American Hollywood thrillers have the tendency to fall into familiar patterns: heroes with missing family members, villains without humanity, logic-defying action with expensive explosions and no consequences
High and Low (Japan, 1963)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yutaka Sada and Tatsuya Nakadai
Akira Kurosawa is best known for his impressive samurai films Rashomon, Ran, and Seven Samurai, beloved for their epic feel and careful attention to story. On occasion, Kurosawa made a crime movie set in modern times, but High and Low has a special feel to it. While sticking with realism, the film managed to amp up the anxiety in a way he's never done before.
The screenplay adapted by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Eijiro Hisaita, is based off the Ed McBain novel, King's Ransom. McBain’s detail to the procedural is very apparent in this movie, but the result remains purely Japanese. Kurosawa’s go-to lead actor, Toshiro Mifune, plays Kingo Gondo, who is in the middle of a controversial business deal. A group opposing the deal tries to kidnap his son, but end up taking his chauffeur’s child and soon difficult moral choices must be made. The film is incredibly fast paced so the audience experience matches the anxiety and fear of its principle characters. With his samurai films, Kurosawa used vast landscapes to add heroic scope to his stories, with High and Low the director uses the modern city to create a denser, tenser world.
MORE NOTABLE ASIAN THRILLERS
JAPAN: Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949); SOUTH KOREA: Ki-duk Kim's contemplative unorthodox mystery 3-Iron (2004) and Chan-wook Park's revenge tale Oldboy (2003); HONG KONG: John Woo's classics both starring Yun-Fat Chow Hard Boiled (1992) and the assassin flick The Killer (1989), and Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak's cat-and-mouse thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), which was later remade in the US as The Departed (2006).
Insomnia (Norway, 1997)
Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Stars: Stellan Skarsgård, Maria Mathiesen and Sverre Anker Ousdal
Christopher Nolan remade this film with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in 2002. Usually that results in disaster, but this was an example where both movies stand on their own as very solid additions to cinema. My preference stays with the original because of its amazing use of location.
Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, Mamma Mia!) plays Jonas Engström, a Swedish police officer on a murder case in Norway. During a heated chase, Engström accidently shoots and kills his partner and tries to cover it up—and that’s when everything gets complicated.
The American version is set in Alaska, but that can’t match the unnerving stillness of Norway. Much like the films of Sweden, there is a calmness that allows for uncomfortable interactions to take place. Skjoldbjærg sets a tone that makes it impossible to figure out where the film is going: In a still moment, he creates a mood where it appears that nothing is happening, but where the viewer is nonetheless feeling that everything may change in the blink of the eye. It's unsettling not knowing what direction the film is pushing. The world of Insomnia feels like one where there is no hope, and where we question whether there should be any.
MORE NOTABLE NORDIC THRILLERS
SWEDEN: Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), Tomas Alfredson's vampire horror suspense Let the Right One In (2008), and Ingmar Bergman's classic The Virgin Spring; DENMARK: Henrick Ruben Genz's film about a disgraced big city cop relegated to a small town in South Jutland, Terribly Happy (2008); ICELAND: Baltasar Kormákur's film version of Arnaldur Indriðason's Jar City (2006).
Le Samouraï (France, 1967)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
StarsAlain Delon, Nathalie Delon and François Périer
This film is cool incarnate. Alain Delon plays the hitman that every hitman wishes he could be. He’s silent, he rocks the trenchcoat, and he’s very careful about his job. He abides by a code of the samurai, which makes him very precise about everything he does. Being precise doesn’t make him perfect.
Le Samouraï uses the same essence of cool to convey an essence of dread. Are the walls coming down on him or is he still one step ahead? Most of being cool is based on an earned confidence. That's shown through Delon's unflinching performance, and through Melville's ability to build tension through long, patient shots. One of the coolest sequences of the film is when Delon sits in a stolen car, pulls out his giant set of keys, and one by one tries to find one that fits. Hundreds of keys to try and he never loses his cool.
Plenty of directors including John Woo keep trying to remake this movie without success, and it is my hope that this remains the only version. Jean-Pierre Melville made three more amazing thrillers Army of Shadows (1969), Bob le Flambeur (1956), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) from among his impeccable canon of films.
MORE NOTABLE FRENCH THRILLERS
Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece Breathless (1960), Michael Haneke's creepy stalker film Caché (2005), Pierre Morel's near-future pure action flick District B13 (2004), Henri-Georges Clouzot's case of a murder gone awry in Les Diaboliques (1955), Robert Bresson's Nazi resistance film A Man Escaped (1956) and crime tale Pickpocket (1959), Julien Duvivier's Parisian gangster classic Pépé le Moko (1937), and the more recent Guillaume Canet suspense thriller Tell No One (2006).
Run Lola Run (Germany, 1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu and Herbert Knaup
The best way to stay fresh is to completely reinvent the game. Run Lola Run is almost ridiculous in how unique it is. German filmmaker Tom Tykwer shoots with a vibrant, insane style where every cut is in tune with how fast your heart is beating. The titular role of Lola was a breakout one for Franka Potenta (The Bourne Identity, Blow) who is running to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks to her boyfriend Manny in only 20 minutes. She doesn’t have the money when she gets the call, but if she doesn’t think of something he will die. Without giving away the creative structure, the film is 80 minutes long and the plot is only about 20. The end result is an absolute blast and one of the most entertaining films in any language. Plenty of films have tried to replicated its hyper-kinetic MTV style of editing but they end up being nauseating. Tykwer succeeds by anchoring the quick cuts with a cool story and endless creativity.
MORE NOTABLE GERMAN FILMS
The Robert Wiene German Expressionist classic often billed as the first horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's fascinating secret police drama set in East Germany The Lives of Others (2006), and Fritz Lang's manhunt for a child murderer M (1931).
The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina, 2009)
Director: Juan José Campanella
Stars: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil and Pablo Rago
This is the most conventional mystery on the list, while also being one of the most unconventional in terms of its structure, which jumps around in time as the story is revealed. A retired federal agent (Ricardo Darín) is trying to write a book about one of the most important cases of his career, but is finding it still feels too personal even many years later. Nothing appears hear by accident; every character and plot point have a payoff without a transparent set-up. Wonderfully acted and directed, it’s no wonder this won a 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There is also a fantastic chase scene set in a soccer stadium that gives the illusion of being the most impressive single take in cinema history.
MORE NOTABLE LATIN THRILLERS
BRAZIL: Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's City of God (2002) about two boyhood friends growing up in a crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro slum in the 1960s; COLOMBIA: Joshua Marston's debut feature about a young drug mule Maria Full of Grace (2004); ARGENTINA: Fabián Bielinsky's crime story Nine Queens (2000), which also stars Darín; MEXICO: Alejandro González Iñárritu's film of three interwoven stories in Amores Perros (2000).