Many times, great films fly under the radar for one reason or another. Sometimes this is due to poor marketing, bad press, a crowded market, or a lack of audience interest, and given how rapidly film fans move on to the next big thing, it’s easy for some quality projects to get lost in the shuffle. Even if a film has all the right ingredients, sometimes it takes a few years for it to get the appreciation that it deserves.
What constitutes a “thriller” can be somewhat of a fluid definition, as many films belonging to the action, horror, drama, and even comedy genres can fall under the “thriller” banner as well. In general, a great thriller demands an immediate audience engagement from the beginning, and takes the viewer on an intense but rewarding ride. Here are ten great recent thrillers you may have missed.
10. Legend (2015)
Director Brian Helgeland is no stranger to the crime movie genre, as he penned the scripts for two of the greatest crime films in recent memory, L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. Although Helgeland has an extensive history behind the camera, he finally got the chance to tackle one of the most infamous crime sagas in British history with Legend, the biopic of gangster twins Ronald and Reginald Kray. In a transformative performance, Tom Hardy stars as both brothers and gives two distinctive performances.
While it’s easy to be impressed by the visual tricks that allow Hardy to interact with himself onscreen, it’s even more impressive how well realized these performances are. The bond between the two siblings is often shaky, as Ronald is often forced to clean up after his impulsive brother, and Hardy is able to capture the essence of a sibling bond with his two roles. A good deal of dark humor and eccentric side characters make Legend a sorely underrated British crime flick.
9. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
1992’s Universal Soldier was a wholly unmemorable entry into Roland Emmerich’s resume of sci-fi blockbusters, but the film’s modest box office receipts were enough to inspire a string of direct to video, low budget sequels. While many of the early sequels were similar in tone to Emmerich’s films, the later entries into the franchise were much more experimental, with 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning drawing more from the existential horror of David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke than the shoot ‘em up action of Emmerich.
Opening with a sequence heavily inspired by Haneke’s Funny Games, the film sets up a new protagonist in John (Scott Adkins), who witnesses the brutal murder of his family at the hands of the former Universal Soldier Luc Deveraux (John-Claude Van Damme). What follows is a hypnotic revenge odyssey in which John tracks down Deveraux and his seperatist group, all while suffering from surrealist visions of the violence he’s both witnessed and incited. By the point in which John confronts Deveraux’s renegade army in a moment lifted from Apocalypse Now, it’s clear that Day of Reckoning has transcended its adolescent roots and became an entirely different type of film.
8. The Paperboy (2012)
Among the nastiest and most abrasive crime films in recent memory, The Paperboy revels in the sordid details of its plot and its flawed central characters. Veteran reporter Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey) enlists the help of his troubled younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) as he investigates a string of racially charged murders in Florida. Their investigation leads them to interview the imprisoned killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whose lover Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) takes an interest in Jack.
Each character is driven purely by their own self interest, and each actor is able to shed their charismatic personality and transform themselves into a unique type of low level scum. In particular, Kidman’s wacky performance as the obsessive Alabama woman entrenched in the case is nearly impossible to look away from. The film takes pleasure in breaking these characters down and revealing their faults, making for a dark, yet entertaining thriller.
7. The Good Liar (2019)
One of the more underrated films of 2019, The Good Liar is a delightfully old fashioned thriller that succeeds thanks to the formal direction from Bill Condon and the star power of its two leads. Ian McKellen plays a veteran conman who sets his sights on stealing the fortune of a wealthy widow, played by Helen Mirren, and these two legends of the screen are so eminently watchable that they make even the most ridiculous of dialogue entertaining. It’s a film largely driven by the conversations between the two, and it’s fun to watch the two characters constantly try to get the intellectual upper hand.
While its premise seems fairly traditional, the film delves into darker territory as it goes along, featuring shocking twists that warp the perception of the two characters. Even if these twists stretch the limits of believability, the performances from McKellen and Mirren are layered, and they engage in each scene with the full weight of their history. A fun pulp thriller that’s elevated by the sharp direction and merciless pace, The Good Liar certainly deserved more attention.
6. Hollywoodland (2006)
Often the most engaging thrillers are the ones that draw from history itself, and Hollywoodland is certainly a film that cinephiles will want to check out, because it tackles one of the most infamous unsolved cases in Hollywood history. The film revolves around the mysterious death of Superman actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), exploring his rise to stardom and eventual disillusionment through flashbacks.
The story itself revolves around Adrien Brody’s character Louis Simo, a sleuth who becomes fascinated by the case and decides to unravel the secret history of Reeves’s life. It’s a perfect tribute to classic era noir that utilizes many of the iconic settings, and the film’s loose version of history allows it to commit to making a brilliant genre piece. Affleck is the heart of the film; he is absolutely heartbreaking with his performance, and even if the death isn’t solved, Affleck makes the viewer feel Reeves’s loss.