After marathoning Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), and David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) this weekend with a friend, I have femmes fatales on the brain. I didn’t know how to make that relevant enough to publish today, so I decided to expand the “femme fatale” into the broader crime genre, since AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-) airs tonight and it’s a spinoff that’s on par with its parent series, AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), the greatest crime show of all time. Another TV show that I make time for despite my psychotic college schedule is ABC’s American Crime (2015-), which airs Thursday nights.
“Crime” is my personal genre of choice; I grew up on HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), Gillian Flynn has written some of the best books I’ve ever read (Gone Girl, Dark Places, Sharp Objects), and Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense himself, is my go-to director. I’ve been exposed to criminals and criminal activity since childhood (it’s more than a little pathetic when the Mafia family in The Sopranos reminds you of your own family), and one could argue that “crime” is the quintessential American genre, since incarceration rates are higher here than anyplace else across the globe. In any case, it was difficult for me to choose ten entries for this list to the exclusion of dozens of others, so I chose based more on variety (since “crime” encompasses scores of subgenres such as psychological thrillers or legal melodramas, for example) than competition.
That being said, here are ten of my standout crime films.
- Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992)
Between this and Fatal Attraction, the latter is the superior “Michael-Douglas-sleeps-with-a-dangerous-woman” movie. Basic Instinct is convoluted and “sexploitative,” but Fatal Attraction is not as much about the crimes the cast commits as it is about the way they make each other feel. For all its flaws, Basic Instinct is more brilliant than people give it credit for, with a fifty-four-percent critical consensus rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, because it cleverly takes full advantage of Michael Douglas’s “flawed character” acting persona by juxtaposing his protagonist against Sharon Stone’s antagonist in their respective police interrogation sequences, and Stone’s performance as master manipulator Catherine Tramell is so much more than that infamous “crossed legs” scene – it draws you to her as much as it makes you fear her.
- Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980)
Hitchcock’s Psycho is clearly the inspiration for this “leading-lady-gets-murdered-halfway-through-by-a-crossdresser” thrill ride, De Palma’s own Carrie (1976) and Blow Out (1981) are his masterstrokes, and, obviously, nothing can compare to the classic Psycho, but Carrie is more “supernatural horror” than it is “crime,” Blow Out is more about a governmental conspiracy than it is about criminals, and De Palma, the “Modern Master of Suspense,” deserves to be honored here as much as Hitchcock does (later on in this list). Dressed to Kill villain Bobbi – the straight-razor-wielding serial killer with a penchant for blonde wigs and sunglasses – is the background on my Twitter account, and (s)he earned it during the “elevator scene,” one of the most brutal movie murders I’ve ever witnessed, even after repeat viewings. Dressed to Kill shouldn’t be as good as it is, with a narrative that borders on the absurd, but De Palma skillfully makes it work, and, for contemporary audiences, it’s hard to watch the much-parodied “shower scene” in Psycho without knowing what’s coming and thus losing that element of surprise; the lesser-known Dressed to Kill can make this generation feel like we’re seeing Psycho for the first time.
- Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick’s masterwork, A Clockwork Orange is more “dystopian science fiction” than the other crime tales in this list with the “futuristic” techno remixes of classical music on its soundtrack, but its Foucaltian themes on criminal behavior make it timelessly relevant. Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who reasoned that the justice system labels violent individuals “deviant” only when their actions threaten the power of the state, rather than safeguard it. The police state in Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) surrealistic, nightmarish world will brainwash the “ultraviolence” out of him until they cruelly take away his capacity to enjoy music, but they’ll hypocritically hire his rapist “droogs” (Warren Clarke and James Marcus) to become officers who inhumanely attempt to drown him, even after the prisons “cure” him and deem him fit for release; people have, and should have, the free will to choose to do evil, and so people must face the consequences of that evil, but even evil people must be protected from the evil that can be done unto them, and that’s why human nature makes it so that some of us simply belong in prisons, away from the rest of society.
- Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007)
I hated this movie when I first saw it, and did not at all understand the hype surrounding its Academy Award win for Best Picture, but I was also thirteen or fourteen years old at the time, so my adult brain was better able to come to terms with its deliciously nihilistic (and seemingly anticlimactic) ending, when I gave it a second chance last year. Javier Bardem freaking earned that Best Supporting Actor Oscar, with his badass Anton Chigurh – as in, “death incarnate” badassasery – walking around so calmly that his hands don’t even move, before he waxes philosophical about coin tosses and shoots you in the head with literal air. The quirky Coen Brothers are most well-known for their love affair with “Americana” folklore in comedies like Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski (1998), but No Country for Old Men showcases their dramatic talents when they don’t even need an ominous musical score to generate tension.
- Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown wasn’t the hit that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) were before it, and I don’t understand that. I think his female characters are his most watchable, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (2003), and Inglorious Basterds (2009) are his “top three” because of actresses Pam Grier, Uma Thurman, and Mélanie Laurent, respectively. Grier’s titular Jackie Brown is smart, hot, and just so happens to be middle-aged, and she outsmarts cops and crooks alike in a scheme so foxy that you have to watch the film multiple times not only to “get” it, but also to sit there in awe of it.
- Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014)
“Like” this post if you’re still outraged that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t even get a lousy Oscar nomination for Best Actor in his career-changing turn as the sociopathic Lou Bloom (“Louis,” if you’re unlucky enough to be his “intern”) in this adrenaline rush of a neo-noir. I’m a journalism senior in a TV newswriting class, so I hear all the time about how this is an inaccurate portrayal of television news, but, come on, people, if you really want to learn what TV news is actually like, then go watch a documentary or something. The filmmaker’s wife, sixty-one-year-old actress and model Rene Russo, is an otherwise beautiful woman whose makeup in this film is almost as grotesque as her character, news director Nina Romina, someone who shouldn’t be misinterpreted as representative of all TV news, but, instead, should be considered as sick as Lou Bloom when she acts like she’s turned on over his grisly footage.
- Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)
Batman is the greatest comic book superhero of all time because he democratizes superpowers – you don’t have to be born on Krypton or bitten by a radioactive spider to fight crime. Granted, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire who has the resources to become the Caped Crusader, but that doesn’t make his character development any less accessible, nor Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy any less of an artistic achievement. Nolan took the silliness of the Warner Brothers Batman series from the nineties and turned it into something dark and realistic, and laid the groundwork for an instantly classic, posthumously Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger as a terroristic spin on The Joker, a traditionally campy role.
- David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014)
This and Nightcrawler were my two favorite releases last year, so you can imagine my disappointment when lead actress Rosamund Pike’s “Hitchcock blonde” performance as “gone girl” Amy Elliot Dunne was the only thing that received a nod from the Academy Awards, an Oscar which was all but guaranteed to go to Julianne Moore for Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice (2014). Gone Girl is waaaay better than Fincher’s 2010 Best Picture nominee, The Social Network (sorry, not sorry), and, if you think it’s misogynistic, you’re stupid and wrong, and you’re the sexist one for policing what women are and are not allowed to do or be in fiction. I saw Gone Girl in theaters with my grandparents because my grandpa had read the novel, having no idea what I was getting myself into, but, when we got home, we stayed up for hours talking about it; our conversations about movies are usually limited to “Did you like it?” and a polite “Yeah” – in other words, the “girl” may be “gone,” but Gone Girl will stay with you for a long time.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
This is probably the only “top ten” list I’m ever going to write where Vertigo isn’t right at the top of the list. Hitchcock’s masterpiece is my all-time favorite, and many critics agree with me that it’s the greatest film ever shot. However, it’s genius in the same way that De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is genius – its plot is far-fetched, but the auteur makes you believe it’s real through his use of… dare I say it?… vertiginous cinematic techniques, techniques which make you obsess over the movie in the same way that Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) obsesses over Madeleine (Kim Novak), techniques which only Hitchcock could pull off, as De Palma himself demonstrates in his Vertigo-influenced stylistic failures, Obsession (1976) and Body Double (1984).
- Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990)
You thought I was going to include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy on here, didn’t you? Well, you were wrong – Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is far superior to his overrated crime family epic (and, by “epic,” I mean “nine-hour total runtime”), but I’d much rather watch Marty Scorsese’s pulse-poundingly entertaining GoodFellas in my spare time. Thelma Schoonmaker’s hypercharged, Oscar-nominated editing makes for an energetic and fast-paced gangster saga, even though GoodFellas clocks in at two-and-a-half hours in length; the “oldies-soundtrack-mixed-over-random-jump-cuts-and-freeze-frames” formula paid off, because, at three hours long, Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s “Cosa Nostra” yarn Casino (1995) is a nearly identical collaboration, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Scorsese a token Best Picture Oscar for the organized crime picture The Departed (2006) after they originally snubbed the show-stopping GoodFellas, but, hey, at least they didn’t cast the sympathy vote for the hugely overvalued Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a movie I couldn’t even bring myself to finish (big-name actors yelling at each other for three hours does not a winner make).
Just because somebody does something “wrong,” doesn’t mean it isn’t fun for us to watch. Sometimes, the “bad” people are no worse off than everybody else. Whatever the case may be, crime films are a tour-de-force to be reckoned with, and the only “crime” that cinema is capable of, is when it breaks this one simple rule:
A movie must never be a waste of time.