The Ten Best Movie Thrillers
It seems to be a universal truth that thriller lovers will take their thrills in any medium available, whether it’s books, television, or movies. When you don’t have a week to spend on a book or a few months to spend on a television series, a two-hour movie can deliver the adrenalin punch every thriller lover’s looking for.
Forget about asking, “But it is art?” A thriller movie’s job is to grab you, suck you in, shake you up, and leave you reeling when it’s over. People don’t talk about roller coasters “transcending the genre.” These films deliver that jolt for me every time. Here are my favorites, in chronological order:
- Double Indemnity (1944) Deceptively simple, almost unbearably tense: the audience, in rooting for the villains, becomes complicit. The tension forms in the gap between the truth, as we see it, and the lies the characters tell themselves and each other. As Burton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) tells Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), “It’s a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.”
- Chinatown (1974) A mind-twister in movie form, switching narratives and defying expectations so quickly that you have to watch it a second time just to make sure you understood what really happened.
- Three Days of the Condor (1975) A masterful adaptation of James Grady’s novel, and as timely today as it was forty years ago. CIA researcher Robert Redford is the last man left alive in his office, and can’t trust anyone — but trusting Faye Dunaway is his only chance at survival.
- Marathon Man (1976) Another brilliant adaptation, this one from William Goldman’s masterpiece, and again rooted in a deep-seated distrust of everything and everyone. The 1970s were a golden age for the paranoid thriller, tapping into the culture’s sense that the establishment was no longer trustworthy.
- Jagged Edge (1985) Glenn Close is attorney Teddy Barnes, defending grieving widower Jeff Bridges against charges of murdering his wife. If Bridges didn’t do it, though, who did? Thrillers got personal in the 1980s: are you the person I think you are? If they were, that wouldn’t be much of a movie, would it?
- Fatal Attraction (1987) Glenn Close locked in her title as Queen of the 1980s Thrillers in this story of the world’s most dangerous one-night stand. Michael Douglas is brilliant as the target who’s invited his own destruction.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991) The movie and the book that inspired it have become so deeply ingrained into our national psyche that I wouldn’t dare serve fava beans at a dinner party. Right, Clarice?
- The Game (1997) Curiosity killed the cat, but it was the hope of satisfaction that brought him . . . Michael Douglas plays a wealthy and lonely man with delusions of self-sufficiency in this twisty thriller, directed by the great David Fincher, that challenges every assumption the audience makes. It didn’t get the attention it deserved when it came out; if you haven’t seen it, you should.
- The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) It’s hard to choose just one among this franchise, but this third entry caps a stunning trilogy that combines almost all of the classic thriller elements: a loner hero, mysterious conspiracies of forces on all sides, and some truly fantastic gadgets.
- Taken (2008) “What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career,” Liam Neeson’s character tells his daughter’s kidnappers. “If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it . . . But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” There’s a difference between stereotype and archetype. Taken defines the archetype.
BIO: Joseph Finder’s new suspense thriller is Guilty Minds, just published. Finder is the New York Times-bestselling author of thirteen novels, including the Thriller Award-nominated Suspicion; Buried Secrets, co-winner of the Strand Magazine Critics Award; and Killer Instinct, winner of the Thriller Award for Best Novel. His novels High Crimes and Paranoia have been adapted as major motion pictures.