Spy. A word that brings a tremendous amount of adventure and excitement with it. Perhaps one of the most dangerous and life-threatening jobs to perform, espionage is centuries old. In the ancient days, the spies used to be the eyes and ears of the rulers. In fact, in recent past, spies have played a very crucial role in giving 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 there is a part in all of us that wants to be a spy. 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 today’s list is for you. We have curated a list of top spy and secret agent films to 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 the people are about this movie, I liked ‘Red Sparrow’ because of two reasons – Jennifer Lawrence and 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 narrative 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 dreamed of while himself being involved in a sinister plot. ‘Red Sparrow’ might not have been as powerful as Lawrence’s other appearances, but is blazingly good in terms of the spy dosage it serves.
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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 which is trying to make their own nukes. With quirky lines and somewhat clashes of powers, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ piques one’s interest and boasts of a great cast. Yet, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ was meted with criticism owing to its weaker script. Still, it makes for a decent spy comedy thriller that you can watch.
23. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
The movie is centred around Kingsman, an unaffiliated private secret service organization, whose agents are named after British knights. Most prominent of them is Harry, one who is indebted to another of his fellow agents who saves his life while dying in duty. Seventeen years later, Eggsy is 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 sense of style, innovative action sequences and its simplistic presentment. More or less, if a movie has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards, one can judge the authenticity and outreach of it.
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 nailbiting 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 in a fight sequence atop a train which injures Bond and 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. ‘Skyfall’ 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. Instead, this appeals to the grey matter of the brain as in a series of conversation and real fine detective work, the mole is apprehended.
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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. ‘The Hunt for Red October’ is not left behind. The movie is obviously set during the cold war during the ’80s and is the narrative 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 a defining spy thriller.
18. The IpCress File (1965)
A classic spy movie in every sense, this was among the many movies exploring 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, it’s about a man without his memory, found drifting in the middle of the Mediterranean. As he gains consciousness, he finds himself to be a man of many capabilities and many identities. Choosing the name Jason Bourne, he sets 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. And how can one forget Moby’s ‘Extreme Ways’ which became synonymous with Jason Bourne?
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16. Munich (2005)
One of the yet another Spielberg’s masterpieces surrounding the Jewish cause, more importantly around an incident that took the lives of several innocent Jewish athletes, ‘Munich’ revolves around the infamous Munich Massacre when 11 athletes of Israeli origin were killed by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics. During the aftermath, a seasoned Mossad agent Avner is chosen to avenge the death of fellow Israelis. Plausible deniability leads Avner to shun all ties with Israel and begin the hunt with his ragtag team – 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 makes him shiver to the marrows as it turns out to be a renegade operation of CIA where the operatives themselves aren’t even spared. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford plays Condor in this tale of betrayal and drama.
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14. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise has not seen better days off late, with its latest flick performing exceedingly well at the box office. Also, Tom Cruise seems to be growing younger with age. The movie is the narrative of the 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, then frees him, he somehow ends on the top of Burj Khalifa, followed by his stint in Mumbai where Nath, an Indian entrepreneur, who holds the key to saving the planet from nuclear fallout. ‘Ghost Protocol’ might be too much of the same, but to watch the events unfold in a classic “MI” way is an adventure in itself. Tried it, yet?
13. Goldfinger (1964)
Only 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 largest gold reserves in the world, 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. ‘Goldfinger’ was the first commercially successful Bond film but not the last, at least not until now.
12. The Day of the Jackal (1973)
Often rated as one of the greatest British films, ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is the narrative 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. Showcasing the events during the ’60’s attempt of assassination on the President, OAS is miffed with France granting independence to Algeria and want to remove de Gaulle. Jackal leaves no stone unturned in disguising himself as a commoner and makes another unsuccessful attempt of shooting at 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. Every “Jackal” has his day!
11. Argo (2012)
The critically acclaimed historical drama directed by Ben Affleck, based upon the true events of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 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 narrative of Thomas Levy a.k.a. Babe, a marathon runner and researcher who is in the same field as was his late father who committed suicide. 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 himself at the epicentre of a whirlwind. ‘Marathon Man’ is an honest, gripping thriller and Laurence Olivier’s role of Christian Szell won him a place among the best-depicted villains of all the time.
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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 in 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. Nailbiting 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. And also the most decorated.
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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 oneupmanship 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 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 became the precedent of the critically acclaimed and multiple Emmy winning series – Homeland.
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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 pathbreaking direction. Starring a beautiful Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, ‘Notorious’ was the official selection of the 1946 Cannes film festival.
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5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
My favourite on this list, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ depicted the true account of the highly covert witch-hunt of Osama Bin Laden, the dreaded Al-Qaeda operative who was the chief perpetrator of 9/11 attacks, leading in loss of lives of thousands of innocent Americans. Although the film has a documentary-like undertone, it has been 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. Maya’s perseverance forms the core of the film and this Katheryn Bigelow’s directorial deserves its fair share of accolades for being a triumphant accomplishment in terms of its storytelling, performances, and direction. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ got multiple award nominations, one Academy Award win and critical acclaim.
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 comes to the terms of 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 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 perhaps 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 among the film-noirs, ‘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 the 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 all 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 harrowed 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 CIA led by Deputy Vosen is constantly on Bourne’s tail, and Bourne has to be on the run constantly, in order to be resilient, morally right and seek his rightful identity. ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ is an action-packed thrilling roller-coaster ride that you don’t want to miss at any cost.
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1. North By Northwest (1959)
A classic take on a man on the run because of mistaken identity, this is one of the sharpest thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock. A man being pursued by many decides to take the matter in his own hands and starts investigating the man who is his lookalike. It’s an extremely well-crafted suspense thriller with a great cast and an equally engaging story about a spy who does not exist! Hitchcock cleverly used the concept of a “MacGuffin” in this slick spy thriller to weave a story around it.
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