The 20 Best Thriller Movies of The 21st Century

10. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

The end justifies all means for Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a callous TV crime reporter who stops at nothing in his perpetual search for the latest scoop. Someone who at first might come across as the usual, enthusiastic go-getter willing to go to extreme lengths to climb the ladder and find his lucky break, soon reveals himself as an unscrupulous, power-hungry sociopath with no semblance of journalistic ethics whatsoever—a guy who not only eagerly looks forward to recording a gruesome accident or murder on his portable camera, but abides by the startling principle that the bloodier, the merrier.

Cut from the same cloth as ‘Ace in the Hole’ and ‘Network’, the genius of Dan Gilroy’s blackly-comic noir is that it casts its despicable anti-hero as the natural result of a broader reality—the TMZ-fication of US media, if you will, if not the bastardization of the American Dream as a whole.


9. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)

Lust, Caution

43-year-old Chinese actress Tang Wei has finally been getting her dues in the West lately following the release of Park Chan-wook’s hotly anticipated ‘Decision to Leave’. If you’d like to see her wreaking havoc in another sumptuously erotic nail-biter full of intoxicating romance, eye-popping visuals, and breath-taking twists, look no further than this underrated offering from Ang Lee.

Tang plays a college student turned two-faced secret agent in Japanese-occupied Shanghai who is tasked with the mission of seducing and assassinating a high-ranking special officer working for the puppet government (Wong Kar-wai’s ever-reliable alumni Tony Leung). Equal parts a sprawling political war epic, Hitchcockian espionage thriller, and heart-rending romance, ‘Lust, Caution’ it’s the rare film that feels at once operatic in scale and intimate in detail.


8. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)


Although these days Christopher Nolan tends to bite off more than he can chew with his ostentatious jigsaw-puzzles, the mastermind behind ‘Inception’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ found the perfect balance between his penchant for crisscrossing timelines and conceptual ambitions in this cleverly constructed neo-noir.

‘Memento’ makes use of many of the director’s signature tropes to put us in the shoes of a despondent man trying to track down the criminal who raped and murdered his wife. The catch? That he has to do so while being riddled with short-term memory loss. ‘Memento’ is a thriller that beckons to be revisited once in a while, but after you unriddle its central mystery, it’s the film’s gripping emotional hook that resonates.


7. Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)


Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve each made quite a splash in the 2010s with several entries to their names making the shortlist, so it’s no wonder that the two times they decided to join forces yielded stunning results.

Not to disparage the 2013 doppelgänger potboiler ‘Enemy’, but this is substantially the finest of their one-two punch. The gnawing desperation of a vindictive and grieving father is captured with mighty rapture in ‘Prisoners’, an utterly gripping morality play in which the hunter becomes the hunted. Gorgeously shot by the great Roger Deakins and propelled by a murderer’s row of chilling performances, ‘Prisoners’ fearlessly confronts our most primitive instincts by interrogating its own onslaught of violence. As we watch our scornful vigilante (Hugh Jackman) exact revenge on the potential kidnapper of his daughter (Paul Dano), we begin to realize just how deep the film’s prepared to go down the rabbit hole of human misery.


6. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Oldboy movie

Nothing can prepare you for the ungodly bombshell of an ending that caps off the second (and best) installment in Park Chan-wook’s macabre Vengeance trilogy. To call it one of the greatest rug pulls—and devastating gut punches—in cinema would simply be selling it short.

Upon its release, this perverse tale of revenge ruffled feathers and sparked rarefied passions across the globe with a kinetic style and unapologetic bravado to match. The Korean master of mayhem swaggers through the film with extreme self-assurance; unleashing an unshakeable Oedipean fever dream that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until you succumb to its brain-crumpling final act. Often imitated but never replicated, ‘Oldboy’ retains its power almost two decades later.


5. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

Every Coen joint to date, and that includes ‘Raising Arizona’, ’Barton Fink’, ‘Fargo’ and the rest of their off-kilter comedies, has come with a healthy dose of existential dread. But never has it been manifested in such unsentimental, if not outright nihilist, fashion as in this somber adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, in which Anton Chigurn (Javier Bardem), the living embodiment of evil, raises hell in his path of carnage throughout ’80s West Texas.

The bowl-cut and totally chilling sociopathic criminal at the crux of this neo-Western left a lasting impression among audiences and instantly became immortalized as the capital-V Villain for an entire generation. It’s to eat or be eaten in the Coens’ world, and sometimes the line between life and death is as narrow as a simple coin toss.


4. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

So densely layered, metaphorical, and elusive that it almost warrants for repeated viewings in order to be fully unraveled, this beguiling adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short novel defies genre categorization and stares right into the abyss without being afraid of what it might find staring back.

Visionary Korean director Lee Chang-dong had already earned a place in the upper echelons of contemporary cinema, but in this 2018 mystery-thriller, the former novelist found an extra gear and reached sublime heights. Juggling a gauntlet of themes at its fold, ‘Burning’ is at once a sobering portrait of disillusioned youth and working-class anxiety, and a furious critique of our encroaching times—all perfectly calibrated under the guise of an ambiguous whodunit that provides more questions than answers.


3. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Incendies (2010)

The horrors of war and the burden of intergenerational trauma collide and carry this brilliantly observed thriller, in which two French Canadian twins go on a revelatory scavenger hunt to unearth their Middle Eastern roots as requested in their departed mother’s will.

Unfolding at a leisurely pace without losing any sense of urgency and momentum, this searing adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play intertwines several crisscrossing plot threads; fusing political and sentimental, microscopical and cosmical, in a gut-wrenching maze of self-discovery that will cling to you long after the end credits stop rolling. Though it takes its time implanting itself in your mind, Denis Villeneuve’ black-hearted opus reaches far beneath its surface.


2. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Kim Tae-Ri - The Handmaiden

No one but Park Chan-wook could have pulled off this epochal tapestry brimming with political intrigue, supercharged erotica, and point-of-view shifts to such blistering effect. Relocating Sarah Waters’ crime novel from Victorian England to 1930’s Japanese-occupied Korea, ‘The Handmaiden’ is one of cinema’s great romantic thrillers; one that tears at the very fabric of imperialism, high society, and patriarchy by flipping the male gaze back on itself.

Zeroing in on the burgeoning relationship between a wealthy Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and her deceitful, young Korean maid (Kim Tae-ri), director Park keeps upping the stakes—simmering the tension just below boiling point until it seeps from every frame of the film. The result is pure cinematic magic; an unpredictable, delectably provocative, and surprisingly empowering drama that still lives rent-free in our minds.


1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)


Rarely does a cinematic experience swallow you whole, but David Lynch’s love story in the city of dreams—maybe the closest any film has come to distilling the subconscious directly into celluloid—does just that.

At once a mesmerizing journey into the troubled headspace of a young starlet, an enlightening deconstruction of cinema’s deceptive artificiality, and a brutal takedown of Tinseltown’s seedy underbelly, ‘Mulholland Drive’ stands as the pinnacle achievement and clearest, yet most complex, expression of Lynch’s cinematic vision. Wrongfooting the viewer at every turn, the film manages to slip its profundity into the guise of more traditional noir tropes before bringing it all to a halt with a thunderous final blow. Winkie’s Diner, Club Silencio, the blue key… Unlocking the unending abstractions of this puzzle box mystery has become a subject of obsession, in-depth analysis and rigorous psychoanalytic readings, though all of its clues are hidden in plain sight.

‘Mulholland Drive’ sits in the pantheon of films that transcend categorization—it’s not only the best thriller, but the defining achievement of the new millennium. Some 21 years later, we haven’t seen anything quite like it.