Some genres are easier to define than others. Werewolf movies are movies with werewolves in them. Family movies are intended for all audiences. But “thrillers” can be tougher to nail down. After all, a lot of movies want to thrill you. That doesn’t mean they all have life-or-death situations, serial killers, and kidnappings in them.
But those are the types of intense, suspenseful situations we come to expect from films with the “thriller” label. They are typical stories of seemingly normal people, suddenly thrust by circumstance or their own sins into perilous situations. Will they survive? Will they prove their innocence? Will life ever be the same again? We demand the answers to these questions because, as strange and contrived as situations in a thriller can get, the protagonists closely resemble most of the people in the audience, who don’t seek out danger and worry about what would happen if it befell us anyway.
There’s a lot of overlap, but it’s worth noting that “thrillers” aren’t necessarily “horror movies” either. Horror movies are generally about confronting our fears of death. There’s a reason the body count is usually much higher in a conventional horror movie. Thrillers are generally about confronting our fears of staying alive, the anxieties and paranoias that plague us every day, and the consequences we fear that prevent us from living more exciting, albeit dangerous lives. Horror movies are about dying. Thrillers are about staying alive.
Thrillers are also about plausibility. Once magic or science-fiction works its way into the storyline, the film becomes less about normal people surviving harrowing situations and more about the mechanics of the fantasy world it now inhabits. The events of a thriller may be highly unlikely but they could, at least in an impressionistic way, happen in the real world. That’s what makes them captivating. It could happen to you.
Of course, even with all that said, there’s still a lot of death, dismemberment and torture to be found in the best thrillers of the 21st century. It’s been an intriguing genre to track over the last two decades, as spectacle films increasingly ruled the box office and straightforward stories about murder and kidnapping gradually migrated to television. Still, the excellent thrillers we have been getting are fascinating, gripping examinations of our contemporary fears, our daily phobias, and our curious obsessions with crime, violence, sex and shame.
These are our picks for the 25 best thrillers of the 21st century (so far), presented in chronological order.