Mystery movies. What makes them so good?
Nothing beats the combination of high tension and high stakes that a mystery movie offers. Great filmmakers have the ability to capture our attention, make our hearts beat fast and ‘look but don’t look’ through our hands over our eyes.
The most memorable movies make us feel as invested in the story as the characters. It’s like a mash-up of watching a movie and playing a game.
Murder mysteries, unsolved crimes, the paranormal and relationship conflicts are the usual hallmarks of this spine-tingling genre. Combined with a solid story, superb acting, cinematography and musical score, top mystery movies are ones that stay with you forever.
On the hunt for your next movie night? Read on to discover our picks for the best mystery movies. Warning: spoilers
Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux
Release Date: 2016
Director: Tate Taylor
Box Office: US $173.2M
Synopsis: Shown from the perspective of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), The Girl on the Train is about an alcoholic divorcee accused of stalking her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Each day, she indulges herself people-watching from the windows of the train she is supposedly taking to work. The train takes her past the home she shared with her former husband. After one day witnessing a scandal at the neighbour’s house and hearing the wife is missing, Rachel feels compelled to report what she saw to police. Due to her alcoholism, she is an untrustworthy witness and her frequent blackouts compound the mystery.
Memorable Moment: Has to be the plot twist at the end of the movie.
Why it made the list: Adapted from the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, the story goes beyond the main character's drinking habits and marriage breakdown into a world of twisted violence and masochism.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Andrew Kevin Walker
Release Date: 1995
Director: David Fincher
Box Office: US $327.3M
Synopsis: The movie tells the story of Davis Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), two detectives who partner up to track down a serial killer (Kevin Spacey). The killer’s chilling MO is to commit a series of crimes patterned on the bible’s seven deadly sins.
Memorable Moment: David Mills’ surprise delivery package.
Why it made the list: Applauded by both critics and audiences, in the year of its release, Seven was the seventh highest-grossing movie of the year.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Release Date: 2000
Director: Christopher Nolan
Box Office: US $39.7M
Synopsis: The film shows Leonard Shelby’s (Guy Pearce) journey to recollect what transpired the night he and his wife were attacked by two unidentified assailants. Shelby is suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition which leaves him unable to store recent memories, caused by an injury sustained on the night of the attack.
Memorable Moment: Unlike most films, the scenes in Memento were presented in a non-linear manner, starting from the end of the storyline and slowly back to the beginning. What also sets the movie apart are the two time lines presented to the audience – one in colour and one in black-and-white.
Why it made the list: Memento was highly-acclaimed by critics due to its narrative structure and unique way of presenting the concepts of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception.
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Release Date: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Box Office: US $50M
Synopsis: Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix-based secretary who steals $40,000 and runs away with her boyfriend to start a new life. Caught up in a storm while on the run to California, Marion decides to spend the night at The Bates Motel. Little did she know that this decision would lead into an eventful encounter with Norman Bates, the hotel owner, and his controlling mother.
Memorable Moment: There has to be two here –
- The shower scene and
- The unforgettable truth about Norman and his mother
Why it made the list: A Hitchcock classic, Psycho, released in 1960, still has the ability to transfix audiences nearly 60 years later
Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collete
Release Date: 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Box Office: US $672.8M
Synopsis: Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) can see and communicate with dead people. At the beginning of the movie, we see him frightened by surprise visits from ghosts with unresolved issues. With guidance from child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) he is able to further understand his supernatural abilities.
Memorable Moment: The iconic line “I see dead people” and the plot twist that reveals the history of Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s character and how he and Cole Sear help one another out.
Why it made the list: The Sixth Sense is one of the highest grossing mystery movies of all time. From beginning until the end, the storyline had viewers glued and made M. Night Shyamalan a household name.
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris, Emily Ratajkowski
Release Date: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Box Office: US $369.3M
Synopsis: Gone Girl revolves around the story of couple Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy is reported missing and a high profile media frenzied investigation tries to prove or disprove whether Nick has something to do with it.
Memorable Moment: Despite the myriad of questions it raises about how well we know our partners, the standout moment has to be what becomes of Nick and Amy as a couple in the end.
Why it made the list: Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl has rich character portrayals and a strong storyline seen from all angles.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch
Release Date: 2007
Director: David Fincher
Box Office: US $84.8M
Synopsis: Based on a true story, Zodiac is a fictionalised version of the real-life manhunt for a Californian serial killer during the 60s. The self-proclaimed ‘Zodiac’ killer taunted police by sending them personalised letters with of cryptic messages and codes. To this day, the killer has never been caught.
Memorable Moment: The interrogation of prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen played by John Carroll Lynch. Lynch was directed to play the role as if he was genuinely innocent, which made for one of the movie’s most powerful scenes.
Why it made the list: Zodiac goes to the nitty-gritty of obsession and the mental anguish entailed in solving complex criminal cases.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito
Release Date: 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Box Office: US $127.2M
Synopsis: Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the film follows the lives of three very different men working for the LA police department. Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) try to uncover the mystery of the Night Owl Café massacre amidst police corruption and Hollywood’s sleazy prostitution scene. As they go after their leads, their individual investigations start to overlap, and it becomes clear to them that despite their differences, they are all after the same thing: the truth.
Memorable Moment: Amidst fight scenes and other forms of rough justice, the most powerful scene is the most gentle. A young, earnest Exley aske Vincennes “Why did you become a cop?” Vincennes’ slow, bleary-eyed reply “I don’t remember”.
Why it made the list: LA Confidential is considered late Director Curtis Hanson’s highest achievement. To this day, the movie is held up in film schools around the world as a masterpiece.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams
Release Date: 2010
Director: Martin Scorsese
Box Office: US $294.8M
Synopsis: Two US Marshals, Andrew Laeddis (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Ashcliffe Hospital, a government-run mental health facility for criminal offenders. Due to a brewing storm, the two find themselves stuck on Shutter Island where the facility is located. Laeddis, a decorated military veteran battling post-traumatic stress from war and the recent death of his wife, finds himself battling his own demons while uncovering well-kept secrets about the island.
Memorable Moment: Without a doubt, the scene where DiCaprio’s character realises who the patient is.
Why it made the list: Shutter Island is both mystery and thriller which together, contributes to the film’s success. The multi-layered underlying storylines and non-linear plot (due to Laeddis’ hallucinations) keeps you absolutely on the edge of your seat.
Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald
Release Date: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Box Office: US $272.7M
Synopsis: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a young, bright and ambitious FBI student who has been tasked to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. To be successful, she must learn how to think like a serial killer by picking the brains of Hannibal Lecter, a convicted killer who cannibalised his victims. In return, the ‘payment’ Lecter extracts from Starling comes in the form of psychological manipulation, which is fundamentally the most riveting part of this movie.
Memorable Moment: Surely the line delivered by Lecter which has been mimicked from the day it was released “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
Why it made the list: At the 1992 Academy Awards, Silence of the Lambs became one of the only three movies at that time to win all five major categories - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Best Heebie-Jeebies we say.