Prison movies appeal because the very nature of prison offers built-in conflict 24/7. It’s a brutal place but a great setting for many genres including drama, survival, action and even comedy. Below are our picks for the 20 best prison movies of all time.
Directed by David Fincher
After Ridley Scott’s atmospheric Alien and James Cameron action thriller Aliens, anticipation was high for the third installment of the franchise and so it is no surprise that fans and critics were disappointed at the time. But given the studio interference and several rewrites from nine screenplay writers, David Fincher, at 29, makes a feature-directing debut that goes beyond the sleek panache he showed in his Madonna music videos and delivers a movie that is if anything thoroughly entertaining. Fincher gives the images new resonance, creating a provocative fusion of suspense and an atmosphere that is suitably dark and dreary.
19- In the Name of the Father (1993)
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Based on Gerry Conlon’s autobiography, “Proved Innocent”, Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father tells the wrenching tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned in 1974 for the bombing of a London pub. Daniel Day-Lewis proves here once again that he is one of the most talented and interesting actors of his generation and director Sheridan takes a controversial subject but manages to sharpen his focus on the individuals rather than the bigger historical tapestry giving the film a wider appeal.
18- Animal Factory (2000)
Directed by Steve Buscemi
For his second film as a director, actor Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge) brings ex-convict Edward Bunker’s poignant jail drama to the screen. Buscemi’s directing blends hard-hitting visual qualities with great emotional energy while giving the impression at times that he’s making a docu-drama. Look out for a performance from Mickey Rourke as the transvestite Jan the Actress.
17- 25th Hour (2002)
Directed by Spike Lee
25th Hour is both thoughtful and exciting, a movie that shifts tones casually and deceptively, building to its powerful finale. Solid direction, an astounding cast and a superb performance by Edward Norton make 25th Hour Spike Lee’s best film since Clockers. Be patient, because the deliberate pace leads to a rewarding payoff.
Directed by Frank Darabont
I think it is safe to say that Frank Darabont is the best director when it comes to adapting the work of Stephen King. Despite the clichés and stereotypes, The Green Mile is a solidly crafted film with a satisfying, if bittersweet, emotional finale that continues to resonate long after the credits roll.
15- Dead Man Walking (1995)
Directed by Tim Robbins
14- Bad Boys (1995)
Directed by Rick Rosenthal
A highly regarded teen drama. This gritty, assured, dark, movie captured with an extremely confident camera boasts strong performances from the cast, especially Sean Penn, who is electrifying throughout in one of his earliest powerhouse performances.
13- Papillon (1973)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Based on the memoirs of Henri Charriere, the only man to have successfully escaped from Devil’s Island, this rousing drama of endurance, opportunism and friendship under fire features a half a dozen iconic and unforgettable scenes. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are right at home in their roles and Jerry Goldsmith delivers one of his best original scores.
12- The Great Escape (1963)
Directed by John Sturges
John Sturges’ dramatization of the true story of a group of British, American, and Canadian POWs who successfully escaped from Stalag Luft III in Upper Silesia in March 1944 is arguably one of the best World War II adventure films ever made. A tense, action-packed adventure pitched by a dream-team cast which includes Steve McQueen (at his image-making and motorcycle-zooming peak), Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasance.
11- American History X (1998)
Directed by Tony Kaye
This uncompromising piece of filmmaking wields undeniable power, discussing and demonstrating racism, prejudice, and human blindness and compelling the viewer to look further and become involved. A work of impressive scale and craft. Intelligently written with assured direction, stunning black and white cinematography and Edward Norton delivering a disturbing, heartfelt and ultimately heartbreaking performance. American History X is a must see!
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Genre: Bio-pic, Prison film, Drama,
Audacious and cutting-edge cinema that is high in energy, often-funny, violent, very smart, dark, intelligent and disturbing. There have been many films about the prison experience, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s mannered biopic is the first to examine its incarcerated subject not as a monster or a victim, but rather as an artist. Often compared to A Clockwork Orange and Chopper, Bronson is a bizarre and bracing character study that is a touch to surreal for mainstream audiences. D.O.P. Larry Smith crafts a strikingly visual film that underscores its violence with classical music and pop while actor Tom Hardy is outstanding delivering one of the most powerful and commanding performances I’ve seen in a long time.
Directed by Jacques Audiard
It’s not a particularly new story, but as told by Jacques Audiard, Un Prophète is an exciting moviegoing experience you shouldn’t miss. This gangster-themed twist on the rags-to-riches story deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as such gangster movie classics as The Godfather, Goodfellas and at same time with such prison film classics as Cool Hand Luke. The omnipresent camera always is in the right place. Top drawer sound effects and the production design, remarkable cinematography, a great story, terrific acting and masterful filmmaking. A Prophet is essential viewing for art-film buffs and crime-flick fans alike.
8- Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)
Directed by Ngai Kai Lam
Based on a hyper-violent Japanese Manga, Rikki-Oh is one is of the most outrageously gory films you’ll ever see. So much so it ran into huge censorship problems in many countries as a result. Directed by genre specialist Ngai Kai Lam, (The Seventh Curse, Saga Of The Pheonix, Ghost Snatchers) RIki-Oh features more violence than several European cannibal thrillers combined: crushed heads, exploding bodies, exposed brains, eyeball violence, disembowelment, decapitation, suicide, manual organ removal, and more. The Story of Ricky has the honour of being the first totally sex-free Hong Kong film to receive a Category 3 rating (equivalent to the 18 certificate here) making it something of a unique viewing experience.
Directed by Jacques Becker
The story of five prisoners who meticulously plan their escape, only to learn that one of them is scheduled to be pardoned a few days before the jail-break. Based on a true story, this was the last film to be directed by Becker, who died shortly after its completion. The best thing about Le Trou is the tension. Becker doesn’t play up the tension through gimmicky film tricks and exciting music (in fact, there is no music at all until the end credits). Instead the suspense is built slowly and carefully, through finely perceived physical details and quirks of character. Le Trou is an excellent thriller, another rare gem recovered by the good people at Criterion.
Directed by Werner Herzog
Genre: War, Bio-pic
This is a tough movie-going experience made up of moments that represent cinema at its best. Rescue Dawn avoids all the typical foibles inherent in the war movie and represents a solid effort that fans of the genre should actively seek out.
Directed by Frank Darabont
Darabont’s intriguing adaptation is easily one of the finest films of the 1990s. Released to dismal box office returns and critical indifference, Shawshank managed to snare seven Academy Award nominations. It didn’t win any of them, but in a short period of time it has made it to number 1 on the IMDB’s greatest films of all time list. So I am assuming everyone has seen this film, so let’s move on.
4- Hunger (2008)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Renowned English video artist Steve McQueen’s feature film debut Hunger, is an alternately harrowing and poetic take on the fatal 1982 hunger strike of Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands. There are long stretches without dialogue in McQueen’s visually stunning wide-screen movie where the camera is always-in-motion. However the best scene in Hunger comes when McQueen sets aside his artistic eye for a 20-minute long steady take turning it into a two-person character piece. Michael Fassbender’s physical commitment to the role is frightening and outdoes even Christian Bale in The Machinist (in terms of weight loss) and ultimately Hunger is a cinematic punch to the gut. Haunting, brutal, heartbreaking, poignant, and captivating.
Directed by Jean Renoir
Orson Welles said that if he had to choose one great film, it would be Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Generally considered an anti-war film, Grand Illusion is really too many things to be neatly pigeon-holed by genre. Essentially a story about French prisoners of war escaping from a German prison, Illusion is expertly crafted, beautifully photographed and boasts an array of flawless performances including Erich von Stroheim in perhaps his most famous role.
One of the ‘great illusions’ to which Renoir refers is the illusion that we must be divided by class, race, religion and nationality. Renoir explores the invisible prisons we make when we allow prejudice to divide us along these lines and how even within the limited space of a prison, people will still divide themselves up into even smaller groups. This is a film about character not action and a sense of hope. In the final act the prisoners escape their physical prison only when beginning to break down those invisible barriers. Simply put, The Grand Illusion is one of the greatest movies ever made.
Directed by Jules Dassin
Dassin’s second film with producer Mark Hellinger (after the landmark Naked City) stars Burt Lancaster (in one of his first starring roles) as a cold, hard, weary career criminal behind bars. Seen at the time to be breaking new ground in cinematic violence, the big house execution of a stool pigeon with blow torches and a thundering metal press is unforgettable. Countless prison films since have depicted explicit savagery and gore, but few have managed to deliver the visceral impact it packs into its harrowing climax. This multi-textured picture that touches upon several genres including film noir, jailbreak movies and political allegories, is one of the best prison films of all time. It’s greatest accomplishment is how it manages to stand out as an original work, which is a hard thing to do considering the limited amount of things you can when limited to one location – a prison.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
In the history of motion pictures, there are but only a few better-known quotes. Even people who have never heard of Cool Hand Luke know of this one…
“What we have here is… failure to communicate.”
Filled with dozens of memorable scenes and quotable lines, Cool Hand Luke is a testament to the excellent screenplay by writer Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Viewed purely on a narrative level, as nothing more than the story of one man’s prison odyssey, Cool Hand Luke works. But taken to a deeper level, the film offers a lot of social commentary (and the most engaging allegory of Christ) by using a seemingly simple and straightforward story. This moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner stars Paul Newman in his blue-eyed prime. Newman gives an excellent performance, assisted by a terrific supporting cast including J.D. Cannon, Anthony Zerbe, Joe Don Baker, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper and Morgan Woodward. Like its protagonist, Cool Hand Luke is an original, and a classic that holds up well and features a great performance by a screen icon.
The Rock (1996), Big Doll House (1971), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Big Bird Cage (1972), The Longest Yard (1974), The Great Escape (1963), Death Race (2008), Turkey Shoot (1982)
A quick note:
I excluded A Clockwork Orange since I don’t consider it a prison film. I also excluded any films dealing with insane asylums such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it would get too complicated. Dark City is another example of a film I purposely excluded to avoid confusion and possible spoilers. And finally I excluded documentaries such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly.