70 Best Anxiety-Inducing Movies

70 Best Anxiety-Inducing Movies

May 4, 2024

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It seems counterintuitive, but there’s something cathartic about watching movies that keep you on the edge of your seat. Anxiety builds up as you follow characters do one infuriating thing after another—and when the credits finally roll, you find yourself gasping in relief like a tight valve of pressure inside you was released. 

To that end, we’ve compiled the best anxiety-inducing movies you can watch right now. Whether you’re looking for a challenging slow burn like Mass, an intense drama like Whiplash, an intricate heist like Bad Genius, or an erotic thriller like Thirst, get ready to see the whites on your knuckles as you go through our list of films below.

21. Saint Omer (2022)

best

9.0

Country

France

Director

Alice Diop, Female director

Actors

Adama Diallo Tamba, Alain Payen, Aurelia Petit, Charlotte Clamens

Moods

Challenging, Emotional, Intense

Nothing about Saint Omer is easy. A female Senegalese migrant (Guslagie Malanga) is put to trial for committing infanticide, but throughout the film, it becomes clear how much of a victim she is too, of an uncaring and deeply prejudiced society. “What drove her to madness?” Her attorney asks at one point. We’re not sure. We’re not necessarily asked to side with her, nor answer the many hard-hitting questions brought up in the film, but we sit with the uneasiness of it all and, in that silence, confront our ideas about motherhood, womanhood, personhood. 

This confusion is what makes the film so compelling. Despite the court’s best efforts, Laurence isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be an example of the ever-ambiguous, forever-complicated, always-hurt person. It’s human nature after all to be this complex and messed up. The film shows us that the best that we can do in situations like this is to listen, understand, and as our protagonist Rama (Kayije Kagame) does, make peace with the noise. 

22. Whiplash (2014)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Damien Chazelle

Actors

Adrian Burks, April Grace, Austin Stowell, C.J. Vana

Moods

Dramatic, Intense, Raw

Miles Teller plays Andrew Nieman, an ambitious young jazz drummer striving for greatness, who is edged towards breaking point by the sadism of his teacher and conductor, Terence Fletcher, played expertly by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher insults him, pressures him, and makes him cry in front of all his peers. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who was one of the youngest people to receive a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the powerful La La Land, the aptly titled Whiplash poses some intense questions about artistry and ambition. Will Andrew survive? Will it lift him to a higher artistic level? Can his tormentor be appeased through accomplishment? It’s almost impossible to single out the best part of this film, considering the flawless performances, masterful script, and meticulously crafted soundtrack. Cherishing the existential artist without giving easy answers, Whiplash is an inspiring watch.

23. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Dito Montiel

Actors

Adam Scarimbolo, Chance Kelly, Channing Tatum, Chazz Palminteri

Moods

A-list actors, Dramatic, Intense

Not only is this multi-award-winning drama seriously star-studded, Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, Channing Tatum, and Shia LaBeouf also deliver superb performances. With two Sundance Awards and many other nominations in its pocket, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is based on the eponymous memoir by author, director, and musician, Dito Montiel, who recalls his violent childhood on the mean streets of Queens in the 1980s (LaBeouf plays the young Dito), as he visits his ailing father after 15 years away in Los Angeles (Downey Jr. plays present-day Dito). It is also real-life Dito’s directorial debut, recalling the loose, improvisational style of 70s cinema a’la Scorcese. The powerful plot is told through flashbacks and fourth-wall bending monologues, while the eccentric directing style makes for a raw and immediate experience. The energy of this coming-of-age drama is off the charts!

24. Thirst (2009)

best

8.9

Country

South Korea, United States of America

Director

Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Actors

Choi Hee-jin, Choi Hui-jin, Choi Jong-ryul, Ériq Ebouaney

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Gripping

A thirst for love, a thirst for recognition, a thirst for sympathy, a thirst for meaning, a thirst for life, and a thirst for blood. Director Park Chan-wook and actor Song Kang-ho, two of the biggest names in South Korean cinema, join forces for the first time in a modern take on the supernatural. In present day South Korea, Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song) volunteers himself as a human experiment during the formulation of a vaccine against a deadly virus. When the experiment fails and he is thought to be dead, he resurrects as a conflicted vampire, one whose moral code continually goes against his intrinsic desires. Along with Song and long-time collaborator cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Park creates a riveting atmosphere that is both very scary and sad. By blending elements of horror and drama, he also achieves putting a fresh and unique spin on the time-honored vampire film.

25. 5 Broken Cameras (2011)

best

8.8

Country

France, Israel, Netherlands

Director

Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Actors

Emad Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Soraya Burnat

Moods

Challenging, Emotional, Instructive

In 2005, Palestinian olive farmer Emad Burnat bought a camera to document the birth of his new son, Jibreel. But what was intended as an act of celebration quickly grew into something else, as Burnat inadvertently became a documentarian of the oppression his West Bank village faced when a wall was erected through it and Palestinian farmland illegally appropriated by Israeli settlers. As we come to witness, this reluctant pivot is just another example of everyday life in Bil’in being forcibly reoriented by the occupation, as Burnat captures the daily struggles of life in the village and charts the innocence-shattering effect the occupation has on young Jibreel’s burgeoning consciousness. 

Over his footage of encroaching illegal settlements, the arrests of Palestinian children in the middle of the night, the point-blank shootings of blindfolded and handcuffed peaceful protestors — plus tender snapshots of nature and joyful events in the village — Burnat delivers a poetic, reflective narration that miraculously ties these horrible and hopeful images together. It’s this intimacy of perspective that makes 5 Broken Cameras profoundly harrowing and unexpectedly transcendent — a personal document of oppression that is also a testament to the miraculous persistence of the human spirit, the resilience of life and the urge to seek beauty even under truly awful circumstances.

26. Full Time (2021)

best

8.7

Country

France, United States of America

Director

Eric Gravel

Actors

Agathe Dronne, Anne Suarez, Arnaud Maillard, Arnaud Préchac

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Dramatic

Full Time is about the Herculean task that is getting through the day. For Julie Roy (the incredible Laure Calamy), that means keeping a job in the city as a single mother living in the suburbs. In this particular week, she has to attend to childcare, work a job below her skill set, apply for a job that actually matches her skill set, and get home before her children’s bedtime, all while a transport strike immobilizes the city. 

Protests aside, Julie’s reality is an everyday feat some of us don’t even bother to question, but the film—edited and scored like a thriller—makes a vital point about the overlooked difficulties of juggling career, family, and self. 

It’s unrelenting, intense, and truly gripping from start to end, kind of like Uncut Gems for the everywoman. It’s rare to see social commentary at this pace, but it’s also unexpectedly powerful, a necessary portrait of the times.

27. A Short Film About Killing (1988)

best

8.7

Country

Poland

Director

Krzysztof Kieślowski

Actors

Aleksander Bednarz, Andrzej Gawroński, Artur Barciś, Barbara Dziekan

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

Even before any blood is inevitably shed during A Short Film About Killing (which serves as the expansion of another episode from director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog miniseries, alongside A Short Film About Love), there’s something positively oppressive and sinister even just in the way the movie is shot. Kieślowski and cinematographer Witold Adamek use color filters to make the film deliberately ugly—as if the image is degrading right in front of us. Oftentimes shadows obscure the edges of the frame, shining a sickly yellow spotlight on the characters on screen. It’s the perfect way to get right into the heads of these people existing in a lawless land driven by primal instinct.

When crime and punishment finally occur, they’re equally difficult to watch unfold, but in different ways. Kieślowski lingers on the details—the tools and processes that we tell ourselves will make the act of killing easier. And what he’s ultimately able to expose is how capital punishment has been made to seem humane, just, or necessary, when it’s often even more barbaric, cruel, and unproductive than a crime borne of desperation. The very government that does nothing to address the roots of crime is the same one most eager to kill criminals instead.

28. L’Argent (1983)

best

8.7

Country

France, Switzerland

Director

Robert Bresson

Actors

Alain Aptekman, Caroline Lang, Christian Patey, Didier Baussy

Moods

Intense, Raw, Slow

With his final film, octogenarian master filmmaker Robert Bresson found the violent, chilling truth in that old cliché, “money is the root of all evil.” L’Argent extends the simplicity of its title (literally, “Money”) into the fabric of the film, using an extremely bare style to track the devastating domino effect that a childish ruse has on one man’s life. When a shopkeeper realizes two schoolboys swindled him out of 500 francs with a counterfeit note, he decides to pass the problem on by paying delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey) with the false note. But when Yvon tries to pay for his lunch with the money, the police are called and his life unravels.

This is just the start of L’Argent’s clinical exploration of the meanness and littleness of man’s greedy spirit. Yvon’s downfall is chronicled with matter-of-fact coldness: everything onscreen is minimal, from the precise cinematography and frugal editing to the non-professional actors’ expressionlessness. This detached style encourages us to absorb all the bitter emotion of the story, which feels — in such an economical format as this — like a moral tale as old as time, but no less cutting.

29. Richard III (1995)

best

8.7

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Richard Loncraine

Actors

Adrian Dunbar, Andy Rashleigh, Annette Bening, Bill Paterson

Moods

A-list actors, Action-packed, Character-driven

One of Shakespeare’s most indelible works is brought roaring to life in this explosive adaptation. The action is transposed from the 1400s to brutalist 1930s England, with the bloody civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York being waged by tanks and planes instead of cavalry. The switch isn’t merely cosmetic, though: in an inspired move, usurper Richard is reimagined here as the fascist head of an army of Nazi-esque Blackshirts (an analog of real militant far-right leader Oswald Mosley). Ian McKellen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives an odious but brilliant performance as the titular Machiavellian schemer who will stop at nothing to seize the crown, even betraying his own blood.

McKellen is joined by a gluttony of acting talent: Maggie Smith plays the King’s despairing mother, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. are the unfortunate American queen and her brother, while the likes of Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jim Carter fill up the royal court. All the richness of Shakespeare’s original writing is retained, charging the performances and the film around them with a grand sense of drama. Peter Biziou’s ostentatious cinematography is a perfect frame for it all, and helps cement this as much, much more than a piece of filmed theater.

30. Nightcrawler (2014)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Dan Gilroy

Actors

Alex Ortiz, Ann Cusack, Bill Blair, Bill Paxton

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an impromptu freelance videographer who begins covering the crime world in LA for a local TV station. Almost as dark as a mystery can get, it is disturbing, and plays out as a combination of “Drive” and “The Network”. The film is visually stunning as well as immensely suspenseful. It then becomes almost impossible to look away, even when you’re the most horrified by just how far Bloom is willing to go to reach success. Gyllenhaal’s performance is widely compared to that of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, which should give you an idea of its caliber.

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