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Nothing excites me more than a suspense film or thriller film with a great premise—except for maybe films that strike the right balance between suspense and thriller. There’s a lot of overlap between the two genres, so I won’t even try to define what makes them different. All I’ll say is, if there’s a movie genre that I’m an absolute geek about, it’s suspense/thriller.
Sadly, most suspense/thriller films are run-of-the-mill, lazy, unoriginal, uninspired, and even downright boring. Like a horror film without scares, a suspense/thriller film without excitement is nigh worthless. That’s why it’s all the more gripping when a film does it right.
Here are the best suspense films and thriller films I’ve ever seen, and I’d really love it if you could throw in your own suggestions down in the comments!
Who knew that the most tense and suspenseful film ever made would be about a drummer and his teacher? Unlike most films in the genre, there’s no threat of death here—yet somehow it ends up being the kind of film where you don’t even blink once from start to finish. Whiplash is a must-watch for any and all thriller junkies.
2. Ex Machina
What happens when a programmer is flown in to test whether an artificially intelligent robot can really think for itself? Well, let’s just say it’s akin to opening Pandora’s box. Underneath all of the suspense and mystery, Ex Machina is a beautiful and thoughtful film exquisitely executed.
3. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker won all kinds of awards, each one well-deserved. This war movie is unlike all other war movies, which tend to glorify what ought not be glorified; instead, The Hurt Locker feels more like a documentary, following the life and duty of a bomb defusal specialist over the course of a tour in Iraq while refusing to make any kind of moral statements. It’s heart-pounding, breath-taking, and downright scary at times.
Buried is one of my favorite movies, if only because it’s so creative. How is it possible to create a 95-minute film that takes place entirely inside a coffin yet manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through the whole runtime? The claustrophobia just adds to the suspense. Truly one of the best films that take place in only one setting.
5. The Departed
A gangster is planted inside the police force. A policeman is planted inside the gang. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse to see which side can bring down the other first. That’s the kind of premise that reeks of potential, and in the hands of Martin Scorsese, The Departed ended up becoming one of the best crime films of all time.
6. All Is Lost
All Is Lost is about a man stranded at sea. He’s alone, and the most impressive thing about this film is that it has zero dialogue beyond the first few minutes (which are simply voiceover narration). It’s a survival film, and the struggle to keep going in the face of overwhelming disaster is what solidifies All Is Lost as one of the best suspense films of all time.
Nightcrawler is about a freelancer videographer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who records violent events and sells the footage to a local news station. This is easily one of Gyllenhaal’s finest performances, which depicts a dark and creepy sociopath who will stop at nothing to get the footage he needs.
In Sicario, an FBI agent is brought onto a task force with one mission: bring down one of the top leaders in a Mexican drug cartel. Not an easy ask, of course, and said FBI agent is thrown into all kinds of tense situations, not least of which involves one of the most intense shootouts ever written in film.
9. Shutter Island
A federal marshal is brought in to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a psychiatric facility on Shutter Island. But things aren’t what they seem, and it’s up to him to figure out what’s really going on. Shutter Island is another immaculate film by Martin Scorsese, and it really pushes the psychological and mystery aspects to their limits.
Inspired by a true event, Compliance is the story of a man who impersonates a police officer and convinces the staff at a fast food establishment to do anything he wants—dark, sinister, disturbing things. It’s the kind of film that strains credulity, until you remember that it’s based on a true story that actually happened. That makes it all the more intense.
When his daughter is abducted and the police release the suspected abductor, the father goes vigilante and takes matters into his own hands. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal put in some of their best work in this gut-wrenching thriller, which is about as close to nightmare fuel as it gets without edging into the supernatural. Prisoners is a rough watch, but a must-watch.
Forget being stranded at sea—imagine being stranded in space. That’s pretty much the premise of Gravity, which is the 91-minute story of two astronauts as they fight and claw their way back to Earth after their space shuttle is destroyed. It’s beautifully filmed, and you’ll hold your breath through it.
13. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A woman is knocked unconscious in a car crash, then wakes up in an underground bunker with two men who claim the world has ended and she can’t leave. John Goodman breaks free from his typecast and plays one of the scariest roles he’s ever had, resulting in 10 Cloverfield Lane being a top-notch example of what a suspense thriller ought to be.
14. A Quiet Place
Bloodthirsty aliens take over the world, and even though they’re blind, they have supersonic hearing. The few survivors in the world have eked out a living by never speaking a word—and always being wary of what’s around the corner. A Quiet Place is a unique thriller, elevated by excellent sound design and acting all around. It’s one of the best post-apocalyptic films that are must-watches.
15. 28 Days Later
28 Days Later is a frightening zombie film, not only because it was one of the first to break away from the “zombies are slow and dumb” trope, but because it was also one of the first to claim that humans are even scarier than zombies. 28 Days Later is a well-crafted thriller, through and through, and a must-see for any fan of the zombie genre.