Top Ten Prison Films

With the release of Lockout this weekend, and my attempt to not head down the Guy Pearce route, since I feel like I'll only embarrass myself, I've decided to round up my favourite films set in prison (in other words, embarrass myself). So please bear with me as I know this list will highlight a lot of films that are currently residing on my list of shame...

10. The Rock (1996) (dir. Michael Bay)

Here's the movie that I go to when I've had my fill of art house cinema and need to be reminded what a blockbuster is really like. When I started formulating this list I wanted the prison to be integral to the story and to really be the meaning of the film. So here I go immediately breaking everything I could think of by picking a film with no meaning at all other than an excuse to have Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery be badasses breaking into Alcatraz.

9. Chicago (2002) (dir. Rob Marshall)

I'm a lover of musicals, I thought you knew this, and this I felt was the first film to revive that love of musicals for me. When it was first released I couldn't stop watching it over and over on TV. So it's fitting to have the film which didn't quite reinvent the film musical, but definitely brought it back to the forefront of Hollywood's mind. I still can't get the "Cell Block Tango" piece out of my head.

8. I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) (dir. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)

Here's a film where Jim Carrey uses his physical comedic talents to create a drama so funny it's amazing that I can fit it all into on sentence. Watching his comings and goings to and from prison as the master con artist in love with Phillip Morris, a film has never been able to make me go from laughing to crying as quickly as this one does.

7. The Hurricane (1999) (dir. Norman Jewison)

While everyone shouts and screams certain expletives for Denzel's snub regarding his performance in Malcolm X I actually prefer him in this movie (not saying Malcom X is bad, just a notch lower on the pole for me). For some reason this movie stayed with me and I'm almost afraid to revisit it only to find out that the relationship with Denzel's character and the boy who reaches out to him will come off a bit too cheesy for my memories to handle it. But this movie knocked me for a ringer back when I first saw it and I love how easy it is to watch how this time transformed Rubin Carter over the time of his incarceration.

6. Escape from New York (1981) (dir. John Carpenter)

I guess I just couldn't resist. This is probably the closest film "brother" it would seem (based on marketing) for Lockout. Between it starring Kurt Russel and Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York with upside down chandelairs attached to a Cadillac I don't know what more you could want from a John Carpenter movie.

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5. The Green Mile (1999) (dir. Frank Darabont)

This movie goes down in history as one of those movies which has a scene so memorable that anytime I hear the words " you gotta be close enough to smell his nuts cook?" said together I think of this movie (I promise it happens a lot more often than you think). It has a lot of moments which don't quite work, but one the whole it remains a memorable film worth seeing if you've not seen it.

4. Bronson (2008) (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

If you ever needed a movie that you'd probably have trouble not seeing when you close your eyes afterwards it's Bronson. With this being my introduction to Tom Hardy it's hard not to be impressed, and as I heard someone say "extreme tends to leave an impression". The visual style added to the outspoken performance of Hardy as a career inmate just looking for another excuse to stay in prison and get in a fight to test his skills it's worth a couple views.

3. Cool Hand Luke (1967) (dir. Stuart Rosenberg)

Leaving the dark and depressing realm of Refn and entering the feel good film about a man giving men something to keep on going while working in one of the worst prisons imaginable. Here's Cool Hand Luke the guy always willing to smile off a situation and just know regardless of it going good or bad, it's always going to end up good.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (dir. Frank Darabont)

Here's a movie that's been talked to death ever since it's release, and for good reason. The subtle touches to give us the world of a prison while at the same time masking those darker elements that if explicitly told would assure a R rated feature make this movie all the more impressive. Who can't have a smile on their face with Tim Robbins coming out on the other end of that tunnel?

1. Un Prophete (2009) (dir. Jaques Audiard)

The film from 2009 that the internet was in arms about not receiving a Best Picture nod that year (the internet does that a lot). For me it's the most in depth interesting film about the realm of a prison and the most fascination because it's not the typical American society (as portrayed in all of the films listed already) which gives you something more to process throughout. The language can be tough to follow, especially as the switch from one to another very quickly at times which can be confusing to watch other characters' slow response as they may not know the next language, but those little details are what helps to make the film more rewarding on repeat viewings.

What's your favourite "prison film"?

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  • Allan

    cell 211

  • Andrew Robinson

     That’s actually one I’ve yet to see. Haven’t heard much about it to be honest though.

  • Mamachell

    Love this list. There are actually 2 on here that I don’t know Un Prophete and Bronson… You reminded me of some Ive forgotten. Nice list. I really do need a refresher

  • Andrew Robinson

     well…. definitely see Un Prophete. It’s amazing.

    Bronson I think you’d like to see for some classic Tom Hardy (you like him right?), but it is a warped film that is very dark.

  • Steven Flores

    Any list with Un Prophete, Bronson, and Cool Hand Luke in the top 5 of prison films is a win for me!

  • Andrew Robinson

    Thank you sir… those are definitely the highlights of the genre for me.

  • ceejay

    what …why no blood in blood out

  • damgino

    You put shawshank 2nd to un prophete?…Are you kidding me? Shawshank is a cinematic masterpiece.. can you honestly say that un prophete is a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination?