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The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs

The best thriller movies of all time

Dirty cops, femme fatales, grinning killers and bone-deep paranoia: Welcome to our ranked list of classic thrillers

By Joshua Rothkopf and Time Out contributors
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Alfred Hitchcock perfected the thriller movie with a string of classics that remain unmatched. But from today’s perspective, there’s more to them than ice blonds and wrong-man scenarios. Every decade gets the thrillers it deserves, from post-WWII film noir and Nixon-era conspiracies to even the tawdry (but lovable) ’80s erotic thrillers. We had a hard time choosing our favorites, but after much interrogation under a naked light bulb, we did it. Here are the best thriller movies—let us know which ones we’ve left off.

Written by Abbey Bender, Phil de Semlyen, Tom Huddleston, Tomris Laffly and Joshua Rothkopf. Produced by Hannah Streck.

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Best thriller movies

11
double indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Movies Thriller

Film noir doesn’t get more iconic than Billy Wilder’s tale of an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) roped into a devious scheme by a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) intent on murdering her husband. To watch the film, with its shadows and Stanwyck’s swaggering seduction, is to lose oneself in a gritty and mysterious world that has influenced countless movies since.—Abbey Bender

The killer moment: In a brightly lit Los Angeles supermarket aisle that’s suddenly ominous, Stanwyck purrs, “It’s straight down the line for both of us,” setting the template for women up to no good.

12

Zodiac (2007)

Movies Drama

Scraping up against the limits of knowability, David Fincher‘s mind-blowing crime thriller targets the truth itself as a serial killer's final victim. Zodiac is the definitive movie of its troubled decade, showing us good men thwarted by the spirit of a murderous ghost. The real-life exploits of California’s Zodiac Killer haunted Fincher as a child; his film is an expression of obsession, onscreen and off.—Joshua Rothkopf

The killer moment: We’re seated in a break room with a creep who's full of excuses (the ominous John Carroll Lynch). His watch has the killer’s target symbol on it, but that's not enough for these cops to pounce. “I am not the Zodiac,” he says. “And if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”

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13
L.A. movies: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Movies Thriller

Film noir’s most unsettling nightmare ends in a flaming nuclear disaster—and if that anxiety weren’t enough, there’s also off-screen torture, ferocious desk-clerk slapping and the casual destruction of a beloved opera record. Robert Aldrich's perverse masterpiece brings to life Mickey Spillane’s vicious Mike Hammer (a grinning Ralph Meeker): a vain bottom feeder prone to using his fists. He’s the sourest of antiheroes. Los Angeles made him that way.—Joshua Rothkopf

The killer moment: “I want half,” Lily Carver demands, wielding a gun. Soon enough, she’s hovering over the most influential suitcase in movies (see also Pulp Fiction and Repo Man), one she can’t help but open.

14
The Fugitive
The Fugitive

The Fugitive (1993)

Movies Drama

Hollywood wishes it could make thrillers this perfect every summer, movies that have Harrison Ford leaping off a dam, and that also get Oscar-nominated in major categories. For all its acclaim, The Fugitive is still underrated: It's as definitive a Chicago picture as they come (and we’re talking a bruising Windy City winter); it contains a brilliantly cranky depiction of dogged investigation in Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent Gerard; and it turns the whole of moviemaking into an expertly calibrated double chase.—Joshua Rothkopf

The killer moment: A stairwell pursuit leads to one of Richard Kimble's cleverest escapes.

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15

Vertigo (1958)

Movies

Often regarded as cinema’s greatest achievement, Vertigo presents the peak of Hitchcock’s psychosexual fixations in gloriously shot Technicolor. Playing Judy Barton—or is it Madeleine Elster?—Kim Novak personifies twisty femininity. Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” Ferguson, an ex-detective increasingly consumed by her, is a perfect subversion of the actor’s wholesome image.—Abbey Bender

The killer moment: Writhing in his sheets, Scottie plunges into a wordless, psychedelic nightmare: an unforgettable jolt of creepy graveyard shots, wild colors, Bernard Herrmann’s seesawing score and Stewart’s disembodied head.

16
Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Movies Action and adventure

A sexy masterpiece of deeply unsettling mystery, David Lynch’s nonlinear neo-noir is endlessly fascinating, and certainly one of his most enduring voyages into dream logic. Two female archetypes—one blonde, one brunette, natch—become inextricably linked, leading us to question the very nature of identity and reality.—Abbey Bender

The killer moment: Who—or what—lurks behind Winkie’s diner? We may not know what this terrifying jump-scare has to do with the larger narrative, but in Lynch’s world, every ominous detail feels crucial.

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17
taxidriverREV804

Taxi Driver (1976)

Movies Drama

One of the most iconic films of the ’70s is also one of the most thrilling: Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran turned cabbie who battles inner demons, is one of the defining portrayals of fractured masculinity. Scorsese brilliantly showcases a troubled mind in a way that forever makes the audience hold their breath.—Abbey Bender

The killer moment: Travis, alone in his apartment but imagining a confrontation, swaggeringly looks in the mirror and delivers one of the most quoted lines in film history: “You talkin’ to me?”

18
Seven

Seven (1995)

Movies Action and adventure

Here’s the pivot point for David Fincher—the inflection at which he transitioned from being a maker of super-stylish Madonna videos into something more substantial. Seven certainly delivers a signature gloom, from those powerhouse opening credits to its rainy urban hellscape. But beyond the gloss, the movie feels as subversive as a Fritz Lang thriller, indicting the police as thoroughly as it does its moralizing serial killer. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script contrasts theoretical bookishness with impulsive action, but Fincher's genius is to show those modes for what they really are: survival strategies that only get you so far.—Joshua Rothkopf

The killer moment: The sloth victim traumatized us, but the movie’s small piece of immortality happens in the desert, where the tables are turned: “What’s in the box?”

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19
the manchurian candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Movies Thriller

Fear of Soviet domination may have engulfed America in the early 1950s but in Hollywood, things weren’t so simple. In the wake of the McCarthy hearings, filmmakers knew they had just as much to fear from their own government as they did from some shady foreign power. The Manchurian Candidate is the clearest expression of that anxiety, a razor-sharp study in manipulation filmed in stark monochrome, a paradox for a movie in which nothing is black and white.—Tom Huddleston

The killer moment: Suddenly we realize that lovely Angela Lansbury isn’t just playing a domineering mom, but a ruthless monster.

20
L.A. Confidential
L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Movies

Staple anxieties of classic ’50s noir often get rebooted for contemporary audiences. But Curtis Hanson’s genre homage dared something even grander by going back to the source and recreating the bloody era itself, in an immaculately shot saga of knee-deep Tinseltown corruption. It’s a deceptive labyrinth of self-serving cops, movie-star wannabes and one priceless Lana Turner cameo; Hanson does the films that came before him proud.—Tomris Laffly

The killer moment: Guy Pearce’s straight-laced sergeant earns his nickname, Shotgun Ed, at a cost while pursuing a murder suspect.

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