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Mystery Movies That Aren't About Detectives

List RulesVote up the films that prove even amateur detectives can solve big mysteries.

Detective flicks are a dime a dozen these days, but doesn't everybody love a non-traditional mystery movie? Everyone expects a police officer or government official to figure out the big whodunit by the end of the film, but it is always more exciting when an amateur detective cracks the case wide open.

These types of films also provide more elaborate and complex types of storytelling that can't be done in a traditional detective-based mystery. The high school noir of Brick, the found-footage style of Searching, and the back-and-forth narrative of Memento all would be impossible in a boilerplate mystery movie.

So, get those voting fingers ready and prepare yourself for major spoilers, as we're running through some fantastic mystery movies with a twist.

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  • Who's The Lead? Jimmy Stewart gets one of his meatiest roles as L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic Rear Window. Jeff is a photographer who is stuck in his upper-level New York apartment thanks to a broken leg that keeps him in a wheelchair. With only his therapist, Stella, and his girlfriend, Lisa, coming by to keep him company from time to time, Jeff has taken to spying on his neighbors to keep himself busy.

    What's The Mystery? After one of his neighbor's wives suspiciously goes missing, and he sees the man - Mr. Thorwald - cleaning a handsaw and knife. Seeing this as incriminating behavior, Jeff suspects he murdered her, chopped her up, and hired a moving company to take away her remains in an oversized trunk.

    How Do They Solve It? Lisa, Stella, and Jeff all work together to figure out what happened to Thorwald's wife. Stella and Lisa do most of the labor as Jeff watches on from his apartment. Lisa even ends up getting apprehended for trespassing in Thorwald's apartment at one point, though she finds his wife's wedding ring, signaling she isn't "upstate" as Thorwald said she was. By the end, Jeff survives an attack from Thorwald, and the fiend confesses to the murder when the police apprehend him.

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  • Who's The Lead? Although Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander share co-lead status in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it's clear the latter is the more important of the two. Lisbeth is a more complex and, therefore, more interesting protagonist when compared to Craig's investigative reporter. A whip-smart loner, Lisbeth is a hacker-genius with a rage that fuels her to punish those she believes deserve it. 

    What's The Mystery? Blomkvist (and eventually Salander) are hired by uber-wealthy Swedish business magnate Henrik Vanger to investigate a 40-year-old case involving the disappearance of his grandniece, Harriet. Just your average, walk-in-the-park kind of case, clearly.

    How Do They Solve It? After combing through various documents and interviewing numerous people, the pair begin to uncover the dark secrets of the Vanger family. When they begin to believe a serial killer had been working through a number of young women from the 1940s to the 1960s, evidence points not only to Harriet's father but her brother as well. In the end, it is revealed that Harriet's father was a serial killer, her brother is a serial killer, and that her cousin, Anita, smuggled her away in secret to help her escape her terrible family. Harriet was alive the whole time pretending to be Anita in London! 

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  • Who's The Lead? Upon first glance, it seems Shutter Island wouldn't qualify as a "mystery movie that doesn't have a detective" as Leonardo DiCaprio plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Alas, Teddy isn't actually US Marshal Teddy Daniels but mentally ill patient Andrew Laeddis.

    What's The Mystery? Teddy/Andrew "arrives" at Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one of the facility's patients. The whole thing is an elaborate mind game concocted by his doctors to try and snap him back to reality.

    How Do They Solve It? DiCaprio's character follows all the breadcrumbs and solves all the "mysteries" laid out before him. By the end of the film, he accepts that he is Andrew Laeddis - not Teddy Daniels - and that he did, in fact, kill his wife after she drowned their three children. The tragic twist at the end of the film is that Andrew pretends to regress back to his false identity of Teddy so he will be lobotomized, not wanting to live with the knowledge that his entire family is gone.

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  • Photo: Newmarket

    Who's The Lead? 2000's Memento is the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map, and it stars a bleach-blond Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby. Leonard has anterograde amnesia, meaning he cannot form new memories, causing him to live out the rest of his life in small chunks.

    What's The Mystery? The central conflict of Memento comes from Leonard's search for one of the two men who broke into his house, offed his wife, and caused the injury that resulted in his amnesia. Clearly, this isn't exactly a straightforward task for Leonard as he cannot create new memories.

    How Do They Solve It? Leonard uses Polaroid pictures and tattoos to retain important information on his hunt for "John G.," the mysterious second attacker. The big twist ending reveals that Leonard has already found and slain "John G." and that Leonard ends the film deliberately lying to himself in order to end up killing Joe Pantoliano's Teddy, who has been helping/using him the whole time. The film is notoriously difficult to describe if you haven't seen it (it involves a nonlinear structure and both color and black and white film stocks), but it all is about Leonard being his own unreliable narrator. 

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