We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
The next genre on the list is thriller. This is kind of a hard one to nail down, because a thriller can be classified as a horror film as well. For me, there’s a clear distinction between horror and thriller: a horror tries to scare you, a thriller tries to make you tense. So I always think of mystery films falling under this category as well.
There have been quite a few highlights through the decade when it comes to thrillers, so here are the ten best thriller movies of the 2010s and a few honorable mentions.
Best Thriller Movies of the 2010s – Honorable Mentions
Buried (2010) Director: Rodrigo Cortes In what is arguably Ryan Reynolds’ best performance ever, Cortes channels his inner-Hitchcock with this coffin-set thriller where trucker Paul Conroy is kidnapped and buried alive in Iraq. The ticking time bomb element of the story really works, though I would argue the conclusion to the film and a last minute plot twist left this one off the list.
Sicario (2015) Director: Denis Villeneuve Thanks to the camerawork from veteran Roger Deakins, a strong script from Taylor Sheridan, and terrific work from the cast, Sicario grabs you within the first five minutes and doesn’t let go until the end credits begin. This one is just shy of the list, but honestly there aren’t too many complaints from me. It’s a solid thriller.
The Accountant (2016) Director: Gavin O’Connor This film is a bit divisive with critics, and I can see why, but I found Ben Affleck’s portrayal of an autistic assassin who is holds an accounting day job the glue that holds the film together. The supporting cast and a few good fight and shooting scenes do what they can to make the plot interesting, however Affleck is the reason this film makes the honorable mentions list.
Nocturnal Animals (2016) Director: Tom Ford I had an argument with myself as to whether this film counted as a drama or a thriller. On repeat viewings, I can safely say the thriller category is more deserving. While I am not a huge fan of the real side of the film (Amy Adams’ scenes) the Jake Gyllenhaal scenes are fantastic, and showcase Oscar-worthy performances from Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and they’re topped off by the Oscar-nominated work of Michael Shannon.
Patriots Day (2016) Director: Peter Berg Another film that could be considered a drama, but the second and third act, the hunt part of the film, is nothing short of exhilarating filmmaking. While I’m not a huge fan of the Mark Wahlberg character, and none of the other characters stand out as totally memorable, the street shootout, carjacking, and argument scenes that fill the back half of the film make this a flick you should watch if you haven’t yet.
Now here are the ten that made the list.
The Best Thriller Movies of the 2010s
10. Foxcatcher (2014)
Director: Bennett Miller
Miller’s depiction of the Foxcatcher Farms wrestling training program in the late 1980s might not be 100% historically accurate, but it sure is a film that takes its time, and does so very effectively. The chilly atmosphere created in the Pennsylvania countryside miles away from proper civilization help create a semi-claustrophobic environment that gives the viewer a feeling of dread.
Another standout feature that makes Foxcatcher so effective is the character work done by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as the Schultz brothers. Tatum gives one of the most impressive performances of his career, and Ruffalo is believable every second of screen time as an Olympic Gold wrestler. Their troubled relationship is also a relatable factor that racks the tension on.
However, I save the best praise for last: Steve Carell as John E. Du Pont. While the makeup helps create the physical character we see, Carell channels something very bizarre and terrifying to make Du Pont feel like he’s breathing down your neck the whole movie. Carell has done more serious work in the past, still, I point to his performance here as the moment he went from the comedy guy to the guy who can do anything.
9. Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Director: Drew Goddard
This is a pretty recent release, but I already feel a pull toward this film that tells me I will re-watch it multiple times in the coming years. I was skeptical of the film’s credibility as a thriller, and the marketing suggested something of a comedic drama, but Goddard pulls off the thriller aspects of the film brilliantly.
The cast really does a beautiful job here: whether it’s Jeff Bridges as the old priest, Dakota Johnson as a freewheeling hippie, or Chris Hemsworth as a Charles Manson wannabe, all their work stands out. However, I have to give the most credit to Cynthia Erivo, who made her film debut here as the pop singer on the run. She nails the musical performances, but also gives a very natural performance as the troubled singer trying to make ends meet.
I also very much appreciated the way El Royale was presented, in chapters. While others will call it ripping-off movies like Reservoir Dogs, I say it’s an approach used long before Tarantino got to it 25-plus years ago. My point is, Goddard plays with time very effectively here. I also have to give props to the production design. It never loses the sense of being a late 1960s set piece, and the design of the hotel itself may go down as iconic in coming years. Since it is a recent release, I can’t give away all the details, but trust me, this is one you’ll enjoy.
While I admittedly have not seen the original Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, the American-produced remake left a big impression on me. Having read the novel as well, this is a very faithful telling of the story, leaving in all the interesting elements and cutting out most of the fat. When you have David Fincher in the director’s chair and Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian writing the script, you’re pretty much set.
Like I’ve done with the other films on this list, I have to hand a lot of credit over to the cast here. Daniel Craig does a great job as Mikael Blomkvist, and doesn’t fall into the trappings of repeating one of his James Bond performances. Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard do great supporting work, but the Oscar-nominated performance from Rooney Mara steals the show. As Lisbeth Salander, she has a physical and mental transformation that leaps off the screen and gives a haunting feeling, though she’s also a character you root for when she’s getting revenge.
As for the rest of the crew involved, I love the creepy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Jeff Cronenweth’s chilly cinematography is very fitting, and the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall is perhaps one of the best editing jobs this decade. Fincher’s team is reliable, as they always are, and does not disappoint, and their pairing with the wonderful script and great performances make for a great remake.
7. Side Effects (2013)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
A double-dose of Rooney Mara for you. This time she plays Emily, a married woman who is sort of aimlessly wandering through her life, and ends up in serious trouble with the law. Her doctor, played by Jude Law, gets caught up in the web of Emily’s troubles, and he may be her biggest ally, or her biggest enemy. I’m being vague here because I feel this is another film most filmgoers skipped, and shame on them, because this is great work.
Mara is completely believable as she plays Emily, and she is given a fascinating role with a lot of dimension to her. Law is the true lead here, and it’s his character we follow through most of the film, and his sympathetic portrayal is one of his better performances of late. Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones are also good in their respective roles, but it’s more of a two-hander between Mara and Law.
Soderbergh announced this as his final film when released, and we have all seen him come back with new projects, but for the time, this felt like a worthy finale to his career. Side Effects has the mystery we want from a Soderbergh film, a few good jump moments, and an eerie score by Thomas Newman to make us all feel on edge the 105 minutes the film runs for. No spoilers here, but this is another film I feel the need to advertise because it was so underseen.
While Sicario only managed an honorable mention, Denis is on the list with his first big hit, Prisoners. I personally feel that this is also his strongest work, though I know others will disagree. For me, Prisoners is an unforgiving experience. Your heart jumps right into your throat from the twenty-minute mark until the final cut to black before the end credits start.
Hugh Jackman may have been nominated for his work in Les Misérables, but I feel this is his strongest performance. As the father of a kidnapped daughter, he unleashes all of the emotions: sadness, anger, rage, and doubt. For Jackman, it’s a perfect match: a beautifully personified character met with tremendous character work. Gyllenhaal does fine work as the detective on the case, and the entire supporting cast from the top down is genius, especially Paul Dano, who takes the award for creepiest person of the decade.
Like Sicario, the camerawork from Roger Deakins is a large factor of why this one works, and is so effective it almost becomes a character unto itself. I also give a lot of credit to Villeneuve for his direction of the material. The script could easily have set this film up for a miserable experience, which it is in some scenes, but rather than just leave us as an audience feeling bad, we also want to see the kidnapped girls returned to their families, and proper resolutions to come to all the characters who deserve it.
5. Widows (2018)
Director: Steve McQueen
I’m sorry to keep harping on about this, but here we have another overlooked film that didn’t get the audience it deserved. Widows is a hell of a movie. There are moments of loss and bitterness, jump moments of sudden deaths and executions, some moments of comedy, and one hell of a plot twist that is hard to see coming.
While the ensemble cast here does a good job, the real star of the movie is the script by Gillian Flynn. She crafts the story in such a way where the heist that gets talked up the whole movie is only one small part of the conclusion to the story. There’s also the fight between Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry as competing politicians, both going for the alderman of a district of Chicago. There are further subplots from there, but I won’t go into spoiler territory just yet. My point is, there’s a lot to unpack with this movie, and for it to do so in two hours is a strength not many screenwriters can pull off.
Of course, the main draw of the movie are the widows themselves. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki are an unlikely trio, but match them up with Cynthia Erivo, and the four ladies get shit done. Their separate progressions through the movie from hardened but inexperienced housewives to criminals is another feat I have to give credit to Flynn for.
Then there’s the technical side of things. The fact that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt was overlooked for his work on this film is criminal. All the long takes are extremely impressive, whether it’s the one shot from the outside of the car while Farrell and his campaign manager have a heated discussion, the basketball court scene, or the opening car chase. The editing by Joe Walker also keeps things tight and tense. McQueen may have garnered a lot of accolades for 12 Years a Slave, but Widows is further proof that he knows how to make memorable movies.
For a directorial debut, Gilroy hit the ground running with Nightcrawler. This was a rare case where I went into the movie knowing next to nothing. I knew Jake Gyllenhaal was in it, and that it had good reviews. That was about it. I had no idea it was about a wannabe journalist capturing the remains of violent crimes and selling it for profit, and that it would be such a tense movie from the word go until the last shot.
I guess the praise starts with the cast. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal as Lou Bloom. His character arc is something we don’t see in every movie, and rarely pulled off this well. At the start of the film, he’s our protagonist; he’s out trying to get money anyway he can to live. By the end, though, when he incites violent crimes to film, he is a full-blown antagonist. Along the way, we can only marvel at how well he’s able to climb this ladder and keep us on the edge of our seats.
Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, and Riz Ahmed also do great work in their supporting roles, and help give us more perspective on Lou. Russo brings out the attractive side to him, Paxton the competitiveness in him, and Ahmed brings out the commanding, and at times ridiculing, side of him. This was a master stroke by Gilroy, who also wrote the script. It was also refreshing to go into this movie not knowing what the ending was going to bring. Would Lou get in over his head and, in the ultimate irony, end up being footage captured by a rival stringer? Or would he achieve great heights of fame and fortune in a field not known for it?
Another strong element here is the setting. As someone who has never set foot in Los Angeles, there is an extremely strong sense of place in the film, if you get what I mean. Numerous times in the film, Lou shouts out directions, highways, interstates, addresses, and never falters. Gilroy knows the city very well, and it’s also a fabulous way of getting inside Lou’s mind and seeing just how high a level he’s operating on.
3. Gone Girl (2014)
Director: David Fincher
2014 was a strong year for films in this genre, but the king of the crop is Gone Girl. It’s not too surprising to see Fincher make it onto this list again, but the film is so strong that I don’t see how this one misses the list. Virtually every visual and story element feels right for the style and tone Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn were going for.
While Ben Affleck was the marquee star the film’s marketing rode on, Rosamund Pike emerged as the star the movie birthed. As Amy, Pike is vulnerable and shows a countenance of innocence, but once the plot twist is revealed, we see just how manipulative, dark, and dangerous she can be. Amy is something of a modern-day version of Hitchcock’s icy blonde character, but I can’t remember a time when Hitchcock had someone like her in one of his films.
Also worth noting in the cast are the performances by Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens. Coon is Affleck’s twin sister, and where Nick is plain and dull, Coon adds a fiery personality and wit. Dickens, in the meantime, is the detective on the case, and has an interesting story of her own, trying to sift through the media circus that follows Nick everywhere he goes, but also tries to separate the Amy that the world knows courtesy of Amy’s parents’ book series, and the real Amy, and if she was capable of everything she does in the film.
The mystery set up by Amy that Affleck’s character, Nick, has to solve makes for a delightful time at the movies, even if the subject matter grows darker and darker as time goes on. That is offset by the chilling score by Fincher’s new favorite composers, Reznor and Ross, and also by his usual DP Jeff Cronenweth. I guess that’s part of the charm: it’s a Fincher movie, and it knows it is, but it has a ball with itself.
Near the beginning of the decade, the genre was struck with one of the most effective thrillers we had seen in a long time: the story of the CIA operative who hunted down Osama bin Laden. The cast, technical work, script, direction; pretty much every filmmaking department is operating at 100% the whole movie, and it’s a hell of a ride.
Starting with the cast, Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Maya, the analyst who spends nearly a decade on the trail of bin Laden. Similar to Amy in Gone Girl, Maya shows signs of humanity and vulnerability, but when it’s time to get serious, no one outranks her. Jason Clarke was a fresh face to me upon seeing the film, but his performance as Dan is very strong as well. He also has to walk the emotional plank of being a man we can relate to, but also going to the extremes to do his job.
I love the way this film is structured, where each element that helps Maya and her team inch closer and closer to finding bin Laden is introduced one at a time, then we see how it links to the next element, which may be a breakthrough or a major setback. Tension, as I’ve alluded to with the previous films on the list, makes or breaks thrillers. I can’t think of a more tense scene in any movie this decade than the Camp Chapman sequence. If you’re like me, and don’t have a large knowledge of the subject matter, it’s a gripping scene that is unpredictable.
I get that feeling more times in the film, especially during the establishment shots of the different cities in the Middle East. Most audiences do not know the chaos that unfolds everyday in that part of the world, so whether it’s a bombed out building where brick walls have toppled or been ripped apart, or crowded marketplaces and cities where bombers can be anywhere, there is always a sense of unease with these scenes that after repeated viewings I can’t totally shake.
However, I think the biggest accomplishment of the film is the humanity that comes at the end. Bigelow made the bold choice to start the film with a black screen while real-life 9/11 recordings are heard. It sets the mood and moves the audience to a state of hatred right off the bat: we want to see bin Laden die for what he has done. And yet, when Maya identifies bin Laden’s body and can move on with her life, she realizes just what she had to do to catch him: become a monster, which was exactly what we all called bin Laden in the beginning of the film. This is the last thing I expected the movie to do, and it leaves a resounding impact.
1. Wind River (2017)
Director: Taylor Sheridan
This battle between the top two slots was a significant one. I generally have a preference for films I’ve seen more times if I like them a lot, so since Zero Dark Thirty has been around five years longer than Wind River, it could easily have been number one. For me, though, Wind River is nothing short of a heart-pounding experience that stays with you a long time after the film concludes.
The setting of a harsh Indian reservation in Wyoming makes for an unpredictable film. The common audience is not familiar with this setting, and that adds a level of danger and threat to the film. Anybody could be doing anything bad, and we might not see it until it’s too late. This is the world where the main character, Cory, operates, though as a wildlife agent who seeks out animal predators, not human predators.
Jeremy Renner gives his most impressive performance to date as Cory. He has the rough exterior of a man who has adapted to his environment, being more pale than everyone else around him. He also has an exact nature about him; whether he’s pulling the trigger on a wolfpack or speaking with his superiors, he knows what he’s doing and what he’s saying. To match that is a great performance by Elizabeth Olsen as Jane, the inexperienced FBI agent sent to investigate the murder the film tries to solve.
It’s always great to see Graham Greene, who plays the tribal police chief, and Gil Birmingham makes a strong impression as the father of the murder victim, even though he has all of two scenes. Sheridan, who made his directorial debut with this film, had made a name for himself as a screenwriter before sitting in the directors chair, and his screenwriting abilities had already earned my admiration. But when it comes to directing, he’s a natural. All of the standoffs, shootings, and chases are perfectly executed, and like all great thrillers, the tension is thick through the entirety of the film, and as a result, I’d go as far as to say he will be a creative author to look out for in the coming decade.
Whereas the message of Zero Dark Thirty was more of a humane one, Wind River is definitely an Old West justice kind of film, one where you don’t want to see the bad guys go to prison – you want to see them die horribly, worse than they left their victims. When it happens, there is a sense of satisfaction, but not to the point where we are affected to go out and repeat what has been done to bad guys in the real world. We want to see Cory and Jane succeed, that is as long as the bad guys don’t live to tell their tales.