Noir cinema reached its peak during the Golden Age of Hollywood. With the arrival of the New Hollywood movement, noir evolved, abandoned some of the most significant traits that made it famous in the ’40s and ’50s, and adopted new ones, thus giving rise to the neo-noir subgenre.
Neo-noir films have been common in cinema since the 1970s; however, the sub-genre received a much-needed boost in the new millennium. The 2000s produced several acclaimed and well-known neo-noir movies, but also more than a few worthy efforts that flew under the radar. Despite receiving positive reviews, these neo-noir films remain underrated among audiences and are worthy of a reassessment.
10 ‘The Ice Harvest’ (2005)
The Ice Harvest stars John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton opposite Connie Nielsen and Randy Quaid. The plot follows a mobster’s attorney and his associate, who are embezzling money from a mobster. On Christmas Eve, they attempt to run away with their earning, but an ice storm derails their plans.
Blending dark comedy with classic noir tropes, The Ice Harvest is a clever and wickedly funny subversion of genres. Cusack and Thornton make for an inspired combo, joined by a scene-stealing Olive Platt proving why he’s one of the finest character actors of his generation.
9 ‘Disturbia’ (2007)
Attempting to adapt one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s best and most rewatchable films might seem like a futile task. However, D. J. Caruso pulls it off by not imitating the original but reinventing it for a modern audience. Disturbia follows a teenager on house arrest who begins spying on his neighbors, becoming convinced one of them is a murderer.
Disturbiafeatures a strong cast and a tense atmosphere that elevates it past other neo-noir thrillers of the 2000s. The film’s third act threatens to undo all the good the first two achieve, but Disturbia‘s tense, effective approach make for an engaging and rewarding mystery.
8 ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’ (2009)
The ever-underrated Gemma Arterton stars in the 2009 neo-noir film The Disappearance of Alice Creed. The plot follows a wealthy heiress kidnapped by two masked men. Upon realizing one of them is her boyfriend, she must keep up appearances and find a way to outsmart her captors.
Twisting and often unbearably tense, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is an expertly-crafted thriller. Arterton delivers one of the best performances of her career, confidently handling the film’s psychological and physical violence opposite her co-stars, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Claustrophobic and compelling, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is an old-fashioned thriller that makes the best out of its confined setting.
7 ‘The Salton Sea’ (2002)
D. J. Caruso made a name for himself with his neo-noir efforts during the 2000s, including 2002’s The Salton Sea. Val Kilmer, Peter Sarsgaard, and Vincent D’Onofrio star in a story about a grieving man searching for redemption while meeting several characters and becoming involved in increasingly dangerous situations.
The Salton Sea is a showcase for Kilmer’s underappreciated dramatic abilities. The actor bears the film’s weight on his shoulders and rises to the challenge, delivering one of his career’s most erratic yet fascinating performances. The Salton Sea is somewhat frustrating and often too chaotic for its own good, but the cast and Caruso’s inspired direction elevate it.
6 ‘Narc’ (2002)
Joe Carnahan‘s 2002 neo-noir crime thriller Narc stars Jason Patric and the late Ray Liotta. The plot follows a suspended undercover narcotics officer paired with a rogue cop hellbent on revenge against the criminals who killed his former partner.
Narc is a familiar but satisfying cop drama, elevated by Patric and Liotta’s intense chemistry. The actors dominate the story, taking Carnahan’s compelling yet conventional screenplay and complementing it with grit and fury. Narc is a worthy entry into the popular cop thriller genre, offering a crueler and more haunting portrayal of justice than other similar efforts.
5 ‘The Aura’ (2005)
The 2005 Argentinian neo-noir psychological thriller The Aura is the late Fabián Bielinsky‘s last film before his tragic passing. The plot follows a shy and epileptic taxidermist who accidentally kills a career criminal and takes over his scheme to rob an armored car.
The Aura is among the grittiest foreign crime films in the 21st century. Riveting and cerebral, the film is a clever and intricate examination of crime and ambition, anchored by strong work from lead actor Ricardo Darín. Bielinsky constructs an anxious and haunting atmosphere, turning The Aura into an exercise in patience and stability.
4 ‘Brick’ (2005)
Rian Johnson‘s directorial debut, Brick, is a triumph of the neo-noir subgenre. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan Frye, a shy and loner teenager who receives a frantic call from his ex-girlfriend before she is found dead. Determined to discover the culprit, Brendan infiltrates his school’s numerous cliques to pursue the truth.
Brick is one of the 21st century’s best whodunit. Benefitting from Johnson’s trademark witty and insightful dialog and Gordon-Levitt’s earnest performance, the film is a loving homage to the classic noirs of the Golden Age. Intelligent and with gravitas to spare, Brick is a modern mystery triumph on its way to becoming a classic.
3 ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ (2007)
The one and only Sidney Lumet directs the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei in the 2007 neo-noir crime thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Told in a non-linear narrative, the film follows two brothers whose scheme to rob their parents’ jewelry goes wrong, leading their father to take justice into his hands, unaware the criminals he is hunting are his own children.
Like the legendary Lumet’s best films, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is cerebral and layered. The movie excels as a powerful exploration of familial turmoil, blind ambition, and gross incompetence, with Lumet’s confident hand behind the camera guiding a stellar cast at the top of their game.
2 ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (2005)
The Korean neo-noir action drama A Bittersweet Life stars Lee Byung-hun as Sun-woo, a hitman who becomes the target of his former boss’ rage after sparing the man’s cheating mistress. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, the film co-stars Kim Yeong-cheol and Shin Min-ah.
A Bittersweet Life is stylish, thrilling, and ultra-violent, delivering on every front. Supported by Byung-hun’s commanding performance, the film presents an action-packed and intense mystery that blends noir’s subtle themes with the hyperactive, kinetic energy of the action genre, delivering a unique blend of styles that remains unique in modern noir cinema.
1 ‘Hollywoodland’ (2006)
Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody, and Diane Lane star in the 2006 period noir mystery Hollywoodland. The film presents a fictionalized version of the late actor George Reeves’ death and how it related to his former mistress, Toni Mannix, wife to MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix.
An essential film about classic Hollywood, Hollywoodland is a bittersweet and tragic portrayal of fame. Anchored by a career-best performance from Affleck, the film is deeply affecting and melancholic. Hollywoodland cares more about the drama surrounding Reeves’ life than the mystery surrounding his death, but the story remains engaging and powerful.
KEEP READING:10 Best Neo-Noir Movies That Expertly Blend Different Genres