Best Neo Noir Films - Featured - StudioBinder

What’s black and white and red all over? It could be a newspaper — or it could be a neo noir film.

It’s hard to tell. Neo noir is notoriously difficult to classify. An offshoot of the historical film noir genre, it’s painted in such broad strokes that it can subvert, parody, heighten, or reimagine the prototypical stories of its predecessor and still be considered “neo noir.”

Many of the greats have made their bones in the genre, even if their movies don’t appear the same at surface level.

So — how can you tell? We’ve put together a list of the best neo noir movies to answer that. This isn’t a personal top 30 list; instead, it’s a range of the most influential neo noir films that offer dos (and some don’ts) for filmmakers.

NEO NOIR DEFINITION

What is neo noir?

What is neo noir? Let’s compare it to music.

Just as the grunge era began in the late 80s and ended in the mid 90s, film noir only really lasted from 1941 to 1959. After grunge came “post-grunge” — music that was derivative of but didn’t precisely mirror it. 

That’s neo noir.

Not to say Chinatown or Blue Velvet are the Staind and Creed of movies. Not by a longshot. But they do enhance the clear-cut formula of their precursors by recognizing that formula and riffing on it. A typical neo noir film still follows film noir tropes and could even be considered film noir by less puritanical viewers.

So, in the simplest terms, neo noir movies are self-aware and film noir movies aren’t.

Common Motifs of Neo Noir Movies

  • Lawful, flawed antiheroes
  • Subversive femme fatales
  • High-contrast chiaroscuro lighting
  • An urban setting, often with Asian influences
  • Raw, unglamorous violence 
  • Lots of crossfades

STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE

30. Only God Forgives (2013)

No, he doesn't want your whiskey

This may be a polarizing start. 

There’s a lot of good to take out of Only God Forgives, even if it’s not right up your alley. Admittedly, it chooses a frustratingly-incoherent amount of style over a frustratingly-incoherent amount of substance.

It's one of the more dreamlike interpretations of the genre that still plays out by-the-numbers. That’s a good thing. 

From the deluge of red and blue lighting, to the frames within the frames, to the picturesque cinematography of every last shot, it’s the quintessential experience to a fault.

Ryan Gosling was clearly on a streak after Drive, which solidified him as the modern film noir equivalent of a Scream Queen. This is an important entry in that filmography.

If the plot bewilders you and the pacing bores you, watch it for the classical motifs and haunting vibes that so blatantly permeate it.

IN CONCLUSION

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

HEIGHTENING MODERN NOIR

29. Sin City (2005)

I love hitmen

When I said that neo noir can heighten film noir, the first example I'd point to is Sin City

Adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel, the movie preserves the black-and-white saturation. That immediately aligns it with the classic era of filmmaking.

It features hard-boiled male protagonists, fiendish murders, mystifying femme fatales, and poetic voiceovers — all trademarks of film noir. 

But it amps them up to 11. 

Characters survive an uncanny number of injuries. They all dress like caricatures. Accents of color violate the otherwise-grey setting. Then the film piles on some giant dinosaur statues and a yellow troll man.

Honestly, it's all super dumb. But that's the idea.

It's a heightening of film noir to literally “comical” levels.

While the 2005 green screens have aged fine, it's still incredibly watchable and I'd encourage it to see what modern film noir looks like.

IN CONCLUSION

SIN CITY

MALTESE FALCON AT A HIGH SCHOOL

28. Brick (2005)

I'm gonna start shakin' things up

Rian Johnson’s debut is our first dose of a nontraditional noir setup. 

That is, rather than the grizzly streets of an urban underworld, Brick takes place at a high school. All the archetypes are there, they’re just adjusted to fit that new setting.

Besides the location change, Johnson keeps them all perfectly intact.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is as fast-talking and hard-boiled as any film noir protagonist — except acting that way in high school makes you the weird kid. 

When he discovers his ex-girlfriend has been murdered, he confronts it not as a real teenager would, but instead as a parodic sleuth. It’s funny, but it’s played so straight that you're invested in the mystery anyway.

You know how Die Hard knockoffs set in different locales are a gag trope? Think of this as The Maltese Falcon at a high school.

IN CONCLUSION

BRICK

SUBVERTING THE FEMME FATALE

27. Black Widow (1987)

She mates and she kills

Let’s talk about the “femme fatale” trope for a minute here...

It literally translates to "fatal woman," so you know it's a little old-timey soft-sexist. Characters of this archetype will use seduction and exploitation to manipulate men to some deadly ends. Whether that's an assertion of their independence or a reductive two-dimensional portrait is still up for debate by women.

Either way, in Black Widow, Catherine (Theresa Russell) is just such a character — except she's in the wrong movie. This isn't a film noir where the seductress toys with the leading man. She's already done that — three times — and she's killed each one of them.

Consider this the aftermath. Alexandra (Debra Winger) is the only one wise to Catherine's scheming, so she goes undercover to expose it. What ensues is a Spy vs. Spy scenario wherein even Alexandra gets lured into the spiderweb.

IN CONCLUSION

BLACK WIDOW

EXPOSING MODERN FILM NOIR 

26. Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

The hotel is truly a character in the film

Dark histories and deadly secrets pervade the casts of film noir movies. After all, many of those movies were detective stories, so uncovering mysteries was the whole idea. 

Modern film noir ran with that by expanding into ensemble pieces. Each character gets their time in the spotlight, their hidden backstories exposed firsthand, rather than be discovered by a single, driving force.

You saw it in Sin City, you'll see it later in Pulp Fiction, and you can see it now in Bad Times at the El Royale.

El Royale sees the collision of seven archetypal characters in one neon-bathed setting. As it skips through time and space, each of their motives come to light. 

There’s not a central murder, but there is mystery.

Though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it's a solid character study that offers new dimensions and strong interplay between what would otherwise be tired tropes.

IN CONCLUSION

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

DEBAUCHERY IN MODERN NOIR

25. Enter the Void (2010)

Trippy, drug-induced ride

One of the paradigm shifts from film noir movies to neo noir movies is the addition of neon lights.

There’s still high contrast lighting, but directors now flood those once-monochromic images with vibrant reds, blues, and purples. With that, they replace the condemnation of immorality and temptation with a hedonistic embracement of them.

Enter the Void is the ultimate exercise in that. 

It's a drug trip, a sexcapade, and a DMT-fueled meditation on life and death. Much like Chinatown and Only God Forgives, this film appropriates the shimmer of its Asian influences. Then it employs a first-person POV to thrust you directly into and above the city of Tokyo.

Narratively, this is less about curing the depravity and more about reconciling its impact on people — in the most psychedelic way possible.

IN CONCLUSION

ENTER THE VOID

BEACH NOIR

24. Inherent Vice (2014)

Love usually leads to trouble

The renaissance of film noir took place in the 1940s-1960s. There was a certain perception of authority as an upright and hard-boiled thing. 

By the time the 1970s rolled around, that was gone. 

We had been in Vietnam for too long, the whiplash of protesting had birthed hippies, and then hippies in Los Angeles went and murdered Sharon Tate. So Paul Thomas Anderon's Inherent Vice picks up the reins in that era.

The film falls into the deeper subgenre of surf/beach noir, since it's set in the parts of Los Angeles that are seedy but also sandy. Our lead is Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a beach-bound stoner who also happens to be a private investigator. 

He guides us through a tale that's overly-complicated and completely absurd, all rolled up tight into one joint.

IN CONCLUSION

INHERENT VICE

NEO NOIR IN THE 1970s

23. Night Moves (1975)

Maybe he would find the girl... maybe he would find himself

...and that’s the perfect transition into Night Moves.

Unlike Anderson, who had the luxury of playful hindsight, Arthur Penn made this film in the 1970s. And, this soon after Watergate, deception was trending on a national level. 

While that leads Inherent Vice’s Doc to some fun beatnik antics, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is still feeling the brunt of it. Particularly because his wife is having an affair. Deception hits too close to home.

A football player turned private investigator, Moseby is a man whose glory days are behind him. He still feigns a tough shell to mask his many insecurities, but he can’t help but flip-flop between solving his case and repairing his own marriage.

Night Moves is a meta re-evaluation of American life that uses psychological thrills to speak to sociological paranoia.

IN CONCLUSION

NIGHT MOVES

SETTING AND SENSITIVITY

22. Se7en (1995)

'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part

Let's return to form with Se7en, a linear detective thriller. 

Though it's more conventional than some of the other movies on here, its dreary atmosphere helps it stand out in the genre. 

The story takes place in I Don't Know Someplace, USA. Its actual name is less important than the city's tone, and that tone is overcast and bleak and threatening.

That does a lot of the legwork to define the film's overall mood. As we carry on, you'll see how the neo noir movies that let their cities do the talking gain so much from it.

And the violence is just as implicit. The numeric gimmick — murders in the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins — makes each new kill inevitable and morbidly fascinating. 

By depicting them as graphic without cherishing the gore or glamorizing the action, Se7en keeps you from desensitivity. 

It builds to an ending that, rather than put you on the edge of you seat, makes you want to crawl into a hole.

IN CONCLUSION

SE7EN

  • Underworld of Choice: Unspecified American City
  • RT Tomatometer Score: 81%
  • Where to watch

BLAXPLOITATION MEETS NEO NOIR

21. Jackie Brown (1997)

Shut your raggedy a** up and sit the f*ck down!

In one scene of this film, Max Cherry (Robert Forster) invites Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) to a bar. She asks him, "Is it dark?" He retorts, "Why's it have to be dark?" 

And that’s the question Jackie Brown answers.

It isn't overtly neo noir, but contrast it with Sin City or Only God Forgives, which do all the noiry things in the noiry ways and come out weaker for it.

Quentin Tarantino crams the blaxploitation world into the neo noir box and lets it overflow.

The wouldbe femme fatale is a flight attendant under the thumb of the police. The shady deals are conducted in, not just a mall, but the BIGGEST mall. The typical jazzy musical motifs are gone, replaced with soulful interludes.

The cynicism hangs around, but here it's about the sociological castes that trap the character rather the psychological turmoil.

It fits the neo noir definition to a tee, so why's it have to be dark?

IN CONCLUSION

JACKIE BROWN

SHANE BLACK ON MODERN NOIR

20. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

There was an eight percent chance

Shane Black movies are like Gilmore Girls for film bros. They burst with snappy dialogue that flattens the earth like a stampede. 

So, really, he's a perfect fit for modern film noir.

Just as Brick locks onto and emulates those overly smooth noir musings, Black uses them to riff on the genre itself. Robert Downey Jr., pre-Iron Man, is still just as well-suited to play a narcissistic wiseass. 

Using RDJ’s character Harry as a voice-box, Black not only judges the conventions of neo noir movies, but makes his characters decidedly bad at following them. 

In that way, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn't quite a deconstruction, nor subversion, but more like an extended commentary. 

And, even as it spoofs the tropes and standards, it does fall into them by starring a morally-ambiguous antihero...

IN CONCLUSION

KISS KISS BANG BANG

WHAT IS NEO NOIR IN THE 2010s

19. John Wick (2014)

You stole my car and killed my dog

At some point, some cinematic authority (see: StudioBinder) should do a breakdown of the different waves of neo noir. For all its common elements, the genre has evolved quite a bit from something like Chinatown in the 1970s to something like John Wick in 2014.

Whatever wave modern noir is, John Wick is undoubtedly the face of it.

Wick's resurgence from hitman retirement parallels Keanu Reeves' return to the Hollywood limelight, but it also marks the rebirth of neo noir as a mainstream genre. 

Movies like Hotel Artemis and Terminal (both of which I like, but admit shouldn't be on this list) are riding along on the coattails of this redefinition. 

Under John Wick's reign, neo noir is both thrilling and introspective, redeemable yet inevitably cynical.

And while the world-building of future John Wick films is also fun, there's a lot to be said for the simplistic emotional weight of losing a dog.

IN CONCLUSION

JOHN WICK

PSYCHOLOGICAL NOIR

18. Memento (2000)

You don't have a clue you freak

Like an exercise in Godwin's Law, when fans and critics discuss nonlinear storytelling, Memento is bound to come up. It feels passée to praise it in 2019, but it's with good reason.

Greater think pieces have assuredly been written on the collision-course timelines and cinematic innovations, so let's focus on Memento's place in the modern film noir catalog. 

It's the antithesis of films like Jackie Brown and Bad Times at the El Royale, which broaden the protagonistic platform to let more characters unveil their history mysteries. 

Here, not even Leonard (Guy Pearce) knows who he is.

Amnesia is a vastly overplayed movie trope, but by setting the parallel timelines against each other (oops, I guess we're think-piecing after all), Nolan is able to subvert it and enhance the central conflict.

In a time period when neo noir movies were experimenting with macro-societal allegories, Memento leans away and masters psychological noir.

IN CONCLUSION

MEMENTO

STEPPING STONE TO MODERN NEO NOIR

17. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Guess what? Uncle Sam don't give a sh*t about your expenses

Ironically, when Live and Die came out, critics slammed it for its thriller elements. Nowadays, it feels almost like art house.

Aside from launching the careers of several prolific actors, Live and Die captures the importance of setting in neo noir. As the title implies, it is unabashedly based in Los Angeles, and it indulges in all the cityscapes and car chases that come with that particular culture.

What early critics called "over the top" now feels oddly authentic. And director William Friedkin guided the project in such a way that it would feel like that, as if the camera is gliding through the streets.

Then there’s the musical score — which substitutes the smooth jazz for an uptempo beat that drives the action along at a more brisk pace than its predecessors. 

It's a key stepping stone to modern neo noir that can't be overlooked.

IN CONCLUSION

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A

INTERNAL CONFLICT EXTERNALIZED

16. Heat (1995)

I say what I mean, and I do what I say

Heat is the first on-screen collision of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, two powerhouses in crime drama — and that's awesome. 

But! Let's talk about Night Moves again.

Harry Moseby faced an internal conflict between his obligations as a husband and his obligations as a private investigator — two forces that he used to define his masculinity. 

Heat carries on down that path, pitting De Niro and Pacino against each other as two sides of the same coin, both facing Moseby's dilemma. One lawful, one chaotic, but neither strictly good or evil. 

Two men with obligations who have reconciled them in different ways. 

Aside from being a gripping thriller, Heat is a deconstruction of film noir as we know it. Look no further than the iconic coffee house scene, which lets two archetypes bare their sins to one another and show that they're more than stock characters dancing around the screen like puppets.

IN CONCLUSION

HEAT

SUBVERTING THE TROPES

15. Fargo (1996)

Whoa, whoa daddy

You can take the noir out of the city, but you can't make it drink.

Wait, what?

Fargo stretches the limits of neo noir, contradicting and subverting the genre in every discernible way it can while still unmistakably residing in the neighborhood. 

Where film noir loves a shadowy, urban underbelly, the Coen brothers opt for a snowy, rural town. 

Where film noir loves intricate mysteries, the Coen brothers pick incompetent mishaps. 

And, where film noir loves a cynical detective, the Coen brothers give us Frances freaking McDormand.

We behave as though the coastal elite cities are gatekeeping villainy, but ruthless killers can be found even in the most docile of middle-American towns. Fargo gives us "Darn tootin" and "Yah, you betcha" and "Whoa, daddy" and then it gives us the wood chipper scene. 

But that's the beauty and the confusion of neo noir. It twists the tropes in the ways its parent genre wouldn't dare.

IN CONCLUSION

FARGO

THE CYNICISM OF FILM NOIR

14. Thief (1981)

I am the last guy in the world that you wanna f*ck with

Michael Mann sure loves an emotional diner scene, doesn't he?

Most films on this list are set in New York or Los Angeles. Thief is set in Chicago. That bestows it with a reputable urban grit that's uncompromised by dreamy legend; it has neither the glamor of L.A. nor the grandeur of N.Y.C. So Frank's (James Caan) plight is as unromanticized as noir gets.

A master thief, Frank wants to give it all up for the simple life. In that renowned diner scene, he bares his soul to girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and invites her to join him on his vanishing act.

It's touching and tragic and so obviously futile.

In the production of Thief, Mann went to great lengths to authenticate Frank's skill set. Caan even learned the techniques Frank uses in his trade. Yet, for all that realism, it’s hard to bite on this escape plan.

That's the dark cynicism of noir.

IN CONCLUSION

THIEF

LAWFUL GOOD VERSUS CHAOTIC GOOD

13. L.A. Confidential (1997)

White, I have this under control

"It'll look like justice," Officer White (Russell Crowe) says to Sergeant Exley (Guy Pearce) after planting a gun on his victim. 

The plant validates White's shooting of an unarmed rapist — definitely justice, but not due process.

We've been touching on the theme of "good versus evil," often presented as an internal struggle within oneself or as an external struggle between cops and criminals. L.A. Confidential deals with three lawmen, each of whom is "good," or ostensibly on that side of the spectrum. 

But their definitions of justice and the ethics they follow to achieve it are questionable at best.

White is out for the blood of abusers. Exley is an unwavering boy scout who would check even his brothers in blue. And Sgt. Jack Vincennes just wants to make bubblegum celebrity arrests because it's sexy. 

Director Curtis Hanson distills James Ellroy's novel down to these three throughlines and lets them intersect in L.A.'s complicated ethical coordinate plane.

IN CONCLUSION

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

INNOVATORS OF NEO NOIR

12. Blood Simple (1984)

Dead in the heart of Texas

In their filmmaking debut, the Coen brothers immediately proved themselves innovators of neo noir. 

Blood Simple is, as in the title, a simple and sleazy tale of simple and sleazy characters. Ethan and Joel shot it for cheap, but they didn't need special effects or numerous locations anyway. 

They knew that as long as they had sufficient character intrigue, suspense and wit, the film would work.

And those are like… their staples.

The film is complicated but not unintelligible. Without other budgetary distractions, the Coens can nail that and also showcase their patented dark humor in a way that twists the genre while remaining loyal to it. 

Plus — Frances freaking McDormand, man! 

This encapsulates the reactionary self-awareness that neo noir can have. It also happens to be a great lesson for aspiring filmmakers on making something memorable without breaking the bank.

IN CONCLUSION

BLOOD SIMPLE

NEWSIES IN MODERN NOIR

11. Nightcrawler (2014)

How far would you go for the American Dream?

It’s clear that dirt and decay are the requisites of a typical neo noir city. 

But what happens when the city isn't actually spiraling into a dystopia? When the statistics are on the upswing?

When criminality is a rare animal? Nightcrawler answers those questions in one of the best modern noir films out there. 

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a stringer so desperate to deliver on a bleeding scoop that he's willing to make the incision himself. 

See, in the era of instant news, noir is no longer just a game of cops and robbers. There are third parties watching and profiteering off every incident. And that's exactly Lou’s business. 

It's an apt critique of how modern news media vies for that Gotham City headline, regardless of accuracy. In doing so, they might become the criminal themselves — indirectly or otherwise.


IN CONCLUSION

NIGHTCRAWLER

REIMAGINING THE CLASSICS

10. The Long Goodbye (1973)

Nothing says goodbye like a bullet

Another in the wave of self-deprecating and self-referential but not self-loathing detective stories. The Long Goodbye stars Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, a private eye from the mind of Raymond Chandler — sort of.

With some creative license, director Robert Altman transforms him into a bit of a disasterpiece. 

It's emblematic of the shift from the parent to child genres, the symbolic death of the hard-boiled midcentury man. In the twenty years between the Long Goodbye novel and movie, Los Angeles has made that figurehead obsolete. 

One night, Marlowe is summoned to chauffeur his friend to Mexico. When he returns home without him, he learns that his friend's wife has been murdered, his Mexico-bound friend is dead, and he's the suspect. 

You almost hope he'll stare into the camera and shrug as a black matte irises out around him.

IN CONCLUSION

THE LONG GOODBYE

THE BEST MODERN NOIR FILMS

9. Drive (2011)

Get in. Get out. Get away.

Drive has the lightning-fast reflexes of its driver.

Its action sequences go from zero to sixty in mere heartbeats, escalating from idle silence to roaring violence. And the violence, while over the top, isn't gratuitous. 

The bits that feel cinematically fun in the heat of the moment drain of satisfaction when the Driver (Ryan Gosling) looks upon them and deactivates. Even the car chases, while tense, are far from the high-speed pursuits that real Angelenos see.

Like Pulp Fiction or Mulholland Drive, this is a film that treats cars as more than utilitarian props. They are themselves rich settings with their own windows and Venetian blind spots.

This is Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's first collaboration before Only God Forgives, so the two films are unsurprisingly similar. Both undermine the dialogue and let the atmosphere speak — except this modern noir has more to say.

IN CONCLUSION

DRIVE

EXPOSING THE GUTS OF NEO NOIR

8. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Beware what you dream for...

I'm a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Much of his work purports that there is a thin veil of understanding around reality, masking an entire unseen world of darkness. For Lovecraft, that underworld is filled with eldritch abominations. For film noir, it's filled with corruption. 

For David Lynch, it's Mulholland Drive.

It's impossible to explain everything this film is in a digestible chunk. It's peak Lynchian abstraction, beginning with a car crash and then swerving through dreamy vignettes about Hollywood.

What I can say is that, in taking this approach, Lynch is able to both paint the thin veil of understanding and then rip it off, exposing the guts. 

The tropes are buried in there somewhere, I'm sure, but it's the depraved essence of Lynch's tablecloth trick that makes this a titan of the genre.

IN CONCLUSION

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

TOON NOIR

7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

It's a story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble

Oh yes.

Not only is Who Framed Roger Rabbit a neo noir movie, it’s one of the very best neo noir movies.

Nowadays, the use of cartoon characters in a hybrid setting is worthy of an eye-roll (see: Smurfs, Yogi Bear, and, oh no, Sonic the Hedgehog). But, at the time, this was a skillful demonstration of this technological feat.

It wasn't just an empty gimmick either. 

Thrusting a grizzled detective into the manic world of Toontown enhances both sides of the coin. And twenty-three entries into this list, I'm aware of how played out "the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles" feels. But the seedy underbelly of a cartoon world? Where violence is perpetrated with oversized mallets and slapstick?

It's so much fun you forget it’s satire.

If the uncompromising cynicism of the genre has made you weary, check this one out and see if you can stay half as pouty as Eddie Valiant.

IN CONCLUSION

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT

CAPE NOIR

6. The Dark Knight (2008)

Why so serious?

Sometimes I feel like Dark Knight has become such a cornerstone in the validation of superhero movies that it's easy to forget that it actually is one of the best modern noir films.

And it's not JUST because of Heath Ledger's Joker, though that's a factor. 

Batman has always been billed as the World's Greatest Detective! While he can punch a face with the best of them, he’s just as engrossing when he's digitally un-shattering a bullet or mass-surveilling an entire city. That detective side is great.

There’s been some debate lately as to whether or not superhero movies are “cinema.” Dark Knight is given credibility because it’s so serious, but I think the theatricality adds a lot too. His heroism can escalate beyond Travis Bickle's vigilantism (Taxi Driver) or David Mills' wrath (Se7en). It’s not just vacant cynicism; there’s hope.

Christopher Nolan drew influence from Heat, and it shows. If we're going down the line from Night Moves to Heat to Dark Knight, we can see the full spectrum of good versus evil, love versus duty, trust versus betrayal, all raging an internal and external and eternal war.

IN CONCLUSION

THE DARK KNIGHT

HEADINESS IN NEO NOIR

5. Point Blank (1967)

He thrived on two kinds of people... his victims and his women

Walker (Lee Marvin) is on a revenge quest after being shot by a criminal partner. His vendetta isn't a thriller so much as a haunting.

Point Blank is the earliest item on this list chronologically, releasing just nine years after Touch of Evil. It's weird how weird it already is.

Future generations of film noir get experimental, but you can see how close to the tree the apple has fallen. Point Blank has the jerky pacing of Drive, and it plays with time like Memento. Its "unreality" is like Enter the Void and its atmosphere is Lynchian.

There's a strong emphasis on sound design here, too. Footstep Foley art heightens into a rhythmic score while vocal belting backs a fight scene. 

These qualities don't lessen the realism, they just enable it to be muddy and frantic — like a frenzied revenge should be.

IN CONCLUSION

POINT BLANK

THE DECAY OF NEO NOIR FILMS

4. Taxi Driver (1976)

You talkin' to me?

Personally, I’m not a fan of Taxi Driver

But the qualities that puts me off to it are the same qualities that make its impact on the genre unquestionable. 

In Martin Scorsese’s take on film noir, the old lust for justice is subservient to the bureaucracy of politics. The hard-boiled antihero of the 1940s isn’t a smooth detective, he’s an awkward insomniac.

And the femme fatale isn’t some long-legged seductress, she’s a twelve-year-old prostitute. In short, society is in ruins.

And this isn’t even a fantasy film.

Almost all of the characters are unromantically flawed especially Travis, but they're just vehicles — pun intended — to drive us through the workings of the underbelly. 

Scorsese takes the time to milk the urban landscapes set to the tune of a smooth jazz interlude that's all at once beautiful, haunting, and grating.

IN CONCLUSION

TAXI DRIVER

LOVE IS [VENETIAN] BLIND

3. Blue Velvet (1986)

It's a strange world

We’ve studied plenty of moral quandaries here, but not nearly enough sexual taboos. Blue Velvet addresses that. 

While this genre is undoubtedly provocative, rarely is it overtly sexual. But the undertone is always there. 

Virginal student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear and brings it to the police. He takes a practically voyeuristic interest in the case, leading him astray to the suspect Dorothy's apartment. 

Like any good detective, Jeffrey eventually earns his Venetian blinds — but they’re from the slits in a closet door as he watches Dorothy undress.

In thi film, the kisses are awkward and the sex scene is demonic. Like... there’s fire. Increasingly surreal expressions of gender appear, including an embodiment of male id who repeatedly screams “fuck” and calls Dorothy “Tits.”

And the town is called… anyway...

As Sandy (Laura Dern) wonders, it’s unclear if we’re watching a thriller about a detective or a pervert.

IN CONCLUSION

BLUE VELVET

POSTMODERN NOIR

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

You won't know the facts until you've seen the fiction

Pulp Fiction doesn't shy away from its roots. They're right there in the title. Tarantino crafts a literary setting where his characters are meant to abide by the tropes, but they're all existentially unsettled by it. 

For instance, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are criminals who overthink the meaning of things to the point of introspective.

As we follow this unhinged mosaic of time, all the journeys stray from the natural order of things into some twisted territory. Characters who historically stand for power are emasculated. Criminals interpret their plot armor as divine intervention. And someone uses a damn sword.

Many people consider this film to be "postmodern." 

That's a label, it seems, that many films in the genre share. Particularly for directors like Tarantino, who hold Old Hollywood in high esteem, film noir was the modern standard and everything after that is made in its image.

IN CONCLUSION

PULP FICTION

THE BEST NEO NOIR FILMS

1. Chinatown (1974)

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

Listen. 

I doubt you'll find ANY list of neo noir films that doesn't end with Chinatown. I don't think it's because it is the best neo noir of all time, bar none, we peaked in the 1970s, everyone goes home. And I don't think it's even because it has the most vocal fans. 

But Hollywood is about history.

This whole subgenre literally has "neo" in the title because it is intrinsically paying respect to its ancestors. So, if we're going to talk about influential films — even if your all-time favorite is Drive or Dark Knight or Fargo — you must leave a seat open at the table for Chinatown.

And that's easy to do because it IS a masterful film. 

It doesn't just riff on the noir formula. It updates it and recontextualizes. It resonates because it's a reminder that corruption and cynicism aren't just stylistic homages; they're oppressive systems ingrained into our lives, present even in the water we drink.

So forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

IN CONCLUSION

CHINATOWN

Up Next

10 Best Cyberpunk Movies

Now that we’ve made through this list of neo noir films, let’s go one step further into the future. In this next piece, we’ll add some evil corporations and advanced technologies into the mix to make “tech noir.” It’s all the grit of this genre, infused with a cyberpunk glow. 

Up Next: 10 Best Cyberpunk Movies →
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