Ever since The Maltese Falcon, audiences have been enraptured with film noir. The highly-stylized crime movies combine a dark aesthetic with even darker themes, resulting in some of the most menacing films of all time.
That tradition, which grew out of the 1940s "classic period" of cinema, has maintained a relatively steady popularity over the years thanks to some creative tinkering by modern filmmakers, resulting in the movement known as neo-noir.
There are so many elements that go into the neo-noir genre that it difficult to classify any given film. High contrast lighting, long tracking shots, nighttime settings, unreliable narrators, cynical protagonists, femme fatales, and complex plots all go into it, but at its core, neo-noir is an amorphous genre that is classified just as much by feeling as it is by aesthetic.
They don't need to feature a detective wearing a fedora and trench-coat walking along a rain-slicked street to qualify, they just need a certain amount of anxiety and alienation. Oh, and crime. Has to be plenty of crime.
So it's with due acknowledgement to its vague definitions that we present the greatest neo-noir films to come along since the turn of the century.
Michael Mann is the king of American neo-noir. His directorial debut, 1981's Thief, should be required viewing for any filmmaker thinking about dipping their toes into the genre's waters. Manhunter and Heat, which deviate a bit left of center from typical noir, show Mann's knack for delivering complex narratives and winding crime mazes with a style that makes it all go down easy.
Mann delights in blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys and in eschewing happy endings in favor of more realistic tragedy. That all shows up Collateral, a criminally underrated movie that oozes paranoia and anxiety.
And for anyone who always suspected there was something more menacing hidden beneath Tom Cruise's cheesy smile and vacant stare, it was a real treat to watch him sink his teeth into the villainous role of Vincent.
Mann essentially turns his crime thriller into a road movie when Vincent forces an L.A. cabbie -- played by Jamie Foxx in his breakout role -- to drive him around from killing to killing. It's an unsettling but thoroughly riveting adventure that Mann navigates with a mix of purpose and reckless abandon.