I don’t know about you guys but I certainly love a good thriller film and I certainly loved Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. A film that left us breathless from start to finish with either gobsmacked shock or gut-busting laughter. So with that in mind, I decided now would be an excellent time to remember some of the best thriller hits of the 2010’s. Now the term, or genre, “thriller” can be such a vague term. I mean a roller coaster ride or a great action film could be thrilling. A horror film with eerie music and creepy imagery could be thrilling. For us what truly makes a true standalone thriller film are the elements of mystery and tension. Where action films make the elaborate, explosive setpieces the cake and horror films emphasize on the release of tension, thriller films are distinctly unique.
It is in the waiting and the searching in which the genre finds its centre. It is the journey into darkness that is emphasized, not so much the revelatory light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time we celebrate the genre with a countdown of its very best throughout the decade.
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Though it may not exactly be the ideal follow-up to Matt Reeves’ iconic 2008 found-footage creature-feature Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane excels in another category. A claustrophobic cabin-fever film with the survivors of an apparent apocalyptic event finding themselves trapped in a bunker ran by John Goodman’s Howard. Tensions run high as the survivors, namely Elizabeth Mary Winstead’s Michelle try to make sense of the situation. Are they the lucky lot spared from annihilation or are they being held here some sick, twisted game of family?
Goodman’s performance as the antsy and smothering Howard serves as the main source of conflict. I had a mental checklist throughout the entire film. Weighing out the evidence for whether or not Howard is a truthful guardian or some perverted nutcase. A triumphant showcase of Goodman’s dramatic chops and a wonderful “mystery box” film to get you that thriller fix.
9. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Sometimes the meat of a good thriller isn’t so much found in camerawork or visuals than it is in its dialogue. A prime example of this can be found in a piece by the King of Dialogue himself, Quentin Tarantino. While The Hateful Eight might not exactly rank amongst the top echelon of his works, it is a masterclass on how to layer conversations. One moment an anecdote, the very next could be a death threat. And that’s precisely the beauty of The Hateful Eight.
Eight reprehensible people, the likes of bounty hunters, mercenaries and outlaws, all cooped up in a lodge to wait out a storm. With nothing but time on their hands to talk. Where the death outside is certain, the death waiting inside is not. It is all contingent on the power of the tongue. One slip-up, one lie too many could be a trigger for a bloodbath. So we wait and listen…until it comes.
8. Knives Out (2019)
Though it has only been out in theatres for a few days, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is already making huge waves. Much like our resident film critic, Dashran, I too thought Knives Out to be a delightfully grim and humorous affair. Where modern homages to classic whodunnit films like 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2015’s Mortdecai have failed, Knives Out succeeds. With charismatic performances and witty writing, Johnson has crafted a tantalizingly twisted tale of family fortunes, brutal backstabs and malicious murder.
Thrillers have often accrued a reputation for being disturbing and sombre. Knives Out shows that there’s more to the genre than meets the eye. In this case, fun. The film will have you using every bit of your detective skills to see this twisted web unravelled. That is when it’s not poking fun at the tropes of the genre. Seriously if you love shows like BBC’s Sherlock, then Knives Out is your cup of tea.
7. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The original Blade Runner was a poignant discussion of the intersection between Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and the human experience. A landmark entry for sci-fi legend Ridley Scott’s career. Scott always had an uncanny ability to weave high concepts with grounded humanity. An important aspect of a thriller is the drive of the search. To look for answers where they may be none. Or worse, where the truth is more frightening than the lie. In Denis Villeneuve, Scott has found a successor to his original. Enter Blade Runner 2049.
A neo-noir science fiction film that follows an artificial human detective, K as he uncovers a vast and insidious conspiracy involving corporations. Played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling, K is a Replicant desperately looking for answers to a case that could define the future of mankind, his people and his identity. With gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 will have your mind racing and heart-melting by the end of it all.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
So far we’ve covered cabin-fever pressure cookers and detective mysteries but I couldn’t possibly have a thriller list without an espionage pick. For my pick, I went with Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Set in the era of the Cold War, the film sees the British government calling a retired British spy, George Smiley played by Gary Oldman, back into service. His mission: to find and eliminate a mole in the organization.
No fancy toys. No bombastic gunfights. The only weapons here worth a dime are an eagle eye and sharp tongue. Tinker Tailor’s mellow if not absent score was an inspired choice. It is a film that demands your full attention. There are no musical cues or smoking gun zoom-ins to inform you. Miss a beat and you may miss the whole context for a sniper kill. Fail to pick up on a line and the events that follow may seem incoherent. Tinker Tailor is the most unforgiving of the genre but also one of its most rewarding.
5. Prisoners (2013)
Next to David Fincher (we’ll get to him soon enough), Villeneuve has proven to be a true master of suspense. A sensation synonymous with the thriller genre is emotional constipation. A film that epitomizes this concept is Prisoners. Not so much a ticking time-bomb and more of a leaking gas line making its way through the neighbourhood. Tragedy after tragedy, compounded upon one another till we see the true extent of the catastrophe wrought upon the world. In this case, a sleepy suburban neighbourhood. Rarely have a film have left me so distraught as that of 2013’s Prisoners. A picture of a father, played by Hugh Jackman, crossing every line to see his children come home.
One particular scene involving a hammer and a bathroom sink has been forever etched into my mind. Villeneuve’s brand of thriller terror can be likened to that of a needle-thin stiletto dagger. He hits us so with quickly, we barely notice. Then, like a river, it all comes out. Rage, despair, hate and confusion. Prisoners is not for the faint of heart. It is a bone-chilling exploration of the evil within us and absolutely deserves to be on our list.
4. Gone Girl (2014)
I told you, we’d get to him. We’ve talked a lot about anxiety and tension. The best kinds of thrillers are the ones that are able to invoke those emotions in the mundane. Not unlike the horror genre, it is a violation of the familiar. In 2014’s Gone Girl, Fincher takes aim at the notion of romance. For a while, we’ve made fetish the idea of unsustainable romantic relationships and the novelty that comes with it. Fincher has reached into the deepest depths of that fantasy and has turned it into a nightmare. Beyond that, I can say no more.
I can only say that Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s performance are nothing short of painfully true-to-life. I can only say that Gillian Flynn’s script is as graphic and emotionally visceral as her novel of the same name. It is paramount you come in blind and have a good rom-com waiting after. Trust me. You’ll need it.
3. Nightcrawler (2014)
Most thrillers have the audience view the events of the film through a conduit. Typically an everyman or one in search of answers. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, however, is a whole different beast altogether. It isn’t so much a passage into darkness but rather a perspective through its eyes. No, not even Hannibal Lecter himself can match the cold, slimy and ruthless mind of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom. The “hero” of our story so to speak. Experiencing Dan Gilroy’s masterpiece can be likened to that of being trapped with a caged animal.
It’s the breathless anticipation of what this thief-turned-media sensationalist will do next. Not just when he bares his teeth and flashes claws but in the quiet moments as well. Each line crossed feels all the more personal seeing that we know where he’s coming from and how his mind works. Not in lengthy internal monologues mind you but in every subtle twitch and glance. The true thrill here is watching a man play a reptile playing a man. Nightcrawler is cinema verite of the blackest variety.
2. Burning (2018)
Earlier, I discussed the concept of emotional constipation and the hunt for answers. More often than not, by the end, we see the web fully untangled. The light at the end of the tunnel…but what if we didn’t? What if we had a film built on nothing but the “search” itself? Korean director Lee Chang-Dong dares to answer these questions in the form of 2018’s Burning. The film’s premise is simple enough: two childhood friends, Lee Jong-su and Shin Hae-mi, meet up after a long time, with one clearly having romantic feelings for the other.
But when a handsome and wealthy stranger appears out of the blue, their entire worlds are turned upside down. Hae-mi disappears. Much like composer Mowg’s low, bubbling score, Burning is a slow burn. It challenges the audience to pick up on the silent wars and self-destructions that take place within the mind of Yoo-Ah in’s Jong-su. For taking such a bold risk in denying the audience instant gratification in the name of breaking new ground, Burning is undoubtedly one of the best of a generation. It could have made our top pick if not for another.
1. Sicario (2015)
Making the final entry on our list is yet another one of Denis Villeneuve’s films. Over time, the man has perfected the art of the slow burn, the desperation of the search and the terror that comes in the waiting. In a single film, we find the very best of every aspect of the thriller. We find transcendence in 2015’s Sicario. We’re no strangers to singing the praises of Villeneuve’s tour de force and there’s certainly a reason for that. It is no hyperbole when I say that everything in this film is made for dread. From Jóhann Jóhannsson’s heart-swallowing score reminiscent of ancient war drums to Roger Deakins’ flawless cinematography, it all functions to create a sort of synesthesia within the audience.
When you hear that score, it’s almost as if you can see the carnage to come. The conspiracy is as massive and intricate as it is devastating in scope. An unholy alliance between the American government and the Mexican crime syndicates. The performances here by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are phenomenal, to say the least. When the dust settles and all is laid bare, as you sit there on your couch with your jaw on the floor and your heart in your throat, then you will know. You will know that you’ve just watched one of the greatest thrillers of all time.