Are your palms sweating? Good. The test of a truly great thriller is both physical and mental – a level of tension that sets your heart racing and a predicament that you can't see a way out of without doing something unthinkable.
Thrillers are currently on a glorious run of form thanks to works which push the stress levels to maximum while still focusing on compelling characters who you root for and stories that transport you to places you hope you'll never have to see. We're thinking of Jake Gyllenhaal's crazed turn in Nightcrawler, Joaquin Phoenix in the (better than Joker, sorry) You Were Never Really Here and the frenzied Safdie brothers films Good Time and Uncut Gems.
We're living in stressful times, and these thrillers are an excellent way to test your adrenal system.
A world away from conventional Hollywood thrillers, but then this twisted tale does come from the unique mind of David Lynch – and many consider this his finest work. From the very first scene, it expertly explores a favourite Lynch theme; the dark underbelly that lurks just beneath the surface of the hokey and sunny, picket-fenced world that passes for 'normal' American small-town life. Skirting genres of mystery, Fifties noir and psychological horror, Kyle Machlachlan plays a college student drawn into a world of slavery, kidnap and torture as he attempts to save a lounge singer from the clutches of gangster Frank Booth – played unforgettably by Dennis Hopper in a comeback role. If you’re in the mood, it’s a film you won’t ever forget.
Famous for being the only film Quentin Tarantino wrote but didn’t direct, Christian Slater and Rosanna Arquette play the newly love-struck leads haplessly trying to escape with a suitcase full of drugs from Christopher Walken’s gangland clutches, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Tony Scott takes the directing helm with a poppy flourish, putting the romance of the title in constant conflict with the mayhem all around. Packed with memorable cameos including James Gandolfini, Dennis Hopper and a brilliant Brad Pitt as a stoner flat-mate, it’s stylised, silly and sentimental, in the best possible way. And the Hans Zimmer soundtrack could move even the hardest of hearts.
The breakthrough film of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger is a not only a stone cold sci-fi classic but a thriller in the best sense of the word. Arnie is perfectly cast as a cyborg assassin sent back from 2029 to 1984 to kill the mother of John Connor, the resistance hero fighting back against the machines that have taken over the Earth. What follows is essentially a relentless chase movie, but executed with style, dread and cinematic flourish, spawning a lengthy franchise and a host of imitators. Yes T2 is more polished and ambitious, but the pace, tightness and focus of the original still pips it.
No Country For Old Men
Joel and Ethan Coen's gritty Western thriller took home awards for best picture, director, screenplay and supporting actor for Javier Bardem's performance at the 2008 Oscars, a clean sweep that shows just how gripping this tightly-woven story is. The plot follows a hunter who discovers a bounty of $2m in the aftermath of a bloody drug deal, leading him to be pursued by a psychopathic killer in a breathless game of cat and mouse.
This sci-fi thriller from Annihilation director Alex Garland sees him team up with Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson to explore a love triangle between man and machine in this twisted but beautiful story. Made on a tiny budget, the film went on to win awards and critical acclaim, threading psychological tension and unease throughout its scenes, including one surreal moment of sinister disco dancing,
A satirical thriller set in the art scene of Los Angeles, Velvet Buzzsaw satisfyingly skewers the critics and collectors of this underworld and sees Jake Gyllenhaal reunited with Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy. Here pretentious installations and vapid art enthusiasts are the primary target, think "Kindergarten go-pro" exhibitions and people asking "are those the new Persols?" in response to somebody wearing optician-issue light sensitivity glasses.
Christian Bale plays the athletic, well-dressed, suave, successful serial killer Patrick Bateman in this stylish and grim adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis' novel of the same name. The film takes a deep dive into the recesses of a psychopath's mind, imbuing the story with a jet-black humour which is carried perfectly by Bale's maniacal grin.
The Fury of a Patient Man
This arthouse Spanish thriller has bloody vengeance at its core, telling the story of a man imprisoned in Madrid after robbing a jewellery store. After eight years of serving time he leaves hoping to start his life afresh, but when his path unexpectedly crosses with an alluring stranger named Jose, he sees his mistakes have not been left in the past.
Jake Gyllenhaal is at his most unhinged as Lou Bloom, a smalltime LA cameraman who realises he can make money photographing criminal activities to sell to TV networks, his discovery pushing him to go to extreme lengths. Gyllenhaal is hollow-cheeked and with a truly unsettling glint in his eye as director Dan Gilroy zooms in on the violence-obsessed news and underbelly of crime in this gripping story.
Gillian Flynn's compulsive thriller novel stays just as pacy and twisty in this adaptation by David Fincher which stars Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck. In it lead character Amy goes missing on the day of her wedding anniversary, her husband Nick turned into a suspect as the media turn on him. Derailed by a twist that unsettles everything, Gone Girl plays with thriller clichés to upend the story we've been listening to.
You Were Never Really Here
Joaquin Phoenix should have won the Academy Award which he picked up for Joker for his turn in You Were Never Really Here, the Lynne Ramsay psychological thriller in which he plays a brutal enforcer who is tasked with hunting down a missing teenage girl. It's a performance which is hard to take your eyes off as he stalks across the screen with a hammer swinging from hand, his violent antihero a character who has us willing on his twisted kind of justice.
Christopher Nolan's visually overwhelming and smart blockbuster bent time and viewers' minds on its release 10 years ago. The film's follows protagonist Cobb (a surly Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals information from his targets by entering their dreams, a hustle he wants to leave behind but must complete one last mission in exchange for having his slate wiped clean.
Robert Pattinson's second act has seen him show up in zany arthouse numbers such as High Life and The Lighthouse, playing against his good looks to bring an intimidating level of intensity to the men he embodies. This 2017 film from directors the Safdie brothers sees him play Connie Nikas, a Greek-American criminal from Queens who has to come up with bail for his brother after they run into trouble. A nail-biter which takes you on one exhausting night in New York City and some of Pattinson's finest work.
"Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?" asks Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a as US Marshal sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient on a remote island in this mystery-steeped Scorsese film from 2010. DiCaprio's Daniels serves as our anxiety-ridden guide through the island: a maze of red herrings laid like traps as the tension mounts.
Children Of Men
This political thriller comes from Alfonso Cuarón, the auteur behind works such as Gravity and Roma who turns a dystopian story into a study of society on the brink of extinction. When a woman somehow manages to get pregnant she must be smuggled away to protect her own safety and for the future of the world. Though it has shades of science fiction, really this is a thrilling chase to save humanity that has its feet firmly planted in the real world.
Before Arrival and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve made a name for himself with this bleak 2013 thriller about a man whose daughter and her friend go missing from their garden while playing outside. The father's obsessive search is aided by the hard-working Detective Loki – played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal – and leads them down dark avenues, including to the door of an unsettling suspect brought to life by Paul Dano.
The Lincoln Lawyer
Two years after McConaughey said goodbye to his romcom career via 2009 film The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Lincoln Lawyer marks the very first film of The McConaissance, a turnaround that saw him appear in the likes of Mud and True Detective, eventually winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. Here he plays a defence lawyer representing the son of a wealthy man accused of raping a prostitute, the evidence he discovers about his client putting him in a moral and professional dilemma which brings out some excellent McConaughey scenes.
Josh and Benny Safdie follow Good Time with a (somehow) even more panic-inducing, against-the-clock crime thriller, dropping you into the diamond district of New York City and its nefarious characters. Criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Adam Sandler is transfixing as Howard Ratner, a diamond dealer who can't help putting other people's money where his big mouth is, a habit which puts him in more and more danger as the stakes go keep going up.
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