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Our favorite spy movies, ranked

What makes a great spy movie? These 10 have the answers

Bond. James Bond. Courtesy of MGM

Espionage has always intrigued audiences when it’s used as a main theme in movies. Spies not only have to garner information without getting caught, but they often have to fight their way out of havoc when the enemies discover their snooping. Spy films are varied and can cover a lot of ground as far as genres are concerned. Tropes such as politics, action, adventure, racism, and even romance can ground spy movies and distill them for a generalized audience. Today, we’re here to rank our favorite spy movies from worst (this is a relative term) to best. These movies have featured mega-stars like Tom Cruise and legendary directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, giving credence to spy films for over half a century.

10. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

10. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
94m
Genre
Science Fiction, Comedy, Crime
Stars
Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York
Directed by
Jay Roach
Watch on Netflix

Before Mike Myers was known as the voice of the beloved DreamWorks character, Shrek, he was Austin Powers, the flamboyant secret agent satirizing James Bond. This first film laid the groundwork for all of the hilarity that would ensue in the two sequels, including the humorous rivalry of Austin Powers and his nemesis Dr. Evil (also played by Myers). Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was never going to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but it’s a heck of a good time that will remind you not to take the spy genre so seriously !

9. Spy (2015)

9. Spy
120m
Genre
Action, Comedy, Crime
Stars
Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law
Directed by
Paul Feig
Watch on Amazon

This Paul Feig-directed comedy uses several unconventional storytelling methods to carve out a successful spy film. Melissa McCarthy stars as a secret agent who is trying to cover the tracks of her employer and find nuclear devices before it’s too late. Women don’t often star in these types of action/thriller films, but McCarthy’s talent proves that gender shouldn’t matter when creating a spy movie. Jude Law and Jason Statham provide supporting acting roles.

8. Tenet (2020)

8. Tenet
150m
Genre
Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
Watch on Amazon

This Christopher Nolan film uses time travel and a floating timeline to build tension as an unnamed CIA secret agent protagonist attempts to save the world. Tenet both benefited from and was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was delayed due to the quarantine periods and government shutdowns, but this also allowed anticipation to build and audiences were happy to make it to the movies again.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
127m
Genre
Drama, Thriller, Mystery
Stars
Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Directed by
Tomas Alfredson
Watch on Amazon

If you want a more introspective and historically rich spy film, then Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will do the trick. Starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the film depicts the long journey of the British government towards finding a Soviet spy that’s pretending to be one of their own. The concept of a double agent is always good for discussing themes like morality, loyalty, and authenticity. Oldman was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the movie.

6. Bridge of Spies (2015)

6. Bridge of Spies
141m
Genre
Thriller, Drama
Stars
Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
Watch on Apple TV+

One of the better movies in Tom Hanks’ portfolio in recent years, Bridge of Spies focuses on the negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union over hostages Rudolf Abel and Francis Gary Powers. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, this tense biopic will show you a little more about the intensity of this time period between the world’s two superpowers. A young Noah Schnapp of Stranger Things fame makes an appearance in this film, too! 

5. The Conversation (1974)

5. The Conversation
113m
Genre
Crime, Drama, Mystery
Stars
Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield
Directed by
Francis Ford Coppola
Watch on Apple TV+

Francis Ford Coppola is most known for The Godfather films, but if you want to forgo the mobsters, The Conversation is a great avenue to take. Gene Hackman is a morally compromised surveillance worker who comes across violent information while video taping a completely different matter. The film discusses the complications of ignoring what is right and wrong, and also the ethical matters involved in technological evolution. Other stars include John Cazale and Cindy William.

4. North by Northwest (1959)

4. North by Northwest
136m
Genre
Mystery, Thriller
Stars
Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock
Watch on HBO Max

Sometimes the classics are still all we need to enjoy movies at their best. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest uses many of the spy themes that would go on to define the future of the genre, such as government secrecy, the use of macguffins, and personal identity. The film stars Cary Grant as the man being stalked by ambiguous agents who don’t want their secret to be let out into the open. It is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films over 50 years later.

3. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

3. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
147m
Genre
Action, Adventure
Stars
Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames
Directed by
Christopher McQuarrie
Watch on Paramount+

The character Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise’s love letter to spy movies and action heroes, and his most daring adventure is definitely Mission Impossible – Fallout. Featuring the most incredible stunt sequences in the franchise to date, this 2018 box office hit also features Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, and Alec Baldwin. Mission Impossible will release a new iteration, the seventh installment in the series, this summer as part of a stacked roster of movies

2. The Imitation Game (2014)

2. The Imitation Game
113m
Genre
History, Drama, Thriller, War
Stars
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Directed by
Morten Tyldum
Watch on Amazon

For those who want a little bit of historical drama mixed in with their spy films, try out The Imitation Game. Staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the movie gives a spotlight to the man who helped the British defeat Germany during World War II with his high-level intellect and coding skills. Turing’s story ended in tragedy after he was arrested for being gay, leading to him succumbing to suicide caused by severe depression. Not everything is completely accurate in the movie, but it’s still a highly-stylized and well-acted look at an underrated hero of the early 20th century.

1. Goldfinger (1964)

1. Goldfinger
110m
Genre
Adventure, Action, Thriller
Stars
Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe
Directed by
Guy Hamilton
Watch on Amazon

James Bond is the ultimate movie spy, and Goldfinger is the best film featuring the badass agent. Sean Connery really takes off in this iteration of the character, adding his trademark charisma that gels well with the antagonist of the film, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). There have been dozens of 007 flicks since this one, but the classics never die.

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek, Quote.com, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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