What are the best detective movies? Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Jake Gittes, Benoit Blanc, Frank Bullitt. The big screen is awash with sleuths whose needle-sharp brains can seem almost superhuman to us mortals.
Including some of the best movies of all time and spanning right across genres (from the best thriller movies, to the best comedy movies) a good detective flick can scratch an itch you never even knew you had. Watching a genius on the hunt for clues is just so damn satisfying, whatever the genre. To help you sort the good from the criminally good, we’ve hand picked the 12 best detective movies of all time. Prepare to test your sense for danger: trouble lies ahead.
What are the best detective movies of all time?
- Murder On the Orient Express
- Murder By Death
- Knives Out
- The Nice Guys
- Sherlock Holmes
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
- LA Confidential
- In The Heat Of The Night
- Enola Holmes
- See How They Run
- The Batman
12. Murder On The Orient Express (2017)
Kenneth Branagh was stepping into some frighteningly big spats when he parachuted himself into the role of Belgian ‘tec Hercule Poirot in his star-soaked remake of Agatha Christie’s most famous novel.
Originally published in 1934, the book has been adapted countless times before, most notably by Sidney Lumet in 1974, but Sir Ken’s 2017 take was the most lavish and starry to date.
Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Defoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are just some of the famous faces in the frame for stabbing American businessmen and gangster Edward Ratchett to death. Its batsh*t-crazy denouement, meanwhile, is one of Christie’s very best.
11. Se7en (1995)
Starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as two detectives in an ‘old veteran combined with a young upstart’ routine, Se7en is a nightmarish thriller which sees the pair track down a devilishly twisted killer who’s using the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his crimes. But you already knew that.
Sometimes even verging on horror (that jumpscare is electrifying) the movie is as dark and grim as it gets. The city is so rain-soaked that it might as well be Batman’s Gotham (more on that, later) but the lack of heroes to save the day makes it feel remarkably tangible. It’ll get right under your skin and stay there for days. It’s an absolute classic, though not for the faint of heart.
10. Murder By Death (1976)
Neil Simon’s brutally funny spoof of the murder-mystery genre features am Avengers: Endgame-like coming together of some of the most iconic detectives in fiction – Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade and The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles.
Or rather, thinly-disguised comedic versions of them, at least, to solve a seemingly impenetrable mystery posed by the mysterious Lionel Twain (an unexpectedly hilarious Truman Capote).
9. Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson’s valentine to the drawing-room whodunnits of Agatha Christie gave us a new detective to love in the flashily named Benoit Blanc, a southern-fried private eye who might well out-sleuth even Jane Marple.
As much a love letter to big-screen Christie adaptations as to the novels themselves (the film is as bounteously star-studded as any of your Death On The Niles or Evil Under The Suns), the movie boasts a fabulously twinkly performance from Daniel Craig as the enigmatic Blanc. It’s sequel wasn’t quite as good, but the original remains one of the great ensemble movies of the 2010s.
8. The Nice Guys (2016)
Ryan Gosling stars as a luckless private investigator who buddies up with Russell Crowe’s gruff, out-of-shape enforcer to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. Though it was critically love-bombed on its release, The Nice Guys failed to find an audience and any hopes for a sequel seem to have turned to ash, by now.
Still, it’s regarded as a quasi-cult classic now. It embraces Gosling’s comedic chops to full effect (as seen in full force in Barbie) and his pairing with Crowe works to perfection. With a ’70s setting, it’s stylish, smooth, and oh-so funny.
7. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
In recent years, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes flicks have been somewhat overshadowed by the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss-authored Sherlock TV series.
Still, there’s much to cherish in the Lock, Stock director’s hi-octane reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking detective, not least Mark Strong’s Aleister Crowley-style baddie and, of course, Robert Downey Jr’s wise-cracking turn as Baker Street’s finest. There’s a particularly good scene in which Holmes finds himself masterfully discombobulating another man.
6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
A world-class hacker on top of her detective work for Milton Security, Lisbeth Salander is so blazingly smart she makes Columbo look like Joey Tribbiani. Three actors have portrayed this perma-scowling goth on screen, but, for this list, we’re choosing Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s chilly remake of Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish-language original.
Tragically, plans for Fincher to adapt Stieg Larsson’s sequel novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, came to nothing and the franchise was calamitously rebooted with 2018’s Claire Foy-headlining The Girl In The Spider’s Web. This one’s way better, and still underrated. Like Fincher’s previous Se7en, you’ll enjoy The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo if you appreciate the darker side of things.
5. LA Confidential (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s masterful adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling novel about police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles boasts three of cinema’s most memorable cops in Guy Pearce’s morally upstanding Ed Exley, Kevin Spacey’s fame-hungry Jack Vincennes and Russell Crowe’s violent, damaged Bud White.
Ellroy himself may not have been a fan, and he described it as, “about as deep as a tortilla.” Still, we disagree, and with the film grossing $126 million against a $35 million budget and winning a heap of awards, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Kim Basinger and a Best Adapted Screenplay gong for Brian Helgeland, we’re not alone.
4. In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
Norman Jewison’s twisty race drama has lost little of its power in the 54 years since it walked away with the Best Picture Oscar. Rod Steiger is great as the racist, gum-chewing Mississippi Sheriff, Bill Gillespie and he scooped the Academy Award for Best Actor that year.
However, the film belongs to Sidney Poitier, who, as the smooth, self-possessed Philadelphia cop Virgil Tibbs, gets to utter one of cinema’s most immortal lines – “They call me **Mister** Tibbs!” Though he missed out on an Oscar, Poitier did end up reprising his role in two largely forgotten sequels.
3. Enola Holmes (2020)
Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes? Say. No. More.
That should be enough for anyone, really, but in case you still need convincing here’s a bit more: Cavill only plays second fiddle to Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola Holmes. She’s Sherlock’s younger sister, and a wannabe detective herself. Her adventure through Victorian London is brilliant, and the Netflix flick will leave you wanting more.
Thankfully, a sequel debuted in 2022 and the Enola Holmes 3 release date should be coming soon, too.
2. See How They Run (2022)
On the subject of light-hearted crime capers: See How They Run. Starring Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in the leading roles, this ensemble comedy thriller is quick and zippy, and perfectly charming.
It’s like the polar opposite of Se7en really; the Oppenheimer to its Barbie.
1. The Batman (2022)
“Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne? No thank you,” is what we’d say, if we loved being proven wrong. The former sparkling vampire turned into a bat for one of the best movies of 2022, and possibly the greatest comic book movie since Infinity War.
Forget all that though. Even if you don’t care for capes and mutants, The Batman is a must-watch for any fan of detective movies. The film sees the titular Dark Knight of Gotham City do what he does best (track down crime) in a vast, thrilling, and smart homage to David Fincher. It’s brilliant, and that car chase is one of the best we’ve seen in a long, long time.
Those are our picks for the best detective movies of all time. Looking for more? Check out all of the new movies coming in 2023, and see the status of the Knives Out 3 release date, and The Batman 2 release date.