For a lot of people, 2020 wasn’t a particularly thrilling year. A majority of folks spent a significant amount of time on their couch or in their bed. Given the fact that they didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, this was an unfortunate inevitability. People had to push a lot of hobbies aside in order to protect themselves and others. This meant that the world had to find entertainment elsewhere.
Movies and television provided the right amount of escapism. In particular, high-stakes thrillers managed to give people the excitement that they needed from the comfort of their living room. Sure, they weren’t replacements for real life, but they did a great job of transporting people into exciting fictional worlds. That’s precisely why we’re highlighting the best of the genre from last year.
As a genre, thrillers are somewhat hard to define. Because of this, you will find a wildly varied selection of entries for this list. Suspense and excitement are a must, but aside from that, this list is pretty fair game. As long as they broadly fit into the genre, they’re eligible.
Aneesh Chaganty’s follow-up to Searching doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table. Basically, it takes various parts from other thrillers of a similar nature and pastes them into an easy-to-swallow package. The “overprotective mother” trope has been done to death, and even though Run hits a lot of the same beats as its competitors, there’s enough here to justify the 89-minute runtime.
As is the case for several entries on this list, Run is largely successful because of its casting decisions. Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen play off each other surprisingly well. Even though she’s performing alongside a veteran actress, it’s hard to tell that Allen is an acting novice. She brings a sense of urgency to the role thanks to an almost-unprecedented level of confidence.
This sense of urgency is necessary in a movie where the stakes are constantly getting higher. Run fully embraces its status as a thriller; it has no interest in taking an arthouse approach to storytelling. The main goal is to keep you biting your fingernails and questioning every character’s decision, and because of that, the two leads throw subtlety out the window. If big and brash isn’t your thing, Run probably won’t change your mind. However, if you’re looking for quality popcorn thrills, this will easily do the trick.
9. The Devil All the Time
Every now and then, we’ll get a punishingly bleak movie that offers nothing beyond the surface. Movies like The Butterfly Effect and Seven Pounds seek to make audience members depressed with scene after scene of abject misery, but they don’t have enough of a message to back up the glumness. There’s no moral, and that ultimately means there aren’t many reasons to care.
The Devil All the Time is alarmingly close to fitting that description. It is so maddeningly melancholic that feels like its sole purpose is to steal joy from others. Thankfully, with a little reflection, you’ll find that there’s more than meets the eye.
There’s a whole lot of plot stuffed into one movie, and while not all of it works, a lot of it does. With an ensemble cast consisting of acting heavyweights like Robert Pattinson and Sebastian Stan, it’s clear that they were going for something big here. The performances are outstanding, and even though the story is a downer, it’s emotionally resonant when it wants to be.
Clearly, this is not a perfect movie. For a prestige drama like this, the scope is absolutely massive, which unfortunately leaves more room for error. Still, there is so much that works. The acting, the directing, and the unrelenting suspense make the other flaws seem negligible.
8. The Nest
Sean Durkin’s follow-up to Martha Marcy May Marlene is just as intricate and unsettling as you’d expect. The storytelling is slightly more approachable than his previous endeavor, but it’s still based around twists, turns, and general insanity. This leaves the door wide open for a larger audience. Durkin has quickly proven that he’s deserving of mainstream success, so let’s consider this a victory.
The Nest captures everything people love about thrillers. It’s a suspenseful ride that’s filled with unexpected twists. The cast, crew, and everybody else involved consistently bring their A-game. Even if it’s not earth-shattering in any ways, it still understands how to keep viewers invested. In the end, that’s what matters most.
7. I’m Your Woman
Rachel Brosnahan has made quite a name for herself since she scored the starring role in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her performance earned her an Emmy on top of two Golden Globe awards. This isn’t all that surprising when you see the type of acting gravitas Brosnahan is capable of. Unfortunately, her status as a leading lady had previously been relegated to the small screen only.
This all leads to I’m Your Woman, a neo-noir crime thriller that wisely gives Brosnahan a reason to display her acting prowess. On the surface, Julia Hart’s slick slow-burn feature resembles basically every other film in the genre. To an extent, that’s a fair criticism, but Brosnahan really is a secret weapon here. You may know where the plot is headed, but you’ll have a hard time predicting how the protagonist will react to any given situation.
Everybody’s favorite fictional comedian is obviously the main draw here, but I’m Your Woman wouldn’t be a failure without her. Lack of originality aside, there’s an airtight screenplay that pushes the film in the right direction. When you add that to confident direction and a superb lead performance, you have something that’s at least worth a recommendation.
6. Let Him Go
It seems like every year, we get a new critically acclaimed neo-western. Within the past decade, we’ve gotten Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Homesman, Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Logan. If those movies aren’t straight up modern classics, they at least approach that status. The genre has always existed, but it seems like there has been a massive influx since the release of No Country for Old Men. Considering the consistency of quality releases, it’s hard to complain.
The aforementioned influx of neo-westerns didn’t slow down in 2020. Let Him Go, like the films listed above, deserves to be seen. It’s a modern western with all the best elements from the thriller genre. A careful balance between intense action sequences and tender emotional moments elevates the
The juggling of tones and genres is terrific, as is the pair of performances by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. Let Him Go is not a one-trick-pony. It has layers upon layers of quality begging to be uncovered. If you have even the slightest interest in this sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.