By Sam Aberdeen
Thriller is one of the most popular genres of filmmaking, but only a few directors have managed to really nail the winding suspense and anticipation of shock that these films usually provide. As early as Alfred Hitchcock, the thriller genre thrived with classics in the 50s and 60s before exploding into popularity during the slasher boom of the 80s and 90s. New thrillers have managed to strike a fine balance of meticulously crafted terror and high-strung anticipation, which is why we’re looking at ten of the best, both old and new, that the genre has to offer.
- Nightcrawler (2014)
Nightcrawler stars the ever-charming Jake Gyllenhaal, this time playing a more unhinged and disturbing character than anything we’ve seen before from him. Set in the underbelly of Los Angeles’s nightlife, the film follows an off-kilter man attempting to break into the news industry by recording grizzly crime scenes and selling them to news stations. He is accompanied by a down-on-his-luck cameraman (played by Riz Ahmed). Nightcrawler is absolutely disturbing, both in its chilling lead performance by Gyllenhaal and its eye-opening depiction of just how far is “too far” when it comes to walking the line between fame and crime.
- Memento (2000)
Before Christopher Nolan blew our minds with epics like Inception and Tenet, he had humble beginnings with the equally mind-bending thriller, Memento. A man with anterograde amnesia attempts to hunt down the man who he thinks killed his wife. Unfortunately, his unique case of amnesia throws him into some devastating revelations. Nolan frames the chronological storytelling of the film in two directions: from the end to the beginning and vice versa, interweaving the narrative in past, present and future. It perfectly puts us in the shoes of our unreliable protagonist, leading to an incredible twist ending.
- Jaws (1975)
Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water. Steven Spielberg was a relative newcomer to filmmaking until he made Jaws, which instantly put his name in film’s hall of fame. The story of a small seaside town ravaged by the appearance of a giant shark during its busy summer holiday is a thriller unmatched in its masterful suspense. Jaws may have kicked off the entire “blockbuster” concept, but it gave us one of the most chilling films that boldly played audience’s anticipation like a fiddle.
- Drive (2011)
Drive is one of the most overlooked thrillers of our time, yet its unique modern/retro-80s style has been copied countless times since 2011. Ryan Gosling delivers a subdued performance as the main character, a Hollywood stuntman who falls for a woman and quickly becomes entangled in a web of deception in the criminal underworld. The anticipation of Drive doesn’t actually come from its story, but rather the protagonist, whose quiet persona always seems to harbour something far more violent and darker beneath the surface. If you haven’t seen Drive yet, you’re gonna love synthwave music afterwards too.
- Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a ballet dancer struggling to break out of her shell in Black Swan is undoubtedly one of the greatest performances of all time. Yet, director Darren Aronofsky (best known for Requiem for a Dream) commands this thriller with a raw intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It’s unpredictable nature quickly turns eerily scary as Portman’s Nina Sayers learns to embrace her challenging role in a play as the Swan Queen. Black Swan isn’t an easy film to watch, and definitely isn’t for everybody, but you won’t find an example of a ballet drama with as much uncomfortable suspense as this.
- Prisoners (2013)
Before director Dennis Villenueve took over Hollywood with Blade Runner 2047 and Arrival, he made a drama/thriller that shook audiences. Prisoners once again stars Jake Gyllenhaal (let’s just accept that he chooses excellent films to act in) as a detective who is investigating the disappearance of two children in a small town. Hugh Jackman plays a troubled father who takes his own drastic measures to find his daughter. The clock is ticking as the search for the girls ramps up, and things quickly take several turns for the worst. Prisoners isn’t as mentally strenuous as Black Swan, but it tells a straight-forward thriller that perhaps hits a bit too close to home – especially if you have children of your own.
- Perfect Blue (1997)
Taking a break from Western thrillers and shifting our gaze to Asian cinema, Perfect Blue is perhaps the most anxiety-filled film to ever hit Japan. The late Satoshi Kon, best known for his work in anime, presents a gripping story about a former pop idol who is stalked by a mysterious man. Perfect Blue lets audiences peak behind the curtains of Japan’s darker side to celebrity culture, where living an ordinary life as a famous person is seemingly impossible. Despite being an anime film, it rivals (and arguably surpasses) most contemporary Hollywood thrillers with its gritty realism and horrifying accounts of stalking.
- Parasite (2019)
It’s hard to pin Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite down to a specific genre. Some say it’s a drama while others believe it’s a black comedy. I personally think it’s a thriller, as it follows a somewhat unconventional blueprint of the genre. Telling the story of the social divide between the low-class and high-class in South Korea’s society, a poor family masquerades as trained helpers for a rich family. Despite their professions being built on lies, they find a way to exploit the wealthy family while getting personally closer to them. While you’re watching Parasite, it’s easy to get side-tracked about what kind of film it really is. It’s heartfelt, funny, endearing, and terrifying all at once – but the thrills don’t come until the third act, where it transforms into a different beast of a movie entirely.
- Psycho (1960)
Any thriller film list wouldn’t be complete without Alfred Hitchcock – specifically, one of his crowning achievements of the genre: Psycho. I’m sure most are well aware of Psycho’s impact on cinema history, as it’s also been studied and dissected for several decades in film schools. Hitchcock was called the master of suspense, a fitting title for a filmmaker who commanded audience’s undivided attention with Psycho. As the story goes, a secretary on the run visits a remote motel run by Norman Bates. Let’s just say things get unsettling quickly. Hitchcock toys with anticipation with all the grace of a maestro, orchestrating a thriller that’s truly in a class of its own. While it may have been bested by one other thriller, in my opinion, it still remains a tentpole of cinema.
- Se7en (1995)
David Fincher’s Se7en is, in my humble opinion, the greatest thriller of all time. It earns this badge in every single department: acting, writing, pacing, directing, etc. It all converges to create a deeply profound and confidently unsettling film unlike any other. Se7en follows two detectives played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, who are tracking down an elusive serial killer that mimics all his murders with the seven deadly sins. It’s a race against time as the detectives scramble to prevent six more murders from taking place. Just as a warning, Se7en is not for the faint of heart. It’s depiction of the various murders is deranged, unsettling, and nightmarish. It all culminates in an ending that has gone down in cinematic history, but the journey of this masterpiece is one that is best experienced to be believed.