If you go and see “Baby Driver” this weekend expecting another gag-heavy comedy in the vein of Edgar Wright’s earlier films, you’ll likely be in a shock. The absolutely tremendous car-chase-musical (read our review) is funny, sure, but that’s not its primary aim: in a big departure from Wright, it has more in common with classic 70s crime cinema than with, “Hot Fuzz” (for example) using the director’s formal gifts in service of a surprisingly hard-boiled heist movie.
“All you need for a movie is a gun and girl,” Jean-Luc Godard famously said, and the crime film has been one of cinema’s most enduringly popular genres since the silent era, from the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 1930s to the Tarantino knock-offs of the 1990s and 2000s. With Wright entering the genre with such flair, and making one of the best crime films in years, we thought it was a good time to have a proper look at the recent history of the genre, and have picked out (as we’ve done with action, sci-fi, foreign language and others) the 50 best of the 21st century so far.
It was a tough task to narrow it down just to 50, but the final list is a strong one, showing the variety and breadth that the genre is capable of. See our picks below, and let us know your favorites, and what you think we’ve forgotten, in the comments.
50. “Layer Cake” (2004)
It would have been easy, given his long history as Guy Ritchie’s producer, for Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut to be yet another of the countless post-“Lock Stock” films that littered British cinema in the late 90s and early 00s. But “Layer Cake” proved to be something more sophisticated than that altogether. Based on J.J. Connolly’s novel, it stars Daniel Craig (practically auditioning for Bond here) as an unnamed drug dealer who believes himself to be above the violence of the criminal world, but swiftly finds himself dragged into it (with a cast also including future stars like Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins and Sienna Miller). It’s tighter, less eager-to-please and tenser than Ritchie’s movies, at once sleek and oddly mournful in a way that’s pleasingly reminiscent of 70s crime classics. It remains, by some distance, Vaughn’s best film.
49. “The Bling Ring” (2013)
Easily dismissed by some as another shallow, surface-level look at the woes of the rich from Sofia Coppola, “The Bling Ring” has aged remarkably well in the last few years, revealing itself to be a clever and savagely satirical look at a generation. Based on the real case of a group of mostly privileged San Fernando Valley teens who started breaking into the homes of celebrities to steal their clothes and jewelry. Coppola’s admittedly not that interested in weaving a true-crime narrative here: as ever, mood is king, though Coppola’s style (working for the final time with the great Harris Savides, who died before the film was released) mutates in interesting ways in here. But the mood captures something: both the silly, materialistic shallowness of the Instagram generation (exemplified by a terrifically funny Emma Watson performance here), but also Coppola’s empathy for teens desperate to be part of a world that won’t quite let them in.
48. “Prisoners” (2013)
Even its greatest defenders have to admit that the plot of “Prisoners” is, frankly, claptrap — a pulpy page-turner where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a character called Detective Loki, there’s a ludicrous scene involving boxes and boxes of snakes, and the villain’s motivation is ‘a war on God.’ But boy, is it tremendously entertaining, terrifically executed claptrap, elevating what in lesser hands might have been DTV fare to the level of art. Denis Villeneuve’s thriller follows the aftermath of the kidnapping of two children in rural Pennsylvania, as Loki (Gyllenhaal) tries to find the perpetrators, and a grieving father (Hugh Jackman, in his best turn) looks outside the law for answers. As ludicrous as the twists and turns can be, they undeniably pull you along, and from the photography by Roger Deakins to Johann Johannson’s score to the utterly game cast to the pleasing ethical muddiness of Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay, every element is as good as you could possibly hope for here.
47. “American Hustle” (2013)
There are plenty of reasons to be thankful for “American Hustle,” but one of them is that it proved so successful. It’s almost the opposite of the high-concept franchise, a movie where attempts to give it the old elevator pitch treatment turn into ‘ok, so fat Christian Bale is a con man and he’s with Amy Adams but also Jennifer Lawrence and there’s the Mafia and Jeremy Renner as a politician and really aggressive Bradley Cooper and it’s the 70s?.’ Based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal, it sees David O. Russell perfect the loose, freewheeling style he’d been developing across his previous couple of movies and deploy it on a fascinating, wildly entertaining story, whose occasional sloppiness feels utterly of a piece with the messy narrative it’s telling. Russell’s next movie “Joy” saw him take the chaotic feel too far, but here, it’s like the great 70s caper that Altman never took enough coke to make.
46. “Gangs Of Wasseypur” (2012)
Outside of the U.S, we think of plenty of other nations of having a long tradition of gangster movies, from France and Italy to South Korea and Japan. India’s not traditionally numbered among them, but recent two-part, five-hour epic “Gangs Of Wasseypur” has likely changed that. Stylish, action-packed and more accessible than most to Western audiences, Anurag Kashyap’s decade-spanning story follows gangs grappling for control of the titular mining town from the 1940s through to the 1990s. You can spot the influences (“The Godfather,” principally), sure, but they feel hugely exciting in this new context, and Kashyap keeps the pace relentless in a way that puts most blockbuster helmers to shame.
45. “Out Of The Blue” (2006)
Maybe the least-seen movie on this list, Robert Sarkies
Thriller and Suspense Films:These are types of films known to promote intense excitement, suspense, a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, and nerve-wracking tension. Thriller and suspense films are virtually synonymous and interchangeable categorizations, with similar characteristics and features.
If the genre is to be defined strictly, a genuine thriller is a film that rentlessly pursues a single-minded goal - to provide thrills and keep the audience cliff-hanging at the 'edge of their seats' as the plot builds towards a climax. The tension usually arises when the main character(s) is placed in a menacing situation or mystery, or an escape or dangerous mission from which escape seems impossible. Life itself is threatened, usually because the principal character is unsuspecting or unknowingly involved in a dangerous or potentially deadly situation. Plots of thrillers involve characters which come into conflict with each other or with outside forces - the menace is sometimes abstract or shadowy.
Thrillers are often hybrids - there are lots of varieties of suspense-thrillers:
Another closely-related genre is the horror film genre (e.g., Halloween (1978)), also designed to elicit tension and suspense, taking the viewer through agony and fear. Suspense-thrillers come in all shapes and forms: there are murder mysteries, private eye tales, chase thrillers, women-in-danger films, courtroom and legal thrillers, erotic thrillers, surreal cult-film soap operas, and atmospheric, plot-twisting psychodramas. Thrillers keep the emphasis away from the gangster, crime, or the detective in the crime-related plot, focusing more on the suspense and danger that is generated. See also this site's listing of AFI's 100 Most Thrilling Films.
Characters in thrillers include convicts, criminals, stalkers, assassins, down-on-their-luck losers, innocent victims (often on the run), prison inmates, menaced women, characters with dark pasts, psychotic individuals, terrorists, cops and escaped cons, fugitives, private eyes, drifters, duplicitious individuals, people involved in twisted relationships, world-weary men and women, psycho-fiends, and more. The themes of thrillers frequently include terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, or romantic triangles leading to murder.
In mid-June, 2001, the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California made its definitive selection of the 100 greatest American "heart-pounding" and "adrenaline-inducing" films of all time, as determined by more than 1,800 actors, directors, screenwriters, historians, studio executives, critics, and others from the American film community. To be eligible, the 400 nominated films had to be U.S.-made, feature-length fiction films, whose thrills have "enlivened and enriched America's film heritage," according to the rules. AFI also asked jurors to consider "the total adrenaline-inducing impact of a film's artistry and craft," regardless of the genre.
One of the earliest 'thrillers' was Harold Lloyd's comic Safety Last (1923), with the all-American boy performing a daredevil stunt on the side of a skyscraper. The haunting and chilling German film M (1931) directed by the great Fritz Lang, starred Peter Lorre (in his first film role) as a criminal deviant - a child killer. The film's story was based on the life of serial killer Peter Kurten (known as the 'Vampire of Dusseldorf'). Edward Sutherland's crime/horror thriller Murders in the Zoo (1933) from Paramount starred Lionel Atwill as a murderous and jealous zoologist. And various horror films of the period, The Cat and the Canary (1927), director Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) with Fredric March, and The Bat Whispers (1930), provided some thrills.
Director George Cukor's classic psychological thriller Gaslight (1944) (first made in Britain in 1939 with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynward) featured a scheming husband (Charles Boyer) plotting to make his innocent young wife (Ingrid Bergman) go insane, in order to acquire her inheritance. The film noir Laura (1944) told about a thrilling murder investigation (for a beautiful missing advertising executive named Laura) conducted by a police detective (Dana Andrews), with suspects including an acid-tongued columnist (Clifton Webb) and a gigolo fiancee (Vincent Price). And the eerie The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), from Oscar Wilde's masterful tale, refashioned the Faustian story of a man (Hurd Hatfield) who made a deal with Mephistopheles (George Sanders) to forever remain young.
A mute domestic servant (Dorothy McGuire) in a haunted house was terrorized by a serial murderer, thinking she was the next victim in The Spiral Staircase (1945). In a taut thriller starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth titled The Lady From Shanghai (1948), a beautiful woman, her crippled lawyer/husband and his partner, and an Irish sailor ended up involved in a murder scheme. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), an invalid woman (Barbara Stanwyck) overheard a murder plot on the phone - against herself. The Third Man (1949), one of the best suspense films of all time, told the story of a writer (Joseph Cotten) in post-WW II Vienna who found out that his old friend (Orson Welles), a black marketeer, was not dead after all.
Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense Thrillers
No list of suspense or thriller films can be complete without mention of English film-maker/director Alfred Hitchcock. He helped to shape the modern-day thriller genre, beginning with his early silent film The Lodger (1927), a suspenseful Jack-the-Ripper story, followed by his next thriller Blackmail (1929), his first sound film (but also released in a silent version). Hitchcock would make a signature cameo appearance in his feature films, beginning with his third film The Lodger (1927), although his record was spotty at first. After 1940, he appeared in every one, except for The Wrong Man (1956). [See all of Hitchcock's cameos here.] Although nominated five times as Best Director (from 1940-1960), Hitchcock never won an Academy Award.
Alfred Hitchcock is considered the acknowledged auteur master of the thriller or suspense genre, manipulating his audience's fears and desires, and taking viewers into a state of association with the representation of reality facing the character. He would often interweave a taboo or sexually-related theme into his films, such as the repressed memories of Marnie (Tippi Hedren) in Marnie (1964), the latent homosexuality in Strangers on a Train (1951), voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), obsession in Vertigo (1958), or the twisted Oedipus complex in Psycho (1960).
Hitchcock's films often placed an innocent victim (an average, responsible person) into a strange, life-threatening or terrorizing situation, in a case of mistaken identity, misidentification or wrongful accusation (i.e., in The 39 Steps (1935), The Wrong Man (1956), and in North by Northwest (1959)).
He also utilized various cinematic techniques (i.e., the first British 'talking picture' - Blackmail (1929), the extreme zoom shot of the key in Notorious (1946), the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), the prolonged cross-cutting tennis match in Strangers on a Train (1951), the virtuoso set-piece of the crop duster in North by Northwest (1959), the montage in the shower sequence accentuated with composer Bernard Herrmann's screeching violin score in Psycho (1960), the dolly-zoom shots in Vertigo (1958), or the heightening of anticipation with the long pull-back shot from inside a building to the outside and across the street in Frenzy (1972)).
Visually-expressive motifs were also his specialty (i.e., the surrealistic dream sequences in Spellbound (1945), the key in Notorious (1946), the staircase or the use of profiles and silhouettes in Vertigo (1958), the murder reflected in the victim's glasses in Strangers on a Train (1951), the concept of "pairs" and guilt transference in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)), or the making of technically-challenging films (such as Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948)). [Rope was a film of many 'firsts': it was Hitchcock's first color film and his first film as an independent producer; it was his first film released by Warner Bros.; it was his first and only attempt to make a film appear as a single shot, with a series of ten-minute takes cleverly spliced together; and it was his first film with James Stewart. The basis of the film was the famed Leopold-Loeb case.]
In many of his films, there was the inevitable life and death chase concluding with a showdown at a familiar landmark (for example, London's Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942), the UN and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), Westminster Cathedral in Foreign Correspondent (1940), and the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo (1958)). He also reveled in tight and confined spaces, to heighten emotion (i.e., Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), or Rear Window (1954), etc.) or restrictive train journeys (i.e., The Lady Vanishes (1937), and North by Northwest (1959), etc).
The famed director often capitalized on a 'red herring' or gimmicky plot element to catch the viewer's attention - dubbed a McGuffin (or MacGuffin), that would propel the plot along its course. Usually, the McGuffin initially appears to be of utmost importance, but functions to intentionally misdirect the audience - it then quickly fades into the background and ends up being trivial, irrevelant, or incidental to the film's story. Here is a list of various MacGuffins:
Hitchcock usually cast leading actors against type (Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Cary Grant) opposite cool blondes (Madeleine Carroll, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren) who were often subject to misogynistic abuse, threatening humiliation, or murder. Hitchcock would then explore the darker sides of human nature through the situation, including sexuality and voyeurism, guilt and punishment, or paranoia and obsession. He usually let the viewer know that some horrible event would happen - creating unbearable suspense while viewers waited for the inevitable.
Notable examples of Hitchcock's early British suspense-thriller films include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1933), his first great spy-chase/romantic thriller The 39 Steps (1935) with Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, and the best film of his British period - the mystery The Lady Vanishes (1938). Extending his work into the 1940s in a number of brilliant black-and-white films, Hitchcock continued to perfect his recognizable brand of suspense-thriller, producing Foreign Correspondent (1940), the haunting Oscar-nominated Rebecca (1940) about the strange romance between a young woman (Joan Fontaine) and an emotionally-distant rich widower (Laurence Olivier) - overshadowed by a vindictive housekeeper (Judith Anderson), Suspicion (1941) about a woman in peril from her own husband (cast against type Cary Grant), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Hitchcock's own personal favorite and based upon the actual case of a 1920s serial killer known as 'The Merry Widow Murderer', Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).
In the 1950s, Hitchcock added technicolor to his still-brilliant dark and moody films, now with exotic locales and glamorous stars. He reached the zenith of his career with a succession of classic films:
- the suspenseful black and white Strangers on a Train (1951) about two train passengers: tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker), who staged a battle of wits and traded murders with each other
- Dial M For Murder (1954), with Ray Milland as a villainous husband who attempts to murder his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) - also shot in 3-D
- Rear Window (1954) - a masterful study of voyeurism confined to a Greenwich Village apartment complex and courtyard, with Grace Kelly as a seductive girlfriend to beau James Stewart
- To Catch a Thief (1955), a lightweight thriller set in S. France
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - a remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 spy thriller
- Vertigo (1958), one of Hitchcock's greatest films, with James Stewart as a retired police detective who becomes obsessed with the disturbed enigmatic 'wife' (Kim Novak) of an old friend
- and the entertaining, romantic comedy/spy thriller North By Northwest (1959) about an advertising executive (Cary Grant) mistakenly acquiring the identity of a fictional governmental agent, and his encounter with an icy blonde Eva Marie Saint
After Hitchcock's classic films of the 1950s, his films were wildly uneven, although he produced the shocking and engrossing thriller Psycho (1960) about a loner mother-fixated motel owner and taxidermist - with the classic set piece (the 'shower scene'), and the suspenseful and strangely terrifying The Birds (1963) about a invasion of birds in a N. California coastal town and its effect upon archetypal cool blonde Tippi Hedren. His film Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock's first British film in almost two decades, was given an R rating for its vicious and explicit strangulation scene.