All in all, it was an okay year for thrillers. There was not quite a standout film that was sold off of its riveting suspense, and it did not feel like there was a lot of conversation around the genre itself a lot this year. But, that’s not to say there were not some worthwhile nail-biting features put in theaters and at home for viewers to enjoy. These are the best.
Perhaps no debut film made more of a splash this year than Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, a film that announced itself as a must-see thriller in the dog days of summer. Pig is a twisty film. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and see how warm it is as a whole, but in the moment, Pig can be a cold, uptight revenge thriller. It starts off with an unexpected and discomforting pig truffle pig capture, and then bleeds into a dizzying, fast-paced search for Robin’s animal friend. The highlight sequence has to be Robin lecturing one of his old cooking students, which despite its low stakes, probably can be a contender for one of the tensest scenes of the year, and certainly one of the most profound.
What distinguishes Pig from so many other thrillers is of course its softness, by the start of the third act it’s clear this is much more than a revenge thriller that will culminate in bloodshed. But that’s kind of what makes Pig so genius. Because of genre convention, because of how Nicolas Cage movies like this usually play out, the audience is always anticipating the worst. Gruesome violence always seems to be on the cusp of revealing itself, making for a watch where you are wound up as tight as the film, but what you get in the end is a lot more tragic and sadder than what you would have expected.
In the same vein, Titane also has a soft side to it. Underneath a harsh exterior is a vulnerable center. Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature is a touching contemplation of family but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just about the most unsettling film of the year. No other film this year has the brutality of Titane, the conviction to show action in such an unflinching way. The warpath Alexia embarks on is equal parts revolting and engrossing, so grotesque it has prompted and will continue to prompt viewers to jump out of their seats or stop watching all together.
Perhaps Titane’s greatest feat is how it can attack the viewer even when it’s in its much cooler moments. The vicious onslaught of liquids, screaming, and bone cracking that occurs at the beginning is not met in shock value for the rest of the film. But those first 30 minutes are weaponized against the viewer. The harshness of the imagery, the punch of the score, the character relations always seem to be on the brink of collapse. Violence always seems to be on the horizon, and Ducournau shoots action in such a way that u don’t want to see anymore of it again.
3. Boiling Point
But not all tension has to be derived from characters literally bashing each other’s heads in, or the possibility of said violence. Case in point, Boiling Point. Philip Barantini’s 92-minute look into a popular restaurant in London is as taut as any thriller this year. Overloaded with stress, Boiling Point’s interactions finds a source of tension that many more people can relate to, that of an ordinary job.
Its effectiveness comes from its tunnel vision just on capturing the chaos and hectic activity of a job anyone could have. There are no assassins or bullets, but the conversations, the coarse, cutting dialogue packs as much punch as any antihero can. But Boiling Point isn’t cut to death, it doesn’t abuse the edit, because it can’t. It’s one take, one seamless journey through the kitchen and all its issues. And the result is a film that crackles and sizzles just like the food the characters prepare. It is brimming with energy and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
4. House of Gucci
House of Gucci may have been disappointing to critics but the general populous saw a lot of value in Scott’s look at the famed Gucci family. Perhaps because there is a classical element to the feel of House of Gucci. It has the scope of Scorsese’s older gangster epics and while this film is a step below those ones, House of Gucci still stands as one of the best thrillers of the year. Patrizia Reggiani’s coup against the established family members of Gucci is an unpredictable and at times bonkers tale of deceit and greed.
While many have voiced their love for the camp of much of the film, especially Leto’s performance, House of Gucci still has some of the most impactful moments of suspense in 2021. Maurizio’s escape is a thrilling race out of the country. Adam Driver and Al Pacino have outstanding outbursts in gripping scenes late in the film when losing control of their empire. And most of Lady Gaga’s scenes function as intriguing, high-strung moments of scheming. She starts off as conniving, pulling strings and the viewers along for a ride that is so strange and hard to believe happened, and ends up as a firecracker, bickering with and attacking everyone in her way. House of Gucci may be objectively weaker than many films on the list, but its entertainment value perhaps soars above them all, offering a rise and fall crime story movie fans can’t get enough of.
How does one capture the social media era on film? It’s a question not many films have tried to tackle, and those that tried like Mainstream have come up desperately short. But Zola seems to have captured an elusive X factor that comes with social media. It fittingly is a comedy thriller, at first burying the darkness within it under Migos songs, well-written banter and at first a sun-drenched setting. But as the narrative progresses, Zola spirals out of control. These unprepared band of misfits are in way over their head, their bombastic personalities making wonderful complements to the life-threatening scenarios they face. And it is all captured through the peculiar lens of the phone, of messaging, of a distinct post-Facebook flavor and is all the better for it.
The way Zola uses social media to elevate the narrative makes the overall story feel even more disorienting, even more of a down-the rabbit hole experience where during the runtime you feel as submerged in trouble as the characters.