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The 20 Best Crime Films of the 21st Century, From ‘Memento’ to ‘Zodiac’

From the Coen Bros. to Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, these are the great crime films that made the cut.

Best Crime Films of 21st Century

15. “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001)

"Ocean's Eleven"

“Ocean’s Eleven”

Has there ever been a more eminently re-watchable film than “Ocean’s Eleven?” That’s a rhetorical question — of course there hasn’t. Maybe the most confidently directed movie about confidence men, Steven Soderbergh’s Rat Pack remake is all about star power, and it picks up every ounce of swagger that Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop left behind. The concept couldn’t be simpler: George Clooney and Brad Pitt assemble a team to knock off the biggest casino in Vegas (though one of them is doing it for decidedly personal reasons). But the plot’s austerity only gives Soderbergh’s impeccable cast more time to fill in the blanks, and they make sure that every square inch of this movie drips with personality. From Matt Damon’s anxious pickpocket to Carl Reiner’s old-timer master of disguise, each gang member is unforgettable, and the precision with which Soderbergh arranges them during the big heist is hugely satisfying every time. “Ocean’s Eleven” may not have been new, but it still hasn’t gotten old. — DE

14. “Gomorrah” (2008)

"Gomorrah"

“Gomorrah”

“Gomorrah” raises a question that most of us somehow managed to never ask: Why are so few movies about the mob made in Italy? Whatever the answer, quality more than makes up for quantity in Matto Garrone’s mafioso masterwork, his first of two consecutive Grand Prix winners at Cannes (the other being the equally good “Reality”). Play-acting eventually becomes reality in the film, with two aspiring gangsters pretending to be Scarface before learning what it’s like to be Henry Hill at the end of “Goodfellas.” (The play-on-words title captures that feeling: It links Neapolitan mafia offshoot Camorra to the biblical city rife with sin.) A devastating portrait of how the Italian mafia’s insidious grip on society has squeezed the life out of it. – MN

13. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

There was some internal debate if “Wolf” should be considered a crime film, until we realized the 2007-2008 financial crash created a new sub-genre of the crime film: seemingly untouchable financial gangsters, who had in many ways replaced the mafia in this country’s popular entertainment. From a pop-culture standpoint, nothing could make this clearer than Martin Scorsese giving stock-market manipulator and penny-stock scam artist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) the Henry Hill treatment in a story of a young hustler who rises to the top by duping “working stiffs” and relishing his consequence-free existence until the FBI comes knocking. DiCaprio gives a James Cagney–like performance, full of bravado, physicality, and lightning-tongued dialogue. This is a film that is over-the-top by design; Scorsese isn’t trying to seduce us, but instead leans heavy on satire, with humor packed into compositions that exploding with Caligulan excess. Some critics saw the film as potentially celebrating Belfort, but that only points to the biggest flaw in modern cultural criticism: reliance on reading the script, not the screen. –CO

12. “A Prophet” (2009)

“A Prophet”

Sony Pictures Classics

Jacques Audiard’s sprawling French prison drama, “A Prophet,” examines one man’s rise (or decline) from petty thief to ruthless crime lord; it’s also a meditation on the impact of colonization on French culture. Upon arrival, Malik struggles to adapt to prison life. He isn’t accepted by Muslim prisoners because he is not religious; his ethnicity means he can’t be French. Sensing his vulnerability, Corsican crime boss César manipulates him into committing a messy murder, one that will haunt Malik for the remainder of his sentence. Now aligned with (but not accepted by) the Corsican mob, Malik begins to carve out his own place in the prison, playing the Corsicans and Muslims against one another to his own benefit. Ultimately, what paves the way for Malik’s success is his “prophecy” of the film’s most shocking and memorable sequence. From here, we see Malik’s intuition serve him well, as he ultimately gets revenge on César, and claws his way to the top of the prison before his release. Fueled by two superb and César Award-winning performances by Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet” is one of the most thorough examinations of innocence lost through crime, and one of the best French films this century. –JR

11. “Drive” (2011)

"Drive"

“Drive”

FilmDistrict

A neon-noir with a loud soundtrack and quiet protagonist, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is the candy-coated crime drama of our dreams: a real human being (and a real hero) finds himself in an ultra-violent fairy tale and tries desperately to reach the happy ending. Ryan Gosling may sing and dance in “La La Land,” and look for replicants with Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner 2049,” but he’ll never be cooler than he was while wearing that Kenneth Anger-inspired scorpion jacket. –MN

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