This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK
As a genre, the thriller truly is a broad church. The definition of thriller is 1) a book, film, play, etc, depicting crime, mystery, or espionage in an atmosphere of excitement and suspense, and 2) a person or thing that thrills.
Most associated with Hollywood in both its heyday and modern times, the thriller is a film which transcends boundaries and cultures. Below is my pick of the finest 50 modern foreign language thrillers – modern being since 2000 in this case. I’ve avoided films that are firmly in one genre, but still classed as thrillers, most obviously with horrors, but it’s a tough one. In the end I went for a definition of thriller first, other genre second. Anything that didn’t meet that criteria was out.
50. Confessions/Kokuhaku (2010, Japan)
d. Tetsuya Nakashima
Based on the Japanese smash hit book of the same name by debut author Kanae Minato, Confessions is a thriller told in flashback. It concerns the death of a 4 year old child in a school swimming pool, and her teacher mother’s revenge on the two students she believes responsible for the crime.
Chilling in its set-up, the film is beautiful to look at, with a almost dream-like haze at times over proceedings. If on occasion the plot gets a little too melodramatic and convoluted, the good still far outweighs the bad.
49. No Mercy/Yongseoneun Eupda (2010, South Korea)
d. Kim Hyeong-jun
Featuring a towering central performance from lead actor Sol Kyung-gu, No Mercy is a twisted revenge thriller in the mould of Oldboy (very in the mould some might argue). Kyung-gu plays Kang Min-ho, a top forensic pathologist due to retire in order to spend time with his recently returned to South Korea daughter. But not before he takes on on last case, the murder of a young woman whose dismembered body is found on the banks of the river. While a suspect is quickly found, and even confesses to the crime, evidence keeps on mounting to cast doubt on this. But where is the evidence coming from?
Slick, compelling, ridiculous in its requirement of suspension of disbelief, No Mercy is an enjoyable if not too original slice of Korean cinema.
48. The Body/El Cuerpo (2012, Spain)
d. Oriol Paulo
A body of a recently (possibly murdered) deceased young woman disappears in mysterious circumstances from a morgue. Detective Jaime Peña is sent to investigate, and while it soon becomes clear to him that the husband, Alex, is responsible for both the murder and theft, things aren’t quite as clear cut as they seem.
Simplicity is key here, with the film essentially a two-hander between Detective Peña and Alex. Locations are minimal, and while still a taught thriller, its almost a character piece too, as your feelings towards the two men shift and slide depending on what new information has just been revealed. A fascinating ride.
47. The Uninvited Guest/El Habitante Incierto (2004, Spain)
d. Guillem Morales
Writer/director Morales has crafted a thoroughly disturbing psychological thriller here. Architect Felix (Andoni Gracia) has recently been left by his wife Vera (Monica Lopez), who despaired of his ordered, antiseptic life locked away in his quiet house, away from the view of everyone. One night a man knocks on his door and asks to use the phone, as the public telephone is broken. After leaving him to his call, Felix returns to find the man gone. But soon he suspects that he hasn’t actually left his house.
This sets the scene for an incredible cat and mouse game that has a few twists (some pretty obvious, some totally out of left-field). It’s creepy enough to make sure you check your own house before going to bed.
46. Pusher II (2004, Denmark)
d. Nicolas Winding Refn
Far superior to the first film, not as needlessly cruel as the third one, Pusher II is the sweet spot which earns the series the praise it so often receives. The crime thriller picks up the story of Mad Mikkelson’s Tonny from the first film, now about to leave prison and a lot less cheerful than before. Delving into his personal life, we discover he now has a son, several debts, and a vicious gangster father he is desperate to impress.
Building to a climax where all these elements intersect, Pusher II is a great example of character building, as Tonny goes through his brutal journey in the criminal underworld to try and find his place.
45. Omar (2013, Palestine)
d. Hany Abu-Assad
A multiple award winner, including the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Omar certainly has its fans. It also has a pedigree too, with Abu-Assad’s previous effort, Paradise Now, being one of the most important and controversial films about the Israel/Palestine conflict made to date. Omar is far more ambitious in its narrative scope than that film however, and while that is often a recipe for going wrong, here it is necessary.
The titular Omar is a Palestinian baker who after being beaten by Israeli soldiers convinces his friends to stage an attack on a guard post. However, after being captured in the raid, he is offered a stark choice – go to prison for the rest of his life or become a double agent for the Israeli secret service. The fall-out from this choice for both his friends and his loved ones neatly sums up the messy conflict, as well as telling a compelling story which has you gripped from the start.
44. The Keeper Of Lost Causes/Kvinden I Buret (2013, Denmark)
d. Mikkel Norgaard
Proof that the Scandinavians don’t just make slick crime television, this is their Nordic-Noir vision brought to the big screen. A complex thriller, it features the odd-couple crime solving duo of Department X, made up of veteran detective Carl, who is reeling after a botched stake-out has left his life in ruins, and rookie Assad. Tasked with going through the unsolved crimes folder, the two become embroiled in the case of a young politician who supposedly leapt to her death from a ferry, but left no body.
A ticking clock of a plot, flashbacks, parallel narratives, and black humour to lighten the dark proceedings make this a gloomy thriller to take note of.
43. Tsotsi (2005, South Africa)
d. Gavin Hood
Despite Gavin Hood’s bumps since, his Oscar-winning crime thriller is still a powerful piece of filmmaking.
Revolving around young gangster Tsotsi’s attempts to look after and then return a baby he accidentally kidnaps after stealing a car, the film is a snapshot into the lives of bad people who can still attempt good, but often find themselves trapped in circumstances beyond their control. The narrative builds and builds as events catch up with Tsotsi, leading to some brutal moments, but ultimately tries to provide an uplifting moral centre to the story.
42. The King Of The Mountain/El Rey De La Montaña (2007, Spain)
d. Gonzalo López-Gallego
A superb entry into the backwoods yokel killer catalogue, The King Of The Mountain is an almost unbearably tense 90 minutes of stalk and flee. Quim is a man on his way to see his ex-girlfriend, who after an encounter with Bea, believes she has stolen his wallet. Upon catching up with her though, the narrative suddenly veers into something completely different, as an unseen sniper starts shooting at them.
What follows is a tense chase through the woods, almost completely focused in our hunted pair as they try to avoid seemingly certain death. These are no action heroes, instead we get whimpering and terrified hiding, making the spectacle all the more real and frightening.
41. The Silence/Das Letzte Schweigen (2010, Germany)
d. Baran bo Odar
Swiss director Baran bo Odar made his debut with this chilling procedural thriller, about two child murders decades apart. Detective Mittich was unable to solve the first, and when a new one occurs on the anniversary of the crime, he feels compelled to come out of retirement to assist in the case.
Oppressive, the film chronicles what loneliness can make people do, and charts how the emotional baggage we carry around can affect every aspect of our lives, both personal and professional. An outstanding piece of filmmaking.
40. Marshland/La Isla Minima (2014, Spain)
d. Alberto Rodriguez
For those disappointed in Season 2 of True Detective, and wanting a return to something similar to the first season, look no further than Marshland. With two charismatic leads investigating serial murders over decades in an environment reminiscent of Louisiana (the delta of the Guadalquivir River meeting the Atlantic Ocean) the comparison is there to be made. But this is no mere copy-cat (it started production before True Detective), and instead is a morally complex tale of a country coming to terms with life after Franco.
Set in the 1980s, Detectives Juan and Pedro are sent to this seeming backwater from Madrid in order to investigate the disappearance (soon revealed as a murder) of two young sisters. The atmosphere is gothic, the red herrings fly thick and fast, and the narrative grips you and never lets go.
39. The Yellow Sea/Hwanghae (2010 South Korea)
d. Na Hong-jin
Named after the part of the Pacific Ocean which divides peninsular South Korea from China, The Yellow Sea is a thoroughly bloody affair which tells the tale of a indebted taxi driver living in the Chinese enclave of Yanbian, who to escape his money troubles is ordered by the local mob to return to South Korea to carry out a hit. While there, he is also determined to carry out a secret mission of his own, tracking down his missing wife. However, he soon ends up caught between two rival mobs.
Part noir thriller, part epic crime story in the style of Michael Mann, the inventive violence on display here (mainly through use of knives) is truly extraordinary. Luckily the plot, while slightly overlong, maintains interest beyond the fights, leading to a satisfying crime thriller.
38. Hell/El Infernio (2010, Mexico)
d. Luis Estrada
A cutting satire on the current state of Mexico, Hellis the story of Benny, a Mexican national who after being deported from the United States, ends up back in his home town. Faced with zero prospects of getting a legitimate job, he instead turns to the narco trade, seeing it as a quick and easy way to gain money and women. Its tone has been compared to Fargo, and the dark comedy edge to the mayhem that ensues certainly encompasses the Coen Brothers style.
But Hell is uniquely Mexican too, with the out of control violence close to a documentary in some parts. Corruption and greed infect the film, as the narco trade eats Benny not only Benny alive, but his town too.
37. Loft (2008, Belgium)
d. Erik Van Looy
Forget the recent terrible American remake (directed by Van Looy too), the original Loftis how you do the much derided ‘erotic-thriller’ genre right. The set-up is essentially a locked box mystery – five married men all share ownership of a loft apartment, which they use to meet their respective mistresses. But when the body of a murdered woman is found behind the locked door one day, the men suspect each other of the crime, as they are the only ones with the keys.
With flashbacks adding to the narrative, Loft tightens the screws as the tension rises, with the mystery proving engaging the whole way through.
36. New World/Sinsegye (2013, South Korea)
d. Park Hoon-jung
Playing in the same wheel-house as Infernal Affairs, New World is a crime thriller about an undercover cop caught up in a war between the mob and the police. After the death of the leader of the Goldmoon gang, front-runner Ja-sung is poised to assume command. The only issue is that he’s a police mole. Rather than fight for the position with his rivals, he wants to retire to spend time with his wife. But the police have other ideas.
Full of plot twists, bluffs, and double-bluffs, New World is ambitious, engaging, and most importantly, thrilling.
35. The Page Turner/La Tourneuse De Pages (2006, France)
d. Denis Delcourt
An incredibly lean 80 minutes, the punning title refers not only to the fact that this thriller is designed to be edge of your seat, but to the main character in the piece, Melanie (sensationally played by the then 19 year old Deborah Francois). Years after having her childhood dreams of being a professional pianist destroyed by renowned concert pianist Ariane Fourchécourt, Melanie ends up in Ariane and her husband’s household, where by acting as the page turner, she helps Ariane put a car accident behind her and prepare to return to the stage.
Of course, her motivations aren’t quite that pure, and this psychological thriller smartly delves into just what she wants and why she does. Consider it a form of intense psychotherapy.
34. Headhunters/Hodejegerne (2011, Norway/Sweden)
d. Martin Tyldum
Based on the Jo Nesbø book of the same name, this Norwegian/Swedish film from the same production company that brought The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to the screen is a blackly comic tale of a corporate headhunter with a sideline in art theft. However, he picks the wrong person to steal from when he marks a ex-special forces soldier with expertise in tracking. What follows is the twists and turns of Roger Brown’s attempt to escape.
While the elements are familiar, it possesses an almost screwball comedy element that enliven proceedings far above the normal thriller – with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as special forces man Clas the comedic ace in the hole, proving that there is seemingly no end to that man’s talents.
33. The Baader Meinhof Complex/Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008, Germany)
d. Uli Edel
Based on the best-selling 80s book of the same name, The Baader Meinhof Complex examines the early years of the far-left terrorist group Red Army Faction – culminating in the apparent collective suicides of the key first generation members, including Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader.
It’s a long film, but packed with political insight, action, and an examination of what drew so many radical thinkers to commit acts of terrorism against their own state. Its proved controversial in Germany, with it being accused of glamourising the group (while also being criticised for making them seem like ‘dead-enders’), and while it’s flawed, it still holds the attention completely.
32. Lady Vengeance/Chinjeolhan Geumjassi (2005, South Korea)
d. Park Chan-wook
The finale of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance might just be the most stylish of all of them.
Thirteen years after being imprisoned for the shocking murder of a child she was forced to confess to, born-again Christian Lee Geum-ja is released for good behavior. But her conversion masks her real intent, to use the inmates she befriended in prison to carry out revenge on the real killer. Layers of revenge are peeled back over the course of the film, ending in a horrific but beautifully shot killing, from which the concept of redemption is put under the microscope. An elegant thriller from the master of gory revenge.
31. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009, Sweden)
d. Niels Arden Oplev
After the global hype, the Hollywood remake, and the inevitable critical backlash, just how does The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hold up? Well I won’t speak for the book, but rewatching the original film is a mixed experience. On the one hand its made for TV origins are increasingly obvious (having Fincher remake your film on a mega-budget doesn’t help), and the flaws in the narrative are still there (I hope you really enjoy Swedish industrial dynastic drama).
But at its heart it’s still an incendiary crime thriller with a truly iconic central character, played with a fury by Noomi Rapace. Rapace was fully deserving of all the plaudits that came her way after, and as the brittle and haunted, but brilliant Salander, she created something truly special.
30. Julia’s Eyes/Los Ojos De Julia (2010, Spain)
d. Guillem Morales
Building on themes from his earlier film, The Uninvited Guest, Morales’ follow-up is a psychological thriller wrapped in the genre trappings of a horror, all about what lurks in the darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Twins Julia and Sara suffer from a congenital illness. Sara is already blind, while Julia is rapidly losing her sight. But when Sara apparently commits suicide, Julia is unconvinced and decides to investigate for herself, discovering the existence of an ‘invisible man’ around Sara.
The twists pile up in the second half of this film, but the groundwork is so solid that you fully buy into them. Strap in for the ride.
29. Special Forces/Forces Spéciales (2011, France)
d. Stephane Rybojad
A French action spectacular, this war film tells the story of kidnapped French journalist Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) and her attempted rescue by French commandos led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou). Loud, brash, and hugely entertaining, this war survival thriller has divided critics who unfavorably compared it to dumb Hollywood action films. A tad unfair, as that should actually be a favourable comparison.
It has all the thrills and spills of Hollywood, allied to a never more timely narrative about European involvement in places such as Afghanistan. It’s a hugely tense film, with strong performances from a great cast.
28. Incendies (2010, Canada)
d. Denis Villeneuve
Told partly in flashbacks, Incendiestraces the life Nawal Marwan, an immigrant to Canada, who dies of a stroke leaving behind the mystery of her past. Her twin children travel to the Middle-East to unravel her secrets, punctuated by incredible scenes of what Nawal endured to reach Canada and ensure a future. It’s the enigma of a mother’s buried life, and how that impacts on her children and their world.
Powerfully told, and emotionally draining, it will leave feeling like you’ve gone ten rounds in the ring by the end.
27. Apocalypto (2006, USA)
d. Mel Gibson
Apocalypto is a film that comes with a lot of baggage. Director Mel Gibson had his arrest six months before its release, and has had personal difficulties since. Accusations of not just historical inaccuracy, but historical vandalism abound. Critics mocked its heavy-handed state of the world message.
But almost a decade on, how does Gibson’s last film behind the camera to date stand up, stripped away from all of that? A truly epic chase movie, Apocalypto is at its heart a muscular, exciting, and brutally well made film. It’s unlike anything else on this list, and I mean that in a good way. Parts of it feel like a Mayan version of Predator, and the visuals are impossible to look away. It’s hugely entertaining, if not for the faint of heart.
26. Flame And Citron/Flammen & Citronen (2008, Denmark)
d. Ole Christian Madsen
Love, loss, and betrayal are all covered in this World War II thriller about the little known Danish resistance to the Nazis. It tells the story of two of their most infamous operatives, Bent Faurschou Hviid (known as Flammen) and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (known as Citron), played by Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen respectively. Slowly but surely the two up the ante by killing Germans as well as Danish collaborators, thereby inevitably bringing more attention and reprisals to not only them, but potentially their family.
Despite them being up against Nazis, the film never seeks to make Flammen and Citroon clear-cut heroes, instead exposing the morally murky world they operate in. It all builds to a truly thrilling climax, where the cost of war must be paid.
25. TimeCrimes/Los Cronocrímenes (2007, Spain)
d. Nacho Vigalondo
A thriller which uses a sci-fi construct to get to the heart of the action, rather than a sci-fi film which has thriller elements to the plot, TimeCrimes remains one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. Taught and twisty, TimeCrimes is about a middle-aged man named Hector who has one hell of a day. Peering through binoculars at home, he spies a topless young woman. Going to investigate, he discovers her dead, and himself chased by a terrifying man with a head wrapped in bandages. Running away, he finds his way to a laboratory and is told to hide in a vat of gooey liquid by a scientist. Cue time travel shenanigans with multiple Hector’s soon popping up all over the place.
It doesn’t make too much sense under careful scrutiny, but the film is just done so well, a terrifying bandaged wrapped villain to haunt your dreams, a conclusion you know is fated to happen but will have you screaming at the screen to try and stop it, and all shot through with streak of black humour.
24. The Tunnel/Der Tunnel (2001, Germany)
d. Roland Suso Richter
A superbly crafted suspense thriller, The Tunnel is set in East Germany in 1962, not long after the Berlin Wall has gone up. It’s tells the story of a group of young East Germans who build a tunnel in order to rescue their families from the GDR. Originally made for TV, and only released theatrically with English-Language subtitles in 2005, The Tunnel plays out as a tense and compelling finely matched game of chess. The players are the tunnellers and the GDR, each trying to outwit the other, and both aware of just what the other is trying to do.
Also, never has actually digging a tunnel been so well realised on film – the literal mud, sweat, and tears are all on display here.
23. Battle Royale/Batoru Rowaiaru (2000, Japan)
d. Kinji Fukasaku
Long before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. Due to a future government law, a class full of children are taken to an island, and told they have three days to fight to the death. Only one winner can survive. Sound familiar?
Battle Royale was a hugely controversial film when it was released, but beyond the hype lies a very clever comment on youth violence outrages, as well as a treatise on the morality of teamwork and determination. Plus of course a huge helping of Fukasaku’s brand of violent mayhem. A superb final film from the master.
22. A Hijacking/Kapringen (2012, Denmark)
d. Tobias Lindholm
Sadly less well known than the similar Captain Phillips, A Hijacking is a mesmerising, sweaty-palmed tale of a ship hijacked at high seas, and the efforts to get it back.
As you would expect from one of the main creative forces behind the brilliant Danish political drama Borgen, writer and director Lindholm has created a smarter than average thriller which remembers to ask questions and explore the moral grey area amongst all the the action beats – the sequence where both kidnappers and prisoners celebrate at catching a fish is excellent. Borgen alumni Philip Asbæk and Søren Malling turn in excellent leading performances as the captured ship’s cook and the embattled CEO trying to get them released on the cheap.
21. Lust, Caution (2007, Taiwan)
d. Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s superb follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Cautionlays claim to being perhaps his finest work. Set during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, and located between Hong Kong and Shanghai, the film is a masterclass in obsession, betrayal, and what you are willing to do for your beliefs.
As I have said before on this very site, ‘watching it made my chest feel uncomfortably tight at times, and in Tony Leung’s masterful performance as Mr Yee, a high-ranking collaborator, you have what may be one of the most complex and nuanced villains in cinema history’. Lust, Caution is a gorgeously shot, highly sexualised examination of the nature of revenge and the motivations behind it.
20. Wild Tales/Relatos Salvajes (2014, Argentina/Spain)
d. Damian Szifron
Now for something completely different… An anthology film of six different stories, Wild Tales combines black comedy, drama, and thriller into one excellent package. Each story is driven by a desire for revenge, with overarching message being you never know what you’re going to get when you embark down the path of vengeance.
Mixing mundanity with Bond level villainy, the film works hard to get the audience onside, while at the same time gleefully and anarchically getting out of control. From a bride who suspects her husband has been cheating, to a man outraged over his car being towed, the stories all weave their own brutal and brilliant magic.
19. The Beat That My Heart Skipped/De Battre Mon Cœur S’est Arrêté (2005, France)
d. Jacques Audiard
A rare example of a Hollywood film being remade outside of Bollywood, this French gangland thriller is both uncompromising and tender, perfectly reflecting the lead character of Tom, played with genuine on-screen magnetism by Romain Duris. By day Tom and his gang buy and bribe their way into acquiring freeholds, intimidate and brutalise the residents into leaving, and then sell on at a profit. By night however, he yearns to become a concert pianist, following in the footsteps of his creative mother.
Torn between the demands of his violent father and his artistic dreams, The Beat That My Heart Skipped prepares and lights a powder keg for the viewer.
18. The Raid 2: Berandal (2014, Indonesia)
d. Gareth Evans
The first Raid was a true classic in the action genre, with balletic scenes having audiences applauding in their seats. So very wisely, director Gareth Jones decided to try and not repeat himself again, instead going back to a prior script he had written, and expanding the world of The Raid into a magnificent crime thriller epic.
That’s not to say the action is any way lacking, it’s every bit as superb if not more than the original, it’s just that the focus is much wider here, with events building to a deafening crescendo as Rama goes undercover to bring down the criminal syndicate responsible for all the violence, death and corruption he is forced to endure.
17. Amores Perros (2000, Mexico)
d. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Three short stories, each connected by a car accident in Mexico City. Octavio Y Susana features Gael Garcia Bernal as a man in love with his brother’s wife, and whose desire to get money to make a new life with her results in him entering the murky world of dog-fighting, with disastrous consequences. Daniel Y Valeria follows a model injured in the crash, and the effect this has on her previously middle-class and easy life, while El Y Maru focuses on a hitman who has been hiding in plain sight as a homeless man during the previous two parts.
Due to the short nature of each story, each segment is a tightly focused narrative, dealing with class war, violence, revenge, loss, and love. Satisfying individually, taken as a whole the stories come together to create a thrilling depiction of life on the edge.
16. I Saw The Devil/Angmareul Boatda (2010, South Korea)
d. Kim Jee-woon
I’m a huge fan of this revenge thriller, and have written about it before here on Den Of Geek. While there’s always something new to say about films (a few on this list have featured before) I think my previous description genuinely and honestly sums up just why it earns a place high on this list of thrillers, ‘This is the tale of revenge, murder, and how the lines between good and evil can blur so much you can no longer tell where one begins and the other ends – except that they both end in shocking violence.
Master director Kim Jee-Woon crafted this stunningly executed tale of a psychopathic killer with no morals, who is relentlessly tracked by a cop with a personal vendetta, and no desire to see justice down by the letter of the law. If you thought the Vengeance trilogy was the last word in this subject, then think again – I Saw The Devil turns revenge films inside out, and pushes the traditional cops and criminals genre into incredible new territory to boot. It’s a hard and brutal watch, but the violence always informs, and is never simply to titillate.’
15. The Counterfeiters/Die Fälscher (2007, Austria/Germany)
d. Stefan Ruzowitzky
This superb dramatic thriller concerns itself with the incredible true story of the Nazi plan to destabilise the United Kingdom by flooding the country with forged bank notes – counterfeited by Jewish prisoners kept in concentration camps.
The film focuses on Salomon Sorowitsch, a master forger seemingly only out for himself. But as the film progresses, and the Nazis become more desperate for the plan to succeed, his motivations become more muddled. Self-preservation mixes with his desire to help his fellow prisoners sabotage the plan from the inside, while also battling with his own perusal ambition to successfully forge the notes, proving he is the best. As the ticking clock counts down, the forgers walk the incredibly thin line between helping and hindering their captors, while trying to avoid a death that constantly stalks them.
14. Infernal Affairs/Mou Gaan Dou (2002, Hong Kong)
d. Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Better than The Departed? That’s open for debate, but it has the edge in the thriller stakes, with a far more satisfying ending in my book. For those who have somehow managed to avoid either film, the plot revolves around a police spy who infiltrates a Triad gang, who in turn have one of their own posing as a police officer. A hunt for each other ensues, as both strive to serve two loyalties, and work out who they really are.
Operating as a race against time, what makes Infernal Affairs so incredible is the humanity Andy Lau and Tony Leung each bring to their respective secret gangster and police officer. Suspenseful until the very last shot (and beyond), Infernal Affairs is a powerhouse of a film, and one which could only be remade by a master such as Scorsese.
13. Hidden/Cache (2005, France)
d. Michael Haneke
Subversive, mysterious, and thought-provoking, Haneke’s psychological thriller about a bourgeois intellectual who begins receiving videos of himself in the post operates on many levels.
Firstly there are the incredible performances of Daniel Auteuil as Georges and Juliette Binoche as his wife Anne, the couple who are terrorised by the anonymous packages. Secondly there is the tight script and even tighter editing, which propels you along with the story, commanding you to watch and wait to see what happens. Finally there is the subtext, an examination of middle-class guilt, and an investigation into repressed memory. All of it adds up to a compelling and disturbing package.
12. The Chaser/Chugyeokja (2008, South Korea)
d. Na Hong-jin
The directorial debut by The Yellow Seadirector Hong-jin, The Chaser is the charming tale of an ex-cop turned pimp tracking down serial killer who has been butchering his girls.
Beyond the shocking headlines though is an expertly made old-school thriller of a film, which builds up to one of the most exciting foot chases in recent cinema. Yes that’s right, a foot chase. Watch it, and be amazed by how technically accomplished not just that scene is, but the whole film. It’s constructed like an intricate piece of clockwork engineering, with each seemingly unrelated plot element affecting the other and creating a sense of dreadful suspense. Truly outstanding.
11. The Wave/Die Welle (2008, Germany)
d. Dennis Gansel
Intriguingly described as a ‘sociopolitical’ thriller in various places, The Wave is based on a 1967 California high-school experiment designed to show how easy it was to create fascist autocratic movements involving educated people. Rainer Wenger is a dissatisfied teacher made to teach a class on autocracy, despite his own anarchist leanings. However, after getting the students to call him Herr Wenger instead of Rainer, he begins to enjoy the power. The students too respond to their new sense of community and identity, becoming increasingly violent and ostracising to those not part of ‘The Wave’.
Chilling, well constructed and horrifyingly believable, The Wave is an entertaining look at a very serious subject.
10. Elite Squad/Tropa De Elite (2007, Brazil)
d. José Padilha
Choosing to make your first fiction film about BOPE, the Brazilian government authorised death squads of the ’90s, was a brave choice for director Padhila. Along the way he also managed to antagonise the drug dealers of Rio, and was forced to answer to the Brazilian Congress. Luckily for him then it was worth it, with a firecracker of a film tracing the brutal career of Captain Roberto Nascimento, who viewers might recognise as a much more portly Pablo Escobar in Narcos.
Elite Squad is violent, difficult, and controversial, but it’s hugely gripping, with the war between BOPE and the drug-lords giving the audience no quarter.
9. The Skin I Live In (2011, Spain)
d. Pedro Almodovar
The Skin I Live In should’t work, fusing an almost unholy alliance of sexual melodrama, identity crisis, betrayal, and revenge, cloaked in the genres of horror and sci-fi. The fact that not only does it work, but excels, is down to Almodovar’s masterful control of proceedings, and lead Antonio Banderas’ charisma in the role of Dr. Robert Legard, who’s experiments with artificial skin hide a dark secret.
A true suspense thriller down to the end, The Skin I Live In confirmed that Almodovar could find new ways to spin his thematic obsessions and create a truly dark and horrifying world.
8. Memories Of Murder/Sarinui Chueok (2003, South Korea)
d. Bong Joon-ho
Based on the true life story of South Korea’s first serial murders, Memories Of Murder is a complex and exquisitely shot examination of the impact of brutal death on those investigating it. After a series of horrific killings, two rural cops and an investigator from Seoul desperately try to solve the case, employing ever more messy methods in the process.
It’s far from a slick operation, but thats what makes Memories Of Murder so compelling (that and the cinematography). Cases like this aren’t solved quickly and easily, and the film doesn’t shy away from what it takes to catch a killer, and how that will change you as a person. There are no quick fixes or easy answers on display here, and that’s just the way it should be.
7. Cell 211/Celda 211 (2009, Spain)
d. Daniel Monzón
A film I’ve unforgivably neglected over the years, Cell 211 is a pulse pounding high-concept thriller about rookie prison guard Juan, who on his first day informal induction to the jail, gets caught up in a riot. Abandoned by the other guards, and unknown to the prisoners, he is able to pass himself off as a new inmate just put away for homicide. After befriending the leader of the riot, the violent and unpredictable Malamadre, Juan must learn to survive in his new environment.
There’s so much compelling content in this film, with the performance of Luis Tosar as Malamadre foremost amongst it. Backstories for the characters are skilfully and economically sketched out, raising the stakes constantly, while the sides of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are never clear. Occasionally over melodramatic, Cell 211 is a must for your immediate watch list.
6. The Consequences Of Love/Le Conseguenze Dell’amore (2004, Italy)
d. Paolo Sorrentino
A psychological examination of loneliness and love as much as it is a crime thriller, this superb looking and acted film is a slow build fro beginning to end, but with a third act that will have you holding your breath until the ending, which all I can say involves wet concrete and will leave you in a cold sweat for hours after. Titta Di Girolamo is a middle-aged businessman mysteriously living by himself in a swish Swiss hotel. He has secretive routines, but eschews meaningful contact with people. However, slowly but surely he finds himself developing feelings for Sofia, a beautiful waitress at the hotel. However, Tito is keeping several dark secrets, which gradually become revealed during the film, leading to the incredible ending.
Stylish and captivating, The Consequences Of Love is a true cinematic treat.
5. Nine Queens/Nueve Reinas (2000, Argentina)
d. Fabián Bielinsky
An absolute classic of Argentine cinema, Nine Queens is a movie about con-men, which might just be pulling a con on the audience. Not in any bad way I might add, just that you’ll never be quite sure what’s real int the film, and what’s not. Beyond this cleverness though is a killer plot involving two con-men and their attempts to get the ‘Nine Queens’, a set of rare stamps. Fakes, thefts, and double-crosses abound, and the whole thing is played out by a superb cast delivering lines with constant perfection.
I’ve never wanted to pull a con on someone quite as much as after watching this film.
4. Tell No One/Ne Le Dis à Personne (2006, France)
d. Guillaume Canet
Tell No One is a superb mystery thriller, and a perfect adaptation of Harlen Coben’s novel. Years after a paediatrician’s wife is murdered, he receives an email from her, kick-starting an unstoppable chain of events that will leave the viewer bewildered and breathless. A brilliant and tense mystery thriller, it’s engrossing, twisting, and ultimately incredibly satisfying. The narrative momentum never slows down one iota, but still leaves time for you to learn all you need about the characters, their motivations, and what they truly believe in.
It also builds in time to make you genuinely care about a lovely dog sidekick (in the most uncheesy way possible too), and with a hugely satisfying conclusion building upon an equally satisfying first and second act, Tell No One teaches the rest of the world how the genre should really be approached.
3. The Lives Of Others/Das Leben Der Anderen (2006, Germany)
d. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Set in 1984 East Berlin, Gerd Wiesler is a member of the feared Stasi, who spends his days listening to suspected anti-regime activists. However, this insight into a world of free-thinking, free-speech, and freedom gradually begins to change the mindset of this loyal agent of the state.
The Lives Of Others is an extraordinary achievement, and I’ve often written about how much I love this film. It doesn’t quite get the top spot here as I think its personal drama is more important that the thriller element, but the story of betrayals and informants in Stasi controlled East Germany is still first rate, and propels the narrative into nail-biting territory on several occasions.
2. The Secret In Their Eyes/El Secreto De Sus Ojos (2009, Argentina)
d. Juan José Campanella
I’ve yet to see the recent remake, but if it’s even half as good as the Argentinian original, it will be one of the best thrillers in years. I suspect it won’t be though. But speaking of the best thrillers of recent years, 2009’s The Secret In Their Eyes is an absolute must-watch. Retired prosecutor Eposito begins to write his first novel, based on an unsolved murder he investigated 25 years earlier, and which came to define his life since. Meeting with his former boss, Irene Hastings, with whom he has always been in love with, he seeks to make sense of it one last time.
A film about obsession, secrets, and regrets, all played out with technical excellence, The Secret In Their Eyes is not only compelling and stylish, but filled with so much emotion that you can’t help but be seduced and intrigued by the mystery within.
1. Oldboy/Oldeuboi (2003, South Korea)
Well it had to be really didn’t it? Justifiably hyped for years, Oldboy is a visceral gut punch to the viewer, which both rewards and punishes with brilliantly paced sequences throughout the film. Oh Dae-su, a nondescript everyman, is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why and by whom. Upon his release, he sets out to seek and wreak bloody revenge, along the way falling in love with a young female sushi chef.
The stand-out scenes are justifiably famous, such as the octopus eating and the corridor fight scene (which clearly inspired a similar sequence in Netflix’s Daredevil), but it is the terrible build to the explosive climax which really gets under the skin. Horrifying to behold but impossible not to watch, this is truly the finest thriller of modern times. Best avoid the Spike Lee remake though.