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The 50 Best Thrillers

Like actions, thrillers get your blood pumping, though they use more subtle tactics — suspense over pyrotechnics — the action genre’s brainier brother.


Here they are. Not this one. That would be thriller, singular. We’re talking about thrillers, the action genre’s brainer little brother, and the subject of the tenth and final installment in our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection. Like actions, thrillers get your blood pumping, though they use more subtle tactics — suspense over pyrotechnics. We’ve heard it said that with thrillers, you don’t need to pay for your whole seat — just the edge. That’s silly, because most theaters make you pay for your whole seat regardless, but we understand the sentiment. Have we saved the best for last? You decide.

Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.

Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.


Silence of the Lambs
Rarely are thrillers as quotable as this chilling gem. That those lines punch as hard as they do — you’ll never look at Chianti the same way again (or skin lotion, for that matter) — has plenty to do with Anthony Hopkins (who won an Oscar despite appearing on screen for only 16 minutes) and utterly horrifying set pieces. Clarice Sterling, a young FBI trainee, tries to crack a murderer’s spree with the help of another murderer, who is also a fervent cannibal.
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Rear Window

Rear Window
Ever spent a beautiful afternoon doing nothing but people watching? That’s all the hobbled photographer James Stewart wants to do; then he witnesses some curious happenings between his neighbors. Suddenly there’s a hacksaw cleaning going on, and Mrs. Thorwald has gone on mysterious holiday. Solving crimes from your apartment window ain’t easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.
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Double Indemnity
Insurance salesmen are boring, unless they’re involved in murderous plots and love triangles. Luckily, that’s the case here. Intrigue abounds, and you don’t even need to fill out any forms or pay premiums to enjoy it.
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The Big Sleep
Based on Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, The Big Sleep is the American film noir tale of the 20th century. Roger Ebert said this Humphry-helmed thriller was about the “process of a criminal investigation, not its results”. If you need to be further induced to watch it, William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay.
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The Machinist
Christian Bale cannot sleep. The path to why is the twisted plot of a great film.
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The Talented Mr. Ripley
“Talented” here can be construed different ways. Matt Damon is a psycopath sent on an errand to fetch a young, spoiled millionaire. Things go wrong, as they tend to do, and Mr. Ripley adapts like any ole psychopath would.
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Falling Down
Wanna watch Michael Douglas go apeshit crazy? We thought so.
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Cape Fear
A public defender buries evidence to ensure his violent client (who looks suspiciously like Robert De Niro) is convicted. That doesn’t go over so well when that violent client gets out of jail and finds out he was screwed. Revenge has scarcely been so horrifying.
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The Insider
Journalists and the whistleblowers they source face danger every day from very angry, very powerful people (read: a certain Mr. Snowden). This example is based on the real story of Jeffrey Wigand, who called attention to some unsavory things about Big Tobacco.
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The Conversation
Gene Hackman is an odd introvert wiretapper specialist who fears his latest job may be putting the tapees in extreme danger. Hackman’s intense study of a single, cryptic conversation drives an incredibly intense plot. Your nerves will be as frayed as the characters’ privacy.
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Touch of Evil
Billed as “the strangest vengeance ever planned” (though we give that one to Oldboy), this film features Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics officer who runs afoul of corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). That Orson Welles? Yup, that one.
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In 1940s New York, two college students strangle a classmate they deem intellectually inferior (that’s not a spoiler). They then hold a dinner party, which includes the victim’s father. Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, the entire movie was filmed in one continuous shot.
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The Maltese Falcon
John Huston’s 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor tracks a Private Detective’s hunt for three criminals, themselves hunting for a priceless statuette. The Maltese Falcon kicked off the 1940s Film Noir wave and features one of film’s great “long takes”.
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The Sting
The two coolest guys in cinema get together as two con men looking for a final big score. It’s exactly as good as you think a movie featuring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and some smart con artistry would be.
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The French Connection
A mildly true story about two cops who stumble on the “French Connection” drug smuggling ring. It’s one of the best crime movies ever and features some oft copied but never matched chase scenes through 1970s New York City.
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L.A. Confidential
A 1990’s take on corrupt and dangerous 1950’s Los Angeles, this movie features Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey as three cops with three very different approaches to law enforcement.
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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Unlike Oceans 11, this Frank Sinatra flick is miles better than its modern counterpart. Blue Eyes plays a brainwashed POW turned political assassin.
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Spy Game
Tony Scott — director of all that’s good in action cinema — takes the helm of this cerebral spy flick, which sees the friendship of two spies (played by Brad Pitt and Robert Redford) put to the test. The power-trio of Scott, Redford and Pitt, plus a healthy dose of gunfire, makes for a well acted and entertaining classic.
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Charade is a surprisingly funny crime drama that makes Paris look really, really, ridiculously good looking. Watch Audrey Hepburn try to stave off Carey Grant as she looks for a huge sum of money that her late husband stole.
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Blue Velvet
A weird movie from David Lynch…surprising. The dark and ambiguous side of the American heartland comes to light as a man returning home finds a severed ear in a field, sending him on a winding investigation that leads to some unsavory folk.
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Dial M for Murder
Classic Hitchcock. It’s expertly shot, exceptionally well written, surprisingly suspenseful (for a 60-year-old film) and has a little something to do with death.
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The Third Man

The Third Man
Set in broken post-war Vienna, The Third Man is about as classic a thriller as they come. One friend visits another friend, only to find that his friend’s dead…but things might not be as they seem. It’s another beautifully shot, scored, and acted mid-century masterpiece thriller.
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A fictionalized account of San Francisco’s real hunt for the Zodiac Killer. David Fincher (House of Cards, Social Network, Justin Timberlake Music Video) directs this long and twisting psychological detective thriller that might lose the interest of the explosion and gunfire set but does a great job of highlighting the mental and physical strain put on a city by a serial killer.
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Marathon Man
A crazy thrill ride that (naturally) involves Nazis, dentistry, covert U.S. military groups, and Dusty Hoffman. An energetic, twisting film that’ll keep anyone engrossed for two hours, it’s even crazier when you try and think of it as a sequel to The Graduate.
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Inside Man
Potentially Spike Lee’s best joint to date, Inside Man eschews Lee’s race relations and basketball past to tackle a cinema landmark — the heist movie. More high strung and brainy than others of the genre, it places a focus on the negotiations and backstory rather than the running and gunning. Denzel Washington is great, Clive Owen is great, hell, even Jodie Foster’s pretty tolerable.
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North by Northwest
After a case of mistaken identity, an advertising executive (Cary Grant) must travel across the country to prove his innocence. Watch for suspense, 1950s charm and a killer plane chase.
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A man pieces together the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death. Unfortunately, he has amnesia, and can’t trust anyone he meets, so he tattoos the clues on his body. Oh, and the move is filmed backward.
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The Usual Suspects
Kevin Spacey leads a star-studded cast in the role of a lifetime, and (in one reviewer’s humble opinion), the greatest thriller of all time. “Gimme the keys, you ****in’ ****sucker!”
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Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Spielberg, Catch Me If You Can is based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who committed check fraud, impersonated a doctor and passed the Louisiana bar exam, all before his 21st birthday.
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Shutter Island
In 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates a disappearance at Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital, which might be the creepiest place in the world. Mystery and deceit abound. Thanks for making this one, Scorsese.
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Black Swan
Natalie Portman. Mila Kunis. The ultimate “which one do you choose” for any young Jewish male. Both beautiful actresses join forces in Black Swan, a beautifully shot Aronofsky film that chronicles a ballet dancer’s slow descent into insanity.
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Oh gee golly gosh, a murder in Fargo! Watch a pair of bumbling crooks (William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi) try to stay one step ahead of pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson. Home of the famous wood-chipper scene.
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Will someone give Affleck an Oscar already? Based on a true story, Argo tells the story of a daring CIA agent who rescued six Americans in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
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Mulholland Dr.
Uh…it’s a David Lynch film? Does that explain things? We think that explains things. If not, check out this scene. Certainly that explains things.
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Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s love of blood, oddballs and crimes gone terribly wrong are on full display. Look for the director himself as Mr. Brown.
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No, not the god-awful 1996 remake — the 1954 classic that helped set the standard for cinematic suspense. After the cruel headmaster of a second-rate boarding school is killed by his wife and his lover, his body disappears…only to keep surfacing around town.
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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Swedish cinematic expression of the Swedish novel sensation, this is a sparse, grim and heart-pounding tale of the perils of journalism. Okay, there’s more to it than that — sexual deviants, murder, Nazis, hackers, and a massive scandal covered up under layer after layer of corruption and lies. Featuring one of the strongest and most fascinating female leads in recent memory and a lot of Ikea furniture.
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No Country for Old Men
The page boy haircut has never been this menacing. In the Coen Brothers’ austere film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Josh Brolin mumbles and stumbles across a boatload of money left behind when a desert drug deal goes terribly wrong. He’s on the run from the law (Tommy Lee Jones) and a terrifying assassin wielding a pneumatic cow-killing machine and a suppressed shotgun (Javier Bardem) who wants that money back.
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Detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are paired together to track down a serial killer (????) who models each of his clever, sadistic and overtly disgusting murders after each of the seven deadly sins. There’s a lesson here about human nature, but the gritty, gut-turning scenarios featured throughout the film will leave an indelible impression on anyone’s psyche.
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We all know Jack Nicholson is a crazy SOB, able to bring bizarre characters to life on screen (and court-side at Lakers games). But young Jack was brilliant too, and in this noir-esque mystery directed by Roman Polanski he’s second to none. As a private eye hired to investigate a little romantic indiscretion, he’s quickly swallowed in a world of danger and lies. Watch it and you’ll never let anyone touch your nose again.
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The Game
When your brother is Sean Penn, expect some pretty wild birthday presents. Wealthy dude Michael Douglas gets a special one — participation in an immersive, role-playing game that ends up completely taking over his life in a very, very real way. They say it’s all fun and games until someone goes completely mad.
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Escape From Alcatraz
It may have taken Sean Connery and Nic Cage to break into the Rock, but it takes Clint Eastwood to break out. This film is an ultra-tense semi-fictionalized story of the only (allegedly) successful prison break Alcatraz ever saw.
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The Firm
Aside from showcasing one of the greatest examples of Tom Cruise running like a cyborg, this film adaptation of John Grisham’s courtroom thriller also happens to boast some excellent acting, a gripping story and a great cast. Tom Cruise joins a high-profile law firm as a young lawyer, but soon discovers not all that glitters is gold; sometimes, in fact, it can be downright sinister.
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Dirty Harry
Known for one of the best lines in any movie that has ever — or will ever — be made, Dirty Harry is the first in a series of films about Harry Callahan, the baddest mofo cop in all of San Francisco/history. Harry relentlessly (read: not entirely within the confines of the law) hunts the Scorpio Killer, a scourge on the Bay Area, to ask whether or not the fellow fancies himself fortunate.
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Casino Royale
Perhaps it’s the killer opening scene. Perhaps it’s Daniel Craig’s smoldering baby blues. For whatever reason, this is the best modern Bond by far.
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Clear and Present Danger
Harrison Ford is always getting himself into wacky situations that force him to step outside his comfort zone — retaking his presidential plane, admitting he loves sassy princesses, etc. As CIA analyst Jack Ryan, Ford once again finds himself plunged into a sticky situation: the middle of a USA-Columbian drug war. Darth Vader also makes an appearance.
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Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark
Two seriously bad and violent dudes attempt to recover a doll that’s been stuffed with heroin from Audrey Hepburn’s apartment, which is scary enough. Scarier yet, Hepburn is blind and alone, left to fight them off with help from no one but her best ally: darkness.
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Jurassic Park
Kajillionaire John Hammond buys an island and creates a theme park on which his team of mad scientists breeds and raises actual dinosaurs. When a small team of experts check out the pre-pro park, things go wrong…and life finds a way.
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American Psycho
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s mind-altering novel of the same name, the film follows 1980s yuppie Patrick Bateman as he blurs the lines between reality and homicidal, anti-social fantasies. The deeper his outward lifestyle of wealth and superficiality, the more twisted and gruesome his mind becomes. If you like Huey Lewis and the News, you’ll love this killer flick.
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Basic Instinct
After a former rockstar is killed, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) gets called in to investigate. Immediately, he suspects femme fatale and the rockstar’s former girlfriend, Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone), but can’t find any proof. Passions ignite; the sex scene between Douglas and Stone took five days to film.
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