Top 10 Crime Movies That Redefined the Genre

Top 10 Crime Movies That Redefined the Genre
Image credit: CJ Entertainment, Focus Features, UGC Distribution, RCV Film Distribution, Media Asia Distribution, Haddock Films, Miramax Films, Columbia Pictures, Disney

These films are a must-watch if you're tired of all the crime genre clichés.

1. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

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Korean cinema has been making waves globally, and A Bittersweet Life is no exception. The film, directed by Kim Jee-woon, centers on a mob enforcer who refuses to kill his boss's mistress, triggering a series of unfortunate events that redefines the term "bad day at the office". The lead role is played by Lee Byung-hun, who might seem familiar to Western audiences from his roles in G.I. Joe and Terminator Genisys. The film has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100%, which is as perfect as you can get.

2. Brick (2005)

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Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, is an indie darling that truly reshaped the crime genre by setting a hard-boiled detective story in a modern high school. The film stars a pre-Inception Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a teen who embarks on a mission to solve his ex-girlfriend's mysterious disappearance.

The movie's unique blend of noir aesthetics with high school drama proved that you don't need smoky bars or femme fatales for a compelling crime story. Brick currently enjoys a 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it didn't blow up the box office, its influence continues to be felt in crime cinema.

3. Layer Cake (2004)

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Before he became James Bond, Daniel Craig was stirring up the criminal underworld in Matthew Vaughn's Layer Cake. Here, Craig plays a drug dealer planning his retirement when things go south—way, way south. This British crime thriller not only redefined the genre by subverting classic gangster tropes, but it also caught the attention of Barbara Broccoli, who was so impressed with Craig's performance that she cast him as 007. And we all know how that turned out.

4. City of God (2002)

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Coming at you from the streets of Rio de Janeiro is City of God, a Brazilian crime film that takes the genre to new heights. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, it follows two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood and how their lives take different paths. City of God proved that crime films can transcend their genre to provide profound social commentary. Despite its modest box office earnings, the film boasts a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

5. Memories of Murder (2003)

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Yet another Korean gem, Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho of Parasite fame, is based on the true story of South Korea's first known serial murders. The film follows two detectives, one local and one from Seoul, as they attempt to solve the crimes amidst bureaucratic obstacles.

Memories of Murder is as much a commentary on society and the media as it is a crime thriller, proving that the genre can be an effective platform for exploring deeper issues. This film is widely considered one of the best crime films of the 21st century, and it deserves every bit of that praise.

6. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

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Hailing from Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes is a gripping blend of crime, romance, and historical drama that challenges the boundaries of the crime genre. It follows a retired legal counselor, played by Ricardo Darín, who decides to write a novel about an unresolved homicide case that's been haunting him for years, resulting in a narrative that dances between past and present.

The film made quite the stir, earning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. There's a haunting beauty in how the personal intertwines with the procedural in this movie.

7. Infernal Affairs (2002)

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If you think you've heard of this one before, it's probably because Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which swept the 2007 Oscars, was a remake of this Hong Kong crime thriller. Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, tells the story of a police officer who infiltrates a triad, and a triad member who infiltrates the police, with each trying to expose the other. The film redefined the crime genre with its intense cat-and-mouse game, setting a high bar that even Scorsese found worth tackling.

8. The Lives of Others (2006)

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A gripping tale set in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall, The Lives of Others is a crime drama that taps into the chilling reality of a surveillance state. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it follows a Stasi officer who becomes increasingly absorbed in the lives of the playwright and his lover whom he's tasked to spy on. The Lives of Others is a crime film with a difference, offering an intimate look at a very personal cost of political intrigue and control. It won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

9. A Prophet (2009)

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Directed by Jacques Audiard, A Prophet is a French crime film that explores the seedy underbelly of prison life. The film follows Malik El Djebena, a young, illiterate man of Arab descent, who's imprisoned for six years. Inside, he climbs the ranks of the prison's Corsican gang, learning the ropes of their illegal activities. A Prophet is a character study wrapped in a crime thriller, and its critical success (it boasts a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes) helped solidify Audiard's place as one of contemporary cinema's most skilled storytellers.

10. Pusher (1996)

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Pusher is the film that launched Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's career. This gritty crime drama tells the story of a drug dealer whose life spirals out of control over the course of one week. The film's raw realism and innovative narrative structure set it apart from other crime films of its time, offering an intense, no-frills look at Copenhagen's criminal underworld. Pusher may not have been a box office hit, but it spawned two sequels and a British remake.