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The 25 Best Thrillers on HBO Max

American Psycho. Photo: Lions Gate Films
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Everyone loves a good thriller. We love to turn off the world and give ourselves over to a filmmaker who knows exactly where to take us next. Whether we’re predicting an upcoming twist or just going along for the ride, there’s something about a great thriller that almost feels interactive. And HBO Max has become one of the best homes for thrillers, including exclusive, original productions from one of the modern kings of the genre, Steven Soderbergh. A couple of his films, along with two dozen or so others, are on the list below. Have some fun with one of them tonight.

The 39 Steps

Oscar nominee Ramin Bahrani recently called Hitchcock’s 1935 classic “the origin.” Watching it now, you can see not only how it would shape so many future Hitch works but the many thrillers who tried to copy his formula. Robert Donat plays a man who gets caught up in an espionage caper when a strange woman ends up dead in his apartment, and he’s the main suspect.

American Psycho

Mary Harron’s adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel was instantly controversial but instantly iconic. Christian Bale stepped into the role of the serial killer that had caused an uproar in the literary world and redefined the way we see psychopaths in cinema. His performance has been mimicked so many times just in the two decades since Harron’s unforgettable film was released.

Blood Simple

Two brothers began one of the most important film careers of the modern era with the grisly 1984 noir starring Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand. See where Joel and Ethan Coen got their start in a clever riff on noir tropes like double crosses and femme fatales but with their dark sense of humor and understanding of human nature. It’s one of the most impressive debuts of the ‘80s.

Breakdown

If you’re looking for a good, underrated thriller, look no further than the 1997 thriller about a road trip gone horribly awry. Jonathan Mostow directs the always-great Kurt Russell as a man who has some words with a truck driver and learns that road rage is never the answer. A mix of modern fears with a noir sensibility, Breakdown is a tight, effective little movie, one that doesn’t really make it to theaters all that often anymore.

Buried

Ryan Reynolds does his best non-costume film work in the 2010 thriller about a man who wakes up to find he’s been buried alive. Largely a one-man show, Buried is a clever filmmaking exercise as Reynolds does everything that he can to avoid his underground fate. Tense and clever, it premiered at Sundance and has become something of a cult classic in the decade since.

Changing Lanes

Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson clash with dramatic results in an effective drama about a Wall Street lawyer who gets into a car accident and tries to cover it up. Roger Michell directed this 2002 flick and really drew excellent performances out of his two leading men, perfectly cast in a film that seems due for a reappraisal.

Chinatown

Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. One of the best movies of the ‘70s, this Best Picture nominee (and Best Screenplay winner) tells the story of Jake Gittes, played unforgettably by Jack Nicholson, as he investigates an adulterer and finds something much more insidious under the surface of Los Angeles. It’s a must-see, as important as almost any film from its era.

Collateral

Michael Mann directed Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx to two of the best performances of their career in the 2004 thriller that has only gotten more impressive since it was released. Cruise plays against type as a hitman who contracts Foxx’s cab driver as he goes on a killing spree. Smart and beautifully shot, Collateral is a great movie.

The Crying Game

Sometimes a movie’s quality can become overshadowed by the headline-grabbing twist in its final act. Such was the case with Neil Jordan’s 1992 hit, a movie that became a cultural phenomenon because of its twist, but the movie itself kind of faded into history. Even without the shocker, The Crying Game is a solid film with great performances by Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and Jaye Davidson.

Diabolique

Alfred Hitchcock reportedly made Psycho because he wanted to make a movie that scared him as much as Diabolique. Don’t you owe it to yourself to see a movie that can boast that trivia? The final act of Diabolique is a beauty, anchored by a wonderful horror movie twist that no one saw coming when it was released but has been copied dozens of times since, even by the masters of the form.

Fatal Attraction

Adrian Lyne’s 1987 thriller was more than just a movie, it was a cultural phenomenon. The story of a woman who basically stalks and terrorizes her weekend affair became a cautionary tale for an era dealing with changing views on sexuality and infidelity. Michael Douglas and Glenn Close were perfectly cast in a movie that doesn’t exactly hold up today in terms of its gender politics, but does serve as a fascinating snapshot of where these issues were in the mid-‘80s. And Close is phenomenal here.

Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck’s adaptation of a great Dennis Lehane thriller stars the actor/director’s brother as a Boston detective investigating the disappearance of a little girl. Affleck’s greatest gift as a filmmaker is with ensemble and Gone Baby Gone is arguably his best with Casey, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan and the Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan filling out an amazing cast in a riveting thriller.

Inside Man

Yes, Spike Lee once made a great action movie. The director of Do the Right Thing and Da 5 Bloods put his spin on the heist film with the great 2006 Denzel Washington vehicle. The regular collaborator plays an NYPD hostage negotiator, called in when a bank heist goes down on Wall Street. Tight and effective, Inside Man is just further evidence that Spike Lee can nail any kind of movie he chooses to make.

Insomnia

Before he made only blockbusters, Christopher Nolan directed an adaptation of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Al Pacino stars as a Los Angeles police detective who investigates a murder in Alaska during a time of year when the sun doesn’t set. A cat-and-mouse mystery with a twisted killer, Insomnia is a stylish 2002 film featuring one of the best dramatic acting turns from the late, great Robin Williams.

KIMI

Steven Soderbergh quietly delivered another banger in early 2022 with an HBO Max original about an agoraphobic employee of a company like Alexa that offers virtual home assistance. Zoe Kravitz rocks as a woman who listens to errors on the service KIMI and thinks she may have heard a murder. With echoes of Blow Out, Rear Window, and Panic Room, this is a taut, fantastic thriller.

M

Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece has lost none of its shocking power, influencing generations of thriller directors for nearly a century of moviemaking. Peter Lorre gives one of his most iconic performances as a serial killer targeting children in Lang’s first sound film, one that blends the director’s incredible sense of visual language and tension with heart-racing storytelling. In the ‘90s, a group of film journalists around the world voted it the best German film of all time.

The Maltese Falcon

The classic adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel was actually the third attempt, but it’s the one everyone remembers. It’s John Huston’s directorial debut, tackling the tale of Sam Spade and Mary Astor with style. Of course, Humphrey Bogrt plays Spade, drawn into a competition to obtain a rare statue by a femme fatale played by Mary Astor. Here’s some good trivia about how important this movie is to film history: In 1989, the Library of Congress started selecting films for the National Film Registry. The Maltese Falcon was in the first wave of 25 films included.

Memento

Christopher Nolan announced himself to the world with a Sundance thriller that really reshaped the indie and eventually the blockbuster landscape. Guy Pearce gives one of his best performances as a man with such severe memory loss that he has to use his body to remind himself of the details he needs to solve a mystery. It’s still so clever and riveting.

Mona Lisa

Bob Hoskins gave one of his best performances in the 1986 crime thriller from the great Neil Jordan. Hoskins plays an ex-convict who becomes attached to a call girl (Cathy Tyson) and gets dragged into her dangerous life. Michael Caine co-stars in a film that landed Hoskins his only Oscar nomination (and the actor won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for this genuinely phenomenal performance).

Mystic River

Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both won Oscars for one of Clint Eastwood’s biggest hits, based on the excellent novel by Dennis Lehane. A study in grief and regret, Mystic River is an incredibly textured piece, anchored by arguably Eastwood’s best ensemble, which also includes Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. The less you know about the mystery-thriller going in, the better.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro adapted the acclaimed Tyrone Power noir and gave it his unique, daring style, and it’s already on HBO Max! Take the chance to watch one of 2021’s Best Picture nominees while you can. Bradley Cooper stars as a carny who turns into a different level of grifter in Del Toro’s stylish and mesmerizing descent into madness.

No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s crime novel is one of their best movies, and won them three Oscars — Directing, Writing, and Best Picture of arguably the best year of the ‘00s. If you haven’t seen it since 2007, you may be surprised at how well it’s held up. The exact same film could be released today and it would have the same cultural impact.

No Sudden Move

Steven Soderbergh returns to one of his favorite genres with an excellent thriller featuring another incredible ensemble of actors. Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, and Kieran Culkin play three criminals who take the family of a low-level auto industry employee hostage. Things go very wrong from there. David Harbour, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, Julia Fox, and many more join in the top-notch fun. It’s one of the best films of 2021.

North by Northwest

Movies simply don’t get much better than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau. Like so many Hitchcock classics, it’s a tale of mistaken identity, as Grant’s protagonist is chased across the country. The set pieces — like the infamous crop duster sequence — are well-known, but check out the complete picture, a perfectly paced and executed piece of refined filmmaking.

The Player

After a rough patch in the ‘80s, Robert Altman came roaring back with a scathing Hollywood satire from the book by Michael Tolkin. Tim Robbins does his best film work as a studio executive who can’t decide if his biggest problem is at work or the writer sending him death threats. Altman’s skill with improvisational comedy and knowledge of the Hollywood machine blend to make a simply perfect movie, one of the best of the ‘90s.

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The 25 Best Thrillers on HBO Max