Few things are as satisfying as a good gangster flick and the last ten years have produced a bevy of masterpieces. In the wake of groundbreaking films in the 1990s (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, etc.), this decade has seen a remarkable mix of innovation and market appeal that, looking back, starts to look like a kind of crime movie renaissance.
In that light, identifying the best crime movies of the decade is no easy task. So, to help narrow down the list and come up with ten fantastic films, I used an informal criteria that focused on genre. In other words, for a film to make onto this list it had to be best-described as a crime movie. It could be a dark, violent and morally ambiguous film noir, or it could be a lighthearted heist film. It could focus primarily on crooks, or on the police. However, it had to include criminals (preferably professional ones) and derive most of its narrative thrust from the tension between order and chaos.
Unfortunately, that meant that a movie like The Dark Knight — which might be the best crime-oriented movie of the decade — isn’t here because it’s first and foremost a superhero movie. It also meant that a movie like No Country For Old Men also isn’t here, because it’s at least as much a western as a crime film. While those and other crime-related films are among the best of the decade, this list focuses strictly on the more generic (but no less entertaining) movies that show criminals and police in all their seedy glory.
So without further ado, here (in chronological order) are the best crime movies of the last ten years:
Nine Queens (2000) — This Argentine film follows two con men as they team up to pull a scam involving the extremely valuable “nine queens” postage stamps. Like many of the best crime movies, Nine Queens is simultaneously a comedy and a drama, with the two crooks seeming as bumbling as they are streetwise. The result, however, is a well-acted and intricately twisted plot that will leave you wondering just who was had.
Small Time Crooks (2000) — No top ten list would be complete without something by Woody Allen, and Small Time Crooks is the legendary New York director’s take on the classic caper. The story follows a series of inept crooks as they plan a bank robbery. However, their plan is foiled when their front business, a cookie bakery, accidentally makes them a fortune. The rest of the story explores (with pure Allen-esque flare) how a group of small time crooks deals with wealth and legitimacy.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) — Probably the most commercially successful film on this list, Ocean’s Eleven includes one of the most star-studded casts in recent memory and helped turn director Steven Soderbergh into a household name. Though the film plays like a hyper-real two hour commercial for Las Vegas, its rich style and retro silliness endeared it to audiences and critics alike. It also brought some old school class to the crime genre, which had been getting increasingly bleak for years.
Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004) — Technically, it might be cheating to include both volumes of the Kill Bill saga in one entry. However, writer-director Quentin Tarantino originally conceived of the pair as a single piece and so they’ve been grouped together here as well. Fans are often divided on which volume is better (I prefer the first one), but both tell the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman) on a quest for revenge against her former crime boss Bill (David Carradine). Though these films are often noted for their stylized, over-the-top violence, the image of a samurai sword wielding Thurman in a yellow jumpsuit has become iconic. Like all Tarantino movies, Kill Bill is also chock-full of allusions to obscure bits of cinema history.
Brick (2005) — Originally debuting at Sundance, Brick is a classic film noir set in a 21st century high school. Though that premise could easily have been a disaster, in this case it makes for a tense thriller about murder and drug dealing. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film includes rapid-fire gangster lingo straight out of the 1950s, rival criminals with ambiguous allegiances, and a dangerous femme fatale.
The Departed (2006) – The Departed will probably always be remembered as the film that finally got director Martin Scorsese his Oscar, despite the fact that it isn’t his best film. Still, The Departed is a worthy offering that tells the story of two moles, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, working on either side of the law. As they each try to feed information back to their bosses, the web of deceit becomes more tangled. Eventually, the pair have to work just to save their own lives. This film was also based on the acclaimed Japanese movie Infernal Affairs.
Gone Baby Gone (2007) — After Ben Affleck killed his career with movies like Jersey Girl and Gigli, but before he resurrected it with Hollywoodland and State of Play, he directed this little gem of a movie starring his brother Casey. Gone Baby Gone is the story of a private eye’s attempts to solve a mysterious kidnapping case. With the help of his girlfriend/business partner (Michelle Monaghan), he is forced to confront ideas about right and wrong along the way. Much like Brick, this film is deeply indebted to crime movies of the ’40s and ’50s and is one of my personal favorites on this list.
Eastern Promises (2007) — For some actors, playing an iconic role can spell the end of a career; no one really wanted to see Mark Hamill, for example, as anyone but Luke Skywalker. Following The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, Viggo Mortensen proved that he wouldn’t be typecast by starring in this British gangster film. The plot follows innocent midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) as she becomes increasingly intertwined in the Russian mafia’s London branch. It also follows Nikolai Luzhin’s (Mortensen) attempts to bring the mob down. It’s a grim and graphic tale that fittingly earned Mortensen an Oscar nomination.
The Bank Job (2008) — The plot of this British film is remarkably similar to Woody Allen’s earlier Small Time Crooks (as well as quite a few other classic heist movies): a group of thieves rent a store near a bank and decide to tunnel their way to the safe. However, with the Transporter himself, Jason Statham, leading the cast, the results are markedly different from Allen’s caper. As the band of crooks get closer to their goal, they become further ensnared in a high stakes game involving the British government, incriminating photos of a English royal, and a militant gangster. This film is also based on an actual robbery that took place in London in 1971.
The Brothers Bloom (2008) — Starring Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as a pair of sibling “gentlemen thieves,” The Brothers Bloom recalls the charm and wit of classic thrillers like To Catch a Thief and Charade. Near the beginning of this movie the two brothers concoct a plan to steal the fortune of the eccentric but beautiful Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Along the way, however, Penelope joins the gang, falls in love with the younger brother, and they all move on to more lucrative schemes. Though this is ostensibly a crime movie and overtly taps into the history of the genre, it’s also a touching meditation on brotherly love and familial responsibility.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.
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