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The Best Thriller Movies Of 2020

Moviegoers weren't able to spend most of 2020 congregating in theaters the way we're used to, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, but streaming platforms stepped into the breach and offered audiences an alternative. The year still brought an abundance of new releases, and several of these titles fall under the thriller genre's broad and often ominous umbrella.

For those who love to take a scary cinematic rollercoaster ride, thriller movies come in all sorts of packages. There are suspenseful mysteries that inspire both sleuthing and scares, keeping viewers guessing until the end. Anxiety-inducing psychological stories can be full of bizarre scenarios that pit humans against one another in mental warfare. Supernatural thrillers derive their most fearful moments from forces beyond the earthly realm — these cause chills and inspire philosophical conversations. And sometimes, creators like to take their frightful stories in abstract and surreal directions to leave you feeling like you dropped your brain into a blender. Plenty of choices were been unleashed in for viewers who want their minds bent and their skin covered in goosebumps, and here's a look at the ones you can't miss. These are the best thriller movies of 2020. Film fans beware — watch out for spoilers!

Alone

Written by Mattias OlssonAlone is a remake of 2011's Gone, which Olsson also directed. Utilizing that original script, John Hyams (whose credits include action-driven TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Z Nation) took the director's seat to create the 2020 version. In this stripped-down story, a woman named Jessica (Jules Wilcox) is moving to a new home in the Pacific Northwest. From the few phone conversations she has as she travels, we are clued into the fact that she's leaving some sad circumstances. As she drives the secluded and woodsy roads to her new life, she encounters a character simply called Man, played by Marc Menchaca (who you may recognize as Russ Langmore on Ozark). He carries with him a very unsettling vibe, and Jessica — who can sense his oddness — tries to keep her distance. Escape becomes futile as he continues to pop up along her route. Ultimately, after he sets a trap on the road that she can't avoid, he kidnaps her and takes her to a remote cabin where she begins the battle for her life.

Critics narrowed in on Menchaca's ability to shift his character from a "damaged bird of a man" to a "hulking beast." Alone is a cat-and-mouse thriller that doesn't rely on any special effects or unnecessary frills to keep viewers tense and on edge. We get a glimpse into both sides of Man's life — one as a family man and on the flipside, a ruthless predator. Even though the title is Alone, this chiller is suited for a group viewing, possibly minimizing the movie's nightmare potential.

Run

Run director Aneesh Chaganty made his feature debut with Searching in 2018, which he also co-wrote. Both movies explore the parent-child relationship, but where Searching is more about parental concern in the age of technology, Run digs into outright abuse, mainly in the form of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome — the act of a parent or caregiver making up or creating an illness in order to control another person. The formidable Sarah Paulson is the mom in this scenario. She lives alone with Chloe, her extremely bright, wheelchair-using high-school-age daughter (Kiera Allen). As Chloe begins to scrutinize her mom's actions and intentions, she starts to wonder about the pills her mother is continuously feeding her and embarks on her own secret sleuthing mission — detective work that results in confirmation that her mother's actions are not in her best interest, and sets up a conflict in which Chloe is ready to battle for control of her own life. 

Run marks Kiera Allen's first film performance. The actor is also a writing student in NYC and has used a wheelchair in real life for several years. The way she brought Chloe to life was not overlooked by critics, who called her performance a "wildly impressive feature debut." 

His House

Remi Weekes directed His House, and, for fans and critics alike, he knocked it out of the park. The story, which combines supernatural and all-too-human horrors, follows married couple Bol and Rial Majur (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku) as they flee war-torn Sudan with their daughter. Their means of travel is a battered boat filled with a number of other refugees. The trip is perilous, even fatal: not everyone aboard reaches the landing point in England alive, including the Majurs' child. After a short stint in a detention center, the couple is driven to a house where they are to reside until the powers that be decide their fate. As they wait to see if they'll be granted immunity, they're challenged by further adversity: The agency handling their case is rife with service workers who lack empathy and compassion, and the house becomes the setting for a different type of terror, such as doors that open to reveal the faces of the dead refugees from the boat trip, as well as unidentifiable, jarring noises. 

Under Weekes' guidance, Dìrísù and Mosaku give exceptional performances as these tortured partners facing a multitude of internal and external demons.

The Invisible Man

A modern take from filmmaker Leigh Wannell on the H.G. Wells classic, The Invisible Man is equal parts science fiction and psychological thriller. The movie finds Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) being tortured and gaslit by her ex-boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver-Jackson Cohen), a wealthy optics engineer. Unfortunately, that type of abuse is a common occurrence, but this movie adds an unusual factor: Griffin has recently committed suicide. So how is he still finding ways to make her miserable and terrified? Is he haunting her from beyond the grave? Regarding the possibility of it being a supernatural haunting, Cecilia remains unconvinced. She sneaks into his home — where she also resided when they were a couple — to see if she can find any clues. As she hunts for something to prove her theory, she discovers a technologically-enhanced optical bodysuit that allows a person to go unseen. Though it confirms her suspicions that Griffin is still alive, she makes it her mission to prove it.

Fans of The Handmaid's Tale are aware of Moss's ability to portray a fiercely gritty character motivated by a need for justice. In The Invisible Man, she does nothing less. Even though it's easy to watch along and favor her suspicions, the movie does a great job of keeping up the suspense until all is revealed.

The Rental

Dave Franco had one director's credit on his resume before helming the feature film The Rental. His debut was a video starring himself and his wife Alison Brie — and Brie (Community, G.L.O.W.) stars in this one as well. If Franco is pursuing a career in full-length film direction, he started off on a good foot with this horror thriller in which two couples take a weekend getaway at a dreamy, oceanside rental and meet the property's caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss), who offends them right off the bat with his creepy demeanor and rude, racist comments. The houseguests are taken aback by his deplorable nature but figure they won't have to see him, so they carry on with their plans. That initial tension created by their unpleasant host starts to melt away as the couples settle in to enjoy the picturesque vacation spot — but the early drama is replaced by a new kind set of problems when too much partying leads to adulterous activity. Things get even worse when they discover that someone has installed cameras in the house and is watching — and recording — all their moves.

Franco keeps the movie on a steady pace, not rushing to the finish line for a payoff. Rather, he layers the movie's tension slowly, deepening the audience's anxiety as it grows. 

Shirley

2020 was clearly a big year for Elisabeth Moss and thrillers. She plays the title role in this story, a somewhat fictionalized thriller about mystery and horror writer Shirley Jackson, known for works like The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter of which modern viewers may know through the Netflix series it inspired. In Shirley, Rose and Fred Nesmer (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) are a newlywed couple who head to Bennington College, where Fred is going to do some work for literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rose, who is still a student, becomes fascinated by the work of Stanley's wife, Shirley Jackson. Shirley hires Rose to help her with some house tasks and eventually the young couple ends up moving into the Nesmers' home. The personal relationships become salty and complex, especially between Shirley and Rose.

Critics were positive about this depiction of Jackson's life, with Moss attracting no shortage of rave reviews, one even saying that this may be her best work thus far and noting that "she's brutally cutting but the pain of every slight ripples across her face."

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman hasn't directed every movie that he's written — the list of Kaufman scripts helmed by other directors includes Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — but he does get credit for writing and directing the psychological horror movie I'm Thinking of Ending Things. The title offers a summary of the perspective of an unnamed female lead played by Jessie Buckley who, as she travels with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents at their farmhouse, thinks about calling a halt to the relationship. In true Kaufman style, things get surreal from there. For instance, some the characters transform into versions of themselves at different ages. Hallucinations of maggot-infested pigs and ballet dance numbers add to the movie's depth of abstraction and unusual, compelling moments.

Toni Collette and David Thewlis also star in the movie, which gave critics an opportunity to mostly rave about Kaufman's ability to take an ordinary or universal scenario and morph it into a mind-twisting cinematic experience.

Black Box

Memory loss can run the gamut from frustrating, in less extreme cases, to completely devastating in more severe circumstances. As a subject, it has been explored in movies in an abundance of ways. In Black Box, a horror-meets-sci-fi mystery directed by Emmanuel Osei-Koffur, Maoudou Athie stars as Nolan, a father who loses both his wife and his memory in a car accident. Of course he's willing to go to great lengths to get an inkling of what his life was like before the accident. The movie's title comes into play when he meets Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), an innovative neurologist who suggests using a "black box" and hypnosis techniques to help take him back through his memories. When he complies and starts to take those mental journeys into his past, they aren't clear-cut looks at his life events — they're fraught with terrifying imagery.

Athie's performance gave critics a lot to praise, including his "ability to sensitively navigate the film's games of identity hide and seek." It's an interesting and look at the processes one would undergo to find out what kind of person they were before losing themselves.

The Assistant

The Assistant stars Julia Garner (Ozark) as Jane, a college graduate who hopes to be a film producer and takes a job as an assistant to a powerful studio executive who has clearly become accustomed to wielding his power over his staff. The film is a fairly quiet and understated look at a toxic workplace environment, but its subtle nature makes its reality no less disturbing. If anything, it exemplifies the internal terror a person goes through as they experience workplace injustice and feeling like they have nowhere to turn. Garner has proven her intensity repeatedly on Netflix's Ozark and just as she's been on that series, she's captivating here. Her commitment to the role impressed several critics.

Kitty Green directed The Assistant, bringing the skills that helped create thoughtfully crafted documentaries like Casting JonBenet fully to bear on this unsettlingly timely story.

The Occupant

In this Spanish thriller written and directed by David Pastor and Àlex Pastor, Javier Gutiérrez stars as Javier Muñoz, an executive who loses his job and is forced to sell his apartment due to his economic downfall. It's a mental and emotional drain to be uprooted to that extent and it takes its toll on Muñoz: When a new family moves into his former abode, he becomes obsessed with them to a dangerous degree. He follows the husband to an AA meeting and uses that as a way to start worming his way into the family's life, wreaking havoc by creating chaos. Obviously, his situation is not their fault in any fashion, but they become an outlet for his inability to accept his losses. Financial ruin is an obvious motivation for Muñoz, but even deeper than that is the erosion of self-esteem that comes from losing one's social capital. 

The Occupant earned favorable reviews, and among critics who praised the film, there's consistency in the acclaim for Gutiérrez, noting his "dedicated performance as the psychopath."

The Hunt

Horror and comedy team up for this thriller that features an all-star cast, including Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, and Ethan Suplee. In The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel, an internet conspiracy gone awry leads to a group of people waking up in a clearing to discover they're being hunted for sport. In this clever social satire, the hunters are a group of overprivileged liberals and the hunted, or "deplorables" as they're called in the movie, are working-class conservatives. Gilpin stars as Crystal, one of the hunted. When she develops a plan to turn the tables on her attackers, it changes the game.

The movie earned a number of favorable reviews, with Gilpin's powerful performance collecting a lion's share of the praise. From comments like "You can't shake her performance after seeing the movie" to "This is proof final that the G.L.O.W. star is a mesmerizing force," she obviously stands out and leaves a mark. Even though there's a tongue-in-cheek element to The Hunt, it never lets the audience forget its human stakes.

The Lie

Joey King fans who have gotten used to her primarily perky nature in Netflix's Kissing Booth movies can see an angstier side of the actor in the Blumhouse psychological thriller The Lie. King plays Kayla, the daughter of Jay and Rebecca, a divorced couple played by Peter Sarsgaard and Mireille Enos. On a drive to a dance retreat, she sees her friend Brittany sitting on the side of the road. She implores her dad to stop and give Brittany a ride; turns out she's also headed to the same retreat. The girls ask for another stop on the way, for a bathroom break. There's no place to stop on the route so they insist on running into a wooded area and after some cajoling, Jay gives in — a fateful decision that leads to tragedy, followed by Jay and Rebecca's efforts to cover up a crime. The tension in The Lie comes from seeing how one untruthful statement or action, once set in motion, can pick up steam and weave a web of lies that may never be able to be untangled.

Critics were on board with the way director Veena Sud plays with the mystery genre, evident in quotes like "I find myself more amused at Sud's impishness than annoyed at the film's own casual commitment to anarchy." For thriller fans, this is one 2020 release well worth watching — and that's no Lie.