5. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Another unconventional thriller. ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ is a film by John Cassavetes, known better for his abstract dramas. ‘Chinese Bookie’ is a slow building thriller following Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) as a shady but not unlikeable strip-club owner. Cosmo gets in over his head with the mob over gambling debts he owns. The mobsters make him the offer to kill the titular bookie to get rid of this debt.
‘Chinese Bookie’ establishes a world for its characters that is very unique. Director Cassavetes gives the whole film a dreamlike vibe, which oddly enough never clashes with the sleazy setting. The film is shot beautifully, but somewhat rough around the edges, leaning away from the perfect shot to more accurately catch the inner world of its characters. Cool slow-burner of a thriller.
4. Europa (1991)
One of Lars von Trier’s first films ‘Europa’ is a dark art-house thriller. It follows young American Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) who volunteers to go to post-world war Germany to work on the trains. Director von Trier paints a picture of a deeply wounded German society, but also one still filled with the evils that caused the holocaust in the first place. While the lower classes got punished by the war and the ghastly economical situation, the upper class perpetrators use their money to avoid punishment; for instance paying off Jews to vouch for them. Leopold’s job on the trains is also not chosen randomly; many being the same trains that transported Jews to their horrific fate.
‘Europa’ is a visual feast for the eyes. It is one of von Trier’s best looking and most inventively shot films. The whole movie has an underlying tension, a dark evil looms in every scene while various shady characters try to use Leopold for their own gain. One of the scenes near the end is extremely distressing to watch. All in all ‘Europa’ is an excellent thriller, with many interesting underlying themes and a dark worldview.
3. Sexy Beast (2000)
Jonathan Glazer’s, probably best known for his sci-fi drama ‘Under the Skin’, debut film. ‘Sexy Beast’ is a wild ride of a film, echoing directors like Scorsese, but with a surprisingly soft and human core. Retired safe-cracker Gal (Ray Winstone) is visited by Don (Ben Kingsley) who wants to convince him to do one last job. When the first scene is a large boulder literally crashing down into Gal’s pool (and life) you know all rules are off for a movie.
Ben Kingsley in his role as Don is terrifying. Don is aggressive, takes everything the wrong way and has no regard for social conventions. Kingsley makes him come to life as not just a pathetic gangster but as a person with a ruthless, evil energy. His character contrasts nicely with Gal who, albeit also a gangster, is sensitive in his portrayal. Don’s appearance at Gal’s little piece of heaven in Spain shakes up everybody’s life in ways unseen. Well-made, energetic movie with lots of drama and thrills.
2. The Vanishing (1988)
‘The Vanishing’ is a thriller plays on some basic fears all humans know. The film follows a couple on vacation in France. At a gas station Rex (Gene Bervoets) loses his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege). Rex remains searching for her and for answers for years. In some ways ‘The Vanishing’ reveals itself in one of the first scenes of the films, but you will not realise on the first watch. It also reveals its antagonist early on, unconventional for these type of mystery-thrillers.
‘The Vanishing’ is not so much a thriller you piece together. That’s why it is able to reveal the antagonist early on. It is a film that puts you in the position of Rex, you want to know what happened, in fact you need to know what happened. That frustration, and the way Rex (and the watcher) is being toyed with by the antagonist of the film, is nearly unbearable.
Quick note: stay away from the 1993 remake ‘The Vanishing’ also by director George Sluizer, which does not hold up to the original at all but unfortunately carries the same name in English.
1. Sorcerer (1977)
Director William Friedkin, who is behind classics such as ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection’, has quite the diverse filmography. Perhaps that is the reason that ‘Sorcerer’ has mostly flown under the radar. The film follows four men who get the dangerous assignment to transport two trucks full of nitro-glycerine through the Amazon.
‘Sorcerer’ has a classic set-up. Almost the first hour is spent introducing all the characters, who have different backgrounds, and giving the watcher a feel for their personalities. Each one of them have lived something of a crooked life which put them in their unfortunate predicament. This extensive introduction pays off in the second half, making character interactions clearer and upping the tension significantly.
Really, this tension is what ‘Sorcerer’ is all about. Director Friedkin is a master of building tension putting the characters in increasingly harsh predicaments: note for instance the methodical editing in the bridge scene, and how it elevates the situation. The second half of the film really is nerve-racking scene after nerve-racking scene. It is relentless. You care about the characters, the stakes are real and Friedkin delivers a film crafted so meticulous it is hard to see why it is not better known. A deserved number one spot.