Thrills of all kinds can be found on Netflix. Steve Newall narrows down their thriller offerings to the top 20, streaming now.
UPDATED JANUARY 2020
“Look at me. I’m the captain now,” declared Barkhad Abdi in his stunning debut role, facing off against all-timer Tom Hanks in this tense real-life tale of a ship hijacking. Hanks plays Richard Phillips, trying desperately to keep everyone alive as the situation off the Somali coast becomes increasingly charged, another nailbiter from director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy).
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Harrison Ford was hardly the first choice to lead this mega-hit (cast after a bunch of other actors auditioned, including Alec Baldwin, Nick Nolte, Michael Douglas and Kevin Costner), but its hard to imagine this superb early 90s action thriller without him—even if the film’s acting Oscar went to his pursuer Tommy Lee Jones. Ford’s combo of everyman and movie star works wonders as Dr. Richard Kimble, on the run and searching for his wife’s one-armed killer so he can clear his name—so much so that despite being an adaptation of a hugely popular TV show, this may be the definitive portrayal.
A wonderfully cast trio and a playful sense of shock and suspense propel Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut. Married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) unexpectedly run into Gordo, a chap from Simon’s past brought to magnificently creepy life by Edgerton himself. The supposedly chance encounter soon gives way to unannounced visits, unasked for gifts, and the resurrection of secrets from the past. A brutally enjoyable ride.
This superb adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s similarly excellent novel couldn’t have found better people to be involved. Director David Fincher is as stylish as expected, relishing the suburban tension and deception, and leans in when it gets pulpy—all to our delight. Then there’s the leads… Ben Affleck has perhaps never been better cast than here, particularly his unsympathetic qualities, while Rosamund Pike’s on top of her game, and the need to keep a tight rein on going full melodramatic or caricature.
An expert in wolves (Westworld‘s Jeffrey Wright) is summoned to a small town by a mother whose child has been taken by the four-legged predators—not to save him, but to retrieve the body before her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from war and violence erupts. Not as sharp as director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, but a worthy and moody addition to his collection of small-town thrillers.
Naval thrillers and Tom Clancy adaptations alike have fallen by the wayside in recent years, but with both Putin continuing his efforts to avenge the Cold War and the growing risk of navies duking it out in the South China Sea, there’s something chillingly fitting about this spy-thriller. A Russian submarine captain (Sean Connery) is heading straight for the US aboard his nuclear missile sub, trying to defect—but the US fears he’s planning a nuclear attack, setting the scene for multiple things that could go wrong and lead to World War III.
Martin Scorsese remade this as The Departed, and his version was definitely flashier and (unsurprisingly) more Scorsese-ish. It was also massively more successful, winning Best Picture at the Oscars (Infernal Affairs didn’t secure a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film) and grossed over $290 million worldwide (Infernal Affairs couldn’t hit $9m). It’s interesting to contrast the two, though—while they share the same framework of an undercover cop and a mole in the police trying to identify one another, Infernal Affairs is nearly an hour shorter, much more focused, and utilises more restraint than much Hong Kong output of the era.
Spike Lee’s bank heist pic fires on all cylinders. The cast offers an embarrassment of riches, led by Denzel Washington’s police negotiator who tries to establish a relationship with chief thief Clive Owen and bolstered by Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The central bank robbery soon proves to have more in store for us than a standard heist, the screenplay relishing a terrific taste for twists that are wonderfully executed by Lee, who unsurprisingly also does a magnificent job of bringing the New York setting to life around Inside Man‘s tricky storytelling.
Karyn Kusama’s horror-thriller is an intense slow-burn that over the course of the film moves from awkward dinner party to something much more threatening when a troubled, grieving dad and his girlfriend accept a dinner invitation from his ex. Fusing parental grief, broken relationships, cult-y business, violence and paranoia, The Invitation has been kicking about on Netflix for a while now, but if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out on something grimly special.
Lock, Stock and Snatch producer Matthew Vaughn stepped out of the shadows of Guy Ritchie with his debut as director, which saw leading man Daniel Craig display the same affinity for fine suits, cars (and women) as he later would as 007. As a coke dealer who we only know as XXXX, Craig is trying to get out of the business—but movie-watchers know that’s never so simple, and soon XXXX has a kidnapping and a massive ecstasy deal on his to-do list before he can clock off. Is Vaughn throwing shade with this tale of an intelligent, good-looking dealer going up against lunk-headed crims?
Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson star in this action-thriller about a smalltown schoolteacher whose amnesia lifts to reveal a violent past. When hidden traits come to the surface, Samantha (Davis) teams up with a private investigator (Jackson) to discover the truth—except some shadowy figures have also learned the old Samantha isn’t dead. Written by the great Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), while Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) directs.
The lion’s share of this cat-and-mouse dance between a would-be murderer and a sex worker takes place in a hotel room, after we’ve watched Reed (Christopher Abbott) meticulously plan his sick sequence of events. But both he and the audience will prove unprepared for the unpredictability that ensues when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, and the two circle each other’s dark desires.
Edward Norton scored Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in this, his debut film. And boy, they’re deserved as he more than holds his own alongside Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Frances McDormand in this superior legal thriller. Stutter-prone altar boy Aaron (Norton) is accused of murdering an Archbishop, a case that draws the attention of a grandstanding lawyer (Gere), who loves a high-profile case. Ready to use any trick in the book to win Aaron’s freedom, the last thing this lawyer expects is to actually believe his innocence…
Denis Villeneuve’s mainstream breakthrough came with this nerve-wracking action thriller following US drug enforcement’s fight against drug cartels on both sides of the Mexican border. Emily Blunt anchors the viewer’s perspective, experiencing the violence and craziness of the war on drugs firsthand—alongside a more seasoned, jaded and gruff Josh Brolin and the chilling Benicio Del Toro. Tense as hell, with great set-pieces, Blunt’s performance and character are essential components, as seen for all the wrong reasons when she was absent from the vastly inferior sequel.
Steven Soderbergh’s Big Pharma thriller feels under-appreciated, maybe because it’s easy to mistake this for a medical drama instead of what it really is—an increasingly, enjoyably, absurd twist-laden thriller led by impressive star power (Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones). Yes, it starts with Mara’s character experiencing strange sleepwalking episodes thought to be caused by a new prescription drug, but holy shit, it does not end there.
M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller is infused with lashings of B-grade schlock, increasing horror vibes (and a typically Shyamalan-y don’t-talk-about-it ending). James McAvoy is in overdrive as a sufferer of dissociative identity disorder, some of whose personalities are driving him to capture and imprison young women to fulfill a violent vision. One of them (Anya Taylor-Joy) will have to draw on every ounce of courage, empathy, and strength to survive. It’s a fun watch, culminating in a moment prompting a loud cheer at the first NZ screening.
Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke prove a perfect pairing under the directorial eye of Antoine Fuqua as a veteran (and corrupt) cop taking a rookie under his wing for a day. Washington won Best Actor at the Academy Awards, (to join his Best Supporting Oscar for Glory), Hawke was Oscar-nominated, and their performances lent extra oomph to this nerve-wracking day of danger, duplicity, and morally dubious policing choices that’s still the film Fuqua’s work is judged against.
Is this the most intense film on this list? Probably. Robbed of an Oscar nom, Adam Sandler is in top form, frantic and self-destructive as he does a high-wire act under the weight of the multiple gambles of his life (literal gambling, high-risk gem deals, debts to unsavoury characters, juggling mistress and family relationships). Filmmakers the Safdie brothers created one of the most anxiety-inducing films in years, one that also manages to be funny and tender around the pulse-pounding. AND YES, THERE IS QUITE A LOT OF SHOUTING.
What a combination of elements—Brian De Palma directing a great ensemble in an action-packed, David Mamet-scripted tale of Prohibition-era police heroism. Kevin Costner is the legendary Elliot Ness, joined by Andy Garcia and Sean Connery as the titular untouchables, defying corruption and fear to take on gang boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). De Palma’s staging of action will have you on the edge of your seat, and sometimes even distract you from wondering how Connery could ever have won an Oscar with as ropey an Irish accent as the one on offer here.
David Fincher’s true story procedural thriller runs at a slower pace than pretty much everything else on this list, but to winning effect as the director obsesses as much over accurately depicting the 70s San Fran setting and mood as he does telling the story of the hunt for the titular serial killer. All the President’s Men meets police procedural as San Francisco Chronicle staff (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) try to uncover the identity of the Zodiac killer and over the 157-minute runtime, Fincher does his damnedest to conjure their sense of obsession in the viewer.