Netflix Gems Part 7: Neo-Noir

With the exception of classics “Double Indemnity” and “The Third Man”, Netflix is sorely lacking in film-noir, which is perhaps the most important and storied genre of film.  Fortunately it contains quite a few excellent ‘neo noirs’, or noir films that pay homage to the classics but are made from modern stuff.  All of these are from the 21st Century and they’re fun watches.

5.  Cold Weather

Who says noir has to be gritty?  Aaron Katz’s small budget mystery thriller is actually rather charming.  What it lacks in substance it makes up for in nice photography and a taught, enjoyable plot.  It’s been called the first ‘mumblecore mystery thriller’.  Aaron Katz has imported his trademark hipster slacker-style dialogue into an actual shell of plot.  The result is something innovative and fun, less self-conscious than one would think, though it seems like a sure-fire setup for meta-genre irony.  The heart of the film is its story and the mumbly dialogue doesn’t distract.  It even increases the tension.  Keegan DeWitt’s moody score is also a nice touch (namedrop time!  Totally met the guy on tour with my cousin, long story, we’ll get a beer sometime and I’ll tell you all about it)

4.  The Man Who Wasn’t There

This Coen Bros. film is one that slipped through the cracks.  Their noir masterpieces, Fargo, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and No Country For Old Men are the ones best celebrated, but The Man Who Wasn’t There is also quite an interesting watch.  The main thing that makes this film unique is its style and setting, an absolute 1-to-1 recreation of a classic 1940s film noir.  Pulp, post-war noir is the style that the Coens’ take most of their inspiration from, but this is the only film where they don’t translate it into any other setting.  This is 1949 California in stark black and white.  All themes of longing, misplacement and alienation are intact and pushed up to 11.  The oddness of the film is likely what got it a snub.  It’s definitely in the category of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, though it’s filmed no less masterfully than any of these.  The obviousness of the setting and the recreation of instead of vaguely homaging true film noir may have put some critics off, but it remains a top genre exercise and a good film in its own right.  You’ll recognize Coen regulars like Frances McDormand and Jon Polito and also some bigger stars:  Billy Bob Thornton, Scarlet Johanssen and James Gandolfini.

3.  Winter’s Bone

If you’re a normal (i.e. non-media obsessed) person you likely heard about Winter’s Bone last summer, probably laughed at the surprise SNL Wayne’s World bit but didn’t get around to actually seeing it.  Now’s the time.  Wait for a cool autumn night when you’re home alone and watch this chilly mystery with a cup of something hot.  It’s always a thrill to see a new, young actor burst onto the scene with an intense role and it’s a plus if it’s a character you can actually root for.  Jennifer Lawrence as Ree is both of these.  However, this isn’t totally Lawrence’s show.  John Hawkes is pitch perfect as Teardrop, Ree’s enigmatic uncle.  Debra Granik’s direction is excellent, and she has a knack for making stars of small-time actresses.  Her (coincidentally titled) previous film “Down to the Bone” did the same for Vera Farmiga.  Granik has been both praised and criticized for soaking her film in the world of rural mid-Missouri.  Whether its bleakness and poverty is overly romanticized or true to place (I lean toward the latter), Granik creates a dark mood as heavy as winter overcast and thick as snow.

2.  Mother

There may be a future Netflix Top 5 for Top 5 Korean Movies, but really, you should just queue them up and watch them all.  South Korea seems bent on showing up all Western filmmakers with grit and wit.  Park Chan Wook’s entire Revenge Trilogy is available (and the only reason I didn’t includ ‘Oldboy’ is because it’s the dubbed version that streams.  So stupid.) as well as his crazy-ass priest-as-vampire movie ‘Thirst’.  The recently lauded ‘I Saw The Devil’ is there as well, but anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Mother is great (not just ‘good’) film noir with a twist:  the detective is an old woman.  When her son is charged with a murder he didn’t commit, she stops at nothing…and I mean nothing to prove his innocence.

1.  Brick

The granddady of indie neo-noir.  Rian Johnson’s ‘Chinatown in High School’ is dark, uncampy (except when it means to be), tense, otherworldly, strange, emotional and just downright great.  Of all the above, this is the one that is the most enduring.  Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s lone wolf private eye, Brendan Fry is a character that deserves to be right up there with Jake Gittes and Sam Spade.  He’s basically Encyclopedia Brown all grown up and sick of it all, pitting rival gangs against each other and putting his twisted world to rights using only his wits.  What makes this film special (though some would say obtuse) is its use of language.  Johnson does not translate Hammet-esque spitfire dialogue at all and you’re left to your own wits to decipher the code (‘yegg’ = man, ‘bull’ = cop, ‘blow the burg’ = leave town).  It makes for fun repeated viewings and a depth and richness to its world that most indies can’t boast of.  I’ve never seen a film that edges around its micro-budget better than this one.  Johnson downright assaults it with tricky camera moves and clever editing.  Brick has the grit of a true indie in the hands of a master craftsman.  It’s helped along by the director’s cousin Nathan Johnson and his fellow China Kent score the film with haunting clinks and clanks that sound like struck metal and ethereal piano music, sort of like Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, except better.  (Namedrop time part 2!  Totally met them at a show with their band The Cinematic Underground, long story, good times, etc. etc.)  Brick is an unsung masterpiece that deserves to be seen by everyone.  A guaranteed Friday night classic.


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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