Argo is a film with such a crazy premise that it would be unbelievable if it wasn’t a true story, and the real story of how the CIA went undercover as a film crew to save American hostages in Iran is a wonderful mix of historical thrills and Hollywood satire. As CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) investigates the different ways of creating a fake movie set, there’s a lot of interesting Hollywood figures involved, and the process of training a group of unknowing hostages into a real film crew makes for many entertaining situations.
However, the threat of them being exposed is always real, and as a director Affleck creates many intense situations for those unfamiliar with the fate of the real people, particularly the gripping plane escape at the film’s final moments.
7. Hell or High Water
The rare crime film in which the audience sympathizes with both the cops and robbers, Hell or High Water presents a thrilling chase between two bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the Texas sheriffs (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) that pursue them. The bank heist sequences themselves are intense with their chaotic frenzy, but the back and forth quips between Pine and Foster also adds a lot of humor to the story, and their plan to steal smaller bills in order to gain untraceable money and defund the oppressive banking system is very clever.
Foster’s aggressive, erratic performance makes for an engaging counterpart to Pine’s more restrained character, and Bridges delivers many hilarious one liners that make his investigation just as entertaining as the actual robberies. Ending on a somber note that leaves some ambiguity as to the characters’ fates, Hell or High Water is one of the most entertaining heist movies of the decade.
One of the most defining stylized movies of the decade, Drive proved to be Nicholas Winding Refn’s most accomplished and technically audacious film to date. Ryan Gosling showed his merit as a dramatic actor with his transformative performance as an enigmatic driver who is keen to hide his feelings, and the kinetic chase sequences fit perfectly within the lurid, pulpy environments Refn created. Cliff Martinez’s beautiful score helped to complete the distanced existentialism of this thrilling crime story.
5. Gone Girl
The now iconic novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was an engaging mystery that tested the perception of the characters and satirized the media landscape, and that razor sharp comic edge made David Fincher a perfect fit to helm the adaptation. It’s one of the most disturbing films to come out of a major studio in the past decade, depicting the deeply twisted relationship between a hapless husband (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), whose disappearance sparks a chaotic investigation and media circus.
Both Affleck and Pike do a fantastic job at playing characters that hold secrets and can’t seem to stand each other, and while Affleck is excellent at playing a character that is mischaracterized by the media, it’s Pike’s performance as a manipulative sociopath that steals the film. Fincher keeps the audience guessing until the end, and even after the shocking plot twist occurs, the film still has many thrills left as the events are subverted, twisted, and reinterpreted by the media and investigative forces at play.
4. Good Time
The most important essence of any film following “one wild night” is a genuine sense of unpredictability, and Good Time is the rare film that never offers solid clues to where it’s going. Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) is a bank robber who is desperate to free his brother after a botched robbery, but over the course of a crazy night his search for the necessary funds leads him down an increasingly wacky and psychedelic path where his goals are switched at every moment’s notice.
While Pattinson plays Connie as a destructive, irresponsible force of nature, he’s such an invigorating screen presence that it’s impossible to look away from each shocking decision he makes. With an eerie way of shooting nighttime societies and a terrific score that includes fantastic work from Iggy Pop, the Safdie brothers established themselves as unique auteurs who can capture the nature of chaos.
Parasite is perhaps the most widely discussed film of the year by cinephiles, and for good reason- it’s a major achievement from Bong Joon-ho that can never be pinned down as one particular thing. The film starts off showing a comedic relationship the Kim family, a group of poor gig-based workers that masquerade as high class service workers, and their employers the Parks, an extravagantly rich family that is unaware of their new employees’ con.
It’s a hilarious satire, but once the stakes become more severe the film shows just how drastic the priorities are for these two sides of the wealth gap, and develops into a relentless thriller that exposes the worst aspects of every character involved. Bong and his production team crafted an intricately designed mansion for the Parks that serves as an electrifying set that confines each of the characters.
2. First Reformed
In 1976 Paul Schrader wrote one of the greatest films of all-time with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and over forty years later Schrader returned to a similar premise and updated it for today’s themes. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a priest gripped with grief and uncertainty as he discovers a radical environmental group, and the film explores the complicated nuances of contextualizing faith within a modern setting, particularly with regards to inaction over climate change.
The themes are gripping, and as the crime storyline becomes more apparent, Toller’s desperation fuels him to make radical discoveries and question the very nature of his faith. Schrader crafts simple, portrait like shots that grapple with Toller’s growing anxieties, leading to a shocking finale that is absolutely unforgettable in its ambiguous nature.
1. You Were Never Really Here
The best thrillers are often the ones that cut back on exposition and show everything through visual storytelling, and Lynne Ramsay’s modern masterpiece does just that in a relentless 90 minutes. Joaquin Phoenix has long been considered one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance as the veteran turned vigilante Joe is heartbreaking and subtle; Joe rarely verbalizes the effects that PTSD has on him, but sharp flashbacks show the frightening methods he uses to cope.
As a vigilante, Joe is hired to rescue a politician’s daughter from a child trafficking network, and the ways in which Joe dismantles his enemies is shot creatively by Ramsay, who captures the immediate aftermath of each punch and shot with a graceful stillness.
Jonny Greenwood’s amazing score also gives the film a hauntingly emotional quality, particularly in a beautiful dreamlike sequence in which Joe carries his mother’s corpse to the bottom of the lake. Every sequence is striking and takes no longer than necessary to make its point, and this stripped down, yet meticulous story of a rescue gone awry tops the list as the best thriller of the decade.