100. Angel Heart
Director: Alan Parker
Voodoo plays a prominent role in this Alan Parker noir, equal parts hard-boiled detective mystery and horror movie. As gumshoe Harry Angel in 1950s Harlem, Mickey Rourke is at his best, hired by a devilish-looking man (Robert DeNiro) to track down a big band singer, only to be lured into the occult subcultures of Louisiana. As Angel’s investigation takes him south from New York City to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers—a change of scenery suggested to Parker by the story’s author, novelist William Hjortsberg—the color-drained, highly stylized production reflects his descent into hell. Parker wrings the humidity and torrid filth from each frame. You can practically smell the pervasive overripeness and touch Angel’s sweat-crinkled suits. The feverish mood boils to the surface, giving up bodies and body parts of assorted creatures. Lisa Bonet, as chicken-loving priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (yup), exudes a delta sensuality; the MPAA required trims of her and Rourke’s blood-bathed sex scene. Headlines aside, Angel Heart is a wanton spectacle whose extremes suit the noir genre. —A.S.
99. Hard Eight
Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson
made his feature debut with this underrated, underseen crime drama, in which Philip Baker Hall’s aging gambler Sydney takes young halfwit John (John C. Reilly) under his wing, all the way to the Vegas (and then Reno) craps tables. Hall is fantastic in this nuanced character study, a methodical, stand-up gentleman whose sell to Reilly starts with the old “Give a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish” philanthropy and goes downhill swiftly thereafter. Just because he’s straightforward and direct doesn’t mean his cards aren’t held closely to his vest, at physical risk to others. In an early, against-type turn, Gwyneth Paltrow is solid as a Reno cocktail waitress-slash-prostitute whom Reilly gets mixed up with, Samuel L. Jackson is typically good as the casino’s shady security guy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman—in a reportedly ad-libbed performance—makes the most of his limited screen time. A minor marvel of atmosphere and nuance, what started from a short entitled “Cigarettes & Coffee” is no less economical as a full-length film, thanks to Anderson’s now signature unsentimentality and shrewdness of visual style—he worked deftly with Super 35 here due to budgetary constraints before switching over to the anamorphic format. —A.S.
98. A Simple Plan
In 1998, director Sam Raimi put aside his signature frenetic stylings to make A Simple Plan, an adaptation of novelist/screenwriter Scott B. Smith’s 1993 thriller about three working-class men who end up stumbling upon a crashed plane filled with millions of dollars in cash. Seeing this as the answer to their financial woes, the men divvy up the money only to quickly find their close-knit group torn apart by greed and paranoia. While not ostensibly film noir in its construction, the story nevertheless touches upon classic noir themes—namely, the corruptive power of greed and the folly of man in attempting to control life’s chaos. Whatever its designation, the film presents an absorbing, if unmistakably devastating, modern-day morality tale. —Mark Rozeman
Director: Mike Hodges
Get Carter director Mike Hodges’s last great film was budding star Clive Owen’s first. In fact, even now more than 15 years after its release, Croupier may be the best thing Owen has ever done, playing a struggling novelist who takes a job at a casino, looking for inspiration but finding mostly trouble. Watch this film now to be reminded where the actor first prompted speculation that he’d make a great James Bond: His character Jack Manfred isn’t a super-spy, but he’s got the jet-black suaveness, lady-killing panache and dry wit we associate with 007. Croupier is a movie attracted to the sleazier side of life, and Owen’s antihero was the perfect tour guide. —Tim Grierson
96. After Dark, My Sweet
Director: James Foley
Among James Foley’s (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Cards) early career successes was this under-the-radar mood piece, a neo-noir adaptation of hard-boiled provocateur Jim Thompson’s 1955 novella. Jason Patric stars as soft-spoken former boxer “Collie” Collins, who escapes the loony bin only to fall under the spell of boozing widow Fay (Rachel Ward). Drifter and femme fatale are soon entangled in a doomed kidnapping plot devised by her sketchy ex-cop acquaintance “Uncle Bud” (a pitch-perfect Bruce Dern). That there winds up being a diabetic child involved offers no spoiler; we know these lost, spent souls are going to rot in the Palm Springs sun—it’s simply a matter of when. Even Fay’s mid-century mod ranch house, what should be an Architectural Digest spread, is instead an ode to emptiness and general disrepair. As is characteristic of Thompson’s work, the conflict here is largely in the mind, and Patric’s measured performance is mesmerizing. His slack-jawed, dead-eyed antihero leads with a deceptively well-mannered façade whose voiceovers reveal a quiet, terrifying nihilism. —A.S.
95. Angel Face
Director: Otto Preminger
Some noirs get their hooks into you within their first few minutes and don’t let go even after the credits roll. Angel Face isn’t one of those. It’s a deliberate, considerate film, one that has a destination in mind and makes no bones about taking its time getting there. Whether you ride with it is up to you, but come on: This is Otto Preminger—lesser Otto Preminger, perhaps, certainly not one of his better celebrated films. Even lesser Preminger is worth your time, though, particularly when he’s as laser-focused as he is here. Angel Face builds. It’s a movie that constantly sets itself up and points toward its shocker of a climax. Preminger’s direction renders this story of crazy love, shared between Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, unpredictable if slow. Don’t let the apparent languidness get in your way. The unhurried pace adds to the film’s grimmer pleasures. —Andy Crump
94. The Grifters
Director: Stephen Frears
British director Stephen Frears does a marvelous job of adapting one of the toughest hard-boiled nuts to crack, mid-1900s novelist Jim Thompson, in this pulpy oedipal neo-noir. John Cusack sheds the last remnants of his Say Anything teen-star sincerity as Roy Dillon, a slick but stupid young con artist. He thinks he’s smarter than chemical blonde mom Angelica Huston, an odds fixer at the track who oozes calculation with every utterance of “Los ANG-guh-LEEZ,” and hustling girlfriend Annette Bening, a newer version of dear old mum on the hunt for her own long game. The shitshow of Freudian damage and deception, penned for the screen by Donald E. Westlake, is unsettling even by Thompson standards. Frears and his core triangle of actors—restrained but revelatory, all—keep the one-upsmanship taut, the better to let Thompson’s subversive, straight-up HAM gender dynamics and festering worldview have their way. (Pat Hingle, Stephen Tobolowsky and the late, great J.T. Walsh are other casting masterstrokes.) You can almost smell the putrid yellows and browns of Roy’s apartment—with its too-obvious clown paintings—and L.A. at large. When trouble is a gut punch—or an unwanted child, pick your stomach ill—you know things aren’t gonna end well. —A.S.
93. The Naked City
Director: Jules Dassin
Placed next to the rest of his filmography, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City feels somewhat rote. If you’ve ever watched a single episode of Law and Order, or if you have a distinct fondness for procedural fare at large, then you really owe a debt of thanks to Dassin’s stripped-down work here. Unlike so many other noirs, The Naked City aims for realism over stylish melodrama. That verisimilitude has kept the film from aging well, but Dassin’s commitment to authenticity lends a great deal of heft to his story of brute violence in New York City, even if the plot runs pretty much by the numbers. That’s sort of the point, of course: to showcase the way that law operates in service to justice. The results might be flat, but their influence and dedication to purity call for our acknowledgement. —A.C.
92. State of Grace
Director: Phil Joanou
Phil Joanou’s State of Grace had the great misfortune to hit theaters the same month as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Talk about rough luck. Maybe Joanou’s work will be rediscovered someday in the future as people dig back through the ’90s to uncover hidden gems of the era; it’s certainly worthy of reevaluation. State of Grace does a lot of things well, and mostly suffers from “wrong place, wrong time” syndrome. Like Scorsese, Joanou peels back the layers of mob tropes, dissecting gang heavies in an effort to see what kind of people they are beneath the surface. Better still, he’s able to drive right at the heart of urban crime through portraits of the intercultural beefs that drive it. The cast is terrific—you can hardly go wrong with Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright, let alone John Turturro and John C. Reilly—but it’s what Joanou does with them that makes State of Grace special. —A.C.
91. Devil in a Blue Dress
Director: Carl Franklin
Devil in a Blue Dress perfectly casts Denzel Washington as a down-on-his-luck WWII veteran who relocates to L.A. to start a new career as a private investigator. As tends to happen with PIs in this subgenre, the man inevitably finds himself embroiled in a complicated murder investigation. Adding his own spin to the well-trodden noir plotlines, writer/director Carl Franklin uses his film’s detective story as a launching pad to explore the racial landscape of 1940s America. Philip Marlowe certainly had his share of rough encounters, but he had the benefit of never being instantly judged on the basis of his skin color. Mix in a scene-stealing turn from Don Cheadle and Devil in a Blue Dress makes for one tantalizing riff on the film noir formula. —M.R.