These are actually two different genres of film that are often combined. I will be separating them out and giving a top 10 for each. The essential difference is that in a Mystery, the audience (and characters) are trying to find out what has happened, while in a Suspense, you are trying to find out what will happen next. In other words, in a Mystery, you chase someone and in a Suspense film you get chased.
Of course the bald man to the left was the master of suspense films. He’s got four in the top 10 and four more in the next 10. The other 16 films are by 16 different directors (unless you believe the rumor that Orson Welles directed a lot of The Third Man), and surprisingly, Stanley Kubrick is not one of them.
10. Blue Velvet (David Lynch) – 1986
You could argue the genre of this film. You can also argue the taste. But it has been accepted (except by Roger Ebert) as one of the best films of the 80’s, no matter how disturbing it is.
9. Memento (Christopher Nolan) – 2001
Such a brilliant film, especially the first time you see it, when you don’t know what to expect. A film that shows the importance of good editing.
8. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) – 1946
I don’t read most “Mysteries” by such crap writers as Patterson, Cornwell or the hack of the day. I do read classic mysteries and love them. This made my top 100 novels list and is the best Bogie-Bacall film.
7. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood) – 2003
In 2004, William Goldman argued that Scorsese shouldn’t win the Oscar for The Aviator because he had done better films. Yet, he argued for Million Dollar Baby, which wasn’t even as good as Eastwood’s previous film. This film is one of those ones that when I go back and do my Oscars for each year, it pretty much wins nothing because it continually comes in second place to Return of the King. Other films that suffer from this problem are The Maltese Falcon (because of Citizen Kane), Paths of Glory (The Bridge on the River Kwai), To Kill a Mockingbird (Lawrence of Arabia) and A Passage to India (Amadeus).
6. Lone Star (John Sayles) – 1996
One of my mother’s favorite films and one of the best edited films of all-time, especially the scene at the bridge. Chris Cooper so rarely gets to play a down-right good guy, so it’s nice to see it here.
5. The Third Man (Carol Reed) – 1949
I first heard of this when the L.A. Times called it the greatest movie ever made. They weren’t that far off. All of the top 5 of this list would be #1 on the Suspense list (and many other lists).
4. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson) – 1997
The third best film of the 90’s (behind GoodFellas and Schindler’s List). I wish it ended with the line “You’ll need two.” Between Spacey’s two Oscar wins and he easily deserved an Oscar for this. Also a bold move to cast two Australian actors whose biggest roles had been as young gay men to play two L.A. cops.
3. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) – 1941
More than anything I want to finish writing my novel about a detective in San Francisco in the thirties. I’ve worked on it on and off for twenty years. Can you tell how much this influenced me?
2. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles) – 1958
It looks like when I do my final ranking of Directors, that Orson will make the top 10. Given his ability as an actor and a writer, it makes him the most talented person in Hollywood history. The only person close is Charlie Chaplin.
1. Chinatown (Roman Polanski) – 1974
Unlike a lot of males, I never wanted to be an astronaut. I never wanted to be a cowboy. But damn, did I ever want to be a detective. Especially in California in the 30’s.
10. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet) – 2007
The most under-rated film of 2007. One of the best directed, best acted, best written, best edited films of the year. It’s gotten to the point where I think I will have to re-evaluate my opinion of Ethan Hawke.
9. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola) – 1974
A smaller film released the same year as The Godfather Part II, anchored by a great Gene Hackman performance, and very timely, with all the Watergate news breaking everyday.
8. Blood Simple (The Coen Brothers) – 1985
How many directors debut with a film this good? Of the great directors, I can only think of Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Mel Brooks (The Producers), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), and of course, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon).
7. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1946
The classiest actor in Hollywood doing a serious role. Romancing the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Trying to deceive the best character actor in history.
6. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1954
Do I have to bother to justify why this belongs here? Or will you just accept it?
5. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1959
The perfect “wrong man” film. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the crop plane scene is one of the best scenes in film history.
4. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1951
My choice as Hitchcock’s best film. The whiney, nervous performance of Farley Granger actually helps the film rather than hurts it (like in Rope), and the creepiness of Robert Walker can not be over-stated.
3. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan) – 1992
Of all the brilliant Neil Jordan films, the only one that he actually got some awards love from. A fantastic film with a brilliant ending. And one of those years where someone Oscar nominated for the wrong performance – Miranda Richardson deserved her Supporting Actress nomination that year (and should have won), but it was for this, not Damage.
2. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) – 1944
People remember Billy Wilder for his romantic comedies. But he also had the ability to move into other genres, and this is the best example. Because I don’t watch old television shows, this is how I always picture Fred MacMurray.
1. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme) – 1991
From 91-93, the Academy got it right: Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List. Of course, they followed it up with Forrest Gump and Braveheart, so you take the good with the bad. Silence swept the big five Oscars, the third film to do so, and the only one of those three that I thought deserved all five. Other films that didn’t sweep, but deserved to win Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay: A Star is Born (1937), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Chinatown (1974), American Beauty (1999). The incredible thing is that the Academy at least it got partially right: all of those were nominated for all five, and all of them won at least one of the big five.