What are the best thriller movies? There’s really something special about the classic pulse-pounding thriller favourite that no matter how many times you watch it, will still put your heart in your throat and have your jaw making an impact with the floor. Many of the best movies have tried to check these boxes, but only a few have completed the whole set. Except for this lot, of course.
For those of a nervous disposition and a love for their own fingernails, look away now. What follows is a collection of cinematic treats that will ensure a large volume of audible gasps, pangs of fear and ice-cold dread for the benefit of your entertainment. We’ve shredded our nerves watching countless action movies and drama movies in a bid to put this list of thrillers together but it was worth it for you dear reader.
These are the best thriller movies ever made, according to The Digital Fix. Films comprised of cat and mouse moments for the ages, and monumental mind games where the real winner, was us in the audience. Give them a look and see what cinematic thrill is just waiting to be had.
What are the best thriller movies?
- Shutter Island
- Dead Man’s Shoes
- Marathon Man
- Silence of the Lambs
Before he had us fearing what was beneath the waves, Spielberg had us afraid of what was down the road in Duel. Dennis Weaver was the worn-down driver who makes the mistake of overtaking a truck that’s hell on wheels.
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From here, a road rage-fuelled chase ensues that sees Weaver up against what feels like The Terminator on tarmac, a foe that absolutely will not stop until one of them is run off the road. It’s a great testament to the director in revving up the tension, and established Spielberg as a name to look out for. Wonder whatever happened to him?
It wouldn’t be a thriller list without mentioning the Master of Suspense. There are plenty in Hitchcock’s catalogue that fit the bill, but all nip at the heels of what is undeniably his most iconic piece of work. Starting things off with Janet Leigh’s road trip from a robbery, Hitchcock’s descent into a different story entirely still brings chills the second the shower is turned on.
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While that iconic stab at terror has been imitated a dozen times over, seeing the mystery regarding Norman Bates’ unsettling relationship with his dear mother unfold is a shock that still lands 61 years later.
Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, with an abundance of brilliant movies in his portfolio dating back to the ’60s, but his modern work is just as impressive. Shutter Island is a movie based on a book, and Scorsese brings it to life with all his usual flair, with an injection of dark, foreboding mystery.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the troubled Teddy Daniels, a detective sent to a medical facility on a strange island to investigate a missing persons case. He is joined by Mark Ruffalo, and the pair share an excellent chemistry as the twists and turns of this intense thriller unfold before our eyes.
Spotlight sits at the top of the pile, not just as a great journalist-focused film but a thriller in its own right. The incredible cast making up Keaton’s crew of truth-hungry writers pulling back the curtain on the Catholic Church grips you from the start, sharing the same energy and urgency as All the President’s Men.
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It’s the humanity here that makes this thriller rawer than most with the highlight being when the Spotlight team searches through a directory and finds out just how wide, or close, their search will send them. Chilling but absolutely necessary viewing.
Some of David Fincher’s greatest work has been those focused on obsession. The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl, but none have a deeper and darker edge than his take on one of America’s most prolific killers.
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Zodiac is a haunting examination not just on the San Francisco based boogeyman’s deeds, but the men that became consumed with the hope of catching him. Testing their wits against a monster that, as far as the police saw it, was never found, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo deliver. Still, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal excelling as the cartoonist playing a most dangerous game that brings the best and most unnerving encounters.
Brad Pitt, mega-hit, cardboard box. If we were going to mention Fincher’s last great murder mystery, it would be impossible to ignore his first great detective movie. Seven was a bleak borderline horror film that saw us resting over the shoulders of Morgan Freeman’s beleaguered cop, and Brad Pitt as his bright new partner set to have his world blown apart.
The chase to catch John Doe still leads palms to sweat and blood to run cold with every passing day, with that finale of Somerset opening a package that neither he, nor we, expected. Jokingly applied in film lexicon for years after, finding out what’s in the box is the moment that few whodunits have yet to match.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Much like the film’s ‘hero’, Dead Man’s Shoes is an underestimated entry that may lack the Hollywood gloss of the rest on this list, but still delivers a tale that cuts nerves just as sharply. Playing like a modern-day Western, where a man out for blood swaps a hat for a gas mask, Paddy Considine’s Richard is a force to be reckoned with.
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He’s soothed only by Toby Kebbell as his conscience and brother, Anthony, whose wrong is put brutally right. You’ll be lucky to find a threat more ferocious than the one Richard makes to his targets, who soon realise what they’re up against. It’s beyond f***ing words.
Marathon Man (1976)
The 1970s were an era crammed with iconic thrillers, but none of them reached such highs from the discomfort of a dentist’s chair. John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man is a tangled tale of a college student propelled into a world of shady men and evasive Nazi war criminals plays like a nightmare at times.
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Be it that iconic interrogation led by Sir Lawrence Olivier, or Hoffman’s panic as he tries to escape his own bathroom, catching your breath will feel like an impossibility. Is it safe to say you’ll feel like you’ve run a marathon after this? Absolutely.
Denis Villeneuve is yet to put a foot wrong in his filmography, and Prisoners was one of his earliest steps into the mainstream with a film that got a lot of attention.
Hugh Jackman gives what may be the performance of his career as the father of a missing daughter, taking justice into his own hands, with Jake Gyllenhaal reaching similar highs as the detective battling a case he can’t break. The further both go, the darker Villeneuve’s who-really-dunnit becomes, right up until its last moments and its final flicker of hope.
The LA crime saga from Michael Mann harnesses a collection of stunning performances scattered across the city of angels, but who are we kidding? The thrill of the chase between Pacino’s flawed lawman, and De Niro’s bank robber is when the film reaches its boiling point.
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Diner dream convo aside, Mann’s finest is loaded with an array of intense instances that raise pulses, as these two opposing forces are slowly pulled together, exploding in one of the greatest modern-day gunfights that doesn’t contain Keanu Reeves.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Michael Mann’s Manhunter might be great, but Jonathan Demme’s meeting between Clarice Starling and Dr Lecter is the main course, thanks to its key ingredients. Jodie Foster’s fresh-faced FBI agent on the hunt for Buffalo Bill is enough to keep you hooked, but it’s the back and forth between Clarice Starling and her adversarial advisor that make for the film’s most uneasy moments.
Her conversations with Sir Anthony Hopkins’ iconic antihero aren’t just to catch a killer – she’s making a deal with a devil in overalls. Those with taste should know Silence of the Lambs isn’t just the best film on this list – it may be one of the best movies ever made.
The psychological thriller of all thriller movies, you just can’t beat Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. The movie famously replaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound critics list back in 2012 because, yes, it is just that good. Vertigo will leave you questioning reality, put you in a state of perpetual tension, and of course, make you feel dizzy as you unpack its brilliant story.
A thriller centred around relationships, we see a detective, who has a fear of heights, get hired to follow an acquaintance’s wife who has been acting strange. With affairs, a murder cover-up, and obsessive delusions leading to madness, Vertigo ticks all the thriller boxes, and is a must-watch, period.
Arguably the best Ryan Gosling movie there is, largely thanks to the fact that the actor goes so against type here, to lead a tension-packed, violent crime story which has to be considered a modern masterpiece.
Nicolas Winding-Refn’s neon-soaked visuals, twinned with the pulsating synth score make this an atmospheric treat for the eyes and ears, and it’s always fun to see Ryan Gosling and Oscar Isaac covered in blood, too.
So, there you have it. They are the best thriller movies ever made, and if you want to check out our other genre lists, why not dive into the world of the best fantasy movies. We also have a guide breaking down the best new movies 2023 has to offer.