The best mystery and thriller movies of 2023 encompass a wide range of subgenres, from old-fashioned murder mysteries to hyper-violent revenge stories to twist-filled con games, and even a new take on the Western. Renowned directors like David Fincher and Kenneth Branagh brought their talents to new thrillers this year, while lesser-known filmmakers working with much smaller budgets demonstrated creativity and ambition within familiar genre templates. Here are 10 movies that provided this year’s best suspense, thrills, and action onscreen.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
In adapting Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book, director and co-writer Daniel Goldhaber cleverly crafts a riveting heist movie around Malm’s ideas about radical environmental activism. The result is a movie that functions as a suspenseful, well-paced thriller while also delivering its message in a more accessible, engaging format than a dry documentary. As a group of activists come together to sabotage an oil pipeline, Goldhaber uses flashbacks to fill in their motivations for taking such drastic action. The strong performances, propulsive score, and gorgeous 16mm cinematography draw the audience in, and the social commentary follows.
A modern-day social media-driven take on The Talented Mr. Ripley, director and co-writer Kurtis David Harder’s film is exhilaratingly unpredictable, with a fascinating breakout performance from Cassandra Naud. She plays a seemingly helpful and friendly American expat living in Thailand, who insinuates herself into the lives of travel influencers and takes over their identities. Harder deftly shifts perspectives multiple times, keeping the audience guessing about the main character’s motives and raising questions about the lines between people’s constructed online personas and their real existence.
Who’d have thought that B-movie staple Casper Van Dien would give one of the best performances of the year? He’s deeply unsettling as the patriarch of a sort of familial cult, living in isolation from what the man known as Father claims is a post-apocalyptic outside world. The title refers to the cult’s latest involuntary recruit, a woman Father forces to become “sister” to the son he’s raising as the supposed messiah. Set almost entirely within the nondescript suburban house where the cult members live, the movie creates a persistent sense of unease as the characters attempt to challenge Father’s authority.
Director David Fincher delivers a deadpan, wry take on the assassin thriller with this meticulously constructed action movie starring Michael Fassbender as a hired killer who’s targeted for elimination after a job gone wrong. The unnamed protagonist’s self-serving narration stands in contrast with the apparent messiness of his work. Fincher stages a brutal, expertly constructed fight sequence in a darkened Florida house, and he gives Fassbender and Tilda Swinton a tense and witty confrontation in a restaurant, but most of The Killer is about how things can so easily go sideways for even the most disciplined criminals.
A loose sequel to Aneesh Chaganty’s excellent 2018 thriller Searching, Missing (from writer-directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson) likewise takes place entirely on a computer screen, inverting the parent-child dynamic from Searching. This time, it’s a teenage girl (Storm Reid’s June) who’s looking for her missing mother (Nia Long), utilizing various online means including social media, dating apps, and the services of a gig worker (Joaquim de Almeida) in Colombia, where June’s mother was supposedly headed. Merrick and Johnson find ingenious ways to tell their story via the modes in which people now conduct their lives almost entirely online.
This twisty, star-studded con artist thriller went mostly unnoticed when it premiered on Apple TV+ in early 2023, but it’s worth a second look as a stylish, well-acted piece of misdirection. The story is told in multiple parts, with different participants in an elaborate grift alternating as the main characters, revealing hidden motivations and alliances as the movie goes on. Julianne Moore plays the girlfriend of an aging billionaire (John Lithgow), who’s at the center of a multi-pronged scheme in which no one can be trusted. Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, and Briana Middleton co-star in a fun, sexy game of wealth and betrayal.
A Haunting in Venice
For his third film featuring Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh wisely scales back, loosely adapting a lesser-known Christie novel and confining most of the story to a single, fairly modest setting. Branagh finds the right mix of spookiness and logic in this murder mystery set at a Halloween séance, hinting at the supernatural while keeping Poirot himself focused on clues and motives. Tina Fey makes a nice addition to the franchise as Poirot’s mystery novelist associate Ariadne Oliver, and Branagh proves that there are still plenty of avenues left for him to explore with Poirot.
Veteran music video director Anthony Mandler brings a moody, stylized approach to the familiar story of a taciturn loner facing off against a sadistic outlaw in the harsh, open landscape of the American West. Letitia Wright plays a former Union soldier posing as a man, whose plan to claim a piece of property left to her is derailed when a notorious bandit (Jamie Bell) attacks the stagecoach she’s traveling in. Wright gives a commanding performance, conveying the grit and determination of a woman who’s had cruel men mistreat and underestimate her for her entire life.
There isn’t much to the plot of this ruthless, efficient Korean revenge thriller, but there doesn’t need to be. Jeon Jong-seo plays former private security operative Ok-ju, who’s crushed to discover her best friend dead by suicide, leaving behind a note that she wants Ok-ju to enact vengeance on her behalf. Without hesitation, Ok-ju tracks down the criminals responsible for exploiting and trafficking her friend, teaming up with another victim along the way. Writer-director Chung-Hyun Lee crafts some wonderfully intense action sequences, with Jeon as an appealingly merciless agent of death against a cadre of unrepentant lowlifes.
Sympathy for the Devil
Nicolas Cage appeared in an astounding seven movies in 2023, and this pared-down slow-burn thriller captures him at his Cage-est. Director Yuval Adler sets Cage loose as the mysterious Passenger, an unnamed antagonist who carjacks a seemingly hapless man (Joel Kinnaman) on the way to the hospital for the birth of his child. As the Passenger forces Kinnaman’s David Chamberlain to drive from the lights of Las Vegas out into the desolate desert surroundings, Cage gives the kind of entertainingly unhinged performance that elevates a standard face-off between two shady characters into an often surreal, darkly amusing journey into the unknown.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.