This list was originally written for Taste of Cinema. You can access it there by following this link – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-great-thriller-movies-youve-probably-never-seen-2/
Aren’t thrillers just the best? Who doesn’t enjoy kicking back with something that raises the adrenaline just enough – to the point that you feel the distinct rushing buzz but never actually have to face any real danger other than the potential of watching something terrible? That’s right, no-one. So, let’s cut out the danger of seeing something we’d rather not by listing some terrific examples of great thrillers that time unfortunately forgot (somewhat)…
1. Miracle Mile (Steve De Jarnatt, 1988)
So, let’s start strong with Steve De Jarnatt’s wonderful cult classic Miracle Mile, a film that shows the everyman perspective during a hectic race-against-time in the midst of potential nuclear warfare. With a brilliant performance from Anthony Edwards as a man just trying to go on a date with the love of his life only to find out that the third World War has begun and that nuclear missiles are supposedly due in only 70 minutes, the film somehow manages to pull off the audacious wizardry of acting as a (very good) romance comedy at the same time as also functioning beautifully as a borderline horror film about the impending threat of nuclear warfare in America.
Managing to hold onto its impressive breakneck pacing through the majority of its runtime, Miracle Mile is one of the greatest examples of a thriller that manages to genuinely continue to raise its stakes by introducing wonderful new characters throughout and throwing in intricate obstacles for the characters to overcome.
2. Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)
Starring Denzel Washington alongside Don Cheadle (in one of his most brilliantly funny roles to date – he may not be in it too much, but he steals every scene that he offers his presence!) in a throwback film noir that brings the genre well and truly up to date with its focus on racial oppression in noir-era America and gender roles that caused trouble at the same time, Carl Franklin’s unfairly overlooked Devil In A Blue Dress proves itself to be one of the classic crime thrillers that never really got the recognition that it deserved (or deserves…).
With Denzel bringing the typical down-on-his-luck, unemployed and slightly unclean but still undeniably suave everyman who prowls around smoke-filled jazz clubs in search of a woman and a drink to life in a way that few others seem able, and a slick mystery plot that seems to twist itself out of the grip of the audience with majorly impressive ease, it’s hard not to find something to admire in Devil in a Blue Dress, and the political themes on the side paired with the final gut-busting twist are just cherries on the already impeccable cake. At least Kanye West is a fan…
3. Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928)
Going back even further in time from the drunken haze post-war 1940s to the 1920s for a moment, Fritz Lang’s Spies has to be mentioned! Whilst it is definitely hard to make the case for this film as the best Lang film (Die Nibelungen, for one, is just too good), it’s definitely not difficult to look at Spies and admire it as one of the single most thrilling of all silent films.
With such dynamic cinematography, such a riveting and epic plot and a surprisingly very fast pace to boot, Spies is a fantastic silent film to use as an introduction to silent cinema, and also serves as one of the real classics of the dawn of the spy-thriller genre. Whilst it has admittedly lost some of its effect in retrospect, as can be expected from most any film that is almost a hundred years old, Spies is still incredibly taut and serves as quite the masterclass in shot composition and framing (as most of the silent greats do, honestly), and a film that definitely should be seen by any film fan looking to get into more silent cinema!
4. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
Lucrecia Martel, perhaps best known for Zama, her most recent cinematic outing, never seems to get enough recognition or respect considering her consistently brilliant catalogue of films, from the gorgeous and bleakly funny La Cienaga (2001) to this very film, The Headless Woman. The Headless Woman focuses in on a woman who gets in a car accident, but soon finds herself unsure if she may have hit someone in said accident, and thus endures all of the paranoia and guilt that would come with killing someone whilst never really knowing if she has done the deed or not.
Largely thanks to one hell of a performance from Maria Onetto, who really carries much of the film on her back along with cinematographer Barbara Alvarez, The Headless Woman is a deeply unsettling film focused on how our consciousness can play with us like puppets, whilst also functioning as an equally stirring and rather subtle look at contemporary Argentinian politics.
5. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
Andrea Arnold is undoubtedly more well known for her later works such as Fish Tank (a personal favourite) and American Honey, however, this definitely doesn’t mean that her earlier work deserves to be ignored, as her debut feature Red Road may just be the best film she’s directed to date. The plot of the film focuses on Jackie, a woman who works a video surveillance job, controlling CCTV cameras. All seems to be going okay until one day, she happens to spot someone who she was hoping never to see again, and finds herself compelled to confront this man about their connected past.
The film remains as enigmatic as its plot synopsis sounds for the majority of its runtime, so those of you thinking that it sounds a little wearing may want to skip this one, however, for those of you still intrigued enough to think about seeing the film, make sure you do! There is something severely chilling about this creeping, slow-burning observational thriller that only ever allows you to known just enough to keep up with the plot as it continues to unravel.
Arnold’s restriction over the audience and over the story is almost unmatched, bringing to mind the likes of films such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Rear Window in its subtle ways of framing perspective and making it play as Free Cinema instead. It’s a seriously great film, one with a jaw-dropper of a finale that makes the slow-burn all the more worthwhile in retrospect, and one of the best British thrillers the 21st century so far.
6. Miami Blues (George Armitage, 1990)
Picking up the pace (and the fun factor) after our last few choices, let’s talk about George Armitage’s loose and slick Miami Blues. Starring a rather baby-faced Alec Baldwin in its leading role as the oh-so-suave and loveable ex-con Fred, the film gives us the pleasure of watching as Baldwin gets out of prison, goes straight back to a life of anarchist crime that he manages to pull off so brilliantly that you have to wonder how he ever got caught in the first place, and then starts to create pure chaos whilst Sergeant Hoke Moseley, an older cop, is given the difficulty of tracking him down and bringing his chaotic reign to an end.
Propped up by the beautiful cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (who also shot Badlands, Something Wild, The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs – clearly, he knows what he is doing with the camera!) and a stunning colour palette consisting mainly of pinks, mint blues, yellows and lighter shades of orange, Miami Blues is so enjoyable as it never tries to be anything more than it is – a truly hot-blooded thriller about a man so skilled that he is destined to bite off more than he can really chew.
7. The Blackout (Abel Ferrara, 1997)
And now to plunge back into the darkness that seems to consume the majority of this list. Abel Ferrara is mostly well known for Bad Lieutenant, an unnerving film about corrupt police, drug use, loss of religion, sexual abuse, etc… and yet The Blackout feels so much more uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because it is one of the first, if not the first, full feature length film to be shot on digital, giving it a slight uncanny-valley edge in comparison to most other films from the 1990s (as it took until 2002 with the release of Attack of the Clones for digital filmmaking to even start to become mainstream), but the treatment of digital and just the plot of The Blackout is so inherently disturbing that it becomes one of those films you have to watch through the slits of your fingers from behind your hands as they cover your expectant eyes.
Matthew Modine gives perhaps the best performance of his career to date, and the ending is an all-timer if ever there was. Dennis Hopper also gives one of his best turns even if he isn’t in the film all that much, in a similar way to the previously mentioned Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress, but this time much… much darker. It’s certainly a film that’s going to stick with you for quite some time thanks to the harsh editing, the bold cinematography and above all else the reveal that comes at the end of the film (along with the characters’ reactions to said reveal), so do be warned that this one definitely isn’t a pleasant thriller to raise your pulse a bit and then let you laugh it off again. Ferrara was out for blood when he made this, and it shows.
8. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
Certainly my personal favourite from this list, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s deeply rattling 2001 masterpiece about isolation in the modern world is simply one of the most frightening films ever made. Maybe more suited to horror as a genre tag than to thriller, though it certainly delivers more than enough thrills to keep the adrenaline content, Pulse is a film that really deserves to be seen by any film fan. It is one of those rare films that seems to strike only a few times in a lifetime, one that seems to manage to capture the entire world all at once and does so so beautifully that it’s a struggle to even believe your eyes.
As tense and unnerving as it is, the film also captures a true beauty in its visuals as it peers through the obscured lens of its characters who find themselves completely and utterly lost in a world that otherwise is more connected than ever. Kiyoshi manages to predict everything that would become only a progressively bigger problem for the world and also manages to confront it. It’s a film that needs to be seen, for both its unforgettable scares but also for the penetrating beauty throughout.
9. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichardt has made quite the name for herself working within the wave of Mumblecore American cinema and seemingly elevating it with her brilliant characters and carefully constructed situations for them to occupy. Night Moves is one of her most striking films, following a group of three environmentalists who become militant terrorists in their pursuit of environmental good, and then have to deal with the tension of following through with this attack and then the really quite ruthless aftermath that follows.
Reichardt takes on a more traditional plot and yet subdues it beautifully with her laid-back style, managing to pull off the magic trick of getting the audience accustomed to her slowly moving shots that sometimes seem to focus on nothing and everything at the same time, the sometimes meandering dialogue that captures the tension of these moments so purely and even getting the audience used to the mannerisms of the characters and their distinct styles in speech. Reichardt has a way of building tension through the most simple of events in the same way as the likes of Robert Bresson, and it has to be said that it’s quite exciting knowing that she’s likely to make many more films yet. Who knows where she may end up?
10. Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood, 1997)
Maybe the most overlooked of all of the films that Clint Eastwood has directed (next to Hereafter and 15:17 to Paris), or even the most overlooked of all films that Eastwood has starred in, Absolute Power seems to be the one of his films that no one ever gets overly interested in and skips… however, despite this, it is still a complete showstopper of a film. Focusing in on Clint Eastwood as a master thief who finds himself trapped inside a house entered by the US President and finds himself the witness to a murder and is then forced to run whilst holding onto the evidence all along and trying to reason with himself about what he has seen.
Surprisingly, this film takes a lot from De Palma’s style of almost hyperbolic cinematography and editing that screams out to the audience in its hyper-realistic style, which is just about the last thing you’d expect to see from a film directed by Clint Eastwood who usually sticks to stripping style down to the basics and building it up again largely depending on the film itself rather than throwing one in and trialing it. It’s a brilliantly exciting film, one that deserves much more recognition and one that remains impressively relevant despite being almost 25 years old.