Is there anything that says “film” more than film noir, a genre that got its start in the pulp paperbacks but found its ultimate expression in glorious, expressionistic shadows cast larger than life on the silver screens of the 1940s and 1950s?
Those classic films of hardboiled detectives, femmes fatales, cynical world views, and deep, dark shadows continue to resonate with audiences today, and inspire contemporary filmmakers to craft modern film noir every year. A few directors have even made a habit of the form, and virtually all of the cinematic output of directors like the Coen Brothers or David Lynch could easily make this list.
In order to keep a manageable length, however, we've enforced a couple of relatively arbitrary rules: To count as modern film noir, the movie has to have been released after 1990, and no more than one film per director can make the list. We've also tried to incorporate a mix of genuine classics, underseen oddities, and films that are otherwise representative of the film noir genre.
Cast a Deadly Spell
If you’ve never seen the first film in this occasionally unorthodox list, you can get some idea of what it’s like by imagining Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but with all the cartoons replaced by monstrous creatures, magic spells, and grim grimoires from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Fred Ward plays our private eye main character, named after the Old Gent of Providence himself, while Martin Campbell (who would later go on to make Goldeneye, Casino Royale, and The Foreigner, to name a few) handles directing duties on this HBO original movie.
Probably most famous for Sharon Stone’s risqué interrogation sequence, Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller is not only one of the highest grossing films on this list, it also managed to snag a couple of Academy Award nominations. So it’s not as if Basic Instinct is exactly underseen. But even if you’ve seen it before, this bizarre, anxiety-filled take on the film noir formula is well worth a second (or third or fourth) look.
Devil in a Blue Dress
The familiar film noir formula takes on a new dimension when you add an element of racial tension to the mix, especially as Denzel Washington takes on the role of Easy Rawlins, our World War II vet turned private protagonist, who has to navigate the underworld of 1940s L.A.
Arguably one of the greatest modern film noir homages is director Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, which beats out Basic Instinct by actually winning a couple of Oscars, not to mention being nominated for Best Picture.
Out of Sight
With Out of Sight, we trade in James Ellroy for Elmore Leonard and pick up a somewhat more laid-back thread of film noir, exchanging the streets of New York or L.A. for Florida and Detroit. Steven Soderbergh directs with the same aplomb he would later bring to films like Traffic and the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, albeit with a little less showiness. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez star, with Don Cheadle (who we previously saw in Devil in a Blue Dress) turning in another dynamite supporting role.
Although another unconventional entry, there may be no other film on this list more noir than Alex Proyas’ visually stunning Dark City, which combines all the familiar elements of the genre with an intoxicating sci-fi conceit that helps push the expressionistic look and feel of the film to 11.
Yeah, it’s a wildly imperfect movie, but few films of the modern era have ever dived so completely into the noir aesthetic. If what Sin City emerges from those icy waters bearing isn’t exactly pearls, well, that’s not entirely off-message for the genre, either.
Just about any of director Rian Johnson’s movies could have assumed a creditable place on this list (even The Last Jedi has more than a few noir nods), but the most noir of them all has to be his debut feature Brick, which takes all the beats (and dialogue) of a hardboiled detective story and drops them into a modern day high school setting to jaw-dropping effect.
The Nice Guys
With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black made a film that operated both as a modern film noir classic and a satire of the same. While his follow-up The Nice Guys may not quite top Kiss Kiss for laughs-per-minute, there’s something so perfectly noir about its dead-on 1970s L.A. setting and its gallows humor tale of corporate malfeasance.
The list could go on and on, but hopefully this has turned you on to at least one movie you may not have seen before. And if you run out of movies, there’s currently a lot of great film noir being made for the small screen, ranging from “teen noir” shows like Riverdale to the southern noir of Joe Lansdale and Jim Mickle’s Hap and Leonard series.
While its heyday may have been in the 1940s, film noir remains a vital part of cinema’s legacy, and one that is continually reinvented by new directors, for new audiences. So long as there is moral ambiguity and a part of us all that longs for the shadows, film noir will always be with us. What are some of your favorite contemporary noir movies? Let us know in the comments!
Featured still from "Sin City" via Dimension Films
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