The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles creeps out from the shadows in Nightcrawler, a new thriller that many are calling a modern film noir.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an anti-hero loner and sociopath who enters the world of freelance crime photography. There’s blood, dark nights and darker morals, just as any noir-ish drama ought to have.
There are tendencies for neo-noir movies to feel like they’re out of the past, set in the post-war period of the genre’s heyday, or to depict a far-off future when hard-boiled cops remain a staple of pulp fictions. But many are set in the present, reminding us that there are a lot of black and white stories in the modern world, even if we now primarily see things in color.
Before Nightcrawler hits theaters, let’s look at 11 more films – from the last 20 years – that can be filed under “modern noir.”
1. Memento (2000)
Amnesia has always been common to film noir, and this breakout feature from Christopher Nolan carries on the tradition to its maximum potential -- taking us on a backwards journey alongside a memory-impaired man investigating his wife’s murder.
2. Brick (2005)
Future Star Wars director Rian Johnson made his debut with this clever teen movie heavily inspired by old detective fiction and film noir, especially in the dialogue. Forget mean girls; try attending a high school where there’s a femme fatale.
3. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Writer-director Shane Black’s ode to pulp-y detective fiction and film noir also satirizes action movie conventions and Hollywood at large, thanks in large part to its quick-witted script and inspired performance from Robert Downey, Jr. The then-future Iron Man plays a thief-turned-actor-turned-private eye, who joins Val Kilmer to solve a missing persons case that involves murder and double-crosses – all set during Black’s favorite holiday, Christmas.
4. The Last Seduction (1994)
The most memorable femme fatale of the modern era has to be Linda Fiorentino’s character in this slow-burn thriller, from neo-noir master John Dahl. She’s the protagonist here, turning the genre on its side for a post-feminist take on the woman’s role in these stories.
5. Mulholland Drive (2001)
While not the inventor of surreal noir, David Lynch is surely the current king of that subgenre, giving us plenty of movies inspired by old crime films and the subconscious mind. The similar Lost Highway might have more of a straight noir narrative, but this mind-bending thriller is a far more compelling movie.
6. The Usual Suspects (1995)
If a movie is primarily being told in flashback, by a character narrating the story from a police station, chances are it’s a film noir – or at least something influenced by the genre. This one is too fresh to be the genuine article. To paraphrase Benicio Del Toro, it flips things for real.
7. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Novelist Dennis Lehane has done for Boston what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles, turned it into a perfect setting for noir-ish crime stories. And Ben Affleck proved here that he’s the best guy to adapt Lehane’s private detective series into a movie. Now if only he’d adapt the rest.
8. Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller embraces its L.A. Noir roots while playing with more conventional movie tropes, as contract killer Vincent (an underrated Tom Cruise) forces cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him from hit to hit. Their violent and compelling crime-filled trip through Los Angeles makes the city more than just a gritty backdrop for the action – it turns L.A. into a character.
9. Fargo (1996)
The Coen brothers have probably made more noir-ish movies in the past 30 years than anybody -- some of them set in the past, some in the present. Although Fargo takes place nearly a decade before the movie’s release, it still qualifies as modern. It also qualifies as maybe the only movie deserving to be labeled with the oxymoron “blanc-noir” on account of all the snow.
10. The Dark Knight (2008)
Tonally, Christopher Nolan’s genre-defining comic book movie has a noir sensibility at its core – it just centers on a man dressed as a bat, fighting another with pockets full of knives and lint.
Batman is a hardened detective, so it makes perfect sense that he has starred in comics done in a noir-ish style, and it also makes sense that some of his movies have been heavily influenced by the genre. Nolan, so much of a noir lover that he has two movies on this list, outdid Tim Burton with a more gritty and grounded Gotham.
11. Drive (2011)
Director Nicholas Winding Refn, armed with a neon-lit Los Angeles and an infectious soundtrack, tells the neo-noir tale of a stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as wheelman, ferrying crooks from job to getaway in record time. In between bursts of bloody violence, this critically-acclaimed film finds plenty of meditative character beats to make Drive one of the best slow-burn entries in the genre.