The 30 Best Thrillers on Amazon Prime

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The 30 Best Thrillers on Amazon Prime

Out of any potential category of movie available to stream on Amazon Prime, the “thriller” may be the most elusive, mostly because it covers so much ground and Amazon has no real organizing function to delineate between, say, an action/adventure and what may “thrill” its audience.

So, for the (admittedly untenable) purpose of picking the best thrillers on Amazon Prime, we’ve mostly allowed the online retail giant to define what they consider a thriller, from neo-noir to sci-fi, from bleak action to blockbuster suspense. The thrillers Amazon Prime houses aren’t always for the squeamish—and aren’t always the easiest to find.

So here are the 30 best thrillers available to stream with Amazon Prime right now:

1. Fargo

fargo.jpg Year: 1996
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi
Rating: R
Runtime: 98 minutes

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In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. Fargo explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, setting up one scene after another so awkward it’ll make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by such characters as Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship, while their foil, obviously, is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. The Coens strike a careful balance between gentleness and a stark gruesomeness underneath a typical all-American veneer, making you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as deeply as they make you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper. —Allie Conti


2. Die Hard

die-hard.jpg Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov
Rating: R
Runtime: 114 minutes

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Die Hard may be the “stickiest” film of its decade—how many best-laid plans have been derailed by running across John McTiernan’s masterful actioner on cable? As Officer John McClane and Hans Gruber, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, respectively, steal the show in career-defining roles, but even Henchman #10 (Asian man who eats candy bar, or Uli, to his friends) comes across more realized than most lead roles in today’s run-of-the-mill action flicks. Tightly plotted with cleverness to spare, Die Hard welcomes the scrutiny of multiple viewings without losing its humor or heart. Yippie ki-yay, indeed. —Michael Burgin


3. The Silence of the Lambs

Silence-Lambs-Criterion.jpg Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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The camera hugs her face, maybe trying to protect her though she needs no protection, and maybe just trying to see into her, to see what she sees, to understand why seeing what she sees is so important. Not even 30, Jodie Foster looks so much younger, surrounded in The Silence of the Lambs by men who tower over her, staring at her, flummoxed by her, perhaps wanting to protect her too, but more likely, more ironically, intimidated by a world that would allow such a fragile creature to wander the domain of monsters. As Clarice Starling, FBI agent-in-training, Foster is an innocent who’s seen more than any of us could ever imagine, a warrior who seems unsure of her prowess. That Jonathan Demme—a director who came up under the tutelage of Roger Corman, able to adopt then immediately shed genres at whim—corners Starling within the confines of a “Woman in Peril,” only to watch her shrug off every label thrown at her, is a testament to The Silence of the Lambs as feminist, not because it so thoroughly inhabits a female point of view, but because its violence and fear is the stuff of masculine toxicity. Demme’s film is only the second to adapt Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels to the screen, but it’s the first to draw undeniable lines between the way men see Clarice Starling and the way that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) projects his neuroses onto his victims. Demme (and Harris) links seeing to transformation to one’s need to consume, all pursued through a gendered lens, represented by the seemingly omniscient perspective of Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a borderline asexual cannibal who literally eats those over whom he holds court. Buffalo Bill is a monster, and so is Lector, but the difference is that Lector does not attempt to possess Clarice Starling, though he sees her, because he is in control of that which he consumes. Buffalo Bill isn’t; as a man he believes that by consuming femininity he can become it, too stupid and too self-absorbed to realize that consumption is deletion, that wanting to protect a woman is only a matter of admitting that the World of Men is a weak and evil failure of the very ideals it strives to preserve. —Dom Sinacola


4. Robocop

robocop.jpg Year: 1987
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith
Rating: R
Runtime: 103 minutes

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Throughout the late-’70s and indulgent 1980s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: Manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay. And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit. A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive. He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to the robot cop, to Murphy (Peter Weller), as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter. —Dom Sinacola


5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

mission-impossible-ghost-protocol-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 132 minutes

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While Christopher McQuarrie continues to codify Tom Cruise as the asexual ubermensch of our action franchise dreams, it took an animator to realize what wonders could be unleashed when directing the superstar like one would a cartoon character. Tom Cruise can do things normal people can’t, maybe because normal people won’t, though Tom Cruise might just say that normal people don’t, the man’s career providing ample evidence that he believes he can do things normal people can’t because he does them. His impossible mission is himself; Brad Bird understood this. The fourth Mission: Impossible movie, then, is a testament to Tom Cruise’s logic, to having him do astounding things because he’s doing them, for us, to both show us what we could do if only we were doing it, and to entertain us, because he’s nothing if not a consummately entertaining performer. When Ethan Hunt (Cruise) clambers over the exterior of the Burj Khalifa, Bird captures Cruise with the open-faced awe of a director who can’t believe the malleable specimen he’s got in his grasp. When the Kremlin implodes with more than a hint of disaster porn footage, or when Ethan Hunt’s outrunning an all-consuming sandstorm, or when Ethan Hunt’s escaping from a maximum security prison in Moscow, Bird’s imagination spews from every spectacle, America’s favorite ridiculous leading man at the heart of it all, looking chiseled and genial but also like he doesn’t understand human touch. This is Cruise’s gift to Bird, and this is Bird’s gift to us, paying it forward. —Dom Sinacola


6. You Were Never Really Here

you-were-never.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette, Alessandro Nivola
Rating: R
Runtime: 89 minutes

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Lynne Ramsay has a reputation for being uncompromising. In industry patois, that means she has a reputation for being “difficult.” Frankly, the word that best describes her is “unrelenting.” Filmmakers as in charge of their aesthetic as Ramsay are rare. Rarer still are filmmakers who wield so much control without leaving a trace of ego on the screen. If you’ve seen any of the three films she made between 1999 and 2011 (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), then you’ve seen her dogged loyalty to her vision in action, whether that vision is haunting, horrific or just plain bizarre. She’s as forceful as she is delicate. Her fourth film, You Were Never Really Here—haunting, horrific and bizarre all at once—is arguably her masterpiece, a film that treads the line delineating violence from tenderness in her body of work. Calling it a revenge movie doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a sustained scream. You Were Never Really Here’s title is constructed of layers, the first outlining the composure of her protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, acting behind a beard that’d make the Robertson clan jealous), a military veteran and former federal agent as blistering in his savagery as in his self-regard. Joe lives his life flitting between past and present, hallucination and reality. Even when he physically occupies a space, he’s confined in his head, reliving horrors encountered in combat, in the field and in his childhood on a non-stop, simultaneous loop. Each of her previous movies captures human collapse in slow motion. You Were Never Really Here is a breakdown shot in hyperdrive, lean, economic, utterly ruthless and made with fiery craftsmanship. Let this be the language we use to characterize her reputation as one of the best filmmakers working today. —Andy Crump


7. To Catch a Thief

to-catch-a-thief-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, John Williams
Rating: PG
Runtime: 106 minutes

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But really—he didn’t do it. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a retired jewel thief who’s enjoying his golden years tending vines on the French Riviera. Just when the Grenache is hitting the perfect Brix level, a series of copycat heists put Robie back in the thiefly limelight. Seeking to clear things up, he compiles a list of locals who are known to have heistable jewels, and being a smart and wily guy, he starts tailing a very, very pretty one (Francie, played by Grace Kelly). Budding romance can be an accidental side-effect of these things, but when Francie’s ice does go missing, she suspects John and it sours their relationship, as one might expect. John goes on the proverbial lam to get to the bottom of it. Talk about jewels! Nothing ever sparkled quite like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly onscreen together, especially with the legendary Edith Head on costume design—and their peerless charisma is in amazing hands here. The film itself is a bauble, unapologetically so: light and frothy and absolutely not Rear Window (none of which is an indictment). Sometimes it’s enough for something to simply be charming and beautiful. This film proves it. —Amy Glynn


8. The City of Lost Children

city-of-lost-children-poster.jpg Year: 1995
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Stars: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Rating: R
Runtime: 112 minutes

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Ron Perlman plays the reluctant hero as a circus strongman named One looking for his adopted little brother Denree (Joseph Lucien), as Marc Caro (Delicatessen) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, also Delicatessen) team up to create a wildly imaginative dystopian universe. Krank (Daniel Emilfort), the evil creation of a mad scientist, is harvesting children’s dreams in order to keep himself young, so One must enlist the help of an orphaned street thief (Judith Vittet) to retrieve the kidnapped Denree. Populated with clones, Siamese twins, trained circus fleas and a Cyborg cult called the Cyclops, this steampunk fever dream has plenty for fans of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry. —Josh Jackson


9. Predator

41-starz-predator-poster.jpg Year: 1987
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

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A slasher film where battle-hardened soldiers replace the traditional nubile teens. Sounds like a recipe for a good time. And, indeed, Predator delivers on all fronts, from its cheesy approximation of “manly” dialogue (“I ain’t got time to bleed”) to the dated-yet-still-impressive special effects to the abundance of gory, creative violence. Subsequent installments in the sci-fi franchise have never truly captured the original’s meathead appeal. Besides, as any frequent viewer of VH1’s I Love the ’80s can attest, the decade just wouldn’t have been the same without it. —Mark Rozeman


10. The Prestige

the-prestige.jpg Year: 2006
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, David Bowie
Rating: R
Runtime: 130 minutes

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In The Prestige two competing magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, try to outdo each other, but are really trying to achieve a brand of immortality. They are competing for the same audience’s faith, and they need all of it, because it is not something that can be shared (many religious institutions hold similar dogma for similar reasons). Each wants to invoke utter and absolute belief in their audiences, much like Nolan wants to do in his own, as if that achievement grants the doer divinity, whether or not it is built on tricks and illusions. Nolan begins the film with a trick, in fact, a shot of top hats littering the forest floor, with the voice-over asking, “Are you watching closely?” It is a shot out of time and place from the rest of the film, Nolan once again doing as he pleases, manipulating our perception of what we’re seeing and when so as to emulate the pledge, turn and prestige of the “magic” acts the film portrays. Our faith is built on lies we tell ourselves and others, Nolan seems to posit, and it’s a thesis on which he elaborates with his Dark Knight trilogy, insinuating that symbols are sacred not for their truth, but simply for what they inspire. —Chet Betz


11. Detour

detour.jpg Year: 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Stars: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Runtime: 68 minutes

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A Poverty Row staple with an unknown cast peering into the post-war dark night of the soul, Detour has come to embody the best film noir has to offer—namely, that budget and schedule concerns indirectly enriched the artistic product, paring down a weightier script and even more bloated source novel into a precise, exquisitely sharp bit of storytelling economy. Trapped within the sweaty mind of always-broke jazz pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he heads West from New York to settle down with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a symbol of stable life for Roberts who absconded with his heart to try to “make it” in Hollywood, we’re stuck with only the unlucky guy’s version of events throughout his increasingly desperate trip. After all, his hitchhiking journey seems doomed to fail from the start, but it grows damn near bleak with the accidental cadaver-ing of a gregarious Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) following a whirlwind buddy meet-cute, and then completely hopeless with the introduction of Vera (Ann Savage), an iconic femme fatale who doesn’t have to try hard to ensnare Roberts, by that point so far out of his league he’s got his pants pulled up well past his nipples. As much an efficient encapsulation of its genre as it is a noir drowning entirely within its own hell-bent nightmare, Detour is most impressive for how gracefully Ulmer can get the most out of so little. —Dom Sinacola


12. The Terminator

terminator-1984-poster.jpg Year: 1984
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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James Cameron’s first Terminator (and second feature) is less of a pure-popcorn action flick than its upscaled sequel, but that makes it all the more terrifying of a movie—dark, somber, replete with a silent villain who calmly plucks bits of his damaged face off to more precisely target its victims. The task in front of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seems so insurmountable—even with a soldier from the future, going after the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, duh) with modern weapons is so ineffectual, it’s nearly comical. It’s as if Schwarzenegger is playing entropy itself—entropy seemingly a theme of The Terminator series, given the time-hopping do-overs, reboots and retreads since. You can destroy a terminator, but the future (apparently driven by box office receipts) refuses to be changed. —Jim Vorel


13. The Rock

the-rock.jpg Year: 1996
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

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With The Rock, Michael Bay’s then-burgeoning caliber as the new hotshot action director, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s expertise in creating cinematic roller coaster rides, and Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery’s effortless charisma culminates in an explosive late ’90s action classic. Since The Rock came at the beginning stages of Bay’s career, he probably didn’t have the clout to change much of the screenplay, which in turn creates his most morally gray project to date. Instead of fighting against nameless and faceless foreign bad guys, the heroes go after a bunch of deadly rockets being held by a group of disgruntled U.S. soldiers led by General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris, who gives the best performance in any Bay film). This unfortunate scenario pits brother against brother, and even though the film takes appropriate glee out of every bullet and explosion that comes out of this ride, Bay gives this inner conflict a deftly balanced operatic outlet. Yes, it has its share of dumb dialogue, just like any other Bay project, but at least hearing a line as head-smackingly stupid as “Winners go home and fuck the prom queen” through Connery’s bearded Scottish mouth makes the whole thing worthwhile. The midpoint car chase sequence, complete with every ’90s car chase cliché you can possibly think of, is still Bay’s most impressive and entertaining sequence.—Oktay Ege Kozak


14. The Vast of Night

vast-of-night-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Andrew Patterson
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 89 minutes

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The Vast of Night is the kind of sci-fi film that seeps into your deep memory and feels like something you heard on the news, observed in a dream, or were told in a bar. Director Andrew Patterson’s small-town hymn to analog and aliens is built from long, talky takes and quick-cut sequences of manipulating technology. Effectively a ‘50s two-hander between audio enthusiasts (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz playing a switchboard operator and disc jockey, respectively) the film is a quilted fable of story layers, anecdotes and conversations stacking and interweaving warmth before yanking off the covers. The effectiveness of the dusty locale and its inhabitants, forged from a high school basketball game and one-sided phone conversations (the latter of which are perfect examples of McCormick’s confident performance and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s sharp script), only makes its inevitable UFO-in-the-desert destination even better. Comfort and friendship drop in with an easy swagger and a torrent of words, which makes the sensory silence (quieting down to focus on a frequency or dropping out the visuals to focus on a single, mysterious radio caller) almost holy. It’s mythology at its finest, an origin story that makes extraterrestrial obsession seem as natural and as part of our curious lives as its many social snapshots. The beautiful ode to all things that go [UNINTELLIGIBLE BUZZING] in the night is an indie inspiration to future Fox Mulders everywhere. —Jacob Oller


15. We Need to Talk About Kevin

talk-about-kevin.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Stars: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Rating: R
Runtime: 112 minutes

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We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her son (Ezra Miller). In its narrative construction, it draws upon two key tropes: that of the “whydunnit” thriller, in which the mystery of the perpetrator’s motivations are a driving factor, and that of the family horror, in which some dark element tears a traditional household apart. Indeed, the real horror is not that a teenager chose total negation over the banality of normative family life—it’s that these appeared to be the only two choices available. Tilda Swinton is brilliant in the starring role as a mother who grapples with guilt about what her son has done and reflects on his childhood, wondering what, if anything, could possibly have been done differently when one gives birth to a “bad seed.” The heartbreaking nature of the film is perfectly encapsulated by the scene wherein Kevin as a child briefly drops his sociopathic tendencies while ill, giving Swinton’s character a brief chance to feel like a cherished mother, only to emotionally shut her out again as soon as his physical health returns, dashing her hopes that some kind of breakthrough had been made. —Donal Foreman


16. The Neon Demon

neon-demon-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes

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If Nicolas Winding Refn—anthropomorphic cologne bottle; asexual jaguar—is going to make a horror film, Nicolas Winding Refn will make a horror film about the things that scare Nicolas Winding Refn most: asymmetry, sex, fatherhood. In The Neon Demon, every character is either someone’s daughter or a deranged daddy figure, both thirsty for the kind of flesh only Los Angeles can provide, the roles of predator and prey in constant, unnerving flux. Part cannibal-slasher movie and part endlessly pretty car commercial, Refn’s film about a young model (Elle Fanning) making it in the fashion industry goes exactly where you think it’s going to go, even when it’s trying as hard as it can to be weird as fuck. But despite his best efforts, Refn sustains such an overarching, creeping atmosphere of despair—such a deeply ingrained sense of looming physical imperfection, of death—that it never really matters if The Neon Demon doesn’t add up to much of anything in the end. —Dom Sinacola


17. The Night of the Hunter

night-of-the-hunter-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 92 minutes

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Film noir or horror—which category does Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter belong in? Frankly, all such quibbles are needless. The film fits snugly beneath either appellation, for one thing: It’s a hybridized version of both. (Let’s call it “film noirror.”) For another, it’s a masterwork, so fie upon labels. Night of the Hunter lurks in shadows and revels in misogyny. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you probably have the image of Robert Mitchum’s tattooed knuckles imprinted upon your brain thanks to pop culture osmosis. Reverend Harry Powell is quite the villain, a man as quick to distort the truth with honey-coated lies as Laughton is to distort reality through oblique perspective, unnerving use of shadows and light, and a dizzying array of camera compositions that make small-town West Virginia feel altogether otherworldly. —Andy Crump


18. The Handmaiden

the-handmaiden.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Rating: NR
Runtime: 145 minutes

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There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. But you’re here to read about the sex, aren’t you? It’s in the sex scenes between the two Kims that Park shows the kind of filmmaker he really is. The sex is sexy, the scenes steamy, but in each we find a tenderness that invites us to read them as romance rather than as pornography. We’re not conditioned to look for humanity in pantomimes of a sexually explicit nature, but that’s exactly when The Handmaiden is at its most human. There’s something comforting in that, and in Park’s framing of deviance as embodied by the film’s masculine component. We don’t really need him to spell that out for us, but the message is welcome all the same. —Andy Crump


19. Mission: Impossible III

mi3.jpg Year: 2006
Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Henry Czerny
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 110 minutes

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Mission: Impossible is that rare (some would say, one-of-a-kind) film franchise where the latter installments improve upon the ones that came before. All the more fascinating is how each film so thoroughly reflects the sensibilities of the filmmaker behind the camera. J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III stands as one of the most action-packed and intensely emotional of the series. Most noted at the time for his television work, including directing and co-writing the groundbreaking pilots for Alias and Lost, Mission: Impossible III would act as Abrams’ feature film directorial debut. Here, audiences witnessed the birth of one of my America’s finest filmmakers—a man for whom hitting good character beats and constructing elaborate action set pieces brought about an equal level of fervor. If you need proof, one need only watch the film’s opening scene, which still stands as one of the most gripping in Abrams’ extensive career. —Mark Rozeman


20. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-poster.jpg Year: 2011
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson
Rating: R
Runtime: 158 minutes

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remains David Fincher’s most underappreciated movie due to its brutal nature and heavy subject matter. Adapted from the first installment of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Swedish Millennium series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo centers on Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig between James Bond duties), a recently disgraced journalist dealing with the fallout of a libel suit that destroyed his reputation and the publication he runs with longtime lover/business partner Erika (Robin Wright). When approached by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (the late, great Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-old disappearance and presumed murder of his then-16-year-old grandniece Harriet in exchange for a healthy sum of money and, more importantly, information pertaining to the billionaire who destroyed Mikael’s career, he jumps at the chance in the hopes that it’ll be a win-win situation. While we meet the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), within the first few minutes, it takes almost an hour for her narrative to join Mikael’s. Fincher never wastes a moment, creating a rich and fleshed-out adaptation that surprisingly never overstays its welcome. Using an unconventional five-act structure, no part of the story feels rushed. Steven Zaillian’s script allows us to get to know the core pair before the action begins, giving Fincher the room to explore every detail despite packing in so much. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s editing helps transform Dragon Tattoo, which could’ve easily ended up being dense, into something fully absorbing: Seemingly mundane and unnecessary moments (like Lisbeth riding the subway or eating at McDonalds) become fully worth our attention. Balancing these with the stark setting, they build tension while also insisting that no detail is too small. While crafted to near-perfection, from stunning visuals that beautifully capture the dark and snowy Swedish backdrop to the editing and score that perfectly match the tone, it’s still certainly not Fincher’s most accessible film—either in the crime-thriller genre or his filmography in general. —Jihane Bousfiha


21. Mission: Impossible

mission-impossible.jpg Year: 1996
Directors: Brian De Palma
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Henry Czerny
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 110 minutes

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Yup—stop for a minute and contemplate that the first M:I film was directed by Brian De Palma. A guy known more for art house thrillers and anti-heroes helms the first in a possible franchise starring an A-list actor (before Hollywood was only interested in franchises), not to mention the first film Cruise ever produced, a risk in and of itself. And yet, it all worked: Mission: Impossible is a plot-heavy, intelligent, patient action film, establishing a cypher of an action star who would go on to perfectly serve every single director to come. By now, it’s expected that with every new film in the franchise, Tom Cruise will step up his stuntman game, and every new director will be given the chance to interpret Ethan Hunt as he (or she, we can only hope) sees fit. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Cruise asserts himself as perhaps the world’s most prominent asexual action hero, but 20 years ago no one had any idea what kind of conceptual framework he was putting into place. Mission: Impossible was a new breed of blockbuster action film, and the franchise’s longevity is clear evidence that, no matter what’s happened since, Tom Cruise is a guy whose risks seem to always pay off. —Dom Sinacola


22. Ash Is Purest White

ash-is-purest.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Jia Zhangke
Stars: Tao Zhiao, Fan Liao
Rating: NR
Runtime: 136 minutes

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Ash Is Purest White’s story spans decades, a staggeringly beautiful epic, as comedic as it is heartbreaking, that stills feels impossibly intimate—confined, even, and not by space or imagery, but by emotion. China, over the decades through which the film sweeps, tumbles amidst modernization with little care for those who can’t afford to change with the times. Then there is love, passion and crime: At its heart, Ash Is Purest White is a romance between two criminals, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao). They are serious people with serious demeanors, their day-to-day lives oscillating between the nothingness of a routine lifestyle and violence. Yet, the violence is rarely ever seen—though when it is, Zhangke Jia directs it with a sense of relentless desperation and urgency—and most of the violence of the emotional sort. Yet, there is also a grand sense of human comedy that hangs over the film’s proceedings, as the stories of Jia’s core characters reflect China at large: Everything is changing, nothing is sacred, the past pales in comparison to the rapidly approaching future. Reality can be fought, but time is inescapable—always encroaching and always passing us by. —Cole Henry


23. In a Lonely Place

lonely-place.jpg Year: 1950
Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 93 minutes

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One of the great noirs of all time and one of the great feel-bad movies of all time. In a Lonely Place treats redemption as a cruel joke, a spell of relief that lasts only long enough for us to view its obsolescence. The film takes jabs at Hollywood and celebrity while telling the kind of dangerous love story E.L. James wishes she could write; Humphrey Bogart is a bad, bad man, but he’s also grossly compelling. He plays Dixon Steele, a Tinseltown screenwriter fallen on hard times whom we sympathize with in spite of ourselves. Apart from being a sad sack, he’s also an explosive lunatic with a frighteningly short fuse, which makes him dangerously alluring bait for his new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame). Theirs is an ill-fated romance, and through it, Nicholas Ray makes a hauntingly grim study of masculinity, set against the ratcheting suspense of a murder mystery yarn. —Andy Crump


24. The Usual Suspects

usual-suspects.jpg Year: 1995
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Spacey
Rating: R
Runtime:106 minutes

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The movie is a cheat and a fraud. It’s as manipulative as it is dishonest, but unlike many other far lesser films worthy of the same description, all this flick’s shamelessness is on purpose. When it was released The Usual Suspects left viewers gob smacked, staring at screens with expressions matching Michael Caine and Steve Martin on the runway at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: at first confused, then maybe a little angry, but then ultimately delighted by how fooled they’d just been. Perfectly paced, brilliantly scored by director Bryan Singer and editor/composer John Ottman—the film never lets the marks know they’re being conned by the irresistible ensemble or Christopher McQuarrie’s dark, mischievous script. And then like that … it’s gone… —Bennett Webber


26. Nightcrawler

nightcrawler.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes

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“A screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” That’s the image Nina (Rene Russo) evokes when describing her news program in director Dan Gilroy’s tremendous thriller Nightcrawler. It’s tempting to adopt that as a metaphor for the entire film—Gilroy’s first, by the way, which makes his achievement doubly impressive—but while that is definitely part of the equation, what drives this movie forward is the menace that lurks just below the surface, beneath a calm exterior personified by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom. A nocturnal rambler who scrounges for anything he can steal and sell, Lou is a motivated self-starter. Full of meaningful acronyms, manufactured self-confidence, and drive powered by self-improvement seminars, catchphrase wisdom and insight, he’s looking for a career to break into on the ground floor. When he comes across the lucrative world of nightcrawlers, freelance stringers who race after breaking news stories—the bloodier, the better is the prevailing wisdom—he has the ambition, opportunity and, most importantly, the moral flexibility to excel. Gyllenhaal, who shed in excess of 30 pounds for the role, has rarely—if ever—been better. Lou is calm, frank, goal-oriented and even borders on charming at times, but this measured exterior belies the inherent violence you spend the entire movie waiting to see erupt. Nightcrawler is tense and intense, ferocious and obsessed, and crackles with energy and a dark sense of humor. —Brent McKnight


27. Europa Report

europa-report-poster-2.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Sebastian Cordero
Stars: Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 89 minutes

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With echoes of 2001, director Sebastian Cordero’s innovatively structured thriller enthralls with not only its apparent scientific accuracy, but the passion it portrays among a class of people historically characterized by pocket protectors, taped eyewear and social awkwardness. Aboard the Europa One (Kubrick’s vessel was called the Discovery One), the six scientists bound for Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons (HAL and his crew were headed for the gas giant itself), are living, breathing human beings, with families and fears, ambition and emotions. They’re also just smarter than most of us and on a mission more significant than any of us will experience ever in our lives. The stakes are high in this mock doc/faux found-footage mystery, in which the privately funded space exploration company Europa Ventures issues a documentary on the fate of its first manned mission to investigate the possibility of alien life within our solar system. The sacrifices may be steep, but Europa Report is convinced—and wants to convince you—that a certain amount of horror is likely what it will take to explore such frontiers. —Annlee Ellingson


28. Charade

charade.jpg Year: 1963
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn
Rating: G
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Cary Grant is the most charming male lead ever. Audrey Hepburn is the most charming female lead ever. Everything else is just bonus in this romantic thriller about a woman pursued in Paris for her late husband’s stolen fortune: the Henry Mancini score, the Hitchcock-ian suspense, the plot twists and Walter Mathau as a CIA agent. It’s a screwball comedy and an international spy thriller, and works equally as both. —Michael Dunaway


29. The Bourne Ultimatum

bourne-ultimatum.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes

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Matt Damon returns as the recovering amnesiac and ex-CIA agent Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film based on Robert Ludlum’s best-selling series following the spy who won’t die—much to the disappointment of U.S. Intelligence. Although he comes across as an average Joe (albeit a Joe who can easily disable and disarm half a dozen of the agency’s best), Bourne’s ability to out-think, out-maneuver, and just plain out-smart the security of several countries is what makes this series so popular. He is the bizarro James Bond, in that where Bond’s style demands attention, Bourne’s actively avoids it. And where Bond would easily risk his life for his country, Bourne merely wants the nation to leave him be. Damon stays authentic to character, struggling to find his true self while defending his life at the same time. As spy flicks go, The Bourne Ultimatum is the perfect chase to this successful series. —Tim Basham


30. Vivarium

vivarium-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

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A quirky real estate story, where first-time homeowners Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) get a lot more than they bargained for, Vivarium is a low-key sci-fi nightmare of the mundane in the vein of early David Cronenberg. Director Lorcan Finnegan’s film also functions as a relationship allegory, where Tom and Gemma find themselves stuck in a trendy neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes where starting a family isn’t just an expectation but something foisted upon them. It isn’t as grisly as something like Shivers, but more affecting in its surreal design and hopelessness. Eisenberg and Poots own the screen as a disintegrating couple coping in distinct ways to their newfound terrarium where they are observed, manipulated, and—perhaps most disturbingly of all—objectively provided for by unseen and undefinable forces. Its 2020 release feels especially fitting as repetition and hopelessness become permanent residents of the couple’s home. Genre elements seep into the film, accelerating in hiccups and starts that are as arresting as the film’s intentionally artificial design. Startling sound dubbing, odd colorizing, and a few genuine “Oh shit” moments make Vivarium a tight, nasty fable that would fit in with the best Twilight Zone episodes. —Jacob Oller