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These Are The Only Near-Perfect Thriller Movies According To Metacritic

When your pulse is pounding, your heart is in your throat, and you could cut the narrative tension with a knife, you know you're watching a thriller. Also called suspense films, these are movies that use time-honored cinematic techniques to keep viewers on the edge of their seats with their eyes glued to the screen. The thriller is also one of the most historically important genres in film history: Many of cinema's greatest innovations, which modern audiences take for granted, were developed for use in thrillers.

This is a big part of the reason why most of Metacritic's highest-rated thrillers — in this case, the 15 films that have a metascore of 97 or higher — are from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, with only one of them made more recently than 1972. These thrillers represent a broad, foundational genre, intersecting with and influencing everything from heist movies to science fiction. Take a deep breath, steady your nerves, and remember that it's only a movie as we dive into Metacritic's greatest thrillers of all time!

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

"Battleship Potemkin" is one of the first thrillers ever made. A silent movie designed to be accompanied by music, "Potemkin" was directed by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and boasts an intriguingly dual-natured origin. It's a government propaganda film, commissioned specifically to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1905 Russian Revolution and the actual Potemkin uprising, a key event on the road to the 1917 Russian Revolution. "Potemkin" also clarified and ultimately embodied Eisenstein's trailblazing theories of montage and film editing. 

On both fronts, it was an unqualified success: Eisenstein's editing techniques create intense tension through juxtaposition, and laid the bedrock for the future of cinema. The end result is such an effective call for revolution that it was banned in several countries, for fear that the audience would be compelled to take up arms after watching it. In particular, the legendary "Odessa Steps" sequence is one of the single most influential montages in film history, and has been referenced in everything from "The Godfather" to "Revenge of the Sith."

Psycho (1960)

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock introduced the world to serial killer Norman Bates, one of cinema's best-known antagonists. By telling his twisted story, Hitchcock directly challenged the censorship practices of the era with the film's vivid depictions of violence and sexuality. "Psycho" is considered by many to be the first slasher movie, its success providing the foundation for an entirely new-sub genre that would go on to sweep the industry. "Psycho" also established Hitchcock as a master of horror, a genre closely related to, and often overlapping with, thrillers, though almost none of his previous work could be classified as horror.

There are many elements that speak to the genius of "Psycho," but perhaps none is greater than the central bait-and-switch of its narrative arc. Hitchcock spends the first half of the movie getting the audience firmly on the side of Janet Leigh's Marion Crane, a young woman who skips town after stealing from her boss. Crane is obviously the film's protagonist, which makes it utterly shocking when she's murdered halfway through the movie in the notorious shower scene. Said scene is one of film's most famous: 2017 saw the release of "78/52," an entire documentary about "Hitchcock's shower scene."

Rififi (1955)

The genre thrillers overlap with most famously is crime. Jules Dassin's "Rififi," a French film noir the American Dassin made after becoming a victim of the infamous Hollywood blacklist, is one of the original heist movies. It is most notable for a 28-minute scene in which the four criminal protagonists chisel through a ceiling and drill into a safe, all in the absence of either music or dialogue. The total lack of any sound other than what's made by the thieves' tools in this scene invests it with a natural suspense. This renders the audience, in the words of Roger Ebert, "conspicuously hushed in sympathy." 

Almost more interesting is the fact that "Rififi" is an adaptation of a novel by Auguste Le Breton that Dassin absolutely hated. Tasked with adapting a book he detested, he decided to expand the novel's brief heist scene into that now-legendary silent sequence that takes up a quarter of the film's running time. This allowed Dassin to simply ignore large portions of the original story — and end up in the annals of film history.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

If there's one thing you can say about Stanley Kubrick, it's that his films are unique. Indeed, there's nothing quite like "Dr. Strangelove." Thrillers tend to be smaller, personal stories, the suspense coming from the audience's investment in whether the protagonist will succeed or fail (or live or die). "Dr. Strangelove" raises the stakes, crafting a narrative in which the suspense comes from whether or not the world will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. 

Skipping back and forth between three different situations, Kubrick's screenplay weaves together three sets of characters who are completely independent from one another, but whose actions are intricately interwoven into the larger tapestry of global annihilation. These three storylines pass the suspense baton around: One seemingly finds a solution while the next encounters a setback, and all three slowly escalate toward three distinct kinds of madness. To top it all off, it still somehow manages to be a comedy, the events of the film made no less hilarious by their inevitably apocalyptic result. "Dr. Strangelove" is a bleakly absurd celebration of, and eulogy for, the human condition.

The Third Man (1949)

Carol Reed's "The Third Man" is considered one of the greatest British movies of all time. Now, this list is populated largely by auteurs: Hitchcock, Kubrick, del Toro, and other filmmakers who exercise almost total creative control over their work. "The Third Man," in contrast, is very much a collaboration. It was produced by the legendary David O. Selznick, and boasts a screenplay by the celebrated English novelist Graham Greene and a brilliant score by Austrian composer Anton Karas, which heavily features the zither. 

But it is Reed's implacable creative vision that drives the film. Unconventional angles and lighting uniquely capture the shattered streets of Vienna, the perfect backdrop for a story about an American author who gets sucked into Europe's seedy underbelly in the wake of World War II. The cherry on top is Orson Welles, who provides a historic performance as Harry Lime, one of cinema's greatest villains. He is presumed dead for most of the film, before he makes his iconic entrance and delivers his unforgettable "cuckoo clock" speech.

Metropolis (1927)

Few films are as singularly influential as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." One of the earliest works of cinematic science fiction, it left a permanent mark on the genre, providing the template for how we still see futuristic cities, dystopian societies, mad scientists, and robots. It was also the most expensive film of its era, with revolutionary special effects and sprawling set pieces featuring thousands of extras. All of this was overseen by the fanatical Lang, who took the concept of the domineering auteur to maniacal extremes. 

Like many films on this list, "Metropolis" is a political thriller, though the exact ideological themes of the movie are subject to debate. Made in Germany under the Weimar Republic, it appears initially to support communism, but those themes are undermined by the ending, which some see as leaning in a more fascist direction. Indeed, Thea von Harbou, the film's screenwriter (and Lang's wife at the time) supported the Nazis. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels liked "Metropolis" so much that, after Hitler's rise to power, he asked Lang to lead the German film industry. This resulted in Lang fleeing the country — and divorcing von Harbou.

North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock is exceptionally well-represented on this list, but 1959's "North by Northwest" is unlike many of his other films, and serves a different function in history. It's still very much a thriller, and recognizably Hitchcockian in that it sends its protagonist staggering through a tangled web of crime, intrigue, and mistaken identity. But in its overall tone, it resembles nothing so much as an early action movie. It's been noted that "North by Northwest" can be considered an antecedent to the modern idea of the summer blockbuster. It specifically paved the way for the James Bond films – so much so that its star, Cary Grant, was originally approached to play Bond in 1962's "Dr. No" (he turned it down). 

"North By Northwest" has a stronger commitment to keeping things light and funny than many Hitchcock movies. While Hitchcock's distinct sense of menace can be clearly felt, particularly in the scene where Grant's character is attacked by a crop duster, it's the moments of pure spectacle, like the climactic chase atop Mount Rushmore, that tend to be better remembered.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

By far the most modern film on this list, "Pan's Labyrinth" is also the only work of fantasy, a genre that's perhaps less associated with thrillers than any other. But in the hands of Guillermo del Toro, a dark, twisted fairy tale combines seamlessly with the political intrigue of Francoist Spain. What results is an absolutely heart-stopping film in which the grotesquely supernatural both mirrors and complements the brutally mundane.

Del Toro plays with a different kind of suspense in each storyline. In the fairy tale, the young protagonist, Ofelia, must complete a series of tasks to take her place in a fantastical realm. This tension begins pulling in a different direction as the creature giving her instructions becomes more and more sinister. The world of adults, meanwhile, is dominated by the ruthless Captain Vidal. The suspense in this story follows the heroic revolutionary Mercedes, who has infiltrated Vidal's camp. A third source of tension takes over as the events of the two plotlines draw closer together. It's expertly done, and del Toro's place among the thriller giants is very much secured.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The earliest Hitchcock movie on this list, "The Lady Vanishes" is one of the most historically important entries in the Master of Suspense's filmography. Incorporating numerous elements which would eventually become seen as Hitchcockian, it specifically foreshadows "North by Northwest" as a spy thriller with strong comedic sensibilities that takes place, at least in part, on a moving train. It's also part of a legacy of films that feature a lone protagonist surrounded by people who mysteriously fail to remember events or characters the protagonist knows to have been real: The crowning achievement of this trend is 1944's "Gaslight," which spawned the term "gaslighting." 

Most importantly, the commercial success of "The Lady Vanishes" launched Hitchcock's American career, as it caught the attention of David O. Selznick. Selznick subsequently drew Hitchcock across the Atlantic to make "Rebecca," a crucial step in his becoming the filmmaker we remember today.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Of all the movies near the top of this list, "Touch of Evil" is perhaps the most surprising. Back in 1958, it was a critical and commercial failure, regarded as a mess of a film noir whose baffling plot couldn't be saved by director (and co-star) Orson Welles' admittedly fancy cinematography. The film critics and audiences saw, however, was not the film Welles had intended them to see. Universal-International heavily re-edited the movie prior to its release, to the extent that Welles felt the need to write a 58-page memo explaining what his version would have looked like. Welles was already notorious for fighting with studios over creative control, and "Touch of Evil" proved to be the last straw — it was the last film he directed in Hollywood.

Fortunately, critical regard for "Touch of Evil" grew in the decades that followed, and in 1998, the film was re-edited based on Welles' memo. Today, it's seen as an undisputed classic, a movie defined by its unparalleled visual flair, encapsulated most memorably in the three minute opening scene that unfolds via a single heart-pounding camera shot.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Charles Laughton's directorial debut, "The Night of the Hunter" is another thriller that went unappreciated when it first arrived — so much so that Laughton, who is much better known as an actor, never directed a film again. Looking back on it now, however, it's easy to see why it was eventually so influential. 

The beating heart of "The Night of the Hunter" is Robert Mitchum, famed for his work portraying villains and antiheroes. His ghoulish Reverend Harry Powell is a singularly terrifying figure: He's a man whose religious delusions lead him to murder and deceit, yet whose charisma holds everyone he meets in the palms of his hands (which, for the first time in film history, are tattooed with the words "love" and "hate" across the knuckles). His pursuit of the movie's young protagonists is a legendary piece of suspense filmmaking that has inspired countless imitators and still holds up today. Laughton engages in some interesting (if muddled) themes involving sexuality and religion, but Mitchum's personification of evil is the main attraction.

Notorious (1946)

"Notorious" lives up to its name, broadly considered to be a major turning point in Hitchcock's career. Like "North by Northwest," it's a spy thriller starring Cary Grant, and it shares the same James Bond-ish DNA of romantic political intrigue. But "Notorious" reaches uniquely spectacular heights, weaving a tale of a post-World War II love triangle between two spies on opposite sides (Grant and Claude Rains) and the double agent they both love (Ingrid Bergman). 

Going over every cinematic innovation and scene in "Notorious" that went on to influence generations of future filmmakers would take far too long — that in and of itself is a compliment. Beyond those achievements, however, the winning essence of "Notorious" lies in the alchemy between the performers, Hitchcock's groundbreaking direction, and a script by Ben Hecht that flawlessly builds the relationships between the three main characters and their relationship to espionage itself. It also has one of cinema's best endings, with a final, brutally suspenseful sequence that concludes with the greatest possible payoff.

Vertigo (1958)

Every 10 years since 1952, "Sight and Sound," a magazine published by the British Film Institute, conducts a poll of the world's leading film critics to determine the 10 greatest movies ever made. The magazine's second poll in 1962 crowned Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" as the best film of all time, and it held that position for 50 years. In 2012, however, a new king of cinema was crowned: "Vertigo," Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece, his final collaboration with star Jimmy Stewart, and the absolute pinnacle of his work in the themes of mistaken identity and the relationship between love and death. 

Spoiling this film for anyone who hasn't seen it should be a criminal offense, so we won't. Suffice it to say that, like most of Hitchcock's films, it's a murder mystery, but the murder in question is incidental, a device that keeps the plot in place. The real mysteries being explored in "Vertigo" are those of its characters' psyches, as their various traumas, deceptions, and obsessions feed into a shifting, dream-like narrative where nothing is as it seems and the final antagonist is the mind itself.

Rear Window (1954)

This Hitchcock movie is another unusual murder mystery. Here, the mystery has nothing to do with the identity of the murderer — there's only ever one suspect. Rather, the mystery of "Rear Window" involves whether or not the murder took place at all, and if it did, can it be proven? Even then, that mystery isn't the thing that makes "Rear Window" one of the greatest thrillers ever. Its suspense comes from the fact that the main character, Jimmy Stewart's adventurous photographer L. B. Jefferies, spends the entire movie in a wheelchair with a broken leg, piecing the clues together while voyeuristically spying on his neighbors and sending his caretaker and girlfriend out to do the dirty work. 

Movies often ask you to identify with the protagonist. Few movies, however, have the brazen audacity to literally place the protagonist in the audience's position of helpless observer, watching events unfold through a camera lens while unable to change what happens. In this, "Rear Window" is both a commentary on and a celebration of the movies themselves — and the ultimate suspense thriller.

The Godfather (1972)

With one or two exceptions, every other film on this list is from the Golden Age of Hollywood or earlier. Few of them were critically successful upon initial release, and even fewer commercially so: Thrillers were the dark underbelly of early cinema, foundational but unrecognized. The genre was a place where auteurs whose genius would go unacknowledged for years refined the techniques that made movies work, while more profitable productions like musicals sustained the industry financially.

"The Godfather," one of the foremost classics of Hollywood's post-Golden Age "New Wave," is an exception to all of that. Francis Ford Coppola's seminal crime thriller was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning three (including Best Picture). Hailed almost universally as a masterpiece, its influence on cinema cannot be overstated. Not only did it provide the template for every Italian mafia story for the next 50 years, the filmmaking techniques used, particularly in the editing process, are nothing less than legendary. Most famously, the climactic baptism montage, in which Marlon Brando's Michael Corleone becomes a baby's godfather as his enemies are brutally executed, hammers home the corrupt transformation of the main character. In this, the film embodies the New Wave's rejection of traditional Hollywood happy endings, and leaves the viewer disturbed, rather than merely entertained. After decades in the shadows, the thriller genre had, at long last, ascended.