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The Greatest Mystery Movies Of All Time

There's nothing like a good mystery to keep you invested in a movie's plot. You stare intently at the screen, studying each and every detail laid in front of you. Who knows what a piece of dialogue or key prop will reveal about the finale? It's no wonder why some of the best films of all time have placed a mystery at the center of their story that only the savviest of audience members could figure out before it's ultimately revealed.

And if you're in the mood for a good mystery, then you've come to the right place. From whodunnits to movies based on real-life mysteries, we've got you covered. Each one of the films on this list brings something special to the genre, and they're all must-watches for anyone who wants to consider themselves a cinematic detective. So grab your magnifying glass as we investigate the greatest mystery movies of all time. 

Memento's timeline will keep you on your toes

Anyone who loves Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy needs to go back to the film that really launched Christopher Nolan's career. Memento stars Guy Pearce as a man with anterograde amnesia, meaning he can't form new memories. He constantly forgets everything that happened within the last 15 minutes, so he has to use a complex system of Polaroids and tattoos to piece together information about who killed his wife. The movie received a ton of praise for its unique, nonlinear narrative structure, a concept Nolan would take with him to his other works.

The nonlinear structure is more than just a gimmick, though. It plays directly into understanding the central mystery of the film. You may think you already know who's responsible, but then, the movie pulls the rug out from under you, and you see exactly who these characters are. It's definitely not the kind of film you can watch while looking at your phone half the time. Every scene is crucial for setting up the next one, and it demands your attention throughout.

Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's best

If you want proof positive that Alfred Hitchcock was the master of mystery, then you need to watch Rear Window right away. It's a hugely influential film, and even if you haven't already seen it, you likely already know the plot. It's been parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Rocko's Modern Life. In the film, James Stewart plays a photographer confined to a wheelchair who one night hears the sound of broken glass and a woman shouting, "Don't!" He soon becomes convinced his neighbor murdered his wife, and now, all Stewart needs is proof ... which is hard to find when you've got a busted leg.

Rear Window is one of those films you can watch on repeat even when you know what's going to happen. The tension remains palpable for each viewing. After all, there's a good reason why the film consistently appears on lists ranking the best films of all time, and by the time it's done, you'll never trust any of your neighbors ever again. Just make sure you watch the original before any of the remakes, and that includes the 2007 film Disturbia, starring Shia LaBeouf, which basically stole its plot from the Hitchcock classic.

Clue's multiple endings are absolutely hilarious

It's hard to believe there was a time when audiences weren't clamoring for more movies like Clue. The movie flopped hard at the box office when it was released in 1985, and critics weren't kind to it. It seems as though decades ago, no one thought you could do much of anything with a movie based on a board game. However, fast forward 35 years, and it's become a cult classic that's remembered just as fondly for its sharp dialogue as its multiple endings.

If you tried to talk to anyone about Clue back in 1985, you were bound to be confused. There were three alternate endings with increasingly insane ways for the murder to have played out, and back in '85, different theaters showed different finales. Today, you can watch all three at your leisure with "Ending C" being technically the way things actually played out. This is the kind of movie you invite a bunch of friends over on a Saturday night and cackle with glee at the absurdity of it all. If you're going to make a movie based on a board game, there are a lot worse ways you can do it, especially when hilarious stars like Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and Michael McKean are involved.

Zodiac is a mystery movie filled with dread

Not all mysteries feature fast-paced dialogue and everything tied up in a bow at the end. But then again, you really shouldn't expect any happy endings when you watch a movie based on the infamous Zodiac. David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac follows the manhunt for the serial killer, and while the movie clearly presents an idea of who the Zodiac could've been, it stops just short of providing us with any kind of closure. Sadly, it seems as though this is one cold case that's going to remain cold.

Still, the film is wonderfully directed and features a trio of outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo. David Fincher is known for infusing pessimism and nihilism into his films, and Zodiac is no exception. There's always an uneasy sense of dread permeating every scene, set against the backdrop of an atmospheric San Francisco on the edge. It's the kind of film you want to watch over and over again just to see if there are any clues you missed the first time because who knows? The Zodiac Killer could still be out there.

Mulholland Drive feels like a dream

Brace yourself for the mind-bending narrative of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. A practically flawless movie, this twisty film follows a young aspiring actress played by Naomi Watts who arrives in Los Angeles and befriends a woman suffering from amnesia. It sounds simple enough, but the film also contains a Hollywood conspiracy, a mysterious cowboy, the world's scariest diner, and a series of vignettes following other characters. One reason for the supposed disjointed scenes is that Lynch originally conceived the movie to be a television pilot, but when it was passed over, he filmed additional materials to turn it into a feature-length film. 

At first viewing, the movie may seem to have an incomprehensible plot, which is often the case for much of Lynch's filmography. In fact, Mulholland Drive almost has the logic of a dream-like state, where something looks simultaneously familiar yet different. It's probably for this reason the DVD comes with a list of ten clues to help viewers decipher the plot. Clues like "notice appearances of the red lampshade" and "where is Aunt Ruth?" should help you get more out of your next viewing experience. But regardless of whether or not you can figure things out, the movie is absolutely mesmerizing and will lead you down a dark, Lynchian path.

Seven follows two detectives into the dark

If you can handle gruesome images and gore, then Seven is right up your alley. The movie follows a pair of detectives trying to track down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as motifs throughout his murders. What really makes the film work is how each scene heightens what comes before. Just when you think the movie can't get any more gruesome, it ups the ante, all before delivering a powerfully memorable finale. It also helps that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play off one another perfectly. Pitt plays a more short-tempered detective while Freeman often has to bring him back down to earth.

Like David Fincher's other great mystery film, Zodiac, there's plenty of pessimism to be found in the film, particularly in the shocking climax. But Fincher knows how to find a balance in the darkness. This balancing act can be seen crystal clear in Freeman's big line, which goes, "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." There may be darkness in the world, but that doesn't mean people should give up entirely.

The Big Sleep is one of the OG mystery movies

Anyone who wants to truly appreciate modern mysteries needs to take a step back to the days of film noir. A style popular back in the '40s and '50s, film noir often focused on detective stories characterized by heavy contrasts between darkness and light, nihilistic themes, and sultry femme fatales. And if you're looking for the crown jewels of the genre, one of the best films to come out of this period was 1946's The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

The film is based on the 1939 novel of the same name written by Raymond Chandler, one of the pioneers of detective fiction. The plot takes numerous twists and turns, but you're always drawn back in thanks to the electric chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Everything from the dialogue to the direction of the scenes crackles with energy, and even if you don't always know what's going on, you'll find yourself entranced by what's happening. It's a heavily influential film that spawned many of the characteristics we associate with the hard-boiled detective today.

Chinatown is an all-time classic

Plenty of noir films from the '40s and '50s set the stage for what the mystery movie could do. However, 1974's Chinatown instilled new life in noir pictures. The movie shows how filmmakers can make real-life places and events feel grander than reality. See, the film actually has some basis in reality. Chinatown draws inspiration from the California Water Wars that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, although the film presents a fictionalized account of those events. 

Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective who first investigates an adultery case on behalf of a wealthy socialite (Faye Dunaway). From there, he slowly discovers a vast conspiracy afoot in Los Angeles. It's one of those rare movies that operates superbly on every level. Nicholson and Dunaway bring electricity to their characters, and the screenplay is second-to-none, complete with one of the greatest endings and one of the most famous movie lines of all time. Whether you want to be a director, screenwriter, actor, production designer, or just love good films, this is one you don't want to miss. 

North by Northwest is a slick thriller with an epic action scene

A case of mistaken identity and a package of government secrets are surefire ingredients for a great mystery movie, and that's exactly what you get in North by Northwest. In this Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an ad man who's mistaken for a mysterious figure named George Kaplan. And since some very scary guys want Kaplan dead, this is bad news for our boy. Despite pleas of his true identity, Thornhill goes on an epic chase that sees him journey to Mount Rushmore to reclaim his life. Like many mystery movies, we're only told about the central driving force, the microfilm, in the vaguest of terms. Its purpose and how it could ultimately impact the country don't matter. All it's good for is moving the plot forward, and oh boy, what a fun plot it is.

Where North by Northwest really succeeds is in its pacing. New information is constantly brought to the forefront, adding new wrinkles to the story. It also has one of the best action sequences put to film, even to this day, featuring Cary Grant running away from an airplane.

Knives Out is one of the best whodunnits in years

By the time 2019 rolled around, audiences hadn't really gotten a good whodunnit in years. You could blame that on the fact that most audiences are savvy enough to have picked up on the tropes and knew to look out for red herrings. Fortunately for audiences, writer-director Rian Johnson understood these tropes all too well himself. That allowed him to completely flip the genre on its head and deliver one of the most satisfying and thrilling mysteries in years with Knives Out.

The film plunges viewers into a tale of murder and intrigue after a world famous mystery writer (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion. While his well-to-do relatives and dedicated nurse (Ana de Armas) all believe he committed suicide, legendary detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. Not to give anything away, but Knives Out completely subverts your expectations. Just when you think you know where the story is heading, it takes a hard left turn and makes you question everything you believed before. Combine that with some savvy political commentary, and it's easy to see why Knives Out will stand the test of time. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an icy mystery movie from David Fincher

How familiar are you with Nordic noir? This is a specific subgenre of noir films and television shows that originated in Scandinavia. It typically features morally complex characters and bleak landscapes. Its influences have started to make their way over to the States with the help of one of the most widely regarded mystery books/films of the last decade, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It's a bleak, unforgiving movie, but of course, you'd expect nothing less from David Fincher. The plot follows a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who's forced to team up with a Goth hacker (Rooney Mara) to catch a killer of women. Their quest leads them into the depths of a mysterious family with a sordid past, and the movie is just as cold as its snowy landscapes. While the film was highly praised and earned a decent amount of money at the box office, a sequel was never greenlit. It's a shame, too. Fincher, Craig, and Mara could've had a blast further exploring the world that was further fleshed out in the subsequent novels. If you want to see the entire trilogy put to film, you'll need to track down the Swedish versions.

Mystic River is a brutal film with a shocking ending

It's 1975, and three young boys are playing in the streets of Boston. But after one of them is abducted, their world is turned upside down. Over 20 years later, the incident comes back to haunt the three friends when a local girl goes missing, and it seems like one of them is the culprit. That's the plot to Mystic River, a movie that's incredibly brutal, but the all-star cast helps keep you engaged all the way through. Starring the likes of Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, and Marcia Gay Harden, the film also packs plenty of star power behind the camera. The film was both directed and scored by Clint Eastwood. That's right. Eastwood has scored quite a few films over the years, too. 

It's all about the characters in Mystic River, and the film could be viewed as much of a character study as it is a murder mystery. The movie often utilizes close-ups, so you can see every detail of a person's face. You see how they react to each depressing detail, and it really places you in the the mindset of these cops, crooks, and everyday citizens. Plus, the ending is a total gut punch. Make sure you're in the right headspace before watching this one. It's a good way to turn your sunny disposition sour.

The Nice Guys is absolutely hilarious

A lot of mystery movies are downright depressing, but every so often, you get one that's more comedy than cruelty. For example, take The Nice Guys. It's an underrated gem from Shane Black, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as an enforcer and a private eye, respectively, trying to figure out who murdered a porn star. Yes, there's still death, but you'll often find yourself laughing through all the destruction. 

One thing you'll realize when watching this is that Ryan Gosling is one of the most underutilized comedic actors of this generation. His timing is impeccable, and there's one particular sequence showing he knows his way around some physical comedy. And believe it or not, Crowe keeps right up, proving the former action star has some serious comedy chops. It's a delight, and you'll only be disappointed that the movie pretty much sets up a sequel that likely won't come to pass. 

The Third Man is a fantastic film starring Orson Welles

Orson Welles is best known for making Citizen Kane, widely considered to be the greatest film ever made. However, Welles was no one-trick pony. You'll realize what a solid actor he also was by watching The Third Man, a film noir (directed by Carol Reed) about an American (played by Joseph Cotton) in a foreign land, trying to uncover the truth behind his friend's death. He has to navigate a post-war Vienna, but tragedy seems to follow him everywhere he goes. And it all leads up to one of the best reveals in movie history.

The Third Man popularized numerous filmmaking techniques, including the Dutch angle. While many films will incorporate this angle just for fun, Reed understood the power it held. The frequent Dutch angles emphasize how confused the protagonist is as he investigates a dark event, really putting us in his shoes. There are also plenty of pertinent themes about how we don't always understand as much as we think we do. It's easy to see why this film has remained a fixture in film studies classrooms.

The Maltese Falcon is the ultimate example of film noir

If you wanted to make a great detective movie back in the day, then you needed to cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, and the man gave one of his all-time best performances as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston and based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is the quintessential film noir detective movie, in part because it established so many plot devices for other films to borrow from. You have Mary Astor playing the typical femme fatale, while the titular Maltese Falcon statuette makes for a perfect MacGuffin. On top of all that, Bogart stars as the cinematic ideal of the hard-boiled private eye. Plus, he delivers maybe the greatest line in movie history. With its sharp dialogue, twisty plot, and iconic characters, The Maltese Falcon continues to influence films made to this day, making it essential viewing for all aspiring filmmakers or film students.