“The Maltese Falcon,” “Chinatown” and countless Hitchcock films all defined the mystery genre. Film history is littered with legendary mystery tales – whether it be crime solving, noir thrillers or things that go bump in the night. When AFI released their list of the Top 10 Mystery films, the most recent was released in 1996 (“The Usual Suspects”). However, in the past 10 years, we’ve seen a great deal of mysteries that have joined the ranks of the classics.
This week sees the release of a new mystery that’s getting some positive reviews, including from Awards Circuit. “Searching” stars John Cho and revolves around a Dad taking to the web to search for his missing daughter. Will this mystery be one of the best of the genre? Only time will tell. For now, let’s look at the top ten mysteries of the past 10 years.
“The Paperboy” (2012)
Lee Daniels can’t be accused of subtlety. His 2012 pulpy mystery drips with camp. Journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey in the middle of the McConaissance) returns to his Florida hometown to investigate death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). He employs his paperboy brother, Jack (Zac Efron), for help. At the center of the investigation is hairdresser Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), Hillary’s pen pal-turned-lover who wants him freed. Kidman perfectly understands the tone of the film and gives her most fearless performance of her career. Add in Macy Gray as a narrator and you’ve got a wholly unique film that dares to be messy.
“Shutter Island” (2010)
Martin Scorsese doesn’t get enough credit when he makes full genre pictures. “Cape Fear” is an exceedingly fun romp. “The King of Comedy” stands as one of the best films of his career. “Shutter Island” isn’t quite either of those films. What it does succeed at is tricking its audience at every turn. As a detective assigned to an asylum, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) begins to question his own sanity as he searches for an escaped murderess. The mood is atmospheric and the plot continues to keep one guessing. It’s an effective mainstream mystery that makes for a perfect bit of late night entertainment.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)
David Fincher amped up the glossy coldness of the Swedish original. However, his 2011 remake does little to differentiate or elevate the source material. Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” kickstarted the franchise based off Steig Larsson’s novels and remains the most effective of them all. Noomi Rapace brilliantly brings to life the dark, brooding and dangerous Lisbeth Salander. While Rooney Mara highlights the cold heart behind the investigator, Rapace gives us less of a glimpse. Lisbeth remains impenetrable as ever, which is harder to grapple with but even more interesting. The punches land and the twists and turns of the mystery shock and surprise. It’s a tough sit that lacks the gloss and prestige of the American remake. However, the original strips the film down to the essential elements of the mystery.
Park Chan-Wook’s resume already includes the incredible “Oldboy,” one of the most audacious mysteries of the 2000s. While his follow-up, “Stoker,” is less audacious, it brims with the same energy and visual wit that makes his film such a treat. Alluding to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the film takes its central family through shocking and entertaining turns. India (Mia Wasikowska) resents her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and instead feels drawn towards her newfound Uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), who appears only after her Father’s death. As Charlie moves in, family members start to disappear and India struggles with whether to fear or trust her Uncle. All the actors are firing on all cylinders, making this a fun ride throughout.
“The Salesman” (2016)
Director Asghar Farhadi knows how to set up a complicated moral quandary. His film “A Separation” ranks as one of the best written of the new millennium. With “The Salesman,” he takes a moral argument and adds a mystery to it. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) move to a new apartment where a sudden act of violence shows cracks in their relationship. Emad goes on a search for the perpetrator while Rama attempts to move past it. The mystery seems to be a classic whodunit. However, by the end, it becomes less about who did what, but how we react to the things that happen in our lives. It’s a fascinating work that was named Best Foreign Language Feature at the 2016 Oscars.
“The Ghost Writer” (2010)
A lowly ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) journeys to a remote island to interview a major political figure, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), for a biography. The more research the ghost writer pours through, the more he becomes suspicious of his source. McGregor and Brosnan form a unique chemistry filled with palpable tension. Director Roman Polanski knows how to isolate his characters, drive up the paranoia and throw them back together in a hot box of tension. The secret weapon of the film is Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang, Adam’s wife. She commands a great deal of power and influence, almost more so than her husband. Ruth plays both confidant and adversary to the ghost writer.
“Personal Shopper” (2017)
What’s next in the afterlife? That great mystery takes center stage in “Personal Shopper,” directed by Olivier Assayas. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as the shopper for a socialite by day and as a medium by night. She chases the afterlife as she seeks connection from her dead twin brother. The most exciting moments of the film happen over text. As Maureen goes on a work assignment, she engages in a suspicious text conversation with someone who may be from beyond. Her finger twitches. We jump. The greatest mystery is what’s on the other side, if any. Olivier Assayas doesn’t just keep his protagonist guessing, he keeps us guessing too.
“Ex Machina” (2014)
What’s more mysterious than being trapped alone with a robot you know nothing about? Tech coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets invited to a remote location to test the grand invention from company head Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan shows Caleb his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that can fully pass as human. This sci-fi mystery was able to eek out a surprising, but very welcome Oscar win in Visual Effects. The film uses its effects to heighten the tension, giving Ava greater room to pass Caleb’s Turning Test. What’s interesting is the mystery isn’t the technology that Nathan has created. Instead, the mystery lies within what Ava’s intentions are. Vikander gives a groundbreaking performance that keeps one guessing up until the final moments.
“Get Out” (2017)
Few movies captured the current zeitgeist better than “Get Out.” Jordan Peele’s horror film was a massive commercial ($255MM worldwide), critical (99% RT) and awards hit (Best Picture nominated, writing winner). Much was made of the film’s horror roots. However, most of the scares come from the central mystery of the story. Our protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) must solve his way out of his girlfriend’s family home in order to escape with his life. It’s a brilliant slow burn that parcels out information in a judicious way throughout. The Original Screenplay Oscar Jordan Peele recently won for the film was richly deserved. It’s a movie that begs to be rewatched as it reveals even more layers of detail to it.
“Gone Girl” (2016)
“I’m so much happier now that I’m dead.” “Gone Girl” captures what it means to be a perfect mystery. The twist is only half the story. Everything seems so normal on the surface. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) resemble the perfect couple who are just starting to let their discontent show. Then Amy disappears and her friends (and the media) look to Nick as the main suspect. The story weaves between the past and present with great dexterity thanks to Gillian Flynn’s brilliant adaptation. Rosamund Pike plays many different interpretations of Amy, building up the memory of her and providing interesting contradictions in the present. The film ends with a gut punch that is hard to reckon with.