Most crime thrillers climax with the bad guy getting caught. Since Zodiac is based upon a real unsolved crime (correction: series of crimes), it’s no spoiler to say that justice doesn’t completely prevail in the end. In fact, it’s that lack of a tidy conclusion that makes Zodiac even more unsettling; it’s a serial killer movie about a real serial killer who may still be on the loose. David Fincher’s long-but-briskly-paced thriller is a tale of obsession, as political cartoonist-turned-amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) life is consumed by the search for the Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least seven people in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With remarkable period details, an exceptional cast (which includes Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Brian Cox, and Chloë Sevigny), and a nail-biting sense of dread throughout, Zodiac is one cold case that emits a white-hot intensity.
Trust David Cronenberg to turn the classic American pulp movie on its head and put the audience through an accusatory prism of violent fetish. Viggo Mortensen is at his best as seemingly small-town everyman Tom Stall, whose world is disrupted when he kills a transient hitman in self-defense and finds his sudden “local hero” status coming back to haunt him — in the shape of Ed Harris’ terrifying mob boss, a remorseless soul who may be connected to Stall’s past. Cronenberg’s mid-movie switch is surprising, but it’s the movie’s conclusion that buries an unforgiving bullet deep into the audiences’ brain.
There are few directors who can depict criminal intrigue quite the way Michael Mann does, having cut his teeth on TV dramas like Miami Vice and Crime Story, not to mention his widely loved heist film Heat. But it was the 2004 thriller Collateral that really showcased Mann’s keen sense of subtle tension, ratcheting up the stakes en route to an inevitable and explosive conclusion. Jamie Foxx stars as Max, a cab driver who unwittingly picks up hit man Vincent (Tom Cruise), who offers to rent Max’s services for the whole night. As Max chauffeurs Vincent from hit to hit, complications ensue, and Max soon finds himself deeply embroiled in Vincent’s murderous spree. An engrossing and provocative thriller, Collateral found Cruise and Foxx at the top of their games, even earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for the latter.
After a series of blunders, a man down on his luck hightails it out of country, where desperate times push him to desperate measures: guns, murder, affairs with classy dames. And just when everybody counted him out… Movie plot? More like the tale of Woody Allen earlier in the millennium, whose string of half-hearted, bumbling New York comedies encouraged him to skip on over to London and make his most electrifying movie ever: Match Point. Jonathan Rhys Myers stars as a retired tennis pro who stumbles into high society and marries into affluence, all as he attempts to keep his high-tension affair with a struggling actress (Scarlett Johansson) secret. Match Point is seductive and provocative, two words rarely used to describe Allen’s filmmaking, and seeing him dive into such uncharted territory makes the movie thrilling to the max.
The Coen brothers earned their first nomination for Best Picture for this none-more-black crime comedy, which effectively mixed their trademark strands of humor and existential dread to superior effect. Set in the snow-covered, eponymous North Dakota town, the story follows a low-rent car dealer’s scam to kidnap his own wife for ransom, a ploy which goes predictably awry when the thugs he hires bungle the job and a trail of murder and strange goof-ups ensues. William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are hilarious — and sometimes chilling — in their greedy idiocy, while Frances McDormand rightly won praise for her deceptively naive, and very pregnant, policewoman on their trail.
Heist movies typically focus most of their attention on the stickup job central to the plot; leave it to Quentin Tarantino to craft one that really doesn’t show you the heist at all. In his directorial debut, QT blazed out of the gates with a clever, gritty, alternative take on the genre, sticking with the high tension mind games that follow a bank robbery gone terribly wrong. With one member of their team suffering from a gunshot wound, a group of randomly acquainted thieves begin pointing fingers until it’s determined one of them must be a snitch. Throw in a cop taken hostage and a few surprising twists, and you’ve got a first-rate crime yarn that remains Tarantino’s highest Tomatometer-rated film to date.
Endlessly imitated but never bettered, Jean-Pierre Melville’s cool and measured heist thriller is a masterpiece of not only precise pacing but deadpan, sublimely efficient characterization — the kind of film in which a held stare or the tip of a fedora says more than a hundred modern mouthpieces babbling about pop culture. Alain Delon stars alongside an ensemble of disparate criminals brought together to stage a daring jewel robbery; along the way, he’s hunted by a cat-fancying, Bogart-channeling detective, played by Yves Montand. The slow, dryly humorous build up, as Melville again spins his love of American gangster pictures to wondrous effect, is one to savor, while the near-wordless, epically orchestrated heist itself is nothing short of breathtaking.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo teams him up with James Stewart once again in a strange, slow-burning thriller of acrophobia, double lives, and mysterious lives. Stewart stars as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a detective recently retired after his fear of heights directly results in the death of an officer. Scottie takes a job to tail and investigate a woman whose husband has concerns about her suspicious behavior. She visits the grave of a person she doesn’t know, stares at a portrait of a woman she’s never met, and she’s killed when Scottie’s acrophobia gets the best of him again. Case closed? Is there more to this story? Hey, what Scottie doesn’t know…
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist, is summoned to Vienna to attend the funeral of his good friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). There, he meets Lime’s girlfriend and the two men who carried Lime out of the street after he got fatally hit by a car. But as Martins extends his stay in Vienna, so does the deception. Stories and alibis stop adding up and there emerge reports of a third man who carried Lime out of the street. What crimes have been committed? Who wanted Harry Lime dead? Shot on location in post-World War II Vienna and featuring some of the most vivid lighting on film, The Third Man is also a masterclass in escalating tension, doubt, and mystery.
Fritz Lang’s haunting serial killer procedural is one of the great achievements of the early sound era, and its dark, sinister ambience has inspired countless tales of cinematic crime and punishment in the years since its release in 1931. Peter Lorre plays Hans Becker, an elusive child killer whose crimes set off a wave of fear and suspicion among the public. Both the police and the underworld are eager to put an end to the killings, and each use the powers at their disposal to capture Becker. M has many things to recommend it, from its dingy, dank atmospherics to its patient use of sound (you’ll never hear Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” the same way after watching M). But what keeps M from feeling dated is its perceptive, cynical take on human nature — it only takes one madman to knock a society completely off balance.