20 Best Prison Films (Part 2 of 2)

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10- Bronson (2008)

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.

Listen to our review from podcast #152

9- Un Prophète (2009)

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.

Listen to our review from podcast #185

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.

7- Le Trou (1960)

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.

6- Rescue Dawn (2006)

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.

5- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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)hunger_ver2

Directed by Steve McQueen

Genre: Bio-pic

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.

Listen to our review from podcast #79

3- The Grand Illusion (1937)

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.

2- Brute Force (1947)

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.

Listen to our review from podcast #40

1- Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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.

Listen to our review from podcast #63

Special Mention:

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.

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7 Comments
  1. bob says

    shawshank redemption, rescue dawn greatest movies ever

  2. Jay says

    Good list, but like above a glaring omission was Midnight Express, easily under any top 5 list.

    Another missing one is Fortress (1992) with Christopher Lambert, a decent “B” flick actioner sci-fi totalitarian based society.

  3. Dave Valentine says

    Terrific list, and yet another reason for me to see Un Prophète and Hunger.

    Excellent choice for No. 1 (watched it again last night, and it’s better than ever).

    The only other omissions that come to mind are Alan Parker’s Midnight Express and the fantastic Ghosts Of The Civil Dead, which is one of the most brutal portrayls of prison life.

    1. Ricky says

      Midnight Express is not a pleasant watch. I can’t handle it. But wait… WTF is Ghosts Of The Civil Dead. Dude I never heard of this baby?????????

      1. Dave Valentine says

        Ghosts Of The Civil Dead was the debut feature by John (The Proposition/The Road) Hillcoat. Co-written by and featuring Nick Cave both on screen and contributing to the soundtrack.

        It’s horribly brutal and left me totally lost for words upon first viewing.

        Quite difficult to get hold of on DVD, but if you get the chance, then I highly recommend it – It’s an Australian Clockwork Orange.

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095217/

  4. Myles says

    Nicolas thanks for including Animal Factory…I wasn’t sure you would, but low and behold, there it is…great prison movie.

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