Thrillers and suspense movies tend to attract cinema’s very best filmmakers — the genre’s intricate plots and potential for meaty performances can be hard to resist. Thrillers also have the benefit of generating scares without the stigma of horror movies, which are often (wrongly) considered too “base” to be considered art.
That’s resulted in a bumper crop of superior thrillers and suspense movies from every era of the genre’s history, starting with the advent of sound. A good handful of directors and actors have made names for themselves for their work within the thriller genre, including titanic figures of the film industry like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Anthony Hopkins.
Updated on October 6th, 2023 by David Giatras: Good thriller movies thrive on suspense. Viewers flock to the top thriller films in order to be on the edge of their seats following a mystery riddled with suspense. The most memorable thrillers are able to balance suspense, a great plot and at many times, a twist ending.
25 The Prestige
The Prestige, from director Christopher Nolan, stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as magicians who become bitter rivals after a trick gone wrong. The film explores their longstanding feud and the lengths both of them will go to in order to be the best.
Considered one of Nolan’s best films, the suspense is off the charts and keeps the audience guessing until the very end. On a rewatch, it is alluded to that the film gives away its big twist in the very first shot of the film with the voiceover: “Are you watching closely?” It challenges viewers to look for the clues hiding in plain sight.
24 Air Force One
Air Force One stars Harrison Ford as President James Marshall, who is flying aboard Air Force One with his family en route back to the United States from Russia. The plane is hijacked by a group of Russian terrorists, and Marshall fights to take the plane back.
While the thriller has plenty of suspense, some of it is seen through the eyes of the terrorists as at first they are unaware that they are being taken down by the President himself. Ford shines in the role, with his charisma and action hero chops on full display for a rousing, unforgettable thriller.
23 Funny Games
Funny Games follows two young men, Paul and Peter, who terrorize a family that moves into the vacation home next door to them. The men play sadistic games to terrorize the family throughout the film, and Paul is fully aware that he is in a movie.
The suspense of this thriller is unnerving, as Paul constantly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. It almost even makes it seem like the viewer is in on the pair’s horrific plot. The film’s director, Michael Haneke, has stated that the film is meant to send a message about violence in the media.
Misery stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon, an award-winning novelist who is taken hostage by his “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). After Annie saves him from a car accident, she holds him hostage at her home and forces him to redo the ending of her favorite book series that he wrote. It is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her creepy, violent performance as Wilkes. The suspense of the film stems from the viewer knowing that something is off about Annie, despite claiming to be Sheldon’s number one fan. After her true intentions are revealed, the viewer must watch in terror to see if Paul can make it out alive.
Seven stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two homicide detectives who investigate a serial killer who is basing his murders on the seven deadly sins. As the murder victims pile up, the pair race to find the John Doe killer (Kevin Spacey) and hope to bring him to justice.
The film is a hard watch and is famous for its twist ending of “What’s in the box?” While promoting the film, the identity of the killer was a mystery and Kevin Spacey did not receive top billing in order to keep the surprise reveal under wraps. Seven is now regarded as one of the best thrillers ever made with one of the best endings in cinema history.
20 Black Swan
Natalie Portman won the Oscar for Darren Aronofsky’s study of a ballerina slowly losing her mind under the pressures of a big performance. Black Swan draws heavily on Roman Polanski’s thrillers of the 1960s, creating a haunted world where reality and hallucination become indistinguishable. In the process, it reinvents the idea for the celebrity-obsessed 21st century.
As a study of the artist under pressure, it flips Aronofsky’s The Wrestler: showing someone on top of their game in contrast to the earlier film’s end-of-his-rope ex-star. But once those fears came scuttling out of its protagonist, the psychological analysis turned into something far more terrifying. The finale blends triumph and tragedy to the point where the two become indistinguishable.
The late William Friedkin had the misfortune to open one of his greatest — and bleakest — films in the wake of Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. Forgotten at the time, his update of the French film The Wages of Fear has matured to become one of the best thrillers of the 1970s. Four men, all wanted for various crimes, take an unconscionably dangerous job driving two truckloads of sweaty dynamite across a barely maintained jungle highway.
Within that framework, every bump and pothole becomes a white-knuckle moment, which Friedkin turns into some of the most intense set pieces in movie history. But the film’s strongest segments involve the four protagonists, all of whom richly deserve their fate and yet still find ways to elevate themselves amid the worst circumstances available. This character work gives the shocker ending an extra twist of the knife.
18 Wait Until Dark
Suspenseful plays make a tempting subject for filmmakers, with elevated public profiles and scripts often all but pre-written. They’re also trickier than they look, and can result in canned theater more often than not. Wait Until Dark defies those pitfalls with deceptive ease, despite the fact that it more or less takes place in a single apartment.
Audrey Hepburn has never been better as “the world champion blind lady” whose home is invaded by criminals looking for loot she doesn’t know exists. What starts as deception soon turns deadly, as the crooks’ supposed victim proves far more resourceful than they anticipate. Director Terence Young uses sound as much as imagery to conjure the suspense, as well as some of the most vicious gaslighting ever put to film.
17 The Fugitive
Harrison Ford made his name on multi-movie characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but The Fugitive is his rare solo film that can stand among the best them. Based on the well-regarded 1960s TV series, it follows Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble — wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife — who escapes custody and seeks the real killer to clear his name.
Under the auspices of director Andrew Davis, The Fugitive condenses a four-season slog into 130 minutes of tension-fueled adrenaline. The film’s various set pieces all shine on the same basic premise that Kimble can’t let himself be caught, including a few riffs on Hitchcock that capture some of The Master’s magic. But the film’s real strength is the long-distance showdown between Ford and Tommy Lee Jones as his implacable pursuer, which netted Jones an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
16 Blood Simple
Joel and Ethan Coen’s remarkable careers began with Blood Simple, with their signature bloody humor, complex plotting, and human ineptitude on full display. The title refers to the way people lose their heads amid extended violence, which they translate into a bungled case of framing that goes sideways deep in the Texas prairie.
The Byzantine storyline stems from easy-to-understand emotions: jealousy, greed, and sometimes just boredom. With Frances McDormand’s anti-femme-fatale caught in the middle, the audience can pull for her safety as the other characters each fall to pieces in their own unique ways.
After a promising start directing the likes of Columbo and Marcus Welby, MD, Steven Spielberg got a shot at a TV movie. The results — about a cross-country driver inexplicably menaced by a murderous big-rig — were so good that Duel went from a TV movie to a theatrical release without a hitch. The director never looked back.
The astonishing thing about Duel is how terrifyingly plausible it remains 50 years later. Spielberg mines every bit of the tension from Richard Matheson’s original short story, presented dialogue-free in some cases and relying on Dennis Weaver’s white-knuckle performance to hit the right emotional beats. For all the wonders he’s created since, Duel earns a spot among the director’s very best.
14 Touch of Evil
Hollywood’s classic period of film noir unofficially ended with Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ grim examination of corruption in a U.S. border town. Besides the infamous choice of Charlton Heston for the Mexican hero, the movie never misses a step, with Welles himself playing the unsavory police chief who frames Heston’s new bride for the murder of a local crime lord.
Racial politics simmer beneath the surface, though the film never quite confronts them head on. Nevertheless, it tinges every corner of the screen, along with the overbearing weight of a corrupt system that rewards indifference and expediency. Justice triumphs in the conclusion, but it feels like a temporary victory at best: a fitting closure to noir’s Golden Age.
13 Blue Velvet
David Lynch has a keen interest in extremes, particularly when it comes to good and evil. Blue Velvet explores the depths of the latter lurking beneath an almost absurdly pure Washington logging town. Kyle McLaughlin and Laure Dern play Hansel and Gretel when a severed human ear unlocks a seething den of criminal sadists lurking behind the white picket fences.
The real star of the film is Dennis Hopper, as the gas-huffing maniac whose corrosive desires transform everything around him into a nightmare. Lynch adds his singularly surreal touch to Hopper’s performance, making manifest what most directors only hint at. Amid the optimistic 80s, they — and the movie — reminded everyone what still lay just under the surface.
12 The French Connection
Movies tend to portray police work as either sexy and adventurous, or the solemn duty of dedicated do-gooders. The French Connection reveals it as monotonous and often miserable: sitting for hours on end, eating bad food, and sifting through mountains of potential evidence with very little chance of striking gold. Yet not only is it necessary, the film argues, it can often be deadly, with threats arising seemingly from nowhere.
The French Connection filters that through the prism of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, seeking to bust a drug smuggling ring on the mean streets of New York. The late William Friedkin breaks every rule in the book right alongside his protagonist: taking the glamour out of his world and replacing it with the law of the jungle. He even adds a car chase for the ages as a chaser.
11 The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others reckons with Communist East Germany the same way 2004’s Downfall reckons with the Nazis: confronting what half the nation lived under for decades after the end of World War II. It depicts members of the Stasi secret police monitoring a famous playwright who has previously shown no disloyalty to the state.
Director Florian Kenckel von Donnersmarck relies less on suspense than slow, creeping paranoia. The film’s shady protagonist gets tangled up in head games so subtle, he’s scarcely aware of it, rendering pointless any notion of what it means to be a “good East German.” Beneath it all lies the troubling message that the truth — the real truth — might always be hidden from human eyes.
Few thrillers are as inherently cinematic as Memento, despite its low budget and no-nonsense setting. Guy Pearce’s seemingly tough detective has lost the ability to form new memories, leaving him at a loss every time a new scene opens. Christopher Nolan tells the tale backwards, as his protagonist shoots a man over the opening credits, then reverses his steps until his reasons for doing so are revealed.
Far from a gimmick, the structure puts the audience squarely in the detective’s corner, inverting noir’s traditional themes of deception and surface. Everything becomes subjective: removing the context of each new face and circumstance until the whole world becomes a mystery. Pearce must infer the solutions, leading him far astray of what he hopes to accomplish. The answers he seeks become an ongoing tragedy, forcing him to run from the very peace he hopes to find.
Revenge makes an easy concept for thrillers, but few examine the cost so mercilessly as Oldboy. Choi Min-sik’s seemingly passive businessman spends 15 years imprisoned, with no explanation as to who did it or why. His release only deepens the mystery as he sets out to settle the score with whoever destroyed his life.
The film is best known for its one-take corridor fight scene, still eye-popping over two decades later. It punctuates a staggering level of violence, creatively deployed by director Chan-wook Park. But, it’s the psychological torment that makes Oldboy linger in the memory: revealing wounds far deeper than any physical injuries could ever match.
Diabolique gets the jump Hitchcock’s Psycho by urging its audience not to reveal the finale. Indeed, director Georges Clouzot reportedly snapped up the rights to the original novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac before Hitchcock could. It’s hard to imagine even The Master of Suspense topping the results.
The story entails a cruel boarding school headmaster whose frail wife and conniving mistress conspire to murder him. All goes well until the body disappears before it can be discovered, throwing their careful plans into a cocked hat. The finale definitely merits a spoiler alert, and manages not one but two big reveals that dovetail into pitch-perfect closure.
7 The Manchurian Candidate
Life darkly imitates life in John Frankenheimer’s political chiller about a group of U.S. soldiers brainwashed to serve as political assassins. John F. Kennedy’s assassination 13 months after the film’s released made an eerie match, and while the film was never banned (despite rumors to the contrary), its ostensibly far-fetched plot now feels terrifyingly plausible.
Frank Sinatra was never better as one of the soldiers, who put two and two together just before a major political convention with the conspiracy’s target scheduled to speak. Nor was Angela Lansbury, who gave the best performance of her storied career as the sinister power monger at the heart of the conspiracy. The Manchurian Candidate didn’t play coy with real-world politics either, and time has proven the eerie accuracy of its accusations.
6 North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock perfected the thriller, with at least a dozen films under his belt that could legitimately be considered the best ever made. North by Northwest is one of his strongest, not only for its taut plot, but for the way he brought humor and romance into the equation. Cary Grant plays a typically droll ad executive mistaken for a secret agent by unsavory types who want him dead.
It plays elegantly with one of Hitchcock’s favorite tropes — the innocent man wrongly accused — with the twist that there is no “real” spy to bail Grant’s Roger Thornhill out. That slides into another of the Master’s signature themes: the fluidity of identity. Thornhill finds himself becoming the spy he desperately doesn’t want to be, wrapped up in an irresistible cross-county adventure whose action sequences still hold up today.
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