This is a list of the movies that provided the biggest thrills to me, particularly ones whose thrills can be carried over to subsequent viewings. For the sake of not being repetitive, I am going to exclude horror films from this list. AFI’s list was topped by Psycho (1960), Jaws (1975), and The Exorcist (1973), along with non-horror thrillers like North by Northwest (1959), The French Connection (1971), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Will any of those make an appearance on this list? Find out below!
Blind spots (notable unseen films): Deliverance (1972), Harry Potter saga (2001-2011), King Kong (1933), Marathon Man (1976), The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Others receiving votes: The Day of the Jackal (1973), Drive (2011), Fight Club (1999), The Killing (1956), The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
10. White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
Of all of the early Cagney gangster movies, this is the only one that truly transcends the genre. Back when it came out, he considered it “just another gangster flicker”, but it is so much more. It is a thrill ride from beginning to end. It delves into the mind of the volatile and magnetic main character, and scene after scene it is simply explosive and brilliant entertainment.
Memorable sequence: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
9. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
This is not a thriller in the classic sense of the word, but to watch the movie is as exhilarating and thrilling as any. Tarantino’s screenplay of interconnecting, non-linear stories is a marvel. Each scene is crafted with enough precision that every shot seems like something absolutely vital. Perhaps the greatest edited movie of all time, Pulp Fiction is a blur of a 150 minute movie, and one that will constantly keep the audience on the edge of their seat and deliver the goods, even when the view count gets up to 10 or 20 or 30…
Memorable sequence: Lance’s house
8. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
I could have included the entire first trilogy, but in my eyes, this is by far the best movie of the entire franchise. This movie has one of the all time great twist endings, and every line, every shot, every character just seems classic. It is one of those movies that if you start watching any segment of it, you will be there for the duration. There is nothing like the Star Wars saga anywhere, and without this vital chapter in the story, it would have never gained the status that it has.
Memorable sequence: AT-AT Walkers attack the rebel base on Hoth
7. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
Before there were Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. This is a crazy, absurd, luridly entertaining, and painfully funny thriller. Putting junior high classmates on an island, forcing them to kill each other until there is one remaining, is as dark of a story I have ever seen onscreen. Following the news-like opening sequence, we are left with our jaws on the floor for the rest of this furiously exciting movie. The intensity is only heightened as it goes along, as the time, space, and number of students shrinks. The movie will get in your head and not leave for quite some time.
Memorable sequence: Lighthouse
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
In another case of the second film trumping the original masterpiece in almost every aspect, Terminator 2 is perhaps the greatest pure action movie ever made. It uses the first movie as a reference and plays off of it to some extent, but unlike so many other film sequels, this one can stand on its own. Each scene has a setting that makes it absolutely memorable, and visually the movie is as impressive as it gets. It is a ride that you will never forget, and one that you will want to continue to take from time to time.
Memorable sequence: Galleria shootout
5. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
It is difficult to maintain a tense atmosphere for the duration of a 150 minute movie. This, however, is the most breathtaking one of its kind, one where there is never a false note or scene that is not absolutely thrilling in every way. In what Marty called his “first movie with a plot”, he crafted a movie that will be looked back on in 50 years as the one film to define the crime genre for this generation of filmmaking. It is a furious, heart-pounding crime epic with unforgettable characters and astonishing visual aspects. It is one of a kind.
Memorable sequence: Chase through Chinatown
4. Runaway Train (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1985)
As far as relentless pure actions movies go, everyone has a favorite. Terry’s is Die Hard. Zach’s is Speed. Mine is unquestionably Runaway Train. It is a movie that from the opening shot until the credits begin rolling the audience is glued to the screen for some insane stunts and action sequences held together by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts acting their asses off. The “runaway train” plot vehicle is not exactly groundbreaking, but this is not Unstoppable or something of the like. This is a fantastic, thoughtful, and exhilarating ride.
Memorable sequence: Suicide mission outside F-Unit
3. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
I didn’t necessarily know what I was getting into at the start of this movie. When it started, I was intrigued. As it went along, I was spellbound. When it ended, I was left breathless, as I am with each addition viewing. This movie is as brilliantly written and edited as any mystery thriller. Once you get a hold of what the movie is trying to do, trying to piece it together is nearly impossible since every moment and every word is so vital to the experience. There is no movie that is like Memento, and there probably never will be. If one attempts to copy its style, it will fail. This is a master class in inventive filmmaking.
Memorable sequence: Natalie (ab)uses Leonard
2. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004)
Words cannot express what I felt watching these movies for the first time. Volume 1 is an edge-of-your-seat action picture that does not give you a chance to breathe, but then the second one is a much quieter but equally intense experience. There was a time when I felt Volume 2 was the best movie I had ever seen. Making a movie where the audience knows about how long about the it is going to be because of obvious checkpoints (like a Death List Five) makes for an even greater and more exciting experience because it develops a paranoid-type energy, not knowing what is going to happen next, but knowing that something significant certainly will. This is just filmmaking at its finest, and Tarantino’s best movie by far. Hopefully Volume 3 will not spoil it. Just kidding... no chance QT would do that to The Bride and her story.
Memorable sequence: “Elle and I”
1. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
In terms of mystery thrillers, it does not get better than The Usual Suspects. You would think that the first time watching a movie like this (with such a complex puzzle of a screenplay and a twist ending) that it would not hold up on additional viewings. That would be incorrect. This movie only gets better. The first viewing makes for a furiously thrilling experience. After that, you notice more little things that add to the story, and everything can somehow maintain that level of uncertainty even when you know how it is all going to wind up. For a mystery to be able to accomplish that feat, it is something truly astounding. This used to be my #1 of all time, and every time I catch it on DVD or cable, I wonder why that ever changed.
Memorable sequence: Police trafficking “taxi service"
It may be a bit blasphemous to not mention “The Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock on a list of thrills, but other than Psycho (horror) and North by Northwest (overrated), I consider the majority of his movies as more mysteries of intrigue rather than thrills. What are your thoughts, comments, and most thrilling films? Post below.
Coming up next: Top 10 Laughs, my final ranking before unveiling my revamped Top 10 Films of All Time!