From psychological to political, here are some of our favorite thrillers from the decade so far!
I think the reason the genre of thriller is hard to nail is because the genre itself is so broad. Where does the genre of thriller end and horror begin? Are all action movies thrillers, but not all thrillers action movies? While the exact definition of the genre is in flux, the one constant is suspense. The best thrillers come with a tension that makes you want to come to the climax and finally figure out what truly is going on. They come with red herrings, plot twists, cliffhangers, and heart-stopping suspense, which is why they are the best to display the true escapist power of film.
This decade we saw a resurgence of quality thrillers following a less than stellar 2000s. So I decided to list some of the best thrillers of this decade (so far). For this list, I tried to stay away from movies the floated too far toward action or horror and it is by no means exhaustive. So, list your favorite thrillers in the comments below!
And without further ado, here are my favorite thrillers of the decade (in alphabetical order)!
Of any movie on this list, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is probably the closest we get to a Hitchcockian thriller. One of the most effective conceits of the film, and of a Hitchcock film for that matter, is its use of a single setting. Not only that, Kusama turns the seemingly secure setting of a regular house in the suburbs into a labyrinth with dark corners and rooms that just help ratchet up the tension. However, she doesn’t give any chances for release. She is unrelenting in the question at the center of the film: “who can be trusted and to what lengths a person will trust their own mind?” That restraint is something that few directors (and studios for that matter) would let happen.
However, what lands The Invitation on this list is its characters. In true thriller and Hitchcockian fashion, the film throws normal people into a dangerous situation. This throws another question at us, “what would you do?” Stylish, absorbing, and so incredibly smart, The Invitation is a movie that not everyone will get, but if you let the film wash over you, its greatness is apparent.
While political thrillers often come with a lot of intrigues and portray the sexier side of politics a la The Ides of March, Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky shows the dirty side. The suspense of the film comes from a single question: should they use a drone strike? As I said in my review of the film, at the center of Eye In The Sky is a classic morality play that shows the entire decision-making process that the government and military have to go through to use a drone strike. But the complication comes when a young girl is in the immediate blast zone. From politics to ethics, nearly every argument for either side is exhausted. Heart, brain, morals, ethics — all are considered.
Told in essentially real time, the movie moves at a fast pace despite focusing on a single story thread as it juggles multiple characters. And though nearly no action takes place during the course of the film, you yearn for them to either make the decision that you think is right and dread the outcome if they go the other way. The film comes to a climax in the perfect emotional way and puts the ethics of using drones right at the center. Not only is it one of the best thrillers of the decade, it’s one of the best films of the decade.
It’s punks vs. nazis. As I said in my review of the film, Green Room, the first of two Jeremy Saulnier movies on this list, deserves to be rewatched. That’s not on a pure entertainment level — though the film is certainly that — it’s because Saulnier was detailed with the movie. From the sets to the dialogue, there is always something new to uncover. There’s a new character detail you missed the first time or something in the set that comes into play later. It’s an incredible show of restraint. However, what lands Green Room on this list is its tension and the way it pays off that tension. Saulnier has a way of building and building a scene until it snaps — sometimes literally — into action. And as violent as these payoffs are, he never dwells on the violence. He is careful to keep his movie focused on the character, what they contribute to the situation and their reactions to it. Thrillers so often have each character just become part of a formula. Instead, he clearly states each characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and how they could contribute to getting themselves out of the club alive.
As I said in my review, “Don’t Breathe is a gorgeous exercise in great directing that expertly ratchets up the tension. However, it’s more complex than that. Some unbelievable and inventive cinematography immediately sets it apart from other genre films.” What makes the movie great boils down to narrative efficiency. Director Fede Alvarez shows instead of tells. He sets up the house where the would-be robbers meet their grizzly ends in a beautiful one-take that show us the field of play. From there on, he practices some incredible patience, which is something not seen in thrillers today. He holds shots and moments as long as he can to truly make you uncomfortable and there are some moments that are truly unbearable to keep watching. That’s what makes this one of the best thrillers in recent memory.