Mysteries got on a roll in the 1990s, and it continued into the new century. Each year saw a few memorable films that could qualify for this list. Overall the tone of most of the movies was as dark as the heyday of film noir, and without the censorship of the ‘40s and ‘50s the violence suggested in the earlier movies was displayed on the screen. But the main thing these movies all share is a strong story.
The decade got off to an exceptional start with Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. The story of a man who can’t make new memories trying to solve his wife’s murder flows in reverse order, while what happened before his brain injury is told chronologically (and filmed in black and white). It’s a testament to Nolan’s strength as a screenwriter and director that he still made the story accessible and fascinating for the audience. Nolan followed up this film with the underappreciated mystery Insomnia before he took a trip to Gotham City.
The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese often deals with crime in his movies, but usually they’re based on true events rather than mysteries, which is why Goodfellas and Casino didn’t appear on the earlier lists. Scorsese himself said he didn’t make a movie with a plot until he did this remake of a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs. It gave him the biggest hit of his career up until this point. Leonardo DiCaprio has now taken the place of Robert DeNiro as Scorsese’s first choice of lead actor, but he was just one of a sterling cast including Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Walberg, Vera Farmiga and Martin Sheen. The movie won Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar, after numerous nominations, and also picked up awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing.
Mystic River (2003)
The movies have been very kind to Dennis Lehane, who has two film adaptations on this list, and whose Shutter Island was filmed by Scorsese in 2010 (check back in six years to see if it makes the 10 Best of the 2010s list). You can’t go wrong when you have Clint Eastwood directing, from a screenplay adapted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), and with a cast of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Lawrence Fishburne, and Marcia Gay Harden. The standout, though, was Laura Linney as Sean Penn’s wife in a role that brought comparisons to Lady MacBeth (in a good way). The movie won Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, but that was the year that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won just about everything else.
Michael Mann has made a killing with crime stories on television and the big screen, ever since his stylish debut with Thief. This movie wasn’t a major financial success, but it had a strong sense of story and style and is one of the few films to capture the feel of Los Angeles at night, thanks to digital photography. The majority of the story takes place between 9 pm and 5 am on January 23-24, 2004; you’ll find the time and dates referenced in the movie. One fun fact: to prepare for the role of a murderer that no one notices, Tom Cruise made FedEx deliveries to a busy market in L.A. and did it without anyone recognizing him.
Based on an English miniseries dealing with the heroin trade that was shown in 1989, the adaptation by Stephen Gaghan switches its focus to cocaine. The film follows four separate stories to look at the drug trade from different viewpoints. Soon-to-be husband and wife Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones star in the film, though they have no scenes together. To help separate the stories, director Steven Soderbergh uses different film stocks and color treatments to give them each a different look. Despite performing his role mostly in Spanish, Benicio Del Toro won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as an honest Mexican detective. In addition the film won Oscars for Directing, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing.
Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington had spent a dozen years since his breakthrough role in Glory playing heroes. Then he went bad, playing the rogue narc who turns a rookie detective’s first day into a life-and-death marathon. It gave Washington his second Oscar, this time as Best Actor, and since then he’s chosen roles with more moral complexity, such as last year’s alcoholic pilot in Flight. This movie wasn’t loved by the LAPD, and as a counterbalance screenwriter David Ayers wrote End Of Watch, the best portrayal of beat cops ever made.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
The second Dennis Lehane adaptation on this list is its only private detective movie. Ben Affleck’s career had tanked, thanks to Daredevil, Gigli, and several other poor choices. The year before this, he was in a decent mystery/thriller, Smokin’ Aces, only to have his character killed within a few minutes of his appearance on screen. Then he reinvented himself as a director, and also collaborated on adapting the script, something he hadn’t done since he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. It paid off with a beautifully executed film where the kidnapping of a child leads to a much murkier mystery. I will go out on a limb and say his follow-up, The Town, will be on the top ten list for the 2010s.
The Lookout (2007)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become one of the most bankable stars today, quite the accomplishment for a former child actor on television. He did it by making a series of independent films, including this one where he plays a bank janitor who gets caught up in a robbery scheme. The film was written and directed by Scott Frank, who wrote Dead Again and adapted Out Of Sight in the 1990s, and who also did the script for this year’s The Wolverine.
Oceans 11 (2001)
The original Rat Pack version of this movie isn’t very good, and the caper itself was laughable. The Steven Soderbergh version isn’t so much a remake as a reinvention, and it features one of the best robberies ever filmed. That it’s all presented with its tongue very firmly planted in its cheek makes it all the more fun. The later sequels became tiresome, but this movie holds up to repeated viewings.
The Dark Knight (2008)
I know it’s a superhero movie, but Christopher Nolan’s second visit to Gotham City transcends the genre. It helps that Batman has no “super” powers beyond technology that’s not farfetched. Just ask the NSA about the “cell phone sonar” that listens in on everyone. You could think of Batman as the ultimate private eye – Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe in costume. The film features several plot archetypes of the mystery genre, such as the lone avenger, a corrupt city, the ruin of the white knight (Harvey Dent), and the movie begins with one of the most lethal bank robberies ever filmed. So it claims the last spot on this list.
Some of the other movies that almost made the cut were The Road to Perdition, Michael Clayton, Insomnia, The Deep End, Smokin’ Aces, and Narc. Please feel free to leave comments about the list or to suggest other movies.