From the big screen’s upcoming Where the Crawdads Sing, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Knives Out 2 to recent small-screen gems including The After Party, The Flight Attendant, and Only Murders in the Building, word’s out: We love a good murder mystery.
Of course, just like everything else in life, some whodunits are far superior than others. So before you go rooting around with your spyware in a subpar police procedural, allow us to indulge your inner sleuth with 20 of the very best murder mystery movies. Ahead, we have comedies that make light of foul play, horror essentials that spare no bucket of blood, and classics that are just as bone-chilling today.
Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick team up for one of the best-dressed murder mysteries to ever see the inside of a reel can. The two play friends Stephanie, an eager-to-please vlogger, and Emily, a high-powered fashion PR maven, respectively, and sporting brilliant ensembles from fashion greats like Christian Louboutin and Ralph Lauren, they become embroiled in lust, greed, and murder. The gist: When Emily’s body turns up in Lake Michigan, Stephanie gets to work connecting the dots.
Crime dramas use the “loner looks for missing beauty” formula so much it may as well be its own subgenre (see: Under the Silver Lake, Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys, Body Double). But dare we say, Rian Johnson’s 2005 offering, Brick, is the most stellar find bobbing in a sea of similar tales. Here, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high schooler who attempts to unravel the mystery of who killed his ex-girlfriend.
A terrifying supernatural horror flick, Candyman also has one of the screen’s most horrific murder mysteries at its core. About a grad student who’s researching the urban legend that is The Candyman—a hook-handed Black man (Tony Todd) who slaughters anyone who dares summon him—the film takes on themes of racial inequality and historical hate as the cruel fate suffered by the man behind myth is unveiled.
Gillian Flynn’s best-selling crime thriller got the David Fincher treatment with its big-screen adaptation, tasking Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck with bringing the sinister nature of married couple Amy and Nick Dunne to real life. Told essentially in two acts, this twisted gem of psychological suspense unfolds as Nick becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife.
One of the best classic films ever made, In the Heat of the Night features a young Sidney Poitier as Philly Detective Virgil Tibbs, whose trip down South begins with a wrongful and racially charged murder accusation, then ends with the talented homicide inspector solving the case of the bludgeoned wealthy industrialist despite the ineptitude, bigotry, and blind racism he’s forced to endure.
Like a modern-day movie version of the game Clue (shout-out to the bomb ’80s adaptation also), Rian Johnson’s Knives Out speaks directly to the sleuth inside all of us. Harlan Thrombey has been killed, with a dagger, in his third-floor study, and everyone is a suspect. A puzzler that’s a blast from its opening scene scored by heavy strings to its final resolution set to the tune of the Stones, this one is several cuts above the rest.
The third in a linked, though unofficial, film trilogy, Lady Vengeance follows Chan Wook-park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. Similar in merciless narratives and graphic violence, Lady Vengeance
sets itself apart by—you guessed it—handing the role of the protagonist over to a woman. Scorned and recently freed from prison, Geum-Ja goes to town on those who have done her wrong, all while clearing up the mystery of who killed a six-year-old boy for the audience.
Handled by two of Hollywood’s rising starlets, Last Night in Soho sees Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie take on a wild murder mystery drenched in glowing neon lights, dizzying fever dreams, and mod music. McKenzie is Eloise, a modern-day fashion student, while Joy plays Sandie, an aspiring singer whose murder escorts Eloise through a time-jumping portal, dropping her off in 1960s London and on a mission to find Sandie’s killer.
We won’t even pretend to have all the answers to the nonlinear mystery swirling around in one of Christopher Nolan’s earliest brain-scratching works, Memento. What we do know though? It stars a blond Guy Pearce as a tatted-up guy with short-term amnesia who is trying to figure out who murdered his wife. That, and the fact that you will no doubt have to watch this one more than once—possibly in chronological order.
Before Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho made Mother, another dynamite contribution to the world of Korean cinema. A crime thriller that centers on a woman (the brilliant Hye-ja Kim) who works tirelessly to clear her intellectually disabled adult son (the stellar Won Bin) of a young girl’s brutal murder, this one will test everything you thought you knew about a film’s formulas, rules, and conventions.
Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler reunited on the small screen for a fun murder comedy that became the platform’s most-watched movie of 2019. And even though it wasn’t a darling for critics to fawn over, it was filmed on a yacht off the coast of Italy (meaning amazing eye candy) and spawned the first of who knows how many sequels (meaning it struck the right chord with audiences).
In one of the most surprising endings of ’90s movie history, Primal Fear takes an already intriguing courtroom drama, deftly handled by Richard Gere and Laura Linney, and just cranks it up with a narrative loaded with sensational twists and turns. Also starring Edward Norton, the film navigates a whodunit soaked in blood, manipulation, and psychological warfare.
With Wes Craven’s incredibly self-aware teen scream, conventions were tested, the slasher flick was updated, and nerves were fried. Starring Neve Campbell as a high school senior whose mother’s killer is out for blood again, the film kept fans guessing who was under the Ghostface mask until the very end when it premiered in 1996. Luckily, unpacking the gory mystery all these years later is just as much fun.
Arguably David Fincher’s peak seminal work, Seven (stylized as Se7ev) is a police procedural drama that stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as detectives—one a rookie, the other seasoned—investigating a brutal serial killer who has a penchant for the seven deadly sins, embodying each vice with a new mutilated victim. Surprise ending alert here too.
French actor Francois Cluzet steers actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One like a pro. Accused though cleared of his wife’s murder eight years prior, Cluzet’s Alexandre finds himself in the authorities’ crosshairs again when the bodies of two women are found near where his wife’s body was dumped. Thickening the plot: He receives evidence that his wife just might be alive.
In what might just be the worst gig of all time, FBI cadet Clarice (played by Jodie Foster) is tasked with chatting up an incarcerated cannibal in an effort to hunt down a fellow serial killer who’s skinning his victims. Historic in many ways, Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film is one of only three films to be nominated for and win all five major Oscar categories—and it remains the only horror film to ever win Best Picture.
Spanish auteur Nacho Vigalondo delivers one of the best time-traveling movies with his award-winning Timecrimes. Bonus: There’s a really fantastic, off-genre murder mystery at the heart of it. When Hector witnesses what he thinks is the murder of a neighbor, he gets looped into a time-jumping puzzle whose resolution lies in figuring out who the actual victim is and who the actual murderer is.
Alfred Hitchcock’s résumé is brimming with primo whodunits, but Vertigo is just plain fun to dissect again and again—plus, it stars Kim Novak in a dual role and Jimmy Stewart playing against type. A dark dive down a rabbit hole of desire, murder, and intrigue, the film hinges on one man’s obsession with a woman who looks a lot like the love of his life who just jumped to her death from a tower. Or did she?
Not your conventional murder mystery, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin works in reverse. Presenting the teenage mass killing upfront, the narrative then meanders its way through the barrage of conundrums that led to this fatal conclusion, arriving finally at the original scene of the crime, where Eva’s 16-year-old son, Kevin, sadistically murders several of his classmates and family members. Retooling the whodunit, this mystery adaptation tries instead to answer: Why did you do this?
Jennifer Lawrence makes her big screen debut in Debra Granik’s backwoods shocker about a teenager whose drug-dealing father goes missing, leaving her and her family on the verge of homelessness. On a mission to track him down, she opens herself up to the lawless characters rooting around in the seedy underbelly of the Ozark Mountains.