nothing is what it seems, often focusing on crime, corruption and the use of sex as a tool.
4. A bleak mood that often overlays via taboo topics and has no predilections toward a traditional happy ending.
Neo-noir grew out of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the new age of filmmaking hit; with the Production Code abandoned in favor of the rating system, filmmakers had a new freedom to work with and they began to introduce not only more violent and explicit content into films, but also new themes, as moral ambiguity was allowed in more overt ways. This allowed filmmakers to create stronger visions for noir and that's what formed the basis of the subgenre. As Roger Ebert put it, noir is "the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic." As one other caveat, I disqualified genre films (science fiction, horror, et cetera) because they all comprise their own subgenres; most notably this left Blade Runner out. It's a classic tech noir film, which is a genre I might discuss at a later date.
Just Missing The Cut
Sin City (2005)
The Grifters (1990)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
#8: Brick (2005)
First on our list this week is a new classic from filmmaker Rian Johnson. Brick is a fantastic spin on noir elements, taking the pulp mystery elements of some of the greatest noir films and setting them within a California high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a high school student who, while investigating the death of a recent girlfriend, finds himself immersed in the world of drug dealing. The film is basically your classic hardboiled detective story played amidst a younger age demographic of characters complete with a femme fatale, a corrupt power structure and everything else you might expect. Johnson is a huge fan of Dashiel Hammett, the author whose detective works formed the basis of several classic film noirs and you can see that influence laid almost overtly out on the screen in this film. Gordon-Levitt gives the performance that helped propel him to the level of a respected actor and Johnson plays with all the noir elements there are from cinematography and dialogue to plot twists and more. This film's esteem has grown over the years since its release and is considered to be a cult classic, a title it certainly deserves as one of the great post-millennium neo-noirs.
#7: Blood Simple (1984)
Few filmmakers are as closely associated with the neo-noir movement as the Coen Brothers. The group have included some elements of the subgenre within many of their films; there are strains of it in Fargo and No Country for Old Men while Miller's Crossing is a full-on entry into the genre. Their best pure neo-noir though is Blood Simple, which introduced not only the Coen Brothers to filmgoers, but Frances McDormand as well. McDormand is great in her role here and gives one of her best performances to date while M. Emmet Walsh steals the film as the sleazy and psychotic yet charming private eye Loren Visser. Dan Hedaya's villainous husband is likewise well-done and John Getz is wonderfully in over his head as Ray, the man with whom McDormand's Abby is having an affair. With this film the Coens made a film which is quite self-aware and revels in its conventions, but that also isn't afraid to twist things on its head nicely at times. Abby is a femme fatale of sorts, but she's not the classic image that you get when you think of it either. Blood Simple is, in many ways, the prototypical Coen Brothers film and contains many of the elements which would be popularized by them; they are in large part responsible for the rise of the movement during the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to films like this.
#6: The Last Seduction (1994)
While modern noir can deviate from the classics in the genre in certain elements, there is one part that is almost impossible not to include and that is the femme fatale. Of all the dangerous women in neo-noir, none of them can hold a candle to Linda Fiorentino's work as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. This John Dahl classic saw Fiorentino really cut loose as the woman who, after making off with her husband's stolen drug money, hides out in a small town where she proceeds to weave a path of destruction through the town's male population for her own ends. Peter Berg provides a sympathetic rube in Mike Swale, suckered in by Bridget's manipulations and led practically on a leash to his own demise. This film was tragically disqualified from the Oscars due to its airing on HBO before hitting theaters, as Fiorentino had a great shot at the Oscar that year. Most classic noirs set their films within big cities, since they were more likely to be acceptable as places or corruption than "wholesome" small towns. Neo-noirs often buck that trend and when done right the results are fantastic. This is a perfect example.
#5: Memento (2000)
Memento seems to have fallen by the wayside among cinephiles for being too clever, something that befuddles me. Yes, the film's structure is very tricksy, but that doesn't make it a lesser film. Christopher Nolan crafted a masterful piece of neo-noir cinema here, playing with perceptions and memories to give us a tale of revenge and murder under the auspices of anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new memories. Guy Pierce is phenomenal in this role as he tries to maneuver his way around this mystery with a host of unreliable characters that he's unable to trust. Nolan's visual aesthetic is well on display here, with the use of color vs. black and white playing out nicely and the plot twists coming fast and hard. I think that the worst thing that the studio ever did to Memento was including the DVD Easter egg which allowed you to watch the film in the correct order, in which case it just doesn't hold up as well as the intended direction. Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano provide great supporting work and the final revelations give that gloomy ending that is a staple of the genre. This captures the essence of the noir antihero's isolation perfectly, making it a truly fantastic neo-noir entry.
#4: Red Rock West (1993)
Red Rock West is not a film that everyone will be familiar with, having released straight to video and cable initially by Columbia Tri-Star, who didn't have a lot of faith in it. It wasn't until San Francisco movie theater owner Bill Banning saw some serious value in the film that it became better known; he obtained the rights to air it and took it on an art-house tour that turned it into a cult hit. The film is set within a small Wyoming town and stars Nic Cage (pre-Academy Award win) as Michael, a drifter who is mistaken for a hit man who has been hired by J. T. Walsh's bar owner to kill his wife. After being offered a ton of money to do the hit, Michael finds his life complicated by Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), who he tries to warn and who just sucks him in further and it gets worse when the real hitman arrives in town. This is an amazing little film that fit the neo-noir genre within a pseudo-Western, with all the cast delivering and John Dahl (yes, the same guy who did The Last Temptation) again spinning his expertise within the genre. If you haven't seen this you really should because it's a great little thriller.
#3: Body Heat (1981)
One of the truly classic film noirs is Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and from it comes the only remake on this list. Body Heat isn't a direct remake of the 1944 Fred MacMurray-starring film, but it takes quite a bit from that all-time great and does it almost as well. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner are smoldering as a corrupt lawyer and a femme fatale who begin an affair and then plot to murder her husband, played by Richard Crenna. This film includes all the seedy elements that could have been in noir films of the '40s and '50s but were restricted due to the Production Code. The way Matty wraps Ned around her finger with ease and makes him think that the murder plot is her own idea; this is a classic plan of the femme fatale and she walks her way through it with ease. Lawrence Kasdan made great use of the Miami setting and the visual styles are taken from several different time periods in order to give it a timeless feel that would fit well within the old noir era. The script is well-paced and tightly plotted, the dialogue is whip-smart, the acting is fantastic; it has pretty much everything you might need for a modern classic.
#2: L.A. Confidential (1997)
I maintain that this film should have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1997 over Titanic and it's an opinion no one's ever been able to convince me out of. Curtis Hanson's brilliant adaptation of James Ellroy's noir novel is a huge accomplishment by simple virtue of not collapsing under the weight of the dense plot and numerous characters. That it not only stands up but excels is nothing short of astounding. Here's another film starring Guy Pierce, with Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey taking on the other protagonist roles while Kim Basinger plays the lady in trouble and James Cromwell is part of the corrupt system that prevents justice from being found. This is such a classic neo-noir that you simply can't avoid discussing it on a list of the best in the genre. Bud White, Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes...none of these are good guys. The first is a violent brute, the second is an arrogant prick and the third is a callous and corrupt pseudo-cop. But they're all that Los Angeles has and they'll have to be enough. This is a film that really raised the bar for the genre and showed just how shady you could take things with a good modern noir. Many films have tried to capture this pulp era and failed in various degrees (Black Dahlia and Gangster Squad both come immediately to mind), but this one managed it successfully and made it look easy.
#1: Chinatown (1974)
There's no other film to even discuss as #1. I am adamant about the idea that no opinion about a film is wrong, but suggesting that there is a better neo-noir than Roman Polanski's masterpiece is about as close as you can get. This is an unparalleled success; it is almost literally a classic film noir that was just made thirty years after it could have been. It contains every element you might expect from the genre and just inserts all the seedy stuff the Production Code wouldn't let you do, including the bad guy getting away with it in the end. Jack Nicholson shines as J.J. Giddes, the perfect neo-noir private eye who is tough, a little cynical, smart and resourceful, but he has a weakness for a beautiful woman. Faye Dunaway shines as Evelyn Mulwray, the woman who appears to be a femme fatale but has more complexity to her than just that and John Huston's Noah Cross is fantastically evil. This is considered one of the all-time great films period for good reason and it hits every note that a neo-noir could possibly want to hit. it also stands up almost impossibly well for a forty-year old film, which doesn't hurt. When it comes to neo-noir, no one did it like this one.
Disguise of the Episode
Current Series/Season:Season One (2001 - 2002) Episodes Watched: 16 Last Serial Completed:The Prophecy - Sydney is tested by the DSR to discover her mysterious link to a chilling 500-year-old picture and prophecy foretold in a Rambaldi manuscript. Meanwhile, after uncovering the identity of the rogue group leader, "The Man," Sloane learns through fellow Alliance of Twelve member Edward Poole that a close friend may be in cahoots with the enemy. Episodes Remaining: 89
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.