10 best thrillers that stand the test of time
Of all the genres of contemporary cinema, the “thriller” is probably the most difficult category of film to define. Is there really a difference between a thriller and a film noir? Are thrillers just action movies or horror movies with more in-between aspirations? What’s the difference between a thriller and a thriller anyway?
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart infamously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it” – and the same may be true of thrillers. While there are obvious key themes (the whim of truth, the indefatigable nature of human cruelty) and motives (shadows, crime, paranoia, dreams, conspiracy, suspicion),
Instead of trying to define thrillers, it might be better to go back: what are the best movies often seen as examples of
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Johnathan Demme’s masterpiece sits on the border between thriller and horror films, and it is one of the few films in the latter category to win an Oscar. In terms of gore and violence, there isn’t too much of it – but the subject is pretty macabre: Clarice Starling (Jodie foster) enlists the help of the incarcerated cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony hopkins) in the hopes of hunting down a depraved serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). While the Gruesome Hunt would be engaging enough, Demme uses this bloody backdrop as a way to explore the genre dynamics and traumatic emotional life of the film’s protagonist. The criticisms of the film’s treatment of trans issues are well deserved, but the story is actually much more subtle than the latest wave of criticism attributes to it.
Director: Jonathan Demme
The main cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Duration: 118 minutes
IMDB Rating: 8.6
Basic Instinct (1992)
Paul Verhoeven’s films tend to border on genius so bad it’s good and actually clever – as all the best camp examples do. While the movie sparked a sort of proto-virality in one particularly lustful scene involving Sharon Stone, there’s more to this movie than an obscene pair of legs spread. Released in 1992, Primary instinct was quite ahead of her time when it came to portrayals of sex – and her lofty artistic aspirations led New York Times critic Janet Maslin to offer the compliment of comparing her to Hitchcock’s work. But, like all the best movies ever made, Primary instinct was also quite confrontational.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
The main cast: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza
Duration: 127 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.0
The nostalgia for the early 2000s is at an all time high and there is some retro craziness to this weird, mysterious story. However, Memento is probably the only mainstream movie ever to be told fully back in a narrative gesture that skillfully reflects the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia. The aesthetic may not hold up, but the film’s avant-garde gesture beneath the somewhat silly vanity is almost laughably ambitious for a mainstream film. Somehow, the story provides a satisfying conclusion as well.
Director: Christophe nolan
The main cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Duration: 113 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4
Such an excellent film that the Academy overcame its widespread xenophobia to sing its praises! Although it functions perfectly as a completely messed up mystery – with a number of really unexpected twists! – Parasite is also a poignant semi-Marxist commentary on the difficulties of escaping poverty and the increasingly underground class resentment. Bong Joon-ho had made a series of absurdly incredible films before mainstream critics realized his genius, including great science fiction films, but Parasite is his best work to date.
Director: Bong Joon Ho
The main cast: Kang-ho Song, Sun-Kyun Lee, Yeo-Jeong Jo
Duration: 132 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.6
Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s Deeply Unreachable Nightmares are among the most controversial films in cinematic history with devotees praising his shameless embrace of surrealism and his detractors simply claiming that nothing he creates makes sense. It is true that Mulholland Drive doesn’t exactly have a cohesive plot, but if you can embrace the logic of dreams, there’s something beautifully infuriating about Lynch’s menacing cosmology. No one could dispute the black-inspired beauty of Lynch’s cinematography, nor could anyone challenge Naomi Watts’ power as an actress – playing both a naive actress who stumbles upon criminal enterprises from beyond. this world and a broken version of the mirror world of the same character. You can check out our list of the best David Lynch movies for more of his work.
Director: David Lynch
The main cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Duration: 147 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.0
Lady Vengeance (2005)
South Korean revenge movies are basically their own thriller subgenre and that of Park Chan-wook Lady Vengeance is one of his most underrated entries. This film is technically the third in a (very!) Loosely related trilogy – and although it is inevitably compared to its more popular cinematic siblings (Old boy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), it definitely holds up. After being released from prison, the protagonist begins a labyrinthine hunt for the murderer who may or may not have trapped her, but she won’t come out of her quest without a lot of blood on her hands. Showcasing perhaps one of the strongest makeup looks in movie history, the film is a bloodthirsty fantasy not for the faint of heart.
Director: Chan-wook Park
The main cast: Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Shi-hoo Kim
Duration: 115 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Stephen King’s short, meta-textual novel about a literary fanatic who captures her favorite author and holds him hostage for her own (sexual?) Satisfaction has been turned into an excellent dark and suspenseful film by director Rob Reiner. Kathy Bates became an unlikely horror icon after filming in this deeply deranged performance and the film’s climax is one of the most viscerally smelly moments ever captured on film. Fun fact: Misery has the rare honor of being the only Stephen King film to win an Oscar.
Director: Rob Reiner
The main cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth
Duration: 107 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Critics have claimed Nicholas Winding Refn’s brooding neo-noir was an amateur example of style rather than substance, but Drivethe growing cult of followers thwarts this style is substance when done right. Brutalist landscapes bathed in neon, minimalist existential dialogue, sleek, overrated costumes, and an Italo-disco-influenced soundtrack provided by Johnny Jewel’s wizarding cabal elevate what was sadly heralded as a film by rather average action in the field of great art. You can also check out our list of the best Netflix movies to find out more.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
The main cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Duration: 100 min
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Hitchcock created the blueprint for what would define the genre of thriller, and although his most popular or critically-acclaimed films like Rear window and psychopath could certainly have earned a spot on this list, BewitchedThe dream sequences of – directed by none other than Salvador Dali – give a magical quality to this scary little thriller. There’s more of an avant-garde twist here: The two red frames that appear at the end of the film represent a prime example of the experimental use of color in mainstream cinema.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The main cast: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Checkhov
Duration: 111 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.6
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Eyes Wide Closed (1999)
Eyes wide closed is perhaps Kubrick’s least-loved film – it turns out that stories involving underground and ultra-opulent Satanic sex sects aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. The real tension between soon-to-be-divorced Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman plays out in this story about the danger of unrequited lust. Kubrick’s expected cinematic eye is on full display, and Kidman’s notorious monologue about her eroticized memories of a sexual encounter she wished she had pursued is somewhat melancholy, disturbing, and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The main cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field
Duration: 159 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.4