Us avid film buffs always have those favourites that seem to be underappreciated on almost every level, and while bemoaning the fact that not enough people have seen them we secretly revel in the fact that we have hidden gems in our canon of recommendations.
The crime genre, along with all its nuanced subgenres, due to its workability on even a shoestring budget so long as the characters and stories are there, produces vast amounts of high quality yet under-seen productions; more even than the horror genre, whose fanbase is much more dedicated.
Boiling the quantity of my go-to crime movie recommendations down to just five actually proved quite a challenge, so rules had to be set. I’ve limited selections to English language crime films (maybe a world cinema alternative will be supplied at a later date), kept the movies relatively recent (to within the last fifteen years or so) with a high personal affection to little-seen ratio.
So lets plough ahead.
The über low budget feature debut of ace British director, Chris Nolan (Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) displays all the hallmark smarts of what eventually would set him apart from the average blockbuster director. A scattered timeline ensures that the viewer never knows more than the protagonist, in fact none but the patient need apply for this twisty tale of hidden agendas and obsession because you never really know what’s going down until the very end.
Narc: An undercover narcotics cop is tasked with finding the truth behind the shooting of a young officer. Allied with the officer’s vengeance seeking partner and becoming ever more immersed in murky, street level agendas, the truth of the matter may be better left alone.
Directed and written by Joe Carnahan, who would later go on to direct Smoking Aces, The A-Team and The Grey, Narc combines the grittiness and realism of Serpico with the intrigue of The Usual Suspects to have you hooked from the start. It pulls no punches with violence but keeps the pace brisk and as a result you’ll find yourself enjoying it much more than the subject matter would dictate.
The Cooler: Owing to his gambling debts of the past, Bernie, a man so unlucky he can literally infect a room with it, has worked for the last fifteen years as a casino ‘cooler’, that is to say, stopping winning streaks in their path simply by being present. With just a few days left on his contract, Bernie falls in love, switching his luck button from bad to good, complicating his road to freedom by affecting the cash flow of some very bad people.
As silly as the synopsis sounds it’s actually played out with the kind of down to earth realism that has you firmly convinced of the validity of the scenario, despite its fantastical elements. With the rich backdrop of one of the few remaining golden age era Vegas casinos and a cast of the best character actors in the business (William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello) The Cooler brings to mind character driven movies of the old school and is all the better for it.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: In dire need of cash, two brothers plan the robbery of their parent’s jewellery store, but when things don’t go to plan suspicion and paranoia cracks the union and leaves the siblings reeling with the effort of keeping everything together.
Another character actor tour de force, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead boast the line-up of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawk, Marisa Tomei and the ever excellent Albert Finney, all on top form in a slow burning and low key story that is knuckle bitingly tense. Oh, and it’s directed by a little known guy by the name of Sidney Lumet… yeah the guy that directed 12 Angry Men, Serpico and Network amongst many, many others.
Perrier’s Bounty: Michael owes money that he doesn’t have to a gangster. Complicating matters a tad more, when a collector is sent to retrieve said cash the suicidal lady next door kills him in full view of Michael’s visiting dad. Seeking retribution the gangster puts a bounty out on all three, which has them running for the hills with all manner of hard nuts on their trail.
This Irish crime drama with a streak of humour as black as night was released in the wake of the success of In Bruges, a great film that cast a large shadow. Maybe due to this Perrier’s Bounty has largely gone ignored, criminal really as it’s hard, unpredictable, tense and laugh out load funny. It also has a great British cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson (a mainstay in all Irish films it seems) and Jim Broadbent.
As mentioned this list could have gone on and on; some of these films have a bit of a cult following so I won’t pretend that no one knows of their existence but without exception they deserve to be seen by a much broader audience. If I were to open the gates to slightly better known films in the genre, you might have been recommended the high-school pulp noir Brick, the period based Devil In A Blue Dress, the violent Eastern Promises, the insane Ghost Dog, David Mamet’s twisty Heist, the best/most unnecessary opening in film history in The Way of the Gun, and, probably my favourite crime drama of all time, Miller’s Crossing.