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)!
Paul Greengrass is a proven thriller director with the Bourne franchise, Green Zone, and my personal favorite, United 93. This decade, he went back to directing a film based on a true event with Captain Phillips. By taking place in a single, isolated, and claustrophobic setting, the film introduces an innate uneasiness. It makes the cat-and-mouse setup of the film all the more menacing. As the film progresses and the darkness of the ship becomes an ally to the crew you are able to breathe a sigh of release. That is until the climactic finale.
However, like with many thrillers, the impressiveness of the film comes from the climax which features truly incredible performances by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Greengrass so adroitly turns a two-person scene in one space into a truly epic end that has the same melancholic gravitas that the ending of United 93 and Seven had.
Pretty much as psychological of a thriller as a film can get, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is a masterclass in the sub-genre. The dark and neutral color palette, which is a nice homage to many David Fincher films, adds to the mystery of the film. But it’s the Hitchcockian base of the film that bolsters it onto this list. The motif of mistaken identity is Hitchcockian in particular, but it quickly diverts into the labyrinth mystery that we have to solve and ultimately interpret.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performance as a depressed college professor and a bored actor is him nearly at the top of his game (see further down the list for the top). It’s those small distinctions in tone and physicality that makes his performance so impressive and really elevates the film past its premise. He has so much on his shoulders in this role. He has to carry the narrative without giving too much away. However, he gets some help from the always wonderful Mélanie Laurent. The reason this movie is on this list and is arguably one of the best psychological thrillers of all time is that it is so unbiased in its presentation of the facts of the film. It allows the viewer to make their own interpretations from beginning to end, which ends up being a gift with the final shock.
In terms of political thrillers, this decade seems to have had a lack of choices. The height of the genre came during the Cold War era with The Manchurian Candidate and All the President’s Men. While the 2000s brought a resurgence with Syriana and Munich, but that hasn’t carried over. That was until Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker came along. Zero Dark Thirty tackles “the greatest manhunt in history,” the search for Bin Laden. The chase is epic in scope and covers nearly a decade. However, she filters it through the view of a young upstart CIA agent, Maya. Jessica Chastain’s performance in the role not only grounds the film and humanizes a subject that could easily be politicized, she adds an emotional depth.
However, this is a list of thrillers and what makes Zero Dark Thirty such an effective thriller is that you know the outcome. You know we get the guy. But Bigelow frames it as the puzzle that has the answers constantly shifting away and uses red herrings not as a plot device, but as a character motivator. It, of course, comes with its own set of political intrigue that sets back the hunt, but that’s what makes it so thrilling. You want to know how we got the guy and when we finally get to the climactic 20-minute raid scene, you know it’s worth the wait.
The very best psychological thrillers leave you guessing until the end. However, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter will have you guessing even at the end. That's the beauty of his slow-burning, but effective thriller about a man experiencing troubling and increasingly violent apocalyptic dreams. So much of the reason why this movie works is because of Michael Shannon's performance in the central role. Not only does he sell you on his mental turmoil, he also makes you feel empathetic towards him. It's a particularly hard job considering some of the decisions the character makes throughout the movie. And though Nichols is usually a quiet filmmaker — he doesn't often through overzealous flourishes into his films — the visions that Curtis, the main character, experiences are thrilling to see despite their shortness. When you get to the end, you feel as if you earned the right towards it. It's a hard thing to do for a movie that has little payoff throughout.