Shaken, stirred, or even streamed, spy movies make up many of the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat stories the movies have to offer. From the harrowing heights of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise to the suave savvy of six James Bonds, espionage has become the thematic ground on which some of cinema’s most epic dramas, thrillers, and comedies (hello, “Austin Powers”) are built. Even films primarily centered on other subject matter make frequent use of spy drama beats (see Star Wars and Marvel, for starters), proving it’s a bedrock source for onscreen entertainment.
The espionage genre is as old as filmmaking itself with silent spy movies set against the backdrop of World War I (1914’s “The German Spy Peril” is on YouTube) testing the medium’s limitations early in the 20th century. Literary works inspired many more of the spy movies to follow. Over the years, filmmakers have repeatedly adapted the works of John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, and more spy novelists imagining the covert operations of local, national, and international enemies. Great spy stories may make use of the genre’s irresistible tropes — fast cars, strong drinks, double-crosses, etc. — but they do so while rendering unique portraits of the complex characters caught in their tale’s crosshairs.
Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Coen brothers are just a handful of the legendary auteurs who have put their talents toward the art of the spy movie. Along the way, they’ve enlisted top-tier acting talent, creating living legends with A-list actors from Cary Grant to Tom Cruise. Measured by how well they make use of the genre, here are the top 20 best spy movies ever made.
[Editor’s note: This list was published in July 2022 and has been updated since.] With editorial contributions by Wilson Chapman.
20. “Spy” (2015)
The spy comedy is a surprisingly fertile microgenre, between “Spy Hard” and the ever popular “Austin Powers” franchise. But none can hold a candle to the simply named “Spy,” which provides Melissa McCarthy with her best/possibly only great post-“Bridesmaids” comedic turn, complete with Paul Feig returning to direct her. Cast against type as a doormat, McCarthy’s character Susan Cooper has been confined to a desk job for years thanks to her passive nature, working as a backup for her crush Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But when Fine gets murdered on the job, she decides to step onto the field to track down nukes dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). McCarthy is an utter delight as Susan, and her journey to becoming a confident, badass action hero makes for a rewarding, surprisingly moving character arc. The only bad thing about “Spy” is it somehow hasn’t gotten a sequel yet. —WC
19. “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)
Detectives Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) go undercover in the Ku Klux Klan for Spike Lee’s darkly hilarious “BlacKkKlansman.” Based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of the same name, this 2018 Best Picture contender won Best Adapted Screenplay, earning Lee his first competitive Oscar 30 years after “Do The Right Thing.” (Lee won an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 2015). Set in 1970s Colorado, “BlacKkKlansman” might not be a spy movie in the most traditional sense of international espionage. But it maneuvers perspective and dramatic irony with enough panache characteristic of the genre to overpower any classification technicalities. It earned additional Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Supporting Actor for Driver.
18. “Bridge of Spies” (2015)
Among Tom Hanks’ best roles is his performance in “Bridge of Spies” as the real James B. Donovan, a Cold War-era attorney tasked with negotiating the release of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The 2015 historical drama not only stirringly reenacts the events of the 1960 U-2 crisis, but sees the Best Picture nominee’s staggeringly skilled team combine their mega-watt talents for some of the most memorable beats in spy cinema. Steven Spielberg directs with a script from Matt Charman and the Coen brothers. Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.
17. “The Imitation Game” (2014)
Directed by Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” tells the compelling true story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician and computer scientist who worked as a code-breaker for the British during World War II. This poignant spy drama offers not only a fascinating glimpse into Turing’s most salient innovations and discoveries, but also a heartbreaking espionage story that fearlessly interrogates what generations of LGBTQ people have been asked to sacrifice — and hide. “The Imitation Game” was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Actor for Cumberbatch and Best Supporting Actress for Keira Knightley, who plays code-breaker Joan Clarke. Screenwriter Graham Moore won for Best Adapted Screenplay, having based the project on Andrew Hodges’ biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma.”
16. “Munich” (2005)
Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a truly touchy subject, but Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is one of the few great portrayals of the conflict on film. A slightly fictionalized account of the events following the 1972 Black September attacks that lead to the deaths of 11 Israel Olympic Team Members in Munich, the film focuses on a team lead by Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana), as they travel the world to assassinate several Palestinians allegedly involved in the attack. The film doesn’t take the side of the agents, necessarily, instead focusing on the queasy morality of their actions and the cycle of violence that results in nothing but harm to both sides. Yes, the sex scene is a little goofy, but “Munich” remains one of Spielberg’s best. —WC
15. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
The Best James Bond Movies is a ranking unto itself, to be sure. But it just doesn’t get more quintessentially 007 than the George Lazenby-starring “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Not only does it include intoxicating levels of Bond charm (“There’s something formal about the point of a pistol…”), but it also has one of the best Bond action sequences (ski chase!), one of the best Bond scores (John Barry outdoes himself, along with “We Have All the Time in the World” performed by Louis Armstrong), and one of the best Bond love interests (Diana Rigg as Bond’s only wife, Traci di Vicenzo).
14. “Enemy of the State” (1998)
Bobby Dean (Will Smith) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in director Tony Scott’s “Enemy of the State.” When Bobby’s old friend from college (Jason Lee) witnesses a murder involving high-level government officials, the pair’s chance meeting at a shopping center leaves the ill-fated labor lawyer with critical evidence. Soon, he’s on the run with the head of the NSA (Jon Voight) and a congressman (Gene Hackman) in hot pursuit. Regina King and Lisa Bonet also appear.
13. “The Hunt for Red October” (1990)
Still the best adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel to date, “The Hunt for Red October” chronicles the search for a hard-to-detect submarine off the east coast of the U.S. The powerful ballistic missile sub may be captained by Soviet captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), but it’s the CIA’s duty to find and stop it. Alec Baldwin leads as agent Jack Ryan, alongside Tim Curry, Peter Firth, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, and more. The 1990 spy thriller earned three Oscar nominations, winning for Best Sound Effects Editing.
12. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, director John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” redefined the double-cross with the story of a soldier, played by Laurence Harvey, who is unwittingly weaponized by foreign enemies. The concept comes from author Richard Condon’s gripping 1959 novel, but is made even more compelling by the onscreen talents of a cast that boasts Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury, who got her first Best Actress nomination for her part. “The Manchurian Candidate” was also nominated for Best Film Editing.
11. “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock is the only director on this list to have three separate entries, which is highly unsurprising; as the master of suspense, the British filmmaker’s talents are perfect for the spy genre. One of his earliest and best spy films is “The Lady Vanishes,” His 1938 British film about an English tourist (played by Margaret Lockwood) traveling through the (fictional) country of Bandrika, who befriends an elderly passenger (May Whitty) on board her train home. But when she falls asleep, the elderly woman vanishes, and everyone else on board denies ever having seen her, forcing the tourist to team up with an irritating musicologist (Michael Redgrave) in order to suss out the mystery. The film remains crackerjack entertainment decades later, thanks to Hitchcock’s already impeccable direction and sizzling chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave.
10. “The Bourne Identity” (2002)
When the “James Bond” series relaunched with “Casino Royale” in 2006, it looked very different, with a grittier, more down-to-earth tone that was worlds away from the invisible cars of “Die Another Day.” That change in direction owed more than a little to 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” which brought a rough and tumble quality to the spy genre that proved wildly influential. Matt Damon stars as the titular Jason Bourne, a man with amnesia rescued from near death by the sea, who discovers that he’s at the center of a massive CIA conspiracy. The film spawned four sequels, but Doug Liman’s original remains the best, with action scenes and a mystery that remains a thrill two decades later.
9. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018)
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” tops IndieWire’s complete ranking of the super-spy action franchise with good reason. Featuring some of the series’ best stunts (Tom Cruise leaping out of a C-17 at 25,000 feet!) and a satisfactorily compelling plot (anarchists have access to atom bombs), the sixth “Mission: Impossible” title justifies itself by delivering more of the same better, faster, further. Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Vanessa Kirby, and more round out the cast.
8. “Three Days of the Condor” (1975)
In Sydney Pollack’s 1975 espionage masterclass, CIA bureaucrat Joe Turner (Robert Redford) leaves the office to get lunch, only to return and find all six of his colleagues murdered. Afraid for his life, Joe enlists the help of a woman off the street named Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway). Together, the pair attempt to piece together what to do and who they can trust in a dizzying spectacle of spy tropes. Max Von Sydow’s mustachioed Joubert offers an all-time great antagonist.
7. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965)
Directed by Martin Ritt, this 1965 espionage staple follows MI6 agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) through a harrowing steeplechase of betrayal and brilliance. When the jaded Leamas, nearing retirement, is asked to sell British secrets to the East German Intelligence Service, his decision to defect sets off a mesmerizing feat of deception that places him and colleague-turned-love interest Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) in grave danger. The dark tale earned Burton an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, as well as accolades for Best Art Direction.
6. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
Based on John le Carré’s page-turner of the same name, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” sets forth a seemingly straight-forward puzzle: Who is the mole at the top of British intelligence? Directed by Tomas Alfredson, this thorny espionage drama stars Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy, and more in a circuitous plot set against the backdrop of the Cold War. At the Oscars, Oldman earned a Best Actor nod, while screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Composer Alberto Iglesias was also nominated for Best Original Score.
5. “No Way Out” (1987)
In director Roger Donaldson’s “No Way Out,” a naval lieutenant commander (Kevin Costner) makes a terrible mistake when he accidentally begins an affair with the mistress (Sean Young) of his new boss, the U.S. secretary of defense (Gene Hackman). That would-be basis for a Washingtonian rom-com doesn’t sound too bad. But when the secretary murders his lover in cold blood, evidence linking both men to the victim begets a coverup that reaches the Pentagon. Based on author Kenneth Fearing’s “The Big Clock,” this 1987 political thriller may be the most outright entertaining on this list. (Seriously, just think of that ending!)
4. “Notorious” (1946)
One of Hitchcock’s all time greatest films, “Notorious” features Ingrid Bergman in her other acclaimed film about a woman caught in a love triangle between two men. Like in “Casablanca,” Bergman plays a spy, though this time one for America in Alicia, who works with U.S. government agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a Nazi group who escaped punishment from World War II in Brazil. Alicia, the daughter of a German war criminal, is assigned to seduce a leader of the group Sebastian (Claude Raims) — a mission that proves deeply complicated when she and Devlin develop intense feelings for each other. For fans of modern spy fiction like “The Americans” that mixes espionage with romantic stakes, “Notorious” and its intoxicating mix of thrills with anguished passion is an absolute must watch.
3. “The Conversation” (1974)
Gene Hackman stars as surveillance expert Harry Caul in “The Conversation,” a 1974 psychological thriller that director Francis Ford Coppola once said was his favorite of his films. Its plot revolves around Caul and his colleagues’ mission to covertly record a couple’s conversation for a secretive client. What sets this Best Picture contender apart (funnily enough, it lost out to Coppola’s better loved “Godfather Part II” that year) is its multi-purposed use of character interiority, commingling the protagonist’s persnickety sense of self with broader dystopian themes of guilt and responsibility in the post-privacy era.
2. “Burn After Reading” (2008)
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen eschew the sleekness of other spy sagas for the hilariously messy “Burn After Reading.” When some not especially important documents belonging to former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) fall into the inept hands of two gym employees (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand), a ridiculous blackmail scheme unfolds. Although it involves spies more than it is about spying, “Burn After Reading” seamlessly blends spoofy espionage humor with a serpentine plot evocative of the genre’s greatest hits. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Marvel, J. K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and more also appear.
1. “North By Northwest” (1959)
In the upper echelon of the all-too-masterful Alfred Hitchcock catalog, “North by Northwest” is in contention for cinema’s most thrilling case of mistaken identity, and IndieWire’s pick for the definitive best spy movie. When ad exec Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) lands in the crosshairs of a mysterious espionage organization helmed by the villainous Vandamm (James Mason), he’s forced into a terrifying cat-and-mouse chase that takes him across numerous states, magnificent set-pieces, and sweeping American scenery.
From the instantly recognizable crop-duster sequence to the equally iconic climax on Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock’s 1959 film is definitive proof that a Cold War-era spy saga can build paranoid tension without relying on the claustrophobic visual cues of a bunker or submarine. Plus, Grant and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) share a witty chemistry that makes the stylish but still exacting script from Ernest Lehman go down smooth.