The 5 Best Neo-Noirs

Posted by Wade Sheeler March 12, 2013 15 Comments 25733 views

While we’ve accepted that the Film Noir period generally covers the 1940s – 1950s, and the 1960s cinema of Clouzot, Melville, and Truffaut paid homage to this singularly American phenomena with their own subjective take on the hard-boiled genre, a more nebulous umbrella-like term has come into vogue to define the modern, genre-bending style now known as Neo-Noir. More aware of its genre, these films revel in their ability to play within the old parameters of Noir, while stretching the boundaries. Here’s my list of the 5 Best Neo Noirs, picking up in the 1970s.

What are your favorite Neo-Noirs? Tell us in the comments!

The 5 Best Neo-Noirs

Taxi Driver (1976)

Still image from "Taxi Driver"

From the grimy streets, the night creatures that stumble and shuffle out of the city’s corners, the monotone narration, the Bernard Herrman score, to the dual femme fatales (Jodie Foster/Cybil Shepard) that drive our anti-hero over the edge, Scorsese’s homage to the disillusioned vet in a world he tries to control but can’t understand, has become the touchstone for all modern noirs, and unwittingly made Travis Bickle the poster child for the misunderstood, disenfranchised and sadly, psychotic.

Blade Runner (1982)

Still image from "Blade Runner"

If the definition of Neo Noir is to take modern technology, story trappings and contemporary issues and place them in the noir milieu, then Blade Runner is the daddy of them all. With the noir mantra that “things are not what they seem” gone haywire, Harrison Ford’s detective is on the hunt for cyborgs past their prime in a dystopian Los Angeles that 30 years ago felt like pure sci-fi, and today seems like a Saturday night at Universal’s City walk. Is Ford just a gun-for-hire, or is he searching to define his own mortality?

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

Still image from "After Dark, My Sweet"

Jim Thompson had made the leap into Neo-Noir while pulp writers were still trying to get a grasp on the noir hard-boiled glossary of terms in the 1950s. His characters were insane, obsessive deviants who had only the most tenuous grasp on reality. Taking one of Thompson’s greatest works, journeyman director James Foley lifts the 1950s city setting and masterfully moves it to modern day Palm Springs. The barren desert becomes a perfect analogy to the lost, vast prison that the three main characters struggle to conquer. And Jason Patric turns in a performance that is a pure revelation. The actor inhabits his character like a vagrant pulling a torn coat off a dead man.

Memento (2000)

Still image from "Memento"

During the 1940s, several filmmakers tried to capture the isolation, the loneliness and the claustrophobia of their antiheroes by literally getting inside their heads. Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake was the best of these. The entire film is shot though his protagonist’s POV, and we only see his Philip Marlowe in mirrors and glass reflections. Christopher Nolan takes the idea of a subjective story to its logical and most ingenious conclusion by creating a character who has no short term memory, and we end up trapped in his amnesiac psychosis by living in his world backwards. The film demands the audience’s undivided attention and focus, which some critics found flashy and unnecessary, while others (like myself) find the rewards for this brilliant exercise unlike any you have ever experienced, save perhaps for the masterful storytelling of La Jetee.

A History of Violence (2005)

Still image from "A History of Violence"

Nobody does impending dread like David Cronenberg, and this tale of a small town business owner with a mysterious past builds like a coiled snake, until it (and Viggo Mortensen) strikes. No one; his old enemies, his family or the audience is prepared for the meticulous destruction he will bring down on them all. This is not only an acting out of “nothing is as it seems,” but more interestingly, “no one, not even your husband, is who you think they are.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  The Grifters, The Usual Suspects, Drive, One False Move, and The Last Seduction

What are your favorite Neo-Noirs? Tell us in the comments!

About Wade Sheeler

TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. I still make mixed tapes if I like you enough.

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There are 15 Comments

  1. Keith Demko
    - March 12, 2013
      -   Reply

    Great list … I’d add Brick by Rian Johnson

  2. - March 12, 2013
      -   Reply

    Oooh! GREAT one, Keith! Perfect — and is definitely “neo!”

  3. - March 14, 2013
      -   Reply

    “Blood Simple”
    “The Last Seduction”
    “Angel Heart”

    Glad to see “After Dark, My Sweet” made your list, it’s overlooked.

    Considered “Pulp Fiction” and “Mulholland Drive”; great movies but they didn’t seem noirish enough to me. Loved “Taxi Driver,” of course, but I would consider it more of a character study that borrows noir stylings than a neo-noir proper.

  4. - March 25, 2013
      -   Reply

    Good list. I would like to mention Red Rock West, Light Sleeper, House of games, A Bitter Sweet Life, Angel Heart, Croupier, I’ll sleep when I’m dead and After Hours

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  9. Zach
    - May 23, 2013
      -   Reply

    Sin City?

  10. Patrick
    - June 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    Blue Velvet

  11. - September 12, 2013
      -   Reply

    The Killer Inside Me

  12. - September 21, 2013
      -   Reply

    My 5 Neo Noirs
    1 The Last Seduction
    2 U Turn
    3 Red Rock West
    4 The Usual Suspects
    5 Croupier

  13. rossbolena
    - November 1, 2013
      -   Reply

    Blue Velvet

  14. Bernard
    - November 2, 2013
      -   Reply

    Out of Sight

  15. Alana D
    - March 24, 2014
      -   Reply

    Others’ comments offer some great suggestions. I’d add “Bound”, “Something Wild”, “Salton Sea” and “Miller’s Crossing”

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