In the case of crime dramas, what hooks us in first? Could it be the personalities of those we watch solve these cases? Not all of them are the dry, studious types who can’t inject a little flair into the proceedings – though one must always be certain the job is a success. Or could it be the nature of the investigations themselves? Each one is bound to have a few twists and turns, especially for the purposes of popular narratives. We get wrapped up in every new lead, red herring, and possibly new victims, and hopefully it all leads to a satisfying conclusion.
From the smoky film noir parlor rooms of the 1940s to the murder mysteries both factual and fictional, plenty of detective stories have left their mark on cinema. Whether it’s a charismatic lead, a winding narrative, or both, these 20 features are only a small fraction of this great genre, though they represent the best of the best. Here’s Screen Rant’s take on the 20 Best Detective Movies Of All Time.
1 THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)
Few detective stories are as brutally aberrant as Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and for that reason, perhaps it was more than appropriate that David Fincher helm the English adaptation. The material provided to Fincher is bleak, which he certainly isn’t a stranger of, and the vision he’s provided in past efforts (which we’ll get to shortly) appropriately matches the tone of the novel and its setting.
Of course, it’s rather easy to note Rooney Mara’s stunningly committed portrayal of investigator Lisbeth Salander, and she shines through Fincher’s typically dreary atmosphere. But, perhaps what stands out the most is Fincher’s brisk pacing. His film may be a little over two and a half hours long, but the direction of most detective fiction, it would seem, is more assured and academically conducted. In this case, Fincher deftly guides his audience through the story’s twisty narrative fast enough to keep them entertained, and yet still showing restraint when concerning key details.
If you think about it, there aren’t many discernible qualities that separate Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan from his ‘Man with No Name’ in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy; just trade in the Western garb and a regular six-shooter for suits and a .44 Magnum that could blow your head clean off. Even in the final shootout with Scorpio, the dilapidated structures and the desert mountains bear a striking resemblance to any of the locales Eastwood would have been familiar with in the mid-‘60s.
Nonetheless, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is the consummate stoic tough guy; it’s a routine, but nothing’s for show and his unorthodox methods are genuine. Eastwood plays him simply, and his behavior and mannerisms are simple, and yet the character remains strikingly enigmatic. It shouldn’t be any wonder the film turned into a franchise, spawning four sequels spanning the better part of two decades. The only unfortunate aspect of the film’s history has been an epidemic of misquoting lines.
3 ZODIAC (2007)
The identity of the Zodiac killer is one of America’s greatest, most haunting mysteries, quite like the identity of Jack the Ripper for England. Though much like the latter’s film From Hell, David Fincher’s Zodiac seems to have its own ideas about who the culprit was, even if the case is never fully resolved. Speculation aside, Fincher can help spin a good yarn, and thanks to James Vanderbilt’s screenplay based on Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name, Zodiac is yet another film of his on this list.
The tension in the film is often understated, especially when the Zodiac killer isn’t trying to make his presence known. But when his is seen and heard onscreen, the suspense ratchets up to an unbearable degree. As if you couldn’t more immersed into this whirlwind, the production design is stellar and the visuals contain a slightly de-saturated quality that enhances the feel of the time.
4 Se7en (1995)
Another entry in the neo-noir crime genre, with generous helpings of horror and heartache – the eerie ending especially – Se7en was David Fincher’s breakthrough film, it was not only met with critical success but it was also one of 1995’s highest grossing films.
Set in a fictitious American city – though filmed primarily in Los Angeles – Se7en seduced a buddy-cop formula pairing about-to-retire Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) with feisty and idealistic Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). David, recently transferred to the department, has much to prove, and their first case established a sicko serial killer bent on arranging elaborate and grisly murders focused on the seven deadly sins.
Se7en also features Gwyneth Paltrow in her first major role, as David’s doting wife, Tracey, and an especially sinister turn from Kevin Spacey as a John Doe and prime suspect.
All in all this was an impactful and influential film, not only showcasing stirring and emotional performances from its fine ensemble, but it vested Fincher as a bankable, and ingenious director capable of uncompromising yet satiating work. It’s rightly considered a genre classic and is essential viewing for anyone who likes their psychological thrillers cynical and sardonic and hard to shake off.
5. Prisoners (2013)
Beastly horrors lurk in the behind-closed-doors narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which reteams the director with Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in his intense psychological thriller Enemy (2013). Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki on the case of two missing girls in an emotionally complex ensemble piece that also stars Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Hugh Jackman, and Viola Davis.
Prisoners is a haunting, deep-seated and disturbing film, the kind you carry around afterwards, processing and pondering it all, and makes for a very rewarding experience.
Buoyed immeasurably by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the framing is sharp, bristling with energy and a compulsive panache that makes turning away all but impossible, even when some of the more nightmarish aspects of the film perturb and exasperate the viewer. It’s not always easy to take, especially with the subject matter, but Villeneuve is a gifted and calculating craftsman, and while his film may take no prisoners, it also sets the viewer free with a purgative wheeze and an audible gasp.
6 Cold Pursuit
When my husband first told me the premise of Cold Pursuit (a remake of the 2015 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance), I thought he was joking: The action-packed thriller is about a snowplow driver (Liam Neeson) looking to avenge the death of his son by the hands of drug dealers. A SNOWPLOW DRIVER! Only Neeson could play the uncommunicative, hard working Everyman with a silence that’s at once menacing and heartbreaking. But it’s not all bullets and steely stares—comedic moments (thanks to silly bad guys and Liam’s own «I’m too old for this shit» moments) cut through the tension and will be the reason why you remember this movie and why it made this list..
This creature feature, directed by Alexandre Aja (High Tension and Piranha 3D) takes place during a category 5 hurricane and as the water rises, so do the thrills. While most of her hometown heads to higher ground, a reluctantly dutiful daughter (Kaya Scodelario) goes to her childhood home in a Florida swamp to check in on her father (Barry Pepper). She finds him injured and unconscious in the crawl space underneath the house. Swampy waters and everything that comes with them are now filling the streets and buildings. What was once dry land is now their domain. Who’s going to make it out alive?
8 Meters Down: Uncaged
In this sequel to 47 Meters Down, instead of a lone Mandy Moore, trapped in a cage at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by sharks, we have four adventurous teens trapped in an underwater city with the devil-eyed predators—it’s as if The Descentand Jaws had a Gen Z baby who would go to any lengths for the perfect IG photo.