10. Starred Up
Starred Up follows Eric Love (portrayed by 2015 BAFTA Rising Star Winner Jack O’Connell) as he is incarcerated into the same prison that his father is currently serving time in. As Eric gets to know his father he finds out he’s not the man he had idolised and struggles to adapt to prison life. O’Connell showed here and alongside the double header ’71 that he is an actor you can’t turn your back on and could be a megastar of the future.
9. Escape From New York
Who said a prison film needs to be set behind bars? John Carpenter pushes the boat out on dystopian futures where Manhattan has become a maximum security prison for the world’s worst criminals. Though the government is happy to leave the Big Apple as it is, an oddly directed flight of Air Force One over the city leaves the plane downed and the President chum for the piranhas. In order to save the day Carpenter introduces the ultimate anti-hero where Kurt Russell drops into one of his most memorable performances as the legendary eye-patch wearing Snake Plissken, leaving the director with another classic for his cult catalogue.
8. La Grande Illusion
Other greats such as The Great Escape or Casablanca owe in part their success to the masterpiece of Jean Renoir and La Grande Illusion. With a detailed look into the class systems and pecking order within prison life, the creative might of this film can be seen in two movie scenes, with the digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape and the singing to enrage the Germans in Casablanca taking their inspiration from this classic. As the great Roger Ebert perfectly put it however, La Grande Illusion wouldn’t be on so many film lists if it were simply a form of inspiration. What it is is a prison film in setting, but its detail in history, politics and sentiment (or lack of) during times of war leaves it as an important film for any fan of cinema.
7. The Green Mile
Where a lot of prison films focus on the daring escape as a means of salvation or closure, some seem to forget that in the darker parts of the judiciary system there lies many individuals where prison life will be their death. The adapted Stephen King novel follows the story of a mysterious inmate on death row who has a unique gift that impacts on those around him. The unmistakable presence of Michael Clarke Duncan shines in a story with little light. A guaranteed tearjerker with some memorable performances.
6. Celda 211
Changing the focus from one escapee to an entire prison riot, Celda 211 tells the tale of a prison block of hardened inmates who take control after a successful overthrow, while one guard on his first day gets caught in the mix and is forced to pretend to be a new inmate for his survival. Looking into an almost brotherly twisted Lima Syndrome, the young guard begins to fall for the bonds shared among the inmates, working his way into a position of power where lines are blurred and turning back seems almost impossible. With the riot police closing in and time running out the guard has to make decisions on allies and enemies, before that decision is made for him.
5. The Great Escape
It really is great, isn’t it? Steve McQueen atop a TR6 trophy motorbike, riding over the hills of a Nazi POW camp is an iconic moment in cinema that has had audiences cheering for decades. Everything about the escape breathes suspense and excitement, with each bit of digging building the adrenaline in you as that famous score whistles on. Taking inspiration from many, The Great Escape will stand as a film upon the pedestal of pop culture while still holding its stake as being a perfectly made film with McQueen laying his claim for the coolest man on the planet.
4. Un Prophete
There is a lot to be said about Un Prophete, from its gripping screenplay to its intricate detail of prison hierarchy, but these are only captivating extras. Taking its start and end points alone Un Prophete shows how the correctional intention of the institutional system is not always taken on board. Young Arab Malik El Djebena is your typical street thug, not unaccustomed to juvenile prison. However, in his first 6 year stint in an adult penitentiary, Malik gets involved within the mafia after braving the beatings and initiation, only to slowly rise through the ranks to a type of criminal he would have never become on the outside.
3. The Shawshank Redemption
Within the confines of Shawshank prison lies a story for the ages. Though the harsh nature of incarcerated life befalls Andy Dufresne after his wrongful conviction of murder, his way of survival is where the film succeeds. The bonds and allies he makes within the prison walls keep him alive throughout his two decade tenure, but in the end breaking points hits Dufresne hard and the need for redemption comes calling. The film’s climactic escape scene will live on in infamy as Shawshank Redemption will continue to stake its claim as one of the most beloved films of all time.
2. Le Trou
In Jacques Becker’s thrilling classic, four long stay inmates cautiously induct a 5th member into their plan to escape, needing one extra pawn to make such a daring attempt possible. Unfortunately as the payoff gets closer and closer, suspicion and distrust sets in and the group turn on each other as their one and only chance begins to slip away. Calling Le Trou just another prison movie does no end of injustice, with Becker’s masterful touch providing claustrophobic cinematography and a palpable tension that has you right there among the action. Becker being terminally ill during the filming of Le Trou meant that he fought tooth and nail to get this finished with all that ingenuity, grit and raw emotion the bourgeois auteurs were unable to embody. His swan song is his gift to us, one of the most perfect prison escape movies of all time.
1. Cool Hand Luke
Up there alongside James Dean, Paul Newman stood as the quintessential ‘rebel’ when he took on the role of Luke Johnson, a chain gang prisoner refusing to abide by the rules. A natural born nonconformist, Luke’s tit-for-tat relationship with the wardens has them attempting to break the unbreakable with what seems like constant failure, only for them to up their game time after time, pushing both parties to the brink. With one too many times in the box, Luke finally makes his biggest play for escape and garners our sympathy as well as respect. Our egg-munching hero plays the perfect bad boy, hot head and reckless liberal with an iconic character, forced into an institution that wasn’t big enough to hold his ego.