Strap yourself in for cinema's greatest pulse-pounders
Your hands grip the armrests, your back begins to stiffen, and you start to feel uncomfortably sweaty... but hang on, since when was this a horror movie? That's what's so effective about the thriller. It's not until you're sucked into the story and caught up in the lives of its characters that you realise you're watching the cinematic equivalent of a corkscrew rollercoaster. The plot loops and twists, hurtling you around corners, and some parts might even make you throw your hands in the air and scream like a banshee.
There's not one specific set of criteria that you can use to determine the makings of a thriller movie. It's another genre that lends itself to any scenario; a car chase flick, a gritty invasion encounter, the classic whodunnit setup... Whatever the concept, you can guarantee your nerves will be jangling by the end of it. And while it's a tough category to nail down, we've gathered together our top picks for the 25 best thriller movies. This lot are bound to keep you glued to the screen and on the edge of your seat.
25. Prisoners (2013)
Where to begin on dissecting the sombre brilliance of Prisoners? As you’d expect from the director of Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, it’s a film with lots of things to say, and plenty of ways to say them. At face value, it’s a desperately bleak and heavy American crime story which taps into every parent’s fears about the responsibility of guardianship in an increasingly tumultuous world. However, while it starts off like a film you might have seen before, Prisoners quickly takes several turns into the unexpected, leaving you overwhelmed within its muddied maze of suburban disturbia.
Hugh Jackman’s antihero Keller is at the core of Prisoner’s murky presentation of morality, and there’s a powerful allegory about America’s relationship with terrorism in there, if you want to digest it. At the same time, the surface level narrative, in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s cop attempts to solve the mystery of a kidnapping, is equally entertaining stuff, thanks to the sheer potency of Prisoner’s brooding atmosphere, brought to life by Denis Villeneuve’s expert direction and Roger A. Deakins’ award winning cinematography. It’s not an easy going watch, but it is an entirely compelling one from start to finish.
24. Misery (1990)
Stephen King is typically known as the King of horror, but Misery quietly tiptoes straight into thriller territory. This isn't a blood n' guts n' monsters story, but a truly chilling look into the world of obsessive fandom - of which King knew a thing or two at the time he penned the book. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a famous figure rescued from a snowy car crash by his number one fan: Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes. As an author chained to his best-selling series of melodrama novels, that Annie just loves, his desperate need to create something fresh doesn't go over well with her.
That's just for starters. Annie's off her rocker, a genuine madwoman who thinks nothing of a light spot of hobbling before dinner. Her brutishness made so convincing thanks to director Rob Reiner's spot-on editing. Each scene is crafted to squeeze every bit of tension from Paul's imprisoned scenario. The moment with the penguin figurine? Man, talk about palpitations.
23. Nightcrawler (2014)
People tend to die a lot in thrillers, usually as the result of a tense shootout or horrific murder, but what happens in the aftermath of the chaos? Nightcrawler poses that unconventional question, before slowly peeling back the answer with a story that’s just as cynical, sinister, and bone-crawling as any other L.A. noire thriller.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is the post-modern reincarnation of Travis Bickle; someone who will stop at nothing to achieve his own demented concept of success. Unlike Bickle, though, Bloom gets what he wants by documenting American carnage rather than initiating it, and selling the footage to any sensationalist broadcasters willing to buy it. It sounds twisted, but Nightcrawler has one foot firmly placed in reality, satirising an increasingly warped industry that satiates and glamorises the public’s fascination with violence.
There’s thrills in the car chases and Jake Gyllenhaal’s incredible turn as Bloom (the actor lost 30 pounds to evoke the character’s vulture-like qualities), but Nightcrawler’s real power lies with the biting commentary it leaves behind, designed to linger and fester in your mind long after watching it.
22. Shutter Island (2010)
Leo's mission to snag an Oscar started decades back, but before The Revenant earned him that golden doorstop, he delivered an awards-worthy turn in Scorsese's Shutter Island. It all starts simple enough, with DiCaprio's jittery US Marshal Teddy Daniels assigned to a sinister case out at an asylum on a distant, foggy isle. Along with his new partner, Chuck, played with terrific nuance by Mark Ruffalo (AKA The Hulk), Teddy sets about investigating a missing persons case at the Ashecliffe Institute.
What follows is one of Scorsese's most surprising works, packed with an incredible sting in the tail; a twist-tastic ending that he'd previously shown little interest towards in his earlier films. That's partly down to the source material, as Dennis Lehane's novel springs to life in the creepiest of ways. The whole film is peppered with little hints here and there to make you question what the hell's happening, right along with DiCaprio.
21. Ex Machina (2014)
The issues which Ex Machina grapples with - artificial intelligence, consciousness, what it means to be human - are hardly new, but director Alex Garland explores them within a deeply intimate and often disturbing setting, electrified by the performances of his three leads. Oscar Isaac plays the tech sector giant with a shaky moral code, Domhnall Gleeson is the lucky employee who gets to spend a week at his home, and Alicia Vikander dazzles as the former’s latest invention; a fully self-conscious humanoid robot.
As that synopsis suggests, Ex Machina’s got a deeply Black Mirror vibe to it, not afraid to dwell on the dark recesses of our fascination with technology and the dangers of playing God. As a thriller, then, it’s a slow burner, but the payoff for the intrepid viewer is a gleefully bleak curtain closer that’s about as dark as you’d imagine from Garland’s first directorial effort. A great thriller likes to keep its audience paranoid, but Ex Machina excels as a parable that’ll make you more paranoid about the world you’re living in than the one you just saw on screen.
20. Insomnia (2002)
Christopher Nolan’s made a lot of clever filmmaking decisions in his time, but one of his best was to cast Robin Williams and play him against type as a creep turned killer in Insomnia. It was a gambit that paid off hugely for the movie, which brought a host of new twists to the classic crime thriller template of cop versus crook. After accidentally shooting and killing his partner during a work trip to small town Alaska, Al Pacino’s cop is haunted by guilt, unable to sleep in a region where the sun never goes down, as he tries to hunt down Williams’ deceptively charming fugitive.
The movie’s frequent comparisons to a modern day Sleepy Hollow aren’t just a poor attempt at wordplay. Insomnia is a slow, sedated thriller, dressed up in a hypnotic atmosphere of miasma and mystery. Nolan’s deliberately eerie images are a poetic reflection of Al Pacino’s increasingly hallucinatory state, as he loses yet more hours of precious snooze time, but you’ll be far from sleepy as you watch the drama progress, instead left wide-eyed with fascination at Williams’ uncanny performance and Nolan’s eye for visual storytelling.
19. The Game (1997)
Michael Douglas' entire '90s resume is playing guys pissed at the status quo and wanting something different. In Falling Down he chose to riot his way through Los Angeles, whereas in The Game he chooses to say 'yes' to new experiences. It's something he regrets, obviously, as the movie wouldn't be fun for us if nothing went mammaries skyward for him. David Fincher follows up Seven with another sting-in-the-tail thriller about businessman Nicholas Van Orton. Bored with his vast wealth and fearful that he may turn into his father, he longs for change, so his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a voucher for a game as a birthday gift.
It's baffling that the movie didn't do better in theaters, despite a really strong critical response. This is a straightforward set-up that has a twist you should see coming. Heck, it's told to us often enough throughout the film, but that's the genius of Fincher, managing to construct an atmosphere of paranoia that's truly gripping.
18. Black Swan (2010)
From the first trailer for Darren Aronofsky's twisted ballet tale, it was clear that Black Swan wasn't an arthouse drama about the perils of doing a perfect plie. That one shot of Natalie Portman's ballet dancer turning around to face herself in the mirror, a fucked-up impossibility, saw to that.
The Requiem for a Dream director brings his same sharp, visual style to a story of artistic obsession that follows Portman's Nina, a hard-working perfectionist who aches for the lead in Swan Lake. That's no easy feat, because if she's not battling her unhinged mom (think Carrie's mother but about a million times worse) or the sexual advances of her colleagues, she's facing a monstrous transformation. But then again all those doppelgangers leering at her from surfaces and dark tunnels could just be hallucinations. It's not clear to Nina or to us what's real.
17. Green Room (2015)
Green Room wants to candidly remind you just how scary Nazis can be. Not just ideologically, but as human beings, too. Told from the perspective of a punk band who find themselves surrounded by bloodthirsty white nationalists at a skinhead bar, it’s a siege movie where tension and dread cake the very atmosphere of every horrifying scene. Jeremy Saulnier proved he could meld black comedy, horror, and graphic violence together with 2013’s Blue Ruin, but these elements are all turned up to 11 here, to nauseating results.
Be warned, this is not a film for the faint of heart, as Green Room sucks you in and violently throws you around, before brazenly spitting you back out, emotionally drained and numbed by the events that just unfolded on screen. And then there’s Patrick Stewart, providing his soft-spoken tones as the neo-Nazi’s insidious ringleader. If the intense violence and unflinching focus isn’t making your heart thump at the rate of a giddy hummingbird, then his malicious whispers will be getting right under your skin.
16. Oldboy (2003)
If you've yet to experience the mind-bending, oh-no-he-didn't madness of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy then get this on your watchlist, immediately. The middle chapter of his revenge trilogy put the Korean filmmaker's name into the spotlight, and is now a firm cult favorite, even spawning an inferior Hollywood remake a few years back.
Nothing quite prepares businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) for the events that follow a drunken night out. Tossed in jail, he calls his buddy to bail him out and is then kidnapped. For 15 years. The entire time he's left to stew in a tiny hotel room, until he's mysteriously set free and given five days to track down his captor or suffer the consequences. This isn't just a whodunnit, it's a whydunnit. Dae-su's journey is a bloody, thrilling affair, full of plot twists and reveals that are jaw-dropping. It's Lynch tossed into a blender with Tarantino.
15. Zodiac (2007)
If you’ve seen a lot of whodunnits, you probably know what to expect by now. The troubled but brilliant detective puts their career and family on the line in pursuit of an enigmatic and elusive killer, but he always manages to catch the guy in the end. Every question is answered, every loose thread tied, every conundrum solved. Not so in Zodiac. As a thriller based on the true story of Northern California’s Zodiac Killer, it’s a movie which delights in the unexplainable ambiguities of the real world.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and the rest of the San Francisco Chronicle spend weeks, months, years trying to track down their serial murderer in David Fincher’s true crime story, but - faithful to the real case it's based upon - nothing ever comes of their efforts. There are suspects and leads, but no one is able to offer a definitive answer to the problem, and the film doesn’t even wish to lean one way or the other on any particular theory about the fugitive’s true identity. Zodiac works as a mystery thriller precisely because it indulges in the thrills of its own mystery, offering a viewer experience that’s quite unlike anything else you’ll have ever seen.
14. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Dressing a thriller up in the garb of the modern western isn’t new, but something interesting was always going to happen with that archetype when you have the Coen brothers involved. And No Country for Old Men is definitely interesting. Better yet, as a thriller, it’s downright invigorating. Right from its opening moments, in which Josh Brolin’s opportunist rancher stumbles across a botched drug deal, the multi-tiered plot roars into gear, refusing to slow down for a single minute of its two hour runtime.
Structurally, it’s a film founded on old school sentiments, with good guys (Tommy Lee Jones’ exasperated lawman) and bad guys (Javier Bardem, in a showstopping turn as creepy hitman Anton Chigurh), but the Coens paint shades of grey into every scene, suggesting that the simple glory days of the Wild West are long gone. Entire dissertations have been written on the socio-political commentary running beneath the surface of the Coen’s modern masterpiece, but the good news is that, even when enjoying it at face value, No Country for Old Men remains a uncompromising joyride of a thriller.
13. The Birds (1963)
Trust Hitchcock to turn a movie about angry birds (no, not that one) into one of the most sensational thrillers of all time. We still don’t know why Bodega Bay’s avian inhabitants become increasingly bloodthirsty throughout the course of the director’s last great movie and, while plenty of elaborate theories about the film’s subtext are out there, the absence of explanation is what maintains the sheer exhilaration of it all. The audience is as confused and surprised as the rest of Bodega Bay as to what’s going on, meaning each cascading bird attack becomes more traumatising and exhausting than the last.
It turns 55 next year, but The Birds is still just as delightfully scary and nerve-wracking as it was when it first riled critics and audiences in 1963. You can almost hear Hitchcock giggling with delight in the background, as the bubbling pot of tension slowly boils over, before fizzing out into full blown feathery mayhem.
12. The Departed (2006)
How many stars can you pack into one movie? Scorsese's remake of Infernal Affairs has got 'em all, and they're mostly playing against type in this complex story of deceit in the criminal underworld. Repackaged for western audiences, this is one of those rare occasions when the remake remains just as good as the original.
The whole thing is played out via a simultaneous double cross: Leonardo DiCaprio's cop goes undercover with the mob, while Matt Damon's gangster infiltrates the NYPD. That scenario is never gonna end well, especially with a huge cast of supporting characters in on the sting - Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, and Alec Baldwin to name a few. But that's half of the thrill here. Watching everyone figure out what's really happening. Scorsese drops in several visual clues about future events, letting them fester in your subconscious, but reworks some of the main twists to keep it fresh for purists.
11. The Usual Suspects (1995)
A contemporary classic that arrived slap bang in the middle of the twist-obsessed '90s, The Usual Suspects brought director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie acclaim for their fresh spin on the tired gangster genre. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in which case, Singer and McQuarrie should be overwhelmed with it: this film's influence can still be felt in cinema to this very day. It's unlike any other movie of its time, completely confident in going out of the box with the way its story is delivered.
If you've never seen the movie, there is one WTF? twist in the last act that's only effective if you don't know about it beforehand. Yes, it's super cool, and it's the thing that people normally talk about with the film. But don't forget that it wouldn't be so bracing if we weren't so in love with Singer's bunch of crazy crooks in the first place.
10. Rear Window (1954)
Hitchcock's simmering thriller will make you think twice about being a nosey neighbor. James Stewart plays wheelchair-bound photographer LB Jeffries, who passes the time armed with a pair of binoculars and a healthy disrespect for other people's privacy. (If this were made today he'd have a camera-fitted drone streaming live to YouTube.) It’s not long before Jeffries takes an interest in his neighbor Lars Thorwalk (Raymond Burr), who he suspects has murdered his wife.
Much has been said about Hitchcock exposing the way we view cinema, and how we're all really voyeurs, and it's absolutely true. The reason we're sucked into Jeffries' obsession with Thorwald is because, hell, we saw the same thing he did through that window. We want to know if he did kill his wife or if it's all in Jeffries' mind. Stewart's great as the lead, but hats off to Grace Kelly as his girlfriend. It's she who's tasked with breaking into Thorwald's apartment and having a good ole snoop around... right as he's coming home. Nerve-shredding stuff.
9. Fatal Attraction (1987)
Fatal Attraction introduced the term 'bunny boiler' into the cultural conversation, acting as a shorthand for Glenn Close’s scorned lover turned vengeful stalker. Loads of subsequent films latched onto that concept - The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for example - but none succeeded in making you feel sympathy for a womanizer quite like this late '80s thriller. Seriously, Michael Douglas is a total sleaze, embarking on an extramarital affair with Glenn Close's Alex Forrest. He soon learns that he probably shouldn't have done that when she begins to stalk and threaten him, and his family.
Director Adrien Lyne pulls a really menacing performance from Close, that makes such an impact thanks to some truly great editing. The scene when his cute-as-a-button daughter Ellen runs toward her rabbit cage, cut together with a shot inside the house of his wife Beth approaching a boiling pot she never put on the stove... it's superb. It's heartbreaking too, because his family are so lovely and watching their terror is just plain awful.
8. Heat (1995)
Michael Mann and Los Angeles were made for each other. In no other director’s films can you find such a harmonious confluence of setting and story, and his seminal masterpiece, Heat, remains the best example of this yet. The thrills of this crime thriller are just as palpable in the slow, brooding scenes as they are in the high octane gunfights between the Pacino-led LAPD and Robert De Niro’s merry band of crooks.
Your heart will race during the film’s famous bank robbery shootout, but it’s the restaurant scene shared intimately between Pacino and De Niro that’ll really send jitters down your spine. It’s rare for a thriller to rely so heavily on its dialogue to elicit such electricity but, given the calibre of the talent both behind and in front of the camera, Heat pulls it off with ease. Oh, and Val Kilmer has never been better.
7. Memento (2000)
Memento was the film that first showed the world what Christopher Nolan was made of, as the director contorts a heart-wrenching tale of loss into a twisted game of cat-n-mouse featuring Guy Pearce's Leonard Shelby at its heart. Shelby isn't your ordinary hero. After the brutal murder of his wife, he vows to track down her killer. The only snag? He's now suffering from short-term amnesia and is surrounded by people he's not entirely sure he can trust. He inks his body with tattoos and takes countless Polaroids to guide him on his journey.
Storywise, that's an interesting conceit, and plot wise it's flat-out batshit because the entire film is told backwards. But Nolan's not one for taking the easy route, and it's a gamble here that pays off, making the final reveal land with a weightier punch than if he'd taken the traditional narrative path.
6. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Mulholland Dr. was originally a pilot for David Lynch's return to TV. Funding fell out, and he opted to reshoot and resculpt that footage into a hallucinatory, fever dream feature. It's a cautionary tale about the perils of stardom told through the eyes of Naomi Watts' ingénue, Betty Elms, who arrives in Hollywood and is immediately thrown into a bizarre amnesiac mystery.
Lynch is the master of disjointed narratives that don't obey to the rules of your conventional Hollywood thriller. Each time you watch, there's another clue, a new piece to the puzzle, that then also changes with every subsequent viewing. Nothing stays fixed in Lynch's City of Angels. That's what makes Mulholland Dr. a stand-out in modern cinema; there's no explaining why your heart is racing during a simple two-shot of a coupla guys chatting in a diner, or when a cowboy passes through the back of a room, seemingly undetected. But you know it in your gut; something is wrong. Something bad is happening.
5. North by Northwest (1959)
A crazy sequence on a revered US monument, an even crazier sequence involving a crop duster plane.... It’s fair to say that Hitchcock went BIG on North by Northwest. Unlike his earlier suspense films, that made recognisable, everyday locations genuinely scary, this is the equivalent to his Mission Impossible. It's still undoubtedly Hitchcock, though, with a puzzling mystery pushing forward the plot: who is Cary Grant?
As Roger Thornhill, he's an advertising exec happily going about his life until a case of mistaken identity finds him getting chased across the US by a shady organization who believes him to be a spy. The look of confusion on Grant's face throughout the entire film isn't entirely because of his superb acting skills, though - he genuinely had no clue what was going on the movie. "It's a terrible script," he told Hitchcock, "We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it!” The director decided Grant's predicament would make his character more convincing on screen so kept him in the dark.
4. Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock carved out his own special place within cinema as the master of suspense. He knew what really got folks buzzing in the theater. Released only a year after North by Northwest, Psycho saw him go in a completely new direction. Initially, his pitch was turned down by Paramount execs who weren't taken by the premise or the source material. But he pursued it anyway, stripping the original novel down to its bare bones and choosing to shoot on a very low budget, in black and white.
While the film is often heralded as the beginning of the slasher genre, it's far more than just its most infamous scene. A slow-burner with great pacing, Psycho had the luck of hitting theaters at a time when audiences weren't used to being scared silly - for the duration. Hitchcock builds tension and maintains it for an entire movie, starting out with secretary Marion Crane on the run after stealing from her bosses, before taking a total u-turn into a much more sinister set-up shortly afterwards. It's been done to death since, but this is the first time it was achieved without anyone having a clue before they took their seats.
3. The Silence of The Lambs (1991)
"You will let me know when those lambs stop screaming, won't you?" That one line, delivered by Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling, inspires the film's beautifully cryptic title and also constitutes a large chunk of Anthony Hopkins' performance. While it's his cerebral, almost charming performance as the imprisoned cannibal that's at the heart of the film, he's only onscreen for 16 minutes. That's some impression he makes for what's, let's face it, an extended cameo. He's the perfect opposite to Jodie Foster's FBI agent. Their relationship is what pushes forward the plot, him helping her to catch another killer on the loose.
Director Jonathan Demme slices together a film that's chilling and repulsive, a perfectly-honed thriller which preys on our biggest fears. The score from Howard Shore plays a large part in upping the suspense, and it's the absolute top-notch editing job in that final showdown which really seals the deal. As the scene cuts from Clarice following up a lead, to her superior Jack Crawford and his SWAT team, it's not until the last second you realise: you've had the lambswool pulled right over your eyes.
2. Seven (1995)
There’s no doubt that the impact of Seven's legacy has been partly a result of that infamous ending. It's a chilling conclusion to two hours spent dredging through the darkness of a man's psyche, a lone figure so repulsed by the world around him he decided to... err... make it even more horrible. The thing about that ending is that it very nearly didn't happen; Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman were "accidentally" sent an earlier version that Fox execs didn't like. They loved it, with Pitt even refusing to sign on if a word of it was changed.
And thank goodness that Fox caved to his demands, because without that final scene, everything that takes place beforehand loses its impact. Nothing readies you for the shocker, and that's saying something after we follow two cops hunting down a serial killer who probably worships Travis Bickle. The cleansing of the streets is this murderer’s favourite pastime, but this isn't a horror: this is pure thrills all the way.
1. Vertigo (1958)
Time is vital for the true appreciation of artisanal cheeses and vintage wines, and the same applies to Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. It did okay at the time of release, recouping its budget and all, but it failed to make a real impression with critics. Steadily, that consensus was duly re-evaluated, as most cinephiles now agree that this is Hitchcock's finest work.
And what's not to love about it? It's less Tom Cruise-y than North by Northwest, yet more action-packed than Psycho. Oh, and James Stewart's back after his turn in Rear Window, playing a private eye with a severe fear of heights that proves problematic when he's tasked with locating the missing wife of an old friend.
It's a straightforward enough set-up but, handled by the suspense-meister himself, it turns into a brilliant lesson in eliciting fear through nifty shooting techniques. Need proof? It's Vertigo that first used the dolly zoom that's almost guaranteed to make you scared of heights and want to hurl, all at the same time.