As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s amazing to think how many fantastic films have graced the screen in the last ten years. Not content to do one simple Top 10 list, we here at JoBlo.com have decided to go one step further and provide our readers with several Top 10 lists spanning multiple genres, as there are far too many great films in the last decade to have only one, all-encompassing list. So, take a look at our faves below and share YOUR favorites in the comments section!
Today, we’ll be tackling thrillers, a genre which is made up of many overlapping sub-genres, such as the action thriller, crime thriller, erotic thriller, psychological thriller, conspiracy thriller, and more. Each of these types of films aim to give us feelings of suspense, anticipation, excitement, and keep us on the edge of our seats as the plot drives towards a surprising climax. It’s certainly no easy task to sum up a decade’s worth of thrillers in just ten movies, but we’ve built up a list (in alphabetical order) which gives us a little bit of everything, including stories of vigilantes out for revenge, characters spiraling into a psychological nightmare, murder mysteries, and true-stories which get the blood pumping. So, keep an eye out for those red herrings and plot twists as we dive into the Top Ten Thrillers of the Decade.
Sure, Ben Affleck was the bomb in PHANTOMS, but I never would have guessed that he would amaze me behind-the-camera as well. Directed by Affleck, ARGO was penned by Chris Terrio, who adapted “The Masters of Disguise” by CIA operative Tony Mendez as well Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article, “The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” Affleck also stars in ARGO alongside Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Victor Garber, and Kyle Chandler. The film follows CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. How does Mendez plan on pulling this off? By creating an elaborate cover story in which the six Americans would pose as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science-fiction movie. ARGO scored 96% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out a review from our own Chris Bumbray) and grossed $232.3 million worldwide.
The whole concept sounds rather far-fetched, but amazingly, ARGO is based on real-life events. Although certainly tense, the film is also surprisingly funny, with some particularly great zingers coming courtesy of Alan Arkin and John Goodman, but in no way does the humour get in the way of the very real jeopardy these men and woman were in. Right from the beginning, we’re treated to a hostile takeover of the American Embassy in which over fifty American’s were taken hostage, with just six people able to sneak away. As the escapees seek refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador, ARGO is a race against the clock as Mendez and company devise a plan to get these people out before they’re discovered. What follows is a series of suspenseful near-misses as the group of faux Canadian filmmakers attempt to reach the airport and escape to freedom. Even if you know how it all comes together, ARGO is a nail-biting ride from start to finish.
BLACK SWAN (2010)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky with a screenplay written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz, BLACK SWAN stars Natalie Portman as ballerina Nina Sayers, who is one of the leading dancers in a prestigious New York City ballet company who are staging a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. With the leading role of the Swan Queen calling for a dancer to take on the dual role of the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan, Nina struggles with competing for the role and attaining perfection, all while constant hallucinations transform her waking life into a nightmare. In addition to Portman, BLACK SWAN also stars Vincent Cassell, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder. The film received 84% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out our own Chris Bumbray’s review) and went on to gross $329.4 million worldwide, one of Aronofsky’s most successful films.
Almost immediately, Darren Aronofsky establishes a tone of uneasiness as Nina clearly isn’t in the best place mentally. In addition to the physical demands of the ballet, Nina must also deal with an overbearing mother who rarely allows her a moments privacy and is obviously struggling with her own issues. The first half of the film is peppered with moments of “did I just see that?” as objects appear to move imperceptibly and Nina is haunted by visions of a woman who may or may not be her doppelgänger. As Nina further descends into madness, these moments become more prevalent until you’re never sure what’s real and what’s not. BLACK SWAN is fantastically disturbing, delightfully tense, and features a standout performance from Natalie Portman, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in the film.
BLUE RUIN (2013)
After making films with his childhood friend Macon Blair for years, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier knew that he had one last chance to go all out and make the film he wanted; it was that, or admit defeat and throw in the towel. After several successful crowdfunding campaigns and maxed out credit cards, Saulnier unleashed BLUE RUIN, a revenge thriller which stars Macon Blair as Dwight Evans, a beach vagrant who sets out on a mission of revenge when he discovers that the man who killed his parents years ago is set to be released from prison. Also starring Devin Ratray and Amy Hargreves, BLUE RUIN was a critical success upon its release, scoring 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and a rave review from our own Chris Bumbray. BLUE RUIN would go on to gross $993,313 worldwide, more than double the film’s meager budget, but don’t let the film’s small-budget origins fool you, the film is beautifully shot by Saulnier as every single dollar (and more) is right up on screen.
A large part of what makes BLUE RUIN so compelling is the performance of Macon Blair as Dwight Evans, who admittedly makes for an unlikely vigilante. “Jeremy said, ‘We’ll do this as a really stark, brutal revenge movie, and you’re gonna be the lead,’” Blair recalled while speaking with Rolling Stone. “And I’m thinking, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’ I’m imagining Liam Neeson or Clint Eastwood. I was like, ‘Bro, you need a big, tough guy who’s credible kicking ass…and that’s not me.’ He was explaining, ‘That’s precisely the point: You don’t belong here, and that’s why it’s hopefully going to be interesting.’” Soft-spoken and unassuming, Dwight is not a character who’s comfortable with guns, or even people, but he knows what he has to do right from the get go, and BLUE RUIN slowly ratchets up the tension as his mission of revenge gets bloodier and you begin to wonder how he can possibly get out alive.
GONE GIRL (2014)
Directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 novel of the same name, GONE GIRL stars Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, and Emily Ratajkowski. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Affleck) returns home to discover that his wife Amy (Pike) is missing. Forensic analysis soon uncovers evidence that Amy was murdered, and Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect as the case turns into a media sensation. GONE GIRL scored 87% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out a review from our own JimmyO) and grossed $366 million worldwide, which stands as David Fincher’s most commercially successful film.
As we’ve come to expect from David Fincher, every element of GONE GIRL is precise, from the spectacular casting to the dark and stylish cinematography. Flashbacks chronicle the rise of fall of Nick and Amy’s relationship, filling in the gaps and providing us with vital clues, but GONE GIRL is also the type of film which frequently pulls the rug out from under us; we think we know what’s going on, we think we know what kind of man Nick Dunne is, we think we know how everything fits together, but time and time again, GONE GIRL throws us a curve-ball which requires us to re-analyze what we’ve already seen. GONE GIRL is a darkly pulpy masterpiece, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Rosamund Pike for praise, as the actress delivers a complex and riveting performance.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton. NIGHTCRAWLER received 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out a review from our own Chris Bumbray) and went on to gross $50.3 worldwide. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis “Lou” Bloom, a con-man who becomes a freelance photographer specializing in graphic accidents and violent crimes. In order to sensationalize his footage and sell it to news-stations, Bloom begins tampering with crime scenes and even manufacturing some of his own.
Lou Bloom is an incredible character, a modern-day Travis Bickle, and Jake Gyllenhaal brings him to life with an intense and profoundly disturbing performance, but at the same time, there’s something appealing about Lou’s charisma and his willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed. You’re never quite sure just how far Bloom will go in his pursuit of a story, and even while he’s spouting quips which sound like something out of a self-help book, there’s an undercurrent of something dark behind everything Bloom says and does. “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” Bloom ponders. The chilling and unsettling tone of NIGHTCRAWLER builds and builds until it reaches a neon-soaked crescendo, leaving Bloom’s actions firmly etched in your brain.
PRISONERS was the film which first introduced me to Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director who quickly became one of my favourite filmmakers. PRISONERS, which was scripted by Aaron Guzikowski, deals with every parent’s worst nightmare – a kidnapped child. Featuring an all-star cast which includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano, PRISONERS follows the abduction of two young girls and the subsequent efforts of law enforcement and their families to save them. When the police are forced to release their only suspect, the father of one of the girls takes matters into his own hands. PRISONERS scored 80% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out Chris Bumbray’s review) and grossed $122 million worldwide.
Of all the films on this list, PRISONERS might just be my favourite. As everything is ripped from these two families, the tension builds as you’re presented with more than a few options regarding the culprit, but much like the characters themselves, you’re kept in the dark for much of the film. PRISONERS features some amazing acting from everyone involved, but it’s Hugh Jackman’s performance as Keller Dover which impresses the most. Desperate for answers and believing that the police aren’t doing enough to find his daughter, Dover quickly takes matters into his own hands and the results are, at times, horrifying to watch. We typically think of Hugh Jackman as the rage-fueled Wolverine, but the actor has never been pushed to the brink nor stripped to the core quite like this before. Intense and emotionally devastating, PRISONERS is one of Villeneuve’s very best films.
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese with a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis based on Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel of the same name, SHUTTER ISLAND is Scorsese’s fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio after GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR, and THE DEPARTED. In addition to DiCaprio, the psychological thriller also stars Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, and Ted Levine. SHUTTER ISLAND received 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and went on to gross $294.8 million worldwide. Be sure to check out our own Chris Bumbray’s review of the film as well.
After one of the patients of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island goes missed, U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are brought in to investigate. What follows is a deeply atmospheric story full of twists, hallucinations, and red herrings as Daniels begins questioning his own sanity. In lesser hands, you get the sense that SHUTTER ISLAND might not have turned out nearly as well, but with Scorsese giving us his best Alfred Hitchcock homage and the cast, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio, giving it their all, the film is a tightly-wound, pulpy thriller of the best variety.
Denis Villeneuve, the only director with two films on this list, returns with SICARIO, an action-thriller which was written by Taylor Sheridan and stars Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jeffrey Donovan. Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who joins a secretive government task force with the aim of bringing down the leader of a brutal and powerful Mexican drug cartel. SICARIO scored 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out a review from our own Chris Bumbray) and went on to gross $84.9 million worldwide.
Emily Blunt’s Agent Kate Macer is tough-as-nails, but still naïve and green enough that she feels out of place with the other members of the task force. Faced with the gruesome tactics of the cartel and realizing that the motives of the task force may not be entirely above board, Macer struggles with allowing herself to move into those morally gray areas. Although Emily Blunt is the star of SICARIO, it’s Benicio del Toro’s measured and complex performance as Alejandro Gillick which steals the show. Piece by piece, we uncover Gillick’s true motives over the course of the film, leading to a truly disturbing and shocking climax. Denis Villeneuve’s set-pieces, shot by the great Roger Deakins, slowly escalate until they’re punctuated by quick flashes of savage violence. A sequence near the beginning of the film in which the task force is attempting to extradite a cartel member is particularly tense, as the task force finds themselves trapped in traffic at a border crossing. Any of the hundreds of cars surrounding them could contain members of the cartel with orders to kill, and the scene is pulled off beautifully.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)
Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay and based on the 2013 novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is a taut arthouse thriller which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a traumatized mercenary who has been hired by a New York State Senator to locate and rescue his daughter after she was kidnapped by a human trafficking network. Also starring Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, and Judith Roberts, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE received 89% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out our own Chris Bumbray’s review as well) and went on to gross $7.4 million worldwide.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE tells a simple story of revenge, but thanks to an exemplary performance by Joaquin Phoenix and fantastic direction from Lynne Ramsay, not to mention a great score from Jonny Greenwood, it feels like so much more. We’re offered brief glimpses into Joe’s mind in the form of hallucinatory flashbacks, and Joe struggles with suicidal thoughts due to the abuse his mother and he suffered at the hands of his father as well as his brutal past with the military and FBI. It’s heartbreaking knowing just how tormented Joe is, but even when everything is stripped away, his compassion keeps him moving forward. Not a second is wasted during the 90-minute run-time of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, which leaves you wanted to watch it again as soon as the credits roll.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, ZERO DARK THIRTY stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Stephen Dillane, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle, John Barrowman, Mark Duplass, and Frank Grillo. The film received 91% on Rotten Tomatoes (check out a review from our own JimmyO) and went on to gross $132.8 million worldwide. Typically, what makes a thriller so compelling is not knowing what’s going to happen; Who’s the killer? Will our hero get out alive? What the hell is going on? Questions of that nature; So, there’s a lot to be said for a film which successfully generates suspense and tension from an event which much of the world is quite familiar with – The death of Osama bin Laden.
ZERO DARK THIRTY follows Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, a CIA analyst who has been tasked with finding the al-Qaeda leader. Using various methods, including torture, bribery, and constant surveillance, Maya is able to track a senior courier to a compound in Pakistan, where it’s believed that Osama bin Laden is hiding. ZERO DARK THIRTY isn’t afraid to show its darker side, leaving it up to us to decide whether or not we agree with the methods used. During the nearly ten year investigation, there are failures and false leads, but it’s gripping to watch everything unfold as the pieces are slowly put together. Obviously, we know the outcome of the investigation, but it’s to Kathryn Bigelow’s credit that the late-night raid on Bin Laden’s compound is the standout sequence of the film. Eerily quiet save for the dialogue among the Navy SEALS and quick bursts of gunfire, much of the sequence is bathed in the green glow of night-vision goggles and Kathryn Bigelow manages to keep us glued to the screen the entire time, only allowing us to breathe when the mission has been accomplished and the team has returned to base.