Whether you’re a fan of the action, mystery, super gadgets, or international political intrigue, you no doubt have your personal favorite movie about spy craft and espionage. The best spy movies of all time have unpredictable plot lines where the stakes are high and you never know who to trust. That’s part of why they are so entertaining to a wide range of audiences.
Spy movies were among the earliest films, with the genre dating back to the silent era as an exciting bit of voyeurism that started out as reenactments of real-life events from international conflicts. Over the years they have grown to incorporate everything from fantasy to humor, though the best ones still follow the rules of the real world.
Basically, when it comes to watching stories about espionage, audiences are generally looking for a few hours of sweet escapism, and spy films take that expectation to the next level. While most viewers will never have to complete an intense life-or-death mission or steal information, a good spy movie will make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action and maintain the suspense.
With so many great spy movies to come out over the years, how can we choose the most legendary plotlines? StudyFinds we to 10 expert websites to draft this list of the best spy movies of all time. Tell us which is your favorite – or which you think is missing on this list – in the comments section below.
The List: Best Spy Movies of All Time, According to Experts
1. “The Bourne Identity” (2007)
Based on a novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum, this one tops IMDb’s list of best spy movies of all time. Starring Matt Damon as a highly trained spy suffering from amnesia and trying to reclaim his past. It’s the first of a thrilling franchise that’s been a hit with fans and critics alike.
“The first Bourne film remains the best one, featuring kinetic, world hopping action and a sense of momentum that most other spy films wish they could achieve,” states Screen Rant.
“Bourne exemplifies the kind of spy only cinema can create: the betrayed [soldier] and a trained killing machine,” writes Taste of Cinema. “Another cinematic device that brands Bourne a thrilling commodity is that he suffers from amnesia. He seeks revenge against all those who wronged him, but revenge and amnesia is are lethal ingredients. Thus, Jason Bourne continues to out shine any spy because of the perpetual darkness within him.”
“When it comes to achieving the ideal spy-movie ratio of tense character drama and killer action sequences, it’s hard to beat the first three Bourne movies,” writes Parade.
2. “North by Northwest” (1959)
This is one of iconic film director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, and it features an exciting role for Cary Grant as a man mistaken for a look-a-like spy who several foreign agents mean harm. A romantic thriller with memorable action sequences, continues to influence movie makers to this day.
“It is a classic Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that seamlessly combines suspense, action, and romance,” writes GoBookMart. “The film takes viewers on a thrilling journey through a web of intrigue and espionage. … North by Northwest remains a timeless cinematic treasure that continues to captivate audiences.”
“It’s maybe Hitchcock’s best film and an essential watch in the spy genre,” writes Men’s Health. “It was put to screen just as the Cold War was heating up.”
Screen Rant calls Hitchcock’s film “A thrilling adventure involving espionage, mistaken identity, and murder. Cary Grant, in one of his most memorable roles ever, stars as a man who is confused for a secret agent and drawn into a world of spies, villains, and international intrigue.”
3. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
This fantastic spy movie is based on the John le Carré novel of the same name and stars a slew of British stars, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Gary Oldman in a performance Vulture called “brilliant.” Directed by Tomas Alfredson, it’s pure Cold War espionage.
Taste of Cinema states that this film “requires the patience of a monk.” It continues, “The film is a labyrinth of ‘who’ ‘what’ ‘when’ and ’why,’ but it doesn’t create the rush action effect sequences of a Jason Bourne film.…Nonetheless, the film rests as the pinnacle of the ‘thinking man’s’ spy movie.”
“A who’s-who of male British actors (Oldman, Firth, Hurt, Hardy, Cumberbatch) deliver layered performances in this understated Cold War thriller, in which MI-6 officers try to find a mole who is collaborating with the KGB,” writes Parade. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy received three Oscar nominations and was nominated for 12 BAFTAs (the British Oscars), winning three.”
4. “Mission: Impossible” (1996)
This feature film introduced audiences to American spy Ethan Hunt, famously played by Tom Cruise for more than 20 years. It revamped the genre for the big screen and spawned a wildly successful franchise. “Movies like Mission: Impossible are why this genre is so popular,” gushes Glamour.
Vulture calls it a “Big-screen adaptation of the ’60s spy show with a Hitchcockian adventure.” It continues, “The whole movie hangs together brilliantly, setting a high standard for the sequels.”
“The three most recent Mission: Impossible films may stand as some of the best action and espionage films ever made, but it’s the original that set the tone and the rhythm of the films that would follow it,” states Screen Rant. “The first Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian de Palma, set a new standard for spy films and originated the structure that almost all M:I films would follow afterward. Its crowning achievement is its hair raising heist scene, which continually raises the stakes of the agents getting caught and created one of the most famous scenes in film history: Ethan Hunt dangling precariously inches above the pressure sensitive floor of a secure room.”
5. “Casino Royale” (2006)
“Casino Royale” was Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring James Bond, so it was a fitting choice for rebooting the franchise. Daniel Craig plays the famous spy, introducing fans to a younger, more emotionally complex version of the British secret agent as he gets his first assignment as 007.
“One of the most successful franchise reboots of all time, Casino Royale introduced Daniel Craig as a younger, scruffier and more emotionally volatile James Bond,” writes Parade. “It was the movie that brought 007 into the new millennium–not least of all, by giving its sexy star the camera’s full adoration, instead of reserving it for bikini-clad Bond girls.”
“Casino Royale (2006) revitalized the James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig stepping into the role of the suave, yet gritty secret agent,” states GoBookMart. “Combining pulse-pounding action, sophisticated espionage, and a captivating love story with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Casino Royale masterfully reimagines the classic Bond formula, injecting a fresh, modern twist that has left fans wanting more.”
And Stacker notes, “Writing for The Atlantic, Christopher Orr praised the film as ‘presenting a Bond both leaner and meaner than any that has come before,’ and going even further to say that ‘this is the best Bond flick in nearly four decades’ and ‘is beyond reasonable dispute.’”
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