What is the neo-noir movie genre? Well, to understand that, we first need to understand what classic film noir is.
Classic film noir movies comprise a genre of film that was at its peak roughly between 1945 and 1960.
These movies often shared thematic elements, but the most defining characteristics of film noir included a dark, fatalistic mood and a visual style that emphasized low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions.
Because of this, some claim that "noir" isn't really a movie genre but more of a style or aesthetic. Countless books, essays, and articles have been written on the subject, with debate still going on today.
Even so, if noir is hard to pinpoint and define, then neo-noir movies are even tougher to describe. Generally speaking, neo-noir refers to movies released after 1965 that aim to revive the same visual style and dark mood of their classic film noir predecessors.
Neo-noir movies tend to share thematic elements, but that isn't required to be considered "neo-noir"—because there's no consensus on what neo-noir actually means. One person's neo-noir movie is another person's run-of-the-mill mystery/suspense/thriller movie.
To complicate matters, the neo-noir genre also has several subgenres, including future neo-noir (e.g. Blade Runner), western neo-noir (e.g. True Grit), horror neo-noir (e.g. The Ninth Gate), among others.
For me, I've always gone with the notion that neo-noir is one of those "you know it when you see it" definitions.
Here are the best neo-noir movies that exemplify the moody genre's stark visuals, gritty worlds, and troubled characters.
15. Le Samouraï (1967)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 41m)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Samouraï is a crime movie from the French New Wave era of film and a well-deserved classic of the neo-noir film genre.
This movie is more emblematic of the classic noir visual style than any other movie on this list. There's moral ambiguity, opulent Paris nightclubs, cigarette smoke floating in sunbeams, fedoras, gabardine trench coats, and revolvers.
If you're looking for a neo-noir film that really carries the classic noir feel, this is the movie to start out with.
14. Jackie Brown (1997)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 34m)
Director Quentin Tarantino has played around in almost every genre, so it's no surprise he brought his particular style of storytelling to the neo-noir with great effect in Jackie Brown.
This film follows Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier), a flight attendant who smuggles a whole lot of money into America from Mexico.
But when her secret is discovered, it unleashes a series of events that involve bank robbers, gun runners, and flight attendants who are a lot more street-smart than they look.
Almost all of Tarantino's movies deal in typical noir themes and subject matters, but none of them adhere as fully to the characteristic mood and style as Jackie Brown does. The way this movie is lit in many of its scenes is enough to place it firmly within the genre.
Jackie Brown is cooler than cool. If all of Tarantino's movies got into a bar fight, Jackie Brown would be having an indifferent smoke in the corner.
13. The Long Goodbye (1973)
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden
Comedy, Crime, Drama (1h 52m)
The Long Goodbye is a revered neo-noir classic. The plot involves Philip Marlowe (played by Elliott Gould) becoming unwittingly entangled in a gruesome crime: the murder of his friend's wife.
Phillip Marlowe is a private-eye character created by novelist Raymond Chandler. While the character has been played by various actors in multiple film adaptations, Gould's rendition is really the best.
The Long Goodbye utilized the tropes of its noir predecessors while creating a few of its own, which were eventually imitated by many neo-noir movies that followed.
12. Blue Velvet (1986)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h)
Most of David Lynch's movies employ varying degrees of subjective dream logic, which provide space for symbolism and viewer interpretation, but Blue Velvet stands out as David Lynch's most literal film (apart from maybe Elephant Man).
When a young student named Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to take care of his sick father, he discovers a human ear in the field by his house. In his quest to unravel the mystery, he soon winds up wishing he hadn't even started.
Blue Velvet explores the idea that under the idyllic facade of a 1950s-style neighborhood lies a seething, ever-present evil that's barely contained. Dennis Hopper embodies said evil and delivers one of the strangest yet most menacing characters ever seen in cinema.
Blue Velvet is all neo-noir mystery, so if you're new to David Lynch movies, this is the one to start with.
11. Blood Simple (1984)
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring John Gatz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 39m)
Whatever the definition of "neo-noir movie" might be, most would agree that the Coen brothers are master practitioners of it. In fact, this won't be the only time they appear on this list!
Blood Simple was the first movie by the Coen brothers and it's one of the purest examples of a neo-noir film. On its face, it's a simple crime flick. But, as always, the Coen brothers take what has been done countless times before and elevate it to new heights.
It's clear that they understand this genre better than most other filmmakers, and they effortlessly bring their own style to the genre.
Blood Simple is an incredible directorial debut. Starring Frances McDormand in a role that would launch her career, Blood Simple establishes much of what the Coen brothers would come to be known for, and it was all done on a small budget with no frills.
10. Sin City (2005)
Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
Starring Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis
Crime, Thriller (2h 4m)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (who wrote the comic books this film is based on), Sin City is the epitome of neo-noir. This anthology film follows various protagonists as they try to get by on the seedy streets of Sin City.
Rodriguez and Miller may have taken it to the extreme with the exaggerated colors, the dark blacks, and the blinding whites, but that's what the neo-noir genre is all about—and Sin City does it perfectly.
Starring Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, and Elijah Wood, Sin City is a fantastic mix of comic book action and neo-noir style that's as stylish as films come.
9. Collateral (2004)
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith
Action, Crime, Drama (2h)
Directed by Michael Mann, Collateral is a neo-noir crime story that follows an assassin who's out to hit his marks in Los Angeles.
Max Durocher (played by Jamie Foxx) is a taxi driver who's just about to finish up his shift, but when Vincent (played by Tom Cruise) boards his cab, he's forced to drive him around to his targets.
Tom Cruise gives a superb showing as the assured hitman and Jamie Foxx is brilliant as his unsure driver. The two demonstrate biting chemistry together in this darkly effective thriller.
8. Nightcrawler (2014)
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 57m)
Many thrillers touch on dark topics, but few have ever been quite as bleak and disturbing as Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler.
This film centers on Lou Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a rather unhinged individual who seeks to set up a successful business for himself as a stringer (a freelance journalist who submits video clips to a news organization and gets paid per piece).
Given that he has absolutely no moral limits, Lou continually pushes the line as to what he's willing to do in order to capture his next big story. Unsurprisingly, the plot takes some dark turns...
7. Miller's Crossing (1990)
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 55m)
The second time that the Coen brothers appear on this list, Miller's Crossing is a neo-noir gangster drama that gets better with every rewatch.
It centers on Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne), who's the right-hand man for the town's mafia boss Leo O'Bannon (played by Albert Finney).
Caught in the middle of a turf war, Reagan tries his hardest to remain alive as he plays both gangs—with murderous results.
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, and Albert Finney, Miller's Crossing is a fantastic example of what the Coen brothers can do in the neo-noir genre.
6. Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 57m)
These days, when someone mentions "neo-noir," the first movie to pop into mind is usually Blade Runner. This philosophical sci-fi classic is about as neo-noir as cinema gets.
Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a cop who's tasked with hunting down replicants, which are synthetic humans that have been meticulously bio-engineered. In fact, they're so well-made that it's pretty much impossible to tell them apart from real people.
What's more, these replicants have started to think of themselves as human, which introduces a whole set of ethical qualms that Deckard is forced to contemplate and reckon with.
The more blood he has on his hands, the more he feels pressured to ask himself what it even means to be human.
5. Drive (2011)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Action, Drama (1h 40m)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive is a stellar neo-noir crime film starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, and Bryan Cranston, which became an instant classic the moment it came out.
The film follows the intimate story of an enigmatic stunt driver (played by Ryan Gosling), who's known to us only as The Driver. On the side, he works as a getaway driver for criminals and gangs.
When The Driver begins to have feelings for his beautiful new neighbor (played by Carey Mulligan), things get complicated when her ex-husband re-enters the picture and brings a whole lot of trouble with him.
4. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 54m)
Most people knew Ben Affleck's face well by the time he made his directorial debut, which made it all the better. For the first time, the world got to see what the Massachusetts native was capable of behind the camera: neo-noir brilliance.
Gone Baby Gone centers on Patrick Kenzie (played by Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (played by Michelle Monaghan), two private investigators who are hired to look into the disappearance of a young girl.
However, what they discover is a mystery that's entangled by several different threads that all lead to one nefarious cover-up.
Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan anchor the film, but the whole picture is brilliantly filled in by mesmerizing performances from the supporting cast of Ed Helms, Morgan Freeman, and Amy Ryan.
3. Se7en (1995)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 7m)
Se7en is easily David Fincher's darkest film, which is no easy feat given how many dark films this director has under his belt (like Fight Club, Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl).
This psychological mystery follows a cynical detective (played by Morgan Freeman) and his new partner (played by Brad Pitt), who find themselves in the middle of a horrifying crime spree. Someone is committing brutal murders that are as disturbing as they are fastidious.
They eventually notice a trend: each murder is committed in honor of one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism. Their investigation sparks a dangerous game of cat and mouse, where both the wills and the worldviews of our protagonists are tested.
2. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 18m)
Directed by Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential is such a superb homage to classic film noir that you could be mistaken for thinking it had come out 40 years earlier during film noir's heyday.
The plot takes place in Los Angeles in 1953, where a conspiracy is ever so slowly being revealed. However, those involved won't give up without a fight: any info that's divulged often results in someone getting hurt.
It'll take a team of good, honest detectives to solve the mystery of who's behind the corruption in the L.A. Police Department. But will they get it done before their lives are taken? Easier said than done.
Starring the likes of Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, and Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential is a serious contender for best neo-noir film of all time.
1. Chinatown (1974)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 10m)
When it comes to neo-noir, none do it better than Roman Polanski did with Chinatown. The multitude of twists and turns in this movie are augmented by the gripping performances.
The film follows private detective Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), who's hired by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray to catch her husband, whom she suspects is cheating on her.
However, when he discovers that he wasn't hired by the real Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway), he realizes that there's more to the case than first met the eye.
Chinatown is the benchmark for Hollywood neo-noir mystery films. Does it have edge? Does it have intrigue? Is there a bleak, pessimistic depiction of the world at large? Does the story act as a microcosm laden with socio-political commentary of modern America?
Well, Chinatown checks all those boxes. If anyone tells you there's a better neo-noir, you can tell them: "Forget it. It's Chinatown."