Somehow the name Michael Mann doesn't have the same cachet it once did and that's a shame. People also forget that he was a writer and wrote many of his greatest movies. Personally I prefer 80's Mann to the stuff he did later. Stylistically it felt far more premeditated and sucked me into the intensity of the stories more. The predominantly hand held style he developed in the 90's had its own effect on the audience but also felt like it could have been directed by anyone and still looked the same. Here are my top five Michael Mann movies.
1. Thief - James Caan, in his greatest role, plays a thief whose life is shaped by the 11 year stretch he served at Joliet prison. This movie is raw and cool and although it's designed like a French character study by Robert Bresson, it moves forward like a Hollywood noir of the 40's. James Belushi also adds a performance that wasn't often seen from him during his feature film heyday. With extreme subtleties the movie transforms into a David vs. Goliath story, with the importance put on the sacrifices David must make to ensure he can follow through on his journey.
2. Heat - A cops and robbers epic that serves as a modern opus of LA noir. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro play opposite sides of the law and shed light on the philosophies, responsibilities, and motivations that drive them to a final, and inevitable, showdown against each other.
3. Manhunter - A Hannibal Lecter movie without Anthony Hopkins, and mostly without Hannibal Lecter. This is an amazing FBI agent vs. serial killer movie that never settles below intense and sets the standard for a lot of what audiences saw in the 90's and later.
4. The Insider - It's far easier to make a riveting, intense drama about cops and robbers or serial killers than it is to make one about a white-collar whistleblower. Michael Mann does just that, he tells the story about a whistleblower who goes to war with big tobacco and their propaganda machine. The result is an inside look at the stress a person goes through in such a situation, a very Frank Capra type of character, and the news producer trying to both expose the story, and protect his source. When something happens like what happened in the movie, and the true story it was based on, there's a lot of moving pieces and a lot of risk and all of that is felt in the movie.
5. The Last of the Mohicans - A movie that seems like it would be laughably bad does something without the audience ever consciously noticing, sucks them in. The movie takes place during the French and Indian war and centers around Hawkeye, a white man raised as a Mohican. I'm not too certain of the accuracy of the movie, but in terms of story telling, Mann carries that narrative thread like a pro and has you caring about the characters and their outcomes.
Miami Vice - Although not a feature film, this series was the epitome of cool and was one of the first instances of cinematic quality and style presented in an episodic format. There are shows like Law and Order, great television, but then there's Miami Vice, where each episode is an experience. It's hard to think of shows like The Sopranos existing in a world without Miami Vice, and that's saying something.