14 must-watch thrillers that'll get your heart pounding
From Hitchcock to the Coen Brothers, these flicks are a thrill ride.
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Thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, and the beauty of this genre—beyond its ability to get your heart racing and your body shifting perilously close to the edge of your seat—is how multi-faceted it is. There are psychological thrillers that can make you feel like you're getting an inside look into the mind of a killer, spy thrillers riddled with elaborate chase scenes and cases of mistaken identity, and so much more.
But one thing all thrillers have in common is the ability to weave a riveting story full of suspense, and that'll keep you guessing, right until the climax. Here are some of the most exciting thrillers streaming now on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Prime Video.
1. North By Northwest (1959)
Thanks to films like Rebecca (1940) and Rear Window (1954), director Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as the Master of Suspense was already solidified by the time North by Northwest hit theaters in 1959, but this spy thriller is often considered one of the greatest films he ever did. This picture paired Hitchcock back up with Cary Grant, whom he’d previously directed in the 1946 noir film Notorious and the 1955 romantic thriller, To Catch A Thief, which co-starred Grace Kelly and was her last film with Hitchcock before marrying Prince Rainer III of Monaco in 1956.
In North by Northwest, Grant stars as a man on the run from a dangerous spy network, which has mistaken him for the agent tasked with thwarting their plans. If you loved iconic Hitchcock films like Vertigo (1958) or Rear Window but you’ve never ventured much deeper into his filmography, North By Northwest is a great place to start.
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
If you’re at all familiar with director David Lynch, you know his oeuvre skews heavily toward the surrealistic. While films like Eraserhead—the 1977 body horror flick thought to be inspired by Lynch’s fears about fatherhood—have a bizarre sensibility unlike any other, his work on the popular ABC television series Twin Peaks—which premiered in 1990 and notoriously ran for just two seasons before being canceled—brought him mainstream attention in a way that nothing else (not even the critically acclaimed 1986 thriller, Blue Velvet) ever did.
With Mulholland Drive, Lynch brought the weird back in full force following a mid-90s career slump and earned the coveted Prix de la mise en scene award at the Cannes Film Festival for his work. Starring Naomi Watts in what’s often considered her breakout role, Mulholland Drive focuses on the relationship between a wannabe actress and an amnesiac woman, who connect following a car accident. But the film gets much more sinewy and dream-like from there, with some critics likening it to a fantasy, and others crediting it as the ode to Hollywood.
3. Chinatown (1974)
When it comes to neo-noir thrillers—that is, films inspired by the themes and aesthetics of the classic film noirs of the 1940s—it’s impossible not to include Chinatown in the conversation. Released in 1974, the film was inspired by the California Water Wars, which were a series of conflicts in the early 20th century between the city of Los Angeles and ranchers in East California over water accessibility.
If that all sounds dry (and eerily similar to the plot of season two of HBO’s True Detective, ahem), allow these little factoids to up your thirst: Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson in his glorious prime as a rough-around-the-edges gumshoe, and features Faye Dunaway (fresh off the successes of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the 1968 caper, The Thomas Crown Affair) as a classic femme fatale with a twist. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film is still worth a watch for its sheer artistry and will leave you looking for excuses to say, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” long after the credits roll.
4. Parasite (2019)
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, Parasite—a black comedy thriller by Bong Joon-ho—became the first South Korean film to win the event’s illustrious Palme d’Or, and later won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars (the first non-English language film to do so), along with Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.
The accolades are well deserved: The film is a frenetic, completely engrossing look at a family looking to climb social ranks by capitalizing on the wealth of a neighboring family and keeping their family relations a secret, with darkly hilarious and haunting results.
5. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hated each other on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the classic 1962 psychological thriller that eventually spawned its own thriller sub-genre (psycho-biddy). But the acrimony between them has a jarring (and spectacular) effect on screen, as Bette Davis’s Baby Jane—a once-glam child star turned alcoholic—becomes increasingly bizarre and aggressive toward Joan Crawford’s Blanche, a paraplegic under her care.
The film was an interesting moment in the careers of both Davis and Crawford. Although both had enjoyed tremendous successes during the Golden Age of Hollywood, they were considered past their prime by 1960s Hollywood standards and the film’s unexpected box office success signalled a career resurgence for both. Davis eventually nabbed an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film—a huge accomplishment, for a film that weaves horror and suspense in such a taut way—and this is considered one of her most iconic performances, so if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth checking out.
6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
When most people think about thrillers, they think about The Silence of the Lambs. This 1991 thriller was directed by Jonathan Demme—previously known for directing the Talking Heads live concert film, Stop Making Sense in 1984 and who went on to direct the 1993 tearjerker, Philadelphia, about a young gay lawyer (played by Tom Hanks) who is diagnosed with AIDS—and it made him a household name.
There are three storylines happening here, and they come together like a symphony by the film’s memorable ending. The first focuses on a brutal killer, known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), as he hunts and tortures his next victim. The second is that of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in a career-defining role), a cultured psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer who may have a connection to Buffalo Bill. And the last is that of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young FBI trainee tasked with getting information from Lecter, in the hopes that it might help solve the case. Chances are, you’ve seen this one before, but this is one of those classic thrillers that’s absolutely worth a rewatch, especially if you’re looking for more titles to keep your binge-watch game going strong right now.
7. Blow Out (1981)
In the early years of his career, Brian De Palma (who rose to fame as the director of Carrie, the 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name) drew many comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, particularly for his use of cinematography to up the suspense factor in his thrillers, as well as his exploration of voyeurism à la Rear Window (see: 1984’s Body Double), and bait-and-switches with the audience in the vein of Psycho (see: 1980’s Dressed to Kill).
Some critics have criticized it, while others refer to to his early work as a fine homage—either way, De Palma’s greatest love letter to Hitchcock is Blow Out, a 1981 thriller starring John Travolta as a sound-effects technician who accidentally captures audio of a political assassination. Although the film was a box-office bomb, it’s grown in cult status over the years and is now considered one of De Palma’s best films.
8. Blood Simple (1984)
As the first film written, edited, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple gets a bit overshadowed by the masterpieces that soon followed in the Coen Brothers’ filmography, including Fargo (1995) and The Big Lebowski (1997). But this 1984 neo-noir thriller is a sleeper classic, equal parts darkly comic and vicious, and in a way that foreshadows the tones and themes of later works (even the 2007 hit, No Country for Old Men, which the duo also wrote and directed).
Blood Simple follows a bartender who gets embroiled in a messy murder plot over his affair with his boss’ wife, and blood-soaked chaos follows from there. The film is also notable for being the big-screen premiere of Frances McDormand, who later married Joel Coen and went on to win two Oscars, two Emmys, a Tony award, and other accolades.
9. Gone Girl (2014)
One of the best-known directors working in thrillers today is David Fincher, and if you’re in the mood for one of Fincher’s nail-biters, there are many options to choose from. One of his biggest box-office successes was Gone Girl, the 2014 neo-noir thriller based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn.
Inspired by the real-life Laci Petersen case, the story focuses on Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck), an out-of-work writer turned bar owner whose wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), disappears mysteriously on their fifth wedding anniversary. The twists just get wilder from there, but strap in and let the story take you for a ride. Even if you have the legendary “Cool Girl” monologue memorized in your head, this tight little mystery is worth revisiting, over and over again.
10. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Considered one of the all-time best political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and focuses on Cold War espionage and mysterious cabals that threaten the stability of the U.S. government.
Starring Frank Sinatra, the film was based on the 1959 novel of the same name and co-stars Angela Lansbury, in a performance that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The characters in this slip under the radar, but this is one film that you shouldn’t let slip under yours, especially if you’re trying to watch more classic cinema.
11. Misery (1990) and Dolores Claiborne (1995)
There have been a lot of Stephen King adaptations over the years. Some are great, like the 1994 drama The Shawshank Redemption; others are divisive with audiences and critics, like 1980 supernatural horror film, The Shining; and others are really—I mean, really—bad, like the 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary. (Do yourself a favor and just don’t go there with that one.)
But Kathy Bates sure knew how to pick the good ones, and she proved it in the 1990s by starring in not just one, but two excellent Stephen King adaptations, both of which you can stream now. The first is one of her most iconic on-screen performances, and it’s the role that won her an Oscar for Best Actress (the only Stephen King adaptation to earn an Oscar win, ever): Misery. This gripping psychological thriller about a writer (played by James Caan) who suffers an accident and becomes imprisoned by an obsessed fan (Bates) is a deeply unsettling but superb film. That said, it might feel a little claustrophobic to watch in quarantine, so consider it carefully.
The second, the 1995 psychological thriller Dolores Claiborne, is a bit of a hidden gem. Like Misery, there’s no supernatural or overt horror themes at play. Instead, this story focuses on the fractured relationship between Bates’ character Dolores and her daughter (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), after Dolores is accused of murdering her elderly employer. Of the two, Dolores Claiborne is a personal favorite because of its undercurrent of feminist themes, but either thriller is great if you’re looking for a Stephen King binge or you just want an excuse to fangirl or fanboy it over Bates for an evening.
12. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Directed and co-produced by Renny Harlin (who made a name for himself directing the second Die Hard film), The Long Kiss Goodnight is a 1996 spy thriller that’s just an absolute thrill ride, from start to finish.
It begins with a case of what seems to be lost identity. A schoolteacher (played by Geena Davis) with amnesia hires a wise-cracking private investigator (Samuel L. Jackson, just chewing on the scenery every step of the way) to help her uncover her past. Then, after a freak accident, she starts to experience strange things, including knife and combat skills she can’t quite describe.
This clever premise is a twist on the familiar mistaken-identity trope often seen in spy thrillers, and you’re hoping Davis’ character figures out the truth before the bad guys—a group of shady counter-intelligence agents—catch up with her. While The Long Kiss Goodnight wasn’t the blockbuster it was supposed to be upon release, it’s since gained a big cult following, in no small part due to Davis’ performance and Harlin’s well-crafted action sequences.
13. Uncut Gems (2019)
Some movies are worth the experience of watching, just to say you did it. Uncut Gems is one of those crime thrillers that fits that bill. From start to finish, this Adam Sandler vehicle is a mess, but in a way that you can’t look away from.
Similar in spirit to the 1992 cult crime drama Bad Lieutenant in the sheer awe and contempt you’re likely to feel for the main character by the time it ends, Uncut Gems focuses on a self-destructive jeweler who is forced to retrieve a very expensive gem (the MacGuffin, to borrow from Hitchcock) in order to pay off his mounting gambling debts. Full disclosure: You’re probably not going to like Adam Sandler’s character, especially as he progressively makes things worse for himself throughout the story. But it’s hard to hit the pause button on this film once it gets going, because like a runaway train, it has a way of keeping you transfixed, to the bitter end.
14. Seven (1995)
Director David Fincher has already popped up in this list, but as thriller auteurs go, he’s worth a second add, especially when you consider how starkly different his early work is to his films in the late 2000s and early 2010s. If you’re looking for latter-day Fincher—where the thrillers are slower, moodier, and more procedural—then Gone Girl is a good choice, especially if you don’t feel like spending close to three hours on Zodiac (2007).
But if what you’re really after is a slick, stylized film that moves at breakneck pace, the 1995 psychological thriller Seven is the way to go. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Gwyneth Paltrow, this story focuses on two detectives as they struggle to track down a serial killer using the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his murders. What’s in the box? Only one of the best thrillers released in the 1990s.
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