To say that this has been a great decade for cinema would be an understatement, as films this decade have pushed all sorts of boundaries and broken many barriers. The thriller genre has been one of the most popular, and for good reason- it can mean so many different things, and thus the films considered to be “thrillers” are an eclectic and diverse group. Sometimes a thriller is something with real visceral scares that borderlines on horror, while other thrillers can take elements of science fiction, biographical stories, action, and comedy to create unique subgenres.
Ultimately, a good thriller should enthrall its audience in the story it’s telling and keep them glued to their seats as they watch the mystery unfold. Due to the sheer quantity of great thrillers produced this decade, it would be impossible to mention everybody’s personal favorites, but these films are meant to reflect the great variety of options that cinemagoers have had over the past ten years. Here are the top ten thrillers of the 2010s.
25. Nocturnal Animals
While the “story within a story” framing device is commonly used for expositional purposes, Nocturnal Animals explores the soiled relationship between an art gallery operator (Amy Adams) and her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) through a novel he writes that alludes to various circumstances within their marriage. Both the events in the real world and the novel use many of the same actors and visual cues, and as the story goes on the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.
It’s unclear of what the intentions of the Gyllenhaal character are, as he frames himself as the hero within the story he writes and shocks his ex-wife with a brutal story of rape and revenge. Brilliant side performances by Michael Shannon as a grizzled sheriff who’ll go to any means to find justice and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a wicked sociopath bring this metaphorical crime saga to life.
24. All the Money in the World
While Ridley Scott is often a brilliant filmmaker and has made some of the greatest films of all-time, his filmography throughout the 21st Century has been hit and miss. However, Scott proved that he still can tell suspenseful, clever stories with this breathless kidnapping thriller that doubles as a searing indictment of the rich elite who value nothing but their own fortune.
Michelle Williams is phenomenal as a desperate mother who exercises all her resources to rescue her kidnapped son, but the film’s show stealing performance comes from Christopher Plummer, who famously replaced Kevin Spacey in a week of reshoots after Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct. Plummer is a much better fit for the role of John Paul Getty, and is able to explore the grim indifference of the wealthy with a sinister lack of humanity.
With a thrilling final act in which everything seems to go wrong related to the botched rescue, All the Money in the World is proof that Scott remains one of the industry’s most distinguished veterans.
23. Zero Dark Thirty
While Zero Dark Thirty was initially shot to reflect a seemingly endless and unfulfilled manhunt, its production ended up coinciding with real developments regarding the death of Osama bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow has long been known as one of the greatest action filmmakers of all-time, but with Zero Dark Thirty she cuts down on the set pieces and shows the slow process of maneuvering through international relations and legal red tape that is required to spark the greatest manhunt in history.
While Bigelow does not always condone the actions of her characters, she offers a compelling lead character in Jessica Chastain’s Maya, an obsessive analyst who is gripped by her obsession with finding justice. Maya’s perspective adds a valued emotional weight to this mystery, but when the film deviates from her perspective to show the final compound raid, it’s equally as gripping and shows Bigelow’s unparalleled ability to capture close range combat.
One of the most unique science fiction films of the decade, Annihilation is a layered text of depravity, death, and illness that features some terrifying creature designs and thought provoking arthouse imagery. With allusions to the ways in which both mental and physical demons infect a person’s essence, the story follows a team of scientists who venture into a mysterious area called “The Shimmer,” in which the traditional laws of physics and biology don’t apply, and as the team falls deeper into this maze, their own personal hardships are unveiled.
It’s a viscerally scary film that doesn’t rely on jump scares, but does feature terrifying moments, particularly a mutant bear that terrorizes the group. It’s a testament to writer/director Alex Garland that the film’s final act, in which Natalie Portman’s character Lena faces her own doppelganger in the heart of “The Shimmer,” is able to rivet an audience who may not always understand what is happening. Annihilation asks big sci-fi questions reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet never lets go of its gripping nature.
21. The Stanford Prison Experiment
This is a film that questions what human beings are capable of, and explores the boundaries that young men can push when they’re designated as remorseless, unsupervised authority figures. Based on a true experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment shows a psychological study conducted by a researcher (Billy Crudup) in which he designates a group of young college students as guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment.
At first these students approach this study with an indifference to their roles, but as they get more into character, the study begins to go too far as the guards inflict severe physical and psychological trauma upon their subjects. Crudup plays a character so curious about the ramifications of his study that he’ll watch this experiment play out until the bitter end, regardless of the violent ramifications.
20. Green Room
Green Room is a film that puts its audience directly within its environment, crafting a claustrophobic standoff between punk rockers and neo-Nazis after a murder takes place in a skinhead bar. This is a film that is terrifying due to the way in which it isolates it characters- the bar itself is in the middle of nowhere, the band has no social media presence and have no way to contact help, and as the band become trapped in the green room they must test the limits of how long they can survive.
The late great Anton Yelchin delivers the best performance of his career as the band’s sole survivor who makes it to the bitter end, and Patrick Stewart sheds all parts of his traditionally warm persona to craft a cold and calculated skinhead villain. With unrelenting gore and nauseating suspense, Jeremy Saulnier crafted a claustrophobic and unnerving modern classic.
19. Black Swan
Darren Aronofky’s psychological thriller explores how the literal manifestations of chasing artistic perfection can torment a person, and used the ballet of Swan Lake to contrast grace and darkness. Much of the film’s scares come from the duality of the main character, Nina (Natalie Portman), who wrestles with a darker side of her personality as she seeks to embody the villainous, seductive Black Swan.
Portman gives one of the best performances of her career, and contrasts Nina’s dainty sincerity with her suppressed dark side, and seeing Nina wrestle with defining herself is perfectly suited for her loss of grip on reality. It’s a film so metaphorically rich that the nightmare sequences perfectly visualize Nina’s thoughts, and the mix of the beautiful dancing with shocking horror elements makes for one of the most unique thrillers of the decade.
18. Wind River
Between Hell or High Water and both Sicario films, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has reinvented the neo-Western, and his directorial debut Wind River is another gripping mystery with relevance to current issues. Exploring the frequent murder of young women on indigenous reservations, Wind River follows a veteran tracker (Jeremy Renner) and a novice FBI Agent (Elizabeth Olsen) as they search for the suspected murderer.
A major theme is the absence of justice, as the lack of a presence by law enforcement on the reservations has resulted in an uptick in deaths. This ties into the backstory of Renner’s character, who is also dealing with a family tragedy. Renner has never been better than he is here, and is able to show a considerable amount of pain and trauma through a rough exterior. The bitter visuals and realistic depiction of a murder investigation make Wind River a timely mix of intrigue and activism.