Want to watch a good thriller on Netflix?. Critic Sarah Ward has trawled through the archives and picked the top 25 thrillers currently available on the streaming platform.
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Last updated: May 6, 2021
When Jesse Eisenberg was cast as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, it was a stroke of genius. But, playing a socially awkward accountant who begins karate lessons after he’s attacked on the street, he’s just as aptly deployed in the black comedy-thriller hybrid The Art of Self-Defense. Filmmaker Riley Stearns uses his star to perfection, conjuring blistering laughs by skewering toxic masculinity, and maintaining a thrilling mood and tone throughout.
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively make a suitably dynamic duo in A Simple Favour, an upbeat, intriguing and immensely fun black comedy thriller about two women who become friends when their children start palling around at school. That’s just the beginning in this twist-heavy affair, which proves director Paul Feig’s versatility. In fact, it’s the noir-ish delight that no one suspected the Bridesmaids filmmaker had in him.
When Brisbanite Clare (Teresa Palmer) travels to Germany, she’s excited about a backpacking European holiday. Soon after starting a vacation romance with Andi (Max Riemelt), however, her getaway takes a stressful turn when she becomes his hostage. A terse psychological thriller, Berlin Syndrome is well performed, well directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland and, crucially, is almost distressingly claustrophobic as it chronicles Clare’s plight.
Submitted as The Philippines’ entry into the 2017 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, Birdshot is a quiet and small movie that wrings ample tension out of a straightforward but always absorbing situation. In the nation’s countryside, farm-dwelling 14-year-old Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) lives with her father Diego (Ku Aquino), who teaches her to shoot. When she accidentally kills an endangered eagle, the local police are soon on her trail.
Usually, when a pandemic is involved, no one wants a second wave. But Contagion has experienced exactly that since becoming the most prophetic movie of the 21st century—and, in lockdown, one of the most-watched. Steven Soderbergh’s virus-driven thriller is so prophetic that it’s now both uncanny and eerie. Its relentlessly bleak mood and top-notch cast (including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet) all repeatedly hit their marks, too.
Monster movies typically go one of two ways and, while Crawl could’ve proven a cheesy, formulaic, Sharknado-style mashup of alligators and hurricanes, it actually serves up a taut, suspenseful, snap-happy thriller. All of the expected elements are present as Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper try to scamper out of biting reach beneath a Florida home; however experienced horror director Alexandre Aja knows how to turn this disaster-drive fare into an effective flick.
Not to be confused with the Reese Witherspoon comedy of the same name, Johnny To’s 2005 crime thriller serves up the classic Hong Kong combination: warring gang leaders locked in a power struggle, a dark view of its characters’ motives and top-notch stars. Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka-fai play the battling heavies in a movie that won four Hong Kong Film Awards and spawned a sequel just a year later.
More than a few films fall into the very specific Los Angeles-set neo-noir subgenre, including Drive, The Nice Guys and Under the Silver Lake. The 2017 thriller Gemini is an enticing, compelling and vividly shot addition to the fold. The reliably impressive Lola Kirke plays Jill LaBeau, a personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). When the latter turns up dead, the former is drawn into the aftermath as a detective (John Cho) investigates.
Watching a film directed by the Safdie brothers probably isn’t recommended for viewers with high blood pressure. Their movies live and breathe tension, as Good Time demonstrates for 101 rattling minutes. In an impressively gritty and unglamorous performance, Robert Pattinson plays a small-time criminal determined to do whatever it takes to rustle up the cast to get his brother (Benny Safdie) out on bail.
Melanie Lynskey leads this slow-simmering, sometimes-comedic vengeance-driven thriller, while Blue Ruin and Green Room actor Macon Blair writes and directs. That’s a superb combination. As a woman who has just been burgled, then decides to track down her stolen laptop herself—with help from her neighbour (Elijah Wood)—Lynskey commands every frame she’s in. And, in conveying the titular sentiment, Blair crafts a streamlined but weighty feature for his directorial debut.
Before there was The Departed, there was Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs. If Martin Scorsese is remaking your movie, you’re obviously doing something right. Boasting a high-profile cast (including Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Sammi Cheng and Kelly Chen), co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak craft a crime thriller immersed in a duplicitous web of police and gangster activity. The 2002 film also inspired two sequels in 2003.
The Invitation starts with a simple premise, then twists it into something darkly astute, tense and commanding—slowly, demonstrating a mastery of pace, while pondering weighty emotions. Karyn Kusama’s film begins with a gathering of friends (including Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman), which turns into the dinner party from hell, triggering an onslaught of suspicion and thrills.
Following a group of young radicals who stage a series of Parisian terrorist attacks, then hide in a department store, Nocturama doesn’t waste a single second of its 130 minute running time. It doesn’t waste a fluid shot or alluring soundtrack choice, either. Inspired by Elephant, Dawn of the Dead and Assault on Precinct 13, French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello immerses viewers in his characters’ lives, ideals and mindsets, while never veering away from their flaws and contradictions, or from making a statement.
Even if The Platform didn’t hit Netflix just as the world was experiencing pandemic-induced supermarket battles for food and household essentials, it would’ve proven an incisive thriller—and, in its horror-driven quest to unpack society’s inherent hierarchies, an engaging one. In a tower-like prison, inhabitants can only eat from a food-filled platform that descends from the top of the building—a literal but compelling example of every-man-for-himself attitudes.
Starring Al Pacino as drug lord Tony Montana, directed with the flair that Brian De Palma is known for and set to a pulsating Giorgio Moroder score, Scarface is the quintessential ‘80s crime thriller. It’s equally vivid and grim, both over-the-top and steeped in the ups and downs of criminal behaviour. And it rides quite the narrative rollercoaster. Yes, it’s over-quoted and over-referenced in popular culture, but it undeniably packs a punch.
One of the best examples of the ‘screenlife’ genre so far, Searching wrings tension, suspense and anxiety out of keyboard clicks, cursor movements, computer screen windows, phone calls and one very distressed father. After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) uses every online tool at his disposal to try to find her. Cho is exceptional, but writer/director Aneesh Chaganty’s command of his chosen format is just as compelling.
Stephen King might’ve disliked Stanley Kubrick’s page-to-screen adaptation, but the psychological thrills of The Shining are unparalleled in cinema. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) settles into his new winter caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel, tries to focus on his writing but swiftly succumbs to the venue’s supernatural forces and starts terrorising his family (Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd). A terrifying, incessantly agitating masterpiece results.
Sicario may fall into multiple genres, but it reverberates with such a taut, anxious, nervy air that it’s always going to tick the thriller box. Denis Villeneuve’s features often do that, the filmmaker boasting a knack for keeping audiences on edge for an extended period. Here, though, the story—following a FBI agent (Emily Blunt) recruited to a government task force to apprehend a Mexican drug cartel—is responsible for ample edginess.
When Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns not only join forces, but direct their attention to the medical world, great thrillers result. First came the eerily prophetic Contagion, with the pair then reteaming for pharmaceutical and psychiatry industry takedown Side Effects. Rooney Mara stars as a young woman prescribed a new antidepressant after a suicide attempt, a move that embroils everyone around her (including Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones) in a twisted plot.
Mention Soylent Green’s title—or even read it to yourself—and two words automatically follow. They explain the 1973 film’s big reveal and are well-known not just with the movie’s fans, but in popular culture in general. And yet, even knowing how this sci-fi thriller pans out doesn’t undercut its effectiveness. Many dystopian features made in the past half-century have been shaped by its influence, even if it’s always solid rather than stellar.
With its multiple storylines converging around a shared topic, its incisive examination of a wide-ranging issue, and its ability to prove both astute and urgent at every turn, Syriana is exactly the film that Traffic would’ve been if it had focused on oil rather than drugs. There’s a reason for that: writer/director Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for penning Traffic. Here, he directed George Clooney to the same shiny statuette, helming a complex political thriller.
Set during a zombie outbreak, Train to Busan is a horror film. Featuring plenty of human-against-undead frays as a father (Gong Yoo) attempts to take his young daughter (Kim Su-an) to the eponymous city, it’s also an action movie. And, thanks to its supreme command of edge-of-your-seat tension—especially given how well-worn its general concept is, and how the notion of battling zombies on a train could’ve turned out—Yeon Sang-ho’s South Korean blockbuster is firmly a thriller too.
Adam Sandler plus the Safdie brothers is a match made in cinephile heaven. Any time that Sandler embraces his serious side, it’s worth paying attention—but when put through the ringer by the directors of Heaven Knows What and Good Time, it’s something truly special. He plays a jeweller desperate to close a big deal, earn a huge payday, settle his debts and fix his life, and he’s operating at maximum intensity, as is everything in the movie.
With Us, Jordan Peele proved that the style, smarts and scathing societal commentary he combined to such stunning effect in Get Out definitely wasn’t a once-off. In his second stint behind the camera, he focuses on the Wilson family, whose lives are plunged into unnerving territory when they’re hunted by their doppelgängers. As much a thriller as a horror movie, the end result also features a phenomenal performance by Lupita Nyong’o.
Benefiting from superb casting, a grimly fascinating case, and David Fincher’s affinity for both serial killer stories and procedural tales, this 2007 crime thriller will always be the director’s exquisite, engaging and enthralling masterpiece. Not a second of its 57-minute running time is wasted as a journalist (Robert Downey Jr), a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a detective (Mark Ruffalo) endeavour to track down California’s infamous late 60s and early 70s murderer.
On 6 May 2021, nine titles were added and removed from his page to reflect changes to the Netflix catalogue. Reviews no longer available on this page (for American Psycho, A Cure for Wellness, The Fugitive, Gone Girl, The Hateful Eight, Mulholland Drive, Nerve, Prisoners and Seven) can be found here.