The 25 Best Thrillers of the 21st Century (So Far)
Some genres are easier to define than others. Werewolf movies are movies with werewolves in them. Family movies are intended for all audiences. But “thrillers” can be tougher to nail down. After all, a lot of movies want to thrill you. That doesn’t mean they all have life-or-death situations, serial killers, and kidnappings in them.
But those are the types of intense, suspenseful situations we come to expect from films with the “thriller” label. They are typical stories of seemingly normal people, suddenly thrust by circumstance or their own sins into perilous situations. Will they survive? Will they prove their innocence? Will life ever be the same again? We demand the answers to these questions because, as strange and contrived as situations in a thriller can get, the protagonists closely resemble most of the people in the audience, who don’t seek out danger and worry about what would happen if it befell us anyway.
There’s a lot of overlap, but it’s worth noting that “thrillers” aren’t necessarily “horror movies” either. Horror movies are generally about confronting our fears of death. There’s a reason the body count is usually much higher in a conventional horror movie. Thrillers are generally about confronting our fears of staying alive, the anxieties and paranoias that plague us every day, and the consequences we fear that prevent us from living more exciting, albeit dangerous lives. Horror movies are about dying. Thrillers are about staying alive.
Thrillers are also about plausibility. Once magic or science-fiction works its way into the storyline, the film becomes less about normal people surviving harrowing situations and more about the mechanics of the fantasy world it now inhabits. The events of a thriller may be highly unlikely but they could, at least in an impressionistic way, happen in the real world. That’s what makes them captivating. It could happen to you.
Of course, even with all that said, there’s still a lot of death, dismemberment and torture to be found in the best thrillers of the 21st century. It’s been an intriguing genre to track over the last two decades, as spectacle films increasingly ruled the box office and straightforward stories about murder and kidnapping gradually migrated to television. Still, the excellent thrillers we have been getting are fascinating, gripping examinations of our contemporary fears, our daily phobias, and our curious obsessions with crime, violence, sex, and shame.
These are our picks for the 25 best thrillers of the 21st century (so far), presented in chronological order.
Image via Newmarket
“Okay, so what am I doing?” Guy Pearce asks himself in Memento, as he’s racing down a street in pursuit of – or possibly pursued by – a deadly assailant. It’s a question Christopher Nolan’s second feature asks itself many times, as the narrative works its way backward from scene to scene. Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, who suffered brain trauma during an attack on his wife and is now incapable of developing new memories. But he won’t let that stop him from pursuing his wife’s murderer.
The innovative structure of Memento works its way backward, so the audience shares Leonard’s ignorance of all the events that propelled him to each fascinating scene, and the cleverness doesn’t stop there. Memento takes what could have been a novel editing gimmick and builds an entire, gripping suspense narrative around the hero’s limited perception, and around his – and the audience’s – eagerness to trust whatever we’re shown. And that makes all of us horrifically easy to trick.
With a Friend Like Harry… (2000)
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A chance encounter to a public restroom reintroduces Michel (Laurent Lucas) to an old high school friend named Harry (Sergi Lopez), and even though Michel has no memory of Harry, Harry remembers everything about him. And Harry is disappointed to discover that in the years that followed, the young Michel – who had so much potential – has become saddled with a busted car, a disapproving spouse, needy children, and overbearing parents.
But to Harry, there’s no problem that cannot be fixed. In Dominik Moll’s subtle, razor-sharp thriller, the anxieties of family living become a grotesque set of obstacles and a gruesome series of murders. But what’s even more disturbing than the violence is the possibility that, deep down, Michel might actually appreciate what Harry is doing for him. And with that uncomfortable layer, Moll’s film becomes less about a murderer entering an innocent man’s life and more about the possibility that, if given the opportunity to permanently remove an impediment from our lives, anybody could become a monster. It’s a horrifying thought, and a horrifying film.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
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David Lynch transformed a failed TV pilot into one of the most celebrated films of the century with Mulholland Drive, a feverish saga of isolation and bitterness in the Hollywood Hills. Naomi Watts stars as Betty Elms, a naive aspiring actor who falls in love with Rita (Laura Harring) an amnesiac recovering from a mysterious car accident. As they pursue the truth about Rita’s past they peel back glitzy layers from the entertainment industry, revealing horrible truths at the bottom.
Then again, what is truth in a David Lynch film? The director’s signature dream-logic keeps Mulholland Drive perpetually open to interpretation, and the film’s many fans still debate which parts were a dream, or if any of them were. Whether it’s all a paranoid fantasy of a rueful scorned lover, a literal dreamscape in which all of Hollywood inexplicably lives, or something even more sinister, all we know for sure is that Lynch keeps us in his wicked grasp, and that you should never, ever, EVER walk into the alleyway behind the Winkie’s.
Ripley’s Game (2002)
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Patricia Highsmith’s many tales about Tom Ripley – the chameleonic, sociopathic murderer – have been adapted to the screen several times before. But where The Talented Mr. Ripley painted a romantic view of the antihero as a tragic, lonely figure, Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game visits an older, more comfortable Ripley, played by a slithery John Malkovich. He’s already found love, he’s already found wealth. But when his neighbor, Jonathan (Dougray Scott) insults Ripley behind his back at a party, he can’t help himself… Jonathan has to be destroyed.
The game Ripley plays is fiendish and cruel, but the initial, evil thrill of seeing Jonathan forced to commit murder evolves into an unlikely friendship – if you can call it that – between Ripley and his plaything. Even Ripley, the master manipulator, is surprised at where his latest scheme is going… and yet, it feels inevitable. Cavani’s slick, mature Game is half twisted character study, half crime thriller, and always underhanded.
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Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) was just going about his drunken business when he was kidnapped and thrown into a locked hotel room for 15 years, with nothing but a television for company. Then, without warning, he’s suddenly released back into the world and told he has five days to discover why he was imprisoned in the first place: if he succeeds, his captor will kill himself, if he fails, his captor will kill the only woman who treated Oh Dae-su with kindness.
Director Park Chan-wook’s manga adaptation boasts a bizarre set-up and a breathlessly desperate lead performance, and the journey Oh Dae-su takes goes in horrifically unusual directions. The one-take fight scene in a hallway, where our hero fights off an army of killers using only a hammer, is the most famous scene in Oldboy but the finale is the part that will really stick in your craw. Over the top and ruthless and unexpectedly poignant, Oldboy is one of the most unforgettable thrillers. (The American remake? Not so much.)
Runaway Jury (2003)
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The John Grisham adaptation Runaway Jury was released to a shrugging audience upon its initial release, but perhaps no other Grisham adaptation has aged as gracefully. John Cusack stars as Nick Easter, a randomly selected juror on a landmark case, in which the family of a mass shooting victim is suing the gun industry for their culpability in his death. It’s such an important lawsuit that the firearms manufacturers enlist Franklin Rich (Gene Hackman) to spy on and manipulate the jury to ensure the verdict goes their way.
But Rich has his work cut out for him: Nick and his accomplice, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), have a plan to manipulate the jury from within and sell the verdict to the highest bidder. What follows is a wily and unpredictable series of reversals as director Gary Fleder exposes the corruption of the legal system and the massive uphill battle any victim faces on their path to justice. Grisham’s story is suspenseful and heroic – par for the course – but this time it’s refreshingly playful, yet impressively respectful of the serious (and increasingly serious) issue at the heart of the trial.
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Directed with subtle terror by Michael Haneke, the ingenious thriller Caché asks a deeply unsettling question: if you were being watched, and judged, and you didn’t know who it was, what would you assume they knew about you? Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a bourgeois middle-aged couple who discover, to their consternation and gradual horror, that somebody is filming the front of their house. Every day they receive a new VHS tape with a single, static shot from across the street, and a disturbing, hand-drawn image, and the question of what they did to deserve this bizarre stalker starts to rip them apart.
The inciting incident is uncomfortably eerie, but Haneke isn’t interested in warping our reality or conventional excitement. Caché allows a few simples video cassettes to completely destroy lives, simply by making people watch them and form their own conclusions. It’s a thriller about guilt and other universal human emotions, but it’s also an indicting meta-narrative about our collective use of cinema as a Rorschach test. What it reveals about the characters in Caché, and what it reveals about the audience, is uncomfortably damning.
Death Proof (2007)
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Originally released as the second half of an experimental double bill called Grindhouse, paired with Robert Rodriguez’s outlandish horror-comedy Planet Terror, the serial killer car chase thriller Death Proof deftly recaptures the sleazy thrill of watching a low-budget thrill ride at a smoke-filled theater in the 1970s. Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a despicable misogynistic former stunt performer who likes to kill women by getting them into his car and crashing it on purpose. The driver’s seat has been rigged to be nearly “death proof.” The passenger seat… not so much.
Quentin Tarantino’s two-act structure introduces one set of victims after another, before leading them each into a violent climax. The first half is a serial killer thriller, but the second – which stars famed stunt performer Zoe Bell as herself – evolves into a delirious car chase, with Bell strapped to the front of a speeding car while Mike tries to force her off the road. It’s one of the most novel and breathless car chases ever filmed, and it culminates in a finale that won’t soon be forgotten.
(Then again, as fantastic as Death Proof plays in a vacuum, it can be an uncomfortable experience after you learn about the events that transpired on the set of Tarantino’s previous film, Kill Bill, which appear to have been a direct inspiration. Death Proof may now arguably be in poor taste, but as with many discussions about the separation of art and artist, your mileage may vary.)
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The real-life murder spree of the Zodiac Killer never had a satisfying conclusion in real life, but in the hands of David Fincher, that’s what makes the story so hypnotic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr. plays crime reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo plays detective Dave Toschi, who each dedicate their lives to solving the mysterious murders – and decoding the killer’s cat-and-mouse letters to the newspaper – and finding only obsession, and possibly ruin, as their rewards.
Zodiac is everything a thriller could be. It’s a harrowing catalogue of the killer’s murders. It’s an insightful drama about obsession. It’s a detail-oriented history of a riveting investigation. And in the end, although the film never comes out and says they solved the puzzle, it leads to an absolutely terrifying sequence as one of our heroes finds themselves closer than ever to a resolution. Intelligent and absolutely enthralling, Zodiac isn’t just one of the best thrillers of the century so far. It’s one of the best movies of the century so far.
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As a director, Clint Eastwood may be most famous for making serious dramas and revisionist westerns, but he started his career with an acclaimed thriller (Play Misty for Me) and he never forgot how to ratchet up tension. Changeling tells the intense true story of Christine Collins, played by an Oscar-nominated Angelina Jolie, whose son goes missing in 1928, only to be returned to her by the police later. The problem is, the child they return to her isn’t Christine’s son, and nobody will believe her.
Christine presents all kinds of bulletproof evidence, like the fact that the new child is shorter than her actual child, only to be told by a corrupt police department absolute nonsense, like the trauma shrunk him. As crazy as that sounds, it all actually happened, and Eastwood’s film chronicles in painstaking, unbearable detail this perfectly sensible woman – whose son is still missing – getting undermined, gaslit and ultimately horrifically abused and institutionalized just because her existence inconveniences men in power. There aren’t many modern thrillers as righteously upsetting as Changeling.
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Ryan Reynolds in a coffin. That’s it, that’s the whole movie. That’s Buried, a cruel and Kafka-esque thriller from director Rodrigo Cortés, about Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in the Iraq War who wakes up buried underground, with only a cell phone to aid him. Miraculously he can actually get a signal, but he’s running out of air and has only the length of a short feature film to survive. Can the authorities find him in time? Will anyone pay his ransom? Just how bitter and cynical can one thriller get?
Extremely bitter and powerfully cynical, that’s the answer to that last question. Reynolds plays his part with pathetic charm. He’s a nice guy who doesn’t deserve this, and his terrifying predicament quickly becomes a problem that other people want to solve, whether or not it actually helps the guy who’s been buried alive. There’s a phone call in the middle of Buried that may be the most depressingly plausible damnation of corporate cruelty in modern cinema. There aren’t many movie heroes who are as impossibly screwed as Paul Conroy. And there aren’t many movies that would revel in his interminably suspenseful torment like Buried does.
I Saw the Devil (2011)
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National Intelligence Service agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is on the hunt for a serial killer after the butcher, Jang Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), murdered his fiancée. That would be enough of a plot for some thriller, but not I Saw the Devil. The story spirals completely into madness as Soo-hyun tracks down Kyung-chul, beats him within an inch of his life, and then… lets him go.
Why? That would be telling, but Kim Jee-woon’s energetic and ultraviolent film spits on conventions, revealing comic book-like secrets of serial killers and gradually transforming the hero into an all-new kind of monster. I Saw the Devil transforms in front of our eyes, evolving from one genre to the next, until it’s undeniably something altogether different. A genre hybrid of the most manic order, and an intensely satisfying – albeit gruesome – motion picture experience.
Image via Magnolia Pictures
The manager of a fast-food restaurant gets a phone call from a police officer, telling her that one of her employees is a criminal and needs to be detained. If that sounds fishy, just wait. It gets absolutely grotesque, because it turns out that people will do absolutely anything to one another so long as an authority figure – even a disembodied voice over the phone – tells them it’s okay.
That’s not an idea that’s exclusive to Craig Zobel’s Compliance. The film is inspired by a true story, in which a prank call led to a despicable civil rights violation. Most amazingly, the film manages to take this incredible situation and makes the audience understand exactly how it happened, what kind of people let themselves be swayed by a stern voice, and how easy it is to undermine all human decencies just by saying out loud that it’s okay to ignore them. Dreama Walker is wholly believable and sympathetic as the young woman abused by her employer, and Ann Dowd gives an all-time great performance as the woman who thinks she’s doing the right thing, no matter how awful it is.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
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Dan (Klaus Tange) can’t find his wife. Like anyone would, he goes around asking if his neighbors have seen her, and from there filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani suck you into an infinite nightmare vortex. There are terrible stories to be told in every apartment in this luscious, historic building, and there’s probably a murderer in at least one of them. And even the instantly gripping missing persons story seems tame compared to a bizarre interlude about an elderly couple with a hole in their ceiling.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears takes its inspiration from the Italian Giallo genre, an operatic string of serial killer/detective stories about outlandish violence and total madness. Cattet and Forzani don’t stop there: they use the Giallo as a springboard for a kaleidoscopic descent into madness, subverting the rules of the form whilst simultaneously launching it into the stratosphere. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is one of the most visually dazzling films of the century, and it’s all in the service of a shocking tale of murder and psychological ruin.
Grand Piano (2014)
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Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a concert pianist whose career imploded after a destructive case of stage fright. But now he’s back, trying to conquer his fears by playing one more show. And as soon as he sits down at the piano he learns that a sniper is aiming at his head, and will kill him if he misses a single, solitary note.
The plot of Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano is so high-concept it’s absurd, and yet miraculously, it plays. The cinematography and editing is virtuosic, echoing the legacy of Brian De Palma’s classics, and the intensity and cleverness of the story keeps the suspense alive throughout the whole movie. The script comes courtesy of Damien Chazelle, who would go on to write and direct the Oscar-winning musician drama Whiplash, which was also about the extreme dangers artists face in the pursuit of perfection. But whereas Whiplash was emotionally apocalyptic, Grand Piano is a playful thrill, and proves that any concept – no matter how seemingly ridiculous – can engrossing if talented filmmakers hit all the right beats.
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Jake Gyllenhaal is on another level in Nightcrawler, a spiteful and illuminating thriller about an enthusiastic young monster who discovers that you can make a lot of money by filming car crashes and selling the tapes to the local news. And you can make a lot more by filming crime scenes, but only if you can get there first. Hmmm… what’s a surefire way to get to a crime scene before anybody else?
The moral devastation at the heart of Nightcrawler evokes the classic cinema of the 1970s, everything from Taxi Driver to Network, but writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film feels uncomfortably contemporary. Sure, the news industry has always had dark corners, and there have always been people willing to do terrible things for money. But Gyllenhaal’s anti-anti-antihero Louis Bloom represents an increasingly ugly generation of young, male Americans who are eager to take what they think is rightfully theirs, as though their avarice alone makes them deserving, and as though their shocking inhumanity isn’t an obvious dealbreaker. Gyllenhaal is horrifyingly hypnotic in one of the most distinctive and piercing thrillers of its kind.
Gone Girl (2014)
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Amazing Amy is missing. In David Fincher’s pointed and vicious adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) discovers that his wife – Amy (Rosamund Pike), the inspiration of a beloved series of children’s books – has vanished, leaving behind evidence of foul play and, to Nick’s surprise, evidence that he did it.
The first half of Gone Girl is an engine of suspense, as different revelations emerge about Nick and Amy’s marriage, as Nick makes seemingly innocent but highly suspicious decisions, and as the multimedia firestorm consumes him and everyone he knows. But needless to say there’s more to this story, and Gone Girl leads to drastic story twists and dramatic recontextualizations of everything we’ve seen before. Everything about Gone Girl clicks – it’s certainly one of David Fincher’s finest movies (and that’s saying something) – but the pieces are all held in place by Pike’s instantly iconic, Oscar-nominated, revelatory performance.
Cop Car (2015)
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Two kids find a cop car and take it for a joy ride. There’s a version of that story that might be a funny coming of age comedy, but that’s not what director Jon Watts is going for. Cop Car is the tale of two children in way over their heads, as a despicably corrupt police officer, played threateningly by Kevin Bacon, pursues them on foot.
It’s not going to end well for anybody, and even the scenes that play like jokes – like when the pre-teens decide to see how bulletproof vests work – are overwhelmingly terrifying if you have any concept of child safety. Cop Car defies genre conventions to put its young leads in increasingly dangerous situations, gradually exploding the concept that playing at cops and robbers is wholesome fun. Maybe even in movies.
The Invitation (2015)
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Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has been invited to the home of his ex-wife, a socially awkward situation under any circumstance, but aggravated by the death of their son, which still weighs on them both. But he soldiers on and finds himself in the midst of a party with… let’s just call them “odd” guests, and mysteriously absent close friends.
Will is increasingly convinced that something terrible is going on, but the genius of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is that the film doesn’t necessarily agree with him. It’s the ultimate paranoid suspense film: every red flag Will sees is easily explained, and possibly only suspicious to Will because he’s tormented by grief, and possibly only suspicious to us because The Invitation has been marketed as a thriller. There’s no sense revealing where the film goes, but suffice it to say that even if nothing happens, even if it’s all in Will’s head, Kusama’s film would still be a riveting and satisfying descent into terrified anxiety. And if Will’s right, it’s going to be anything but cathartic.
The Gift (2015)
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Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and stars in The Gift as Gordo, a high school friend who chances back into the lives of Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). But this is not a happy reunion, and Simon has infinitely less respect for Gordo than Gordo seems to have in return. And when Gordo starts leaving gifts for the family, it’s up to Simon to put a stop to this.
Or is that really what’s happening? Edgerton isn’t interested in telling a simplistic story about innocent victims falling prey to a potentially dangerous interloper. Instead, he uses The Gift to examine the ways that young trauma permeates throughout our adult lives, changing everyone it touches and leaving nobody unscarred. There are reversals upon reversals in The Gift and every single moment, right up to the absolutely painful climax, seems to leave a stain.
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About The Author
(9 Articles Published)
William Bibbiani is a professional critic who has written for publications like The Wrap, Fangoria, Collider and Bloody Disgusting, and who hosts multiple podcasts every week on The Critically Acclaimed Network.He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a connoisseur of pop culture esoterica, a cult film enthusiast and a horror movie fanatic. Most importantly he just loves movies, dang it.
From William Bibbiani