Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture
A priceless haul. A crack team of thieves. A plan that can’t fail. Welcome to the world of heist films, a genre with a familiar setup but the infinite pleasures of watching smooth criminals try to beat the odds and avoid getting caught. This week, Ocean’s 8 adds its name to a list of high-profile capers, offering a female-centric spin on the Ocean’s franchise, which began with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and their buddies 17 years ago. But the heist film has always been a beloved Hollywood staple: The original Ocean’s 11, which starred Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack cronies, hit theaters in 1960, and it’s just one example of a crime film that’s been remade over the years. (The Italian Job and The Thomas Crown Affair are the two most famous such cases, with both the originals and the remakes having their partisans.)
While selecting the 25 best heist films, we leaned heavily on the importance of the heist(s) to the movie’s plot. So, for example, the crime spree itself is perhaps more entertaining in Fantastic Mr. Fox than in the Wes Anderson film we chose, but the former isn’t really thought of as a “heist movie.” Our choices span several decades and aren’t all in English — most are thrillers, although a few are comedies. In some, our anti-heroes prevail — other times, everything goes terribly wrong. But what connects them all is that primal rush of landing the big score. Don’t try any of this at home.
25. Baby Driver (2017)
The big popular success that had eluded director Edgar Wright — Scott Pilgrim vs. the World failed to find an audience, and his Ant-Man never came to fruition — finally happened with this plucky, romantic tale of a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) courting a waitress (Lily James) while working for a dangerous mobster (Kevin Spacey). Baby Driver boasts fizzy pleasures and slick surfaces, cool playlists paired with stellar chase sequences, but it’s girded by a funky coming-of-age story of a shutoff kid looking to belong. As with all of Wright’s movies, Baby Driver is a pastiche of a hundred thousand other cool films, but its almost-musical approach to the heist film is consistently kicky, complete with the kinds of double crosses, plot twists, and big payoff that the genre demands.
24. The Town (2010)
When you close your eyes and think of The Town, your brain might first bring up images of Ben Affleck shirtless cutting to helicopter shots of downtown Boston, but the movie still has the muscular propulsion that is an Affleck directorial trademark. (And it’s worth remembering that Affleck the director has saved the career of Affleck the actor several times now.) The brothers-in-crime Boston thriller has been done to death, but The Boondock Saints this isn’t; Affleck’s emotional currents might be lunkheaded at times, but they’re still there, and they’re still effective. And how do you not admire a Boston crime movie where they try to rob Fenway Park? (“Worse than Jack Clark.”)
23. The Italian Job (1969)
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” The 2003 remake ain’t too shabby, but the Michael Caine original is the superior Job: funnier, cooler, edgier. Caine plays Charlie, a professional hood just out of jail who puts together a team to steal some gold. Before he became Christopher Nolan’s patron saint of emotive, remorseful, aging father figures, Caine was a dashing onscreen rake, and in The Italian Job he’s full of swagger and wry comic timing, surrounded by a killer British ensemble that includes Noël Coward and Benny Hill. The Mini Cooper car chase is just as adorable as you remember, and Quincy Jones’s jaunty, jazzy score remains a silky-smooth pleasure. As for that ending, it’s the king of the cliffhangers.
22. Fast Five (2011)
In order to make sure the series didn’t go stale, the producers of the Fast and the Furious franchise made two major adjustments before Fast Five: They veered away from the street racing and toward a heist theme, and they added the Rock. Mission accomplished: Fast Five reinvigorated the whole hoary brand and turned it into something massive, fevered and, if you could believe it, sort of cool. Our favorite bit in this movie is when Dom and company steal a bank vault and have to drive it around the city using multiple cars, essentially turning a chase scene into a complicated physics problem. It’s more fun to watch cars being chased after a heist than watching them race each other, which, more than a billion dollars later, we all now know.
21. Logan Lucky (2017)
Steven Soderbergh’s “return from retirement” movie was basically a down-home, West Virginia–ized version of Ocean’s 11, with a younger cast dealing with adverse economic conditions by trying to rob the Coca-Cola 500 in Charlotte. Soderbergh knows he’s doing riffs on past hits — a newscast even calls his heist “Ocean’s 7-11” at one point — but he knows the milieu so well that it’s just a treat to watch him take us through all the motions. The movie wasn’t a hit, but it absolutely should have been. And lord help us, Daniel Craig is amazing in this movie. It’s not for nothing that Soderbergh lists him as “Introducing Daniel Craig” in the credits. His name is Joe Bang, for crying out loud.
20. Ronin (1998)
The heist itself in Ronin is sort of beside the point, or at least the case of money they’re all trying to steal is: All that matters is that everybody wants it and will do whatever it takes to get it. (The movie really should have just been called MacGuffin.) Ronin is about the double-crossing and triple-crossing the gaggle of thieves go through for the money at the film’s center, and, of course, their high-speed chases through exotic European locales while trying to track it, and each other, down. The key to any heist movie is the twist, the moment when the heist fails to go down as meticulously planned. Ronin has about ten of these.
19. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Crazy schemes are often central to Wes Anderson’s stories, and here’s where his (and his wonderstruck characters’) dreams first took flight. Bottle Rocket concerns three friends (Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave) who try their hand at being professional criminals — to limited effect, most of it comedic. In hindsight, Bottle Rocket really does feel like Anderson working with the training wheels on, which gives the movie a charming innocence. In later movies, he’d perfect the dollhouse-precise production design and funny/sad tonal balance. But here, the exploration of brotherly bonds and fragile romances has a rough-draft quality, while the heists have the ironic, quirky kick of a guy excited to get his shot at making a feature film. And as with many of his future works, Bottle Rocket isn’t all that invested in the scheme itself — it’s more invested in the gentle existential crises and wry observations about the pain of modern life, which have always been the emotional centerpiece of his movies.
18. Sexy Beast (2000)
Ben Kingsley’s massive, hammy, and, yeah, sorta sexy performance at the center of this Jonathan Glazer thriller is mostly what people remember today, but the real fun of Sexy Beast is Ray Winstone’s Gal, a former gangster who just wants to retire and be left along in peace but just can’t get away. The way he pulls off the One Last Heist reveals a guy who probably has done a few of these One Last Heists and knows how they all end. The movie hits all the right character beats; you believe every last one of these hoodlums know what they’re doing, and how to screw each other. Even with the carnage that turns up, if you needed a big job done, you’d hire them.
17. Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee’s big mainstream studio heist movie is so expertly done, and was so financially successful, it remains infuriating and confounding that he never got the money to do another one again. This is a great New York City bank heist movie, and Lee’s familiarity with and love for the city shines through in every shot, from the cops and feds descending on the bank to the food vendors watching along helplessly. Denzel Washington is as great as he always is in Spike Lee movies, but this is a reminder too of what a hot streak Clive Owen was on in 2007, when he made this and Children of Men. The movie is terrific entertainment, more proof that Lee, when on, can essentially do anything.
16. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Kevin Kline may have won an Oscar for playing a dumb guy — Otto, the ultimate ugly American, so ugly he’ll eat a guy’s fish right in front of him — but the fun of A Fish Called Wanda remains that everyone else is so smart. John Cleese’s Archie Leach sees everybody’s angles, even as he keeps leaping heart-first into the middle of the ongoing crime caper. Michael Palin’s Ken knows the score too, even if he can’t get anyone to understand him. And Jamie Lee Curtis’s Wanda is the smartest of them all, the one person you know is going to survive this whole con, no matter what happens. The only question is who’s going to survive with her. Remember: Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. She looked them up.
15. The Bank Job (2008)
Jason Statham stans the world over have now spent a decade pointing to this movie as proof that our faith in the man as a legitimate dramatic actor wasn’t misplaced. He plays Terry, a former criminal lured into one big score by his alluring crush Martine (Saffron Burrows), unaware that the heist serves a deeper purpose for her. Based on a true story, The Bank Job is a marvel of period detail and taut storytelling: Director Roger Donaldson savors every single unbelievable twist while emphasizing the peculiar characters at the heart of this caper. Mostly eschewing the high-octane action that has been his bread and butter, Statham here gives us a classic tough guy vexed by his diminished expectations and regrets, and the whole ensemble embraces the film’s lean, mean approach.
14. Heat (1995)
Michael Mann seemed to make Heat out of an attempt to craft the heist movie to end all heist movies — it has several heists, countless schemes, and about a million characters — and while his ambition sometimes gets in the way, it’s impossible not to admire the effort. Robert De Niro is still the emotional strength of the film as the professional criminal who never loses focus until, at last, he does, and of course Al Pacino rants and raves and screams as the fed equally obsessed with taking him down. The diner scene is still the centerpiece of the film, but the movie is even better when it goes big and loud: It’s tough not to walk through Los Angeles sometimes and think of the violent bank heist shootout that dominates the middle third of the film.
13. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sonny doesn’t want any trouble. As played by Al Pacino, he’s a regular schmo who’s just looking for some quick cash to help pay for his lover’s (Chris Sarandon) sex-confirmation surgery. Sonny’s plan, though, is terrible, and it forms the heart of Dog Day Afternoon, which is based on actual events and serves as an eternal warning that, seriously, robbing a band isn’t nearly as easy as it seems in the movies. Director Sidney Lumet bathes the film in New York atmosphere, but it’s equally dazzling in its depiction of the troubles that can occur when ill-prepared men undertake a foolish, dangerous endeavor. But what makes Dog Day Afternoon resonate is Lumet and his cast’s ability to erase the line between these fools and us — Pacino’s one-terrible-day desperation humanizes his character’s neediness and growing panic, putting the audience in the bank with him as he tries to tap-dance his way out of disaster.
12. The Usual Suspects (1995)
A smart, modest little thriller that turned into a massive hit and meme generator — you surely have friends who have never seen this movie who still know who Keyser Söze is — doesn’t hold up entirely today, and not entirely because of what we know now about both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer. The plot is a little too twisty for no reason, and the big ta-da! at the end can feel a little gimmicky when you know it’s coming. But the movie still is witty and ingeniously constructed, with some terrific performances, not least of all from, yes, Spacey, who won an Oscar for his Verbal Kint, and with good reason. This film is an excellent litmus test to see if you can still enjoy films of those whose off-screen malfeasances repulse us: Spacey is unquestionably great, so if you still can’t watch him in this (a totally understandable impulse), you know once and for all where you stand.
11. Quick Change (1990)
Controversial opinion: This is our favorite Bill Murray movie. The only movie Murray directed — co-directed with Howard Franklin — begins with Murray’s Grimm, dressed as a clown, robbing a bank and then getting himself and his accomplices (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) released as hostages. It’s a perfect plan, until, of course, everything goes wrong, and everything goes wrong in a way that is uniquely New York City. This is Murray at his deadpan best, his face a mask of bewilderment and fatigue as everything goes mad around him. The movie is mostly forgotten today but is truly wonderful, pretty much start to finish, even featuring a witty, committed performance from Jason Robards as the cop trying to stop them. You should revisit this. “If that were our plane, it’d be crashing.”
10. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Sundance hit that started it all, for Quentin Tarantino, for Tim Roth, for Steve Buscemi, for basically the next decade of American cinema. Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve in his debut — maybe too much? — and it’s too talky and self-absorbed … wow, what talk and self-absorption! Many filmmakers took the wrong lessons from Reservoir Dogs, but it was obvious, from the very first frames, that Tarantino was a transcendent talent. And never forget: Steven Wright as the DJ!
9. Three Kings (1999)
Released less than a decade after the first Iraq War — with no idea that a deadlier, more disastrous one was on the horizon — this snarling updating of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre emphasizes that classic’s coldest lesson, which is that ill-gotten plunder destroys all those it touches. In Three Kings, though, that theme is more metaphoric, serving as an indictment for American foreign policy’s poisonous self-interest. The film stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as U.S. troops at the tail end of the Gulf War who stumble onto a pile of gold, deciding that they’ll keep it for themselves. Of course, the plan doesn’t go smoothly, but along the way director David O. Russell crafts one of the kookiest antiwar films of recent times. Three Kings isn’t exactly a comedy, but it is bitterly funny — about masculinity, about ugly Americans, about the chaos that can happen in wartime. This was the beginning of Clooney’s successful transition from E.R. heartthrob to serious film actor, and the movie (especially in hindsight) feels like an unheeded warning about the limits of America’s influence overseas.
8. The Sting (1973)
Exceedingly, shamelessly clever, this Best Picture–winner flaunts its wittiness, whether in the form of Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s self-satisfied performances or through Marvin Hamlisch’s skipping Scott Joplin tunes. The Sting is the cinematic equivalent of that one friend who just got into magic and really can’t wait to show you all the tricks he’s learned: It’s too eager to please and a little pushy about insisting that you be charmed by the whole thing. And now that we’ve acknowledged all that, we’ll go ahead and say that the damn movie works like gangbusters anyway. Reuniting with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill, Newman and Redford play con men out to ruin a contemptible gangster (Robert Shaw), devising an elaborate scam with plenty of twists, turns, contrivances, and double crosses. Deep as a thimble but eminently enjoyable, The Sting is the kind of old-school Hollywood entertainment powered by movie-star charm and putting-on-a-show pizzazz.
7. Jackie Brown (1997)
Among Tarantino enthusiasts, Jackie Brown is often a dividing line. It’s unquestionably his most mature, less overtly fanboy movie, an Elmore Leonard adaptation that is loyal to Leonard’s vision and tone but also unmistakably Quentin Tarantino. But it’s also the first movie after Pulp Fiction and one that didn’t get the glowing notices of that film … and may have caused Tarantino to head back to audience-pleasing whiz-bang action. That’s fine, of course: The movies after this are great too, but this is the one Tarantino film that feels relaxed, calm, intelligent and even a little pensive, like he wants to get it exactly right. He wouldn’t be that disciplined in his later films. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing is your own personal taste. But Tarantino’s career was never the same after this, for better or for worse.
6. Out of Sight (1998)
The only reason this is lower than another Steven Soderbergh–George Clooney movie on this list is that it’s not exclusively a heist movie, but know that we do consider this Soderbergh’s best movie. It’s sensuous and seductive and smart and funky and appropriately weird, a wonderful combination of Soderbergh being playful and always doing his best, after a series of missteps, to deliver the studio a hit. You watch this movie now and find it impossible to believe that Jennifer Lopez didn’t become the biggest movie star in the world. After years of failing to adapt Elmore Leonard correctly, this and Jackie Brown got him exactly right … in dramatically different ways.
5. Inception (2010)
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s dazzlingly labyrinthine thriller took years for him to crack, his aha moment coming when he deduced that his movie’s very genre was conspiring against him. “I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional,” he said at the time. “They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind.” Inception is the cerebral filmmaker’s most tormented work, casting Leonardo DiCaprio as the leader of a team of criminals who enter people’s subconscious to steal (or implant) valuable ideas. The explanation of how that all works is fascinating enough, but on top of it Nolan layers a pained love story in which our hero is haunted by the spectral presence of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard). Part action blockbuster, part existential exploration of the soul, Inception is a cool, cutting-edge spectacle with a brooding poignancy underneath.
4. Ocean’s 11 (2001)
Not the one with Frank, Dean, and Sammy: This 2001 remake has more suave star power, funnier jokes, and a cooler concept. George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, the smoothest cat who’s nonetheless still kinda hung up on his ex (Julia Roberts), recruiting all his hip buds to rob three Vegas casinos run by the jerk (Andy Garcia) who took his gal. After the twin triumphs of Erin Brockovich and Traffic — Oscar-winning dramas about important themes — director Steven Soderbergh let loose, inviting audiences to enjoy the company of his chummy ensemble while playing sleight-of-hand as Ocean’s team effortlessly executes its heist. Ocean’s 11 is a movie about a preposterous scheme that is, itself, a ridiculous proposition: These types of star-studded affairs usually fall flat on their face due to toxic smugness. Instead, Soderbergh, Clooney, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the crew got away scot-free, delivering a caper as dry as a martini and as sharp as the men’s suits. And the sequels are better than they’ve been given credit.
3. Rififi (1955)
The pleasure of watching experts do their job impeccably draws viewers to sporting events, ballets, and concert recitals. Similarly, with Rififi, American director Jules Dassin lets us bask in the stone-cold brilliance of his gang of criminals as they go about robbing a jewelry store safe. Based on Auguste Le Breton’s novel, this French thriller features one of cinema’s most famous sequences — a nearly 30-minute scene involving the hoods stealing the goods that includes no music or dialogue — and it remains a marvel of hushed intensity. (When asked to explain his rationale behind such a nervy decision, Dassin would say, “These are professional guys who work in silence. Noise is an enemy.”) The cast, led by Jean Servais, exudes no-nonsense efficiency, which makes the characters’ unraveling after the heist all the more bittersweet. They may be exquisite thieves, but they’re deeply flawed human beings.
2. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Bonnie and Clyde wasn’t the first film to romanticize the doomed love of outsiders fighting against the system. (Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were hugely influenced by Godard’s Breathless.) But for America and Hollywood, this tale of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) became ground zero for a fashionable new way of thinking about onscreen heroes. Anti-authoritarian and amoral while deliriously stylish and sexy, Bonnie and Clyde rob banks for the thrill of it, and because it makes them celebrities, and because they’ve got nothing better to do. It’s hard to talk about Bonnie and Clyde’s impact without lapsing into dull Movies That Matter stridency, but that goes away as soon as you start actually watching the film. As directed by Arthur Penn, this is a youthful, exuberant little corker, rewriting film-biz rules without ever giving it a second thought. Funnier than you remember, but also sadder, Bonnie and Clyde made the heist film feel like freedom —which, as Janis Joplin would later sing, is just another word for nothing left to lose.
1. The Killing (1956)
It makes sense that a director as meticulous as Stanley Kubrick would make the greatest heist film ever. After all, the perfect crime needs perfect planning. But this early film in Kubrick’s oeuvre would also speak to a fundamental truth permeating his work: Our grand ambitions are often undone by our unshakable failings. Based on Lionel White’s Clean Break, The Killing stars Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, a crook who’s eyeing the quintessential Last Big Score so he can live happy and rich with his gal Fay (Coleen Gray). A racetrack will be the scene of the crime, and Johnny’s plan seems foolproof —what could go wrong? As spectacular and sprawling as later Kubrick films such as 2001, Barry Lyndon and The Shining are, there’s a feverish kick to his grittier, tauter earlier work, which isn’t to say that The Killing isn’t a marvelously orchestrated and supremely confident exploration of hubris, destiny, and poetic justice. Reservoir Dogs is deeply indebted to this caper classic, as is Nolan and everyone else who thought it might be fun to tinker with their films’ timeline in order to hit at something profound about inevitability and fate. And although lots of heist films contain unhappy endings, none is so smooth, so cruel, so perfect.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly about the movies and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.