This list will be focused mainly on what I'm going to call "suspense" (though action, mystery, and noir are all represented). These are the movies I return to time and again when I want a great story told by gifted directors, actors, and writers.
1. The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart is one of my top two all-time favorite actors (the other is in the second movie on this list), and it's mostly because of this movie. He's the quintessential noir detective, Sam Spade, troubled by dames who bring violent thugs and nosy cops to his seedy little shop. He's quick-witted but not overly kind as he helps Mary Astor track down either her sister or her lover or possibly a plain black statue.... Sydney Greenstreet is here as the jolly but sinister Gutman, and Peter Lorre plays a petulant crook who favors gardenia-scented calling cards. Everything is spare with just the right amount of detail. Falcon is one of the best noir films ever made.
I recently rewatched this Alfred Hitchcock-directed gem, and was again awed by the perfection of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as they portray love tenderly disguised as disdain. Ingrid Bergman is a good-time girl named Alicia Huberman whose father just went to prison as a traitor. She, however, is a patriot, which is why CIA agent Devlin recruits her with a delicate assignment: he wants to use her to infiltrate a group of her father's Nazi cronies - which may require Alicia to seduce her old beau, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, who you may remember from Casablanca as the charmingly corrupt French police chief).
Everyone is at the top of their game here. So much is left unsaid between the two lovers, shown only with looks and long kisses. There are the usual fantastically tense sequences Hitchcock is known for, and Grant and Bergman smolder in their scenes together.
|Rains, Grant, and Bergman|
I can put this movie into the DVD player and watch it on repeat. The plot is complex and there are three incredible leading men, each with his own storyline that slowly feeds into the main narrative. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a cop whose quick temper and brick-like build have relegated him to roles that require more brawn than brains, but he knows he can do more. Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) is an ambitious new cop who wants to maintain his integrity and climb to the top of the deeply corrupt LAPD. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a Hollywood hanger-on who likes the perks of cop life more than the mission.
|James Cromwell (left), |
Pierce, Crowe, and Spacey
4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
This slyly self-aware film marked Robert Downey Jr.'s pre-Iron Man comeback role and it pays homage to the trashy pulps that inspired The Maltese Falcon and L.A. Confidential. Harry Lockheart (Downey) is a small-time crook who lucks into a movie role (they happen to need a crooked type, and he nails the audition with some Method acting) and is sent to Hollywood. As research for the part, he is paired with detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, who gets some of the best lines and delivers them to perfection). But a girl from Lockheart's past (Michelle Monaghan) shows up with a big problem, so he pretends to be a detective to impress her. Then real corpses start appearing in odd places, and the hapless Lockheart needs all the help he can get to stay alive and out of prison.
|I'm telling you, watch it.|
This foul-mouthed gem is one that may have easily slipped under your radar, but fans of Harold Pinter's play "The Dumb Waiter" will recognize some of the setup. Two hit men with very different personalities hole up in the medieval Belgian town of Bruges, waiting for their next assignment. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), the senior of the pair, is charmed by the attractions of scenery and art. His impatient partner, Ray (Colin Farrell), is not. At all. And he goes out looking for trouble, which ought to be hard to find in such a sleepy place....
|Gleeson and Farrell|
Farrell shows that he's more than just an action hero, playing his deeply immature character with a seemingly effortless combination of humor and pathos. Gleeson is the film's solid heart, and Ralph Fiennes almost steals the show as the hit men's hilariously obscene - yet deeply principled - boss. It's a violent film, completely un-PC, with more F-bombs than you can count (one of the special features on the DVD is a supercut of all the obscenities uttered by the characters - a solid minute and a half). So don't say I didn't warn you, but you should really check out f***ing Bruges.
(Side note for fans: it's by the director who did 2012's Seven Psychopaths starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.)