Spy. A word that brings a tremendous amount of adventure and excitement with it. Arguably one of the most dangerous and life-threatening jobs to perform, the history of espionage goes centuries back. In the ancient days, spies used to be the eyes and ears of the rulers. In the recent past, spies have played a very crucial role in giving the country leaders a tactical advantage (they still do to a lesser degree). During the era of cold war, many spies were critical in changing the course of history. But that doesn’t answer the question: why do spies fascinate us so much? I think their popularity in pop culture can largely be attributed to their mysterious and almost superhuman quality. It is because of those qualities that we often get attracted to their job. Most of us will never have that opportunity, so we flock to movie theaters to watch the next James Bond, Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne film to derive whatever vicarious pleasure we can get.
If you are an avid lover of spy films, then this list is for you. We have curated a list of top spy and secret agent films that have come out till date. You can watch some of these best spy movies on Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or Amazon Prime. Some of the films on the list are spy movies for kids too.
25. Red Sparrow (2018)
Despite how critical people have been about this movie, I liked ‘Red Sparrow’ because of one reason – Jennifer Lawrence. Honestly, I didn’t expect the movie to be so gripping with ample twists and turns to keep the viewer’s attention unwavering. ‘Red Sparrow’ is the story of Dominika, a Russian Ballet artist who gets herself injured on the sets, which renders her helpless and unable to earn a livelihood to support her ailing mother. Ivan, Dominika’s uncle and the deputy of Russia’s SVR, the spy agency, approaches Dominika and offers her to work for SVR as a “Sparrow” in exchange of her mother’s continued treatment. Specializing in seducing their targets while spying on them, Dominika proves to be an ace sparrow, which even Ivan couldn’t have dreamt of. ‘Red Sparrow’ might not be as brilliant as Lawrence’s other films, but it is still quite entertaining.
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24. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Originally a popular television series of the ’60s, the film adaptation of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ was mired in controversies and production hiatuses from the day of its conception. To begin with, the movie is set during the cold war era and is a fictional take on the clashes between two spies of (cold) warring nations from the U.S. and the Soviet Union respectively – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Both Solo and Kuryakin find themselves meeting up each other and joining their efforts during the peak of the cold war to thwart an attempt of a criminal organization that is trying to make their own nukes. With quirky lines and intriguing conflicts, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ piques one’s interest and also boasts of great performances. It may not have received high praise from critics but it still makes for an entertaining experience for fans of the genre.
23. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
This movie is centred around Kingsman, an unaffiliated private secret service organization, whose agents are named after British knights. The most prominent one among them is Harry; one who is indebted to another one of his fellow agents who saved his life while dying in duty. Seventeen years later, Eggsy becomes a troubled young man who needs help and you may guess who shows up! Harry sees Eggsy as a potential Kingsman and trains him to be one of the best, while they chase a hothead billionaire. ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ boasts of its unique style, innovative action sequences and simplistic treatment of the story. A must-watch, indeed!
22. Casino Royale (2006)
The twenty-first instalment of the Bond franchise, ‘Casino Royale’ became an instant hit for many reasons – the christening of Daniel Craig as the new Bond, the action-packed beginning of the film, the poker-game sequence and the nail-biting action and endearing romance in the rest of the movie. In ‘Casino Royale’, Bond is on a mission to take on a terrorist financier, Le Chiffre and collaborates with CIA and other agencies to take him down by defeating him in a game of poker. As dull as it might sound, ‘Casino Royale’ is known to be one of the most engaging Bond movies to date. Watch it now and decide for yourself. Also, don’t miss out on Eva Green as the sultry Bond-girl!
21. Skyfall (2012)
The highest-grossing Bond movie till date, clocking a worldwide revenue of more than $1 billion, ‘Skyfall’ also features Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes in supporting roles. The movie begins with a fight sequence atop a train which injures Bond and he is later presumed dead; while he apparently has decided to retire from service. Upon M’s insistence to return despite faltering in his physical and psychological evaluations, Bond decides to come back and is now in the pursuit of Raoul Silva, a cyberterrorist who possesses details about MI6 and has orchestrated many attacks on the agency. Skyfall is Bond’s family estate in countryside Scotland where the decisive gunfight happens in the end, which also claims M’s life. The film was praised for its unparalleled action sequences, a gripping narrative and the obvious charm of Craig as the James Bond. Indeed, it qualifies to be the best bond film to date.
20. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
This is as good as a spy movie can get. A British secret service operative is shot and captured while he’s on an undercover assignment. This leads MI6 to believe the possibility of a mole in the high ranks of the organisation. An old faithful lieutenant is brought back as the investigating officer. He starts searching and soon stumbles upon a list of people who are code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and lastly Beggerman, which incidentally is him. Highly stylised, this movie isn’t your usual fare of high-octane car chases and spies pulling stunts to save the damsel in distress. This is a much more polished, refined work that has a realistic tone to it.
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19. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Anything that has references to the dreaded cold war is certain to have the involvement of spies. So ‘The Hunt for Red October’ is not a film that deserves to be left behind. The movie is obviously set during the cold war during the ’80s and tells the story of captain Marko Ramius, the commander of the newest nuclear submarine named “Red October” of the Soviet Navy. Apparently, the sub is untraceable by sonar, and Ramius, given his anti-US stance, kills the first officer aboard the submarine and falsely orders the crew to head to the U.S. coast to “conduct drills”. Meanwhile, Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst who needs to convince his country’s navy to be on high alert, for an undetectable submarine is on the prowl and nuclear war is imminent. Tense, clever and a wee bit complicated, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ makes for an exciting spy thriller.
18. The IpCress File (1965)
A classic spy flick in every sense, this is one of the many movies that explores the communist angle and the idea of brainwashing. When a number of scientists are found to be missing, Harry Palmer is called by his superior to investigate into it. They stumble upon an audiotape named IPCRESS which has nothing but a garbled noise recorded. The secret behind the noise brings out an elaborate plan of ‘brain drilling’. A horn-rimmed glasses wearing Micheal Caine redefines the coolness of the sixties in ‘The Ipcress File’.
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17. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Based on Robert Ludlum’s eponymous novel, this film is about a man with no memory, found drifting in the middle of the Mediterranean. As he gains consciousness, he finds himself to be a man of great abilities and identities. Choosing the name Jason Bourne, he sets off for the mission to find the man who put those bullets in his back. Spawning two more sequels, ‘The Bourne Identity’ became the trendsetter for modern spy movies, which are based on the fact that covert operations occur inside the CIA, with or without the knowledge of the government.
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16. Munich (2005)
One of Steven Spielberg‘s greatest works, ‘Munich’ revolves around the infamous Munich Massacre wherein 11 athletes of Israeli origin were killed by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics. After the tragic incident, a seasoned Mossad agent named Avner is chosen to avenge the death of fellow Israelis. To give plausible deniability to his country, Avner shuns all ties with Israel and begins the hunt with his ragtag team that includes a driver Steve; a bomb-maker Robert; a sharp-shooter Carl; a forger Hans; and an informant named Louis. It is later revealed that the CIA itself has been protecting the orchestrator of the attacks, for he had a deal with the Americans. ‘Munich’ is riveting, exceptional and eye-opening in many ways and is a defining tribute to the anti-terrorist campaign spearheaded by most countries.
15. Three Days Of Condor (1975)
A bookish operative of CIA, code-named Condor, with a desk job, suddenly finds all of his colleagues dead after coming back from lunch. Bewildered and terrified of the chain of events, he reaches out to the headquarters for help only to see himself as a target of an assassin. Confounded, he trusts no one and sets on a mission to get to the truth. The truth shocks him as it turns out to be a renegade operation of CIA wherein the operatives themselves aren’t even spared. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford plays Condor in this shocking tale of betrayal.
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14. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise is still rocking the world of action, with its latest flick performing exceedingly well at the box office. Also, Tom Cruise seems to be growing younger with age. This movie tells the story of CIA’s rogue agent Ethan Hunt (and later an IMF agent), who is on the trail of a file that has nuke launch codes. The codes are underway to a man known by the code-name Cobalt. Hunt’s pursuit of Cobalt gets him into jail, but he is later freed. He somehow ends on the top of Burj Khalifa, and is followed by Nath, an Indian entrepreneur who holds the key to saving the planet from nuclear fallout. ‘Ghost Protocol’ might be too much of the same plot that you are familiar with, but to watch the events unfold in a classic “MI” way is an adventure in itself. Tried it, yet?
13. Goldfinger (1964)
The third instalment of the beloved Bond and his quests, ‘Goldfinger’ has Sean Connery with a “License to Kill” in which we could see James Bond unearth a major gold smuggling plot, with Goldfinger, his arch-nemesis, being the kingpin of the entire plot. The narrative begins with Agent 007 getting to know about Auric Goldfinger, a gold smuggler who plans on raiding Fort Knox, the storehouse of the largest gold reserves in the world, and contaminate the gold within and bring the economy down to its heels. James Bond takes it upon himself to foil the plot and we do know the rest is history. ‘Goldfinger’ was the first commercially successful Bond film.
12. The Day of the Jackal (1973)
Often rated as one of the greatest British films, ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is the story of an assassin codenamed Jackal, who has been hired by a French terrorist organization named OAS, tasked with assassinating the then-French President Charles de Gaulle. The film showcases the events during the ’60’s, when several attempts to assassinate the President were made. Jackal leaves no stone unturned in disguising himself as a commoner and makes an unsuccessful attempt of shooting the President but is apprehended in the nick of time by Claude Lebel, a French police deputy who is hell-bent on bringing Jackal to books. But as slick as Jackal is, will Lebel get to him before he makes his next attempt? ‘The Day of the Jackal’ has been the recipient of a 4-star rating from Roger Ebert.
11. Argo (2012)
This critically acclaimed historical drama directed by Ben Affleck is based on the true events of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that was followed by a hostage crisis which was successfully thwarted by the CIA. The movie begins with Iranian Activists storming the Tehran US embassy, while six of the employees at the embassy take shelter at the Canadian embassy, who are neutral with the Iranians. Tony Mendez, a CIA operative, then devises a high-risk plan of exfiltrating the staff from Iran under the guise of them being a film crew, where all the employees are required to pose as actors in a ‘Star Wars’-stylized story titled ‘Argo’. All the staffers get Canadian passports, fake identities and a foolproof disguise – everything which helps them go back to their home country. ‘Argo’ was the recipient of multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Editing and Best Director. Need I say more?
10. Marathon Man (1976)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in leading roles, ‘Marathon Man’ is the story of Thomas Levy a.k.a. Babe, a marathon runner and researcher who is in the same field as his late father, who committed suicide, was. Henry, Babe’s brother, is an executive at an oil company but in reality, is a government spy. Christian Szell is a Nazi war criminal who is involved in a conspiracy surrounding high-value diamonds. Unwantedly, Babe gets involved in the conspiracy with deaths, secrets and finds himself at the epicentre of a whirlwind of devastating events. ‘Marathon Man’ is an honest, gripping thriller that deserves to be seen.
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9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
The latest of the popular ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise, ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ also has Henry Cavill, Vanessa Kirby joining the ensemble cast. The movie begins with Ethan Hunt who is on an assignment to get three plutonium cores from an undercover organization before the Apostles – a scaly remnant of The Syndicate. After Ethan fails to retrieve the cores, it triggers a chain reaction of events that exposes the true face of the Apostles including Solomon Lane, the now-captured head of the Syndicate. Nail-biting action sequences (don’t miss out on the helicopter chasing sequence in the end), a thrilling storyline and powerful performances make ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ arguably the best movie of the franchise till date.
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8. The Spy Who Came In From Cold (1965)
“What do you think spies are? They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” Richard Burton went on this bitter rant which perfectly explained his state of mind: a man who’s forced to act as a double agent, ultimately getting caught between the game of one-upmanship of secret agencies leading to his destruction. Based on John Le Carre’s novel of the same name, this movie is a perfect ode to the mysteries of counter-espionage.
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7. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Among the many Hollywood movies glorifying a communist conspiracy against the US, this one is the grandest of them all. An officer of the US army gets a recurring nightmare of his sergeant killing two of his squad members. As he sets out to get to the root cause of this unusual dream, he uncovers a dastardly assassination plan of the presidential nominee by a brainwashed killer, who happens to be his sergeant! The cherry on the cake is the way the assassin mode gets triggered by using a queen of diamonds card. This movie spawned a remake of the same name and received high praise from critics.
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6. Notorious (1946)
A seemingly promiscuous woman is recruited by an American agent to spy on her ex-lover who’s a member of a Nazi group. While the woman successfully infiltrates the group and steps closer to unearth the secret hidden inside the wine cellar, it’s the moral degradation of the characters that come into play. While the woman gets exploited by the man she loves, she, in turn, manipulates another man who loves her deeply. Alfred Hitchcock gained huge popularity with ‘Notorious’ for his ingenious and path-breaking direction style. Starring the beautiful Ingrid Bergman and stylish Cary Grant, ‘Notorious’ is definitely a wonderful cinematic experience that you wouldn’t want to miss out on.
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5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
My favourite on this list, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ depicts the true account of the highly covert witch-hunt of Osama Bin Laden, the dreaded Al-Qaeda operative who was the chief perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. Although the film has a documentary-like undertone, it is extremely well-written and primarily revolves around Maya, a CIA analyst who has spent years trying to trace UBL, while losing her near-and-dear ones and all her hopes, too. Maya’s perseverance forms the core of the film. Katheryn Bigelow’s direction is impeccable, while the performances elevate the film to a different level altogether. It is, without a doubt, one of the best films of the genre.
4. The Lives Of Others (2006)
In 1984, during the highly oppressive reign of the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, an officer of the Stasi is assigned to spy on a pro-communist German playwright and his girlfriend. While listening to their conversations over the listening device, the officer realizes the innocence of the couple and concludes that the mission is being fueled by men motivated by self-interest, desire and power. So he takes it on himself to put the couple out of danger, at the cost of his own morality. The winner of the best foreign film at the 79th academy awards, ‘The Lives Of Others’ is arguably one of the best movies made on this subject.
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3. The Third Man (1949)
An American novelist lands up in a war-torn Vienna to look for his old friend, only to find him dead. Upon discovering the fact that his friend was a criminal, he sets on a mission to prove his friend’s innocence, only to stumble on the fact that his dead friend might not be dead after all. One of the best neo-noir films ever made, ‘The Third Man’ is a clever juxtaposition of suspense and the crumbling socio-economic state of affairs of a war-ravaged country. Starring Orson Wells, this movie garnered universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Watch out for the famous ‘Swiss Cuckoo Speech’ sequence at the Ferris wheel!
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2. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
While the first three Bourne films are great, I believe ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ is the best among the lot. In this Paul Greengrass’ directorial, we witness a troubled Jason Bourne, the former CIA’s hired gun, continuing his pursuit of the operatives of Operation Treadstone while evading the authorities and trying to recollect his memories. Bourne seeks answers while going places — from London to Manhattan to Paris. ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ is an action-packed thriller that you must check out right away, if you haven’t already!
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1. North By Northwest (1959)
A classic take on a man on the run because of a mistaken identity, this is one of the most intelligent thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock. A man who is being pursued by many people decides to take the matter in his own hands as he starts investigating the man who is his lookalike. It’s an extremely well-crafted suspense thriller with a great cast and an engaging story about a spy who does not exist! Hitchcock cleverly uses the concept of a “MacGuffin” in this slick spy thriller to tell an entertaining tale.
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