Our contemporary movie culture suffers from a lack of good Heist Movies. We get a good one every few years, and with Ant-Man being a return to form within this particular sub-genre, under the guise of another superhero adventure, what better time to return to the possibilities held within a trope infinitely ripe with possibilities?
So what are the best Heist Movies? Well, first we need to talk about what defines a great Heist Movie. For our purposes, the following criteria will suffice:
- The film must primarily involve one or more heists.
- The heist/heists must be the primary source of motivation in the plot of the film.
- The film must be as stylish as possible (maybe).
With all of that mind, let’s run through eleven top picks for the best Heist Movies of all time:
Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a Heist Movie that sticks to the successful recipe of the sub-genre, with a little added flavor of its own. The film follows three groups of people: a crew of bank robbers, a team of hostage negotiators, and one bank owner. Whether it’s money, redemption, or just a better job title, everybody wants something here. How each interested party goes about accomplishing their goals culminates in a highlight of Spike Lee’s entire filmmaking career.
A summer blockbuster that did The Avengers style team-up before Marvel Studios (and I’m still not sure we’ll ever get a Fast movie as good as this one). I know for certain it’s one of cinema’s greatest Heist Movies that doubles as a hugely entertaining summer blockbuster. Inherently goofy and sentimental to a level most movies couldn’t even dream of, Fast Five is a popcorn masterpiece, that can still brag about having the manliest moment in the franchise (you’ll know it when you see it).
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson isn’t weird. He’s just different. But you do want to know how he makes good movies? Because he pays attention to every little detail. Whether it’s at the level of set design, or in the writing department, Anderson’s autumn colored, stop-motion animated family comedy (that also works brilliantly as one of last decades greatest Heist Movies) ranks near the top of the director’s personal work.
The simple, yet violently eloquent, debut from renowned American director Quentin Tarantino, is also a superb Heist Movie. Most of the film takes place within the confines of a single room (with a few detours into hallways and a parking lot), with only a series of flashbacks to depict the heist that happened before the immediate aftermath depicted of a bank robbery gone wrong. And by wrong I mean that two people are dead, one is has been shot and grievously wounded, there’s obviously a cop in the crew, and a crime lord is especially pissed off.
One of the few directorial debuts on the same level as Reservoir Dogs, you can tell in the silent, opening minutes of Thief that director Michael Mann is making a statement to the world: Style and substance don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Mann’s visuals, music cues, and direction all help tell the story. There’s an oozy coolness to it all that amounts to more than posturing, with visuals and a soundtrack that serve as decoration informing us about the life that our titular thief wants to have, making Mann’s debut a truly phenomenal Heist Movie.
You may have heard I’m a pretty big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn before, and this movie is the reason. To be fair, it’s his most mainstream work, but it’s also a serious contender for his very best. What could have become a simple B-Movie plot is turned into an explorative look at the life of a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway car driver. So what does this nameless criminal want? Something about a being hero, and a real human being (you’ll know what I mean after you’ve watched it). When the final heist of the film begins to unwind, you’ll know why Refn’s 2011 film is on this list of the greatest Heist Movies of all time.
I know how this looks, so just trust me on this one. Mixed critical reception be damned, this is Steven Soderbergh’s favorite of his Ocean’s Trilogy, and I’m inclined to agree with him. A pure exercise in style and entertainment, you’ll never watch another movie quiet like Ocean’s Twelve. You might find some things that came before from which it borrows, but Soderbergh is speaking a language in this film all his own. There’s truly some seriously masterful stuff going on here beneath the surface of an admittedly bonkers plot, which makes this a Heist Movie for the ages.
In Heist Movies, every master thief wants something, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominick Cobb, from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, just wants to go home to his kids. Ranking quiet possibly as Nolan’s magnum opus, Inception triples itself as part crime-tragedy, part meta-movie about filmmaking, and part classic, science-fiction adventure. The third act is a total, Bond movie homage, but the primary goal of the film itself is not to steal something, but rather to plant a dangerous weapon within the confines of someone’s mind: An idea. Nolan’s action is on point, the triumphant, Hans Zimmer score erupts in your ears with voracious fury, and it’s the first of Nolan’s films to successfully tap into legitimate, emotional connections held between its characters, earning the film a place on this list.
With perhaps a little more action than is typically found in your average Heist Movie, Die Hard is still a stellar example of the sub-genre done right. Relying on the stupidity of law officers harking back to the era of the Keystone Cops, and featuring one of the greatest movie villains of all time, New York City cop John McClane engages in a battle of wits and brawn, all while wearing no shoes within the environs of a Los Angeles high-rise. There are a plethora of bullets, a couple explosions, some brutal shots to a terrorist’s crotch, and a pair of very bloody feet, all of which make Die Hard the best action movie ever made (and almost the best Heist Movie, too).
Dog Day Afternoon
The most visceral and intense movie on this list is also almost the best. Al Pacino’s unhinged performance in Dog Day Afternoon puts you in the heat of the moment. Fame without fortune awaits Sonny Wortzik when he robs a bank with two witless accomplices, and what follows is a two hour spiral into situations that make you think, “This can’t possibly get any worse,” while simulataneously commenting on the 15 minutes of fame some people seek during such horrifying situations, making this Sidney Lumet classic an indispensable Heist Movie.
Michael Mann fancies stories that delve into the psychology of his featured professionals. It’s no mistake then that Mann has two films included on this list, and even less of a wonder why this is his most popular film. A large scale, crime-epic, featuring a contender for best shootout ever put to film, Heat is ultimately a story of two men who find themselves on the opposite ends of the law. Cops and robbers has been done to death in film, so leave it to Michael Mann to make another Heist Movie that somehow tops all previous efforts at the form, including his own, which is why Heat is ranked the best Heist Movie of all time on this list.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.