Film & TV
The allure of a killer crime movie is undeniable. From early crime noir films to the intricate narratives of Alfred Hitchcock and the luridly-colored Italian giallo horror movie shockers that gave rise to the modern slasher flick, crime finds its way into the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere.
This holds as true in the modern century as it did in the earliest days of cinema. From psychological thrillers to neo-noir blood fests, here are the best crime movies from 2001 and beyond. They're sure to get your pulse racing.
1. Infernal Affairs
Remade by Martin Scorsese in 2006 as The Departed, the original is still the superior version of the tale; a lean, beautiful, and tense film about a cat-and-mouse game between a gangland mole within the police department and an undercover cop. Winning seven Hong Kong Film Awards and garnering an Oscar nomination, this smart thriller leans into the emotional and moral consequences of undercover work–and trusts its audience to understand the tale without the heavy lifting that The Departed often fell prey to.
2. Layer Cake
Take the producer of Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, give him a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig (and Michael Gambon, who had been recently cast as Dumbledore’s replacement), and you’ve got one of the best British crime films that most people haven’t seen. A nameless protagonist on his supposed last job discovers (naturally) that there's higher stakes than he expected. Layer Cake elevates its common premise with stylish menace.
3. A History of Violence
While arguably one of David Cronenberg’s more “approachable” movies, A History of Violence stands out in the array of best thriller movies of all time by making the violence in question incredibly uncomfortable, even for viewers long jaded to movie violence. (See also some of the best uses of sex scenes to establish character you will ever see on film.)
What happens when you take a film noir detective story—complete with archaic dialogue and plenty of slang—and plop it into a modern-day high school? You get Rian Johnson’s spellbinding directorial debut and one of the all time great crime thriller movies. Johnson spent seven years attempting to get the movie made, and eventually was able to finance the film for under $500,000. Brick is a pitch-perfect cult classic, with a thrilling starring turn from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has had a role in each of Johnson's films to date.
5. Kiss Kiss Bang
Shane Black’s love letter to pulp detective novels also manages to be one of the most razor-sharp film noirs of the modern era and one of the funniest buddy comedies ever made. Based on a Brett Halliday mystery, Black took iconic screenwriter James L. Brooks's advice to imagine Jack Nicholson's character in As Good as It Gets in his role in Chinatown. The stars aligned from there: They were able to book Robert Downey, Jr. cheaply after his fall from grace; Black cracked the script; and Val Kilmer's interest in starring in a comedy led to his role as "Gay" Perry.
David Fincher’s masterpiece remains one of the best crime movies based on a true story. Calling to mind the Jodie Foster-helmed The Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac reminds us of the thrilling power of movies (and the price of obsession), while taking us on a mind-bending chase for notorious serial killer the Zodiac Killer. Fincher leaned fully into the 70s era, using actual photos from the Zodiac's police files and later complaining that they could have had "more VW bugs" to really nail the period.
7. No Country for Old Men
You can’t really make a crime movie list and not include at least one Coen Brothers title, right? It doesn’t hurt that Javier Bardem made his name playing Anton Chigurgh, one of the all-time great film villains, in this haunting tale. This modern classic is also available on Netflix.
8. In Bruges
By turns hilarious and tragic, Martin McDonagh’s film about two hitmen lying low in Bruges, Belgium isn’t to be missed, featuring fantastic performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and a particularly foul-mouthed Ralph Fiennes. Hell might be an eternity spent in Bruges, but heaven might look something like an afternoon with In Bruges.
9. The Raid 2
Sure, The Raid is an action classic, but its sequel keeps all that action intact while opening up the palette to create a sweeping generational epic. Think The Godfather, but with lots of people getting kicked, punched, stabbed, and murdered with hammers. An Indonesian film by way of Welsh director Gareth Evans, The Raid 2 blew away American and international audiences alike.
10. Cold in July
This isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal’s first appearance on this list, but it might be his best work, as he turns in one of the eeriest performances you’re likely to find outside of a horror flick, helped along by Dan Gilroy’s portrait of the nighttime world of Los Angeles.
Before Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve directed this searing tale about the war on drugs, which feels just one supernatural occurrence short of being a Laird Barron story put on film.
13. The Nice Guys
Shane Black gets the distinction of being the only director to make this list twice, and while The Nice Guys may not be quite as successful as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a lot more ambitious to make up for it.
14. I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
This Netflix original about a woman and her eccentric neighbor who track down the burglars who broke into her home feels like the orphaned sibling of a Coen Brothers classic.
15. Baby Driver
A musical in which the characters listen to the songs rather than sing them may not seem the most likely candidate for one of the best crime movies of 2017, but that’s just because you may not have seen Edgar Wright’s infectious caper flick yet.
The list could go on and on. The 21st century has already proven a fertile ground for the crime film, as various directors take the reins of the film noir and run with it in just about every direction you can imagine, from the humor of Shane Black to almost elegiac tales like No Country for Old Men.
If I hadn’t been restricted to 15 entries, I might have mentioned Nicolas Winding Refn’s oddly stylized cult hit Drive, horror superstar James Wan dabbling his toe into the Death Wish remake pool with Death Sentence a decade before Eli Roth would make it official, or Ben Wheatley’s 1970s-style shoot-em-up Free Fire. (For that matter, if you’re looking for a crime film that takes a decidedly more bizarre turn in its final reel, check out Wheatley’s Kill List.)
No matter how many movies I list, though, I’m bound to miss some, so tell us your favorite crime movies of the 21st century in the comments!
Featured promo image from "Sicario" via Lionsgate