The 20 Best Thriller Movies of The 1990s

10. The Insider (1999)


Not all heroes wear capes. In Michael Mann’s gripping long legal drama, his name is Jeffrey Wigand, a former research chemist who defiantly breaches his confidentiality agreement and agrees to go live on TV to blow the whistle on a big tobacco company.

No shots are fired in Mann’s 150-minute legal thriller, and the closest thing to a physical threat our white knight experiences is waking up to find an ominous bullet in his mailbox. All things considered though, “The Insider” is as tense and nerve-racking as any given thriller featured in the present list. Countless Hollywood movies have tried to illustrate the seedy corporatism and institutional rot corroding modern North America. Few, if any at all, have done it as succinctly and convincingly as this one. Come for the priceless history lesson, stay for Russell Crowe’s career-defining performance as an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure.


9. Deep Cover (1992)

The failures of the War on Drugs that have perpetuated the cycle of crime, corruption, police brutality and racial profiling are chillingly conveyed in Bill Duke’s neon-soaked thriller; the rare case of a film that’s high both on substance and style.

Starring a career-best Laurence Fishburne as a Black police officer turned undercover drug dealer who must infiltrate L.A.’s criminal underworld to take down a Latin American cocaine ring, “Deep Cover” drives a stake through the heart of American society, capitalism and the powers-that-be. As we see our white knight barreling deeper and deeper into the void while the lines between good and evil begin to blur, one realizes this is not just a pulse-pounding blaxploitation actioner, but one of the bravest and most uncompromising movies ever released by a major American studio.


8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

the silence of the lambs

Given the current craze for true crime serials and whodunnits, with today’s bookshop shelves, streaming and podcast charts all heaving with content that tries to give us a peek into the mind of brutal serial killers, it’s easy to forget how bold, subversive and industry-transforming Jonathan Demme’s 5-time Oscar-winning adaptation once felt.

One even begins to wonder if a short capsule review can say much that hasn’t been universally codified before about “The Silence of the Lambs”. We could start by stating the obvious: Anthony Hopkins gifted us with one of the great Villains with capital-V of modern cinema in Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal serial killer who helps young FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) on her latest criminal case. Hopkins’ 16 minutes of screen time might seem short in hindsight, but long enough to cling to our collective psyche for the past three decades.


7. Bound (1996)

Purists will point to the “The Matrix” — a groundbreaking blend of cyberpunk sci-fi and martial arts extravaganza that took the world by storm and re-defined the modern blockbuster at the tail end of the 20th century — as the crowning jewel in the Wachowskis’ catalog. But there is an argument to be made that they actually peaked three years earlier with “Bound”, a stunning debut that at the very least will make you rethink that screenplay you’ve been noodling with.

Shot on a shoestring budget yet oozing with style, this slick slice of erotic thriller borrows as many noir tropes as it subverts, zeroing on the burgeoning romance of a female ex-con and a gangster’s girlfriend, who hatch a plan to steal $2 million from the mob. Sensual, smart, unpredictable, and way ahead of its time, “Bound” continues to rise in estimation as an early sign that the Wachowskis were always destined for greatness.


6. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Reality and fantasy muddle together in Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic swan song film, in which the paranoid obsession, pent-up desires and marital anxiety of the seemingly reputable Dr. Bill Harford spirals into a depraved nocturnal escapade involving lavish upper-class parties, secret society groups, underground orgies, and covered-up murders.

As far as final masterpieces go, Kubrick’s posthumous sendoff goes toe to toe with that of any modern director not named Edward Yang. Anchored by the one-two punch of Hollywood heavyweights in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, solid direction, and a perplexing off-screen drama that has only heightened the film’s lasting mysticism, “Eyes Wide Shut” somehow remains rewatchable to this day well into the double digits.


5. Perfect Blue (1997)

Perfect Blue (1997)

The late Satoshi Kon, a visionary Japanese anime director who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, was one of the greatest, and surely most prophetic storytellers of his generation. Released during the blossoming days of the digital age, back when the Internet had yet to infiltrate every element of our everyday lives, “Perfect Blue” delivered a clear-eyed statement on online obsession, show business and celebrity culture that cuts deeper now than ever.

The film puts us in the shoes of Mima, a former J-pop singer who spirals into madness after leaving her band to pursue a solo acting career, a sudden turn for her idol persona that enrages her obsessive (and predominantly-male) fanbase. As a watershed moment in animation that set the blueprint for Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 “Black Swan”, Perfect Blue’s legacy lives on.


4. Heat (1995)

In the off chance that by the year 1995 he wasn’t already regarded as the undisputed king of American thrillers, Michael Mann surely staked his claim at the throne with “Heat”.

An explosive cinematic cocktail of rip-roaring action, nerve-racking suspense, and morally complex characters, Mann’s opus is perhaps best remembered as the urban crime epic that pitted Robert De Niro against Al Pacino, placing them on opposite sides of the law in a pulse-pounding game of cat-and-mouse across modern L.A. An oft-imitated touchstone in the genre that set the table for everything that followed from the Grand Theft Auto series to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”, “Heat” is the pinnacle achievement of a cinematic master at the height of his powers.


3. Fargo (1996)

Considering Joel and Ethan Coen have spent four decades writing dumb characters taking dumb decisions and ending up in even dumber situations, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider “Fargo” as their personal Rosetta Stone — a stone-cold classic that essentially did to folksy, mild-mannered Midwesterners what “Jaws” did to sharks in the summer of ’75.

Minnesota car dealer Jerry Lundegaard fumbles himself into a tangled web of intersecting misunderstandings and cruel twists of fate after hatching up an ill-conceived scheme to kidnap his own wife to get money from his father-in-law. Thus, begins the film that not only introduced us to seventh-month pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson and turned Minnesota regional dialect into a punchline, but spawned an Emmy-winning prestige television drama by the same name. Is it a top-10 most rewatchable if not best films of the past thirty years? You betcha!


2. Se7en (1995)

‘What’s in the box?’ Few moments in modern cinema have remained embedded in the broader imagination for as long as the climactic scene bookending “Se7en”. And for good reason. It’s the kind of stroke of genius that not only took our collective socks off and catapulted former music-video director David Fincher into the realm of major Hollywood filmmakers, but elevated an already-brilliant detective mystery into the pantheon of the thriller genre.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play two mismatched homicide detectives, desperately trying to hunt down a moralizing serial killer (a career-best turn by Kevin Spacey). Though it is undeniable that Fincher has taken some artistic strides since working on “Se7en”, his sophomore effort remains his finest and most gripping to date.


1. Lost Highway (1997)

Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison likes to remember things his own way — how he remembers them, not necessarily the way they happened. Fred is sentenced to death for murdering his unfaithful wife, though he shows no recollection whatsoever of committing the crime. That is, until a spectral pale-faced man and a bunch of recording VHS tapes suddenly begin to pop up at his front porch, forcing him to confront the murderous guilt he’s conveniently tucked away in the murkiest depths of his subconscious.

A surreal dreamscape inspired by O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” weaves together a portrait of a man in denial who tries to escape his bleak reality by spiraling into a wish-fulfilling fantasy world that eventually curdles into nightmare fuel. Both as a meditation on the subjectivity of memory and a refreshing new take on film noir, “Lost Highway” is one of the defining thrillers of the ’90s.