After noirs ran rampant in the mid-20th Century, becoming a staple of American cinema, the genre seemed to have reached a crescendo. However, thanks in large part to a successful revival of the genre in the 90s, the neo-noir became a reliable and established genre poking through independent cinema while also finding success in the studio system. Repurposed in color, but with the same moody scores, femme Fatales, and average men who were caught in a web of criminality where fate seems to be reaching a violent and grim endpoint. The bleak nature of noir always finds surprising success. With new faces and perspectives to help guide the narrative in a different direction like Bill Duke, Carl Franklin, and the Wachowskis, the noir got a facelift, making it one of the best kinds of films for a decade ripe with gems.
Christopher Nolan has gone on to make epic blockbusters on original ideas, of a size not many can claim except for maybe Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. But, before his huge box office success, Nolan cut his teeth making smaller scale, noir mysteries like Memento. Sending a clear signal of a director in complete control of his narrative ability, Memento uses the protagonist’s memory loss to construct a mystery built around his inability to remember and tells the story in reverse order. Also set against the hot desert sun, Memento burns like a fading Polaroid.
9 L.A. Confidential
Curtis Hanson’s decorated, lush, and violent adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel has all the texture of a classic noir, but translates it for a modern audience. Finding more color where there’d be shadows in the confines of sunny Los Angeles, but still getting to the heart of cop corruption. With four central performances from Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce, and the brute force of Russell Crowe. L.A. Confidential holds up as a staple of the neo-noir.
8 Basic Instinct
Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven had a run of blockbuster success in America from the late 80s throughout the rest of the 90s. Almost always basking in a satirical bite balanced with bloody violence and other provocations, Basic Instinct relished in that style was also providing a feel of old-school pulp paperbacks. With the sexy chemistry between the sleazy charisma of Michael Douglas as the detective who’s in over his head when the villainess Sharon Stone wraps her murderous and deceptive fingers around him. Basic Instinct has all the makings of noir while undercutting its narrative beats.
7 Deep Cover
A stylish but dark dive into the gray moral areas of going undercover, but also the corrupt politics of the war on drugs and how the police manufacture crime, Deep Cover is Bill Duke’s magnum opus. Starring a young Laurence Fishburne as the ambitious cop who gets caught up in the drug game so deep he intends to never go back and take it over himself, countered by a hilarious gangster turn from Jeff Goldblum, Deep Cover as all the stylization of noir and isn’t afraid to show the nihilistic, brutal violence that corrupts those in the game. It also has the famous Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg song “Deep Cover” that was released for the film.
6 Devil In A Blue Dress
Carl Franklin’s run of noir in the 90s makes his absence from cinema over the last decade highly questionable. With Denzel Washington in the lead as the down and out, reluctant private eye caught in an entanglement of political mishaps and kidnappings. Devil In A Blue Dress takes all the hints of classic noir — the voiceover, damsel in distress, heavy drinking, a man caught in a mystery over his head, moody jazz music — and made it anew with a predominantly Black cast. Co-starring Don Cheadle as his later partner in crime, Devil In A Blue Dress was a perfect appropriation of noir for the 90s.
5 Lost Highway
David Lynch’s films operate best in a shroud of mystery. His dark, brooding and often ambiguous tone underscored by the body-swapping thematics make his style apt for noir. Lost Highway has the woozy and intoxicating allure of Bill Pullman, the jazz player getting entangled in a mess with his wife turned blonde femme fatale, Patricia Arquette. The film operates in a slow and beautifully unfolding kind of way, much like a highway. But its unassuming mystery full of unexpected twists and turns makes it one of the best.
4 The Grifters
The Grifters is an uneasy, dark, and taut neo-noir with a breakout performance from Annette Bening as she comes between the strange relationship between professional con artists John Cusack and Angelica Huston. The latter has a strangely deceptive mother-son relationship that gives the film a dark edge while also proving fun as the con games continue. Stephen Frears’ easy but atmospheric direction gives The Grifters a distinct style that places it as one of the best genre films of the 90s.
The Coen brothers burst onto the film scene with an 80s neo-noir masterwork Blood Simple. A territory they often return to. With Fargo, they decided to make a move back towards the minimal, sparse landscape of Noir that put their name on the map after a few misfires. Fargo is an early crime masterwork from the Coens that acts like a savage tale of desperation and lowly criminals who abide by no moral code. Filled with an incredible lead role from Coen muse Frances McDormand, which earned her first Oscar. Fargo mixes the funny goofball earnestness of the Midwest with brutal, senseless violence to a chilling degree.
2 King of New York
Abel Ferrara’s atmospheric directing style was perfect for the boom of neo-noirs in the 90s. With a blunt stylistic choice going for violence as nihilism, with cops and gangsters dueling to the death in the streets, Christopher Walken became the gangster Robin Hood in King of New York. Taking his rep from a fresh prison release and flooding the streets with blood money, Walken’s Frank White dancing maniac became an instant icon in a moody, dark, and ostensibly violent world.
David Fincher’s blood-soaked noir, drenched in an epic rainstorm and shot in beautifully entrenched shadows by DP Darius Khondji, Se7en is one of Finch’s best procedurals and an electrifying neo-noir. With a fiery Brad Pitt, teamed with a veteran detective in Morgan Freeman, as a serial killer plots his murders around the seven deadly sins. Se7en is a harrowing march towards miserable conclusions for all involved and has one of the best endings of the last 30 years.
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