If you’re looking for film noir on Netflix, there are a few things you should know.
The literal translation of film noir, from the French, is “black film” or “dark film.” While a lot of the Hollywood classics that define the genre were quite dark in terms of lighting and cinematography, the meaning of film noir has more to do with mood and premise. The genre is broadly characterized by crime stories that often have untrustworthy characters and fatalistic endings. Although they were usually considered B movies in their golden era, film noir gives Hollywood movies a chance to explore more complex themes and subjects than what audiences are used to in mainstream cinema. All of the movies on this list of film noir on Netflix continue that tradition in one way or another, and they’re all available to stream right now.
The best film noir on Netflix
1) L.A. Confidential
Despite being an homage to classic film noir, L.A. Confidential is also classic ‘90s. From the violent, masculine themes to the cast of rising and established stars (some of whom are better left unmentioned), it’s an ideal time capsule of the decade. Even the movie’s loss to the lesser Titanic (sorry everybody!) at the Academy Awards feels like a piece of ‘90s history—though it’s worth mentioning that Kim Basinger did pick up Best Supporting Actress for her first-rate turn as a prostitute who’s a lookalike for Veronica Lake.
Heat would be significant only for putting movie legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together onscreen for the first time since The Godfather: Part II (and even that doesn’t really count). But it happens to also be a really great film on its own merits. Director Michael Mann has never been sharper than with this story about a group of bank robbers and the cops chasing them, crafting one intricate sequence after another. Heat is not a short watch, but somehow the movie whizzes by its nearly three-hour runtime.
Though not quite as flawless as David Fincher’s true-crime masterpiece Zodiac, Se7en is still a major work in the thriller genre from the closest thing this generation has to Hitchcock. The script, from Andrew Kevin Walker, is a perfect execution of a brilliant premise. As Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman attempt to track a killer who’s selecting his victims based on the seven deadly sins, Fincher tightens the screws more and more, before everything explodes in the movie’s unforgettable climax.
4) Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is probably Quentin Tarantino’s subtlest work, and thus, his most underrated. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino tones down his usual barrage of references for a sly, funny, surprisingly touching tale about a flight attendant who moonlights as a money carrier for an arms dealer. Pam Grier is transcendent in the titular role, while the supporting cast, including Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Robert Forrester, and Samuel L. Jackson, are all magnificent.
5) The Departed
Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Irish mob drama gets a bad wrap sometimes for beating Little Miss Sunshine at the Oscars, The Departed is one of the best, not to mention most fun, films he’s made in the past few decades. The Boston-set gangster movie features classic Scorsese touches—most notably, expressive camera movement and a great soundtrack—as well as a top notch cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Jack Nicholson.
6) Sin City
Sin City is film noir on speed. Hyper-violent, hyper-sexual, and hyper-stylized, director Robert Rodriguez brought Frank Miller’s series of graphic novels about the cesspool that is Basin City and the unlucky denizens who live there to life with an attention to detail practically unseen in comic book movies. Shot on a green screen in expressive black-and-white, every frame, every image in Sin City looks like it could’ve been pulled directly from Miller’s pages. An anthology movie that weaves together three different tales of lust, corruption, and revenge, Sin City features a great cast and a bit of guest-direction from Quentin Tarantino; the film even competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
7) City of God
This 2002 Brazilian film about growing up under corruption, poverty, and violence in Rio de Janeiro moves as fast as a Martin Scorsese gangster movie despite containing enough tragedy for 10 depressing documentaries. Director Fernando Meirelles (with help from co-director Kátia Lund) imbues the film with such a sense of gritty realism, it could only be based on real-life experiences. At the same time, the film is so highly stylized, it’s also a unique cinematic experience, whether you watch it at home or in a theater. Instead of being buried under the weight of these contradictions, City of God thrives on them.
8) Shimmer Lake
Shimmer Lake is a twisty murder mystery told in reverse, Memento-style. While Shimmer Lake isn’t on par with Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, it’s still pretty fun. In this Netflix original movie, Rainn Wilson plays the anti-Dwight as Andy, a man caught up in both a murder mystery and bank heist gone wrong. The story unfolds over a week, and as the story moves back, the mystery deepens. Adam Pally, Benjamin Walker, Rob Corddry, and Ron Livingston co-star in this film from writer-director Oren Uziel. —Eddie Strait
Scarface is a movie that has been so totally devoured by pop culture, it’s hard to approach it simply as a film. Yet beyond all the famous one-liners, there’s still a great movie there, one that both stands on its own and exists as the very embodiment of ‘80s excess. Brian De Palma, working from a script written by Oliver Stone, pushes everything to the limit and then a bit further. The performances from Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer are unforgettable, despite being reduced a thousand times to parody. The movie’s handling of race might not hold up so well, but if you’ve gone your whole life without seeing Scarface, you should finally find out what you’ve been missing.
10) The Crying Game
OK, so let’s not talk about the twist. Whether that element of The Crying Game holds up merits a separate discussion, not to mention the fact that it belies how good the rest of the movie is. Neil Jordan’s Euro-noir about a British soldier kidnapped by the IRA weaves a twisted web that’ll keep you guessing from start to finish. And watch out for great performances from Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Rea, and Jaye Davidson. The film might not be a tearjerker, but it’s definitely a movie that’ll have you crying for more.