Filmmakers in the field of suspense never had to worry as much about their reputation as their action flick counterparts. Especially with psychological thriller films. A solid conventional thriller, however cliché or unsurprising, never has to face as much contempt from critics as a run of the mill action film. Apparently, aspiring to become a Hitchockian master of suspense is a goal worth striving for. And I am glad this is the case, because this has pushed many talented art house directors into the thriller genre. Whether it is a home invasion film, an erotic thriller, a psychological thriller or a conventional detective story, it can be done tastefully and without losing its main appeal – to thrill. Read here about this decade’s (2010 -) best psychological thriller films up to 2015.
Upcoming 2015 thriller film releases
In 2014 and 2015 there is much to look forward to. 2014 is now coming its end, and the best thriller films have found their way into cinema and VOD. They have been included in our best thriller films of the decade list. It was without a doubt, commercially speaking, the year of Gone Girl, but there was much more to be enjoyed. In 2015 much seems to be happening again. Another Gillian Flynn novel (like Gone Girl) is being adapted in 2015 called Dark Places starring Charlize Theron. Another film that can count on being hyped up the most is the untitled Cold War films by Steven Spielberg (co-written by the Coen Brothers) starring Tom Hanks. Then of course, there are two big early releases this year, Kingsmen: Secret Service (February 2015) and Predestination (January (2015), but I am mainly looking forward to Scisario (2015), the new film by Denis Villeneuve, who is hopefully hitting a homerun for the third year in a row (Prisoners, 2013, Enemy, 2014).
The most tasteful psychological thriller films of the decade 2010-2014
Let’s kick of with my findings – here are what I consider to be the modern thriller classics of this decade.
15. Argo (2012)
Directed by Ben Affleck
I happened to be working at an embassy when I was watching Argo, and I can’t deny this made the film extra interesting. Perhaps in such measure that it tipped the scales in favor of it becoming more than just a solid conventional international thriller. Because that it certainly is, a well-acted period film that narrates, with poise and accuracy, a historical happening that was huge in the world of international diplomacy. The suspense was crafted quite cleverly. Argo did not need to rely on action scenes, but knew perfectly well that what it needed to rely on was the psychological feeling of being shallowed up by a foreign country in which you can trust no-one, and you just hope to make it out alive amidst the chaos. If you are an Affleck Fan, you might want to check out his Boston crime film The Town (2010)
14. Tom at the Farm
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Critics can’t stop talking about Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014). That Nolan knows what he is doing in terms of producing excellent and moving drama is nothing new to us. That he also knows his stuff when it comes to thrillers was a pleasant (but not too big) surprise. He proved this with Tom at the Farm (Tom a la ferme), a ‘gay yet Hitchcockian suspense film’. Read our full review.
13. Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Some films help us to truly understand the dynamics of current day international problems. We read about them, hear them being spoken about on TV, and we in turn can take them in and feel a detached sense of horror about it. And who can blame us? We can never really comprehend all of it. Films like Zero Dark Thirty help us in that regard. They bring us closer and make us better understand the ethical dimensions of it all, in this case the torturing for intelligence. Next to that it is a solid international intrige film, but it mainly made the list because it was so god-damn relevant.
12. L’inconnu du lac
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Best described as a psychological erotic thriller located in an Eric Romer kind of setting, The Stranger by the Lake caused the very first conflict among our editors in 2014. Where some found it intelligent, mysterious and ultimately suspenseful, others could not help feel it was a forced arty production that ultimately committed the sin of being boring. And I guess that both parties are kind of right. It is a summery film that in the first place is simply after giving you a naturalistic yet dreamy impression of a meeting spot for gays. Not much happens and the tension build-up is dreadfully slow and rather dispersed. For some it peaks too late, but for me it was right on time, and when it peaks, it really peaks.
11. Out of the Furnace (2013)
Directed by Scott Cooper
As a bit of a old fashioned masculine film, Out of the Furnace with its gritty art-house look, was actually more enjoyable than I initially expected. I was afraid it would be some sort or forced realistic tough guy film revenge film, and it obviously was, but much better executed than I thought. Nothing groundbreaking in terms of acting as most actors were playing their typical characters, but the hill billy bad guy role by Woody Harrelson is more than noteworthy.
Directed by Alex van Warmerdam
This was the film that broke the Dutch 38-years silence at Cannes. Cult director Alex van Warmerdam brings the home invasion thriller genre to the next level. Comparisons may be made to Haneke’s Funny Games, but this European thriller is much weirder, creepier and more disturbing. That is because it is less ironic than a Haneke film, but waymore twisted. Some may find it tedious after a while because, like Les Salauds and Killer Joe, the suspense is mainly developed by setting up a disquieting atmosphere. Van Warmerdam certainly succeeds there.
9. Captain Philips (2013)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
I was in doubt about whether I should instead of Captain Phillips suggest the Danish film Kapringen which deals with the exact same topic. The Danish film was also released in 2013, and is also about Somalian pirates hijacking a cargo ship, but it is a much more genuine, understated and realistic film than Captain Films. However, it is more a drama than a thriller. And Captain Phillips really thrills – it is a jittery, breathtaking film that reaches extreme levels of intensity. In other words, it is an incredibly tense thriller. Tom Hanks does a great job at making you care for his poor soul. Should really be seen in a cinema-worthy setting.
8. Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese
This year Scorsese and DiCaprio once again proved to be a golden duo. Wolf of Wall Street was a huge hit. Shutter Island is in comparison a way more modest film. In execution at least. Story-wise it definitely is a mind-fuck, but perhaps one you could see coming. Nonetheless, I do think it’s a great thriller, one that has a nostalgic feel about it. Anything taking place at an isolated Island is awesome psychological thriller material, and DiCaprio and Marc Ruffalo are bringing their a-game to making it happen.
7. Blue Ruin
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Without a doubt my favorite American indie thriller of 2014. The main character is clearly a bit of a nutter, and as a viewer you slowly and surely get more information, but the modus operandi of the suspense mainly is founded on the what the hell is next? principle. It is a bloody yet arty revenge film that ranks among 2014’s most noteworthy indies. Director Jeremy Saulnier basically bet his house on this project, and I am glad he was willing to take such risks. Not just financially, but also with regard to artistic and narrative decisions made for the film – truly original. Much more so than that other American indie thriller film everyone was talking about in 2014 – the eighties pulp thriller Cold in July.
6. Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
The film is centered around a mediahype, but Gone Girl received more than enough attention itself. Marketeers must have known that with David Fincher as the intelligent director and Ben Affleck in a potentially dark role as the suspected husband, they had gold in their hands. And it actually really did deliver. Sure the story takes on high unlikely turns of events, but boy is it juicy stuff. Fincher is a talented writer/director, but he sometimes has the tendency to go so far in terms of making a plot waterproof, that it actually becomes dry and rather boring (A good example is the way too long and tedious Zodiac). Gone Girl is the opposite – it is constantly tickling the viewer’s curiosity and hunger for sensation, and gives the thriller enthusiast more than he/she could wish for. One of the few big budget productions that actually took me by surprise story-wise. Gone girl was based on the book by Gillian Flynn. Dark Places, an upcoming 2015 thriller also based on a Gillian Flynn book.
5. Killer Joe
Directed by William Friedkin
This is not for faint of heart. And I mean that. I was surprised about how exceptionally explicit the film is when it comes to violence. It is the perfect example of what happens when you get involved with the wrong people. Some people you simply should not associate with – not even in times of distress. In this case that person was Mister rom com McConaughey on the start of his mcconaissance. It was the first film that allowed him to show more than we have seen of him before. Here you can see the darkest side of his character in True Detective.
4. Kill List
Directed by Ben Wheatley
When people in 2015 talk about British horror, absurdist horror, there is only one real name in the game. Ben Wheatley. With Kill List he properly introduced himself, and his dark and absurdist style seems here to stay. Kill List is an unsettling thriller that already shows Wheatley’s love for horror elements. Shot intimately and slightly experimentally, the film is deeply invading and is more an investigation into the human psychology than a narratively nicely tidied up film.
Directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn
Few films have managed to become instant mainstream cult films. Drive is the sublimation of Refn’s experimenting with the concept of violence. As Refn says: violence is just like sex, it’s all about the build-up. And he builds it up alright. Ryan Gosling’s character is quiet and mysterious, but you sense something boiling underneath. When it finally comes out the explosion is shocking, disturbing and yes, satisfying. This combined with an incredibly cool soundtrack by Kavinsky, and shots of L.A. at night, make for a cult classic. He got everything right. Refn’s next feature, Only God Forgives, proves that he can also get it wrong. His wife made an interesting documentary about him failing after the huge success of Drive.
2. Les Salauds
Directed by Claire Denis
Claire Denis is not for everyone. She has proven that over and over again, and with Salauds it’s no different. However, if you want dark, twisted, and disorienting poetry, than Les Salauds is for you. It is a noir-ish revenge film without you first realizing it. There is a narrative (don’t worry), but it’s being approached in such a complex and poetic manner that you might as well be without. You see images, you see people, but you feel the emotions and atmosphere. The suspense does not work in a logical way, but creeps up on you and gets under your skin. It disturbs you and stays with you, and for that reason is one of the new best psychological thrillers of the 2010’s.
1. Prisoners (2013)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Prisoners is topping this round-up because it stays within genre conventions (over-all at least) without ever becoming cliche or predictable. More than that, Denis Villeneuve shows how making a thriller should be done. Next to having a great plot with clever unexpected twists and turns, Prisoners gets you emotionally invested in the characters – the ones you are expected to be rooting for, but also the ones you might not expect yourself to care for. In other words, Villeneuve has managed to create real flesh and blood characters who, when inserted into extreme situations, act ambiguously, and consequently make you as a viewer question and investigate everything. His next feature, Enemy, a doppelgänger film also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is way less straightforward, and almost feels like Villeneuve proving he is not just doing genre films now. Enemy is also great, but I wouldn’t mind Villeneuve sticking to excellent genre films like Prisoners. Let’s see what he does in 2015 with Scisario.