The 10 Best Thriller Movies of 2021

6. No Sudden Move

Stylized, socially relevant, crisp stories of crime. There is nothing more Soderbergh than that. No Sudden Move is not Soderbergh working out of his comfort zone. It’s him playing to his strengths, understanding what he does best and bringing together an ensemble of actors he knows well to tell his favorite type of story, the heist.

No Sudden Move is familiar but that’s exactly why it connects because it provides more of what viewers love from Soderbergh. But it is also not redundant. No Sudden Move is Soderbergh at his most political, assertively critical of American life but as pulpy as ever. Soderbergh still knows how to play with expectations and ends up directing a feature that is not his best, but one that works exceptionally well for what it wants to be.


7. The Card Counter

But where No Sudden Move feels like a new spin on the 70s crime thriller, The Card Counter has a soul practically ripped from the 70s itself. The Card Counter is not convoluted. It is not flashy, and it doesn’t feel inventive. But none of those comments are necessarily slights against the film. Paul Schrader, like Soderbergh, is making a film he likes to make. The brooding protagonist, the shadows, the pontificating on America and masculinity. It’s what made Schrader famous and effective in the first place. But with a glossy new look and fresh performances from actors playing against type.

Haddish and Isaac both impress in their relation to each other, feeling organically attached without sacrificing the coldness of a Schrader film. It recognizes what makes these personal gambling films great and offers a very subdued electricity with each gambling scene. Disaster is about to strike, as in all of Schrader’s films but it doesn’t shove that immediate danger in the viewers face. The Card Counter wants you to absorb the breath of its script, the detail in the performances and then be concerned with the thrills in front of your face.


8. Old Henry

Film can feel most fresh and exciting when it’s going back to its roots and being traditional as possible. Old Henry is sure to go down as one of the year’s most underappreciated gems, one that is purposefully simple and all the better for it. Old Henry is grounded, rugged. Its violence is unforgiving but not as much as its characters, who have no intent of letting go of old grudges for the sake of common decency. No, Old Henry is good guy vs bad guy. Resilience on one end in one of Tim Blake Nelson’s finer performances and sinister motives on the other, with Stephen Dorff being one of the best, and few, formally defined villains of the year. The dynamic is straightforward, but it enables the type of gritty and badass western to emerge that is damn near never seen anymore.

Old Henry is a polished thriller in every regard and puts its main character through taxing, exhausting drama and action. It fully commits to the premise and gives the story a grandeur and righteousness that once again seems to be a relic of days gone by.


9. Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley isn’t Del toro working with actual monsters as much as metaphorical ones. Almost all of the stacked cast are able to exhibit villainy in some form or the other, always ready to stab each other in the back for personal gain. Nightmare Alley like the other thrillers on the list has a lot to say, but it functions more so as a morality tale than something as directed as Soderbergh’s style of commentary.

It’s very much in Del Toro’s wheelhouse and the same could be said for the look of the film. It is as beautiful and luscious and singular as all his other work despite a much more constrained fantasy element. It does justice to the original film, with many dialogue exchanges and set pieces echoing back to noir era verbal sparring. But nightmare alley is about as psychologically abrasive as any Del Toro film. It is a beatdown of psychological terror and distress, really leaning on Hitchcock as a powerful starting off point. In a less impressive year for thrillers, Nightmare Alley is another example of how rewarding it can be to watch an established great director simply doing what they know they’re good at.


10. Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah seems to be an eternity removed from the present day, but it was 2021’s first standout thriller, and its first standout movie as well. As radical as any Oscar drama in recent years, Judas and the Black Messiah is outspoken, loud, but never brash. It doesn’t overplay its hand as a political story despite so much to say, which is largely because of how well it uses the procedural elements of the story to give shape to the interactions between the characters.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a piece of tension that gets vigor from information. Sure, the gunfights are vital and well done in their own right, but it ultimately is a game of deception, a cold war between the Black Panthers and FBI that occasionally turns hot. It’s a historical movie that not only wants you to be emotionally invested in the lives of the separate characters but of a larger historical story. It’s a struggle between two groups that has no clean, friendly facets to it. It’s a thriller where no party plays nice and their mutual want of destruction of the other makes for riveting storytelling.