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Who doesn’t love a story that keeps them guessing? Suspense, anxiety, tension: These are some of the most powerful emotions in cinema, and they can all be found in thrillers. Whether they tell a story of a crime in progress, or examine the dark crevices of the human mind, thrillers show cinema at its most captivating. The shelves of Netflix’s library are lined with thrillers, but many of them are dreadful — and not in a good way. Thankfully, we’ve scoured the service’s robust catalog to put together this list of the best thrillers on Netflix.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles, ready to embark on a career as an actress. Instead, she finds an amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) in her aunt’s apartment. The woman takes the name Rita after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth, and the two women begin a search for her identity, a quest that will take them into the dark corners of Hollywood and into their subconscious. The plot unfolds in a series of surreal, often confusing sequences that will, in the end, add up to something complete. Director David Lynch conjures imagery both beautiful and grotesque throughout the film, a vision of Hollywood as an ever-shifting city of nightmares. Mulholland Drive is an enchanting — if disturbing — film, one in which truth is always elusive.
The Prestige (2006)
Director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) has always seemed preoccupied with the magical nature of cinema, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Prestige. The film follows a pair of magicians — Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) — whose careers become a vindictive rivalry following the death of Angier’s wife during one of Borden’s performances. Over the course of years, the two men engage in professional gamesmanship with fatal consequences. The film succeeds thanks to intense performances from Jackman and Bale, as well as gorgeous scene compositions that capture the craft and wonder of illusions.
Christopher Nolan has become so famous for directing grand, mind-bending action movies, it is hard to remember that he started with small-scale films like Memento. The film follows an amnesiac named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who is looking for one of the men who murdered his wife and clubbed him over the head. Because he cannot store short term memories, however, he must conduct his investigation using notes he doesn’t remember writing — many of which are tattooed on his body — and photos he doesn’t remember taking. Memento is told through two sequences –one running backward, one forward — as Leonard tries to piece together the events of the film. Although it lacks the scope of his more recent works, Memento is as thought-provoking as any of Nolan’s films, a taut thriller built around a unique premise.
Based on one of the most famous unsolved cases in American history, Zodiac is the story of three men on the hunt for the Zodiac killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the same paper, has a penchant for solving puzzles. When the Zodiac killer sends the Chronicle a coded message, the two men start working together, along with Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), to solve the case, which takes a toll on their sanity over the years. Those who can tolerate Zodiac’s length will find it to be an intriguing thriller, with a focus on the difficulties of investigative work and the psychic cost to those involved.
This sleek film opens with Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) looking for work and finding none. Strapped for cash, he finds an opportunity when he stumbles upon a crime scene and meets a photographer taking photos to sell to local news stations. After some initial difficulties, Bloom finds success, hiring an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and selling footage of violent events to an unscrupulous producer (Rene Russo). As the pressure to succeed builds, however, Bloom starts to take an unorthodox approach to his work. Anchored by a disturbing performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is a bleak thriller, one that viciously skewers society’s obsession with salacious news.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Based on John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins with retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) receiving an unusual request: There is a mole in the highest ranks of British intelligence, and a government official wants Smiley to find out who it is. Smiley’s search quickly leads him to investigate several seemingly unconnected incidents. The film is complicated and often slow, but it remains an exciting thriller with intriguing characters whose motives and loyalties are always questionable. Although there are no weak performances in the film, Oldman’s stands out for its subtlety; he lives the part of the weary spymaster.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct follows a homicide detective, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is tasked with investigating the vicious stabbing of a rock star. The prime suspect is the victim’s girlfriend, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a writer whose novel details a similar crime. As Curran pursues Tramell, he is drawn into an affair with her. It’s a dangerous decision, though, considering she is writing her next novel about the death of a detective. Basic Instinct is a lurid thriller, with an intense, seductive performance from Stone and more than a few twists along the way.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense is the film that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map — and began his reputation as a director oft-associated with “shocking” twists — and though almost everyone knows the film’s biggest reveals, it remains a tightly-plotted thriller with a novel premise and excellent acting. The movie follows child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who, a year after being shot by a former patient, is taking on the case of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who suffers hallucinations and routinely finds mysterious bruises on his body. The case takes Crowe to some disturbing places, and presents a compelling mystery. Even if you know where it goes, The Sixth Sense is worth watching given the film’s composed direction and Willis’ restrained performance.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
A remake of the ’60s political thriller, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate opens with two war veterans, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), questioning their reality. Years earlier, their squad was saved by the heroics of Sergeant First Class Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), now a Congressman on track to become the Vice President. Marco and Melvin are plagued by nightmares of an underground lab, and experiments performed on them. As Marco tries to uncover the truth regarding what really happened to their unit, he stumbles into a conspiracy of titanic proportions. While the original film used Communists as its villains, Demme positions corporations, soulless and borderless, as the great evil stalking the halls of government. Because of this, his film feels prescient, even more than a decade later.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Quentin Tarantino’s ode to blaxploitation films opens as flight attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is moonlighting as a smuggler for crime boss Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). The ATF recruits Jackie for a sting operation against Ordell, and she goes along with it, seeing an opportunity to come out of it with a large bag of money. In typical Tarantino fashion, things don’t go entirely according to plan. Jackie Brown is a frantic crime thriller, with sharp dialogue and memorable characters.
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