Tag Archives: Crime

Yuletide Yarns: Nate’s Top Ten Christmas Films

Tis the season to check out Christmas in cinema! There’s a whole ton of festive films out there revolving around this time of year, ten of which I’ve picked out here as my cherished favourites! Oh and keep one thing in mind: A Christmas movie is a subjective thing and each individual is allowed to have whatever the hell they want in their Yuletide canon without a bunch of blockheads screaming “That’s not a Christmas movie” to the winds. Home Alone is a Christmas movie to many and perhaps to some The Mummy or Top Gun are also Christmas movies too for whatever personal reason or memory they hold dear. Anything you damn well please can be your “Christmas movie” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Got it? Good! Enjoy my list 😉

10. John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games

An underrated one, to say the least. Pulpy, nihilistic and packed with ironically nasty energy substituting for holiday cheer, I love this ultra violent heist/revenge flick to bits. Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron and an off-the-chain Gary Sinise are various degenerate characters involved in a casino robbery and the ensuing aftermath, murder, betrayal and tough talk. They’re all having a blast and there’s great supporting work from Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Isaac Hayes, James Frain, a scene stealing Clarence Williams III plus the late great Fennis Farina.

9. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas

A Christmas slasher yay!! This predates John Carpenter’s Halloween as the original genre prototype and is just such a fun, spooky old stalker flick with healthy doses of camp, plenty of creaky atmospheric portent and one of the freakiest villains the genre has to offer based on his voice alone. It’s Christmas break for a house of sorority girls in small town Ontario, which should mean rest, relaxation and good times. A deeply disturbed prank calling serial killer has other ideas though, tormenting them with perverse phone-calls and eventually outright hunting them through the drafty halls of the manor. Starring the beautiful, classy Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder and Nick Mancuso as the killer’s terrifying phone voice, this is a holiday classic for me, it practically fills up your living room with atmosphere when you put it on.

8. Joe Dante’s Gremlins

This is one of those ones that kind of works at Halloween too because it’s so gooey and horror-centric, but the quaint small town Christmas vibe is so pleasant and wonderful, right from the joyous opening titles set to Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas.’ One young man’s Christmas present goes haywire when cryptozoological Mogwai Gizmo and his clan get right out of control and cause a bigger holiday riot than Boxing Day at the mall. It’s like a Christmas party gone ballistic in the best, most mischievous ways and the fun lies in seeing these little green monsters terrorize, blow off steam and run around town destroying everything in their wake.

7. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2

I know what you’re thinking, but I actually prefer this rambunctious sequel over the iconic first Die Hard film. Switching up the action from a skyscraper to hectic, bustling and heavily snowed in LAX on Christmas Eve is just such a cozier, more festive setting, not to mention ripe for so much action, villainy and comedic bits. Way more characters, tons of cool cameos, a blinding snowstorm to create atmosphere and so many gorgeous explosions.

6. Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express

What a majestic film. People rip on this for being way too elaborate and hectic when compared to the simple, direct timbre of its source children’s book, but I love how far they took it. It’s a thrillingly cinematic, highly immersive rollercoaster ride to the North Pole packed with Carols, stunning motion capture animation, Tom Hanks in like four different roles *including* Santa, breathtaking swoops over northern landscapes and a genuine sense of wonder.

5. Ted Demme’s The Ref

Christmas ain’t always a loving, cherished time of year as you’ll see in this acidic, cynical and jet black comedy of family dysfunction, misanthropy and petty crime. Denis Leary is one pissed off cat burglar who hides out from the law with a couple played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who are basically the most unhappily married, hateful pair of grinches you could find in white suburbia. It’s a brilliantly satirical sendup of Christmas in the Midwest with terrific, off the wall performances from the three leads, a wicked sharp script and hilarious supporting work from J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, BD Wong and Raymond J. Barry.

4. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

Christmas goes Gothic in my favourite of the initial four Burton/Schumacher Batman films. This is a seriously gorgeous gem of a film with Keaton at his moody best as Batman, Danny Devito creeping’ it up tons as the freaky weirdo Penguin, Christopher Walken embodying corporate evil like no other and Michelle Pfeiffer as the most absolutely sexy, dangerous, funny and commanding take on Catwoman ever. The film takes place over the holiday season in a Gotham highly reminiscent of bustling New York, all austere wintry edifices and decked out super malls.

3. Tim Burton/Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

A double edged sword that works wonders as both Christmas and Halloween film, this is just a classic, iconic festive singalong with the OG beautiful Burton/Selick stop-motion animation and a wonderful host of vocal/singing performances from Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Glen Shadix, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.

2. Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest

Another counterintuitive one, this is an icy, sardonic black crime comedy about a mob lawyer (John Cusack), his untrustworthy associate (Billy Bob Thornton), a slinky stripper (Connie Nielsen) and a big city gangster (Randy Quaid). They’re all neck deep in an underworld embezzlement scheme on Christmas Eve, out to kill, deceive, screw over and get rich by the time midnight rolls around. I love this film, it’s a Yuletide noir with healthy doses of deadpan comedy, a mournful rumination on what it means to be a family member around this time of year and how morality plays into a life of crime. Plus positively everyone steals the show including the lovable Oliver Platt as Cusack’s drunken buddy.

1. Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol

The number of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carols film adaptations is near infinity but for me this one tops them all. Dazzling motion capture animation gives larger than life vitality to the classic story of Scrooge, his three ghosts and Victorian London. Jim Carrey outdoes himself playing the old dude and *all three* spectres while the cast is filled with beloved performers like Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Cary Elwes and the late great Bob Hoskins in multiple roles. Zemeckis’s sure hand with this dynamic style of animation gives the film an impressive aura of sweeping visual movement and immersion, the performances capturing the essence of each actor in various modes while the colour, carols and rousing action make this the best produced version of this story I’ve ever seen, I watch it once a year without fail.

-Nate Hill

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten James Gandolfini Performances

James Gandolfini meant a lot to Hollywood, cinema and myself as both an actor and lover of film. Yes he was the Italian gangster archetype incarnate, and a lovable teddy bear in comedic turns too. But his talent and wish to explore his craft went deeper than that, and even in roles that seemed outwardly to be one thing you could sense opposites, contradiction and a deliberate desire to subvert the obvious choices in his work. A tough guy he played could display disarming notes of vulnerability that takes one off guard, or a loving family man might show glimpses of volcanic darkness. It’s that understanding of complexity and juxtaposition within character that made him such striking, relatable and deeply loved presence in film and television for decades. Here are my personal top ten favourite performances!

10. Eddie Poole in Joel Schumacher’s 8MM

This is one intense film to sit through, one that even for its time and even now pushes the boundaries of extreme. Private investigator Nicolas Cage is looking for the dark origins of a possible snuff film, and the trail leads to shady small time pornography Eddie, who is an unrepentant, obnoxious, amoral scumbag. James finds the animalistic notes in him and the eventual pathetic fear he devolves into when secrets are threatened.

9. Lou in Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen

Denzel Washington, John Goodman and Gandolfini play three homicide detectives hunting an elusive supernatural serial killer in this fantastic, underrated horror/noir. Lou is the mouthy one of the bunch, the cop in the precinct who is always chatting, shooting the shit and firing off jokes. James could fill a room with his presence in terms of gregarious humour but he’s also terrifying when the evil entity possesses him and intimidates Denzel in a chilling scene.

8. Tony Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos

The big daddy of Italian monsters in film and television, Tony is a complex, scary, insecure, cunning and well rounded human being given the consistently brilliant talents of Gandolfini, who makes this guy someone you root for even when he’s being a piece of shit.

7. Colonel Winter in Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle

The ultimate battle unfolds between a decorated General (Robert Redford) and military prison warden Winter, who perceived insulting behaviour from him and makes it his mission to wage psychological warfare against him and any inmates standing with him. Gandolfini makes this guy simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, a failed officer who twists his resentment in not succeeding into a bitter, self destructive streak of self pity and anger.

6. Detective Joey Allegretto in Sydney Lumet’s Night Falls On Manhattan

I like it when films show police corruption as not necessarily an established routine or inherent trait but something that sneaks up on the characters through circumstance and makes them do things out of desperation that they never meant to do. Joey and his partner (Ian Holm) are two NYC cops forced to make some crazy split second decisions that lead to bad blood and dire consequences. James handles the arc fantastically in an early career turn displaying haunting moral complexity and much of the talent that would carry him on to fame later.

5. Al Love in Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action

As a David vs. Goliath environmental lawsuit unfolds in a small rural community, many blue collar lives are caught up in the struggle. Gandolfini’s Al is a husband and father who much make the tough choice whether to risk his job by testifying against a company that is dumping toxic waste. There’s a quiet, understated moment at the dinner table where he looks around at his family with love as they eat, and he realizes he has no other choice but to protect other families like his own in the region. It’s a stirring, low key performance anchored by that important moment.

4. Mickey in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly

The ultimate antithesis of his classic Italian tough guy archetype, Mickey is a a sad sack ‘hitman’ brought in from out of town to kill a disloyal wise-guy (Ray Liotta). What he does instead is spend time drinking a bunch of booze, fucking multiple hookers and bitching about the way things used to be. It’s an interesting portrait of a guy long passed his prime who may or may not have one more killing in him, but certainly has a bad attitude, hedonistic habits and a bleak worldview to spare.

3. Bear in Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty

The strong, silent stuntman type, Bear never goes anywhere without his adorable toddler daughter, which proves to be dangerous when he gets embroiled in a tricky hollywood crime standoff. I like James as Bear because he’s laidback, not incredibly smart but sharp enough to know where to invest his considerable talent and resourcefulness when shit gets real.

2. Virgil in Tony Scott’s True Romance

Another early career turn and probably the most ruthless character he’s ever taken on, Virgil is a Detroit mobster with a sadistic streak out to retrieve a suitcase full of coke for his kingpin boss (Christopher Walken). His explosive, ultra violent confrontation with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama has since become a legendary sequence of over the hill madness. He gives Virgil a gleeful menace and predatory relish in his actions that amp up a traditionally constructed villain character into something beastly and horrific.

1. Winston Baldry in Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican

Another mob hitman, but of a completely different sort than ever before. Winston is tasked with babysitting Julia Roberts all over the states and winds up becoming besties with her, in a completely charming yet ultimately believable arc. Winston may be a seasoned professional killer but he’s entirely in touch with his feelings, haa romantic yearnings of his own and isn’t without a good dose of compassion. It’s a brilliant, well rounded performance in an underrated film and the one performance that is the most beloved and memorable for me.

Runners up: Surviving Christmas, Zero Dark Thirty, The Drop, Where The Wild Things Are.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

Martin Scorsese’s I Heard You Paint Houses aka The Irishman

Remember when VHS was a thing and epic films like Titanic, Lord Of The Rings and Doctor Zhivago took up two tapes, twice the shelf space and therefore further branded their larger than life perch in cinema by doing so? Well, Martin Scorsese’s I heard You Paint Houses aka The Irishman would have likely taken up three tapes and thrice the shelf space, and will surely go on to leave a similar mark as aforementioned films. We will of course never see a VHS let alone a DVD as it’s a Netflix original film but none of that diminishes the monolithic power of this brilliant, vast and mesmerizing piece of work. It’s not just a mob epic, historical treatise, characters study or interpersonal drama, although it is all those things in top form. Scorsese is 77 years old, his actors in similar range. They are all on the far side of the hill in terms of their careers and with that comes a certain rumination on everything, a parting of the clouds, quietening of thought and deep introspection on one’s own life, and what it all means at the end. It’s a powerful yet fiercely inward look at a man throughout most of his life and then, seemingly snuck up on him as I imagine it does to us all, nearing its end.

Robert DeNiro is stoic, guarded Frank Sheeran, a man who learned loyalty and brutality in the military and has brought it home with him to implement in a fearsome career as a mafia hitman, union boss and confidante to Al Pacino’s gregarious Jimmy Hoffa, a man synonymous with American history. Joe Pesci is Russell Bufalino, the entrepreneurial crime boss who takes Frank under his wing and eventually forges a lifelong yet often stormy friendship with him that is eventually upended by Hoffa. The tapestry of American lore and incident flows fluidly with Scorsese’s talent for music, montage, beautiful sound design and always reliable editing from the great Thelma Schoonmaker. De Niro plays Frank as a guy whose loyalty goes seemingly beyond his own understanding sometimes and when he reaches that final bend in the road and observes the choices behind him and what little light he has before him, is somehow bewildered how it all went down, like he was on autopilot or didn’t see the big hits coming. Pacino is a fucking tornado of scene stealing gusto as Hoffa, the only actor here to really let it rip and shoot for the moon. Pesci disarms is by being quiet, calm, observant and showing none of the piss n’ vinegar, coked up squirrel mannerisms he is infamous for, it’s a brilliantly counterintuitive piece of work and it was so worth the wait for him to come out of retirement. Harvey Keitel is superb in a cameo as crime boss Angelo Bruno and the supporting cast is densely seasoned with excellent performances from Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Dominick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Paul Ben Victor and more. Anna Paquin gives a brief but devastating turn as Frank’s daughter Peggy, his anchor point and one of the key ways we see his actions affect his environment over time.

I won’t pretend to be a Scorsese completist as I’ve still not seen some of his best regarded films and tend to gravitate towards the ones that hardcore fans place lower in his canon, but this has to be one of the finest by anyone’s count. It feels like a goodbye, even if all involved go on to make some work here and there before the end, this is the last ‘getting the gang back together’ picture for them, and they make the most out of it. DeNiro’s Frank candidly and occasionally wistfully recalls the story from a humdrum retirement home common room, speaking pretty much directly to the audience. Scorsese too, although always unseen behind the camera, speaks out to his audience and gifts us this beautifully crafted package with all the tricks, talent, passion and devotion to filmmaking he has in store. This can almost be seen as a companion piece of sorts to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood; both are late career magnum opuses heavily stocked with a rogues gallery of their friends and cinematic family, both are sprawling epics that take place in our world but speculate heavily and rearrange history to bring a vivid, enthralling and important story to life. Whether or not you believe that what went down here with Hoffa, Sheeran et al is true or not is irrelevant to this film. It’s a story set in an America of yore and one that isn’t necessarily always about the apparent events on display, but what they will lead to and how they will be looked back upon by these characters decades later. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Revisiting Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs on the big screen

I got the chance to see The Silence Of The Lambs on the big screen last night and was very curious to see if it held up as I had only seen it once before, when I was like fifteen and on VHS no less. Well. This has to be one of the most airtight, hair raising, gorgeously produced psychological horror shows ever made and it really, *really* pops in a darkened theatre. I remembered bits and pieces, some of the iconic interplay between Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling as well as all the freaky pervo stuff with Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and had retained the general atmosphere. I *knew* I loved this film already but getting to see it in that environment of the theatre with focused, uninterrupted absorption really reminded me not only of what a masterpiece this is but also why it’s important to see films theatrically to begin with.

From the moment we see Clarice running through those misty Quantico woods to that final extended shot of Lecter strolling down that street in the Bahamas this is fluid, brilliantly edited, first rate storytelling and the one aspect that stands out most to me is the way the characters relate to each other psychologically. Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford handpicks Clarice in this assignment for a reason. Hannibal takes an immediate and intimate interest in her for a reason. Clarice toughs out the terrifying aspects of this case and taps into her own vulnerability for a *reason.* We the audience are never told exactly what these reasons are but they’re clearly spelled out in each mannerism, each glance, each performance, there for us to find and digest each in our own way. There’s a reason this film crushed the Oscars, the acting awards in particular. Hopkins lingers over every scene like a cobra, his voice that of an icy river and the horribly calibrated intellect behind it scarier still. Foster shows the wounded orphan in Clarice, toughened up by years of hardship and her training at the academy, all her innermost qualities brought out by Lecter’s presence in a relationship that’s hard to classify. “The worlds more interesting with you in it” he assures her later in the film and we silently beg to know what’s going on in his head. Levine is every bit as scary as we remember, finding the human notes in this egregious monster and making him one of the most iconic serial killers in cinema. Glenn is buttoned down and unassuming as Crawford but we slowly see from his acting that it’s a ruse and he’s as sharp as any of them under that well kept veneer. The rest of the cast are carefully picked and include the likes of Kasi Lemmons, Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Daniel Von Bargen, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Roger Corman, George A. Romero and Chris Isaak all doing great work.

One sequence in particular demonstrates how well this film holds up and why it should be seen on a big screen, and it’s where Lecter escapes from federal holding, dodging dozens of agents, SWAT operatives and sheriffs along the way. It’s an extended scene full of law enforcement lingo shouted breathlessly, a sneaky elevator roper dope, bloody special effects, desperate mustering of FBI forces to stop him all set to Howard Shore’s exceptionally creepy and exciting score. All that plus Jonathan Demme’s tight, succinct direction make a sequence that just hums along and showcases the film’s firm grip on horror, suspense, police procedural, editing, music and overall storytelling. They don’t get much better than this.

-Nate Hill

Bank Vaults & Bullion: Nate’s Top Ten Heist Films

Why are Heist flicks so much fun? Is it the brotherly camaraderie between a pack of thieves out to pull a job? The elaborate ruses and ditch efforts employed to deceive and elude authorities? Gunfights n’ car chases? Safe cracking? Priceless art? For me it’s all of the above and more, this is a rip roaring sub genre ripe with possibilities, packed with twist laden narratives and filled with pure escapism at every turn. Here are my top ten personal favourites!

10. Mimi Leder’s The Code aka Thick As Thieves

This is admittedly kind of a middle of the road, not so amazing film but I really dig it anyways. So basically a veteran jewel thief (Morgan Freeman) hires a skilled rookie (Antonio Banderas) to pull off an apparently impossible diamond heist in order to pay back a dangerous Russian mobster (Rade Servedzija) he owes for another job. Meanwhile an obsessed detective (Robert Forster) watches their every move and waits to pounce while a slinky mystery woman (Radha Mitchell) gets in the way and manipulates everyone. It’s low key and nothing super groundbreaking but as passable entertainment with a terrific cast and some genuinely clever twists it does the job. Oh and a young Tom Hardy shows up too, which is a nice bonus.

9. Spike Lee’s Inside Man

My favourite Spike Lee joint sees super thief Clive Owen break into a high profile NYC bank and streetwise cop Denzel Washington try to figure out what he’s after, a task that doesn’t prove so easy. This is a whip smart, caffeinated and oh so slightly self aware crime thriller that is so watchable even the actors seem to have a small smirk just getting to be a part of it. The narrative does some delicious roper dopes, pinwheels and double turns and by the end of it you’ll find yourself thinking back to the start just to see how it all ended up the way it does.

8. Scott Frank’s The Lookout

Psychological drama combines deftly with criminal intrigue in this tale of a brain damaged ex hockey player (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who gets roped into a rural bank robbery. This is a dark, idiosyncratic story with vivid performances from all including Matthew Goode as the guy who organizes the job and Jeff Daniels as Levitt’s blind roommate.

7. Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley basically grabs this film from the get go and tears it to shreds with a mad dog performance, but in and around his shenanigans is a brilliant London set narrative that sees retired expert Gal (Ray Winstone) jetting back for one last job. With a sharp, acidic script, jet black humour and eccentric performances across the board, this becomes a terrific heist film with a dash of many other things sprinkled in.

6. Jonathan Sobol’s The Art Of The Steal

This one flew right under the radar despite a fresh, funny story and a stacked cast. Ex art thief turned motorcycle daredevil Kurt Russell is lured out of semi retirement by his terminally untrustworthy brother (Matt Dillon) to steal a priceless work along with a highly dysfunctional crew of would be professionals. The story is brilliantly told and leaves plenty of room for actors to improvise and inject their own personality. This deserved way more acclaim that it got and I’ve always wondered why such a slick flick with Kurt Russell in the lead never even got a theatrical release. You also get the legendary Terence Stamp stealing scenes as the world’s grumpiest art thievery guru turned federal informant too.

5. Michael Mann’s Thief

Rain slicked streets, restless urban nocturnes and expert thieves taking down big scores. Mann first distilled his crime aesthetic here in the tale of one master thief (James Caan) looking for one last big job that will allow him to retire with his wife (Tuesday Weld) and kid. Featuring vivid performances from Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina and Robert Prosky, a gorgeous synth score by Tangerine Dream and visuals that dazzle with colour, shiny steel and iridescent nightscapes, this a crime classic that set the bar for many to come after.

4. John Frankenheimer’s Ronin

This film is a lot of things; car chase flick, Cold War spy game, battlefield allegory, Agatha Christie style whodunit and yes, a heist flick too although the job itself is kind of just a McGuffin that initiates a deliriously fun Europe trotting action film that sees a rogues gallery of mercenaries for hire make their way from London to Nice in search of a suitcase whose contents are never revealed. Robert DeNiro, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone are all on fire as dodgy rapscallions whose moral compasses, or lack thereof, are slowly revealed with each new turn of events.

3. Danny Boyle’s Trance

This film begins with a London art heist that is straightforward and takes place in our physical world and then delves into another one that takes place decidedly within in the mind to steal hidden information. Boyle’s best film kind of blindsides you as it progresses, exploring concepts of hypnotism, morality, psychological conditions and eventually even relationships, all existing around the theft of a painting whose whereabouts remain a tantalizing mystery. This is mature, unexpected, affecting, dynamic, trippy and altogether unique storytelling and is one of my favourite films of the past decade.

2. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

The rat pack got an update in this impossibly cool ensemble piece revolving around the complex, brazen and often hilarious heist of three Vegas casinos by veteran thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his motley crew. The easygoing, laidback hum of Vegas is a relaxing atmosphere for Soderbergh & Co to make this breezy, brisk caper come alive and never outstay it’s welcome nor pass too fleetingly. The character work is sublime too, from Brad Pitt shovelling junk food in to his mouth in every scene to Bernie Mac causing HR drama to Carl Reiner masquerading as a middle eastern businessman and, my personal favourite, Elliott Gould as a fussy Jewish teddy bear of a casino kingpin.

1. Michael Mann’s Heat

Score two for Mann! This masterful LA crime saga is pretty much the granddaddy of heist flicks as bird of prey super-cop Al Pacino hunts down elusive master burglar Robert DeNiro in an expansive showdown that moves all over the city and has many players and moving parts. There’s a near mythological grandiosity to this film, as well as meticulous detail employed in all the ballsy scores taken on by DeNiro and in Pacino’s ruthless efforts to bring him down. From an explosive armoured car hijacking on the tangled LA overpass to one of the most spectacular bank robbery turned firefights and a moody, mournful final showdown this thing soars of wings of pure craftsmanship and aesthetic mastery.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones

These days when a film with Liam Neeson comes down the pipeline you can generally have a good idea what it’ll be about in our post-Taken era. Revenge, chases, gunfights, he’s usually in his old dude action pic groove but there’s the odd one that strays from the flock. Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones, although encasing a few quick, breathless action scenes in its narrative, is far from the kind of film we’re used to seeing from Neeson and as a result is one of my favourites he’s done since Joe Carnahan’s The Grey.

Chilly, brutal, bloody, realistically violent and unrelentingly dark are the energies this thing traffics in. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a shambling ex cop turned private eye with some demons in his past that don’t quite hold a candle to the outright malevolence he must face this time round. He’s contacted by a shady mid level drug baron (Dan Stevens) whose wife has gone missing, and who chooses him over the cops because of their collective unique business ventures. This leads our antihero down an increasingly dangerous and suffocatingly scary on the hunt for two serial killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who are the distilled definition of pure evil.

I’ll be frank and upfront here: this is not a pleasant viewing experience or an uplifting film, in fact it’s downright oppressive in tone and for the most part emotionally desolate. However, there’s a stark beauty to this tale and I wouldn’t let the darkness deter you from experiencing one of the best and most atmospheric and suspenseful crime thrillers in recent years. Neeson is grim, haunted and adept at doling out graphic bodily harm on anyone who prevents him from getting to the truth. The two killers, Harbour in particular, are unrepentant, sadistic monsters who you just pray will be stopped before committing another murder and making you sit through the specifics of it which the film does make you do in one instance. Stevens comes from a Downton Abbey background but there’s a fierce, implosive aura to him that works great in darker roles like this (check out his work in The Guest too). This is based on one in a series of books by Lawrence Block that all focus on Scudder’s character. Jeff Bridges played the role once back in the day in another adaptation too, but Neeson makes a fierce predator out of him, with a hidden humanity that comes forth in interactions with a street kid (Brian Bradley) who becomes his sidekick of sorts. A very overlooked film in Neeson’s filmography and just in general as well. Oh and how about those eerie, sinister opening credits for setting the tone ?

-Nate Hill

Thrill of the Hunt: Nate’s Top Ten Cop Vs Serial Killer Films

An obsessed, tormented renegade detective tracks down a disturbed, lone wolf maniac who kills innocent citizens for pleasure, compulsion and perhaps to agitate his pursuer and deliberately instigate a game of cat and mouse. This is an ages old motif that has permeated the thriller genre of Hollywood and beyond for eons, providing complex villains, self destructive protagonists, keen Agency profilers, blustery police captains, angsty mayors and no shortage of chases and carnage. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Eye See You aka D Tox

This is commonly known as ‘that one shitty Sylvester Stallone film that no one saw, and I’ll be the first to admit it has its issues. However, I still enjoy it greatly, I love putting it on on a lazy rainy weekend day. Stallone plays a distraught big city FBI Agent whose girlfriend (Dina Meyer) was slaughtered by a vicious serial killer. After heading north into the mountains to a remote rehab facility for damaged cops (run by Kris Kristofferson no less) he soon begins to realize that the killer may have followed him there when people begin to turn up dead. This is a slightly cheesy, predictable thing but I really like the snowy Agatha Christie vibe and the cast is absolutely stacked with interesting talent including Tom Berenger, Robert Patrick, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Lang, Charles Dutton, Sean Patrick Flanery, Robert Prosky, Chris Fulford, Polly Walker and more. But which one is the killer?

9. Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground

Another snowy one, yay! This fantastic film follows Alaska State trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) as he hunts down nasty real life killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack, chilling) who abducted and killed countless girls back in the 80’s. This film is overlooked and works as a thriller, stern police procedural and affecting interpersonal drama. An eclectic supporting cast surrounds Cage and Cusack but the heart of the film for me is Vanessa Hudgens in a brilliant performance as a wayward teenage prostitute who winds up in Hansen’s crosshairs and eventually Halcombe’s protection.

8. Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8

There’s a killer loose in an eerie Pacific Northwest town and its up to big city detective Andy Garcia and local sheriff Lance Henriksen to stop them. This is one of Uma Thurman’s first roles as a blind girl who may be next on the killer’s list. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s tense, freaky and the rainy setting provides lots of dark groves and ominous alcoves where anyone might be hiding. Also John Malkovich shows up for like five minutes as some weirdo FBI interrogator and chews more scenery than the rest of his collective career combined.

7. E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero

Not one you’d find on many top ten lists, but my aim with these blog posts is to shed light on unfairly maligned films or hidden gems that need a good dose of re-evaluation. Ben Kingsley plays a mysterious serial killer who is praying on other killers for murky reasons that relate to an ages old FBI program that tried to harness the power of clairvoyants. Aaron Eckhart and Carrie Ann Moss pursue him while stylistically fascinating filmmaker Merhige (remember Begotten?) gives an otherwise routine tale some stark, elemental visual horror elements that chill the spine, and Clint Mansell’s nervous score warbles on in the fringes of our awareness.

6. Harold Becker’s Sea Of Love

Al Pacino investigates a series of murders and gets into a sweaty affair with mysterious Ellen Barkin, who may have an involvement in the crimes. The killer here uses unique MO in luring people in via the personals section of the newspaper, which gives Pacino and partner John Goodman some hilarious ‘hands on’ stakeout opportunities. This is sexy stuff but the real danger lurking throughout is never smothered by too many steamy encounters, there’s always balance and when the killer does finally show up in person they’re played by a reliably scary familiar face.

5. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs

This made waves upon release and holds up wonderfully to this day. Anthony Hopkins’s articulate, sophisticated Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s perverse nut-job Buffalo Bill are still one of the most terrifying duo of killers to ever grace the same film with their collective presence. Jodie Foster ultimately steals the show as Agent Clarice Starling though and hers is a performance you get more out of each time you view the film, full of hidden hurt, dutiful observation and a keen survivor’s instinct.

4. David Fincher’s Seven

Kevin Spacey plays maybe the most heinous killer on this list and at least the most prolific and inventive in ways you’ll wish you didn’t see or hear. Weary veteran cop Morgan Freeman and eager rookie Brad Pitt are assigned to track him down, the hellish investigation inevitably leaking over into their personal lives. Atmosphere is key here and although Fincher never specifies where the bleak, rained out and despairingly lived-in city is located, one gets a darkly ardent sense of place all the same. Sheets of rain pour down, body after body is unearthed, each slain in increasingly gruesome ways and the uncanny feeling that the killer is just steps away haunts every scene like the constant darkness in the visual palette.

3. Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen

The killer isn’t quite human in this noir and supernatural tinged horror flick that finds homicide detective Denzel Washington searching for a killer who has resurfaced to strike again after being executed. Or has he? Or is it a copycat? It’s a conundrum that causes Denzel to question everything he knows and begins to wonder if this monster is something from another world. It’s a brilliant piece with burnished, gothic cinematography and lively supporting work from John Goodman, James Gandolfini, Embeth Davidtz, Donald Sutherland and a terrifying Elias Koteas.

2. David Fincher’s Zodiac

Score two for Fincher! Good on him, this is a sprawling, hyper realistic, meticulous examination of the murders that sent cops, journalists and civilians alike into a panic back in 70’s San Francisco. The film is constructed to follow the real life events as closely as possible and, as most already know, they never caught this guy which makes for a an eerie, dread soaked trip into paranoia and unease. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo play the dogged, determined professionals who work tirelessly to snag this monster while Fincher expertly crafts some of the most flat out suspenseful, terrifyingly tense scenes ever put to film.

1. Sean Penn’s The Pledge

Jack Nicholson’s ex cop Jerry Black sits alone at a run down, remote Northwest gas station. There’s a haunted air about him as he rambles on to himself and if you’d just been led on the chase of a lifetime by an extremely elusive killer of young girls and then arrived at the excruciatingly unsatisfying conclusion he has, you might be a might frazzled too. Penn’s discomforting, unearthly film is a haunting meditation on obsession, what it does to a person, their choices and mental state when the ultimate result of a quest like this is essentially failure. Many were frustrated by the narrative but that’s where the real beauty lies for me. Penn beautifully illustrates a dark, oblique tale, Nicholson takes on one of his most challenging roles and wins the day, Hans Zimmer creates moody, atmospheric bliss with his score and the cast is peppered with exceptional talent including Benicio Del Toro, Robin Wright, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Lois Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Costas Mandylor, Patricia Clarkson, Dale Dickey, Harry Dean Stanton and a sensational cameo from Mickey Rourke in one of his very best roles.

Thanks for reading! Please share your favourites in this interesting genre as well!

-Nate Hill