Supremely watchable entertainment, Catch Me If You Can is also more outright amusing than many of the films on this list. Perfect timing then, perhaps, for Steven Spielberg’s breezy tale of a young con man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who posed as a pilot, doctor and more while pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Tom Hanks).
Tom Cruise as a baddie, a ruthless killer? Genius. Thanks to Jamie Foxx’s cab driver—an Oscar-nominated performance—we civilians get a front-row seat to a contract killing spree across Los Angeles. Among director Michael Mann’s best films (sadly one of his last good ones), the action set pieces are superbly staged, while Mann gets the most out of his actors and the white-knuckle race from one LA location to the next.
Donning fatigues for this tense military thriller, Helen Mirren finds herself in the nerve centre of drone warfare (some thousands of miles away from the action itself). As circumstances deteriorate, and the need for action becomes more urgent, debates around the likelihood of the mission’s success and its high chance of taking civilian lives intensify. Mirren’s great as expected, finding equally watchable cast mates in Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul.
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.
Let’s be honest—Greta is a little bit silly. But sometimes, in fact maybe like right now, silly psychological thrillers are exactly what you’re after. The fantastic Isabelle Huppert (haven’t seen Elle? Rent it asap—after checking the classification info) and Chloë Grace Moretz strike up an unlikely friendship. But if it were just that, this wouldn’t be much of a thriller. Luckily there are revelations to reveal, obsessions to obsess, and the sort of bonkers batshit that’s an increasingly welcome distraction.
Good grief, just look at this cast—Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor—together in a bank heist thriller directed by Spike Lee. Citing Dog Day Afternoon as one of his favourite films, Lee went about his work here with gusto, resulting in an energetic and entertaining tale of an elaborate bank robbery staged by a meticulously prepared robber (Owen) and the cop (Washington, obviously) that’s determined to catch him.
A lot was made of Tom Cruise’s suitability to play Lee Child’s iconic lit-thriller character (“too short!”, “too Tom!”), but seeing Werner Herzog turn up as the film’s baddie was an unexpected delight. If you liked him in The Mandalorian, you’ll dig him here. Jack Reacher also marks the first time Christopher McQuarrie directed Cruise, ahead of their superb Mission: Impossible films.
Some politicians, particularly the shamefully useless one at the Presidential podium in the US, have been unflatteringly—and extremely accurately—compared to the mayor of Amity in Jaws, pictured above. Refusing the advice of experts, focused on the economy over human life—yeah, it’s close to the bone, but wrapped up in ever-watchable Spielberg gold.
Lynch’s dream-logic neo-noir is a mystery infused with the horror of Hollywood, brimming with great performances—most notably Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, pictured above. Watts plays aspiring actress Betty, who helps out a woman with amnesia (Harring), following clues that lead to very Lynchian places both literally and thematically. We think. It gets… complicated (and thrills every step of the way).
First there’s the haircut that’s so laughable it’s terrifying. Then there’s Javier Bardem’s entire demeanour as hitman Anton Chigurh, hired to recover drug money appropriated by an opportunistic poacher (Josh Brolin). A world-weary Tommy Lee Jones tracks them both in the Coens’ gripping adaptation of the great Cormac McCarthy’s novel, a masterpiece Western of sorts set in the 1980s that’ll chill you to the bone.
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…
Upcoming Dune director Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language feature dwelled on the pain caused by child abductions, elevated from its somewhat pulpy narrative by a stunning cast—Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Paul Dano. A determined father (Jackman) and twitchy detective (Gyllenhaal) think they have found the abductor, but when he’s released, confront the prospect of taking matters into their own hand. It’s grim.
Shark films often prey on our fear of wide open maritime spaces. The Shallows, on the other hand, revels in a claustrophobic setting—an injured surfer is marooned on a rock offshore, stalked by a great white, and with the tide rising. Blake Lively’s great, holding the film together even when her only co-star is a pesky bird nicknamed… Steven Seagull. It’s a simple premise, out of which Jaume Collet-Serra (director ofno fewer than four different Liam Neeson films) wrings plenty of tension.
Martin Scorsese takes a psychological thriller into the same horror territory seen earlier in his career with Cape Fear. DiCaprio stars as Teddy (in his fourth collaboration with Marty) alongside Mark Ruffalo as cops investigating the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane in the 1950s. Teddy soon starts to suspect there’s more going on behind the scenes, and as the island gets shut off from the mainland by a violent storm, finds his sanity going wobbly in wonderfully watchable fashion.
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.
Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow form a great trio in this psychological thriller fuelled by deception and obsession. Damon in particular plays wonderfully against type as a grifter who takes a liking to the lifestyle of Jude Law’s playboy. Worming his way into the idyllic lives of Dickie (Law) and his girlfriend (Paltrow), he sets in motion a sequence of lies and violence, every once in a while letting his facade of a nice young chap mask slip to reveal the utterly amoral sociopath beneath.
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.
An all-time classic that you’ve probably seen, and if not, have almost certainly seen riffed on thanks to its multiple iconic pop culture moments. The ultimate gotta-make-it-across-town-alive pic, Walter Hill’s 1979 classic follows the gang of the title as they flee for their lives from a meeting of all of New York’s gangs, one where they end up being blamed for a high-profile assassination and pursued across the Big Apple by all the other crims. This rules.
Steve McQueen’s remake of 80s UK mini-series resulted in both a smart, gripping thriller, populated by women that are (shock!) messy, rough and intensely real. Coming together after being screwed over by the men in their life, a group of women come together to repay the debt their former flames owe to some heavy crims—by pulling off a heist of their own. Smart without being show-offy, and excelling in character development without veering into patronising Girl Power tropes, Widows is a modern thriller classic.