Here then are my favorite crime flicks (seen) in 2012 - slots 1-10, in alphabetical order.
Headhunters - Morten Tyldum (2011). Expectations (or lack of) working in its favor, exhibit A. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have given it a chance if I wasn't hoping to like it and feeling there was a decent chance I would, but holy crap... I really liked it. Relentless pursuit thriller about an art thief who makes the wrong mark. Really, just poor, poor decision there, pal. Literally goes places you'll not explore in safey-safe, big-budget U.S. productions, and scores major points along the way. Adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbo (whose Fart Powder books, my kids enjoy, btw).
Kill List - Ben Wheatley (2011) The structure and pace of this slow-burner may challenge the average action junky's attention span, but I was riveted from frame one (probably partially due to being primed by Wheatley's previous Down Terrace). Begins as a domestic drama, progresses to a workaday hit man procedural and festers into a horrifying personal investigation and retribution. Imagine starting Faces and finishing Rosemary's Baby (if John Cassavetes illustrations help you).
Killer Joe - William Friedkin (2012) I think we want everybody to get what's coming equally in this skid-mark-row murder comedy. Ah, the half-baked plans of low-rent criminals. I feel like the anti-George Peppard here - I love it when a quick money plan goes to shit. God bless playwright Tracy Letts for delivering the director of some of my all-time favorite flicks a new, provocative muse - Joe is the second Letts/Friedkin collaborative after 2006's Bug.
Killing Them Softly - Andrew Dominik (2012) Forget the allegory, forget the unfortunate title change (WTF was wrong with Cogan's Trade?), forget the accusations of overly-stylized violence - when you do this much right, you can not lose. Has the feel of a George V. Higgins book - long scenes of hypnotically good dialogue, a behind the curtains, de-glamorized peek at the machinations of organized crime (or government - as an AUSA Higgins knew both, after all), and a collection of poor mopes with the fingers of fate up their asses, trying to, just once, make the system work for them. Can't decide what my favorite scene is - Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy sticking up the card game (or any of the scenes of the two of them talking), Ray Liotta paying for it, Mendelsohn and Slaine getting rid of evidence, James Gandolfini giving advice to a hooker, Richard Jenkins pussying out on behalf of the business interests he represents... Fuck it, I love this movie start to finish and can't wait to go again. Dominik is three for three and whatever he does next, count me in.
Looper - Rian Johnson (2012) The year of come-at-you-sideways time travel flicks (also see Safety Not Guaranteed and The Sound of My Voice - which would absolutely have made this list... but just wasn't crimey enough... great flick though, check it out) has a champ here. Straightforward enough for a first-time viewing, generously layered and nuanced for repeat pleasures. In the same blog post that I'm praising Headhunters for going places that big US films won't/can't I give you A-number-one box office star and action movie icon of steely righteousness Bruce Willis murdering children. Holy mother of fuck, I believe I now have an emotional point of reference to appreciate what early viewers of Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West felt when Henry Fonda blew away that kid at the beginning - anything is possible now - we are not safe. Its virtues are legion, but chief among them may be that I just never knew where it was heading - a precious rare experience for somebody who consumes stories at the rate that I do.
Miss Bala - Gerardo Naranjo (2011) Where Savages exploited the gringo's fear of foreign organized criminal influence and corruption seeping across the pristine border of our lily-white nation of complicit innocents, Miss Bala deals with tragedy and true innocence in the eye of the storm. Putting the casual in casualties, the cold indifference with which a young woman's life is hijacked, exploited and discarded by the forces of ultra-violent commerce and extreme capitalism was inspired by (and liberally expounded upon) the true story of beauty queen Laura Zuniga. The clear eyed straightforward film making approach employed here only heightens this nightmare scenario - surreal and nearly incomprehensible in its dispassionate logic, (even the typically hot-blooded crimes of murder and rape are mechanically and thrill-lessly committed). The heroine is playing for her own survival and that of her family members held hostage while she takes her place as a pawn in a pan-national game of power. Um. Downer. Um. Great though.
Rampart - Oren Moverman (2011) Adapted from a James Ellroy script about an Ellroy-ian cop in L.A. - read bigoted (or, more accurately, acting out of contempt for the notions of corporate politically correct knee-jerk policy), sexually and familially fucked up, corrupt, un-willing, able or inclined to harness his worst impulses, this one seems most poised to be the flick attacked as doddering ride upon an allegorical high horse, but... nope. The true strength of Rampart is its refusal to take at face value the inflammatory antics and claims of Officer Dave 'Date-Rape' Brown, and instead focus on the self-sustained fall-out of his actions. Never an indictment of institutional corruption, fascism, nor a love him/hate him violent cop tale, it's a simply a riveting character study of uncommon resonance.
The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar (2011) Let us speak clearly. Almodovar is a film maker of vision and talent to rival anyone else working today. His control is absolute and his aim is true. He always makes exactly the picture he intends to. He just rarely makes one that I'm terribly attracted to. But watch out, when his sensibilities align with my own tastes and preferences, it's a mind-blowing experience. Dear Human Centipede, fuck off. This is the picture you never could be, this is The Count of Monte Cristo as medical horror. It gets beneath the er, skin of the thing and violates countless boundaries of good taste with such an exquisite sense of decorum and sumptuous visuals that a repeat viewing would blur the line between hedonist and masochist for me - a line I'll gladly cross for the sheer sensual fuckery going on. Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet.
Thin Ice - Jill Sprecher (2011) Expectations (or lack of) working in its favor exhibit B. This one took me completely by surprise, but it's a terrific little noir (even though the ending doesn't deliver the promised goods - the way say Fargo had the sack to). An everyman fucks up a little bit and keeps on going, just swabbing out the whole bowl before he's flushed permanently down the toilet. It's pathetic, loserville shenanigans with a nastily believable edge. The grasping, the dodging, the desperation are all pulled off with the simpering nice guy smile of Greg Kinnear and it makes me wish we'd gotten Dick Van Dyke's seedy side on celluloid - lord knows Fred MacMurray's was worth it - and Billy Crudup gives us a nicely unbalanced menace. This was a damn good picture that has the element of surprise going for it in my case. You? Now you've been hyped. You'll probably hate it.
The Yellow Sea - Hong-jin Na (2010) Not ranking any of the others, but this one was easily my favorite crime flick I saw in 2012. Brutal, beautiful, devastating and dashing (as in heads against rocks), this story of collecting on debts no honest man could pay, will leave you equally pumped and drained. It's got it all - balls to the wall action, desperation so thick and longing so dense you could just about watch it without subtitles. If Ben Gazzara'd had to actually travel to China to kill a bookie, and if he'd had to pack a hatchet instead of a gun... I don't want to give away any more plot than that, just take my word that the story keeps coming and the picture keeps leaping sideways, and you just are not going to be prepared for it.
That's it, that's my rhyme. Take it to the street, beeyaatch. A few notable omissions that I've yet to catch up with: Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, David Ayer's End of Watch, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty... From what I hear, Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage will be uncomfortably up my alley and after Surveillance, I'm certainly interested in giving Jennifer Lynch's Chained a looksee (I'm psyched for A Fall From Grace too... as every St. Louis crime nut ought to be).
Slots 11-20 are listed here.