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It may seem as if a movie about life in prison would be dull, but that is not always the case. A prison may be a high-tension, high-drama setting if the inmates are well-developed and compelling.
Inmates that are threatening? Is there anything more terrifying than these guards? For adrenaline seekers, there is nothing better than a roller coaster. Prison life can lead to some of the funniest situations you’ve ever imagined if everything goes awry.
Here are the best movies about prison life, from psychotic convicts to crooked cops to thrilling escapes.
10. Stir Crazy
The only comedy prison movie on this list is Stir Crazy. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor star in this ’80s buddy flick as “woodpeckers” who “dress up and are framed for robbing a bank.”
Stir Crazy is a light-hearted comedy that relies heavily on improvisation and crazy plot twists. The two performers have worked together on four films, including this screwball comedy.
Arthur Hiller’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Silver Streak fans will adore this one.
9. Cool Hand Luke
George Kennedy won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this picture, while Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar as well.
Lucas Jackson, the stubborn hero of Cool Hand Luke, is condemned to two years in a chain gang prison camp after being convicted for petty theft. In addition to the brutal warden, Luke is ranked at the bottom of the pecking order in the prison’s hierarchy—and he refuses to succumb.
Cool Hand Luke is a film that celebrates the human spirit in the face of adversity. “Sweat-soaked” Newman’s tribute to the counterculture of the 1960s features a starring role for Steve McQueen and James Dean.
Even though Rami Malek and Charlie Hunnam starred in a 2017 remake of Papillon, we’re sticking with the original.
Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen become pals as Henri and Louis, a bold safe-cracker and a meek-mannered forger, respectively. Henri is sentenced to life in Guiana after being wrongly accused of murder.
Henri Charrière, a French prison inmate, was the inspiration for the film Papillon, another Hollywood masterpiece. Is one of the best prison movies ever made and an inspiring story about the enduring power of friendship and optimism.
7. A Prayer Before Dawn
Defeating the forces of evil? Friendships that make you feel good? However, A Prayer Before Dawn doesn’t follow in the footsteps of many old-school prison pictures.
This gory biopic is not for the faint of heart, inked up and dripping with blood. starring Joe Cole as Billy Moore, an English boxer who is imprisoned in Thailand’s most notorious prison—and Billy’s only way out is to fight.
Thai prison life is brought to life for spectators at Muay Thai contests. Even if A Prayer Before Dawn isn’t exactly entertaining, it’s an experience that deserves its place among the best films on prison life.
When Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) directs Hunger, he tells the story of the 1981 Belfast hunger strike via the lens of cinematography.
Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands, a “non-conforming” IRA prisoner, is the first in a long line of demonstrators to refuse food. What happens when one of them passes away? The next one steps in…
His trademark lengthy takes (the longest of which is a whopping 18 minutes) are featured prominently throughout the film. As he pauses in shadowy corridors and over solemn talks, he forces viewers to reflect on what they’re seeing.
However, it is worth the discomfort to see Sands’ skeleton body and weeping wounds in this compelling independent drama.
In 2008, we saw not one but two great independent prison movies based on true stories and real people.
Tom Hardy’s portrayal of “Britain’s most dangerous prisoner,” Bronson, earned him international acclaim. Isn’t it obvious why? Viewers are blown away by Hardy’s maniacal portrayal of Charles Bronson, who is too vicious for a prison cage to hold.
To deal with Bronson, the prison guards eventually send him to solitary confinement. He frequently bursts through the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly.
Surrealist directing by Bronson and powerful performances automatically make it a cult favorite and essential viewing for anybody interested in the reality of incarceration.
4. The Great Escape
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The Great Escape doesn’t take place in a prison, but rather a POW camp. Despite this, the themes and mood are remarkably similar: imprisonment, brutal guards, and escape plots. There’s no way we could leave out such a timeless gem!
Hilts “The Cooler King,” an Allied soldier hellbent on escaping, is played by Steve McQueen (again). As Paul Brickhill recounts in The Great Escape, the Second World War was the backdrop for a huge breakout of prisoners of war.
The movie has gone on to become a Christmas Day classic and a household name. Chicken Run, a successful stop-motion animation, is not to be overlooked.
3. Midnight Express
This time, Midnight Express is based on a true event and tells the narrative of Billy Hayes, a man imprisoned for 30 years in Istanbul for smuggling hash.
It’s a must-see for Brad Davis’s powerful performance and Oliver Stone’s award-winning screenplay.
In the picture, a group of catatonic convicts roam around like zombies, dejected after years of abuse. After all, Midnight Express concludes with a hopeful message that even in the midst of misery, there is always a silver lining.
2. The Green Mile
The Green Mile’s risky and unexpected fusion of genres pays off in the form of a cinematic classic. Death Row in the 1930s is the setting for a crime-drama/fantasy hybrid in this adaptation of a Steven King novel.
Take a chance on half of the cast and be prepared to loathe the other half. An innocent man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is sentenced to die after being found guilty of a murder he did not commit.
Other characters in The Green Mile include Sam Rockwell’s wild bill, Michael Jeter’s Eduard “Del” Delacroix and his pet mouse Mr. Jingles. Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, and his and the rest of the ensemble deliver stirring performances that leave the audience both enraged and moved to tears.
1. The Shawshank Redemption
Didn’t we all see this one coming? In any list of prison movies, The Shawshank Redemption takes the top spot. This is not only the best prison film ever done, but a strong candidate for the best film ever created.
After Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in jail despite his protestations of innocence, Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins) become inseparable friends in Shawkshank Prison. The prison is transformed by Andy and Red’s deeds of goodwill.
For the simple reason that it is so real and human, this is the best film on prison life. It’s the kind of movie that, like the titular jail, will stay with you for the rest of your life.