Instead of spilling oodles of blood, thrillers are full of conflict, unexpected twists, and tensions that bring you to the brink of insanity. Better yet, the fear, terror, and uncertainty a viewer experiences in a thriller force them to question and reflect on themselves, those closest to them, and even their own reality.
That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the best 50 thriller movies you surely won’t be able to stop biting your nails:
1. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
Jonathan Demme’s tale of a serial killer set in a troubled America is always accompanied by an undercurrent of violence. And just as unconventional comes his savior – a female law enforcement officer: FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, combining strength and vulnerability).
Silence of the Lambs represents a bloodthirsty butcher of women and the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a nightmarishly manipulative collaborator with a penchant for liver and fava beans. With its extraordinary cross-section leading to its grand finale (a twisty revelation sends shivers down your spine), “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of the greatest films of the 90s and one of the few thrillers to be honored in a big way at the Oscars.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
One of the most iconic films of the 70s is also one of the most suspenseful: Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran, turned cab driver battling his inner demons, is one of the defining depictions of fractured masculinity. Scorsese brilliantly portrays a troubled mind in a way that leaves audiences holding their breath.
3. L. A. Confidential, 1997
There are plenty of pitfalls to shooting a film noir from the middle of the last century to the here and now. The genre – is considered as such – relies on well-worn conventions, and directors who stick to them can too often get lost in a pastiche. Ruben Fleischer’s 2013 shoot-em-up Gangster Squad is a good example of this.
The late, great Curtis Hanson hit “L.A. Confidential” from 1997 is the opposite: based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy, the greatest crime writer of our time, L.A. Confidential into the deep-rooted corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1950s.
It’s a beautiful, fast-paced piece of cinema that fulfills all your film noir expectations while offering complex, nuanced characters and an intricately woven plot. The film was bounced for a few Oscars by “Titanic,” but its popularity still endures.
4. Zodiac (2007)
The Zodiac killer’s death trial never found a satisfying conclusion in real life, but in the hands of David Fincher, the story became almost hypnotic for viewers. Jake Gyllenhaal plays cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr. crime reporter Paul Avery and Mark Ruffalo detective Dave Toschi. They all devote their lives to solving the mysterious murders – and deciphering the killer’s cat-and-mouse letters to the newspaper – and find only obsession and possibly ruin as their reward. Zodiac is everything a thriller can be.
A harrowing accounting of the killer’s murders. A revealing drama about obsession. A detail-oriented documentary of a riveting murder investigation. And in the end, though the film never says the mystery has been solved, it ends in a chilling sequence in which one of the heroes comes closer to solving it than ever before. Zodiac is not only one of the best thrillers of the century so far but also intelligently and absolutely riveting and filmed with a star-studded cast.
5. No Country for Old Men, 2007
This is the best film the Coen brothers have ever produced for the money. This absolutely masterfully shot, superbly acted, and incredibly suspenseful cat-and-mouse story describes how Josh Brolin, as a law firm foreman, takes off with some stolen money, pursued by a mercenary played by a fearsome Javier Bardem. The Dawn Chase will surely be shown in film schools for decades.
6. Black Swan, 2010
The dramatic world of ballet is fertile ground for exploring the jealousies and obsessions of professionals. Darren Aronofsky’s lurid psychological thriller deepens the irresistibly creepy notion of doppelgängers with committed performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who take the backstage maneuvering to dizzying extremes.
7. Drive, 2011
With Ryan Gosling starring as a stunt driver for movie productions and robbers, nothing stands in the way of the film’s success per se. The main character falls in love with young mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) soon causes trouble for the stunt driver. Featuring one of the bloodiest bathroom kill scenes in film history, this film boasts a soundtrack that is as brilliant as the cast, plot, and cinematography.
8. Source Code, 2011
After making a splash with the indie hit “Moon,” director Duncan Jones followed it up with this stunning science-fiction thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an Army captain who must find the person responsible for a bombing on a Chicago train by entering a simulated reality of the event.
He has just eight minutes to work against the clock and identify the bomber before another attack occurs in the real world. A heady story in its own right, but Jones turns it into a compelling piece of entertainment. As our hero roams further and further through the simulation, shocking revelations occur, and the situation at hand becomes distorted in unexpected ways.
9. Compliance, 2012
The manager of a fast-food restaurant receives a call from a police officer informing her that one of her employees is a criminal and needs to be arrested. If that sounds suspicious, wait and see. It gets absolutely grotesque, as it turns out that people will do absolutely anything to each other as long as an authority figure – even a disembodied voice on the phone – tells them it’s okay.
This is not an idea that Craig Zobel’s Compliance is taking on for the first time. The film is inspired by a true story in which a prank phone call led to a despicable civil rights violation. Most amazingly, the film manages to take this unbelievable situation and make the audience understand how something like this can happen and what kind of people can be influenced by an authoritarian voice.
Dreama Walker is completely believable and sympathetic as the young woman her employer abused. Ann Dowd gives a great performance as the woman who believes she is doing the right thing, no matter how terrible it is.
10. Zero Dark Thirty, 2012
The average presidential tweet these days is more controversial than anything in Kathryn Bigelow’s geopolitical thriller. It’s strange, therefore, that the film narrowly escaped congressional investigation upon its release. The main accusation against Bigelow – that the U.S. government tacitly condoned the use of torture in her account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden – is confirmed in an unequivocal look at U.S. foreign policy. A smart thriller that doesn’t skimp on pyrotechnics.
11. Locke, 2013
Long before Alfie Solomons wished Birmingham’s underworld its first mazel tov in Peaky Blinders, Tom Hardy and writer Steven Knight had already collaborated on this brilliant thriller of a different kind. The whole thing takes place over the course of a car ride from Birmingham to London, with only the main character Ivan Locke on screen and other characters heard over the speakerphone.
He tries to do justice to a woman with whom he had a one-night stand and who is now having his child by being at the birth. At the same time, he has to oversee a giant concrete pour in Birmingham by phone. At the same time, it doesn’t sound like a high-stakes game of life and death. Yet the film is riveting, with Hardy in extraordinary form. Each of the 85 minutes is counted.
12. Grand Piano, 2014
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 overcome his fears with another show. And as soon as he sits down at the piano, he learns that a sniper is aiming for his head and will kill him if he misses even a solitary note. Eugenio Mira’s “Grand Piano” plot is so highly conceived as absurd, yet it is riveting.
The cinematography and editing are virtuosic, reflecting the legacy of Brian De Palma’s classics, and the intensity and cleverness of the story maintain tension throughout the film. The screenplay is by Damien Chazelle, who later wrote and directed the Oscar-winning musician drama “Whiplash,” which is also about the dangers artists face in their pursuit of perfection. But while “Whiplash” was emotionally apocalyptic, “Grand Piano” is a playful thrill ride and proves that any concept, no matter how seemingly ridiculous, can be riveting when talented filmmakers strike the right notes.
13. Gone Girl, 2014
Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), “Gone Girl” is a work that looks behind the facade of seemingly ordinary people and brings out the frightening. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is married to the famous Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike), but suddenly she disappears without a trace. A media circus ensues as Nick tries to keep his private life as secret as possible while trying to figure out exactly what happened to his wife.
Gone Girl is a film that thrives on secrecy while throwing in plenty of twists and turns. If nothing else, the film is a tense and anxiety-driven examination of the institution of marriage and how other people perceive a crisis situation very differently – be they neighbors, relatives, or the media.
14. Sicario, 2015
Denis Villeneuve’s devastating “Incendies” set the mood for what we can expect from this cold drug war thriller: no moral conscience and no happy ending. Like Alice in a drug wonderland, Emily Blunt disappears down the rabbit hole and into a violent world of realpolitik on the Mexican border as an inexperienced FBI agent. Villeneuve assembles spectacular set-pieces (the convoy sequence shot by the great Roger Deakins) while painting a bleaker picture of the lawless badlands that even Trump can pull off.
15. UTØYA-JULY 22, 2018
The 2011 terrorist attack on a Norwegian Labor Party youth camp that killed 69 people set the stage for two films released around the same time in 2018. Unlike Paul Greengrass’ sprawling “22. July,” which also follows the day’s events, Utøya doesn’t give right-wing extremist Anders Breivik any screen time except for a few brief glimpses.
Instead, Erik Poppe’s film follows teenage Kaja in a single shot as the horror unfolds around her in real-time. Utøya is not so much a thriller as it is a testament to heinous events. Still, the film is incredibly well made and gripping in a very frightening way while focusing on the experiences of the victims and survivors rather than Breivik’s political views.
16. A Simple Favor, 2018
Thrillers can be funny, too, though not many thrillers are as funny as Paul Feig’s stylish, sexy and self-aware “Just a Little Favor.” The film stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a wholesome “mommy blogger” who befriends Emily Nelson, a well-dressed, frequent socialite played by Blake Lively when Emily asks Stephanie for “a little favor” that involves her watching over Emily’s son.
But when Emily disappears without a trace, Stephanie also has Emily’s handsome husband on her hands, as well as a mystery that desperately needs solving. But behind its masterfully funny performances and the film’s clever story is an extraordinarily subversive tale of jealousy, possessiveness, and unexpected sexual abysses.
17. A Beautiful Day, 2017
Lynne Ramsay’s (in the original version, You Were Never Really Here) has the plot of a thriller but absolutely no interest in pandering to audiences’ sense of conventional entertainment. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a mentally unstable and suicidal man who makes his living rescuing missing children.
When his latest job leads him into the wretched world of sex trafficking and into the crosshairs of a wealthy and influential man, the job eventually becomes deeply personal, and violence erupts. The world is dark enough as it is, and that sensibility is what makes this thriller all the more unique and intriguing. The finale is impossibly revealing and incredibly shocking.
18. Joker, 2019
Director Todd Phillips decided to explore the origins of Batman’s arch-nemesis, Joker, in this 2019 psychological thriller. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the title character, Joker tells the story of a failed stand-up comedian in the ’80s who slowly drives himself insane as he becomes Gotham City’s biggest criminal.
Although the film caused a lot of controversy upon its release, audiences were still intrigued by its dark themes and interesting main character. At the Academy Awards, the film finally won an Oscar for “best original score” and “best actor.”
19. With a Friend Like Harry…, 2000
A chance encounter in a public restroom reunites Michel (Laurent Lucas) with an old school friend named Harry (Sergi Lopez). Although Michel has no memories of Harry, Harry remembers everything about him. And Harry is disappointed to discover that young Michel – who had so much potential – struggles in the years that follow with a broken car, a nagging wife, annoying kids, and overbearing parents. But for Harry, no problem can’t be solved.
In Dominik Moll’s subtle, razor-sharp thriller, the anxieties of family life become a grotesque series of obstacles and a gruesome series of murders. But what’s even more disturbing than the violence is the possibility that, deep down, Michel actually appreciates what Harry does for him. And Moll’s film is not so much about a murderer invading an innocent man’s life but about the possibility that anyone could become a monster if allowed to permanently remove an obstacle from his life. A terrible thought and a terrible movie.
20. Ripley’s Game, 2002
Patricia Highsmith’s numerous tales of Tom Ripley – the changeable, sociopathic killer – have been adapted for 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 depicts an older, more comfortable Ripley, played by a brilliant John Malkovich. He has already found love, and he has already found wealth. But when his neighbor Jonathan (Dougray Scott) insults Ripley behind his back at a party, he can’t help himself. Jonathan must be destroyed.
The game Ripley plays is diabolical and cruel. Still, the initial, wicked thrill of seeing Jonathan forced to commit murder evolves into an unlikely friendship – if you can call it that – between Ripley and his toy. Even Ripley, the master manipulator, is surprised at where his latest plan takes him. Cavani’s sophisticated, mature play is a part twisted character study, part thriller.