As 2022 slowly gears up for major new movie releases, it’s the perfect time to look back on some of the best movies of 2021. The best thriller movies released in 2021 cover a range of subgenres, from film noir to action to Western, but they all excel at delivering suspense and excitement. Some were major theatrical releases, while others made quiet debuts on VOD or streaming, but all are worth watching. Here’s a rundown of the best 2021 thrillers for your catch-up viewing.
Coming Home in the Dark
“Dark” is the right word for this bleak kidnapping thriller from New Zealand, in which a pair of criminals accost a family on vacation, killing two teenagers and taking their parents hostage. Daniel Gillies gives a chilling performance as the lead kidnapper, who teases out his motivations on a long journey across desolate roads, forcing both the characters and the audience to confront harsh moral choices. If you liked this, consider reading Standoff.
Told in the Screenlife format in which all of the action takes place on a computer screen, Profile is a tense thriller about a British journalist who gets in over her head while investigating terrorist recruitment online. Amy (Valene Kane) poses as a young woman who’s recently converted to Islam, connecting with a charismatic Syrian ISIS member and potentially losing her own sense of self in the process. If you liked this, consider reading Beat the Devils.
Guillermo del Toro offers his take on film noir with a gorgeous new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, which director Edmund Goulding previously brought to the screen in 1947. Bradley Cooper stars as a manipulative grifter who rises up through carnival sideshow performances to become a popular nightclub mentalist. He cons his way into money and power, until he meets his match in a devious femme fatale psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett. If you liked this, consider reading The Hollow Ones.
Bob Odenkirk may be the last actor anyone would have expected to become an action hero, but he makes for a perfect unlikely badass in this fast-paced, entertaining action thriller. Odenkirk plays a former government assassin now settled down with a wife and kids, until a home invasion incident brings him back to his old violent ways. Nobody is full of creatively staged action, along with reflections on aging and masculinity. If you liked this, consider reading Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this gripping remake of an acclaimed Danish thriller, set almost entirely in a single room. Gyllenhaal plays an LAPD officer temporarily reassigned as a 911 operator. He becomes fixated on a call from a woman who’s being held in a car against her will, and the movie sticks with him as he frantically attempts to get her help, while also confronting the truth of his own misdeeds. If you liked this, consider reading NYPD Red 6.
Renowned character actor Tim Blake Nelson gets a rare leading role in this minimalist Western. Nelson plays the title character, a rancher who just wants to be left in peace with his teenage son, but is forced to confront a gang of outlaws when an injured man shows up on his land. Nelson makes for a perfect laconic Western hero, and Stephen Dorff matches him as a delightfully sneering villain. If you liked this, consider reading No Country for Old Men.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as real-life spy Greville Wynne in this engrossing espionage thriller. An unassuming businessman, Wynne is recruited by British intelligence as a go-between for a Soviet spy during the Cold War. As he gets more deeply involved in dangerous operations, he risks his comfortable home life for the sake of serving his country, and the movie portrays him as a man of uncommon integrity and fortitude. If you liked this, consider reading The Bomber Mafia.
Last Night in Soho
Director Edgar Wright explores the dark underbelly of swinging 1960s London in this stylish thriller, which pays tribute to everything from Italian giallo movies to the works of legendary British filmmaker Michael Powell. Thomasin McKenzie stars as a fashion student whose obsession with the ’60s leads her into increasingly nightmarish visions of a young aspiring singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) being mistreated and manipulated by the men around her. If you liked this, consider reading The Black Dahlia.
A solid, straightforward small-town murder mystery, The Dry benefits from its unique setting in the barren Australian outback. Eric Bana plays a big-city federal cop who returns to his rural hometown following the death of his childhood friend, then sticks around to investigate. Of course, the town is full of secrets, and the protagonist has plenty of his own. The movie builds steadily toward its revelations, remaining reflective when dropping bombshells. If you liked this, consider reading Getaway.
The Beta Test
Indie auteur Jim Cummings puts a unique twist on the Hollywood satire with this combination of dark comedy and conspiracy thriller. Co-directing, co-writing, and co-starring with PJ McCabe, Cummings plays an overbearing but insecure Hollywood agent who finds himself drawn into a bizarre conspiracy after he receives a mysterious invitation to an anonymous sexual encounter. The Beta Test’s plot is slightly incomprehensible, but Cummings’ freakouts are mesmerizing. If you liked this, consider reading A Man Named Doll.
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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 Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.