Our Favorites: Heist Films.
Our award show format tackles one of my favorite styles of film: the heist movie.
After catching Steven Soderbergh’s latest gem, Logan Lucky, I decided to do a deep dive of the genre that I adore. Originally an offshoot of noir crime thrillers, these films now run the gamut from pure adrenaline flicks, stylish dramas, to zany comedies. From a simple payroll con to the theft of priceless art, there’s no limit to the scope and scale of this genre. There’s so many aspects to a good heist flick that I’ve taken the essentials apart and lined up my picks for the most memorable contenders in each.
Best Heist Films: Categories.
So many aspects go into making a great heist movie memorable. You have to have the right crew with a mix of brains, muscle, and charisma. You have to have a foolproof plan, and then a great getaway plan for when your foolproof plan goes sideways. Behind the camera, you have to have a master’s touch with dialogue, pacing, and cinematography, and you have to be able to get the best out of your cast. With so much to choose from, we decided to break down the genre into each element and salute the best of in each category.
The Nominees: The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky, Sneakers.
The Winner: Logan Lucky.
Many bank robberies have cute plans. Part of the enjoyment of the genre is that you’re watching a magic trick in movie form, and a great director and cast keep you from guessing how things turn out. While you might expect the grander schemes, like those found in the Ocean’s series and Sneakers, to score higher, some times a plan goes from cute to improbable with one too many wrinkle.
Logan Lucky has just the right number of twists and turns. It leaves you amazed at what you’ve just seen without making you feel that you’ve been duped. Logan Lucky pulls it off by having two really great plans, both relying on cracker-jack timing, complete trust, a sprinkle of luck, and balls of steel. Both the audience and the people of Charlotte think the Logan’s are too country-fried to be smart, and this movie uses that expectation to walk away scott free.
The Nominees: Ocean’s Eleven franchise, Heist, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Logan Lucky.
The Winner: Ocean’s Eleven.
Despite being up against Gene Hackman, Daniel Craig, and a team of Elvis impersonators, Ocean’s Eleven handily takes the prize. This cast is so deep you had Oscar winning actors falling all over themselves to make a cameo. On top of having a fantastically stacked roster, you also have a tremendous chemistry. More than just 11 red carpet regulars, you get the sense of a crew that has been together through thick and thin and have their own unique patois like a family. One reason the series lasted so long was that it was a real pleasure to see these jamokes work together.
The Nominees: Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
The Winner: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
This movie is much less well known than its competition, and it was up against some big names. There is such nimble ballet work in Heist, and both Ocean’s and The Italian Job have slick executions of intricately maneuvered schemes. How can they be topped?
Simple: Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges just blow up the bank vault with a cannon.
We have a winner.
The Nominees: The Italian Job, The Fast and The Furious, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Sneakers.
The Winner: The Italian Job.
It’s hard to top the great escape sequence from The Italian Job (and of course I mean the 1969 original. The remake with Marky Mark is dead to me.) The plan moves across the city of Turin like a rolling wave of misanthropy. Michael Caine and crew purposefully snarl traffic in order to rob a convoy carrying gold. In order to escape, they split the dough amongst three mini coopers (you know, back when they were sexy instead of the car equivalent of a soccer mom with a nose job.) With the agile and tiny cars, they drive all over hell’s half acre and god’s green mile. Up stairs. Down stairs. Over the pier. Over the rooftops! It is a sight to behold and still one of the best car chases of all time.
The Nominees: Robert DeNiro, Michael Caine, George Clooney, Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell.
The Winner: George Clooney.
As the head of a crew, usually filled with misanthropes and ex-cons, the leading man needs to have all qualities in abundance, but none more so than charm. You can hire brains, and you can draft brawn, and you can get a vaguely nerdy guy with glasses (always glasses) to tap away on a keyboard as your “hacker”, but you need to have the charisma of Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley combined to keep these mavericks all in the same room and on the same plan. Nobody evinces that level of charisma better than George Clooney. Danny Ocean could talk the devil into loaning him money and then get God to pay off the tab. He’s good. Damned good.
The Nominees: Rene Russo, Cate Blanchett, Alison Lohman, Jaime Lee Curtis, Rebecca Pidgeon.
The Winner: Alison Lohman.
Heist flicks are rarely equal opportunity when it comes to female leads. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to Soderberg’s all ladies take on the Ocean’s franchise, due out next year. The usual roles are usually either the femme fatale who’s job is to sex up the mark, or the dour special agent who is chasing our charming protagonist but is always one step behind. For this reason I was really impressed by Alison Lohman’s performance in Matchstick Men.
Matchstick Men is more a small caper con man movie, but the workings of the ultimate con are as good as any big stakes bank robbery. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling Ridley Scott’s excellent film, but suffice to say that Lohman plays a rebellious teen who has several pivotal twists, proving that she is more than a match for the older con men around her, played by Nicholas Cage and Sam Rockwell.
The Nominees: The Italian Job, Heist, The Thomas Crown Affair, Rififi.
The Winner: Rififi.
It’s a shame more people don’t watch or talk about Rififi. This French crime flick is the UR heist movie and is directed by Jules Dassin. Dassin is one of the earliest masters of the genre and he crafted Rififi in France after being blackballed in the communist blacklisting that tainted a whole generation of Hollywood films.
An excellent crime drama full of hard-boiled characters, Rififi’s crown jewel is the robbery of a high profile jewelry store on a famous boulevard in Paris. The caper itself unfolds like a Swiss watch over the course of thirty minutes and is shot without music or dialogue. The camera work, choreography, and acting is so precise that nothing is allowed to distract from the sequence. When your heist is so good you tell the cast to shut up and the composer to take a powder, you know you have some next level mojo.
The Nominees: The Lavender Hill Mob, Going in Style, First Sunday, A Fish Called Wanda.
The Winner: A Fish Called Wanda.
It’s hard to find any flaws in A Fish Called Wanda. Penned by John Cleese and packed to the rafters with comedic talent, Wanda doesn’t just pay lip service to the heist genre for laughs. The actual theft is out of the way quickly but the constant backstabbing that ensues actually rivals many capers for intricacy. Plus you get one of the greatest cinematic insults of all time:
The Nominees: Steven Soderbergh, Michael Mann, David Mamet, Jules Dassin.
The Winner: Steven Soderbergh.
I love the films by Mann and Mamet, but since they pretty much only turned in one heist movie apiece in their careers, I had to pass them over. Jules Dassin was high in the running, being essentially the father of the genre but I had to give it to Soderbergh for his sheer body of work.
He’s famous for the Ocean’s franchise, but he’s made many great contributions such as the extremely gritty film The Underneath, the flashy and violent crime drama Out of Sight where he first teamed with George Clooney, and his latest gem Logan Lucky. Any one of those is good enough to get him onto the short list, and being at the center of six great heist flicks earns him the nod.
The Nominees: The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Thomas Crown Affair.
The Winner: The Thomas Crown Affair.
Many people llike The Italian Job remake, but I just can’t see Mark Whalberg as a charmer. Likewise, I didn’t find John Travolta adding much to Pelham 123, though Denzel Washington always brings a new wrinkle to the table. Ocean’s Eleven is great, but it’s a film you appreciate more as a piece of a franchise than as a seminal solo piece – and it also is hard to replace the original for style.
]That leaves The Thomas Crown Affair, a tidy little remake that elevates the original due to the pure magnetism of the leads. Rene Russo and Peirce Brosnan are like a pair of dancers constantly circling each other as Brosnan’s art thief becomes romantically entangled with Russo’s investigator. While I don’t recall much about the big robbery at the center, I do recall the striking chemistry between two great actors.
Best Worst Film.
The Nominees: Swordfish, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Point Break, Gone in 60 Seconds.
The Winner: 3000 Miles to Graceland.
Gone in 60 Seconds is a laughable mess between the silly plot, Nicholas Cage’s eccentricity, and Angelina Jolie’s misplaced vamping. Swordfish is a hoot mostly because Travolta is chewing scenery and dragging Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman along for the ride. Point Break (once again, the remake is dead to me) at least is so over-the-top you can watch it for giggles. The only heist fiasco that seems to be in on the joke is 3000 Miles to Graceland.
Graceland has a solid cast featuring Kevin Costner and Kurt Russel, and features more Elvis impersonators than you can shake a stick at. The script gets plenty of mileage out of the spectacle that is Las Vegas. Finally, despite its swaggering chutzpa, the film also features a fun crime caper at its center that is worth watching even if you couldn’t care less about hunka hunka burning love.
The Nominees: The Italian Job, Rafifi, Heist, Sneakers, Matchstick Men.
The Winner: Heist.
There is no heist movie that is so utterly watchable as David Mamet’s aptly titled film, Heist. Even after a dozen showings, I’m still ready to see it again at a moments notice. The cast is superb. Gene Hackman is on point as the grizzled ring leader who is too damn old for this shit. He has a fantastic supporting cast in his crew and two delightful heels opposing him in Danny DeVito and Sam Rockwell. Rockwell has made a career out of being a cad’s cad, and DeVito is flippantly menacing as a petty crime boss. The caper is lean and mean and the set-up grounds the heist in a rock solid world of real crime and real stakes.
The icing on the cake is the superb dialogue. Every line is a gem worthy of a mic drop, but it all feels natural to these characters. Unlike some Tarantino flicks, you don’t feel that these are people trying to sound hip or tough. These characters are cool as a cucumber and you just expect them to sound like that. In short, it’s cool because they’re cool. If you haven’t, give Heist a view and add it to your instant classics list.