10 Great Thriller Movies Recommended By Ari Aster

With only three directorial efforts under his belt, Ari Aster has already established himself as a brand-name filmmaker with a strong authorial stamp and a cult following, having jolted new life into arthouse and genre cinema alike in recent years. Now, the mastermind behind “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” is once again on everyone’s lips following the hotly-anticipated release of “Beau is Afraid” — a three-hour-long pitch-black comedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a distraught middle-aged man who embarks on an epic journey to visit her mother.

Ever since bursting onto the scene and putting his stamp on contemporary cinema, Aster has singled out countless films as noteworthy for one reason or another. To celebrate his latest offering and as we wait for a release date for his upcoming Neo-Western, we have scoured through his interviews to assemble ten thrillers, listed in no specific order, that the A24 director has shouted out publicly. From classic British cinema to contemporary South Korean nail-biters, take a look at 10 favorites from the esteemed auteur.


1. Wake in Fright (1971)

wake in fright

Last April, Aster guest curated a program of films at New York City’s Lincoln Center for moviegoers to watch in preparation for “Beau is Afraid”. One of the handful titles that helped inform Aster’s latest mindbender was this underseen Aussie gem, which similarly unfurls like a feverish nightmare and gets under your skin at every moment’s notice, putting us in the shoes of a meek schoolteacher stranded on an isolated town in the Australian outback.

Aster told Dazed that the idea for his Joaquin Phoenix star vehicle was “to make something that’s constantly changing shape and rhythm”. Your appreciation for this unrelenting and increasingly wicked ’70s cult hit will likely correlate with how well you respond to that particular brand of filmmaking. But if, like us, you’re the kind of viewer who gets a kick out of watching Joaquin Phoenix dangle on the edge of oblivion while on a days-long, self-destructive bender, Ted Kotcheff’s landmark thriller should be high on your watch list.


2. Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Woman in the Dunes

While visiting the Criterion closet earlier this year, Aster spoke about his love for this underlooked gem of 1960s Japanese cinema. “I revisited “Woman in the Dunes” during lockdown in 2020 and it struck me as the perfect quarantine movie,” the filmmaker explained.

A surreal and Kafkaesque thriller that opens into a potent examination of Sisyphean struggle, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s two-time Oscar nominee takes place within the confined space of a small hut located at the bottom of a sand dune, where an amateur entomologist and a young widow are trapped without an escape route and forced into a life of labor shoveling sand. The film received particularly high praise from Aster, who called it “perhaps one of the greatest films about men and women” before lamenting the fact that the Japanese director “stopped making films to become a florist” shortly after. Certain viewers might be turned off by its spareness at first, but the buildup makes the payoff feel thoroughly earned — providing no quick answers but plenty of reasons to come back and revisit it.


3. Good Time (2017)

In very different ways, Ari Aster and the Safdies are each masters at churning out masterfully tense, claustrophobic films that get your heart pumping and flood your system with adrenaline. Before crashing into the mainstream with the 2019 “Uncut Gems”, the New York-based up-and-comers packaged a similar sentiment in a more streamlined package in the 2017 “Good Time”.

A cross between “After Hours” and “Dog Day Afternoon” as directed by the ghost of John Cassavetes, this unhinged pressure-cooker is best remembered for resurrecting Rob Pattinson’s career by providing him with the role of Connie, a fiendishly self-serving ex-convict who gets roped into chaotic spirals of self-obliteration over and over again. The story unfolds at a frantic pace over one fateful night through New York City’s underworld, with Pattinson’s human dynamo embarking on a cosmic quest across the five boroughs in order to rescue his mentally disabled brother away from police custody. Aster took a page out of the Safdie playbook when he wrote the perennial loser known as Beau Wassermann, so it’s not in the least shocking that he listed “Good Time” as one of his favorite films in a 2019 Reddit AMA.


4. Cul-de-sac (1966)

cul-de-sac (1966)

Ari Aster told Criterion that he often finds himself going back to Roman Polanski’s run of movies from 1965-1971 to “get excited about blocking, staging scenes, and directing”. This period of Polanski’s career includes “Repulsion”, “Macbeth”, and “Rosemary’s Baby”, all of which have been cited by Aster as one big source of ideas for how they brilliantly discard the superficial trappings of the genre and “upend conventions while honoring them”, something he evidently set out to do in his own feature debut.

Any of the aforementioned masterpieces should be required viewing for any thriller aficionado, but it’s the lesser-known gem “Cul-de-sac” that feels in more direct conversation with Aster’s personal catalog with its tonal balance of suspense, horror, and offbeat humor. The story of two injured American gangsters who take refuge at an old beachfront castle in the north of England after a botched robbery, “Cul-de-sac” has been continuously lauded by Aster, who described it as “Polanski’s existential Beckett movie” and noted how it “draws a lot from absurd theater”.


5. You Were Never Really Here (2017)

“Working with Joaquin Phoenix was the best experience I ever had working with an actor,” explained Aster in conversation with AFI’s Barry Sabath. “It taught me the seriousness with which I expect a performer to approach any given part.” The filmmaker just about confirmed he’ll be teaming up with the Academy Award winner again for his upcoming project, tentatively titled “Eddington” and loosely described as a darkly comic neo-Western set in a fictional copper mining town.

A good title to have in your back pocket while we await further details is this taut thriller by Scottish maestro Lynne Ramsay — assembled from spare parts of man-on-a-mission staples like “Taxi Driver”, “Point Blank” and “Rolling Thunder” — which was picked by Aster as one of his favorite ten films of 2017. Joaquin Phoenix’s traumatized vet-turned-ruthless vigilante, who’s hired to track down and rescue an underage girl from a child trafficking network, is every bit as great and convincing as the actor’s leading-man roles in “The Master” or “Beau is Afraid”.