The art of film noir may be a thing of the past, but that hasn’t stopped some brave souls from attempting to wear it like a hand-me-down suit. Over the last twenty years, a handful of incredibly sturdy crime thrillers have come along, reminding film buffs that there’s more out there than meets the eye.
Netflix has taken a special interest in a handful of these gems, filling their halls with exemplary modern noir, full of hardboiled criminals, heists, revenge, hardbitten detectives and more tension than the human brain can withstand.
In case you want to descend into this underworld from the safety of you're own home, here at 10 Underrated Crime Movies Streaming on Netflix.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Filmmaker Andrew Dominik has been chasing the perfect American movie for over a decade. He succeeded with 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but a lackluster response and a negligible release perhaps led him to try it again. Taking cues from great depression movies like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and 42nd Street, Dominik’s third film Killing Them Softly hits with the impact of a brick thrown through a window.
Two greasy hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob card game, sending enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) on their trail. A film about the 2008 financial crisis dressed as a gritty-bordering-on-disgusting lowlife wallow, Killing Them Softly has an almost sensual appreciation for the grotesque trappings of the criminal lifestyle. Apparently, Dominik was forced to cut a good deal of the film before its release, so we can only imagine how good the full version must have been.
Glass Chin (2014)
Noah Buschel’s Glass Chin provided audiences with a full dose of Corey Stoll at his best. The character actor (best known for his work on TV shows like House of Cards and The Strain, or for his memorable turn as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris) spreads his wings here, playing a guarded former boxer with everything to prove and precious little to lose. He gets in deep with a local entrepreneur (Billy Crudup) with a mean streak, keen on making sure Stoll owes him.
Glass Chin chronicles the unraveling of a tightly coiled man in slow-motion. Stoll's belief in himself is the only thing keeping him from the street and, slowly, his behavior eats away at that. The script could have been pulled out of Billy Wilder’s drawer circa 1950, and Buschel directs it straightforwardly, all the better to enjoy the age-old machinations of fate.
The Yards (2000)
James Gray is the closest thing our generation has to Francis Ford Coppola, which makes him quite a valuable resource, considering the bearded Italian genius has more or less retired. Conjuring a metric ton of atmosphere atop his seriously beautiful images, he’s turned crime into opera and back again. The Yards, his first collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, is a simple tale of a murder breaking up a well-to-do crime family. But Gray directs like he’s painting a Rembrandt or remaking The Godfather.
Phoeni, along with co-stars Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, sizzle in their roles as ordinary screw-ups fighting for a second chance at happiness. Gray has since become among the most essential voices in American cinema, but it started here, when he showed that his debut (the marvelous Little Odessa) wasn’t a fluke, and that he could turn simple criminal narratives into unspeakably gorgeous tragedies.
In Bruges (2008)
A few years into his career as one of the greatest and most respected modern playwrights, Martin McDonagh tried his hand at directing a feature film. In Bruges, his feature debut, is a desperately melancholy tale of exiled hitmen (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) trying to divine the meaning of life after killing the wrong person.
McDonagh’s cracking dialogue and his eye for compelling insanity in all its forms turns an old sob story into something darker, richer and deeper. The drug-and-booze-fueled murderers grapple with life’s big questions while waiting for word from their bosses about their next move. Luxurious Bruge begins to look like purgatory for the soul-sick crooks, so, naturally, they get into as much trouble as they can manage. It’s a sad experience, but not without bursts of humor and unforgettable performances from everyone involved.
Cop Land (1997)
James Mangold’s star has fallen slightly over the last ten years, which is sad news, as he’s still the dependable craftsman who made Cop Land, whether directing zany Tom Cruise vehicles like Knight and Day or Marvel’s The Wolverine (itself hugely underrated), his images are rock solid and his pace is perfect.
Cop Land catapulted him into the big leagues and it’s not hard to see why. Sylvester Stallone leads a once-in-a-lifetime cast as a lifetime loser given one shot at doing the right thing. He’s the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, a fictional town across the Hudson where New York City cops go to live by their own rules. When a hotshot rookie fakes his own death and some veterans hide him in Stallone’s jurisdiction, it brings down a ton of heat in the form of every great actor at the time. Robert De Niro, John Spencer, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick and Harvey Keitel are all here, but the most surprising thing is that none of them are as affecting as Stallone, doing the best work of his career.
He'd return to boilerplate action after this, forgetting that he could garner sympathy effortlessly by just letting himself look vulnerable.
The Escapist (2008)
Rupert Wyatt’s two high profile American films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Gambler, ought to make one curious where he started. His first film, The Escapist, is even stronger and more intense than either of his follow-ups.
Brian Cox is serving a life sentence in one the scummiest jails in England when he learns that his daughter is losing a battle to addiction. He gathers up a crew of like-minded inmates (Joseph Fiennes, Seu Jorge, Dominic Cooper and Liam Cunningham) and plans a daring escape through the prison’s maze-like sewer system.
Wyatt’s prison underbelly is a beautiful piece of gothic architecture, like something out of one of the Alien movies. Interspersing the perilous journey with the preparations makes for two levels of near-excruciating tension and Wyatt’s characters are so wonderfully drawn that it’s just as riveting watching them risk their lives as it is making the seemingly mundane preparations for the big break out.
Lady Vengeance (2005)
Park Chan-Wook’s films are sinewy panoplies of style coating familiar genre ideas. Though Oldboy remains the best known of his revenge trilogy, it’s Lady Vengeance that packs the biggest punch.
Yeong-ae Lee plays a woman who went to jail for a crime she didn’t commit. Finally released, she sets her sights on taking down the man for whom she took the fall. Lee’s meticulousness turns her vengeance into something resembling a symphony, fine-tuned and luxurious, so that she can feel the biggest catharsis to match the time she spent in jail, time away from her daughter who has grown up without her.
Lady Vengeance is grim and bloody to be sure, but it’s also positively radiant in the way it presents the sensations that its heroine rediscovers after so many years in jail, dreaming of the outside world again and all its varied pleasures.
There has never been a crime film that looks, feels or sounds like Gomorrah. Taken from a sprawling, just-about-perfect book by Roberto Saviano about the mammoth industry of corruption in Naples, Matteo Garrone’s film is split into four sections. Each part concerns a different hapless crook who thinks he can take on the mob and come out ahead.
Spoiler alert: none of these tales end well. Garrone directs in a style that’s docu-realistic at times, while at others modernist bordering on the surreal. Even as it seems as though these stories travel further into wildness than could possibly be real, it’s important to remember that the true stories are even more bizarre and despairing.
Garrone’s modernist approach made it so we never lose the shocking impact of what it must be like to live in these tortured seaside towns, ruled by the violent, impervious to hope, impossible to change.
The Grifters (1990)
There’s a reason Jim Thompson’s novels have been adapted time and again. No one gets as ugly, sad, bloody and sexy as he does. Filmmakers have leapt at the chance to work with his words, everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Sam Peckinpah.
Not as celebrated today as it should be, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, one of, if not Frears' best film, looks at first like it’ll be skirting the sweaty Thompson novel from which it takes its plot. The sly, jazzy score, bright colors and wholesomely sexy performances from Annette Benning, John Cusack and Angelica Huston suggest that this may turn out to be a light-hearted romp. It does no such thing. Getting darker and more twisted with every minute, The Grifters’ tale of a guy caught between his girlfriend, his mother and the grift is worthy of Thompson’s dark legacy.
The Iceman (2012)
People disappointed in Black Mass’ weird remove from its subject would do well to check out The Iceman. Similarly based around a famous murderer active in the 1970s, it has the courage of its conviction and believes its hero’s conscienceless contract killing is fascinating and disgusting enough to focus on, without recourse to hideous overacting (even the notoriously spotty James Franco is good in his cameo here). Richard Kuklinski (a fearsome Michael Shannon) murdered dozens of people to support his family.
That’s really all there is to the film, and if that sounds a little threadbare, what makes it worth watching is the unflinching view of his calculated sadism and Shannon’s performance. He’s ably assisted by Winona Ryder as his wife, but Shannon’s reputation as the best actor of his generation gets a good workout as he stares down bottomless darkness time and again and wins every time.
Maybe these films don’t reinvent the wheel, but they have heart, grit and style to burn. What are your favorite crime films on Netflix? How do these films hold up next to classic noir? What did we miss?