All in all, the past 22 years have been an excellent cinematic vintage that has yielded instantly-canonized masterpieces and a plethora of underrated movies that have slowly gained deeper resonance over time.
Having already surveyed the very best the horror genre had to offer, we thought we’d plug the gap by checking with his not-so-distant cousin, the thriller, and see how it has looked like since 2000. Serial killers, doppelgängers, cops, reporters, ex-cons, amnesiacs, and psychotic ballerinas—they’re all here in our definitive canon of movies that have managed to keep us on the edge of our seats since the turn of the millennium. Let us know what we got right and what we missed in the comments, and here’s to the next 22 years.
20. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)
Few moments in modern cinema are as genuinely nerve-racking as the highway scene in Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’. Conjuring up the stylized bloodshed of Nicolas Winding Refn, with ample doses of David Lynch and David Fincher for good measure, the former Gucci fashion designer crafted one of the intricately woven and poised thrillers to come out in the past decade.
Fiction and reality muddle together as we dive head-on into the fractured relationship between a successful L.A. art mogul (Amy Adams) and her vengeful ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who communicate with each other through the latter’s unpublished novel. Bolstered by tensely controlled performances, stunning cinematography, and brooding atmosphere, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ overcomes its narrative shortcomings to deliver an unnerving experience you’ll have a hard time shaking off.
19. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
By the early aughts, nobody could question Michael Mann’s stature as one of America’s greatest living directors. Having established himself as the king of crime drama in the late 20th century, there was no doubt in everyone’s minds that he would deliver the goods with his next jaw-dropper.
The fates of a meek taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) and a cold-blooded hitman (Tom Cruise) intertwine in a nocturnal odyssey through L.A.’s criminal underworld, during which they’re forced to contend with each other’s conflicting philosophies. Deceptively simple in its premise, ‘Collateral’ is a first-rate popcorn movie full of twists and turns that nevertheless outgrows its well-trodden genre conceits. By casting the biggest movie star on the planet as a heartless assassin, the film also dares the viewer not to root for him—something that proves easier said than done.
18. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
The initial hype and enthusiasm surrounding this five-time Oscar nominee may have been slightly dampened throughout the years by the slow realization of how clearly derivative it is. But if Aronofsky’s critical darling admittedly owes a big debt to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’ and Satoshi Kon’s ‘Perfect Blue’, it is so exquisitely engrossing and virtuosic in and of itself that such quibbles are needless.
A poignant meditation on the steep price of success and the agonies of artistic obsession, ‘Black Swan’ plunges deep into the dark recesses of a young ballerina’s fractured mind (a pitch-perfect Natalie Portman) in the lead-up to the premiere of her Swan Lake production. Though higher in style than substance, Aronofsky makes good on the promise of his show-off genius with a ravishing display of stylistic flourishes and visual panache.
17. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)
Rarely does a filmmaker of Yorgos Lanthimos’ sensibilities break into the mainstream and achieve cult status. However, if you’re looking for thrillers deliberately designed to get under your skin and keep you wondrously uncomfortable all throughout, the Greek provocateur’s work is always a safe bet.
Treading the line between pitch-black comedy, existential horror, and high-concept genre mash-up, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ plunges viewers into the dizzying depths of family strife in a domestic drama where a seemingly idyllic suburban household implodes from within after a fateful encounter. Steep in unsettling atmosphere, cluttered symbolism, and tonal idiosyncrasy, ‘Sacred Deer’ refuses to let viewers off the hook; digging its claws into them before going right for the jugular with a blood-curling climax that will give you chills for years to come.
16. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
The evil specters of France’s colonial past and the 1961 Paris massacre haunt this wonderfully warped examination of collective guilt in which a successful TV host (Daniel Auteuil) is forced to confront his past after finding a series of surveillance tapes on his front porch.
This intriguing set-up serves as a jumping-off point for Austrian iconoclast Michael Haneke to cast a defiant eye over bourgeoisie complacency, blind privilege, and self-delusional amnesia, and put the collective French consciousness under the microscope. In pure Haneke tradition, ‘Caché’ laces its critical jabs with genuine menace and pulls no punches to get its incisive points across. Many of its scorching questions will linger with you for a long time.
15. Good Time (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2017)
Rightfully remembered as the film that kickstarted the Robert Pattinson renaissance by providing the former teenage heartthrob with his post-Twilight era breakout role, this candy-coated crime chiller courtesy of the Safdie Brothers comes at you thick and fast.
Unfolding at a frantic pace over one tumultuous night across the five boroughs, the film charts the feverish endeavors of Connie—a manipulative lowlife addicted to trouble—as he glides around the Big Apple to rescue his brother (Benny Safdie) away from police custody. This ignites a cacophony of misunderstandings, double-crosses, and cruel twists of fate with the Safdies’ fingerprints smeared all over it—which is to say, a dazzling assault on the senses deliberately conceived to put the lead character, as well as the audience, through the wringer for 100 emotionally-fraught minutes.
14. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
Throughout the years, Argentinian enfant terrible Gaspar Noé has garnered a global reputation for pushing boundaries and swerving around accepted norms, mingling grand intentions and sadistic inadequacy in almost equal measure. The director cut a deep gash with this incendiary, no-holds-barred thriller that split fans and critics for its disturbing violence, but which still remains his most ambitious experiment in style.
Chronicling the tragic events of one dire Parisian night in reverse-chronological order, ‘Irréversible’ toes the line of miserabilism to examine the inexorable stranglehold of fate, and how our lives continue to be governed by its cruel twists. You’ll certainly need a strong stomach for this ride, but as long as you can weather it, this French film will give you a lot to chew on.
13. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Peerless international stardom might have evaded director Bong Joon-ho until ‘Parasite’ took the world by storm in 2019, but the Korean maestro had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with back in his sophomore effort.
In the tradition of ‘All the President’s Men’, with its weighty sense of fatalism albeit nothing resembling its cathartic resolution, ‘Memories of Murder’ reinvents the crime procedural with radical confidence—thrusting viewers in the middle of a labyrinthine crime investigation full of false leads and dead-ends. Comparisons to David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ (more on that film later) are not without merit given their thematic and real-life echoes yet feel somewhat reductive. Make no mistake; what Bong achieved here was a genre-splicing juggernaut that manages to be its own beast and stands tall as a milestone in the genre.
12. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
A desperate runaway named Grace (Nicole Kidman) finds shelter in a secluded, small-town shortly after being pursued by criminals, but gets a lot more than she bargained for during her stay.
At the interjection between feature film and theater play, ‘Dogville’ may be the closest cinema will ever get to encompassing the unsavory implications of collective hatred and groupthink morality directly into celluloid. The banality of evil, greed, and oppression—how it’s exerted, enacted, systematized and narrativized—are the dramatic linchpins in Lars von Trier’s opus. Visceral, repulsive, misanthropist, obnoxious… The Danish director might not always hit the mark with his films, but once you tune in to his twisted wavelength, you’ll find a bitterly revelatory text here: a revolting indictment of herd mentality that cunningly leverages our expectations to stunning effect.
11. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Paranoia and obsession are at the forefront in this seminal thriller, in which David Fincher weaves through decades-worth of real-life investigation on the eponymous unidentified serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area in the late sixties and seventies. Much like many other of his films, the genius of ‘Zodiac’ is that the filmmaker knows better than to patronize its audience with naive platitudes or moral certainties. We live in a crooked world full of crooked people, and when it’s all said and done, justice and happy endings are two things one shouldn’t hold out for.
For the heroic characters we follow for a little over 2-and-a-half hours, lack of closure is the ultimate punishment; an unbearable reality that keeps eating them away. ‘Zodiac’ is still a hard pill to swallow for viewers—more so when you remind yourself that what you just watched isn’t pulp entertainment but a dark page in our history.