10 Best Detective Movies of All Time

By Miguel Fernández
Published: February 10, 2023 (Last updated: 3 weeks ago)
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Put your mind to the test and check out our 10 Best Detective Movies of All Time list. From classics to the modern day, these detective films are a must-watch.

With filmmaker Rian Johnson seemingly making it his new purpose in life to bring back the murder mystery genre, detective films are more popular than they’ve been in many years (despite Kenneth Branagh’s efforts into adapting Agatha Christie’s bibliography into rather forgettable movies).

Glass Onion debuted on Netflix in December 2022 and gave Johnson his second Oscar nomination, and just a couple of weeks later, Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye made its way into the platform.

If you are a fan of the genre and are looking for the next best detective movies you should watch, here is our (completely subjective) list of the top 10 entries in that category. Enjoy!

10 Best Detective Movies of All Time

10. Zodiac (2007)

Spoiler alert, this is not the only David Fincher film on this list. But that doesn’t mean I can’t include another extraordinary piece of filmmaking from the modern master of thrillers, and Zodiac is definitely that. The film depicts the real-life investigation of the infamous Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and early 1970s. The serial killer, who was never found, would send encrypted letters to newspapers following the attacks. The stellar cast includes, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.

9. The Nice Guys (2016)

If we were really serious about knocking down a list of the best detective films of all time, restricting ourselves only to the quality and overall impact of the film on cinema history, The Nice Guys has no place beating out other icons like M, LA Confidential, or even Heat, to an extent. But the key to making a good list lies in the balance, and in particular, for this list, it’s about balancing the tone.

Detective films do not have to be as bleak and borderline depressing as most of the other entries in this list and finding that balance, we can squeeze in the odd lighthearted installment. This is The Nice Guys, a film that tops many people’s list of “Movies that Deserved a Sequel”, one that severely underperformed at the box office despite stellar word-of-mouth around it. Directed by Shane Black, it follows Russell Crowe as a violent enforcer and Ryan Gosling as a private detective, who must team up in 1977 L.A. to solve the disappearance of a teenage girl, played by Hollywood’s next big star, Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

8. Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood breakout stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man who losses from short-term memory losses that cause him to have black-out periods every so often. The film is structured in two different timelines that intersect throughout the entire runtime. One of them moves the story forward in time, while the other one goes backward, starting at the end of the film, and going back to a middle point, where it meets the other storyline. It was the film that showed what Nolan could do with his manipulation of time and space through nonlinear storytelling and smart editing, long before his Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet days.

7. Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo tops many people’s list of Alfred Hitchcock films, and for good reason. Arguably the definitive representation of what the director could pull off during the 1950s, Vertigo follows Jim Stewart as a policeman who had to retire after an incident at work caused him to develop vertigo. He moves into the private investigator business and is hired to study the case of an acquaintance’s wife’s recent strange behavior. She is played by the iconic Kim Novak.

6. Rear Window (1954)

What? Two Hitchcock films back-to-back? Oh yeah. Similar to The Nice Guys, this is an odd entry in the list, mostly because it’s not, strictly speaking, a detective film. But murder was committed, and an investigation was launched, and for that reason, we’re including it in the list, albeit in the lower half.

Rear Window, my personal favorite inside Hitchcock’s body of work, follows Jim Stewart as a professional photographer who is stuck at home with a broken leg. To pass the time, he starts checking on his neighbors’ lives by spying on them through his apartment’s window. Soon, putting together recent events he listened to and saw with his own eyes, he suspects one of them has been murdered and launches an investigation of his own from his wheelchair.

5. Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners is the film that definitely put Denis Villeneuve on the map of our great directors today (and the third to have two films on this list, stay tuned). It stars Hugh Jackman as the father of one of two girls in a small town in Pennsylvania that were recently kidnapped. During their investigation, the police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki take in for questioning their first suspect but are ultimately forced to release him. Jackman, desperate to get his daughter back, takes matters into his own hands.

4. Chinatown (1974)

“Forget it, Jack. It’s Chinatown.” Well, I can’t quite forget it just yet. Roman Polanski may be an unpleasant name to bring up these days, and for good reason, but that doesn’t mean that Chinatown is a lesser film. Starring Jack Nicholson as private investigator Jake Gittes, the film is based around the California water wars of the early 20th century. Jack, after being caught in the crossfire, starts investigating a murder that he believes was committed due to the conflict, and soon, the walls start closing in on him. The ensemble also includes Faye Dunaway and John Hillerman.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs, by director Jonathan Demme, arguably contains the most iconic performance of Anthony Hopkins’ career and is also the flagship of Jodie Foster’s filmography. Foster stars as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who, in her investigation of a serial killer, recruits the help of Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, an incarcerated serial killer who might help the law enforcement officers get into the new killer’s mind. In the noir genre, you can’t get much better than The Silence of the Lambs.

2. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Thankfully, this is a purely subjective list, because otherwise, there is no way that Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece would even sniff the top 3. But yes, this is a masterpiece, and even though it’s mainly a science-fiction film, it’s also as noir as you can get. It’s superior to the original in almost every way, and it’s also the best sci-fi film since Children of Men.

Ryan Gosling stars as K, a replicant “blade runner” on the verge of discovering a secret that might tangle with everything the world has come to know by 2049. What that is, the marketing campaign failed to tell us, and I won’t be the one to spill the beans either. So I would just encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already. Having seen the original Blade Runner is encouraged but not strictly required.

1. Seven (1995)

We teased it at the beginning, and here we are. The best detective film of all time is also one of Fincher’s best films (along with Fight Club and his masterpiece, The Social Network), and stars Morgan Freeman as a disillusioned detective working with a young recruit played by Brad Pitt to try to stop a serial killer who is committing murders based on the seven deadly sins.

It is as gritty, bleak, and depressing as it gets, but Fincher stepped up the game of what a detective thriller can be, and people checking out Seven for the first time will likely not be able to stay off the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the film. It is intense, thought-provoking, socially relevant, and overall, just extraordinary.

That was our list of the 10 Best Detective Movies of All Time. What did you think? Did you find any interesting additions to your watchlist? Let us know in the comments!

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