The 30 Best Thrillers on Netflix

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The 30 Best Thrillers on Netflix

The thriller has been a cinema staple ever since Alfred Hitchcock kept us in suspense with his silent serial killer film The Lodger in 1927. The story may be fictional, but if the telling is masterful enough, the tension we feel is real. From tales of the supernatural to spy chases to psychological dramas, the thriller is a broad and hard-to-define genre—you’ll see overlap with our Best Dramas on Netflix, Best Action Movies on Netflix, Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix and Best Horror Movies on Netflix lists—but the key element of a good thriller is keeping an audience member on the edge of their seat.

So, we’ve officially defined a thriller as anything that Netflix calls a thriller (excepting a few wildly mislabeled films), and any complaints or concerns can be directed to one of Netflix’s insufferable first-person Twitter accounts.

Here are the 30 best Thrillers on Netflix right now:

1. Michael Clayton

michael-clayton.jpg Year: 2007
Director: Tony Gilroy
Stars: George Clooney, Tom Wilkenson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O’Keefe, Merritt Wever
Rating: R
Runtime: 119 minutes

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The parade of high-profile business scandals in the 21st century make the central thesis of Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut all the more discomforting to accept: that even those callous corporate masterminds and their big-shot lawyers have conflicts of conscience, too. Gilroy introduces his three leads in short order, each one a pawn in a $3 billion class-action lawsuit against fictional agrochemical giant U/North: Attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) gets reduced to a manic-depressive wreck. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U/North’s lead counsel, internalizes her anxiety, masking it with carefully constructed appearance and well-rehearsed press responses. Then there’s Michael Clayton himself, played with world-weary resolve by George Clooney, who must face a series of moral dilemmas in which his corporate instinct for self-preservation collides with his sense of humanity. Gilroy maintains a fine balance as he portrays the lives of these three lonely souls while keeping his intricately crafted plot in constant motion. Blending elements of crime drama, paralegal thriller, and a dash of the espionage action he perfected while working on the Bourne trilogy, Gilroy delivers a script that reflects his rare ability to pose complex moral questions while simultaneously drawing his audience deeper and deeper into the action. Shot against the cold, hive-like palaces of Manhattan’s Corporate Row, Michael Clayton deftly portrays the bewilderment of the people who find themselves trapped within the corporate culture. It’s scary to think that the mega-conglomerates that dominate America’s economy are heartless machines, but even scarier to imagine that they just might be human after all. —Jeremy Goldmeier


2. Argo

argo.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

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Directed by Ben Afflewck Argo is a precise blend of classic narrative genres, a remarkably well-sculpted film built from a fairly basic, step-by-step framework. Argo looks like a smaller undertaking, plays like a big Hollywood movie and succeeds despite the hundreds of ways it could have failed. So how does one turn the real-life takeover of a U.S. embassy into a tense, popcorn drama? Affleck shows he’s capable of doing so and without sacrificing, or worse, ignoring, the issue’s sensitivity. That’s important considering the unanticipated symmetry with today’s current political events and tensions, and the impact that can have on an audience. The action begins in 1979 Tehran, as a militant group successfully (and infamously) storms the United States embassy, taking hostages and demanding that the American government return the deposed Shah to his home nation. The introduction, carefully written by Chris Terrio, offers no opinions and takes no sides. It even manages an empathetic view as to why Iranian citizens would have felt so strongly about the Shah. After the brisk setup, we have a movie driven by two themes that audiences love: The Everyman as hero fit snugly into a CIA drama. The regular guy is Tony Mendez (Affleck), a quiet operative who specializes in extricating Americans from sticky political situations, and he’s got a doozy on his hands. During the embassy takeover, a half-dozen Americans fled to the Canadian ambassador’s residence, where they’ve been hiding, fearful they’ll be found and executed. To get them out of Iran, Mendez turns to the movies, inventing the pre-production of a fake Hollywood film to convince the Iranians that the six people leaving their country are actually members of a Canadian crew scouting Middle East locations for a sci-fi thriller titled Argo. The story carries all the intrigue you’d expect, and Terrio’s script and Affleck’s sense of timing result in an efficient, stripped down and polished effort. —Norm Schrager


3. Nightcrawler

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


4. Okja

okja-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chet Betz


5. Under the Shadow

under-shadow-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Babak Anvari
Stars: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 84 minutes

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For most of the film, Babak Anvari is crafting a stifling period drama, a horror movie of a different sort that tangibly conveys the claustrophobia of Iran during its tumultuous post-revolution period. Anvari, himself of a family that eventually fled the Ayatollah’s rule, has made Under the Shadow as statement of rebellion and tribute to his own mother. It’s a distinctly feminist film: Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is cast as the tough heroine fighting back against greater hostile forces—a horror movie archetype that takes on even more potency in this setting. Seeing Shideh defy the Khomeini regime by watching a Jane Fonda workout video, banned by the state, is almost as stirring as seeing her overcome her personal demons by protecting her child from a more literal one. —Brogan Morris


6. Creep

creep poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2014
Director: Patrick Brice
Stars: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
Rating: R
Runtime: 77 minutes

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Trust is a valuable commodity online. Though the connective power of the Internet has made our world smaller, believing in what you can’t see is risky business. In Creep, Patrick Brice makes a mercurial study of these fears through the veneer of found footage. As genre niches go, the found footage conceit wore out its welcome in a deluge of Paranormal Activity imitators over the span of the past eight years. In Brice’s hands, the technique works: Unlike its low-fi kin, Creep is made with attention to detail and a dedicated consideration of motive. There’s a reason the camera stays on from scene to scene. If the web invites harm, Brice’s lens almost acts like a shield. Nothing bad can happen while we’re rolling, at least until it does. Even a casual horror fan knows the destination on Creep’s narrative itinerary, but Brice has a knack for making us second-guess ourselves at almost every juncture. The film stars Brice as Aaron and his comrade, mumblecore guru supreme Mark Duplass, as Josef. Aaron is down on his luck and looking for fast, easy cash. Josef is a vibrating ball of pent-up, charismatic energy. He’s also slowly dying, the victim of an aggressive, untreatable brain tumor. Hence Aaron, whom Josef has hired as his personal videographer. Josef wants to record a single day in his life for his unborn son, whom he may never get to meet. So the two men strike out on an adventure through hill and dale, which sounds fine and dandy except that Josef is weird. Really weird, in fact, and not the quirky, precious kind of weird that indie audiences find endlessly endearing. And Brice has a deft hand at fostering sustained terror. He’s equally as good at coaxing a chuckle out of us at the right moment to subvert our expectations. Creep is as intensely frightening as it is humorous, but Brice doesn’t use gags to let the air out of the room. Rather, he treats them as bait, and anticipation as a red herring, executing his many misdirections brilliantly. Even when the film ticks down to its final minutes, we can’t help but hope for a happy ending. —Andy Crump


7. Django Unchained

django-unchained-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: R
Runtime: 165 minutes

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The best thing about Quentin Tarantino is also the worst thing about Quentin Tarantino—he believes, wholeheartedly, in whatever he’s doing. Most of the time, what he’s doing consists of overly referential homage mashups with dialogue that would give most screenwriters carpal tunnel. The old video store clerk is sublime at saying important things through mediums that don’t usually convey them—Kung Fu films, revenge fantasies and spaghetti Westerns, for starters. He is an artist dressed as a Philistine, splattering the screen with cartoonish violence when what he’s really blowing is our minds. Although Tarantino’s effort here isn’t his best, it is his most ambitious, and for someone capable of so much, that means quite a lot.—Tyler Chase


8. The Nightingale

nightingale.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
Rating: R

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Calling The Nightingale a revenge film sets an expectation of triumph, found in the satisfaction of grim justice done on the unjust. Let it be known that there’s no such catharsis in Jennifer Kent’s followup to her 2014 debut The Babadook. Revenge, while indeed a dish best served cold, tends to be prepared in one of two ways in cinema: with fist-pumping vigor or soul-corroding sobriety. The Nightingale sticks with the recipe for the latter. This is neither a pleasant movie nor a pleasing movie, but it is made with high aesthetic value to offset its unrelenting pitilessness: It’s fastidiously constructed, as one should expect from a director of Kent’s talent, and ferociously acted by her leading trio of Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin, respectively playing Clare, an Irish convict driven by rage; Billy, an Aboriginal tracker driven by vengeance; and Hawkins, a British military officer driven by cold ambition and bottomless malice, who’s also Clare’s master and rapist. They’re three peas in a horrible pod, being 1820s Tasmania during the Black War, when English colonists slaughtered Aboriginal Tasmanians to the latter’s near extinction. It’s an altogether dark time in the country’s long history. Thus, The Nightingale is an appropriately dark film—but Kent is too shrewd a filmmaker to argue that Clare’s suffering trumps Billy’s, or to make any equivalency between them. She understands what must happen to fulfill Clare’s part in the story, and what must happen to fulfill Billy’s part. That she’s able to so seamlessly achieve both is an incredible accomplishment. The Nightingale is a far cry from The Babadook on obvious grounds of genre and style, though there are horrors here aplenty: Nightmare beats where Clare dances with Aidan, then with Hawkins and her other attackers. But the film expands on Kent’s interest in women’s stories by telling Billy’s tale alongside Clare’s, and shows once more her gift for making well-tread genre elements feel unique. If The Nightingale denies the traditional satisfactions of revenge cinema, it discovers new ones as well. —Andy Crump


9. Monster

monster.jpg Year: 2004
Director: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen
Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes

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Charlize Theron’s transformation into notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ heartbreaking drama goes beyond her becoming downright unrecognizable in the role. (Roger Ebert famously did not know it was her in the role when he first saw Monster). Anything we had previously known about Theron’s persona and demeanor as a movie star she completely strips away to embody this extremely troubling, yet inherently tragic figure. Theron is completely submerged in her character. Every glance, every hand gesture and every physical tick seem to be those of Wuornos. There’s not a single moment in the film in which the actress peeks out from behind those eyes. Charlize Theron captured something essential and magical (if very disturbing)
Oktay Ege Kozak and Tim Regan-Porter


10. The Platform

platform.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
Stars: Iván Massagué, Zorion Eguileor, Antonia San Juan, Emilio Buale Coka, Alexandra Masangkay
Rating: NR

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The Platform benefits immensely from the strength of its simple, high-concept premise and all the superfluous information that is withheld from the viewer. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why exactly people are placed into this diabolical, vertical prison structure, in which the only sustenance arrives once a day in the form of a steadily descending, increasingly gross stone slab piled high with perishables. Nor do we really need to know how this apparent social experiment operates, although the repeated glimpses we get at cooks slaving over perfect dishes to be sent down to the doomed convicts is no doubt designed to needle at our curiosity. What matters is that we observe the differences in human reaction to this plight—the ways that different personalities react to adversity with an “us or them” mentality, or a predatory hunger, or a spontaneous drive toward self-sacrificing altruism. The fact that the position of the prisoners is constantly in flux is key—it gives them both a tangible reason to be the change they want to see in their world, and an almost impossible temptation to do the exact opposite out of distrust of their neighbors. One expects a nihilistic streak here, and you won’t be disappointed—but there’s a few glimmers of hope shining through the cracks as well. Just enough, perhaps, to twist the knife that much deeper. —Jim Vorel


11. Hush

hush poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2016
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Michael Trucco, Kate Siegel
Rating: R
Runtime: 81 minutes

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Mike Flanagan’s Oculus was a pleasantly ambitious surprise for horror fans when it landed a wide distribution release in 2013, so looking at his new Netflix-exclusive Hush, one sort of wonders if he’s taking a step back by directing a fairly classical home invasion thriller with limited cast and locations. There are, however, just enough twists on this especially trope-laden subgenre, starting with our heroine, who is deaf. That one disability, coupled with her remote residence in the woods, makes for a uniquely frightening handicap in repelling the masked intruder who comes calling. Unavoidably evoking The Strangers and Funny Games in particular, Hush nevertheless carves out its own spot in the niche. Our lead is an unusually intelligent, resourceful (but realistic) protagonist for this sort of setting, and her reactions to each new horror ring with truth. The stakes and tension rise in a palpable, organic way that has no need to resort to further gimmickry or a third act twist. It’s simply a battle for survival, featuring a character who is impressively well developed, considering that she never “speaks” a word. —Jim Vorel


12. 1BR

1br.jpg Year: 2019
Director: David Marmor
Stars: Nicole Brydon Bloom, Giles Matthey, Alan Blumenfeld, Celeste Sully
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

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In the middle of a horrifying housing crisis, 1BR holds up a mirror to the isolation and desperation crushing the greater population of Los Angeles. Hollywood and the surrounding areas may be viewed globally as a home for opulence, but the majority of Los Angeles county lives closer to the poverty line than the shoreline. These extreme levels of impoverishment come with about two dozen cults masquerading as sub-culture, a mortifying picture of co-dependancy, a coerced dismissal of personal rights, and loneliness. Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), a recent Los Angeles transplant, needs to find a place to live. She also needs to get into college. Oh, and Sarah needs to figure out how to navigate her uptight boss. She’s the blueprint for every mid-twenties late bloomer. The apartment hunt has been a nightmare with limited funds, but then she finds the perfect apartment. The space is close to work, affordable, and comes with one extremely cute neighbor. Unfortunately, the property is owned by a cult, obsessed with making a perfect community. Prone to extreme measures, the group, known only as CDE Properties, watches the little colony 24 hours a day. Their tried-and-true method of converting new tenants includes sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and threats of extreme pain. Sarah does her best to resist these tactics while simultaneously convincing her captors that she’s becoming one of them. In his feature film debut, writer/director David Marmor crafts a chilling survival story in the sun-bleached desert and stark fluorescent lighting of wearisome offices. A visceral expression of fear and longing, 1BR could be a new cult classic. With incredible performances, a solid twist and the possibility of a franchise sequel, 1BR aims high. The good news is the film hits most of its targets. —Joelle Monique


13. Cop Car

cop-car-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Jon Watts
Stars: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Wigham
Rating: R
Runtime: 86 minutes

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A lean, rugged neo-noir that tweaks genre conventions by putting two young boys at the center of its attention, Cop Car opens with credits shimmering like police lights. Cut to snapshots of writer-director Jon Watts’ rural Colorado milieu, a place defined by barren storefronts, abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated trailer parks, and flat, dusty plains. Across the vast, barren land walk 10-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford): Travis utters curse words that Harrison dutifully echoes in a kind of casual call-and-repeat bonding ritual, and from the first sight of the duo—orchestrated by Watts as one gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot which captures them dwarfed by the country’s big sky, even when they make their away through a barbed wire fence—it’s clear that the boys are on an odyssey of some sort, albeit one of initially undefined purpose. And it’s clear that Watts (co-scripting with Christopher Ford) wants Cop Car to serve as a downbeat commentary about the futility of escape. Coming upon a tree-shrouded area, the two are surprised to discover a county sheriff’s cruiser. They decide that the car has been abandoned. Up to no good, finding the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys inside, Travis and Harrison opt to take a joy ride. Apparently having both run away from home, the two speed around the cow-populated landscape like juvenile delinquents unconcerned about the potentially serious consequences of their actions. Such uninhibited, devil-may-care recklessness gives the material an immediate jolt of peril, even before Watts rewinds his tale to reveal the origins of the car and its owner. As it turns out, the car was left in this out-of-the-way locale by Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), its remote parking spot chosen so that the officer wouldn’t be seen hauling a body out of its trunk and onto a tarp, and then dragging it to a hole to be unceremoniously dumped. That corpse’s identity is left as vague as Kretzer’s reason for committing this apparent murder. Suffice it to say, when the sun does finally set on these characters, what’s left is a bleak portrait of the hopelessness of trying to change one’s circumstances, and the often-brutal punishment doled out by fate to those foolish enough to think they can alter who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going—even when those in question are just a couple of ne’er-do-well runaways looking for some mischievous kicks. —Nick Schager


14. The Hateful Eight

16.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demien Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern
Rating: R
Runtime: 168 minutes

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The Hateful Eight is a sprawling film with an intimate core and too much necessary material to trim. There’s a pomp and grandiosity to the weight of the film, and to Quentin Tarantino’s ambition in making it his way, that’s hard not to admire. More so than most marquee movies and tentpoles claiming to be “epic,” The Hateful Eight actually lives up to the word. With this whodunit—or who’s-gonna-doit—Tarantino is chiefly interested in the exchanging of barbs and threats more than he is in action. Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is insanely violent, but it’s fixated around violent talk and violent reverie before physical violence. Tarantino may lay his timely allegory on thick, but The Hateful Eight bears it out in subtle ways, too: With distrust as the film’s prevailing manner, the notion that you cannot truly know the people with whom you’re having dinner takes on increased gravity and meaning, particularly in the climactic showdown, when all is revealed and we see the film’s various humans for who they truly are. Frontier justice does quench our thirst, but the themes of social justice that drive the film are more satiating by far. It all adds up to a towering work, as profound as it is profane. —Andy Crump


15. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

el-camino.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Jonathan Banks
Rating: NR
Runtime: 122 minutes

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Like many (though not all) TV shows that are able to plan their series finales, Breaking Bad’s “Felina” was pitch-perfect. It was the end of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as it needed to be, but it allowed us to have some hope in a future for Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he sped off into the unknown. Viewers have hoped for and imagined a happy ending for Jesse since “Felina,” that he might actually make it to Alaska and find a life for himself that was his own. And that, essentially, is what El Camino gives us. It starts the moment that Jesse drives away from that compound, but for the rest of its runtime it goes back and forth through time, as Jesse works on getting Ed the Extractor (the late Robert Forster) to find him a way out of the chaos that Walt created around them. In some ways, the plot is like an RPG quest line, wherein Jesse must do a variety of tasks before he is allowed to go to the next stage. And in true Breaking Bad fashion, it’s also full of anxiety-inducing moments where Jesse seems cornered and done for. As he realized in a past conversation with Mike, he has a chance to start fresh, even though he can never make things right. Too much has happened; too many people have died. “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life. It’s better to make those decisions for yourself,” Jane (Krysten Ritter) tells Jesse in the past. It’s time for Jesse to start living for himself. He’s ready, bitch! And I’m glad we got to see it. —Allison Keene


16. Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Tom Ford
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher
Rating: R
Runtime: 116 minutes

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After A Single Man was (unjustly) criticized in some quarters for its preoccupation with surface beauty, fashion designer-cum-filmmaker Tom Ford has returned with something ugly. Aesthetically, Nocturnal Animals is still deliberately gorgeous, with its model-handsome actors, designer costumes and career-high lensing by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. It’s also a film that presents two worlds—one real, one fictitious—in which people are compulsively, perhaps inevitably, driven to do horrible things to one another. A revenge movie that features only imagined violence, Nocturnal Animals is all the more uneasy for having a male “hero” who seeks to mentally brutalize its heroine. This one feels personal for the filmmaker, a bundle of ways to explore multiple anxieties: creative stagnation and infidelity; familial responsibilities and loss of control; fear of failure and rejection. Each story thread comes with a different kind of dread—though all of them are unified in their investigation of toxic masculinity. Male anger and resentment drive this savage tale, a thriller as gripping as it is stomach-churningly frank. —Brogan Morris


17. Avengement

avengement-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Nick Moran
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola


18. Cam

cam-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Stars: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey
Rating: N/R
Runtime: 95 minutes

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As so many films in 2018 have shown us, the identities we create online—that we digitally design, foster and mature, often to the detriment of whatever we have going on IRL—will inevitably surpass us. The horror of Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, based on the Isa Mazzei’s script (in turn, based on her real experiences as a sex worker), is in this loss: that no one is ever truly in control of these fabricated identities; that the more real they become, the less they belong to the person most affected. Welcome Alice (Madeline Brewer), an ambitious camgirl who compensates for the exhausting rigor of online popularity (and, therefore, economic viability) with gruesome stunts and a rigorous set of principles dictating what she will, and won’t, do in her capacity as female fantasy. She’s successful, tossing funds to her mom (Melora Walters) and brother (Devin Druid) without being totally honest about her job, but she could be more successful, trying whatever she can (within reason) to scale the ranking system enforced by the site she uses to broadcast her shows. With dexterous ease, Mazzei’s script both introduces the exigencies of camgirl life while never stooping to judge Alice’s choice of employment, contextualizing an inevitable revelation to her family not as one of embarrassment, but as an impenetrable morass of shame through which every sex worker must struggle to be taken seriously. So much so that when someone who looks exactly like Alice—who operates under her screen name but is willing to do the things Alice once refused—gains leaps and bounds in the camgirl charts, Goldhaber and Mazzei derive less tension from the explanation and discovery of what’s really going on rather than the harsh truth of just how vulnerable Alice is—and we all are—to the cold, indifferent violence of this online world we’ve built for ourselves. —Dom Sinacola


19. Gerald’s Game

geralds game list poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2017
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 103 minutes

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Director Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game trims fat, condenses and slims, stripping away some of the odder quirks of Stephen King’s novel to get at the heart of themes underneath. The result is a tense, effective thriller that goes out of its way to highlight two strong actors in an unfettered celebration of their craft. This is nothing new for Flanagan, whose recent output in the horror genre has been commendable. It’s hard to overlook some of the recurring themes in his work, beginning with 2011’s Absentia and all the way through the wildly imaginative Oculus, Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Every one of these films centers around a strong-willed female lead, as does Gerald’s Game. Is this coincidence? Or is the director drawn to stories that reflect the struggle of women to claim independence in their lives by shedding old scars or ghosts, be they literal or figurative? Either way, it made Flanagan an obvious fit for Gerald’s Game, an unassuming, overachieving little thriller that is blessed by two performers capable of handling the lion’s share of the dramatic challenges it presents. —Jim Vorel


20. Army of Thieves

army-of-thieves.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Stars: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Ruby O. Fee, Jonathan Cohen
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 129 minutes

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Army of the Dead is a film full of pleasant surprises, but Matthias Schweighöfer, playing a German safecracker with a hair-trigger for impassioned speeches about locks and bolts, is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all. The man has a twitchy sort of charm easily misidentified as “quirkiness.” In reality he’s well-mannered to a fault and polite to the point of timidity, but with one other propulsive quality buried beneath the affable veneer: Intensity. Everything Schweighöfer does in Army of the Dead is informed by a vigor belied by his nervousness. He’s a squirrely burglar, quivering one moment over flesh-eating ghouls and doing a heroic sacrifice the next. This intensity carries over into Army of Thieves, the prequel film to Army of the Dead, where Schweighöfer replaces Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. To allay any fears that Schweighöfer might copy Snyder’s style, don’t worry: Schweighöfer is not Zack Snyder, because nobody is. Everything that singled out Schweighöfer’s work under Snyder’s guidance is infused into Army of Thieves on a molecular level, as if he managed to get his hands on Shay Hatten’s screenplay and bleed all over its pages. Army of Thieves replaces the doom, gloom and zombie chaos with deep-rooted joy, as if Schweighöfer, behind the camera, can scarcely believe he’s directing a film this big established by a filmmaker like Snyder. It’s impossible to resist that sort of bubbly, crackling enthusiasm, which makes Army of Thieves’ predictable elements easier to countenance. —Andy Crump


21. Creep 2

creep-2-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Patrick Brice
Stars: Mark Duplass, Desiree Akhavan, Karan Soni
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 80 minutes

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Creep was not a movie begging for a sequel. About one of cinema’s more unique serial killers—a man who seemingly needs to form close personal bonds with his quarry before dispatching them as testaments to his “art”—the 2014 original was self-sufficient enough. But Creep 2 is that rare follow-up wherein the goal seems to be not “let’s do it again,” but “let’s go deeper”—and by deeper, we mean much deeper, as this film plumbs the psyche of the central psychopath (who now goes by) Aaron (Mark Duplass) in ways both wholly unexpected and shockingly sincere, as we witness (and somehow sympathize with) a killer who has lost his passion for murder, and thus his zest for life. In truth, the film almost forgoes the idea of being a “horror movie,” remaining one only because we know of the atrocities Aaron has committed in the past, meanwhile becoming much more of an interpersonal drama about two people exploring the boundaries of trust and vulnerability. Desiree Akhavan is stunning as Sara, the film’s only other principal lead, creating a character who is able to connect in a humanistic way with Aaron unlike anything a fan of the first film might think possible. Two performers bare it all, both literally and figuratively: Creep 2 is one of the most surprising, emotionally resonant horror films in recent memory. —Jim Vorel


22. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

i-dont-feel.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Macon Blair
Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Devon Graye
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Writer-director Macon Blair’s debut feature is a tonally audacious genre outing unafraid to slip for a moment or two into the sweet relief of magical realism. Blair’s premise is simple—Ruth (Melanie Lynskey, cast to perfection), a quiet loner, comes home to find her house robbed, and when the police won’t help, she seeks vigilante justice with equally socially inept neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood)—but his ever-increasingly sprawling plot is fueled by a myopic moral perspective rendered in black and white. Ruth wonders aloud why everyone is an asshole (moreso, why assholes so easily get away with being assholes), and Blair seemingly wonders the same thing, punctuating his mundane neo-noir with gruesome violence and unexpected physical comedy (a projectile vomit scene, in particular, rivals the classic back-alley puke-fest from Team America). Blair’s worked extensively with his friend Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room), so the two share a startling sense of pace and a knack for making even the most sloppy action sequences feel precise, but Saulnier is so much bleaker, whereas Blair allows each of his film’s supposed assholes a chance to redeem, or at least explain, themselves. A crappy cop is going through a messy divorce; a delinquent son acts out against the specter of an absentee father; a guy whose dog craps on your lawn just wasn’t really paying attention—as Ruth struggles to confront the callousness of her cold world, she realizes that we’re all pretty much doing the same thing too: We’re struggling. —Dom Sinacola


23. Contagion

contagion.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 106 minutes

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If you really want to be terrified, the first 30 minutes of Contagion do the job just fine, with its realistically graphic depictions of citizens succumbing to a mysterious disease. Returning to her family after a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) supposed jet lag takes a turn for the worse and she dies in the E.R. after severe seizures. When her disease quickly spreads, and researchers frantically search for the cause, Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is quarantined before it is determined that he is inexplicably immune. Soon the death toll multiplies at an historic rate, and as city services fail and communities become lawless, Mitch struggles to protect his teenage daughter. He is the everyman through whose eyes we see how thin the veil of civility really is. Kate Winslet plays a doctor assigned to track the U.S. outbreak, at the risk of contracting the disease herself. She must also fight reluctant city officials who still remembered the anti-climactic N1H1 episode. As with all the film’s actors, Winslet plays second fiddle to the disease itself with its seeming ability to kill most every test animal infected. However, Paltrow’s brief but brilliant performance singly stands above the rest. Jude Law, as an investigative blogger who believes the government is withholding the facts, and even a vaccine for the disease, genially plays the public’s skeptical conscience and adds an element of both insanity and judiciousness. As with everyone else in this star-laden cast, however, Law’s character is neither heroic nor evil. Soderbergh captures the horrific beginnings of the pandemic with an innate sense of when to refrain from going too far. As far as fear goes, he travels just enough. —Tim Basham


24. Mudbound

mudbound.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Dee Rees
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, Garrett Hedlund
Rating: R
Runtime: 134 minutes

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Director Dee Rees uses the uneasy partnership between a white family and a black family in postwar Mississippi as a bruising metaphor for modern-day America. In Mudbound, Jason Clarke is the patriarch of a recently relocated Tennessee clan that must work together with the Jacksons (led by Mary J. Blige) to cultivate farmland, but the poisonous economic, racial and social atmosphere surrounding them constantly threatens the crops they’re trying to sow. This somber, despairing film sees the world plainly: War veterans aren’t given the care they need when they return, bigotry runs rampant, and good people are outnumbered by the small-minded. And the performances are stellar—especially Garrett Hedlund, as a bomber pilot who’s a shell of himself now that he’s home, and Jason Mitchell as a black soldier who finds that America still won’t accept him, even though he fought valiantly for his country. —Tim Grierson


25. The Perfection

the perfection poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2019
Director: Richard Shepard
Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 90 minutes

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What should horror movies be judged by? Airtight narrative logic, or imaginatively deranged imagery? Scores matter, scripts matter, but by the end of the movie what tends to matter most are the visuals, and Richard Shepard’s new movie, The Perfection, sears its visuals into the viewer’s mind like branding on livestock, right up to its final shot, one of the genre’s most indelible since horror became the taste of the day in the mid 2010s. It’s a twisted kind of miracle that anyone who watches The Perfection will never be the same, and a testament to horror’s power to bend minds and spur nightmares with a single picture. But the movie also reminds us that as much as pictures often come first, plotting usually should come a very close second. The film begins promisingly enough: After abandoning her career to care for her dying mother, cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) returns to the music world to reclaim her standing as the Bachoff Academy of Music’s star pupil, which means sabotaging the current title holder, Lizzie (Logan Browning). Charlotte reaches out to her old teachers, Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), travels to Shanghai as Bachoff selects its latest student, and cozies up to Lizzie. They flatter each other. They flirt. They drink, go partying, then make passionate love in a hotel, filmed with cinematographer Vanja Cernul’s lurid gaze. Maybe Charlotte bears Lizzie no grudge. Maybe they really do admire each other to romantic heights. And then they travel to rural China, where Lizzie grows increasingly sick, starts puking up bugs, discovers yet more bugs dithering about under the skin on her arm, and, when offered a butcher’s cleaver by Charlotte, chops off her hand. This is the climax to The Perfection’s first half hour, ruined by a single viewing of the trailer. It’s also where Shepard springs the first of several fakeouts, stealing a page from Michael Haneke’s playbook. At its best, The Perfection is an homage to 1970s horror movies and 1980s thrillers, a glorious, multi-hewed mind screw. When Shepard sticks to this aesthetic, the movie soars on grotesque wings. When he commits the cardinal sin of demystifying the mysterious, it’s a major drag. A little ambiguity goes a long, long way in horror. —Andy Crump


26. Stowaway

stowaway-210.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Joe Penna
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Toni Collette, Shamier Anderson
Rating: R
Runtime: 116 minutes

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Science-fiction writers have imagined just about everything that could wrong as we travel to Mars, and Joe Penna’s Stowaway adds “accidental extra passenger” to that list. Three astronauts, played by Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim, are unprepared for the appearance of an engineer (Shamier Anderson) who’d been knocked unconscious while preparing for their ship for the long journey. There’s not enough oxygen for a fourth voyager, and the crew faces increasingly dangerous dilemmas of both moral and technical varieties. The story can drag a bit for a space adventure, but the top-notch cast—especially Collette, free to settle into her native Australian accent—elevates this suspenseful drama, making it worth two hours of your time. —Josh Jackson


27. Velvet Buzzsaw

velvet buzzsaw poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2018
Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich
Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes

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With 2014’s chilling Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo created a potent critique of the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Four years later, the same team is back with Velvet Buzzsaw in order to ostensibly skewer the shallowness and materialism of art profiteering, told through a gaudy blend of pretentious B-horror and on-the-nose satire. Nightcrawler’s solidly structured and thematically laser-focused existence makes Velvet Buzzsaw that much of a baffling experience, since what we get from Gilroy here is the exact opposite: A muddled, morally confused and, worst of all, woefully predictable genre rethread with a laughably transparent art house veneer. Hidden underneath Gyllenhaal and Russo’s scenery-chewing cartoon versions of highfalutin art expert types, the premise of a mysterious collection of apparently haunted paintings killing all those who try to profit from it presents not much more than a typical slasher flick. Whenever a character is left alone every 20 minutes or so, you can bet they’ll be toast or mince meat—in one case literally—by the time the scene’s over. One can expect such a flimsy narrative used solely to prop up a series of exuberantly gory set-pieces from a medium-grade giallo auteur of the ’70s, but more cohesive work is expected from the likes of Gilroy and his powerful cast. If you’re a horror fan who’s in it only for the blood, go for it. Other buyers, beware. —Oktay Ege Kozak


28. Road to Perdition

perdition.jpg Year: 2002
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daniel Craig, Tyler Hoechlin
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes

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As he did in American Beauty, Sam Mendes here creates another grand tragedy. Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, Road to Perdition tells a captivating tale about a father and son—gangster and future gangster. There’s warmth in their relationship, but the outcome of it proves cold, something Mendes hones in on with the beautifully bleak cinematography. In this underrated take on the mobster family dynamic, Mendes does what he does best by focusing on the family and the relationships within when a son accidentally sees the darkness inside of his mobster father. Tom Hanks and Jude Law are great in their rare dark performances, but Paul Newman is exceptional in his final film role as the consummate professional mobster struggling with what he’ll do to his protégé (Hanks) after the latter splits on him. The no-nonsense, chill-you-to-the-bone-with-his-coolness Paul Newman from The Hustler, from Cool Hand Luke, pulls off a blistering final fight before tapping out for good. Starkly lit under heavy rain through DP Conrad Hall’s lens, Newman’s character stands stoically awaiting the flurry of bullets that are seconds away from tearing into him, perfectly capturing that aura Newman had cultivated over his storied career. —Staff


29. I Care a Lot.

i-care.jpg Year: 2021
Director: J Blakeson
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Chris Messina, Dianne Wiest
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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There’s nothing like a Rosamund Pike sociopath performance to ready you for a mean-spirited romp. Netflix’s I Care A Lot, writer/director J Blakeson’s tight crime thriller, goes off the rails in various ways—though it never leaves behind its central viciousness and gives us plenty of Pike as it works us over. That said, the further it gets from its rancid, yet tightly constructed nucleus, the harder it is to appreciate its unabashedly rotten style. Romantic and business partners Marla and Fran (Pike and Eiza González), both perfectly hateable and smug, run an elder care scam where they obtain legal guardianship of unwitting victims and check them into facilities with the help of doctors, judges and managers of varying complicity. With the victims out of the way, the pair can sell off their estates without resistance—all under the guise of providing the best care available. It’s plain that these indoor-sunglasses-wearing, high-fiving, chain-vaping girlboss fraudsters have quite the game going. It’s even more plain that they’re able to carry on because of interlocking systems easily exploited by those with enough ambition and a lack of scruples. The film has all the makings of an imperfect and crooked Soderbergh caper, with the added novelty of cruel, selfish, loving and even grotesque central women. Some of the film’s punchy dialogue pops us on the nose now and again with its Themes (specifically its notes on sexism and the American Dream), but if you’re willing to look past that and a contrived half-hour detour, I Care A Lot is a savvy and wicked endeavor peppered with personality. —Jacob Oller


30. I Am Mother

i-am-mother-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Grant Sputore
Stars: Hilary Swank, Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne
Rating: TV-PG
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Almost all of I Am Mother takes place inside a secure, post-apocalypse facility where a robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) raises a human child simply named Daughter (Clara Rugaard). Mother has provided an idyllic upbringing for the girl, who represents the hope for humanity with thousands more embryos ready to become her little brothers and sisters. She learns everything from engineering to medicine to ethics (that latter subject key to the questions the film will eventually raise).Grant Sputore’s Australian/American production is constructed around plot twists as much as characters, and although some of them are exactly what any sci-fi fan was probably expecting, there’s enough original thought to keep the tension level high. Everything Daughter knows is thrown into question by the arrival of a nameless woman (Hilary Swank) whose description of the outside world doesn’t match Mother’s. (There’s definitely a little 10 Cloverfield Lane going on here.) Daughter must balance her loyalty to Mother, to her future siblings and to her species, all while trying to uncover the truth. —Josh Jackson