The thriller genre is hard to define. It’s not quite as black-and-white as a horror movie or a comedy, but at the same time, you know a thriller when you see one. The genre has always been popular because of its ability to keep viewers guessing until the credits roll. While the genre generally brings about rabid fans, there are always going to be movies that go unnoticed. This list seeks to shed some light on those films.
Below, you’ll find ten recent releases that failed to garner the attention they deserved. While there is clearly a blend of various subgenres, each entry on this list can be defined as a thriller in some way. If they fit within the genre and they were released within the past five years, they’re fair game.
1. Operation Hyacinth (2021)
From 1985-1987, Polish communist police carried out a secret operation called Operation Hyacinth. The end-goal was to create a database of homosexuals within the area in an effort to combat the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Given the time period, it should come as no surprise that this operation was anything but innocent. Brutal interrogation tactics were used to keep tabs on the LGBT citizens of Poland, and because of this, members of the gay community were forced further into the closet so that they may remain safer.
This operation serves as the basis of this appropriately named thriller from 2021. Piotr Domalewski’s Operation Hyacinth focuses on the titular operation, but rather than broadly dramatizing the two-year period, it narrows the scope, instead opting to look at both a smaller time period and smaller area. In other words, the film uses the operation as a jumping-off point, but there’s more drama beyond the uncomfortable interrogations and unethical cataloging.
Robert, the protagonist, is tasked with going undercover so that he can investigate what appears to be a string of serial homicides. The targets are consistently gay men, so in Robert’s mind, it is his moral obligation to participate in Operation Hyacinth, if only because it will stop the deaths of innocent victims. Unfortunately, his moral compass doesn’t align with that of his colleagues, who clearly have ulterior motives.
The protagonist’s conflicted morals really drive the film forward. Over the course of less than two hours, Robert battles his own personal demons while trying to juggle several massive responsibilities. This leads to something far more complex and layered than your average historical drama. There’s definitely a history lesson here, but there’s also a dense character study that aims high and almost always provides viewers with talking points.
When you factor in the strong production design and even stronger cast, you’re left with an essential cinematic experience. Operation Hyacinth entertains, inspires, and leaves a lasting impression. It’s not always fun in the conventional sense, but it’s gripping in its own way.
2. The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)
The Killing of Two Lovers is a profoundly contemplative and audaciously introspective film that combines the best parts of thrillers and prestige genres. By embarking on an exploration of existential turmoil, this feel-bad movie stands out as a remarkable work of artistry.
Clayne Crawford plays David, a man who fails to come to terms with the recent separation from his wife. Crawford’s cold, hushed demeanor paints him as a man desperately trying to fight his internal demons while simultaneously attempting to fix the relationships he tore apart. Crawford’s work is revelatory, and the way he portrayals human frailty is nothing short of incredible.
At the same time, Robert Machoian’s deft direction allows the film to speak for itself even when the cast is dead silent. There’s a sense of pensive beauty that permeates each scene, giving viewers an experience that’s as disquieting as it is meticulously crafted. The characters’ conflicts are on full display, and Machoian makes an active effort to help viewers sympathize with these struggles.
Again, the feel-bad label ultimately means this is not the movie to watch with a group of rowdy friends. This melancholic, poetic indie thriller should be seen in a room free of distractions. It’s a powerful achievement with bold themes and incredible craftsmanship. Basically, it’s essential.
3. Black Box (2021)
Not to be confused with Blumhouse’s 2020 Amazon Prime original, Yann Gozlan’s Black Box is a grounded mystery thriller about a black box analyst who uncovers a grandiose conspiracy after his skills are put to the test. It’s a smart, low-budget conspiracy thriller that has become increasingly rare in the modern age. Black Box trusts its audience to understand what’s going on, and thus, it allows its mystery to unravel slowly and intricately. It’s smaller scale, but every moment leads to something bigger and bolder.
The film understands how to gradually build its stakes. It knows that the viewers willing to pay attention will eventually make it to the big, exciting finale, but it also knows how to make that lead-up worth it without necessarily making it over-the-top. There’s an art to Black Box’s storytelling.
The intentional pacing, mixed with the whip-smart script, allows Black Box to stand out compared to its contemporaries. There’s so much passion poured into this small French thriller, and that amount of passion doesn’t go unnoticed.
4. Emergency (2022)
As always, last year had plenty of Sundance hits that failed to earn the attention of the general public. Emergency is a prime example – a movie that earned critical acclaim upon its release but ultimately failed to make a splash with mainstream audiences. On the bright side, this list exists for a reason.
Emergency deserves your attention. This comedy-thriller takes the “wild night of partying” trend and turns it on its head. See, it doesn’t completely revolve around drinking and making bad decisions. Instead, it focuses on a massive misunderstanding brought about after a group of friends finds an unconscious underage white girl. Though they have nothing to do with the young woman’s condition, they feel obligated to help her. Unfortunately for them, it’s not that easy.
The film works best as a social commentary. What happens when a group of black men try to help a young, presumably wealthy, white girl? Well, it’s not exactly a simple ten-step process. This premise brings about tension, comedy, and some stellar performances, but more importantly, it sheds light on themes that desperately need to be discussed. It takes a tired trope and subverts viewer expectations at every opportunity, and that’s why it works.
5. The Beta Test (2021)
There’s nothing quite like a Jim Cummings movie. The relatively unknown director is known for mixing cringe-comedy with countless other genres to create a bizarre concoction that always ends up being far better than it has any right to be. The Beta Test, for example, arguably has too many ideas in its head. It’s very much a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” kind of movie, and in theory, this should result in something disastrous. Somehow though, just like with Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, there’s something undeniably magnetic about this erotic thriller.
From the opening scene, The Beta Test hooks viewers with its enigmatic premise. This premise, which expertly explores timely themes, unravels slowly, allowing viewers to play a little guessing game as each scene transitions to the next.
The actual storytelling is comparable to other thrillers, albeit with some additional twists and turns, but again, this isn’t your average thriller. Cummings incorporates pitch-black humor into his script, giving folks a movie that zigzags between cautionary tale and chuckle-inducing satire. There’s a steady, skillful balance between the tones and subgenres, and although an amateur might fail to deliver, Cummings understands the assignment quite clearly.
Put simply, The Beta Test is an intellectually stimulating thriller that tackles thought-provoking themes in inventive ways. Its ability to ignite conversations shouldn’t go unnoticed, and as a result, it effortlessly earns a spot on this list.