Ever since we were kids – and thanks in no small part to the works of Ian Fleming – we’ve been fascinated by tales of espionage. From the over-the-top exploits of spies who can’t stop telling people that they are, in fact, spies to the quieter, more under-the-radar actions of humble intelligence analysts, the genre is just so alluring. And while there are certainly tropes that span it’s entirety, it’s an incredibly versatile film style.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a collection of what we believe are the 20 best spy movies of all time. And, no, it’s not just a list of Bond films – although, it very well could be. Whatever the case, these films are what we believe to be the most sound examples within the genre. From big-budget explosion-driven action thrillers to far more subdued slow-burn cold-war era suspense flicks, we’re sure you can find a few tales of espionage here worth watching.
There was a time when it was widely believed that Ben Affleck’s career was sputtering out. That is, until the release of Argo. Directed by Affleck himself, this flick is the dramatization of a true story – that being the tale of how a CIA operative, by the name of Tony Mendez, used the filming of a fake movie to help rescue six U.S. diplomats from Tehran. It’s a complicated and, at times, hilarious concept for a drama flick made all the more interesting by the fact that it really happened. And it doesn’t hurt that it won several awards, including three Oscars and two Golden Globes.
The Bourne Identity
Really, the first three Bourne flicks have collectively earned a spot on this list. Partially for their adherence to the spy genre whilst not using its tropes as a crutch, but arguably more so for their consistent action and adrenaline-fueled suspense. Based on a Robert Ludlum novel of the same name, The Bourne Identity follows the story of Jason Bourne, a man suffering from severe amnesia, as he tries to discover his identity, as well as his role in a greater CIA conspiracy. While not entirely distinct in the spy thriller genre, this movie does offer a bit of raw grit hard to come by elsewhere.
Burn After Reading
Without spoiling it, Burn After Reading isn’t what you might strictly call a spy movie. It does, however, have elements of the genre and even directly involves the CIA as a part of the plot, which is more than enough to earn it a spot on this list. Well, that and the fact that this Cohen brothers flick offers up the same acerbic dialogue and convoluted near-slapstick level comedic storytelling for which the writing and directing duo is known. If you like both spy movies and comedies like The Big Lebowski, this is one you shouldn’t pass up.
After the Brosnan years, we were pretty skeptical about the future of the James Bond franchise. But after seeing this series reboot based on the 1953 Ian Fleming novel of the same name, we promptly stuffed our feet into our mouths. Call it sacrilegious – and we mean no offense to Mr. Sean Connery – but Daniel Craig might actually be our favorite Bond. Part of that is because of this version’s unequivocal stylishness, but it also helps that the most recent Bond films have completely done away with the campiness of the earlier movies and have given the character a far more no-nonsense demeanor.
The Day of the Jackal
When he was alive, film critic Roger Ebert made no habit of pulling his punches in reviews. And that should be taken into consideration when you learn that he not only gave this film his highest possible rating of 4 stars, but he also went so far as to call the film “spellbinding” and “a beautifully executed example of filmmaking.” Though the film is old, the plot holds up surprisingly well and is still considered by some to be one of the best thrillers of all time. If you’re looking for a ‘whodunnit’ spin on a political action-drama, this is the movie for you.
The Hunt for Red October
All told, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, a fictional CIA-analyst-turned-action-hero, has appeared in five different movies. While not necessarily the best depiction of the character, The Hunt for Red October might very well be the best movie in which he’s ever been. Played in this iteration by Alec Baldwin, the character finds himself at the center of a Cold War crisis, trying to convince the U.S. Navy that a rogue Soviet submarine captain wishes to defect to the United States before violence erupts between the Russian and American navies. The sub captain, played by Sean Connery, and his crewmen are the characters that really shine in this movie. And for us it’s a must-watch, even if you’re not big on spy movies.
The Ipcress File
If the James Bonds of the spy or action movie genres are just a bit too glamorous for you to believe, you might be interested in the Harry Palmer series of movies – The Ipcress File being arguably the best entry in said series. In stark contrast to Ian Fleming’s character, Palmer is wry, not particularly suave, and actually somewhat bumbling by comparison. Still, thanks to the acting chops of Michael Caine, he comes across as charming in his own way. For reference, this flick ranks at number 59 of BFI’s list of the hundred best British movies of the 20th century.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
If ever there was a bigger sleeper hit in the spy/thriller genre, we’ve yet to come across it. Truly, this was one of the most surprisingly fresh and well-executed movies of the last decade, at least. It’s even difficult for us to pick out whom of the characters shines the most – although then-newcomer Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle, Legend) impressed thoroughly. Also starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine, this movie (based on a Mark Millar comic series) manages to take a frankly ridiculous global-level crisis and pares it down into a story that is somehow simultaneously emotionally enthralling and lightheartedly action-packed.
The Lives of Others
The only foreign language film on our list and one that won an Oscar the year of its release, this German flick plays on the shady politics of Eastern Germany in 1984, during the height of the Cold War, as well as the perils of living in a Soviet-controlled state. It’s a stunning and shockingly accurate portrayal of what life was like for East Germans before the fall of the Berlin Wall and, as far as dramatic films go, this one pulls on the heartstrings as well as presents an enthralling tale.
The Manchurian Candidate
You might remember that, in 2004, a film by the same name as this one was released – except it starred Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber. As you might now gather, it was a remake of the 1962 film starring Frank Sinatra. With a few rare exceptions, you can assume that any remake likely had an original worth watching. At the very least, that’s true in this case. The Manchurian Candidate is a film we think everyone should see at least once.
Just like the Bourne series, the Mission: Impossible franchise has some middling entries. But, on the whole, these spy action-thrillers are some of the best big-budget representations of their sub-genre and the larger action/adventure genre on the whole. And, say what you will about Tom Cruise, but his portrayal of Ethan Hunt is one of the more memorable characters of his long career. You’re not a real fan of the spy genre if you haven’t at least given this series a chance. You could even argue that these movies touch, even just a little, on science-fiction.
Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time. It’s indisputable. He has a major hit in literally every decade since the ’70s and often even more – especially in the 1980s. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his swing at a spy-style thriller would be a successful one. In fact, this Eric Bana-starring movie – a fictionalized account of Israel’s secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization – garnered five Oscar nods and was by and large a critical success.
North By Northwest
We wish that the Master of Suspense himself – Alfred Hitchcock – had done more spy movies. The fact of the matter is this: the cerebral genre calls for that kind of a discerning eye to keep the pacing and energy up. We credit the director’s mastery of suspense as to why North By Northwest isn’t just one of the best spy movies ever – it’s one of the best movies of all time, period. This tale of mistaken identity stars Carey Grant in what might be his best role of all time, as well.
Another in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, this is a sequel to the Hunt for Red October, but stars Harrison Ford in the leading role – rather than Alec Baldwin. While perhaps not quite as good overall when compared to its predecessor, this depiction of the Jack Ryan character is certainly our favorite. In fact, Harrison Ford is the only actor to portray him twice – both in this film and in Clear and Present Danger (another great spy flick).
Starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and more – this flick covers what we believe is an underrepresented group amongst spy movie characters. We mean, of course, high-level hired mercenaries. The kind that don’t ask questions and are really good at what they do. Be careful with this one, however, because the plot can be very confusing at times. It does, however, have one of the best chase sequences of any movie not primarily considered a car flick.
The Third Man
This noir-style atmospheric flick stars Orson Wells and Joseph Cotton and takes place in post-WWII Vienna, Italy. While the film is perhaps more closely aligned with a detective story, the circumstances surrounding the incidents in the flick and the involvement of several international governing bodies and their troops definitely places The Third Man squarely in the realm of spy movies (and war movies, too). It’s an older one and is in black and white, so it can be a tough watch for some, but it is no less a cinematic classic.
Three Days of the Condor
Set primarily in NYC and Washington D.C, this story follows a CIA analyst, codenamed “Condor,” after he returns to his office after lunch to find all of his coworkers murdered. He then must try to outwit those responsible and try to figure out exactly what transpired and why it happened. Apart from being an excellent mystery suspense-thriller, this movie also features Robert Redford at what is perhaps his most stylish.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
There are a lot of hollywood spy-blockbusters out there that rely heavily on action and explosions. This movie is not one of them. Perhaps the ultimate slow-burn spy movie of all time, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can be a bit difficult to trudge through, but ultimately is worth it – both for its excellent storyline and the stellar cast. This film stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, and more.
With a list of stars that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, and Charlton Heston – it was a pretty good bet that True Lies was going to be watchable, at the very least. Pair that with the fact that it was directed by none other than James Cameron and it becomes a must-see. This hilarious action/adventure comedy follows the story of Harry Tasker, a seemingly mild-mannered computer salesman who is actually a counter-terrorism special operative, as he tries to add a little spice back into his marriage by staging a fake spy mission for his wife – only to inadvertently involve her in an actual black-ops mission.
Where Eagles Dare
Another spy film based on a book – this one by Alistair MacLean – this WWII-era action flick stars Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, and Ingrid Pitt. Not only did it feature some of the top moviemaking professionals of that time, but it also featured some of the best action and stunt sequences of the era. The story follows a group of elite Allied soldiers as they attempt to rescue an American officer from a Nazi-held mountaintop castle. There’s a lot more to it than that, but we’ll let you see it for yourself.
20 Best Car Movies Of All Time
Action spy thrillers and car chases go together like peanut butter and jelly. So, if your taste for thrills isn’t quite sated by this list, check out our collection of the best car movies of all time.
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