There ended up being a fair number of unique, pulse-pounding thrillers released this year. While not all of 2023’s best nail-biters were released in the same fashion or welcomed quite as well as others, either, each managed to offer completely different experiences to those who pressed play or took the time out to see them in the theater. Now, with the year in the midst of winding down, it’s worth looking back at some of 2023’s greatest cinematic offerings and honoring the ones that have made the biggest lasting impressions.
With that in mind, here are the year’s five best thrillers.
Aside from the next two entries on this list, there is no better pure thriller from this year than No One Will Save You. Writer-director Brian Duffield’s latest effort is the little sci-fi film that could. Saddled with a low budget and an unjustifiably lowkey Hulu release, the film quickly garnered the attention and admiration of critics and high-profile creatives like Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro. It’s not hard to see why, either.
Anchored by Kaitlyn Dever’s commanding lead performance, it’s a largely dialogue-free sci-fi thriller about an ostracized girl who finds her strength and salvation during an alien invasion. Nail-bitingly intense and more ruminative than many have given it credit for, there aren’t many thrillers from this year that are as straightforwardly gripping and entertaining as No One Will Save You.
One of the year’s most politically charged films is also one of its most thrilling. Loosely based on Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline follows a group of embittered misfits who team up to do exactly what its title says. The film is as upfront about its ideas regarding Climate Change as its title suggests, and that alone makes it feel rare. However, the brilliance of director Daniel Goldhaber’s direction lies in how he’s able to take a set of easily identifiable political beliefs and make them the foundation of what is essentially an Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist thriller.
Set largely in a Texas desert, the film is entertaining, thought-provoking, and almost sickeningly nerve-wracking. It’s one of the most well-rounded genre films of the year, and it cements Goldhaber’s status as a filmmaker we should keep our eyes on.
The Killer may not be the meanest film that director David Fincher has ever made, but it is certainly his leanest. The film is basically just a succession of hits carried out by its unnamed protagonist (played with disarming physical elegance by Michael Fassbender), but Fincher mines as much humor and tension out of each sequence as he can. In doing so, he delivers a film that is simultaneously simple and intricate — a love letter to the meticulousness that Fincher himself has become known for among cinephiles.
The fact that he proves to be just as in on that particular joke as everyone else is just one of the many pleasures that The Killer has to offer, which also include an unforgettably well-staged midpoint fight scene and a tongue-in-cheek final scene in which its director insists that, contrary to what he and everyone else would like to believe, he’s really not that special. In the end, The Killer argues that no one is, which is an undeniably ironic argument for a thriller that is so singular and hard-hitting to make. Such is the film’s beguilingly contradictory magic.
No other 2023 thriller renders the simple flow of information as rivetingly as Anatomy of a Fall. Writer-director Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner, which follows a woman who is put on trial for her husband’s mysterious death, is part character study, part courtroom thriller, and part social critique. Seeing how well it blends all of its seemingly disparate elements together is one of the most rewarding aspects of watching the film. That said, as compelling as Anatomy of a Fall’s many ideas about society’s treatment of women are, it’d also be a disservice to discuss it simply as a piece of political drama.
It is that, but it’s also an immensely entertaining thriller that unfolds so thoughtfully that each of its scenes manages to reveal new pieces of information for you to consider and contemplate. As a result, Anatomy of a Fall manages to pull off a rare trick: It makes the scenes set outside of its central French courtroom just as enthralling as those within it. You can’t say the same thing about many other mainstream courtroom thrillers.
Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film to date. Few could have predicted that would be the case when the movie was originally announced, but it only takes but a few minutes for the 3-hour epic to fully sweep you up in its propulsive race through one of the most important periods in modern history. Partly a JFK-esque neverending montage of information, memories, and details and partly a blockbuster the likes of which only a filmmaker as confident and experienced as Nolan could pull off, Oppenheimer is one of the year’s most viscerally affecting, stomach-churning films.
From its centerpiece Trinity Test sequence to its instances of visual and sonic disassociation, the thriller is overflowing with bone-rattling cinematic moments. To put it simply: No other movie this year has quite as infectious of a pace as Oppenheimer, and few have a knack for getting quite as far under your skin. If that’s not the mark of a great thriller, then we don’t know what is.