The best way to escape the reality of a long and difficult year is to settle in with a good mystery, whether that’s on the page or on the screen. Unfortunately, the nature of 2020 has meant that fewer good thrillers have hit theaters this year, and so we’ve been left sifting through streaming services and VOD platforms in search of our latest mystery fix.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great crime and thriller pictures released this year, though—just that they’ve been a little harder to find. Fortunately, your mystery-loving friends at Murder & Mayhem have rounded up the very best movies that found their way onto the big and small screens in 2020. Below, discover our definitive ranking of this year's best mystery and thriller films.
Remaking Rebecca—an Alfred Hitchcock classic based on a Daphne du Maurier novel—is a bold move. And Ben Wheatley is an interesting choice to do it. While the result may not quite live up to the original, it is at least sumptuous to look at, and provides some solid escapism material for mystery fans in the midst of 2020.
12. Body Cam
For those who enjoy some supernatural shenanigans mixed in with their police procedurals, Body Cam is a must-watch. This horror-tinged murder mystery about police corruption doesn’t always connect every dot of its socially-conscious themes, but it certainly aims high, and Mary J. Blige is solid in the lead. Plus, at a lean 96 minutes, Body Cam gets in, gets the job done, and gets out, leaving you plenty of time to doom-scroll Twitter afterward.
11. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
From writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York), it may come as no surprise that I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t exactly a standard-fare mystery/thriller. Yet this story of an unnamed young woman (Jessie Buckley) whose visit to her boyfriend’s parents’ home leaves her questioning much of her life has polarized audiences. The movie enjoys an 81% overall rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critics’ consensus praising the cast’s “stellar performances,” yet has only a 47% audience score.
It may be auteur director Christopher Nolan’s most poorly-reviewed film to date, but Tenet still “serves up all the cerebral spectacle audiences expect,” according to the critics’ consensus over at Rotten Tomatoes. Some elements of the “telling the story backward” angle may seem familiar to fans of Nolan’s early work, and the emotional beats beneath the polished exterior may come off a little cold, but there’s plenty of visual style and brain-teasing enjoyment to be had in this big-budget puzzle box of a movie.
9. The Devil All the Time
With an impressive cast of young leads, this Netflix original is compelling, but when it dives into the harrowing moral darkness of small-town Americana, it can be bleak “to the point of punishment,” according to Rotten Tomatoes, where critics agree that the film’s cynicism is offset by “strong work from a stellar cast.”
It’s been a good year for Elisabeth Moss (has to have been a good year for someone, right?), who also had a starring turn in one of the year’s best horror movies, Leigh Whannel’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. In Shirley, Moss gets the enviable task of portraying Shirley Jackson, one of the all-time great horror writers, in a fictionalized biopic that’s equal parts history and homage to Jackson’s one-of-a-kind work. Moss gives a teeth-baring, scene-stealing performance as the author whose life begins to imitate her art in this twisty tale.
7. Enola Holmes
Not every mystery movie needs to be dark or bleak; sometimes there’s room for the charming, the cozy, and the just plain fun. That’s where this lighthearted picture about the teenage sister of Sherlock Holmes comes in, featuring Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame as the eponymous Enola, and Henry Cavill as her big brother Sherlock.
6. La Llorona
We’re back to mixing ghosts in with our thrills, but if you don’t mind a few specters in the corners, then Shudder’s shivery thriller about a deposed South American dictator who has to answer for his crimes—both in court and in his own home—has more sociopolitical heavy-lifting than it does jump scares. Not that there aren’t plenty of chills before all is said and done, too…
5. Lost Girls
Director Liz Garbus got her start as a documentarian, and it shows in this raw story of a woman whose search for her missing daughter leads to a gated Long Island community and a string of cold case murders primarily targeting sex workers. Anchored by “powerful performances and a willingness to resist easy catharsis,” according to the critics’ consensus at Rotten Tomatoes, Lost Girls brings a documentary vibe to this tale, which is based on the true story of the Long Island serial killer.
An intense and minimalistic thriller from the director of two Universal Soldier films might seem like an unlikely title to be one of the best mystery/thrillers of the year, but Alone’s grounded approach, small cast, nonstop suspense, and strong lead performance make it a tense and pulse-pounding watch. You don’t have to take our word for it, though. It’s Certified Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s earned a 94% rating!
A 2019 festival darling, this unsettling story of domestic ennui got a wide release in 2020 so the rest of us could finally enjoy it—if “enjoy” is, indeed, the right word for such a disturbing psychological journey. Haley Bennett steals the show as a woman with a seemingly perfect marriage who develops an irresistible urge to consume inedible objects when she becomes pregnant. It’s a slow burn, but this twisty psychodrama goes to some dark, dark places before all is said and done.
2. The Vast of Night
What do you get when you combine UFO conspiracy theories, paranoia, old-timey radio DJs, a 1950s setting, and deliciously lo-fi filmmaking? If you’re very lucky, you get something like The Vast of Night, an impressive sci-fi/mystery debut from director Andrew Patterson that rests on strong lead performances and is long on style, despite its miniscule budget.
1. Disappearance at Clifton Hill
It played on the festival circuit in 2019, but for most of us, 2020 was our first opportunity to catch Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill. Featuring a Niagara Falls setting, an engaging mystery, stylish visuals, and an aggressively unreliable lead played to the hilt by Tuppence Middleton, Clifton Hill also features David Cronenberg as a conspiracy theory weirdo who hosts a podcast out of the basement of a diner shaped like a flying saucer. What more could you possibly want in a film?
Featured still from "Lost Girls" via Netflix