Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 1-50

Ain't Them Bodies Saints - David Lowery - Bob and Ruth are young lovers and partners in crime, and that's no new channel for crime flicks, but unlike Bonnie & Clyde or Badlands, Ain't Them Bodies Saints begins where those stories end, with the two being apprehended in a violent confrontation with police that leaves one of their gang dead and one of the cops shot up. The story picks up four years later with Bob (Casey Affleck) escaping from prison and Ruth (Rooney Mara) receiving the news with some mixed feelings. She's been raising their child, whom she was pregnant with when Bob went to prison, on her own, still living in the same small town looked after somewhat by a friend named Skeritt (Keith Carradine) and watched with growing interest by the same cop (Ben Foster) who got the shit shot out of him when Bob went down. The narrative unfolds in a dreamy Terrence Mallick-esque style hinting at a world of untold stories informing the creases in the character's contemplative brows and that quality, that leaving it unsaid - or rather said, but not explained (or is it the other way around?) - is both the best and most frustrating thing about the film. It's the reason the film was marketed as art-house fare (which it is) instead of as a thriller (which it most certainly is). I came out on the very, very pro-side of writer/director Lowery's aesthetic, but would understand if you were left wanting a bit more of the visceral genre stuff to feed your monkey - cause I was too. I so wanted a deeper, closer look at the dynamics of the Skeritt/Bob & Ruth gang. I so, so would have been on board for more explicitness in pretty much any aspect of the world of this film, but I can't help wondering if that's because I was so successfully and artfully enticed, rather than cruelly teased?

Alleluia - Fabrice Du Welz - When a struggling single mother named Gloria (Lola Duenas) finds she's been scammed by a gigolo named Michel (Laurent Lucas) she hunts him down and, in the greatest new twist on a lonely hearts killer story, becomes so much more than his accomplice, she becomes his tormentor. Oh man, the slow realization on his face as he watches her inner psycho bloom and he realizes he's snagged a shark with his fishing pole is one of the most deliciously chilling moments on film in the last decade. This flick escalates from sad to suspenseful to scary as hell and ought to influence as many future horror as crime film makers. Best moment: Michel and Gloria dance around the fire.

Animal Kingdom - David Michod - Having obsessed over the trailer for months before seeing Animal Kingdom theatrically I knew a fair amount about what to expect from this film in terms of plot and tone, but it never went where I’d determined it was headed. No small achievement that. There was a moment early on where, in regards to a certain character, I realized that I’d seen every shot from the trailer he’d been featured in already and I was left to guess where he was headed. Unlike when I experienced that same rare feeling of uncertainty in a film previously this year in 44” Chest, (and then nothing happened), Animal Kingdom took me completely off guard and scared the hell out of me. There is an assassination early in the picture that so effectively sets up the danger and the very real stakes of everything that follows, that the pressure never lets up. Doesn’t matter what’s going on onscreen, you are tense, you know that no one is safe and that by the time you (or they) see it coming, it’ll all be over. The very first scene is also a small work of perfection. Could’ve been an award winning short film, really and it sets up our main character better than any synopsis some hack like me might agonize over constructing, so I’ll leave it alone, but I’ll mention James Frecheville’s performance of J. as one of the best on screen portrayals of a teenager since Leo Fitzpatrick in Larry Clark's Kids. This dude is so dull in the eyes and blank about the face and turns in such a slack jawed demonstration of mouth breathing, without ever overdoing it, you’ll be tempted not to give him credit for acting. But that my friends is simply nailing the part. And it’s a brave part to nail. Aside from a single moment to break down crying, he’s given no flashy lookit-me type “acting” to do. Frecheville’s is one among an ensemble of strong performances that include Jackie Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton and Guy Pearce. Writer of The Square (as well as brother of The Square’s director Nash Edgerton), Joel Edgerton also turns in what would be a star making performance in a bigger exposure picture as the singular voice of reason and moderation among this circle of thieves and madmen. His onscreen presence is one of the most magnetic in years. I remember reading some early reviews of Reservoir Dogs where critics said “I know what this film wanted to do. It just wanted to show you all the things you don’t get to see in crime movies. It’s a heist film and you never see the heist. Instead, it focuses on all the boring parts. Ha-ha. A cheap trick.” And I suspect some folks will feel the same about Animal Kingdom. There is no big job our bank -robbing protagonists are gearing up for. There is no little job. And we’re mercifully spared any court -room procedural even though a large section of the film is preparing us for the testimony one character will bring against his partners. We understand enough from the preparation and the aftermath exactly how things go. Anything else would be gratuitous, and even though it’s a well-trod genre, there is nothing gratuitous about Animal Kingdom. There is no cool criminal speak about ‘scores’, ‘hits’, ‘marks’ or ‘vigs’. Nobody racks a gun in a sexy manner. No one discusses grand plans for outwitting the police or each other. In fact, all we get to see of the reward for the criminal life style the main characters live is a bunch of high-strung, paranoid bundles of kinetic violence cowering in the dark of their own living rooms from the police. And with good reason. At one point, we hear a character say that they heard the police are looking to kill him, (apparently out of frustration, since they’ve been unable to prove any allegations against him). In any other movie, we’d have no reason to believe that this was anything more than a paranoid delusion of grandeur, but we’re given several onscreen demonstrations of the ruthless, systematic abuse of power these guys are up against and, like I said earlier, you’re just tense the whole time. I was reminded of the quote from Frank James on why he’d turned himself in, (found in Scott Wolven’s collection of outlaw and convict stories Controlled Burn), “I was tired of an outlaw’s life. I have been hunted for twenty-one years. I have literally lived in the saddle. I have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. When I slept it was literally in the midst of an arsenal. If I heard dogs bark more fiercely than usual, or the feet of horses in a greater volume of sound than usual, I stood to my arms. Have you any idea of what a man must endure who leads such a life? No, you cannot.” And like a Wolven story, there is more meaning packed into the details, more nuance in the choice of words, (or silence), and more life pulsing beneath the sum of the character’s actions than the combined yield from any ten examples of the standard fare “crime” fans are typically fed. Just watch a single scene between the oldest, Pope, and his youngest brother - the relentless goading masked as an appeal for clearing the air and understanding between them, and the weary acceptance of brotherly abuse -you’ve got that relationship down. Or the sweet, bordering-on-creepy way mom treats her sons, their prompt, slumped shouldered acquiesce to her kisses that put them in their place – directly under her. Family,the ties that bind. And gag. I’m not sure why this film is drawing so much comparison to Goodfellas. I wish that it weren’t, because they’re dissimilar experiences and it’s an unfair, if flattering, parallel to make. I’m tempted to think that when audiences feel moved or overwhelmed by a mere genre picture, it’s immediately heralded as the second coming of, ‘oh, what was that other good movie about criminals?’ and A Prophet had already snagged The Godfather comparison this year. Animal Kingdom is not the scale of film that Goodfellas is. One of its strengths is its firm grasp of its own identity. It’s a small picture, modest in scope, ambitious in tone and confident in its abilities. It will not meet you halfway. It’s not pandering for a larger audience. Like each creature in the titular metaphor, it strives to set the terms and if you’ll just submit to them, we’ll all get along fine.

Asura: The City of MadnessKim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage. There's plenty of tension along the way, but holy fuck the final showdown is full of the kind of hatchet-wielding, brutal gang-fighting that comes frequently and not near often enough out of wildly exciting Korean cinema these days.

Blade Runner: 2049Denis Villeneuve - Put aside the terrific work re-creating and then expanding upon the beautiful aural and visual aesthetics of the original as well as the high-wire proposition of paying homage to what came before without being precious about it and we're still left with an immensely satisfying detective story. The detective, K, is a replicant, a synthetic, subservient-class human, whose job is exterminating those of his own kind who don't submit to their prescribed societal roles - whose refusal to submit to their own destruction because they make the rest of the populace nervous may be their only crime. As with Deckard in Ridley Scott's original, K finds this work depressing as hell, but he does it just to go on living himself. The moment K hesitates to perform his duty he knows he'll be destroyed. K plays at having the type of human existence he's probably only seen in old-fashioned media - evidenced by the interaction he has with his own pet A.I. Joi, a sub-sub-class of intelligence set apart from replicants by not even having a body only a holographic image which 'she' can alter to best please K (she appears momentarily in a variety of classically submissive female outfits from 1950's style housewife to geisha drag, until she senses K's mood is best matched). When K buys her an upgrade that allows her to be mobile rather than harnessed to the hardware inside his apartment she is overjoyed in a manner that could be calculated capitalist programming or it could be something else - we're not sure. - SPOILERS AHEAD - K's latest assignment is an important one, a potential 'world breaker' according to his commanding officer - human remains discovered buried on the premises of another assignment turn out to belong to a woman who had given birth - a startling realization when it is further revealed the mother was none other than Sean Young's Rachel from the original Blade Runner. Replicants aren't supposed to be able to reproduce and if there's a half human or fully biological replicant in the world that news could prove catastrophic for the status quo. K's got to find the (now adult) child and destroy it. When a series of clues including supposedly implanted memories begin to lead K to believe that he is Rachel's child the revelation destroys his ability to remain subservient. He is still looking for the truth, but no longer as a cop - he's turned his back on his masters and become his own person in an instant... and that is the point. As with the is-Deckard-a-replicant? question debated now for decades, the answer doesn't matter, it's the question that does. When it is discovered that he is not the child he is looking for it doesn't matter, the belief that he could be has awakened a yearning to be free and that yearning, that aspiration, that hope that he could be more has itself elevated him to that status. Likewise Joi, when she realizes she is about to be deleted has an emotional response that doesn't really make sense for a mere product - does nothing to entice the consumer to re-up and purchase another model - and reveals that she too has real emotion, and ambition and dare we say it? - Love. These questions about class tease the edges and warm the sterile cool of the images, but the investigation, and more importantly the character of K, is compelling enough reason to take a tour of the at once familiar and exotic world of the near future, while the emotional payload lands soundly. Cast is strong with special honors to Dave Bautista whose brief supporting role at the film's beginning sets the emotional tone so well.

Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier - Dwight, a homeless, but seemingly carefree beach bum has his world turned upside down when he receives news that a particular man is being released from prison - end of beach life. Suddenly, Dwight is a man of action and as each new scene reveals, he's a man with a plan that he's been patiently waiting out. He follows the newly released convict and his family a short way away and clearly intends to do the newly freed harm, but after that... who knows? Dwight's plans don't seem to extend beyond the violent act itself and what's in store for the audience is a hell of an artfully delivered, white-knuckle thriller. Holy shit. Just kapow. Wham, bam and waaaaaait for it... waaaaaaaait for it... shazam. Every single scene upends expectations and the plot seen from end to beginning is clear and simple enough, but good fucking gracious does the destination feel like a mystery going forward. I know it wears some folks out, but I find it stimulating and invigorating when it's this artfully executed. This was a hell of an introduction to Saulnier and creative partner Macon Blair who pretty much ruled the decade with smart, well-crafted, surprising and bloody as hell crime fare.

Brave Men's BloodOlaf de Fleur Johannesson -  A sequel to Johannesson's City State, you don't have to have seen the first (I haven't) to appreciate this story of a Reykjavik internal affairs investigation into police corruption and Icelandic organized crime. It starts with young and ambitious Ed Exley-esque Darri Ingolfsson flunking out of intense tryouts for an elite military program. Disgraced he takes a position in the police department where he lives forever in the shadow of his father, a legendary and respected cop. He takes an assignment with IA that includes a top-secret second level investigating an IA superior and what follows is a cat and cat and cat and mouse who's really a cat game of dirty and dirtier deeding, line-crossing, loyalty-breaking, and ultimately corruption-to-survive that leaves no one untouched. Top-tier gangster/cop fare with brutal violence and high production value.

Cheap Thrills - Evan Katz - On the day that a new father, about to see his family evicted from their small, L.A. apartment, loses his auto-mechanic job, he stops by a bar for a quick, steeling drink before heading home to figure out his life. At the bar he runs into his dodgy high-school pal and agrees to commiserate for one more drink. The two are then drawn into the orbit of an obnoxiously rich couple who throw cash around indiscriminately for the pleasure of its affect on the two pals. Soon, one drink turns into a night of partying that rides the exhilarating/terrifying edge toward riches or doom for the hapless duo. This is one electrifying, sick picture that demands and collects everything from its cast. Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton and the revelatory David Koechner draw our empathy, admiration and repulsion one beat to the next in a razor-sharp allegory for global economic exploitation. Buuuut, don't let the myriad one-to-one metaphoric parallels distract you from the immediate pleasures of this aptly titled morality conundrum because they are many, sweet and tart. The control that first time feature director Katz demonstrates is some veteran-level shit. Watch him squeeze a single scene in three different emotional directions and tease the hell out of your expectations with a sly edit, an unexpected texture, a tonal shift unexpected - yet organic - you only realize later it was swelling beneath surface from the beginning. Fucking loved this movie. Best moment: Healy underbids Embry.

Coin Locker Girl - Han Jun-hee - Kim Go-eun plays Il-young the girl found abandoned in a bus depot locker as a baby. She grows up rough among denizens of the underground until she's sold to Ma (Kim Hye-soo), gangster queen of the underworld. In Ma's care she grows up in constant fear of losing her value because, like all of Ma's children, she knows she will be cast aside, killed and organs recycled for a final turn of profit just as soon as she stops being worth feeding, but she survives into young adulthood, strong and smart enough to rise in Ma's ranks, and known in important circles as Ma's right hand. She does collection work and is stoically badass and intimidating; she doesn't need size, she has Ma's reputation behind her. Things change one day for Il-young while doing collection work and it means either the beginning of a new and very different life or a violent end to the one she knows. The thriller is effective enough, the emotional brutality and onscreen violence are as strong as needed to satisfy, but performances and self-possession of both leads are really what sets this one apart. Hye-soo's performance in particular deserves to be remembered; Ma should be a 21st century gangster icon. Fucking terrifying.

Cold in July - Jim MickleMichael C. Hall is Richard, a family man, in 1989 Texas, who shoots an intruder in his home in the middle of the night and feels good about defending his home and family for about fiiiive minutes before the father of the man he killed, (Sam Shepard) a baaad man just out of prison with nothing to lose, begins to terrorize Richard and his cozy little life falls apart. The fact that the film is based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale ought to give you some clue that the above plot description (and for once the trailer, thank God) do not ruin the myriad of surprises this one has in store and keep it from being a Tejas-set Cape Fear-exercise. For everything it's got going for it, including one of the best original scores I've heard in years (by Jeff Grace), low-key, but spot-on (and just the right amount of) period details for flavor and a very game cast, it's got a throwback sensibility to this vein of down and dirty thriller that skates the edges of exploitation, but retains enough real heart and brains (but mostly heart... or guts) to keep it out of the tough-guys with guns bargain bin rack quality-wise. The result is a lean, tough mystery thriller with a helluva climax. Strong contender for year's top honors around these parts.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - The fuck? Been seeing a lotta shit flung at this flick based on an original screen play by Cormac McCarthy, and it confounds me if it doesn't exactly surprise me. This is easily the best thing Scott has made since... Blade Runner? But I get it - it's not a typical slick action thriller. Nope, it's a morality tale spun of bloody thread spooling from the pit of iniquity the United States has dug along its southern border and enjoys a staggering general ignorance of. But it's neither our collective, complicit innocence nor the horror of the ultimate free-market capitalism that are the real focus of the flick. Michael Fassbender plays the titular Texas lawyer looking to invest a considerable sum of money in an illegal, but highly profitable enterprise - just once. The first half of the film consists more or less of a series of characters trying to talk him out of his decision, and the second half concerns the fallout from his folly. Fassbender's counselor knows his way around, in and out of national legalities, but he's completely unprepared for the taint and infection of moral rot. It's not structured like a thriller, but it's far more thrilling than even good, slick, action fare like The Raid as far as I'm concerned. It's talky. Sure, but so the hell is everything Quentin Tarantino's ever made (or David Mamet or adaptations of George V. Higgins or uh, Shakespeare or friggin Richard Linklater) - when the talking is this well done, we sit back and appreciate it, right? Similar in plot to McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, it's closer to Traffic in feel and despite (or probably because of the) explicitness of the foreshadowing, the downward spiral of the characters is riveting and just fucking electrically sad. Plus, everything's a metaphor! There's the one between your legs, the one between our countries.... Diamonds! Sex! Sin! um, Cheetahs! Which is not to say it's a flawless film. I'm not going to throw any stones at Cameron Diaz, but her scene in the confessional seemed indulgent and unnecessary (not to mention its greater sin - completely wasting Edgar Ramirez's presence in this film), Fassbender's on and off again accent is a bit forced and it'd be nice to have a transcript of all of Javier Bardem's lines 'cause I'm sure they're biutiful. That said, the action sequences we do get employ Scott's considerable talents to high purpose. I'd like to take a moment to consider the emergent path of Brad Pitt too. This dude is quietly stacking up a Bounty-strong portfolio of serious-minded, sincerely thrilling crime pictures (add to this one The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly - neither one of those particularly critically adored either). Best Moment: The final hit of the movie is as precisely staged, dreadfully anticipated and horrifically paid off as any damn thing The Godfather gave us.

The CrewJulien Leclercq - Yanis Zeri plays Sami, the leader of a Parisian heist crew taking down carefully planned scores with a level of precision teamwork that takes a lot of discipline and years of work to achieve. The film opens as they are filling a new slot on the team and the heat coming off their anxiety level is elevated even as the action remains cool. The job goes well until it doesn't and the team immediately breaks into individuals having to make very quick decisions about the rest of their lives. Stakes are high, but not cartoonish and combine personal and professional in a pleasing ratio and the on-screen action and violence are effective without ever becoming the reason for the film. The most pleasantest out of the blue surprise of the year for me - never heard about it, saw advertising, read a thing - just stumbled across it on Netflix and was knocked on my ass. This is exactly the kind of no-hooks, no-frills armed robbery picture I always want more of. No mugging for the camera, no embarrassing macho dialogue (this is the movie I wish Den of Thieves had been - not that I didn't enjoy that one, but sheeeeeit did it hit both of those shortcomings super hard), just workaday thievery complete with straight jobs and just enough family life to seem like human peoples instead of soulless hardboiled cliches.

Death of Dick Long - Daniel Scheinert - One night after band practice in the garage, a trio of rural southern blue collar pals blow off a little steam in their usual manor - alcohol, drugs, firearms, firecrackers and by the end of the night one of them will have died after being left in the parking lot outside the hospital. The attending physician summons the police and reports the very disturbing condition of the unknown corpse and a homicide investigation is immediately opened. Meanwhile the surviving duo scramble to cover their tracks, establish alibis and find the personal fortitude not to fall apart under the slightest bit of outside pressure while their minds and guts boil and their consciences have distinctly differing reactions. If I were to just tell you the plot of The Death of Dick Long you'd probably laugh or recoil in horror - you might be dying to see it or never ever ever want to even think about it ever again. But hearing the plot and watching the film are vastly different experiences and I highly recommend the latter. Scheinert afterall is the guy who gave us Swiss Army Man often, and not inaccurately, described as the farting corpse movie, but to dismiss it as only a farting corpse movie is to miss a lot. Likewise, The Death of Dick Long could be described as the Something Something movie and it is, but it's also so much more. The first two acts are intense and suspenseful, but also very funny as we watch our maladroit men do an utterly inept job of covering up their crime and when the audience first understands the awful truth of how and why Dick died it's a moment worth all the build up. It's also the zinger where most stories would end. It's a hell of a punchline, but we're not shown the mercy of getting back to our lives just yet. No, we have a harrowing third act to go that's all reckoning and coming to terms with the truth and I'm impressed with Scheinert, screenwriter Billy Chew the entire crew (especially Michael Abbott Jr. and Virginia Newcomb) for wringing many distinct and complex emotional arcs out of what would 99.9 times out of 100 be a one-joke premise. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is playing a Nickleback song over the end credits that is an actual emotional punch in the gut. Ho-lee shit.

Destroyer - Karyn Kusama - Nicole Kidman plays Los Angeles Detective Erin Bell who walks a little shakily (hungover, beat the fuck up, worse?) onto a crime scene with a body lying face down in the LA river. It's not her scene though - the detectives already working the case are irritated by her presence and condition and want to know why she's bothering them. The body is a man with distinctive tattooes on the back of his neck surrounded by some cash money marked with dye, apparently from a bank robbery. Erin makes a crack about knowing who the killer is before walking off the scene and leaving both the audience and the other detectives wondering if she's just messing with us in some cranky fuck-you manner or not. We flash back and meet Erin fifteen years earlier as a fresh-faced rookie with the L.A. Sheriff's Department tasked to go undercover with a federal agent to infiltrate a crew of thieves and the film plays a dual timeline for the rest of the film. Two thing's are clear from the start - things didn't go well during the undercover stint and things are not going well now. Erin became romantically involved with Sebastian Stan's federal agent partner and they maybe played both sides of the law, while in the present she's divorced from Scoot McNairy who shares custody of her rebellious teenaged daugter (Jade Pettyjohn). What went wrong fifteen years ago and can she right that wrong now are the concerns of the timelines, but what unifies the storylines is a palpable sense of urgency and dread pulsing through the soundtrack in the places between breaths in veins along Kidman's brow we know that everything comes down to this. Along the way there are shootouts, beatdowns and fucking awful revelations. This hit my sweet spot h-a-r-d.

Dog Eat Dog - Paul Schrader - The novel by Edward Bunker is one of the first serious crime books I read to light a fire under my ass for the hardcore hardboiled stuff I love. For pure scorch factor I'd put it up there with the best of James Ellroy, Jim Thompson and Eddie Little. So let me say right up front that this adaptation from Schrader and company is a far fucking cry from the book in tone, impact and cohesiveness. Further - it's a mess. Uneven, ugly, silly, almost amateurish at points. And I love it. It's easily the most give-no-fucks straight-up entertaining flick Schrader's made in years and whatever you may find among its many faults none of it will be limp or lazy, luke-warm or disengaged. Schrader pushes his cast out onto the flimsiest limbs while he chops down the whole tree and sets fire to the forest. And God bless 'em they deliver some big moments, especially Willem Dafoe who teeters from loyal and wounded to pathetic and psychotic through high and amped down to strung-out and seething with a dim-bulbed, dumb-dogged sincerity that makes me wish he could stay exactly this age and ability/commitment level for a couple more decades. Christopher Matthew Cook is the anchor on the other end of the trio of hapless career criminals fucking up their lives with every new opportunity. They bumble from one cockup to the next staggering through stylistic changes as violent as Mad Dog's mood swings. For my money though nothing is better or funnier in the movie than the visual of a car that they've fixed up with reflective tape to look like a police cruiser and the sequence that ensues is the height of the film's suspense powers. The opening drug-jag, bumble-murder is the most disturbing and the Bogart finale takes it to a level of head-scratching whatthefuckery previously un-foretold. Nobody seems to agree on what movie they're appearing in, but everybody feels committed to the performance they drew from a hat back stage and, improbably, even Schrader himself is having fun onscreen. Watch it once scratching your head, but repeat viewings reveal a patchwork of disparate vignettes about characters all circling the same drain and taking more than a few of us down with them.

Dragged Across Concrete - S. Craig Zahler - A pair of veteran city cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) are suspended after their rough treatment of a suspect is caught on camera and makes the 24 hour news cycle. Vaughn's Anthony is younger and has plenty of years left in his career to make up ground and move up the ladder so he can ride the suspension out comfortably, but Gibson's Brett is too old and broke to take this much unpaid time off. He's got a sick wife (Laurie Holden) and a teenaged daughter living in a sketchy neighborhood they're desperate to leave and he goes looking for work elsewhere. He calls in a favor from a man with underworld connections  whose kid he cut some slack a few years back and the man puts Brett onto an apartment used to house criminals who are in town for jobs. He doesn't know what the score is, but he knows the apartment's occupied at the moment and it's probably something lucrative. Brett approaches Anthony about the job - let's rip off these drug dealer/gun-runner/diamond thieves/whatever they are scumbags and get paid. Anthony agrees to consider it, but he's not thrilled at the idea of crossing the line into criminal activity even if the only victims are bad guys. He's there for his partner though and shows up for a stake out and a discussion. By the time they've got their heads around the situation it's already turned too ugly to stomach and it's too late to turn back. Tory Kittles plays Henry, just out of a short stretch in prison and glad to be back home with his mother and disabled younger brother. On the night he comes home he finds his mother is using their apartment for prostitution just to keep a roof over their heads. Henry is eager to make some money and decides to take the job his pal Biscuit (Michael Jai White) has got a bead on and they're hired on to the crew that Brett and Anthony are tailing. Those out of town criminals are the villains of the film and whoo-boy are they a monstrous trio of killers and thieves decked out in head to toe black and gray outfits with masks and goggles and weird speech patterns and tonal inflections. They go around the city committing small robberies ostensibly to finance the big job they're in town for and they spread so much carnage along the way we are properly scared for our cops (Gibson & Vaughn) and our cons (Kittles & White) who have no idea the magnitude of psychopath they've attached themselves to and by the time we get to our climax it's a three-way showdown with some very tricky crossing of audience allegiance. This is like a wet dream crime fantasy. Zahler's doing that thing he continues to do in his other films (and books, as far as I can tell) where he grounds the audience in a pretty particular reality before flying off the rail on some weird detail that feels bizarre, but right (or, as the case may be, very, very wrong). I want a whole series of movies about this underworld (it felt very Westlakian/Parker-ish to me). And for all the complaints I've seen about it being a right-wing film (I guess because of what's known of stars' politics as well as some of the characters' dialogue - shit, this is the only mention Don Johnson is going to get and he's doing really good work in his only scene even though it features most of the films' hardest to swallow dialogue) it offers some of the sharpest critique of our late capitalist reality of the year. The common ground that every character shares is their unshakable belief that they myth of the way things work just isn't true and is in place specifically to subjugate them. All the characters understand that there is no way forward/upward for them in the system and that the only way to get what they need and want is via criminal means. Brett used to believe that if he kept his head down and did good work he would rise at his job, but the film finds him dealing with the realization that it's simply not true. Even though he's 'paid his debt' Henry can't find meaningful employment because of his record. (The deserving of her own rabbit hole essay) Jennifer Carpenter can't prioritize her family because rich people want to visit places she'll never go. Holden wants to take more drugs (kill herself quicker) just to work in order to get out of their neighborhood. Kittles' mother prostitutes herself... Anthony's motivation: "the kind of future I can provide for my girlfriend won't have many diamonds in it." And isn't that the thing? Isn't that a fucker? It's more than just a very pleasingly complex hardboiled story, it's the distinctive work of a singular director working on many levels. That dialogue, man. It's not Mamet, but it's just as stylized. The pacing. It's deliberate and hypnotic. The music? Shit, it's only brand new songs performed by acts like The O'Jays and Butch Tavares and it sounds like some old forgotten classic soul and R&B until you get right up close. All the songs were written by Zahler and Jeff Herriott and they're... weird. They ain't old hits, they're very specifically for this film, describing the scenes they're featured in, setting specific moods. They don't have real catchy hooks, but I bet you're singing Shotgun Safari for a few days afterward. Just like the characters, the plot and the music, the whole movie feels familiar until you get in close and pay attention. It's something else. Zahler's best yet.

Drive - Nicolas Winding Refn - Refn's version of a 1980's era Michael Mann picture, or perhaps a contemporary version of Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samorai, certainly more than a dash of Walter Hill's The Driver in there too. It's a remarkably tangy slice of pulp fiction, that alternately baited genre fans with subversive aesthetic choices, (costume, music, props) then became the aesthetic standard-bearer for the next ten years - everybody wanted that look, that sound and that feel to their film and then it delivered diamond-making sequences of tension that pay off bone-shattering moments of violence. Ryan Gosling seems to pose rather than act throughout the film as a future icon of criminal, masculine cool (like Alain Delon under Melville's direction), but that shouldn't be taken as a criticism. It's just one more deliberate choice made by a director in full command of the medium, and the visually haunting sequence where The Driver dons a rubber mask to stalk his prey seems - coupled with the so-on-the-nose-it's-subtle-okay-no-it's-not-it's-on-the-nose refrain of the soundtrack "real human being, and a real hero," - to (ahem) drive that home. You got all that plus Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as the best cinema baddies in a beat.

The DropMichael R. Roskam - Bob and Marv run Cousin Marv's, a local mob drop-bar and are under an intense microscope after the place is robbed on collection night. Meanwhile Bob (Tom Hardy) rescues a pitbull with the help of Nadia a neighborhood girl (Noomi Rapace) and ends up the target of her psycho ex-boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts). With this project Dennis Lehane goes into full Road to Perdition-universe Max Allan Collins mode writing a novelization of his screenplay based on his own short story (Animal Rescue), but no matter the true origin of the source material, the film is fully-realized and fleshy draped on the sturdy skeletal structure provided by Hardy and James Gandolfini as Marv's performances. The two big lugs mope and scowl and bitch and wryly observe between themselves with an interpersonal dynamic not fully defined for the audience until the end of the film and it's pretty great to observe. Add to their chemistry the fine supporting cast including John Ortiz, James Frecheville plus the stellar-again Ann Dowd and you've got an atmosphere I love kicking around inside (if you see it and dig it too, do yourself a favor and check out the novel Gravesend by William Boyle). The plot is pretty standard fare, but it doesn't need to be any more flashy because the band is hitting the beats like they mean it and I'm sold.

Drug War - Johnnie To - When an industrial scale methamphetamine manufacturer and distributor is apprehended in China, he agrees to help the cops take down a cartel in order to avoid the death penalty. As he works alongside the policeman who busted him, an interesting evolution occurs in their dynamic. They go from mortal enemies to uneasy allies and by the time they've each saved the other's bacon more than once the viewer isn't sure where their loyalty lies. And that's great. The end of the film is pretty fantastic and I don't want to let on anything about it or how we get there, but it was great. Best moment: a Mission Impossible-style double sting operation that requires the stone-faced cop to shift gears hard to play the role of a flamboyant and gregarious smuggler. It's a jolt.

Easy Money trilogy - Daniel Espinosa, Babek Najafi, Jens Jonsson - A hustler chasing the good life in the world of high-stakes finance, a recently-rabbited convict and a hit man/single-father cross paths and purposes in this elegantly complex and admirably gritty trilogy of adaptations of the Snabba Cash novels by Jens Lapidus. Kinda like a James Ellroy criminal underworld going through a non-comedic version of Guy Ritchie debacle - everybody's got a plan, everybody's got a good reason for what they're doing, everybody's competent, but nobody's too cool or invincible and the deck is stacked against happy endings for any of them and the story is harsh enough to have you fearing the fates of a cast of well-drawn characters you're going to be switching up loyalties betwixt. Damn, I wish we could expect this level of treatment of crime flicks in the US, but sadly... no. Typically, those of us who get off on this type of adult fare have got to seek satisfaction from other parts of the world. Happily, it's more and more available these days. Hell of a finale... At the end of the first installment the disparate trio of criminals we've been following had collide pretty spectacularly and with tragic results. The sequel picked up some time later as JW (Joel Kinnaman) was being granted leave from his prison stretch to take an important business meeting with his legit partner on the outside, Jorge (Matias Varela) was prospering as an international drug-runner and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) had made some kind of peace with his life wheelchair bound and imprisoned, working toward an eventual release and reunion with his daughter. But all upward trajectories ended right there. Where the first film was a sprawling several-months-long story of the slow intertwining of their destinies, the second part takes place in a considerably compacted time line and delivers just holy shit an amazing second chapter and the third sticks the landing. These are future classics, kids and I hope they spawn some more serious-minded epic treatments of international criminal underground for the big screen. Fucking lovely.

Good TimeBenny Safdie, Josh Safdie - Robert Pattinson plays Connie a street kid who appears to survive by his wits pulling scams and stealing when he needs to to take care of himself and his hulking, slow-witted, man-child of a brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie). When Connie and Nick rob a bank Nick gets caught and sent to Riker's Island where Connie fears terrible things will happen to him if he can't immediately bail him out (and we're given evidence that this is a real concern via snapshots of terrified and confused Benny caught up in violence among the other prisoners and the guards). Most of the money Connie got away with is worthless, marked by a dye pack that explodes inside their getaway Uber ride in a kind of low-rent, hilarious version of the same scene from Triple 9. The rest of the movie is a desperate one-night quest to free his brother by any means necessary - trying to raise money by begging from an older, rich, emotionally-clingy girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), breaking his brother out of the hospital when he learns Nick's been injured and sent there for care. Too many really great surprises to spoil by going further, but by the end we're exhausted, exhilarated and torn in our opinion of Connie - he's so focused on doing well for his brother, for which we warm to him, but his instincts lead him to victimize and use absolutely everybody else whose path he crosses and we're duly impressed by his relentless determination and ability to think and act quickly while wondering how he made so many dumb-ass decisions in the first place. This one's the anti-Baby Driver crime flick of the year - one's a fun fantasy about demi-god criminality, just slick and exaggerated and making obvious big moves for your heartstrings while the other is a gnarly, grimy, genuinely thrilling and heartbreaking portrait of a much more realistic class of criminal - scared, desperate, not too smart, but has the guts to make a move. (By the way, you're allowed to like both. I do.) As with their previous street culture drug drama, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies prove they have an excellent eye for casting and locations helping sell the whole thing - strong work from Barkhad Abdi, Necro, Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier - A touring punk band living by their wits take a sketchy impromptu gig at a remote skinhead compound to help with basic living expenses like food and maintenance for the van they travel in. While there they witness a murder and barricade themselves inside the venue's green room. The hostage/standoff situation eventually becomes a siege/last stand/escape kind of thing and a pile of bodies later you will need a keg of Pepto. Simple concept, brilliant execution. The award for stomach churner of the year goes here. Seriously this thing left me with a mouth full of powder where my teeth had been. Like Blue Ruin, each beat satisfies, but lands unexpectedly and the film unravels with a brutal elegance un-paralleled this annus horribilus. Saulnier's understanding of audience instincts and his trust of their engaged critical faculties are crucial ingredients that allow his films to engage and shock initiates while stimulating and still revealing themselves to repeat viewers. His treatment of violence is masterful too - there to deliver the goods, but never cheap - brutally and realistically rendered for maximum revulsion to lie beneath the adrenaline kicks whipped topping. Cast is strong and points awarded for the specificity of the world inhabited, but the real star is writer/director Saulnier's consistency.

The Handmaiden - Park Chan-wook - After the twisted gothic English-language effort Stoker, Chan-wook is back to twisty operatic Korean revenge pictures with this stately period piece set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. What begins as a confidence scheme turns into a love story and a revenge thriller and, as usual for Chan-wook, does not unfold in a strictly linear fashion. Four major characters switch point of view chapters to add dimension to everything previously shown until the simple crime story has become increasingly icky and simultaneously sweet. Don't let the measured pace of the opening chapter fool you - or rather do let it fool you, but don't give up on it - because as the story unwinds you may get whiplash from the hairpin turns.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore - Macon Blair - Melanie Lynsky holds the center of this slippery flick with such dexterity she directs the audience through each tonal shift and development so easily you'd be forgiven for missing how terrific she is. You'd know she was good, but that's not enough. She's really, really good. As is the script and deft directorial touch by Blair. Her apartment being robbed and the lack of motivation to do anything about it by the police are the last assaults her dignity can withstand before she's spurred to take action against the tide of rampant assholery she feels afloat in. She begins to recover some of her property and in the process runs afoul of the crew of scuzzy thieves that ripped her off. Things go from sad and funny to thrillingly dangerous to horrifically violent and right back around without ever misstepping and that is a miracle.

The Irishman - Martin Scorsese - Scorsese gets the gang back together for a final chapter in his "America is a crime story" cycle and it's a doozy. On the surface it may look like a diminishing return to familiar territory, but it's actually a haunting coda for this type of his films (Gangs of New York, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino). The familiar faces are back as are the Scorsese-isms that  have permeated popular film for decades now, but it isn't all recycling and nostalgia, we're in a new mode and lens to see these stories through. The picture has big moments and loud punctuations, but is shot through with a mournful stillness appropriate for the type of aged decline the actors, the characters, their schemes and dreams and even the kind of picture they're being featured in (Pesci especially is a revelation as Russell Bufalino). Plenty of perfect pop needle drops from Marty, but a three and a half hour run time also leans on Robbie Robertson's score (appropriate for a getting the band back together again project) that shoulders the proceedings and carries them toward their unavoidable end like a slow, steady train a-coming.

John Wick franchise - Chad Stahelski - What begins as an awakened ultimate bad-ass action movie quickly evolves into a fucking weird and richly detailed alternate reality that rivals The Matrix for the world is not what it seems stuffs. But it's more than just Harry Potter with hitmen. This sequels dive deeper into the most intriguing elements of the original, exponentially expanding the underworld and going overboard on arresting visuals, long-take fight scenes and the literal spray of blood on the walls of art museums - yeah, we get it and can't get enough of it, this is capital-A mainstream art. The murder montages escalate and vary in style, and we forgive minor inconsistencies in timeline that serve to vary the audience experience bouncing off each other like luridly painted billiard balls on a mirrored surface (oh you've seen Keanu Reeves shoot an army of Armani-suit-wearing motherfuckers before? Well check this out, for the next chapter -experienced by audiences years later, but only a matter of hours for the characters- we're introducing this suddenly widely used technology that completely changes the rules). It's trippy and drippy and good for what ails ya.

Killing Them Softly Andrew Dominik - 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 -  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.

MandyPanos Cosmatos - When micro cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) spies Andrea Riseborough's Mandy through the window of his rapey van on a rustic backroad in the woody northwest he springs a stiffy as true as anything he's yet experienced (not a high bar) and summons his underlings to blow the Horn of Abraxas in order to summon spiky-leather-clad, acid-blasted bikers to bring her hither forthwith. And once Mandy sits before him doped to the gills and primed for a lil' of the ol' in-out, in-out she does the incomprehensible and turns him down. Laughs at him to boot. Aaaaand then he kills her in a horrific manner. Out of spite. Out of a need to feed the pain of embarrassment through an amplifier till that thing bucks and hums and feeds back all over the world. Then he and his crew including the spiky-gimp-suit acid freaks catch the reverb rebound in the form of Mandy's husband Red (Nicolas Cage) and ride that wave of mutilation till it dashes them against the furthest shore. Plot-wise that's it. Simple revenge story without any twists or complications, but the presentation is everything here. This is a heavy metal album cover come to life. It's an overwhelming sensory experience with visuals and sound design pushed to eleven and through the glass ceiling of good taste and responsible film making. We get hints that Red may be a grubby, flannel-wearing John Wick - a man of past violent potentials who's lived in peace and sobriety with his wife, and who lets loose a terrible reckoning when that tranquility is shattered (there's a great cycle of substances ingested: vodka, cocaine, acid, cigarettes, fueling escalating violence) - but it's never really spelled out. Cosmatos constructs pictures of such ticklish possibility they continue living beyond the frames and giving rise to new imaginings long after the run time is finished and it's the second, third and beyond lives the movie inspires that are the ultimate testament to the film's power and worth.
Miss Bala - Gerardo Naranjo - Where Oliver Stone's 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. Have not yet seen the PG-13 English language remake yet, but I can't imagine it holds a candle to the original.

Mud - Jeff Nichols - Who's going to beat this shit? Who, I ask, will step up and eclipse this piece of American film making from Arkansas wunderkind Nichols? Whoever it is, I want to fucking see that shit right now because Mud has placed itself so far ahead of the pack in 2013, we might as well engrave the plaque now. I've not had so much pure enjoyment at the movies in... I don't even know. Where do I begin to talk about it? How about with the setting - southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana - a place that remains mythic yet, this tucked away corner of the civilized world where people still live off the land and fear the encroaching reach of a government that seems like a separate and hostile nation. Though I've never had a lifestyle like the characters in the film, I instantly recognized the setting as an America that I know - the small town details are spot on to the point that I could smell it (especially that air-conditioner-and-cigarettes scent that I just knew was the essence of one particular location). Next, how about character? Matthew McCoaughey's name and image are prominent on the poster, but the film really belongs to Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone - an effortlessly contemporary Tom & Huck - two river kids who become involved in a very dangerous drama for all the right reasons: Ellis, for honor and Neckbone for loyalty, and their personal struggles with their decisions in the face of increasing danger and the demand of greater sacrifice even as the likelihood of their having been deceived and used grows. It's a great study that explores the best and worst of human capabilities without becoming treacly or bludgeoning. Lastly, how about the filmic chops? This movie will keep even the most astute film goer off balance and unsure, yet confident they are in the hands of a very capable and confident film maker with (more importantly) true vision. Man, vision trumps cleverness 9 times out of 10. Best moment: Impossible to nail down just one, but one of the most striking and memorable for me - Joe Don Baker leads a prayer.

The MuleTony Mahoney, Angus Sampson - A first time drug mule is stopped at customs in Melbourne returning from Thailand with twenty condoms full of dope in his guts. He refuses an x-ray and the authorities have the latitude to hold him without charges for seven days. Now he is under house arrest in a hotel room with 24/7 police chaperone and a shitload of will power not to take a crap. Unfortunately his criminal team mates (some of whom are also his football team mates who he was with in Bangkok for a game) are plotzing all over the place, not betting on their man inside or their man's insides - they're offing each other and making plans to off him to cover their asses should he evacuate his. But they should know better. He's the titular character after all, not only a body cavity smuggler, but also possessed of the stubbornness oft attributed to the equidae-family member beast of burden. Wikipedia says of the mule It has been claimed that mules are "more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses" which pretty much sums up Ray (co-writer/director Sampson). The film opens with Ray receiving an award from his team, sort of a MVP thing with the acknowledgement that he's far from the top of the roster - in fact he may not even make the cut next season - but he holds the record for showing up and digging in for the most consecutive games. In other words, kid's got heart. And so does the movie. For as much as the plot description sounds like it precedes a broad comedy, this is a drama with (ahem) guts and a captial-T Thriller with terrific turns from each cast member including Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie and John Noble. It's o-fucking-fficial now, Australian crime flick exports are a better product than the domestic selection overall. Best moment: Ray's mother tries to do what's best for her son.

The Nice Guys - Shane Black - An L.A. detective partnered with a thug for hire scour the seamy side of the city looking for the missing daughter of a prominent member of the DOJ with ties to the porn industry, the auto industry and an incendiary fuck flick in 1977. Arrayed against them: a terrific trio of heavies in David Keith, Beau Knapp and Matt Bomer, gravity and alcohol. In their corner: a precocious kid, good luck and hard headedness. Of course a sharp script from Black, a groovy soundtrack, a bumble bee played by Hannibal Buress and some killer chemistry between Russell Crowe's bleary slab of beef and Ryan Gosling's bumbling ball of kinetic comic chops and a high-pitched squeal to take all comers don't hurt a damn thing. This is easily the most fun to have been had at the movies last year and it's yet another example of inexplicable poor box office performance that points to why we fucking deserve the coming four year shit sandwich buffet we've only just begun to tuck in to. We can't have (many) nice things, but you'll have to pry The Nice Guys from my cold dead hands.

The Night Comes For Us -  Timo Tjahjanto - Plot concerns a bad man who just can't bring himself to bad that much any more and so gets the ruthless and well-oiled machinery of smuggling, trafficking, vice and murder for hire criminality in and around Jakarta and the South Pacific all a-twist in on itself and bursts the levee holding back blood and only the quickest, toughest most ridiculously badass motherfuckers will survive rising tide of entrails and brain matter and severed limbs the whole world is covered in by the end of this breathless, groovy as shit movie that gives Gareth Evans' The Raid franchise a worthy competitor for the kung-fu-ck-u film making throne. Having enjoyed director Tjahjanto's previous efforts (the pscycho/sicko thriller Killers and chop-socky lip smacker Headshot) just enough to keep tuning in I was nevertheless comfuckingpletely unprepared for the level of magic he was capable of. Nothing in those other films even hinted at latent potential a fraction of these heights. Here's hoping Netflix gives him the go-ahead on his proposed Six-Seas trilogy with The Night Comes For Us serving as chapter one. Further, let's hope there's an excuse to bring back the entire cast - in different roles where need be - especially Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid and Dian Sastrowardoyo.

Nightcrawler - Dan Gilroy - Louis Bloom, a petty thief and sociopath finds a chance to realize his outsized ambitions as a freelance crime journalist, which is a plot line that has been used in plenty of films special and unremarkable ones alike. So what makes this one stand out? A sharp script and an electrically-charged lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. In fact Gyllenhaal is so damn good in the role, I'd seriously consider going to a motivational conference led by him as Lou. Hell, I want a book on tape from him almost as much as I want one by Kenny Powers. It works best/most as a character study and less as the media satire I've been a little puzzled to hear it interpreted as being.
On the Job - Erik Matti - A Filipino crime flick about inmates clandestinely released onto the streets to carry out assassinations and then smuggled back into prison with iron-clad alibis, On the Job is the first film of the year that I can't imagine not being one of the year's very best when it's all said and done. Holy shit, this was fantastic. It's simple and brilliant, and brutal and complex, and human and tragic, and thrilling and haunting. I think that covers it. Tackled from multiple angles - from the inmate/assassins, the cops, the politicians who are usually involved on the hiring or the killing end of these operations - it's a multi-faceted portrait of modern corruption in the clothes of an action thriller and satisfies on many different levels. Just go watch this shit. Now. Best moment: the betrayal/assassination - manhunt - finishing the job sequence in the middle of the picture is masterful action and suspense film making, as well as a feat of screenwriting and editing. Holy crap.

Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn - The director and star of the subversive action flick, Drive, are back with an un-thriller that makes Drive look like a John Woo joint. The pace, along with everything else onscreen, is deliberate and utterly controlled by Winding Refn. In fact, many will find them utterly stifling and frustrating. I did not. I found them utterly mesmerizing. Every still of the film would look excellent mounted on a gallery wall. The beauty and the ugly, the acting and the dying are so Kubrickian-cold you might try leaving the flick on to chill your home on a hot summer day. The more I talk about it, the more it feels like I've got to say, so I won't go into much here, just for the sake of time and space (if you'd like a few of my immediate reactions to the flick, you can read 'em here), but I'll mention a couple of points now. It struck me as kind of a high-brow exploitation flick. Exploitation-like in its extremes. Take the villains: sooooo over the top awful, asking a father to pimp out his fourteen year old girl for rough sex, murdering women, expressing open contempt for host cultures, using children to deal drugs, using sexual ties to manipulate their own offspring... and so forth. Now take the hero: incorruptible, a lawman who punishes evil by acting morally outside of the law, swift and unflinching in dealing out justice, compassionate and merciful, invincible, uses an ancient weapon while his enemies use guns, a good dresser and a hell of a singer, an honorable defender of his culture and protector of the vulnerable within his jurisdiction, an ideal, mythical - hell, supernatural - figure. Now take the cinematography: the  isolation of colors - every object in frame held in a single color - and immense, inky-black negative spaces in nearly every scene... except one. Notice that when the hero confronts the villain, all the colors drop from the palette, replaced by all blacks and whites. But here's the chief curveball. Ryan Gosling, the star of the picture, is not the hero (or the villain), but very nearly the damsel in distress here. He's the impotent bystander (notice all the imagery of his hands - his power, his will - how he contemplates them, but does not act in any meaningful way. In fact, his only actions are against inconsequential figures who do not play any significant role) whose soul hangs in the balance while the forces of evil (Kristen Scott Thomas) and good (Vithaya Pansirigarm) clash to claim it. Now consider the opening credit sequence: in Thai with English subtitles - a big indicator as to how the film should be viewed. Imagine the same story as a white-hat western with foreign devils despoiling America - our land, our laws, our culture, our young women - until an ideal hero, who embodies our national myth, steps up to right the scales in a completely badass way. It's not a western, but an eastern, and a damn fine, hypnotic nightmare of biblical proportion. I saw someone, who hated the flick, charge that Winding Refn didn't care about anything "I even have this idea that Refn has personal problems. Seriously. Watch this movie and you'll soon be saying to yourself, 'Who the hell is this fucking guy? Is he a monster? A sadism machine? What does he feel? Who or what does he care about?'" (again, I refer you to this rankling review). It's pretty clear to anybody paying attention that the film maker cares deeply - as his hero does - about children and the vulnerable. Consider the punishment meted out by the hero. He lets a father's rage be vented against the monster that killed his little girl before taking punitive measure against the same father for letting his daughter's life go so far off the rails that she was at risk of the kind of fate that found her, and (more) as a reminder not to let it happen to his other children. We are also led to believe that he spares the life of a man who helped plan an assassination attempt on him because the man acted out of desperation to provide for his young and very helpless son. He cares too for his own child, whom he shares very tender moments with, and saves his most white-hot slaying for the one whose child-abuse has led to the tragedies of the film's plot, while punishing, but non-lethally, the man who tried to kill him, but drew the line at harming a child. Final note: the karaoke. Notice that every time the hero sings, it is in Thai and not subtitled, and his audience is entirely made up of policemen - like he's preaching to them, teaching them The Law. Like Jesus ending his parables with the phrase "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Now think about the non-cop karaoke scene where he systematically disables the senses of a villain - if you're not using your eyes/ears, let's get rid of them - or the ritual severing of hands (again recalling Jesus' words "If your right hand makes causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.") So, yeah, heavy religious, good and evil overtones... I love that shit. Best moment: the showdown between Gosling and Pansirigarm - made me think of Jacob (the younger, softer, less-macho and less-favored of two brothers) wrestling the angel - contending with God. It's the final big reveal of theme in the film, in case you weren't yet getting it. Wonderful scene.

The Raid franchise - Gareth Evans - The first film is probably the action movie of the decade, just throwing down a gauntlet of perfection in simplicity of form and then opening up a potent mix of styles with unrelenting pacing. A tough act to follow, but the sequel differs from Redemption in that it's not set in a single locale or in a limited time - it's more of a sprawler. That said, it is very much the same kind of kick to your brain balls the first one was. Just HO-LEE-SHIT action with amazing visual style. So much in fact that it might be best experienced in several short visits, 'cause you may become desensitized and unable to absorb another single mind-blowing sequence.

The Rover - David Michod - In a near-future gone to hell Australia a man's car is stolen by a gang of criminals on the run from a botched robbery that left bodies on the ground - one of the bodies belongs to one of their own whom they presume to be dead. The film follows the vehicularly bereft Eric (Guy Pearce) on his relentless and savage quest to retrieve his property. Eric soon nabs the gang's abandoned half-dead half-wit Rey (Robert Pattinson) and forces the non-literally-sparkling film presence to lead him to his compadres and his own titular(?) favored mode of transport. The gang has made the same mistake that the audience is invited to - underestimating Eric and his resolve to recover his property. Maybe it's the cargo shorts. The viewer will quickly change their opinion of the man in the short pants as his moxy and ruthlessness are revealed in layers - each one peeled in a perfectly shocking moment. But Rey is his own onion-like creation, at first underestimated due to his physical injuries and later because of his mental limitations, but the relationship between the two develops into something akin to a man and his loyal dog and I found the finale fucking riveting unsure where loyalties could/would come down, especially for Rey. The third star of the movie is the world itself. I've heard it described as post-apocalyptic, but I don't think that's quite accurate. It's a reduced society for sure, the functioning of the economy is one of the most fascinating features and the population are well-armed and wary of everybody else, but there are still ideas of a more cosmopolitan civilization operating somewhere. We get glimpses of it: well equipped police/military/private militia pop up once in a while, but protect and serve nobody we ever see and in the film's most jarring moment, a glittery Top-40 pop song blares on the soundtrack and is revealed to be something that one character is listening to (and singing along with) on a radio broadcast - indicating that the characters have an understanding of a better life being lived somewhere by people not altogether unlike themselves, though their actions and attitudes make it clear that they never expect to be touched by the good life and do not consider themselves citizens of anything larger than their immediate partners or selves. It's a beguiling and intriguing film, fierce and rich in it's textures and nuances. I'm looking forward to revisiting soon. Best moment: I want to buy a gun.

Son of a GunJulius Avery - A bright young kid in prison (Brenton Thwaites) is taken under the wing of a professional thief (Ewan McGregor) who protects him on the inside in exchange for the kid executing a plan to break his mentor out once his brief sentence is over. Once everybody's outside it becomes a heist flick and a double-cross-a-thon. Sure it's not new territory, but it is fertile, if not hallowed, ground and covered with competence, conviction and a minimum of bullshit. Hard edged and nasty, but not overly hardboiled or cartoonish, this picture has prison fights, shootouts and armed robbery, but has chops enough to make each fresh and intense - wait, lemme put it this way: this film has a genuinely thrilling car chase. I just said car chase and thrilling in the same sentence. In a non automobile-centric film that's damned impressive. It's because the action is integral to the story and a natural part of the characters' lives which we're invested in and not (only) because it's so well executed. Adding tremendously to the atmosphere are supporting turns from Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo, Sam Hutchin, Tom Budge, Jacek Koman and Damon Herriman in full Dewey Crowe drag, but feeling dangerously unbalanced rather than pathetic. The soundtrack, the photography and the unforced atmosphere that manages to simultaneously hold excitement and dread, cold-bloodedness and tenderness point to a sure hand's crafting. No idea if Avery's interest lies in crime specifically, but here's hoping. It's a kick ass debut. Best moment: Sterlo (Nable) gives the kid life advice.

Standoff at Sparrow Creek Henry Dunham - The story concerns a small militia group deep in the dark heart of the American wilderness who discover that one of them may have started a war with the cops. The group whose politics are never discussed are torn between sniffing out and offering up their member who shot up a cop's funeral and bracing for inevitable Armageddon. The dramatic tension is expertly drawn out and the cast are uniformly good. I can't wait to see where Dunham's career goes from here.

Starred UpDavid Mackenzie - Eric (Jack O'Connell) a violent young offender is graduated early to an adult maximum security prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. The tension between the interests of immediate survival and long-term life-planning carries the film through harrowing sequences that aren't all violent, but which swim in the immediacy of violent probability. This is damn good film making - a gritty flick that works the tag 'thriller' just as hard on the emotional stakes of the father/son dynamic as it does on the life-and-or-limb front of life among the condemned. This one absolutely belongs in conversation with A Prophet, the best prison film I've seen... ever? O'Connell delivers a startling performance and Mendelsohn cements his reputation as an invaluable presence to anchor your crime drama with. One of the decade's best. Fucking-a.

SuburraStefano Sollima - Progress and big business, political heft and street muscle, religion and skullfuckduggery collide in the most intoxicatingly brutiful gangster movie I've enjoyed in a long time. For seriouses I think this one wins the decade for gangster flicks. Its pitch black corruption and pitiless violence staged within beautiful compositions give me a painfully rigid erection at the prospect of an original series springing from and continuing on with the same material. Netflix has its first masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. Best moment: the seventh day for Number 8.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri - Martin McDonagh - The investigation into the murder of a small town girl has stalled and fizzled, but the mother of the victim is determined to keep the pain and shame of it all fresh in the minds of the entire community regardless the consequences to friends, family and enemies alike. Frances McDormand leads a ridiculously strong cast whose mission seems to be proving that real hurt can be felt by real assholes and that you'll really care. This one goes straight to the top of my favorite output by either McDonagh brother exemplifying the best qualities both possess - memorable and complex characters with a penchant for caustically profane self-expression and too-frequent-to-be-accidental moments of raw and acerbic humanity. I challenge you to find a member of the expansive cast of characters who's relegated to one-note, whose pain isn't real, faults aren't obvious and yet whose point of view doesn't make sense enough to illicit your sympathy for at least a moment before they do the next terrible thing they're bound to. The final moments offer either slight reprieve to the mounting tensions or a pause at the precipice of greater, fathomless darkness - you decide. It also apparently needs to be pointed out that it's not a realistic picture. I dunno, maybe it's the blue-collar, semi-rural setting that throws people off where they were more willing to just-go-with the world of In Bruges, but it's not strictly realistic, nor is it trying to be. If you're looking for a procedural you've got scores of other options and if you're wanting a tough Suthrens story I'd be happy to recommend a few. What we're given here is an outsider's portrait of Americana (same goes for Martin's brother John's War on Everyone). It isn't real, it's just the way reality feels. It's how we (specifically Americans) look to the outside world and it's a hell of a lot of empathetic work to render us this appealingly. I, for one, am moved.

Trespass Against Us - Adam Smith - Michael Fassbender is a thief, less professional than born to it, belonging to a clan of nomadic "traveling" outlaws who follow a strict code of peculiar adherence to religious convictions, chief amongst them - fuck with and fuck the police. Brendan Gleeson plays his father, the group's patriarch, and father and son clash over family loyalties and their solemn duty to fuck with the police. Holy fuck, I love this movie. It's a family drama about criminals rather than a crime thriller, but gets at everything I love about the crime milieu - if not the law of the land, by what do you govern yourself, what do you owe your partners in trespass plus the evergreen father/son and spouse/extended family dynamics. Fassbender wants more for his children, but owes a great deal of what he holds precious to the obstinate, bull-headed good(ish) intentions of his father and their traditions. Not near as dark or thriller-y as Tom Piccirilli's The Last Kind Words, but not a terrible comparison either - they share similar hearts of the matter.

Triple 9 - John Hillcoat - Armed robbery, murder for hire, vice rings and general street-level mayhem - this picture covers organized crime playing out on both sides of the blue line like I'm always down for and rarely have delivered on this level. If this is Hillcoat's version of going Hollywood then I'm all fucking for it. The dude's been making high-profile, commercial vehicles with an un-commercial amount of attention payed to violent content since The Proposition crossed over. Seriously, this guy's got a David Cronenberg-level eye for gruesome detail captured lovingly with glossy production value that I cherish above most things. This one failed to catch on in its theatrical run, but I'd bet it's got some serious long-game and accrues cult status soon. Among its chief criticisms was "nobody to root for," and similarly, "not enough attention to character" to which I rebut a big juicy fart noise. Really? Instead of a fallacy in the script I see it as one of the best uses of a star-studded ensemble in a long time. These are faces that come with history, gravity and pre-infused with character. If you can't immediately jump into Casey Affleck or Chiwetel Ejiofor's corner you, sir or madam, lack a very basic level of empathy and deserve to be remanded to talky, arty, bloated with self-importance movie hell where they spoon-feed you hot-topic, approved-by-committee reasons to invest your precious reserve of human feeling for a guaranteed congratulatory pat on the back.

Two Step - Alex R. Johnson - A desperate con man just out of jail takes aim on the fortune of a previous mark recently left to her grandson. In a year full of promising near misses (Bad Turn Worse, Cut Bank), Two Step emerges the year's clear champion of small-time Americana noir thanks to its human warmth and cold blood. James and Dot (Skyy Moore and Beth Broderick), the spring/autumn newly minted neighbors mourning a loss provide the warmth while Jason Douglas brings the ice and James Landry Hébert's hapless, friendless, clueless Webb emerges as the true protagonist at the center of this film.  Hébert delivers a performance that ought to launch him to movie star status. Jewel of a flick in the tradition of Blood Simple, Red Rock West and One False Move.

Uncut Gems - Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie - Howard Ratner is making moves, breaking deals and delaying consequences like a motherfucker. He connives, he wheedles, he lies, he cheats, he promises, he makes is making risky, reckless transactions all day and night. He may tell himself he's trying to get on top for once, but it sure looks to everybody else that he's trying to lose. The pressure he's under from business relations, bookies, family members, lovers and God himself are enough to make the central metaphor stick (to paraphrase Ferris Bueller: "he's so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass in a week you'd have a diamond"). Does it sparkle in the end? Adam Sandler is a fucking tornado of nervous energy in this nauseatingly effective thriller. "Enjoy your embolism" or "all the fun of a major coronary event" might as well have been the taglines on the poster. Seriously, this movie never lets up. The Safdies greatest strength is their knack for casting. Aside from Sandler, Keith Williams Richards is terrifying as the main heavy, Kevin Garnett gives an unusually strong performance as himself - much better and leaned on much harder than your typical non-actor cameo - and John Amos' cameo works as a funny bit of self-referencing for the Safdies. Good times indeed.

The Yellow Sea Hong-jin Na - 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.
You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 251-300

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 201-250

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 151-200

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 101-150

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 51-100 


E. Ellis said...

Well, it's too late for you too, but when it comes to Suburra, the series should be watched first. The movie takes place after the series.

I watched Suburra the movie last night (and again, am left with wonder why this movie is not more widely known) and was bowled over by it. Then, I started watching the series.

The interesting thing is going to be watching the evolution of Number 8.

jedidiah ayres said...

I gave up on SUBURRA tv-show after four? epiosdes... felt like a less-good retread of the same material. Glad to hear it's worthwhile, but it's probably too late for me - especially since I haven't yet tried the GOMORRAH tv show nor ROMANZO CRIMINALE (both of which have a lot of Stefano Sollima work in them)

E. Ellis said...

Just saw the right Holiday. Had to muddle through it because for some reason on the Tubi channel subtitles only showed up for English and not Dannish.

Saw Tribe and, well, that was something else and worth sticking with. The ending was something else.

Also, have you seen Wicked Blood with Sean Bean and James Purefoy? It's not too bad. The trailer does not do it service at all. If you haven't, it's a Southern Noir flick and both Bean and Purefoy don't do too bad with Southern accents.

jedidiah ayres said...

I missed WICKED BLOOD - will look for it.

THE TRIBE was pretty devastating... that climax made me sick

E. Ellis said...

Do you have access to the streaming channel Tubi? That channel has an excellent selection of movies, especially foreign films. It does have commercials, but it is surprisingly very limited in comparison to other streaming channels.

I just saw a Mexican film called 492, based on a true story of a man claiming to have assassinated 492 people. It was very well done.

In The Tribe, the family planning scene had me cringing and looking away and some times I really "enjoy" those scenes in movies that are completely unexpected and leave you just sitting there stunned for a bit like the ending in The Tribe. And I never would have picked up on The Tribe if not for your blog.

Best wishes,


jedidiah ayres said...

I do use Tubi - good yakuza cinema on there now

Derek Steffen said...

Just wanted to thank you for this. Got a lot of recommendations from your lists. Thanks

jedidiah ayres said...

glad to hear it