What makes a good thriller? It's difficult to say exactly, and the proliferation of subgenres only complicates the question: Psychological, erotic, supernatural, legal, political, and so many more. Maybe Justice Potter Stewart's famous line applies, because when you see a great one, you know what to call it.
Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, which came out in February 1991, certainly qualifies. Its mix of horror, crime, and psychological tension gave audiences that sickening and, uh, thrilling heart-in-throat feeling, while pushing the limits of what modern thrillers could be. Does it mark a definitive break from a tradition solidified by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock?
Of course not! But it does offer a convenient, if somewhat arbitrary, starting point for this ranking of thrillers, a genre that soared to new heights as the brash, commercial action of the 1980s lost a bit of momentum. Plus there's the fact that Silence of the Lambs appeared in wide release on Valentine's Day, pointing toward the macabre, ironic humor that would dominate the 1990s and the so-called millennial generation the decade would produce.