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The 20 Best Spy Movies of All Time

Between Marvel’s Black Widow and the latest 007 outing No Time To Die, the past year has rejuvenated the spy genre. The world of geopolitical espionage has been a love of many since the Bond films got popular back in the 1960s and has only gotten bigger (and sometimes better) since. 

Today, we’ve compiled our list of the 20 best spy movies of all time so you can live your best Bond life from the comfort of your own home.

1. The James Bond Franchise (1962 – Present)

It’s not easy to pick the best Bond film (though we’ve attempted to recently) so let’s just consider the entire 007 chronology #1 on our list. James Bond is not only MI6’s most famous (albeit fictional) agent but also the most popular spy worldwide.

The Bond series has always been some of the best secret agent material out there, from exploding pens to shadowy criminal organizations, and every type of femme fatale in between, 007 has it all. With some of the best thespians out there, including Sean Connery (The Rock), Daniel Craig (Knives Out), Roger Moore (The Saint), and Pierce Brosnan (The Son), there isn’t a more well-represented secret agent in the business.

Between classics like Goldfinger, Skyfall, The Spy Who Loved Me, and GoldenEye, James Bond leads the way when it comes to spy films.

2. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt) in his final role to be finished and released before his untimely death, A Most Wanted Man follows Günther Bachmann as he leads a covert German op, seeking to recruit informants against Islamic terrorism.

Hoffman gives one of the best and most raw performances of his career as he juggles informants and attempts to evade American operatives. The film plays heavily into the post-9/11 “War on Terror” fears that occurred around the world, with Hoffman’s character doing his best not to let them take over. Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), and Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War) also star.

If A Most Wanted Man does anything, it challenges our perceptions and asks us what we might do, or who we might sacrifice, for the greater good.

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

While some of the Mission: Impossible films may not be considered “hits” (here’s looking at you Mission: Impossible 2), Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible exception.

Following the fifth M:I film, Rogue Nation, Fallout continues Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Top Gun) and his IMF team’s journey as they seek to obtain stolen plutonium, taken by the terrorist group The Apostles after a mission gone wrong. Between Cruise’s impressive airplane stunt, the incredible chase sequences, and the emotional character arcs (including returning characters), Fallout has everything you’d want from a spy flick.

Director Christopher McQuarrie already has two Mission: Impossible sequels in development, proving that Ethan Hunt has already accepted another mission (or two).

4. Argo (2012)

Based on the true events involving the 1979 – 1981 Iranian hostage crisis, Ben Affleck (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) takes on the role of CIA operative Tony Mendez, while simultaneously tackling his third outing in the director’s chair.

Argo is an incredible story that adapts the historical “Canadian caper,” which involved a fake sci-fi epic in the same context as Star Wars being filmed to help rescue the hostages. Affleck gives one of his greatest performances as Mendez while being supported by true talents Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Alan Arkin (Glengarry Glen Ross), and John Goodman (The Big Lebowski). 

While many of the spy films on this list are based on novels or fictional stories, Argo prides itself on being an adaptation of true events, making it truly one-of-a-kind.

5. Enemy of the State (1998)

 

A Tony Scott masterpiece, Enemy of the State proves once and for all that it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you. The film follows a NSA coup as they conspire to kill a congressman, only for an unsuspecting lawyer to end up with the evidence.

Scott (Man on Fire) does here what he does best, juxtaposing compelling characters with constant suspense. Will Smith (I Am Legend) stars opposite Gene Hackman (Crimson Tide) as they unravel this real-world conspiracy. Given the events of 9/11, the Patriot Act, and other government surveillance programs, the film is shockingly noteworthy today for its almost prophetic voice.

A special mention must be made of the supporting cast that includes Jon Voight (Deliverance), Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), Barry Pepper (25th Hour), Lisa Bonet (Angel Heart), Jack Black (School of Rock), Scott Cann (Ocean’s 11), Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), Regina King (Friday), and the great Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia). 

The chemistry between Smith and Hackman makes Enemy of the State one of the best spy movies, not to mention conspiracy theory movies, of all time.

6. The Ipcress File (1965)

 

In a quick response to the James Bond series, Michael Caine (The Dark Knight) starred in The Ipcress File as secret Ministry of Defense agent Harry Palmer, whose shady past would give 007 a run for his money.

Based on the novel of the same name, The Ipcress File deals with counter-espionage and the kidnapping and brainwashing of British scientists. A very young Caine doesn’t pull any punches as Harry Palmer, who fights to the death for the truth. It’s an exciting period thriller that is considered one of the greatest British films of all time. Caine even parodied the role in the Austin Powers and Kingsmen series of films.

Before the TV serial remake hits screens this December, make sure to check out The Ipcress File with the original Harry Palmer intact and in his prime.

7. Burn After Reading (2008)

Not at all your traditional spy flick, though to be honest when is any Coen Brothers film ever really traditional? Burn After Reading follows a pair of gym employees who find the memoirs of a CIA analyst, only to attempt to blackmail him (and others) for profit.

Calling Burn After Reading a spy movie (at least in the traditional sense) is really generous, but since there’s enough spy work and crime throughout, we think it’s a worthy addition to this list. The film stars recurring Coen thespians George Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Francis McDormand (Fargo), Tilda Swinton (Hail, Caesar!), Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty), John Malkovich (Red), and Brad Pitt (World War Z).

Burn After Reading is clearly the Coen’s attempt at their own Tony Scott meets Jason Bourne movie without the explosions, and it pays off.

8. North by Northwest (1959)

 

Alfred Hitchcock, best known for Psycho and Rear Window, made what the film’s screenwriter Ernest Lehman would call “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” in North by Northwest, still considered one of the greatest of all time.

As one of the most influential pictures of its time, North by Northwest follows Cary Grant (Notorious) as Roger Thornhill, a man on the run across the US, fighting to escape from a shadow organization bent on killing him before he reveals their plot to expose government secrets. This spy thriller has just about everything you could ask for from the genre, including a killer romance with Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront).

North by Northwest is not only one of Hitchcock’s best but is often considered a true classic of the Golden Hollywood age. If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will!

9. The Bourne Trilogy (2002 – 2007)

The original Bourne trilogy is the best action spy thriller series of films released over the past two decades. Matt Damon (The Martian) stars as former CIA operative Jason Bourne, or at least that’s what he thinks his name is.

The original Bourne trilogy followed Bourne as he attempted to distance himself from the brainwashing of the Treadstone project, working to make a life for himself. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity and Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum follow one continuous thread (one sort of continued in Greengrass’ so-so 2016 follow-up Jason Bourne).

While shaky-cam action sequences might be out of date, the ethical dilemmas and government overreach that marked The Bourne Trilogy still hit hard in today’s current climate.

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Maybe the most intense spy film on the list, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy stars Garry Olman (The Dark Knight) as agent George Smiley. The film revolves around the hunt for a Soviet secret agent at the top of British intelligence.

Based on the novel by John le Carré (who appears as a party guest who wrote another book that inspired A Most Wanted Man), this film dives deep into the fear and paranoia of surveillance in an age where it was less common. Winning three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Actor for Gary Oldman’s performance, this one will no doubt go down in the history books!

It’s another film on this list with an exceptional support cast that includes Tom Hardy (Venom), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Mark Strong (RockNRolla), and Stephen Graham (Snatch).

Between the anxiety-inducing score, the clever writing, and the star-studded cast, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a masterpiece in spy filmmaking.

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11. Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2015)

The first installment in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsmen series, The Secret Service follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton, Rocket Man) as he joins a super-secret British spy organization.

Vaughn, whose previous work has included Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, adds lots of flair, excitement, and action to the super-secret spy world of Kingsmen. Between that infamously bloody church scene (yikes) to crazy set pieces that make you wish you were a spy, The Secret Service does it all. Plus who doesn’t love Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), and Michael Caine?

If Kingsmen: The Secret Service is your brand, check out the sequel, The Golden Circle, and the soon-to-be-released prequel, The King’s Man, all written/directed by Vaughn.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

 

Another “not a spy movie in a traditional sense” flick, Zero Dark Thirty follows the decade-long manhunt for Islamic terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden (Ricky Sekhon) post-9/11, which ultimately lead to the 2011 military raid where he was killed.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) takes “the greatest manhunt in history” and shows it through the eyes of fictional CIA analyst Maya Harris (Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game). The film has been criticized for its seemingly “pro-torture” propaganda, while others have praised it for having the opposite effect. The film does a masterful job at being as factually accurate as possible while still dramatizing real-life events.

If true spy/military stories are your thing, then Zero Dark Thirty is the film for you!

13. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

“His CIA code name is Condor and in the next seventy-two hours almost everyone he trusts will try to kill him.” With a tagline like that, Three Days of the Condor tells you all you need to know.

For those who need a little more, the movie follows a CIA researcher (Robert Redford, A River Runs Through It) who finds all of his co-workers suddenly dead and must scramble to avoid those responsible until he can find someone to trust. 

Director Sydney Pollack, known for his frequent collaborations with Redford on films such as Out of Africa and Jeremiah Johnson, will “wow” you with this stylish Academy Award-winning spy film. With Faye Dunaway (The Towering Inferno) by his side, Redford shines as the bookish Joe Turner, who does everything he can to run and hide from a potentially nefarious CIA. It’s an exciting political thriller that keeps you on edge.

14. Atomic Blonde (2017)

 

Originally based on a graphic novel, Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) made her impact in the spy genre with Atomic Blonde. The film follows Lorraine as she works to recover a list being smuggled out of Berlin just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With exciting and non-stop action sequences that rival most of the films on this list, Atomic Blonde crushes much of the competition when it comes to entertainment value. Between the film’s period setting and its compelling cast, which includes James McAvoy (Split), there’s a lot going for this one that makes it pretty great. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to watch.

Fun fact: Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, who first co-directed the film John Wick, which many critics have compared this film’s actions sequences to.

15. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

 

Based on the popular television series of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (directed by Sherlock Holmes’ Guy Ritchie) follows a joint task force between two American and Russian spies as they attempt to stop a Nazi war criminal during the height of the Cold War.

This movie rocks. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) stars as CIA agent Napoleon Solo, a sleek and stylish spy who stays cool under pressure, alongside Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) as Illya Kuryakin, a KGB assassin with the temper of an angry bear. These two must learn to work together to stop nuclear war and global domination. With incredibly well-paced editing and action sequences, U.N.C.L.E. proves one of the best.

Though we’ll sadly never get a sequel (Hammer has gone off the deep-end), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a solid self-contained spy story that will engage you until the very last moment. 

16. True Lies (1994)

 

True Lies is an action spy-comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator) and written/directed by James Cameron (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) that will make you laugh so hard you cry.

The film follows US counterterrorism agent Harry Tasker as he tries to balance his undisclosed professional life as an Omega secret agent with his personal life as a husband and father (and a fake computer salesman) to wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It’s such a fun film that takes the spy genre to some great comedic heights, helped greatly by the addition of Tom Arnold (Roseanne) as Arnie’s wisecracking partner. 

While less of a parody on the spy genre (ala Austin Powers), True Lies is one of the best action-comedies of the 1990s, and one of our favorite spy flicks on this list.

17. The Conversation (1974)

A fantastic movie that made our top thrillers list from a while back, The Conversation is a Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) masterpiece starring Gene Hackman as surveillance expert Harry Caul who faces a moral dilemma when he learns that his recordings contain evidence of a potential murder.

The Conversation has often been believed to be a social commentary on the Watergate scandal, which caused quite the uproar in the United States during the early 1970s, with the film only having been released months before President Nixon resigned. Social commentary aside, surveillance expert Caul is one of the most interesting characters on this list given that he’s not a secret agent but a concerned citizen.

Coppola’s The Conversation really puts the “spy” back in the spy genre, just don’t expect many secret agents or gadgets – this film is all about suspense and storytelling. 

18. Spy Game (2001)

Tony Scott returns to the action thriller genre with Spy Game (which, given the title, we had to include), a sleeper Robert Redford/Brad Pitt production that was released between Scott’s other spy hits Enemy of the State and Man on Fire.​

The film follows Redford as the retiring CIA agent Nathan Muir as he recalls training Pitt’s Tom Bishop while working against inter-agency politics to rescue him from captivity. This is one of those pictures that you have to watch a few times to get everything figured out, but it’ll be worth the rewatch. Redford and Pitt are phenomenal and, as always, are at the top of their (spy) game.

Spy Game is a complex and thought-provoking action film that will keep you on your toes.

19. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

 

Written by the Transformers/Star Trek writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and directed by sci-fi legend J.J. Abrams (Lost), Mission: Impossible III is the one that really launched the M:I series into its prime.

Though the first film is solid, the second is terrible. Abrams did what only he could and told a powerfully emotional story that brought Ethan Hunt back into the public eye (and out of retirement) only to keep him there as long as Tom Cruise will allow. Hunt and his IMF team track down the villainous Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) before he can use his “Rabbit’s foot” technology to disrupt the world.

Mission: Impossible III gives some incredibly necessary prologue to the following sequels (including Fallout), and still manages to be one of the best spy films out there.

20. Black Widow (2021)

 

When you think of Black Widow, you probably assume it’s “just another Marvel superhero movie,” but that’s not what the film is at all. Black Widow follows the titular character as she deals with her past and fights against the mysterious Red Room.

What Black Widow does really well is forgo a lot of the superhero tropes and instead lays heavily into the spy ones. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell) and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh, Little Women) fight hard to deal with their own emotional/family trauma while also taking down the super-secret shadow organization that brainwashed them as children. It’s all sorts of good spy drama.

Don’t let Marvel’s reputation for superhero flicks fool you – Black Widow is as much a spy film as many of the flicks on this list, just with a Disney budget and lots of digital effects.

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