Noirvember Film Recommendations II: Neo-Noir

As we wrap up Noirvember, a month dedicated to enjoying film noir movies, it’s about time to move into the Neo-Noir category of films. In a previous post we recommended several classic film noir titles with one neo-noir (Inherent Vice) mixed in. This list is comprised entirely of neo-noir. So, in case you aren’t a fan of black and white films from the 1940’s-60’s, these films will allow you to still participate in Noirvember.

While neo-noir films are more modern, they still contain most (if not all) of the classic themes and elements of the genre. There are blurred lines of good and bad, right and wrong. There are doomed protagonists, double-crossing plot twists, paranoia, alienation, femme fatales and anti-heroes. They also aren’t limited to just Hollywood. This list contains films from South Korea, Japan, France, Sweden, United States, China and Germany. Follow the links to reserve a copy or to stream the film on Kanopy.

Memento (2000) [United States]

Before Christopher Nolan became famous for directing the Dark Knight trilogy or Inception or Dunkirk, he wrote and directed this twisty thriller about a man attempting to enact revenge. Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife. However, he suffers from a rare, untreatable form of memory loss. He can recall some details of their life before his accident but, Leonard cannot remember what happened fifteen minutes ago, where he’s going, or why. As is typical with film noir stories, there are shady characters throughout and you won’t know what’s really going on until the final scene.

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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) [United States]

Drew Goddard followed up his horror/mystery film Cabin in the Woods with this 1970’s set noir mystery that was largely overlooked when it was released in 2018. Goddard assembled a stacked cast that includes; Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Shea Whigham and Nick Offerman. One evening, six strangers check-in at the El Royale Hotel. The hotel is deserted, except for a single desk clerk. Some of the new guests’ reasons for being there are less than innocent and some are not who they appear to be.

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Lady Vengeance (2005) [South Korea]

In the early 2000’s, Park Chan-Wook created a trilogy of films that are all connected by the theme of vengeance. They are all stand-alone films, but watching all three will definitely reward the committed viewer. Oldboy (2003) may be the most famous in the United States thanks to Spike Lee’s remake of the film with Josh Brolin in the lead. However, Lady Vengeance is a personal favorite as it has a commanding central performance by Lee Young-ae and a thrilling revenge plot. After being wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and murdering a young child, Geum-ja Lee (Lee Young-ae) is imprisoned for 13 years and forced to give up her own daughter. While in prison she plots her vendetta on the man responsible. Upon her release she sets in motion an elaborate plan of violent retribution, but she also discovers a horrifying truth.

Available on Kanopy

Chinatown (1974) [United States]

There is a long list of neo-noir films that came out the New Hollywood movement (1967-1977), but if you’re only going to watch one, you have to start with Chinatown. In a career of iconic performances, Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes has to be in his top 5. Hired by a beautiful socialite (Faye Dunaway) to investigate her husband’s extra-marital affair, Gittes is swept into a maelstrom of double dealings and deadly deceits, uncovering a web of personal and political scandals that come crashing together in an unforgettable final scene.

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The Wild Goose Lake (2019) [China]

Neo-noir films will often feature a protagonist who is in over their head against forces they can not control. Such is the case with Diao Yi’nan’s neon soaked The Wild Goose Lake. When small-time mob leader Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) accidentally kills a cop, a dead-or-alive bounty is placed on his head, forcing him on the lam from both the police as well as dangerous gangsters out for the reward. Hiding out in China’s densely populated Wuhan province, Zhou becomes entangled with a beautiful, enigmatic woman, who has mysterious intentions of her own. This film screened at the 2020 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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Under the Silver Lake (2019) [United States]

Conspiracy and paranoia are two hallmarks of neo-noir and David Robert Mitchell included copious amounts of both in Under the Silver Lake. Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a disenchanted young man, who finds a mysterious woman swimming in his apartment’s pool one night. They share a brief encounter, just long enough for Sam to be smitten. However, the next morning, she is gone. In order to solve the mystery of her disappearance, Sam sets off across LA, and along the way he uncovers a conspiracy far more bizarre than his paranoia has prepared him for.

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Widows (2018) [United States]

One way neo-noir films play with the standard conventions of the film noir genre is through role reversals. In the case of director Steve McQueen’s film Widows, it’s by putting the wives of gangsters in the lead roles. After a police shootout leaves four thieves dead, their widows are left to deal with the debt left by their spouses’ criminal activities. Hoping to forge a future on their own terms, the four widows join forces to pull off a heist. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo prove they might just be better criminals than their husbands were. Based on the book of the same name by Lynda La Plante.

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Victoria (2015) [Germany]

This film takes a classic film noir concept, a protagonist in over their head, and ups the ante by shooting the entire story in one single take. There are no visible edits to this tale of a young woman from Madrid, Victoria, who moves to Berlin. Innocent flirting at a bar turns potentially deadly as the evening reveals a dangerous secret that Victoria is swept up in.

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Brick (2005) [United States]

Rian Johnson (Knives Out, The Last Jedi) started his feature film career with this award-winning (2005 Sundance Film Festival) tale of a teenage loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. While this sounds like a film for teenagers, the dialogue and camera work are what elevate this plot to the level of masterful neo-noir. If you’ve seen classics like The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past, you’ll recognize the unique style of hard-boiled detective dialogue used in this film. It’s also impressive that with a production budget of $450,000, this film has visual style to spare. When it first hit movie screens, Roget Ebert declared the film “Noir to its very bones”.

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Fireworks (1997) [Japan]

Beat Takeshi wrote, directed, edited and starred this violent crime drama that won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Takeshi spent the first half of his career as a comedian and TV game show host before turning to work almost exclusively in the crime film genre. Most of these films, including Fireworks, feature the Yakuza (gangsters) and are known for long takes with sudden bursts of violence. Here, he plays an ex-cop who is forced to borrow money from the Yakuza, and then, to clear his debt, he robs a bank. The Yakuza, however, are not pleased so easily, and they continue to hound him for more and more money.

Available on Kanopy

Dark City (1998) [United States]

Director Alex Proyas blends together classic film noir elements with science fiction to spectacular results in Dark City. John Murdoch, wanted for a series of brutal murders, realizes that everything he believes about himself is a lie. Murdoch’s childhood, his love for his estranged wife and the hideous series of murders are the creation of a group of shadowy creatures known only as “The Strangers.” Alone, with his newfound awareness, Murdoch begins to fight back against “The Strangers” who manipulate human minds for their own ends.

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Tell No One (2006) [France]

Guillaume Canet’s film was nominated for 9 Cesar Awards (France’s equivalent to the Oscars) and wowed audiences worldwide with it’s labyrinthian murder mystery plot. Pediatrician Alexandre Beck is still grieving the murder of his beloved wife Margot from eight years earlier. Now, when two bodies are found near the same scene of the crime, the police reopen the case and Alex becomes a suspect again. The mystery deepens when Alex receives an anonymous e-mail with a link to a video clip that seems to suggest Margot is somehow still alive and a message to “Tell No One”.

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John Wick (2014 / 2017 / 2019) [United States]

Director Chad Stahelski jumped from famed stuntman and stunt coordinator to director with this Keanu Reeves revenge film. John Wick is a character study of a man consumed by revenge and the need for justice, potentially to his own peril. The story kicks off when an arrogant Russian mob prince and his men rob Wick of his prized 1969 Mustang and murder his dog. Blind with revenge, Wick immediately unleashes a carefully orchestrated maelstrom of destruction, leading all the way up to the Russian mob kingpin.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) [Sweden]

The story behind The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is itself worthy of a film. The original novel was written by a Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson, who was doing research into right-wing terrorism and the rise of white-power hate groups in Scandinavia. He worked some of this research into the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels (known collectively as the Millennium Trilogy). Unfortunately, Larson died of a heart attack before any of the books were published and became international bestsellers. The trilogy of books was adapted into a trilogy of films in Sweden and got the Hollywood remake treatment in 2011. The story has two leads, a journalist and a hacker, who team up to uncover a decades-old mystery and quickly find themselves in over their heads.

Click to reserve / Available on Kanopy / Reserve the US remake

Killing them Softly (2012) [United States]

New Zealand’s Andrew Dominik has made a career (so far) out of looking at criminals and outcasts that function on the edges of legitimate society. For his third feature film, he teamed up with Brad Pitt who plays Jackie Cogan, an enforcer hired to restore order after three guys rob a Mob protected card game. The robbery causes the local criminal economy to collapse. Besides being a tour through the criminal underworld, this film also showcases the financial themes that often pop up in film noir narratives. In this case, since the film is set during The Great Recession of 2008 there are clear parallels between how gangsters try to solve the financial problems of the underground economy and how the Federal government tries to solve the financial problems of Wall Street.

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