Best Prison Movies

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best prison movies of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.

30. ‘In the Name of the Father’ (1993) – Jim Sheridan

Arguably Daniel Day-Lewis’ most underrated performance came as an Irishman who confesses to an IRA bombing that he didn’t commit, imprisoning both himself and his father.

29. ‘Dead Man Walking’ (1995) – Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins directed his wife Susan Sarandon to the Best Actress Oscar as a lawyer trying to exonerate Sean Penn’s death-row inmate.

28. ‘The Longest Yard’ (1974) – Robert Aldrich

Incarcerated ex-quarterback Burt Reynolds rounds up his fellow inmates for a gridiron showdown against the guards.

27. ‘A Prophet’ (2009) – Jacques Audiard

This thrilling tale of a young Arab man sent to a French prison was an international sensation, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

26. ‘American History X’ (1998) – Tony Kaye

Ed Norton’s former skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from “curb stomping” down the same path in a film that’s even more relevant today after the neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville.

25. ‘Son of Saul’ (2015) – Laszlo Nemes

This Oscar winner follows an Auschwitz prisoner salvaging a boy’s body from the flames, using a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio to hint at the horrors lurking just outside the frame.

24. ‘Papillon’ (1973) – Franklin J. Schaffner

A decade after “The Great Escape,” Steve McQueen befriends Dustin Hoffman inspiring an escape plan from a harrowing prison island.

23. ‘Girl, Interrupted’ (1999) – James Mangold

Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) chronicled her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the late 1960s, while Angelina Jolie won an Oscar threatening to jab her aorta.

22. ‘Short Term 12’ (2013) – Destin Daniel Cretton

This indie look at a juvenile delinquent facility put its stars on the map: Brie Larson, John Gallager Jr., Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever.

21. ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958) – Stanley Kramer

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play black and white inmates who must learn to get along while chained together upon their escape.

20. ‘Down By Law’ (1986) – Jim Jarmusch

Husky musician Tom Waits shares a jail cell with John Lurie until an eccentric Italian Roberto Benigni arrives with an escape plan.

19. ‘Sling Blade’ (1996) – Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for writing, directing and starring as a simpleton released back into society after killing with a “sling blade.”

18. ‘Capote’ (2004) – Bennett Miller

Phillip Seymour Hoffman won a deserving Oscar as author Truman Capote, visiting a prisoner during the writing of his iconic crime novel “In Cold Blood.”

17. ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956) – Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson’s drama about a French Resistance fighter plotting a daunting escape from a Nazi prison is visual storytelling at its finest.

16. ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ (1962) – John Frankenheimer

Before Brooks in “Shawshank,” Burt Lancaster shined as a convicted murderer in permanent isolation at Alcatraz who redeems himself by becoming a renowned bird expert.

15. ‘The Green Mile’ (1999) – Frank Darabont

Tom Hanks plays a prison guard who befriends a death-row inmate with supernatural powers played by Michael Clarke Duncan.

14. ‘The Hurricane’ (1999) – Norman Jewison

Denzel Washington gave one of his finest performances as wrongfully-convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who as Bob Dylan sang, “Coulda been the champion of the world.”

13. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1982) – Alan J. Pakula

Meryl Streep’s greatest performance came in her Oscar-winning role as a Holocaust survivor who reflects in flashback on the impossible choice she was forced to make by a Nazi prison guard.

12. ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997) – Roberto Benigni

Robert Benigni directed himself to stand-on-the-chair Oscar as a Jewish librarian who uses his imagination to help his son survive the Holocaust.

11. ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ (1932) – Mervyn LeRoy

Paul Muni memorably played a wrongly convicted man serving on a southern chain gang, inspiring the likes of “Cool Hand Luke.”

10. ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000) – Coen Brothers

George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson shine in the Coens’ chain-gang escape romp set to “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys in a soundtrack that won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

9. ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ (1979) – Don Siegel

Clint Eastwood reunited with his “Dirty Harry” director to recreate the riveting real-life escape of three Alcatraz inmates, whose whereabouts were never discovered.

8. ‘The Fugitive’ (1993) – Andrew Davis

“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!” Tommy Lee Jones won an Oscar pursuing convicted felon Harrison Ford, who’s desperately trying to prove his innocence.

7. ‘La Grand Illusion’ (1937) – Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir’s textbook example of the genre follows two French soldiers trying to escape a German POW camp in World War I.

6. ‘Stalag 17’ (1953) – Billy Wilder

William Holden won an Oscar as a suspected informant inside a German POW camp where two escaping Americans are killed.

5. ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) – John Sturges

Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough lead a deep cast in this entertaining romp about Allied prisoners digging out of a German POW camp.

4. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) – David Lean

Alec Guinness was never better than his Oscar-winning role as a British colonel forced to build a bridge in a Japanese POW camp, all while William Holden’s U.S. solider plots to blow it up.

3. ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (1967) – Stuart Rosenberg

“What we’ve go here is a failure to communicate!” Not only is Paul Newman utterly charismatic as the title rebel rouser, the entire film is a Christ allegory, from miracles to disciples to betrayal.

2. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975) – Milos Forman

Jack Nicholson’s Randal P. McMurphy charmingly rebels against the sadistic head of a mental institution (Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched) in one of only three movies to win the “Big Five” Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.

1. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994) – Frank Darabont

The fans have spoken with IMDB’s top-rated film about Andy Dufresne deciding whether to “get busy living or get busy dying” in this inspirational prison drama narrated by the angelic voice of Morgan Freeman.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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