Best Thrillers and Psychological Films – TOP 20

Thriller is a film genre, the name of which comes from the English word “thrill”, meaning as much as “to electrify, to cause a thrill”. And it is this characteristic of the thriller that is its most important feature. We watch thrillers to be drawn into their inner, intricate world. Movies representing this genre are linked to the aesthetics of horror, but the source of fear, unlike in horror, is not supernatural evil, but the world around us. It is in it that the greatest danger lies. Research abuses, dishonest politics, misplaced feelings or false friends – these are real situations that become the motifs of thrillers. In turn, psychological films showing the dangers of mental illnesses are a special variety of them. Here is a selection of 20 thrillers and psychological films.

Thrillers construct a picture of the world on the principle of a maze, in which the hero-everyman, who identifies each person, wanders. At first this world seems safe and tame, but as the plot develops it reveals its other dark face. Most of the time the characters can only count on themselves to get out of the snares deceitfully set for them. The viewer gets the impression during the screening that evil lurks everywhere. A very important role in building tension in thrillers is played by the cinematography and soundtrack, emphasizing the growing danger.

Thrillers and psychological films

1. “Psycho”, 1960

Best thrillers - Psycho 1960

This movie by Alfred Hitchcock laid the foundation of the psychological thriller. The legendary film has received many analyses, and the scenes from it have permanently penetrated pop culture. The film tells the story of a young secretary, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who one day embezzles $40,000 at work. With the stolen money, she plans to start a new life elsewhere. While on the run, Marion stops at a small motel in a remote area, run by a shy man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). However, the owner of the boarding house has a serious mental disorder: every now and then, the personality of his childhood abusive mother takes over in the protagonist.

The Golden Globe Award-winning “Psycho” is a classic of the genre. The murder scene in the shower, the horror of which is emphasized by Bernard Hermann’s disturbing music, has gone down in cinema history. The film is a criminal intrigue and a study of a psychopathic personality in one. Hitchcock was clearly inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, tracing the sources of psychological abnormalities in the protagonist’s difficult childhood.

2. „All the President’s Men”, 1976

Best political thrillers - All the Presidents Men

An excellent political thriller – “All the President’s Men“, directed by Alan J. Pakula. This film is very much set in the context of 1970s America, and above all the famous Watergate affair. As a result of the investigation of two journalists of the “Washington Post”, the facts of wiretapping of opposition politicians come to light, which shake public opinion and lead to the resignation from office of President Richard Nixon. The film won four Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Production Design.

Excellent roles in the picture “All the President’s Men” were played by Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman, who played Carl Bernstein. Pakula’s film created a unique model of cinema telling about the momentous role of journalism and its real impact on the opinions of society, as well as the fourth power providing the pillar of democracy.

3. “Inception”, 2010

Best psychological films - Inception

This thriller is a showpiece by Christopher Nolan, a director known for his interest in the mysteries of the human mind. Here we see a world of the future, in which advanced technology makes it possible to penetrate the realm of human sleep and thus gain very valuable information. A master in this field is a certain Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, burdened by a traumatic past, gets a renewed chance to exist in the spy profession. He receives an assignment to implant a certain thought into a certain man’s mind.

Awarded four Oscars, “Inception” is a film refined to the smallest detail: acting, set design or music. The dream theory underlying the script is also well thought out. Together with the characters, we penetrate, as it were, into the structure of the human mind, wandering through its various nooks and crannies, alternately admiring and fearing its power.

4. „Prisoners, 2013

Best psychological movies - Prisoners

Another on our list of deeply memorable thrillers – “Prisoners”, directed by Denis Villeneuve. This is the story of a father driven to desperation searching for his kidnapped six-year-old daughter. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), disappointed by the lack of progress of the police investigation, decides to take matters into his own hands and recover the child himself. Coming to the conclusion that his neighbor Alex (Paul Dano) is the perpetrator of the kidnapping, he wants to use torture to force him to reveal the truth.

Great performances were created in “Prisoners” by both the lead actor and Jake Gyllenhaal, playing David Lokie, the detective in charge of the case. The small-town atmosphere, pastel colors emphasizing the depressive atmosphere of the space-time in which the action takes place, and the mixing of extreme brutality with religious rituals give this production a very specific character.

5. „Gone Girl”, 2014

Psychological thrillers Gone Girl

David Fincher’s excellent thriller based on the novel by Gillian Flynn is the story of the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a young married woman from a small American town. The woman leads a quiet life in the province, but on the day of her wedding anniversary she unexpectedly disappears. With more facts coming to light, Amy’s husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), is identified as the prime suspect in the case.

The film very interestingly captures, also present in the novel, the clash of two conflicting perspectives of view: the female and male. Numerous flashbacks allow us to see the same story through the eyes of Amy and Nick. It is difficult to judge which of the versions presented is true, which makes “Gone Girl” an extremely fractious story. What’s more, David Fincher very interestingly and innovatively creates a portrait of the main character, who is an ambiguous figure – one that can be interpreted in the feminist canon or quite the opposite: misogynistic.

6. „Shutter Island”, 2010

Psychological films - Shutter Island

“Shutter Island” is an excellent psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. The film is set in the 1950s, with the actor playing the role of Detective Daniels, who, together with his partner, arrives on an island in Boston Bay. This is because the investigators are investigating the mysterious disappearance of one of the patients of the psychiatric hospital located there. What happens on the island, however, will shock viewers and completely change their perspective on the whole case. Who is the patient here, and who is the law enforcer? What was the real reason for Daniels’ arrival on the island? The filmmakers offer viewers a whole series of puzzles.

“Shutter Island” refers to Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” from 1920. It provides a multi-level story about madness and the social stigma with which the sick are marked. The cultural odium of insanity makes the suspicion of mental instability, while it can become a dangerous tool for controlling people’s lives.

7. „Taxi Driver”, 1976

Top psychological thrillers - Taxi Driver

Another thriller by Martin Scorsese, a great classic of cinema – “Taxi Driver” directed by Martin Scorsese. The film tells the story of a Vietnam War veteran who works as a New York cab driver. The man drives only at night, thanks to which he gets to know the dark, different face of the city than during the day. It is a world of crime, prostitution and dirty business. Difficult past experiences and a peculiar personality make Travis Bickle unable to establish a normal relationship with a woman, so his attempt to enter into a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) ends in failure. He also tries unsuccessfully to help teenage Iris (Judie Foster) get out of prostitution. Finally, she decides on her own to “bring order” to New York.

“Taxi Driver” resulted in the legendary creation of Robert DeNiro – a mentally unbalanced loner in search of a life purpose. In particular, the scene in front of the mirror, when the character aims a gun at his reflection and makes the famous line “Are you talking to me?” went down in cinema history. It was also in this film that the beautiful music of Bernard Herrmann, who completed it just before his death, appeared for the last time. The picture won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and four Oscars.

8. „Memento”, 2000

Top 20 thrillers - Memento

Another psychological thriller on the list – “Memento” by Christopher Nolan. This is the mysterious story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who is trying to find the murderer of his wife. However, his investigation is hampered by the trauma he suffered, as a result of which the man lost his short-term memory. This disorder causes Leonard to remember the distant past and his wife’s murder accurately, while he cannot remember what happened the day before. The protagonist, in order to prevent the loss of the next stages of the investigation, secures his traces, placing everywhere in his apartment photos, notes and even tattooing his own body with important information.

“Memento” is a film in which Nolan presented a complex study of the mechanisms of human memory, as well as the impact of trauma on the functioning of the brain. Why do we remember some events with astonishing accuracy, and repress others into the deepest recesses of the subconscious? How to heal a psyche marked by the pain of irreparable loss? These are questions that are as important in Nolan’s film as the unraveling of a criminal mystery.

9. „Nocturnal Animals”, 2016

Best 20 psychological movies - Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” is an extremely dark thriller that combines criminal intrigue with psychological cinema. Wealthy and beautiful Susan Morrow, owner of an art gallery, one day receives a package with a novel by her ex-husband. Reading the extremely moving and brutal book causes the woman to begin to unravel the history of her first marriage and reflect on the mistakes of the past. The story of the novel’s characters, set on a highway in Texas, Susan reads as a metaphor for her own relationship. In the past, disillusioned with her husband as an unsuccessful aspiring writer, she abandoned him for a handsome, wealthy partner. In retrospect, however, the rightness of this choice does not seem so obvious….

“Nocturnal Animals” is a film with a fatalistic, dark atmosphere. Claustrophobic interiors, the predominance of nocturnal, disturbing scenery, images of the desert and frenetic music – all this builds a strongly acting on the emotions of the viewer image. Brutal crime is intertwined here with subtle metaphor, and the film does not let you forget about yourself for a long time.

Psychological thrillers

10. „The Game”, 1997

thriller top 20 - The Game

“The Game” by David Fincher is a classic of the thriller genre. Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) in his 48th family gets a mysterious gift from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). It is namely an invitation to a certain game. However, the thrilling challenge turns out to be very dangerous, as the game takes place in everyday life and no one knows its rules.

Fincher’s picture draws you into its inner world and engages the viewer on many levels. Indeed, the most important treatment of the film is the blurring of the boundary between the game and real life. The viewer also becomes one of its participants.

11. „We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2011

thriller top - We need to talk about Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s European Film Award-winning film “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a very interesting psychological analysis of the parent-child relationship and the depiction of extreme parenting crises. Kevin (Ezra Miller) has been an extremely difficult child since his birth. The mother-writer (played by Tilda Swinton) suffers seeing the boy’s complete indifference to both her and his father, and then his younger sister. One day a huge tragedy occurs….

“We need to talk about Kevin” is a courageous film, debunking the myth of motherhood as an innate, universal female disposition. The picture shows how difficult challenges face every parent and how hard it is to take care of a child with serious disorders.

12. “Unknown”, 2011

Film thriller top - Unknown

“Unknown” by Jaume Collet-Serra is a gripping thriller, starring Liam Neeson in the lead role. The actor plays the role of Dr. Martin Harris. A man and his wife come from the US to Berlin for a scientific conference. However, he has an accident on the spot, and when he wakes up in the hospital, it turns out that no one, including his wife, recognizes him. In addition, it turns out that someone is trying to kill him. The protagonist must therefore find out for what reason he lost his identity and what is really behind it.

“Unknown” is interesting not only for its striking twists and turns, but also for the clash between American cinema and European atmosphere. The labyrinthine space of the city, its underground face, Stasi agents and old methods of investigation, from before the digital age. These are all elements that set the film apart from other examples of the genre.

13. „The Lincoln Lawyer”, 2011

Psychological movies top - The Lincoln Lawyer

A very interesting thriller directed by Brad Furman. “The Lincoln Lawyer” is the story of a criminal puzzle faced by Mick Haller, a respected attorney famous for his effectiveness in defending clients. The protagonist has a laid-back lifestyle and drives a black Lincoln limousine. The man tries to keep a distance from his work and does not dwell on the guilt of those who hire him. However, everything changes when one day Mick is hired by a boy accused by a prostitute of beating him.

“The Lincoln Lawyer” is not only a good script and an interesting story, but also great acting performances, especially by Matthew McConaughey, who plays the main character. The romance plot is also developed here in an unconventional way. Starring alongside McConaughey was Marisa Tomei. The film is based on a novel by Michael Conolly.

14. „The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, 2011

Psychological thrillers list - The Girl with the dragon tattoo

The Oscar-winning “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an American screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s famous novel. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist is a well-known journalist. When he is accused of defamation, he decides to break away from the case and accepts an assignment from a wealthy industrial tycoon, Henrik Vanger. His task is to unravel a mystery from many years ago, when a young girl went missing under mysterious circumstances. It soon becomes apparent that a teenage hacker, Lisbeth Salander, was also involved in the investigation. The journalist’s investigation is growing wider and wider, and Vanger’s closest family seems to be involved.

In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” great performances were given by Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara and Robin Wright. The American screen adaptation differs from the Scandinavian one, especially in terms of aesthetics. The film has a specific atmosphere of the cold North, but attractive superstars were cast in the main roles, marking the story with a Hollywood style. Nonetheless, “The Girl with the Taurus” is certainly worth watching.

15. „Chinatown” (1974)

Psychological thrillers ranking - Chinatown

Chinatown” is a classic directed by Roman Polanski. Set in the 1930s and shot in the aesthetics of neo-noir, the crime film tells the story of a private detective, Jake Gittes. The protagonist is assigned to track down a certain wealthy and well-known engineer Murlway, whose wife suspects him of infidelity. However, when he manages to obtain evidence of the infidelity, the real Mrs. Mulrway comes to the office….

“Chinatown” with excellent roles of Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway went down in the history of cinema as an homage to the aesthetics of black cinema of the 1940s, and the characteristic features of the style of the director, Roman Polanski, can be seen here. So we have the inevitable fatalism of fate, loneliness and loss in the chaos of a complicated and dangerous world.

16. „Fight Club”, 1999

Thriller best - Fight Club

David Fincher’s excellent psychological thriller, “Fight Club still remains fresh and fun to watch. A young employee of an American corporation (Edward Norton), tired of the reel in which his life is going, begins to suffer from insomnia. One day he accidentally meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Rebellious against the norms of society, the man opens up a whole new perspective on the world to the protagonist. Together they set up an unofficial “fight club”, where men can fight boxing duels, regaining their lost will to live.

“Fight Club,” although belonging to the mainstream, is a film that presents a critique of the culture of consumerism and the pursuit of money. It shows the paradoxes of a highly developed civilization, in which man is constantly working to acquire more goods that he doesn’t even have time to enjoy. An additional flavor, meanwhile, are psychological tropes that give the story an ambiguous dimension.

17. „Se7en”, 1995

super thriller - Seven

Another David Fincher film on our list of best thrillers. “Seven” is the story of a complicated investigation by two police officers into a serial killer. The killer chooses as his victims people who break the rules formulated in the Christian catechism and commit one of the seven deadly sins. The intricate puzzle here, then, is to track down the meanderings of a psychopathic mind, but the investigators do not realize that they also play a certain role in the sick plan.

In the film, memorable performances were created by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Seven” draws you in and keeps you in suspense until the last moment, not allowing the viewer to breathe. It shows a world where no one can feel safe, and small dreams disappear brutally trampled by the eruption of human evil.

18. „Misery”, 1990

Horror thriller - Misery

This picture could not be missing from our list of the best thrillers and psychological films. “Misery”, directed by Rob Reiner, is a screen adaptation of Stephen King’s well-known novel. Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a widely read writer, author of a series telling the story of Misery Chastein. One day while traveling by car through a snowstorm, his car skids and gets into an accident. However, the injured man is saved by a passing nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who takes him to her home and bandages him up. It soon becomes apparent that the woman is a fan of Sheldon’s work. Annie, however, does not like the ending of the series and has no intention at all of letting the man out of her home anytime soon….

Kathy Bates was awarded an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her exceptional portrayal of a mentally unbalanced, almost demonic nurse. “Misery” shows how quickly a seemingly safe reality can turn into an extreme situation at any moment, in which a person will be forced to fight alone for survival.

19. „Fatal Attraction”, 1987

erotic thriller - Fatal Attraction

Adrian Lyne’s well-known film “Fatal Attraction,” starring the brilliant Glenn Close in the role of a mentally unstable woman who wants to destroy her former lover for rejecting her affections, today evokes sentimentality for the blockbuster era of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite having a satisfying family life, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), during his wife’s departure, cheats on her with a woman he meets by chance. When he later intends to step back into the role of an exemplary husband and father, it turns out that his lover Alex Forrest has completely different plans. The woman refuses to let go of the relationship, and when Dan painfully rejects her further advances, a hurt Alex decides to take revenge.

Lyne’s film is a thriller that sides with the traditional value system. It shows the disastrous consequences of marital infidelity, which can destroy a family and even lead to a threat to the lives of its members.

20. „The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

Psycho film - The Silence of the Lambs

One of the most perfect thrillers in the history of cinema. Awarded five Oscars, Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” is a superbly realized story of a criminal mystery that is entrusted to young FBI agent Clarissa Starling to solve. The girl is trying to find a serial killer skinning his victims. In order to find out the man’s motives, the policewoman seeks help from another killer in prison, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In the past he was a respected psychiatrist who transformed himself into a terrifying cannibal killer.

Thomas Harris’ novel has been brilliantly adapted to film by screenwriter Ted Tally. In addition to the superb acting, especially by Academy Award-winners Judie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, it’s worth noting Tim Galvin’s dark, gothic production design, Taka Fujimoto’s cinematography and Howard Shore’s music. The transformation of the main character into a strong and self-conscious woman plays an important role here, as well as the elaborate metaphors describing the phenomena of modern culture.


“Słownik filmu” pod red. R. Syski, Kraków 2010.

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