The spy movie, like a secret agent, wears numerous disguises in order to obtain access to top-secret intelligence. This year’s blockbusters include Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Atomic Blonde, as well as Oscar-winning historical thrillers like The Revenant and The Imitation Game (Argo). Whether it’s an Austin Powers-esque time-traveling comedy or a kid’s cartoon about birds, a spy movie may be anything (Spies in Disguise). If the film you’re watching pulls off a rubber mask and reveals itself to be a spy movie, you’ll never know.
As far as I’m concerned, the most important question is: Are you watching an excellent espionage film? Lists of John le Carré adaptations, Hitchcock thrillers, and franchise names like a certain martini-loving 00 agent are all included on this list, which is due out in the fall of this year. While we couldn’t possibly list every single fantastic show in this genre, consider this a stepping stone into a streaming world of deception, paranoia, and intrigue as you continue your journey through it. Fortunately, when you reach the finish, it won’t self-destruct.
1. Black Book (2006)
As the director of genre hits like Basic Instinct and Total Recall from the 1990s, it’s no surprise that Paul Verhoeven has a penchant for the subversive espionage film. The director’s first Dutch project since departing for Hollywood in the 1980s is this tense, witty nail-biter that follows a young Jewish lady (Carice van Houten) as she infiltrates the Nazis as part of the Dutch Resistance. Verhoeven’s espionage masterpiece Notorious and his recollections of World War II’s deadly turmoil inspire Verhoeven to create a thriller that scares and delights in equal measure. IMDb TV and Amazon Prime customers can watch it immediately.
2. The Bourne Identity (2002)
For all his fame and fortune in the franchise, it’s easy to forget that Jason Bourne was originally considered a longshot. The Bourne Identity, a loose adaptation of a Robert Ludlum novel, was released in the same summer as The Sum of All Fears, a remake of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character starring Ben Affleck. The production was hampered by rewrites and reshoots. All that tinkering paid well, boosting Matt Damon’s career as an action hero and reinvigorating the spy thriller for a new audience. Both of the original film’s prequels and sequels are excellent as well. Peacock is currently airing the film.
3. Bridge of Spies (2015)
You should be ashamed of yourself if you think this prisoner swap story by Steven Spielberg is one of his “boring” movies. Ashamed! Bridge of Spies asks Tom Hanks to return to a previous kind of leading man role, where slick words got you everywhere and patriotism meant sticking up for your fellow American, balancing the chill of Cold War-era paranoia with the leisurely warmth of a Frank Capra picture. The chemistry between Tom Hanks and Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, despite their limited screen time together, is palpable throughout this superb drama. However, don’t hold your breath waiting for Spielberg to attend to your attention span. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
4. Burn After Reading (2008)
After winning Best Picture at the Oscars for No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers returned to humor with a vengeance. When it comes to political theater, Burn After Reading is both ludicrous and biting, centering on an absurd MacGuffin—a CD that contains top-secret government information!—that isn’t even a MacGuffin at all. An assortment of high-profile actors—including Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton—along with the Coens’ Frances McDowell and George Clooney make their way through a frantic Washington, D.C. landscape. Even the most hardened assassins—from personal trainers to CIA spies—fall further and deeper into madness in this Coen Brothers film. A dildo chair is included in this homage to enlightened idioticity. IMDb TV and Amazon Prime customers can watch it immediately.
5. The Conversation (1974)
What if you were the guy on the other end of a microphone, listening in on everything that was going on in your house? Genre-defining thriller directed by Francis Ford Coppola stars Gene Hackman in his peak as a private detective tasked with deciphering an overheard conversation. Unlike Harry Caul in Hackman’s film, Coppola follows the same set of guidelines, making sound as crucial to the experience as visuals. This one has a lot of sway and will keep you on your toes for days. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
6. Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Adapted from an Italian comic book series, Danger: Diabolik tells the story of a skilled criminal who works with his fiancée to carry off spectacular heists while eluding the authorities attempting to apprehend him. It takes set in an unidentified European country, where Diabolik (John Phillip Law) resides in his cave-like lair, where he steals gems and crashes press conferences. In order to save his sweetheart, Eva (Marisa Mell), from a band of thugs while also taking the government’s gigantic block of solid gold, he is targeted by a police inspector. The film was a flop when it was released, but it has since garnered a cult following for its outrageous costumes, stunning landscapes, and director Fabio Bava’s skillful use of filmmaking tactics and matte paints to make cheap special effects look like blockbuster sets on the big screen.. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
7. Enemy of the State (1998)
Tony Scott’s frenzied riff on the paranoid thriller, with Will S
Featuring Will Smith as an overconfident labor lawyer and Gene Hackman as the cold-blooded operative who assists him in eluding federal surveillance, Tony Scott’s frenetic thriller riff stars a timely cast. Conspiracy theories about government surveillance and NSA overreach are woven into the action-packed plot of this 1990s blockbuster starring a star-studded cast of actors. With a cast including Regina King, Jack Black, Seth Green, Jon Voight, and Phillip Baker Hall, it’s the perfect blend of smart and sleek. Spy Game, a thriller starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, was Scott’s follow-up a couple of years later, and while it has some terrific scenes, we prefer this one. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
8. Goldfinger (1964)
Obviously, rational people can have different opinions about which James Bond film is the most memorable. Is Daniel Craig’s style more your style? Or do you favor the more polished, yet occasionally silly, style of former Bond man Roger Moore? It’s entirely up to you. Pierce Bronsan, Timothy Dalton, or George Lazenby could be your thing. There is no way to truly appreciate Ian Flemming’s charismatic secret agent without seeing those early Sean Connery films, especially the first three. If you’re looking for the best Bond movie, you can’t go wrong with From Russia With Love or Dr. No. But if you’re looking for the best Bond movie, you can’t go wrong with Goldfinger! On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
9. Haywire (2011)
Who would have thought that Steven Soderbergh could make a good action movie? MMA fighter Gina Carano teamed up with director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Gina Carano, for this action-packed spy thriller. It’s the combat scenes—a diner brawl, a hotel room meeting with Michael Fassbender, and a big throw-down versus Ewan McGregor on a beach—that make this vital, ass-kicking viewing, despite the script’s many surprises. HBO Max has it now.
10. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
There have been numerous film and television productions featuring Tom Clancy’s CIA nerd turned action hero, Jack Ryan. Many actors have taken on the role of the beleaguered analyst, from Harrison Ford to Ben Affleck to Chris Pine to John Krasinski most recently on Amazon. To this day, Ford’s 1994 film Clear and Present Danger holds up well.) Despite this, the first Clancy film remains the best of the lot: Alec Baldwin’s Ryan is pitted against Sean Connery’s stern Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius in a game of wits in The Hunt for Red October. This Cold War Naval clash is directed by John McTiernan, fresh off the one-two punch of Predator and Die Hard. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
11. The Lives of Others (2006)
Surveillance is an essential part of the moviegoing experience, even if the film isn’t a spy thriller: While you’re viewing, the characters on TV don’t realize that you’re seeing them. As an East German Stasi agent deployed to spy on a prominent playwright in the 1980s, The Lives of Others is a masterclass in examining the complex ethics of observation and observation. With astonishing restraint, Ulrich Mühe plays the agent who must listen to hours of recorded phone calls and wait for any hint that the individuals in the apartment below are actually participating in questionable activities. It’s a study in secrecy that’s often disturbing. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
12. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are up against a Nazi scheme to create nuclear weapons during the Cold War arms race in Guy Ritchie’s remake of the iconic espionage show. The soundtrack has humorous jazz flute riffs and a snappy, stylish sensibility. The trio examines the wealthy Vinciguerra family with the help of a feisty teenage mechanic (Alicia Vikander), setting off the wrath of villain Victoria Vinciguerra’s minions (Elizabeth Debicki). A devoted fan base has grown up around The Man from U.N.C.L.E. despite its box office failure, thanks to the film’s caustic comedy and the comic chemistry between its three bickering lead actors. Fans are hoping for a long-rumored, but ultimately unlikely, sequel. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
13. Mission: Impossible (1996)
The seventh film in the Mission: Impossible series will be released in 2022, but it’s vital to remember where it all began since the first movie frickin’ rules. Original Brian De Palma version of TV series is still fascinating, even though Ethan Hunt’s stunts have become more absurd each time. As Ethan witnesses his entire crew get slaughtered in an IMF operation, the secret spy goes on the run, eventually hooking up with Vanessa Redgrave’s cunning arms dealer Max, who is portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave. The exploding fish tank, the plunge into Langley, and the train chase are all perfectly orchestrated, precisely as you remember them from the first time you saw the movie. On Paramount Plus, you may watch it now.
14. North by Northwest (1959)
Of course, the most famous scene in this Hitchcock classic is the one in which a crop duster is used to try to decapitate Cary Grant in a cornfield. It’s worth your time, however, if you’ve never witnessed this instance of mistaken identity and government deceit in its entirety. When Roger Thornhill is mistakenly identified as an FBI agent called George Kaplan, the film’s plot thickens dramatically for Grant, who plays him. But that’s just the beginning of the twists and turns that confront Roger as he flees James Mason’s Phillip Vandamm (Eva Marie Saint) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Finale on Mount Rushmore is magnificent and thrilling. If you’re looking for more great Hitchcock spy thrillers, HBO Max and the Criterion Channel are also currently streaming The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, The Lady Vanishes, and Sabotage. After North by Northwest, you’ll want to watch them all. HBO Max has it now.
15. Ronin (1998)
The first thing you might remember about Ronin is it features some of the most exciting, heart-pounding car chases ever put to film. But the movie constructed around those sequences, which follows Robert De Niro’s ex-CIA hardass Sam and a crew of skilled professionals attempting to steal a suitcase, is just as gripping. Filmmaker John Frankenheimer, who also directed the paranoia classic The Manchurian Candidate, takes a no-nonsense approach to the material and the script, co-written by David Mamet, is filled with gruff, clever bits of spy movie wisdom that help evoke the cut-throat world these characters move through. As Jean Reno’s French fixer observes at one point, “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes due.” On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
16. The Russia House (1990)
John le Carré adaptation starring Sean Connery as a jazz-loving, sweater-wearing publisher who gets entangled in espionage games between the MI6, the C.I.A. and mysterious manuscripts written by Soviet physicists. While on the run, Connery’s publisher falls for Katya, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in traditional spy movie form. Despite the low-key sleazy undertones, the movie features one of the finest “how to be a spy” training montages, and the playwright Tom Stoppard provided the writing, which is full of sly asides, alcoholic references, and quips on the general dullness of secret work. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
17. Sneakers (1992)
“I’m in,” “Oh, child’s play,” and “I’m a hacker” are all phrases you’re likely to associate with hacker flicks, but they’re not the only ones you’re likely to associate with the genre. Even though Sneakers lacks the above, it is nonetheless a joy to play thanks to its meticulously physical approach to hacking. As a gang of misfit security specialists, the hackers in the film Sneakers, lead by Robert Redford, work to breach banks’ and security firms’ firewalls and alert them to any vulnerabilities. NSA agents are blackmailed into breaking into a dangerous facility and obtaining a digital weapon that is supposed to be Russian in origin after they learn about their dubious pasts. “Sneakers” understand they must pull off an impossible heist to ensure that technology does not fall into the wrong hands when they discover who they are working for. HBO Max has it now.
18. The Third Man (1949)
Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a sophisticated British noir that portrays an entire world of post-war espionage, intrigue, and deception, is one of cinema’s most important films. A Graham Greene script follows hard-drinking pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as he arrives in bombed-out Vienna after receiving an invitation from his old friend Harry Lime, the novelist known for spy stories like Our Man in Havana and The Ministry of Fear, which was brilliantly adapted into a Fritz Lang film in 1944. (Orson Welles). Reed builds the suspense and pulls you in with every turn, combining grim, often cynical subject matter with stunning black-and-white imagery. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
19. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
When Robert Redford plays a bookworm, inconspicuous CIA analyst in Three Days of the Condor, it’s hilarious since it’s evident that he looks like a 1970s Robert Redford. To Redford’s advantage, the plot quickly gets underway, sending Joseph Turner and Faye Dunaway’s Kathy on a mad run across New York City. This gives Redford plenty of opportunities to go into super-spy hero mode. Although The Conversation and The Parallax View have a slicker style, Pollack’s film successfully conveys the discomfort and terror of being caught up in a plot that you can’t quite comprehend. On Amazon Prime, you can now rent it.
20. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
A season of 24 set in the smoky, well-dressed British intelligence underground in 1973 might resemble Tomas Alfredson’s meticulous adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Let the Right One In. Even if you don’t understand the plot, the hunt for a Soviet mole led by retired operative George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the icy frames, and the stellar cast will draw you in. While it’s entirely possible that the actors in this film are reading from the British phone book, it’s an engrossing and rewarding film that demands your full attention. HBO Max has it now.
21. Top Secret! (1984)
Val Kilmer starred in Top Secret! before Mike Meyers appeared in Austin Powers or Melissa McCarthy appeared in Spy. In addition to being a parody of Elvis movies and WWII dramas, this hilarious spoof from Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, the team behind The Naked Gun and Airplane!, also serves as a spy film with a sole purpose of amusing audiences. Even more than Airplane!, Top Secret! is the rare parody where you almost feel like you could remove the jokes and still be caught up in the story. And why would you want to eliminate so many hilarious jokes? On Paramount Plus, you may watch it now.