The People’s Critic’s List of the Top 21 Thrillers

By popular demand, I am re-posting my Top 21 Thrillers list.  I made a few minor revisions, but since 2014 has not yet given us a thriller worthy of this list, I stand by my original content.

A family member gave me the idea of putting together a list of the best 21 thrillers for Halloween.  I asked her, “Why 21?”  To which she responded, “Because 21 is awesome,” so here is the awesome list of The People’s Critic’s top 21 thrillers!

whatliesbeneath21.  What Lies Beneath – Robert Zemeckis comes out of no where with a trippy, spooky ghost story that is the sole reason that The Others doesn’t make the list.  Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer begin to sense something is not right in their house leading them to explore the paranormal.  While the ending may not satisfy everyone, this is a strong thriller worth seeking out.

Halloween20.  Halloween – This classic has took the slasher film from the periphery of popular culture and landed it smack dab in the center.  John Carpenter’s story of a psychotic killer on the loose still sends chills down the spine, even after 35 years.  Without Michael Myers, there would probably not be a Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger.

 

Open Water19.  Open Water – This minimalistic independent film is one of the best explorations of primal fear I’ve ever seen.  When two scuba divers are abandoned in the middle of the ocean with no apparent hope of rescue, they must rely on each other to battle the elements and hungry sharks.  Supposedly based on true events, this film leaves you speechless.  Avoid the sequel – at all costs!

 

Cape Fear18.  Cape Fear – While Scorsese gave it the old college try, there’s no contest between the update and the original 1962 film with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum is excellent as Max Cady, who emerges from prison after serving 8 years, only to terrorize the life of the prosecutor who put him away.  Mitchum was born to play roles like this.

 

theomen17.  The Omen –  Gregory Peck gets back-to-back placement on the list with an even better thriller, Richard Donner’s The Omen.  Perhaps the penultimate “creepy-kid” movie,  Peck and his wife Lee Remick become the parents of little Damien through a strange series of events.  As Damien gets older, people start dying, and they pretty much don’t stop.  What is a parent to do?  Check it out and you’ll see.

 

Alien16.  Alien – Regardless of how desensitized we have become to John Hurt’s character Kane having an alien burst out of his chest, this film has far more to offer than just that.  The saga that introduced us to Ellen Ripley heightens our fears to nightmare proportions and obviously has given us one of the most legendary movie monsters of all time.

 

silenceofthelambs15.  The Silence of the Lambs – Speaking of legendary, it doesn’t get much more legendary than Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s suspenseful thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.  This film just makes your skin crawl, and it plays games with your head in ways that only the finest thrillers can.

 

Body Snatchers14.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Unlike Cape Fear, I prefer the remake in this case.  The 1978 film starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum takes this “pod-people” story to another level.  The cameo made by Kevin McCarthy (who played Sutherland’s character in the original) verifies that this film is a deserving update.  Strangely enough, another film higher up on the list is another Jeff Goldblum remake of a Kevin McCarthy film.

The Conjuring13.  The Conjuring – This film represents the newest film to make the list.  2013’s The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, is one of the best horror films in some time.  It is tonally an homage to the psychological horror films of the 70s and in fact can likely cite most of the next 12 films as inspirations.

 

rosemary12.  Rosemary’s Baby – Often cited as one of the finest horror films ever made, director Roman Polanski made his American film debut with the adaptation of Ira Levin’s world-wide best selling novel.  Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes move into a New York apartment and find the other tenants taking a special interest in them.  Most of the scares are subtle and work the imagination rather than obvious visuals.

 

The Shining11.  The Shining – Stephen King has publicly condemned Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, The Shining, going as far as producing a TV mini-series in the 1990s simply so he could have his vision realized.  Nonetheless, Kubrick may not have pleased King,  but he did create a finely tuned, manic little movie that attempts to take the viewer down the same path that protagonist Jack Torrance heads down.  “Redrum, REDRUM!”

 

jaws10.  Jaws – Here we are – the top ten.  Surprisingly the second “shark” movie to make the list, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws invented the summer blockbuster and made everyone “afraid to go into the water.”  Full of iconic characters and memorable lines, Jaws is a must see!

 

sixthsense9.  The Sixth Sense – M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense.  It quickly became the most talked about movie of the year.  Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist who is sought out by a young boy who “sees dead people.”

 

zodiac8.  Zodiac – David Fincher is a director who I greatly admire, but has had tough luck figuring out how to end his movies.  In his 9 major directorial jobs, he’s managed to have a strong ending maybe 3 times (and two of them are on this list).  Zodiac is a focused, slow burn of a thriller.  Fincher methodically recreates the mythology of the Zodiac killer and in the process makes a great film!

28dayslater7.  28 Days Later – Zombies are currently having their heyday (again), but what sets Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later apart from the Romero-style “Living Dead” type movies is his frantic pace, making the film scary, fresh, and edgy.

 

 

Descent6.  The Descent – Director, Neil Marshall’s second film, The Descent, is a pillar of claustrophobic, B-movie greatness.  But number 6?  Yes!  The Descent is great for how it “zigs” when many other similar films would “zag.”  This is also a girl-power thriller, which is quite rare in this genre.  The cast of 8 has only one male and that frees it up from all of the nutty clichés that often muddy up a good horror movie.

 

hitchcock5.  The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo – They don’t call Hitchcock the master of suspense for nothing.  His films are of the finest forms of “thriller” and thus, rather than single one of his best out, spot 5 on the list is reserved for a quadruple feature that will not disappoint.

 

se7en4.  Se7en – Fincher’s second film on the list is Se7en.  Fincher is also only one of two directors on this list who have a new movie released this year.  His film Gone Girl opened this month and Ridley Scott’s Exodus opens December 12th.  Se7en is the film that answers the question, “What’s in the box?”  Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman investigate a serial killer who is murdering his victims in the style of the seven deadly sins.  This is a tense and grotesque thriller with, of course, a great ending.

thefly3.  The Fly – David Cronenberg is a master of the disturbing.  His film, Dead Ringers was an early candidate for this list; however, it is The Fly that is without a doubt in the running for best thriller ever.  This 1986 remake of the 1958 original pours on the gore, but in a stunning and obsessive way.  Jeff Goldblum believes he has devised a form of teleportation, until something goes wrong…very, very wrong.

 

thething2.  The Thing – John Carpenter nails it with his second film on the list, his 1982 remake of Howard Hawkes 1951 film, The Thing.  This film was also remade again more recently, but what makes Carpenter’s film the best by far is the way Carpenter maximizes the paranoia and suspense.  Kurt Russell is excellent as MacReady, an American helicopter pilot who arrives at a desolate Norwegian military base where he and his crew find themselves at battle with an alien foe that could be anywhere, or anyone!

exorcist1.  The Exorcist – I wish I could say that over the past 40 years, someone was able to take the crown from William Friedkin’s outrageously scary film, The Exorcist, but I’m afraid not.  It was nominated for 8 Oscars, but that’s not what makes it the best thriller of all time.  Friedkin went out of his way to create a film that worms its way into your subconscious in order to disturb you on multiple levels.  When it was first released, it sent people, literally, running out of the theaters.  Now, the trendsetting horror film can be viewed in “safety” of your own living room – where no one can see you run away!

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St. Vincent

St VincentI had always imagined that Bill Murray could be entertaining even if he was just watering a plant. His new film St. Vincent ultimately confirms my assumption but not before offering one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

St. Vincent is the story of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a selfish, filthy, cranky curmudgeon of a guy living alone in his Brooklyn home. However when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince’s deliberately isolated existence is suddenly shattered. With Maggie’s job as a CAT scan tech requiring late hours, she must, in an act of desperation, lean on the dissolute Vincent to watch Oliver after school. Oliver’s new school is a religious prep academy that is uncharacteristically non-denominational. And while the school is universally accepting, the students are less so making it hard for Oliver to make friends even with Brother Geraghty’s (Chris O’Dowd) lessons about sainthood and brotherly love. Thus, Oliver looks to Vincent for guidance, and what follows is a well-executed, though familiar, tale of unlikely friendship. Think Up with most of the “Disney” rinsed off.

Selfish adults paired up with circumstantially victimized children is a staple of American cinema, and that fact could have easily stacked the odds against St. Vincent; however, the charm, heart, and most of all performances in this film prevent it from falling victim to the clichés and mediocrity that this genre is capable of producing. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay does not meander or wander away from its strengths, the principal of which is Murray. Murray’s turn as the crotchety Vincent is as fine a performance as he’s ever delivered and certainly the most sentimental. Yet, the film earns every laugh and every tear without setting foot into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. While the screenplay does enjoy the occasional shortcut or coincidental predictableness, the larger motif about the existence of unconventional goodness in the world is quite successful. Newcomer Lieberher’s performance as Oliver is also very good allowing Murray’s character to feel that much more dynamic. McCarthy is great opposite Murray and Naomi Watts is surprisingly well cast as Vincent’s lady (of the night) friend, Daka.

St. Vincent is less a comedy than the trailers would have you believe. While occasionally funny, this film tugs at the heartstrings as hard as any drama ever dares. Still, genre-based confusion aside, the film works and delivers on a wide range of emotions that may help get Murray his first Oscar. A-

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. And if you want to see what I mean about Bill Murray being entertaining while watering a plant, click here or just sit through the film’s credits.

Fury

Fury“Let there be WAR!” said Brad Pitt after his wife Angelina Jolie was tapped to direct the upcoming World War II film Unbroken. Pitt stars in his own WWII film, Fury. We won’t know which is the better of the two until Unbroken premiers in December, but Pitt’s film does not disappoint. Your move, Jolie.

In Fury, Pitt plays sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier who commands the five-man tank crew of a commandeered German tank dubbed “Fury.” Wardaddy’s crew includes four other militarily nicknamed men: driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), artillery expert Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), canon operator Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), and newbie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), later christened “Machine.” The film makes much of these alternative identities as it delves deep into the effects of war. Lerman’s Norman is the “greenhorn” of the group, having been in the army only 8 weeks when he is assigned to Pitt’s crew. Norman’s previous experience as a typist has not prepared him one bit to assume the gunman post in Collier’s squad, and it certainly has not prepared him to clean up the remains of the previous man who occupied it. Now, as the US pushes its way into Germany and Hitler’s forces grow more desperate Wardaddy and company are sent on mission after dangerous mission to secure German cities.  This is the crux of the film’s plot and while it can be viewed as modest or simplistic, it works.

Fury is directed by David Ayer whose most recent film End of Watch was a sensational piece of guttural tragedy; Fury captures that same tone vividly. While thousands of war films exist, a majority of which are World War II films, Fury rejuvenates the genre with powerful scenes of tank warfare that drip with intensity and ring with authenticity. A scene of note involves the crew facing off against a German Tiger tank where every move must be calculated to the most frustratingly critical degree or it’s lights out. What Ayer accomplishes with both his direction and his screenplay is that he strikes an engaging balance between the rigors of war and the humanity of its soldiers.

The sets are truly remarkable and combined with some of the camera work they can be devastatingly heartbreaking in the style of Saving Private Ryan or even Gone with the Wind. Still at times the film can feel a bit uncoordinated and even cliché especially in some of the dialogue, but Fury thrives more on action and mood than it does conversation. This is also a far more bloody and violent film than I expected. Some of the horrific gruesomeness may have been avoidable, but when looking at the film’s overall ambition, much of it is warranted. At the end, Fury is a surprisingly refreshing look at warfare and camaraderie that is well-acted and feels unique. Angelina Jolie has her work cut out for her. B+

Fury is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Gone Girl

gone girlGillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was an immediate success and quickly became one of those novels everyone was talking about. The story of Nick and Amy Dunne contained all of the trappings of a top notch thriller, and it was only a matter of time (1 month to be exact) that the story would be optioned for a movie deal. 2 years after publication, Gone Girl has hit the big screen and in a big, big way.

Gone Girl is a fragmented and psychological thriller that depicts the ups and downs of a marriage in the midst of the disappearance of wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). Amy’s disappearance quickly becomes a tabloid phenomenon and husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is thrust into the spotlight as the hunt for Amy turns into a national affair. As Nick’s life is picked apart by public scrutiny it is not long before Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) suspect foul play. Now Nick, and sister Margo (Carrie Coon) are in the middle of a media frenzy fueled by the court of public opinion. Clues, red herrings, left turns and twists a plenty ensue resulting in this year’s most entertaining and engrossing film thus far.

Director David Fincher is no stranger to the strange and psychological given some of his films like Se7en, The Game, and more recently Zodiac. Nor is he a stranger to adapting ultra popular best selling novels like Fight Club and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher’s style fits Gone Girl like a pair of mysterious red panties and though Fincher saw tremendous success with his Oscar winning film The Social Network, this may be his strongest overall film to date.

Fincher certainly has fans of the novel in mind in this adaptation. While Flynn adapted her own novel for the screenplay, Fincher captures the novel’s tone beautifully keeping the audience at the edge of their seats for the film’s entire 149 minute running time. Comparisons to Hitchcock have been made in the past and while techniques vary, Fincher’s pacing, camera work, and tremendous use of score are very reminiscent of the great master of suspense.

And then there’s the acting! Affleck and Pike are perfect in this film. The nuances, layers, and personalities of Flynn’s characters are fully realized in both lead performances. Mystery thrillers are far more dependent on proper characterization than virtually any other genre and these performances make way for some of the most satisfying twists since The Usual Suspects. Supporting work from Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, among others, also help elevate this film.

Gone Girl is a triumph of modern cinema and one of the few films shot digitally that still manages to achieve the murkiness and grittiness of film. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth has worked with Fincher on four films, and he and Fincher have developed a distinctive and characteristic style that works very well. My one criticism of Fincher’s films is that he often drops the ball during his films’ final acts. Films like The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all kind of fizzle out at the end. Now with a film where its success almost entirely rests on its final act, Fincher finally puts my nit-picks to rest indefinitely. This is an excellent start to the fall movie season and a film that should kick-start the Oscar conversation both technically and creatively.  A

Gone Girl is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes.