The Dark Knight

The Joker looks brooding in The Dark Knight

“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.

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BlacKkKlansman

Flip Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth examine a KKK membership care in BlacKkKlansman

“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”

There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.

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Heat

Heat (1995)

“A guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” Heat is close to the perfect crime film, in large part because it gets all the details right. Written and directed by Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) and starring crime film legends Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, this film spends just as much time developing the antagonist as the protagonist—an idea which influenced the crime genre for at least a decade afterward. But the film got a lot of things right, from police procedures during a bank robbery and mannerisms of actual career criminals to the minutiae of failing marriages and relationships torn apart by reckless spending and substance abuse, and it did it through careful research and attention to detail that you really don’t see in most other films. This isn’t quite the most brilliant crime movie out there, but it’s probably the most detailed and it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

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In Bruges

Ken and Ray sit on a bench in In Bruges

“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset.”

There are many films about hitmen, but In Bruges is different. It doesn’t show a slice of life like similar films do. Instead, it uses light allegory, dark humor, and razor-sharp wit to tell a story of growth and atonement for two distinct characters who both happen to be hitmen. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this film is at times funny and at other times depressing, and it goes way deeper than telling the story of a string of contracted hits. This film hits the deepest parts of the soul for these two flawed protagonists as they struggle emotionally with the lives they live. This film is funny, poignant, and definitely worth a watch.

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Fargo

Marge Gunderson smiles in Fargo

“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”

Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.

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Bottle Rocket

Dignan and Anthony chat in Bottle Rocket

“Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers—can you see how incredible this is going to be?—hang gliding, come on!”

In 1996, before Wes Anderson was really making Wes Anderson movies, he made his debut with Bottle Rocket. He involved some of his friends, including Luke and Owen Wilson, neither of whom had acted before. This film is far from perfect and is definitely not Anderson’s best, but it was enough to crown him the new king of indie filmmaking and put Luke and Owen Wilson on the map. Woven into the story, you’ll see the themes that are so prominent in Anderson’s later works: subtle ennui, loneliness, and chronic abnormality, all glazed over with quirky humor and a rebellious streak. For his first feature film, this is actually a very impressive feat. The writing is clever, the story is memorable, and the soundtrack is killer. Overall, this is a pretty impressive indie comedy that’s a great glimpse into the formative years of Wes Anderson’s career in filmmaking.

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The Usual Suspects

Five criminals in a police lineup in The Usual Suspects

“After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”

A good mystery will leave the viewer clues throughout that point the ultimate revelation, and The Usual Suspects does exactly that. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) and starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri, this is an extremely intricate film that rewards multiple viewings and in-depth analysis. Some have criticized it as gimmicky, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The performances are excellent, the details that hint at the ending are subtle but very intentional, and the script is brilliant. This is an independent film, and that’s a great thing—Hollywood studios would have dumbed this down to make it much more obvious for average viewers. I’m glad they didn’t—as it is, this film is a masterpiece.

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City of God

Rocket looks at his camera in City of God

“It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’ ”

I’m fortunate to have been born with options: education options, occupation options, food options, and social 0ptions. City of God is a film about people who have very few, if any, options in life. Directed by Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, The Constant Gardener) and Kátia Lund (News from a Personal War) and starring a whole host of locals with little to no acting experience, this was a fantastic film that was very eye-opening for me as a middle-class American. It’s not all doom and gloom, though—there are some fun scenes and characters, and I really enjoyed this rather than simply thinking it was important. The film is in Portuguese with subtitles, but that didn’t really hurt the experience. I’ll admit, I’m not really an expert on films coming out of South America, but I really loved this one.

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Snatch

Snatch

“They look the shit, don’t they? And nobody is gonna argue. And I’ve got some extra loud blanks, just in case.”

Imagine, if you will, a film with the wit and bite of Pulp Fiction, the cool factor of Ocean’s Eleven, and a pleasant British disposition, and you’ll be pretty close to Snatch. Written and directed by Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) and starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, and Benicio Del Toro, this is a witty and entertaining British crime film with a lot to offer. With snappy and hilarious dialogue, great actor performances, a clever directorial style, and a tight plot, I can’t really think of anything bad to say about this film.

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Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

“Err, bad breath, colorful language, feather duster. What do you think they’re gonna be armed with? GUNS, you tit!”

It’s said that there’s no honor among thieves, and I can’t think of any better example of this in action than British crime film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This is the directorial debut of Guy Ritchie (Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and it stars Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, and Nick Moran. This is a story from the criminal underground of London, and it’s got lots of British charm and sensibility that makes this stand out from the crowded genre of American crime films. The script is also exceptionally smart, especially for a first feature film from the writer/director. If you like crime films but want something delightfully different, this will probably fit the bill.

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