Director Picks: Top 5 Movies By Michael Mann

Written by Spencer Sterritt November 16, 2012

A shot from the Michael Mann film, "Heat"Michael Mann, over his lengthy career in films and television, has carved out his own space in cinema history, shooting through the vast array of action and crime directors with his measured, careful framing,strong scripts, and keen sense of the criminal underworld. His style is distinct and has become synonymous with smart, carefully plotted crime thrillers. Having yet to direct a bad film, these five picks don’t just represent the best of his work, they represent some of the best movies of the genre.

5. Thief (1981)

Michael Mann made a lasting impression with “Thief,” which is damn commendable given that it’s his feature film debut. “Thief” has no dull spots, no strange or unnecessary shots, and no twist that feels out of place. Following James Caan’s jewelry thief, Michael Mann establishes many of the tropes he’d later expand on, most importantly the way he trusts the audience to keep up as he drops them into a complex and jargon filled world. It makes for a smart, confident movie that holds up amazingly well after all these years.

4. The Insider (1999)

Jumped ahead significantly, “The Insider” is about a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. It doesn’t seem like it would make for a riveting story, an interesting one maybe, but not the sort of film that angers and grips you. Yet Mann, shooting conversations like he shoots his actions scenes, carefully, confidently, and level, manages to draw the audience into the big tobacco scandal so effortlessly without a single explosion. Having Al Pacino and Russell Crowe as the lead actors certainly helps, but it’s Mann’s direction that gives “The Insider” the most impact.

3. Collateral (2004)

“Collateral,” often known as the movie where Tom Cruise goes bad, is Michael Mann’s best thriller. Starring Jamie Foxx as a good intentioned but adrift cab driver, and Tom Cruise as the silver foxed assassin who picks his cab for a bloody jaunt across Los Angeles, “Collateral” expands and comments on what makes thrillers so addicting and absorbing by tweaking nearly every genre convention and providing a realistic alternative that never descends into ridiculous action or a logic straining narrative. His first film on digital, Mann highlights the gritty sprawl of Los Angeles perfectly, and shoots in a more loose style than before, giving “Collateral” a wild, unsteady feel to perfectly compliment the winding script.

2. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The most incongruous entry into Michael Mann’s filmography, “The Last of the Mohicans” is also a standout film, earning critical acclaim from nearly every critic. Taking place during the Seven Years War, “The Last of the Mohicans” is grand in scope and epic in its violence, accurately representing guerilla warfare with a brutality that hadn’t been seen before. It doesn’t feature criminals or cops, but “The Last of the Mohicans” is a captivating and exceedingly well-made film, all the more impressive given how far it strays from Mann’s typical film palette.

1. Heat (1995)

“Heat” is the high point of both Michael Mann’s career and the crime drama genre. Starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as a cop and robber facing off in Los Angeles, “Heat” takes the basic cops and robbers setup and stretches it out over three hours, delving into every facet of the genre, painting a complex web of loyalty with the inclusion of one of the best (and loudest) shoot outs in history. Mann’s careful style is on full display in “Heat,” not wasting a single frame over its epic length. “Heat” is the movie that many filmmakers take inspiration from, most recently Christopher Nolan with his “Batman” trilogy. Check out this shootout to see Michael Mann at the height of his powers:


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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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