2. Knives Out (2019)
Knives Out is Rian Johnson’s shifting, slippery murder-mystery that launched an unexpected franchise.
Wealthy crime fiction author and patriarch of the in-fighting Thrombey family, Harlan (Christopher Plummer), dies in mysterious circumstances shortly after his birthday celebration. Enter eccentric private detective Raymond Blanc (Daniel Craig) who, with the help of Harlan’s nervy nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), must figure out which of the Thrombeys did it.
Knives Out is, appropriately, Johnson’s sharpest film yet, and certainly takes you the scenic route to the truth. Johnson knows this genre inside out, and he knows that you know the conventions and clichés. The characters are all broad archetypes employed in service of the story, distractions from the answers hiding in plain sight.
Performance highlights in an impressive ensemble include Craig’s playful turn, Chris Evans using his usual straight-arrow persona in unexpected ways, and de Armas bringing a whole lot of heart to proceedings.
Johnson makes films that are loving tributes to the genres he is a massive fan of – the caper, the noir, the space opera – and here he breathes new life into the Agatha Christie-style Whodunnit by striking the difficult balance of making it self-aware but not to the point of parody.
1. Brick (2005)
Brick is Rian Johnson’s high school-set noir detective story.
A teenage private investigator (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets swept up in a case involving a drug deal gone disastrously wrong and a murdered classmate.
Johnson’s first and best film, Brick, adheres pretty closely to the classic formula and style of the detective films of Hollywood’s Golden Age (the influence of something like The Big Sleep in particular is noticeable), but transposes events and characters to a bizarre (for noir) location. Shooting at, and setting his film’s action, in his old school in California allows Johnson to explore the boundaries of the detective genre and of noir filmmaking sensibilities in a unique and fascinating way.
In the end, Johnson suggests that it doesn’t matter where a film noir is set, whether it’s the big city in the dead of night or in and around a high school in broad daylight, whether the characters are neurotic, passion-driven adults or neurotic, passion-driven teenagers, a noir film just gives you a certain “feeling”.
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Do you rate everything Rian Johnson has done or do you prefer his work on either the indie or blockbuster stage? Are you still not over The Last Jedi or could you never get past Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc accent? Let us know in the comments and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for many more far-ranging film lists.
List updated to include Glass Onion 15th January 2023. Originally published 28th September 2022.