Maybe Justice Potter Stewart's famous line applies, because when you see a great one, you know what to call it.
Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, which came out in February 1991, certainly qualifies. Its mix of horror, crime, and psychological tension gave audiences that sickening and, uh, thrilling heart-in-throat feeling, while pushing the limits of what modern thrillers could be. Does it mark a definitive break from a tradition solidified by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock?
Of course not! But it does offer a convenient, if somewhat arbitrary, starting point for this ranking of thrillers, a genre that soared to new heights as the brash, commercial action of the 1980s lost a bit of momentum. Plus there's the fact that Silence of the Lambs appeared in wide release on Valentine's Day, pointing toward the macabre, ironic humor that would dominate the 1990s and the so-called millennial generation the decade would produce.
In any case, it's the starting point we're using. Here are the best thrillers that have come out since 1991.
33. The Usual Suspects (1995)
This intricately plotted '90s classic is too clever by half, as rewatching the Keyser Söze thriller will certainly remind you. In a sign of how much Hollywood has changed over the course of two decades, the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his tic-filled performance as Roger "Verbal" Kint, a smart-ass criminal with cerebral palsy. But the rest of the killer cast -- Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri, and a pre-Bio-Dome Stephen Baldwin -- also shine as they trade tough-guy banter and ornate putdowns from Christopher McQuarrie's script. Any movie that relies so heavily on a twist loses a little oomph, but
32. Wild Things (1998)
As far as steamy neo-noirs set in Florida go, Wild Things is in a class by itself. You've got Matt Dillon playing a sleazy guidance counselor, Kevin Bacon scowling in his aviator sunglasses, Neve Campbell giving the finger to authority, and Denise Richards seducing everyone in site. (Plus, Bill Murray is in it for some reason as a lawyer.) It's a lot of movie -- honestly, probably too much movie at times when the twists start to unravel and people are getting shot with harpoon guns in sail boats -- but the delicate balance between genuine trash and self-aware trash is perfectly mixed. Like a well-made cheap cocktail, Wild Things hits the spot, but doesn't lead to a hangover in the morning.
31. Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Burning desires can make us wacky. Despite the fact that Franck's gorgeous new lover, Michel, is a total murderer, he continues to hook up with him in the surroundings of an equally gorgeous French lake. When his decision catches up with him in grisly fashion, Franck has to decide whether to follow his brain or his manhood. Director Alain Guiraudie shoots this psychosexual drama with maximum gaze to make a case for Franck's lust.
30. Enemy of the State (1998)
More than a decade before Edward Snowden made international headlines as a real-life spy story, Will Smith played a regular Joe who mistakenly became the target of a National Security Agency dragnet. Eerily prescient and filled with near-miss tension, Tony Scott's film occasionally relies on cheesy coincidences and the kinds of conversations that only happen in movies, but there's no denying the power of Big Brother as a villain when you want to go all in on a political thriller. In the movie, though, the government winds up failing in its efforts to legalize massive surveillance of American citizens, which retroactively turns Enemy of the State into a bit of wish fulfillment.
29. The Prestige (2006)
Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) makes movies that are designed to be puzzled over. The Prestige, Nolan and his Westworld-co-creating brother Jonathan's adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel of the same name, might be the enigmatic filmmaker's most emotionally rich and narratively satisfying brain-teaser. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play rival magicians in 19th-century London, and while the idea of Batman facing off against Wolverine in top hats is certainly the draw, you'll keep coming back to marvel at the art direction, the plotting, and the pure joy of getting fooled again.
28. One Hour Photo (2002)
Robin Williams's Sy Parrish is every bit as tender and thoughtful as the actor's characters in Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting. He's just a little… off. Williams's socially miswired loner is a photo technician at the local Walmart-esque superstore, where he fabricates a relationship with a regular customer and her family through their photogenic moments. When he discovers her husband is having an affair, the sympathetic Sy becomes a dangerous foe, a descent Mark Romanek examines his own detached, discordant lens.
27. The Sixth Sense (1999)
In 1999, no one saw the twist coming. The fact that Bruce Willis is [two-decades-old spoiler alert] DEAD THE WHOLE MOVIE comes across as quaint now that M. Night Shyamalan has become Twist-Master General and tends to use them as shitty calling cards rather than meaningful plot devices. But wow, when Shyamalan made his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense, it felt like we'd witnessed something fresh and unsettling in the best ways possible.
26. Cruel Intentions (1999)
In adapting the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the WB generation, writer-director Roger Kumble doesn't pull back on any of the book's nasty back-stabbing and emotional manipulation. Instead, the movie revels in the melodramatic tawdriness of it all and features truly inspired lead performances from Sarah Michelle Gellar (using all the tricks that made her so likable on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as conniving mean girl Kathryn Merteuil), Ryan Phillippe (as her charmingly vacant step-brother Sebastian Valmont), and Reese Witherspoon (as the virginal Annette Hargrove). Plus, you know "Bittersweet Symphony" has never sounded sweeter.
25. The Constant Gardener (2005)
Since 1965's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, screen adaptations of John le Carré' books have continuously found audiences thanks to their close attention to the mundane, human details of espionage to go along with the heart-pounding tension of spy work. The Constant Gardener is no different, though espionage in this case is a vast corporate pharmaceutical conspiracy that exploits and kills poor Africans, and the "spy" is a muted Ralph Fiennes as Justin, a low-level diplomat turned vigilante investigator of his wife's murder. The story is a little wonky and more than a little messy, but that's true to the reality of life, especially when you're at the mercy of forces you don't understand.
24. The Game (1997)
Michael Douglas gives great thriller face. With his slicked back hair, wrinkled brow, and penetrating eyes, the actor excels at playing rich, entitled white guys who are either losing their cool or getting their comeuppance. In The Game, director David Fincher's fiendishly clever mouse-trap of a movie about an investment banker thrust into a possibly dangerous ARG, Douglas must react to a Kafkaesque scenario where every element of existence might be part of a vast conspiracy. Luckily, the Oscar-winner is up to the task, grounding the occasional ludicrous twists with subtle emotional responses and a brittle sense of humor. Functioning as both a satirical take on '90s corporate America and a Hitchcockian roller coaster ride, the film is a masterful showcase for Douglas's oily charms.
23. La Cérémonie (1996)
A key player of the French New Wave and a Hitchcock devotee, director Claude Chabrol is essentially his country's thriller laureate -- yet La Cérémonie is among his most unexpected, pulse-racing efforts. Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is the new maid for the Lelièvres, a wealthy, picturesque family that dines on mussels and ends evenings listening to Mozart operas. And while she robotically cleans house and prepares meals, she's impressionable; Sophie becomes hooked on TV junk food. She's illiterate, and flailing. And at a strained moment, she befriends the village's black sheep, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who convinces her the family has her all but enslaved. The passive-aggressive class war eventually erupts into something more literal, but Chabrol restrains every revelation -- you will not see the ending coming, despite being totally inevitable.
22. Collateral (2004)
Collateral also plays like an exhilarating joy ride into depravity. An innocent cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), gets stuck chauffeuring a crazy hitman, Vincent (Tom Cruise), around L.A.'s tortuous concrete jungle. It's a busy night for the latter, who likes Max because of his street savvy; Max, on the other hand, isn't too keen on his fare. Foxx does his best chary cabbie while Cruise ditches his iconic heroics for a convincing, sociopathic kind of villainy. In the tradition of other classic thrillers, this is a story of an underdog who overcomes near impossible odds to outfox his better. But directed by Michael Mann, who captures a merciless underworld and layers every frame with delicious tension, Collateral makes enough surprising turns to separate itself from more pedestrian offerings.
21. Sicario (2015)
Instead of offering detailed policy breakdowns, prescriptive analysis of the situation at the border, or insights into minds of drug dealers, this film supplies one product: tension. From its riveting opening raid sequence to its chilling final stand-off at a motel, director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) uses all the tropes of a sleek, militarized action thriller to examine the utter uselessness Emily Blunt's FBI character feels in the face of systematic failure. More video game than 60 Minutes-style investigation, it is throat-punch cinema, a doom-soaked Godspeed You! Black Emperor song of a movie, a sculpture chiseled with bullets.
20. A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg's Darwinistic reaction to our violent world works more like a thriller in reverse. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town Indiana diner owner… until he's not. After standing his ground against two robbers, the mob believe he's "Joey from Philadelphia," a killer who ran away from a murderous legacy. As the identity crisis comes under fire, Cronenberg winds through every facet of "violence," putting us on the edges of our seats not with puzzle-box plotting, but with the internal crisis of characters who've had their entire lives upended by lies… and may not survive the truth.
19. Good Time (2017)
In this greasy, cruel thriller from up-and-comers the Safdie brothers, Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a bank robber who races through Queens to find enough money to bail out his mentally disabled brother, who's locked up for their last botched job. Each suffocating second of Good Time, blistered by the neon backgrounds of Queens, New York and propelled by warped heartbeat of Oneothrix Point Never's synth score, finds Connie evading authorities by tripping into an even stickier situation. His confident ineptitude is at times comical -- after breaking his brother out of a police-secured hospital like one of Danny Ocean's 11, he realizes, whoops, the bandaged guy isn't his brother -- but the commitment to moral ambiguity by both the Safdies and their leading man amounts to the masochistic pleasure of sucking on a sour candy for just a second too long.
18. Memento (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan is inextricably tied to the "twist" thanks to his movies' many pull-the-rug finales, but Christopher Nolan really deserves the title of Hollywood Twistmaster. Movies like Interstellar, Batman Begins, and The Prestige all tie their emotional journeys in knots, while his amnesiac thriller Memento is the gold standard. Guy Pearce stars as a man who must jog his corrosive short-term memory with Polaroids and explanatory tattoos in order to solve the murder of his wife. Playing with time and truth, Nolan spins the rare detective story that keeps the audience guessing until the end.
17. Fight Club (1999)
Modern suspense king David Fincher shows up often on this list, for good reason. He hews closely to the outskirts of society and human behavior, depicting serial killers, sociopaths, and the mentally ill as a way to reveal the darkest depths of the soul. Fight Club employs a twist-filled narrative (all the rage in the '90s), but offers a much richer depiction of what it really means to create a new society. Even if all the college dorm posters turned you off, a haggard Edward Norton and flippant Brad Pitt are the perfect vessels for adding nuance to what amounts to a story about a mentally unstable terrorist.
16. Black Swan (2010)
When you think "thriller," ballet is probably the last thing that comes to mind. But director Darren Aronofsky manages to turn the art into a masterfully tense, claustrophobic rendering of a breakdown in pursuit of perfection. Natalie Portman's frantic, career-obsessed Nina, a ballerina dead set on a starring role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, finds herself descending into madness in the face of a rival (Mila Kunis) -- but is anything real, or is Nina just going crazy? With a shaky camera following too closely to Portman, you can never get a wide enough view to discern the reality, leaving you firmly on the edge of your seat.
15. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher's movie is for obsessives. In telling the story of the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who captured the public imagination by sending letters and puzzles to the Bay Area press, the famously meticulous director zeroes in on
14. Michael Clayton (2007)
George Clooney made a career out of playing grey knights and his work as the title character in this icy New York thriller might be the pinnacle of his work. Clayton is a super-cynical, debt-ravaged "fixer," stuck doing damage control amid a massive class-action lawsuit. (Think Olivia Pope from Scandal, but somehow more intense.) He also plays poker, drives cars that explode, and does his best impression of Shiva, god of death. Tony Gilroy's Oscar-winning legal drama is addictive fun in that way complex conspiracy yarns can be, and it has a handful of memorable exchanges to boot -- wait till you see the final confrontation with Tilda Swinton.
13. LA Confidential
A lurid tale of cynicism and optimism crashing into one another in the swingin’ '50s of Hollywood, director Curtis Hanson’s film attacked the town’s corrupt underbelly with gusto and introduced us to Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe.
12. Shutter Island (2010)
It's difficult to dramatize grief. In his haunted adaptation of Dennis Lehane's pulpy gothic novel, director Martin Scorsese uses visceral horror imagery to convey despair. Leonardo DiCaprio's terrified mug is the film's spookiest special effect. With every grimace, furrowed brow, and anguished sob, he brings you into the tortured psyche of Edward Daniels, a man who cannot escape his past no matter how hard he tries. It's a carefully modulated performance that helps sell the film's occasionally wonky twists. More than anything, it makes you wish DiCaprio will return to the horror genre in the future. No, The Revenant doesn't count
11. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Can you really trust Matt Damon? That's the question driving this tasty soufflé of a psychological thriller adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. The eternally boyish actor was especially innocent and naive here, fresh off the success of Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, but his Tom Ripley is a monster capable of manipulating Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow with sociopathic ease. Like super-spy Jason Bourne, Ripley is the perfect role for Damon: You never quite know what's lurking under the surface.
10. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch intended to follow up his cult-favorite TV show Twin Peaks with an even dreamier series. That never happened, but the ditched pilot served as the basis for Mulholland Drive, a gorgeous, interpretable, mind-bending movie -- effin' art, man -- that draws from 100 years of Hollywood tropes. Naomi Watts plays an aspiring actress who befriends an amnesiac (Laura Harring). There are musical interludes, sexual encounters, and loads of non sequiturs. The flavor of mystery is baked into it all, but you're better off luxuriating in this surreal bath than scrutinizing the plot.
9. American Psycho (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis's frenzied finance bro Patrick Bateman became all-too-real in the hands of Christian Bale and director Mary Harron, who pushed the surreal nightmare of American Psycho to its highest highs. From pop-infused acts of murder to hyper-designed business cards that send chills down the spine, this is a horror movie that reminds us to fear the 1%.
8. Se7en (1995)
Director David Fincher has a thing for serial killers. The man who helmed Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and who's executive producing Netflix's Mindhunter, got his first taste with Se7en, about two detectives (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) on the hunt for a murderer obsessed with punishing those he perceives to embody the seven deadly sins. The famous final murder scene ("What's in the box?!") grabs all the attention, but it's a payoff that's earned by the dark, brooding character studies that Fincher builds over the course of the film, a style that would become a hallmark of his later work.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Like a blast from Anton Chigurh's cattle gun, No Country for Old Men came out of nowhere. In 2007, it seemed like the Coen brothers had lost a step, sinking into an era of gentle self-parody. This Josh Brolin-starring neo-Western changed all that. Adapting Cormac McCarthy's brutal, uncompromising thriller, the filmmakers crafted their most purely suspenseful and terrifying film to date. The coin flip, the car crash, and Javier Bardem's haircut have all become parodied pop-cultural fixtures at this point. But the sense of dread the film evokes, amplified by Roger Deakins' shadowy photography, is impossible to shake. It's real. It's scary. And it's coming for you.
6. Minority Report (2002)
When Steven Spielberg's Minority Report came out, the technology looked cool as hell. Luckily that's still kind of the case. Tom Cruise stars here as a police chief running a futuristic pre-crime unit that arrests murderers before they kill. Based on the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, the film takes an unsettling turn when the prophetic system Cruise's character endorses turns against him. If you're thinking this premise sounds a little Black Mirror-ish, that's because it is.
5. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook's 2003 weirdo masterpiece was such a cult hit, they made a not-so-great American version in 2013 with Josh Brolin. The original is still on Netflix, though, and definitely worth a watch. Korean star Choi Min-sik plays a husband, father, and alcoholic who gets kidnapped on his daughter's 4th birthday. He spends the next 15 years locked in a small room, teaching himself to fight and counting the years with hatch-mark tattoos. His release sets him on a path to revenge, but first he must discover who locked him up and why, and when he finally unlocks the mystery the secret is even grosser than the scene where he eats a live octopus.
4. Caché (2005)
Someone is watching TV talk show host Georges Laurent -- videotaping his home and dropping mailing him the spy footage -- but in Austrian director Michael Haneke's piercing thriller, the secrets withheld by the target are as bloodcurdling as the revelations of the stalker. To pin down the perpetrator, Laurent must dig through his past and confront a buried strain of xenophobia, infusing the pressure-cooker mystery with cultural weight. You don't need to know about the "Paris massacre" of 1961, in which hundreds of Algerians protesting war were beaten and murdered by police, but it helps; though Caché moves like a cat-and-mouse game, dropping illustrated clues, dreamlike flashbacks, and spats of violence into the jagged-edged narrative, the deep parable for our misunderstanding and fear of others amplifies every twist, and his all too relatable today.
3. Basic Instinct (1992)
Has any movie ever done more for ice-based weapons? Nineties bad-boy director Paul Verhoeven gave us this lurid tale of a damaged cop, played with real scumbag glee by Michael Douglas, investigating an icepick-wielding serial killer, but Sharon Stone is the real star of this show. Unlike the late-night premium-cable schlock that attempted to steal its sleazy style, this pulp classic has a sense of humor and a Hitchcockian playfulness to go along with all the nudity, violence, and cheesy one-liners.
2. The Fugitive (1993)
"You'll never find him -- he's too smart." That's the apt description Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) gets in Andrew Davis' '90s masterpiece. Kimble's on the run from the authorities because he's been wrongfully accused of killing his wife, and through a series of unlikely escapes, the doc-turned-fugitive tries to hunt down his mysterious nemesis and prove his innocence. Fortunately, he really is something like the offspring of Carmen Sandiego and MacGyver. Ford is pitch-perfect as the jack-of-all-trades hero, playing opposite a ruthless Tommy Lee Jones. Together, they weave a satisfying balancing act of high-octane action (there's crazy shit with a train, a bus, and a helicopter), heart (Kimble somehow finds time to save other people's lives), and intrigue (freaking drug companies, I tell ya), making for a legit nail-biter in the classic sense.
1. Memories of Murder (2003)
Before he wowed American audiences with the dystopian train thriller Snowpiercerand the animal-rights fable Okja, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho kept things a bit more grounded with Memories of Murder, his ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama about the hunt for one of the first serial killers in Korean history. The film follows two detectives with very different temperaments and methods as they attempt to make sense of murders across months and years. Like David Fincher's Zodiac, this is a procedural that focuses on the granular aspects of police work while still examining profound questions about truth, memory, and the search for meaning.