If conflict is at the heart of drama, crime has proven to be especially close to the heart, mind, soul and box office of cinema. Each December, the previous 12 months’ crime films often dominate “best of the year” movie discussions, and 2016 is no different.
While opinions on the following individual productions may vary (as they should), here are the 12 crime films that broke out and stole the most attention from critics and audiences alike during 2016.
Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a highly functioning autistic numbers wiz who uses his CPA skills to untangle the financial records of high-powered criminal organizations.
As the Treasury Department takes note of Wolff’s underground business, bodies pile up around him, ultimately forcing the accountant to trade in his pencils and adding machines for some higher-caliber machinery.
The top-notch cast also includes Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, and Jean Smart.
After a botched bank robbery, Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert) kidnaps farm girl Vivian to help dispose of the gut-shot corpse of his cohort, Lenny (Michael Vellar).
After lots of foul language and gushing gore, Vivian flees into the Carnage Park of the title, a human-hunting domain set up by psycho combat veteran Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy).
Throughout the subsequent nonstop violence, writer-director Mickey Keating pays endless homage to Quentin Tarantino’s 1990s homages to 1970s grindhouse potboilers.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three Detroit delinquents who pick the wrong house to rob. Their target residence belongs to Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang, the head military guy from Avatar), a blind Gulf War veteran who proves not just extremely difficult to rip off, but nearly impossible to escape from in a single piece.
Director Paul Verhoeven’s masterful psychological hair-raiser Elle showcases esteemed French actress Isabelle Huppert in yet another astonishing career-high role.
Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a powerful videogame company CEO who gets raped in her home by a masked invader. That’s how the movie opens.
Getting on with her busy life, Michèle nonetheless tracks down her attacker and, through electrifying twists and turns, exacts a version of comeuppance that must be witnessed to be believed — and discussed, in depth, afterward.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Emily Blunt stars in an unevenly received adaptation of the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins.
Blunt plays Rachel, an alcoholic whose recent divorce has so numbed her that she creates a fantasy world based on a couple that resides in a house that her commuter train passes by each morning.
After Rachel witnesses the wife cheating on the husband, she goes on a bender and awakes the next morning from a blackout. She knows something terrible has happened and, from there, attempts to piece together her role in the disappearance of the young married woman.
The Ain’t Rights, a touring punk-rock band, reluctantly take a gig performing at a white-power skinhead clubhouse that fronts for a major Pacific Northwest heroin ring. What “ain’t right” about the group’s decision only grows increasingly terrifying, painful, miserable, and lethal from there.
With Green Room, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier scored a hit among arthouse audiences and extreme thriller devotees alike. He wields suspense like a weapon, and when anybody onscreen wields an actual weapon, look out — the impact is going to hurt the audience as much as it does the characters.
Excellent performances abound, perhaps most notably from Patrick Stewart (!) as the erudite but brutal leader of Nazi dope peddlers.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Taylor Sheridan’s taut and crisp Hell or High Water screenplay is perfectly matched by David Mackenzie’s tightly controlled direction and the entirely compelling performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as estranged brothers who reunite to rob a bank that threatens to foreclose on their family’s land. Jeff Bridges costars as the Texas Ranger on their trail. The end result is a classic neo-noir Western for the ages. Really.
Imperium dispatches Daniel Radcliffe as a deep cover FBI agent penetrating a domestic right-wing terrorist organization. Despite the star’s familiar pedigree, “Harry Potter” won’t occur to you once while watching Radcliffe navigate the convincingly credible networks of “high-minded” architects of intended race wars and the skinheads who do their wet work.
Jodie Foster directs George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Money Monster, an attempt to both thrill and rake muck.
Clooney plays an obvious variation on bells-and-whistles TV financial personality Jim Cramer; Roberts is his producer. Jack O’Connell shows up as a burned investor who storms the studio and takes everyone hostage.
If Hollywood multimillionaires lecturing about the comparative wrongdoings of Wall Street multimillionaires is your thing, Money Monster is the finger-wagging, celebrity op-ed bloviation you’ve been waiting for.
Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, a Los Angeles art gallery owner who lives in fear of the not-so-veiled threats she perceives in a new novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
From there, fiction plays out as being blended with memories and the present — much as it does for all of us in real life — and Nocturnal Animals spins into a saga of violence, sexual terror, and revenge en route to a take on life (and death) all its own.
THE NICE GUYS
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling costar in The Nice Guys as rumpled, ramshackle 1977 L.A. private eyes who look into the apparent suicide of a fallen female porn star and blunder into a vast criminal conspiracy.
The leads are quite funny both alone and as a team. Writer-director Shane Black (creator of Lethal Weapon) crafts an eminently worthy companion piece to his previous dandy noir send-up, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).
The intricate web of dirty cops and Russian mobsters examined in Triple 9 is matched by the star power of its cast, which includes Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Anthony Mackie, Teresa Palmer, and Clifton Collins, Jr.
The title is a reference to “999,” police code for “officer down.” The movie provides numerous occasions for that figure to be called into headquarters.
Main image: Hell or High Water movie poster