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The 12 best thriller movies that stand the test of time

Thriller movies to watch: 12 must-see flicks

Finding a great thriller can be harder than it seems, in part because the genre does not have a firm definition. Its boundaries are fluid, and that means that you could argue that a wide number of vastly different movies are all thrillers of one sort or another. It’s not the same as something like an action movie or a horror movie, which has pretty clear conventions and rules that it generally abides by.

In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart infamously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it” — and perhaps the same is true for thrillers. There are definitely some defining through-lines, including murder, lying, and plenty of sex. Ultimately, though, the thriller is really defined by how it makes the viewer feel, which makes choosing the best thriller movies a bit difficult.

Scene featuring the iconic mask worn in the 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut.

The best thriller movies help us better understand what a thriller actually is. By looking at them, we can begin to understand what makes a thriller a thriller, and what makes the best ones so great.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs
85 %
r 119m
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece sits between thriller and horror, and it’s one of the few films in the latter category to ever win Academy Awards. There isn’t too much gore or violence, but the subject matter is rather grisly. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enlists the help of incarcerated serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in the hopes of hunting down a depraved serial murderer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). While the gruesome hunt would be engaging enough, Demme uses this bloody backdrop to explore gender dynamics and the trauma-worn emotional life of the film’s protagonist. Criticisms around the film’s handling of transgender issues are well-deserved, but the story is actually far more subtle than some  critics give it credit for.

Basic Instinct (1992)
Basic Instinct
41 %
r 127m
Genre Thriller, Mystery
Stars Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s movies tend to sit squarely between artful camp and artful genius — as all the best examples of camp do. Although this film garnered a kind of proto-virality over one particularly lascivious scene involving Sharon Stone, there’s more to it than a pair of lewdly spread legs. Released in 1992, Basic Instinct was ahead of its time as far as depictions of sex go — and its high-art aspirations had New York Times critic Janet Maslin comparing it to Hitchcock’s work. But, like many of the best movies ever made, Basic Instinct was rather divisive at the time, and still is today.

Memento (2000)
80 %
r 113m
Genre Mystery, Thriller
Stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Early 2000s nostalgia is at an all-time high, and there’s a certain retro goofiness to this bizarre mystery. While it may feel a little broad today, Memento is one of the only mainstream movies to ever be told partially backward, which is of a gesture that cleverly mirrors the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia. The aesthetic might not hold up, but the avant-garde gesture underneath the movie’s somewhat silly conceit is almost preposterously ambitious for a mainstream movie. Knowing that it’s an early Christopher Nolan film only makes the obsession with time and memory feel even more apt, given what he would focus on going forward.

Parasite (2019)
96 %
r 133m
Genre Comedy, Thriller, Drama
Stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Parasite proved so excellent that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got over its widespread xenophobia to sing its praises. Although it functions perfectly as a completely unhinged mystery — with a number of truly unexpected twists — Parasite also adds a layer of poignant Marxist commentary on the difficulties of escaping poverty. The movie is boiling over with class resentment, which only feels more urgent as the plot unfolds. Bong Joon-ho made a series of absurdly amazing movies before this one, including some great sci-fi movies, but Parasite is his best work yet.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Mulholland Drive
85 %
Genre Thriller, Drama, Mystery
Stars Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s deeply inaccessible nightmares are some of the most divisive movies in cinema history, with enthusiasts praising his unabashed embrace of surrealism and his detractors simply claiming that nothing he creates makes any damn sense. It’s true that Mulholland Drive doesn’t exactly have a coherent plot, but if you can embrace the logic of dreams there’s something gorgeously maddening about Lynch’s menacing cosmology. No one could dispute the noir-inspired beauty of Lynch’s cinematography, nor could anyone argue with Naomi Watts’ power as an actress, and those things work even better in combination. Watts, playing both a naïve actress who stumbles upon criminal enterprises from beyond this world and a broken-down mirror-world version of the same character, is great in both roles. You can check out our list of the best David Lynch movies for more of his work.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Pan's Labyrinth
98 %
Genre Fantasy, Drama, War
Stars Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdú, Sergi López
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
An imaginative fairy-tale thriller from director Guillermo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is not the scariest movie on this list, but it is absolutely worth a watch for its thrilling premise and symbolism. Telling the story of Ofelia, (Ivana Baquero) a character whose mother has just married a sadistic military captain, we see her discover the supernatural underworld of the small village she’s been forced to move to. Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical visions are a wonder to behold, and they’ve never been more fully realized than in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Misery (1990)
75 %
r 107m
Genre Drama, Thriller
Stars James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth
Directed by Rob Reiner
Stephen King’s meta-textual short novel about a literary fanatic who captures her favorite author and holds him hostage for her own gratification was turned into an excellent and darkly suspenseful movie by director Rob Reiner. Kathy Bates became an unlikely horror icon after turning in this deeply deranged performance, and the film’s foot-breaking climax is one of the most viscerally nauseating moments ever captured on film. Fun fact: Misery has the rare honor of being the only Stephen King movie to ever capture an Oscar, which went to Bates as best actress for her perfectly deranged turn in the movie.

Drive (2011)
78 %
r 100m
Genre Drama, Thriller, Crime
Stars Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Critics claimed that Nicholas Winding Refn’s moody neo-noir was an amateurish example of style over substance, but Drive’s growing cult of followers counter that style is substance when it’s done with enough panache. Neon-drenched brutalist landscapes, minimalist existential dialogue, elegant and overstated costuming, and an Italo-disco-influenced soundtrack provided by Johnny Jewel’s cabal of witchy women elevate what was unfortunately advertised as a rather average action movie into the realm of high art. Add in Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, and you have the performers to make the material sing.

Spellbound (1945)
79 %
pg-13 111m
Genre Mystery, Thriller, Romance
Stars Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock created the blueprint for what would go on to define the thriller genre, and although his more popular or critically beloved movies like Rear Window and Psycho certainly could have earned a spot on this list, Spellbound’s dream sequences — guest-directed by none other than Salvador Dali — give a magical quality to this creepy little whodunnit. There’s more than one avant-garde twist here: The two frames of red that pop up at the movie’s conclusion represent an early example of experimental usage of color in mainstream cinema. The movie features a little bit of terrible pop psychology, but it’s story of a psychiatric patient who masquerades as a doctor is highly original, and Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman are both terrific.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut
68 %
Genre Drama, Thriller, Mystery
Stars Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s least appreciated movie — it turns out that stories involving underground and ultra-opulent Satanic sex cults aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Even so, the real-life tension between the soon-to-be-divorced Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is played up in this story about the danger of unrequited lust. Kubrick’s expectedly beautiful 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 somehow melancholic, disturbing, and heart-wrenching all at once.
Zodiac (2007)
78 %
Genre Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, June Diane Raphael
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher has made a number of terrific thrillers over the course of his career, but Zodiac is often seen as his magnum opus. Telling the story of the still-unsolved Zodiac murders in the 1970s in San Francisco, the movie is really about what obsession with this kind of case can do to a person. The killings themselves are dramatized in truly horrific fashion, but the central performances from Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal are all deeply compelling. Zodiac is a dark movie, but it’s completely captivating from the moment it starts.
Zodiac (2007) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers
Chinatown (1974)
92 %
Genre Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Directed by Roman Polanski
One of the defining noirs of the 20th century, Chinatown is both an homage and an intentional update to what noirs can be. Featuring totally captivating work from both Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the movie follows a private detective who unravels a grand conspiracy, only to discover that unveiling the secret doesn’t do anyone much good. In fact, lives are lost, and a lot of blood is shed unnecessarily. In the end, all that Nicholson’s detective is left with is one of the great closing lines in all of cinema: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Jake may forget, but we never will.
Chinatown - Trailer

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