As Amanda Schurr said in her intro to our list of the 100 best film noirs, “Noir is a state of mind, of subconscious, a fever dream, an existential crisis.” While Netflix may be sorely lacking in its film history, especially lately as studio-specific streamers have decided to retain the rights to their long and storied filmographies, there are still movies in its library that bring to life the fever dreams imagined by their creators.
Netflix’s self-selected section of film noir contains many films that are questionably noir—hell, they’re questionably neo-noir, quasi-noir, or noir-lite—but in between the seemingly random dramas and Netflix Originals, there are a few gems that offer up some of the hallmarks of that stark and shadowy cinematic mindset.
You can check out our list of the 100 Best Movies on Netflix or simply pour yourself a scotch and settle into one of these fine films.
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch
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I hate to use the word “meandering,” because it sounds like an insult, but David Fincher’s 2007 thriller is meandering in the best possible way—it’s a detective story about a hunt for a serial killer that weaves its way into and out of seemingly hundreds of different milieus, ratcheting up the tension all the while. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as Robert Graysmith, an amateur sleuth and the film’s through line, while the story is content to release its clues and theories to him slowly, leaving the viewer, like Graysmith, in ambiguity for long stretches, yet still feeling like a fast-paced burner. It’s not Fincher’s most famous film, but it’s absolutely one of the most underrated thrillers since 2000. There are few scenes in modern cinema more taut than when investigators first question unheralded character actor John Carroll Lynch, portraying prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, as his facade slowly begins to erode—or so we think. The film is a testament to the sorrow and frustration of trying to solve an ephemeral mystery that often seems to be just out of your grasp. —Shane Ryan
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos
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A box-office flop on its initial run, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (and its numerous post-theatrical re-edits) has since become one of the defining pillars of sci-fi filmmaking. Besides exploring deep, existential questions of what constitutes humanity and the repercussions that come with creating artificial life, the movie features extraordinary performances by Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, as well as some of the most emotionally intense action set pieces ever put to film. Moreover, a good portion of the film’s appeal lies in its incorporation of film noir aesthetics—shadow-filled, rainy metropolitan exteriors, a brooding yet resourceful investigator hero, retro ’40s fashion—into its dreary, dystopian setting. At one point, the film even boasted a Philip Marlowe-esque voiceover narration that was thankfully excised from future cuts. Once regarded as a failed experiment, Blade Runner now registers as nothing short of a classic. —M.R.
Director: Mike Hodges
Stars: Clive Owen, Kate Hardie, Alex Kingston
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Get Carter director Mike Hodges’s last great film was budding star Clive Owen’s first. In fact, even now, Croupier may be the best thing Owen has ever done, playing a struggling novelist who takes a job at a casino, looking for inspiration but finding mostly trouble. Watch this film now to be reminded where the actor first prompted speculation that he’d make a great James Bond: His character Jack Manfred isn’t a super-spy, but he’s got the jet-black suaveness, lady-killing panache and dry wit we associate with 007. Croupier is a movie attracted to the sleazier side of life, and Owen’s antihero was the perfect tour guide. —Tim Grierson
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Stars: Uhm Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Cha Seung-won, Park Ho-san
Runtime: 131 minutes
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Writer/director Park Hoon-jung’s sixth feature, Night in Paradise, posits that revenge is a dish best served raw. Characters feast on mulhoe—spicy raw seafood soup served chilled—a delicacy that elicits childhood memories and reminiscences of pleasurable meals shared with family members who have since died at the violent whims of spiteful gangsters. Instead of acting as a point of catharsis, these recollections fuel a fruitless pursuit for vengeance. After his terminally ill sister and her child become the latest targets of the Bukseong gang, professional hitman and rival Yang gang member Tae-gu (Uhm Tae-goo) attempts to settle the score by ambushing the culprits he believes responsible for their murder. With the ruthless Chief Ma (Cha Seung-won) mobilizing the entire Bukseong faction to catch and kill Tae-gu, he is ushered off to Jeju Island where he will stay with an assassin-turned-arms-dealer before permanently relocating to Russia. In lieu of personally fetching Tae-gu upon his arrival, the old man sends his young but ailing niece Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been) to chauffeur the fugitive back to their island abode. Not one to mince words or feign politeness, Jae-yeon is initially contemptuous towards Tae-gu and resents her uncle’s participation in his escape. Her own past has seen relatives needlessly sacrificed in the name of gang rivalry, a point that inadvertently allows the two would-be adversaries to bond over their incalculable loss—as well as, of course, their shared love of mulhoe. While the visual and thematic richness of Night in Paradise could adequately carry the film on their own, the wry comedic tone that often infiltrates even the darkest exchanges between characters enhances the overall emotional payoff. This is particularly true of Jae-yeon and Chief Ma, who—despite having death as an omnipresent specter in their lives—manage to contribute nonchalant levity, whether that be after a near death experience or while overseeing orchestrated assassinations. Park’s careful attention to multifaceted and often intersecting sentiments keeps the viewer consistently enthralled in the narrative web he weaves, an undeniable boon for a two-hour-plus film. Night in Paradise is most incisive in these complex moments of bitter ambiguity. It would be impossible and ineffective to attempt to aptly deduce the most morally correct way to overcome a rabid desire to avenge those who have been unjustly ripped away from this mortal coil. Park lingers in the burning rawness of these compulsions. Whether the viewer finds the piquant discomfort alluring or is ultimately left soured by the ordeal is merely a matter of palate.—Natalia Keogan
Director: Andrew Dominik
Stars: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
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“Very few guys know me.” Uttered by Brad Pitt as gangster enforcer Jackie, these five words make for a terrifying threat—and a great movie line. And there’s plenty more where that came from in writer/director Andrew Dominik’s script for Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller that plays comedic in the moment but dark, bleak and fiendishly stylish in retrospect—all of Dominik’s visual and aural flair centers on the film’s most violent moments to a soundtrack of political broadcasts. A half-decade after the gorgeous Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director and star reunite for another period gangster movie of sorts. Based on George V. Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly is set during the 2008 election, when candidate Barack Obama was firing up supporters with rhetoric of hope while President George W. Bush managed the economic crisis. Killing Them Softly doesn’t kill softly at all. Dominik’s themes are meted out rather heavy-handedly, and the violence within is brutal and bloody, if beautiful in its own way. —Annlee Ellingson