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The 21 Best Heist Movies of All Time

April 1, 2013  |  1:47pm
The 21 Best Heist Movies of All Time

The heist genre has a long and storied tradition that dates back to the silent era with adaptations to the stage play Alias Jimmy Valentine. We picked our 21 favorites, ranging in date from 1956 to just a few years ago. Honorable mention goes to The Great Muppet Caper which just missed the list despite its humor, romance and jewelry thieves. But these are the 21 heist movies that stole our hearts.

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21. Thief
Year: 1981
Director: Michael Mann
Few filmmakers have probed the psychology of what exactly it means to be a criminal quite like writer/director Michael Mann. Certainly, Mann came straight out of the gates kicking with his 1981 debut, Thief. In perhaps the best performance of his career, James Caan stars as a professional safecracker hoping to give up his life of crime and establish a normal life. Needless to say, the “final job” he accepts to make this happen is anything but straightforward.—Mark Rozeman

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20. The Town
Year: 2010
Director: Ben Affleck
Before Argo, Affleck surpassed any expectations we might have had for him with a spellbinding thriller that hits all the right notes of suspense, romance, and heartbreak. “The Town” is Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood that may as well be a prison sentence: lives of crime are passed down from generation to generation like family Bibles, and Affleck’s character, Doug, can’t shake the weight of his inheritance, as much as he wants to. After embarrassments like Reindeer Games, Gigli, Jersey Girl and Paycheck, it’s surely not a coincidence that Affleck went home to Boston to film a movie about a guy who desperately wants out, who desperately wants to reinvent himself. And he’s succeeded on all fronts, including the metaphorical one.—Allison Winn Scotch

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19. Snatch
Year: 2000
Director: Guy Ritchie
Love or hate him, Guy Ritchie has redefined the gangster genre with his hyper-stylized touch. Snatch may be a lesser remix of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but it boasts a multifaceted plot, frenzied action and dazzling eye candy. And how can you not love characters with names like Franky Four Fingers, Bullet Tooth Tony and Doug the Head?—David Roark

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18. Office Space
Year: 1999
Director: Mike Judge
Great comedy almost always has a dark heart. But this makes sense. Laughter is our response to absurd and unexpected contradictions; comedy needs its darkness to fully flourish. Mike Judge, the writer/director of Office Space, knows this well. His humor concerns the lowest, saddest schmucks on the corporate ladder (thus 99% of us can relate) who mostly feel dead inside, turning to Kung Fu reruns and cheap beer to escape. For protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), his goal is one of the funniest and most subversive in cinema history: independently, from no wellspring of societal angst, he wants to do nothing. And besides being a hilarious antidote to scores of boring predictable cookie-cutter hyperactive hero-protagonists that populate seemingly every movie, it feels absolutely real, and is what the corporate rat race deserves in an anti-hero: the do-gooder replaced by the do-nothing.—Harold Brodie

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17. Three Kings
Year: 1999
Director: David O. Russell
Armed with invention, flare and an unflinching point of view, indie filmmaker David O. Russell charged into Hollywood and made an absolutely stunning war film—honest and unapologetic in its depiction of the Gulf War. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze play American soldiers who witness the collateral damage of the war as they attempt to smuggle some of Saddam Hussein’s gold out of Iraq. The film mixes political commentary, wartime character studies and madcap surrealism, emphasized by Newton Thomas Sigel’s gritty, vibrant experimental cinematography. The audience must follow the characters on their journey and witness their discoveries, their failures and their desperation. The film also helped establish Clooney as a leading man willing to take on thoughtful, difficult content.—Jeremy Mathews

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16. A Fish Called Wanda
Year: 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
This ensemble piece shows what can happen when four skilled comic actors (John Cleese, fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis) are given a script (written by Cleese) that puts them all on equal footing. The result is a tour-de-force of crisply delivered, character-driven heist comedy that, while tough on old ladies, fish and terriers, continues to reward new and returning viewers. (The film also broke through the Academy’s normal bias against comedies, winning Kevin Kline a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor for his role as Otto.)—Michael Burgin

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15. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Year: 1974
Director: Joseph Sargent
Compared with the high-octane 2009 remake directed by Tony Scott (may he rest in peace), the original 1974 adaptation of Morton Freedgood’s novel about a band of criminals taking a subway train full of citizens hostage seems to move at an almost glacial pace. That being said, not much can match the intense interplay between Robert Shaw, as the leader of the criminals, and Walter Matthau, as the beguiled Transit Authority police lieutenant forced to deal with the situation. And, without spoiling the ending, how many movies can reasonably say that their climactic sequence ends with a simple sneeze?—Mark Rozeman

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14. Inside Man
Year: 2006
Director: Spike Lee
With the exceptions of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, no filmmaker has had a more dynamic and fruitful relationship with New York City than Spike Lee. This connection is on full display in his 2006 crime drama, Inside Man. In one of his best performances to date, Clive Owen stars as a brilliant career criminal who takes over a New York bank. What at first appears to be a straightforward hostage situation, however, is soon revealed to be far more complex than anyone could have predicted. Soon, the inevitable media circus arrives, complicating matter for the detective (Denzel Washington) assigned to handle the case. The most financially successful film of Lee’s career, Inside Man is as much a love letter to NYC and its rich diverse melting pot of cultures and backgrounds as it is a genre thriller in the vein of Dog Day Afternoon and Ocean’s Eleven.—Mark Rozeman

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13. Die Hard
Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Die Hard may be the “stickiest” film of its decade—how many best-laid plans have been derailed by running across John McTiernan’s masterful actioner on cable? As Officer John McClane and Hans Gruber, respectively, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman steal the show in career-defining roles, but even Henchman #10 (Asian man who eats candy bar, or Uli, to his friends) comes across more realized than most lead roles in today’s run-of-the-mill action flicks. Tightly plotted with clever to spare, Die Hard welcomes the scrutiny of multiple viewings without losing its humor or heart. Yippie ki-yay, indeed.—Michael Burgin

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12. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Year: 1998
Director: Guy Ritchie
Guy Ritchie’s debut film, a super-stylistic take on the gangster formula, pays homage to the work of Quentin Tarantino—from the sardonic humor, to slapstick violence, to the twisty plot, you could call it the British Reservoir Dogs on crack. Vinnie Jones plays Big Chris as tough as he looked on the football field but also as a loving new dad. P.H. Moriarty is the out-of-control crime boss ‘Hatchet’ Harry Lonsdale. And its obtrusive soundtrack—a mix of classic rock, reggae and pop—brings it all together.

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11. Bottle Rocket
Year: 1996
Director: Wes Anderson
Bottle Rocket introduced us both to the singular world of Wes Anderson and the unique charm of the Wilson brothers. All of his films have their critics, but we’ll go ahead and say that the director not only gave us a new kind of humor, but a new kind of joy in the stylistic quirks that have little changed seven movies later. Most adults who’ve forgotten to grow up are either repulsive in their adolescent behavior or the butt of the joke, but Dignan retains that boyish likability for all his crazy scheming, including the heist at the film’s center.—Josh Jackson

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10. The Italian Job
Year: 2003
Director: F. Gary Gray
The Italian Job is different from other heist movies in that it’s not all about the money or even the challenge of just trying to steal something without getting caught. Thought it still has the requisite wise-cracking and motley- yet-somehow close-knit-crew of thieves like countless other heist movies, The Italian Job is refreshingly different because it’s primarily about betrayal and revenge, rather than just money. Plus, Mini Coopers have never looked so cool.—Anita George

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9. Goldfinger
Year: 1964
Director: Guy Hamilton
So many things make this one of the greatest heist movies (and Bond films) of all time. Sean Connery, the best Bond? Check. Pussy Galore, the ultimate in hilariously-named Bond girls? Check. Bond infiltrates Fort Knox with his piton gun grappling hook, complete with laser-cutter. Auric Goldfinger’s trusty bodyguard Oddjob became a staple of the historic franchise with his steel-brimmed bowler hat capable of much more damage than your average clothing accessory. This was also the first appearance of Bond’s signature Aston Martin DB5 equipped with tire-slashing hubcaps, a retractable bullet-proof shield in the rear, an ejectable passenger seat, machine guns in the headlights and an oil slick deployer. To top it off, Shirley Bassey belts out the character traits of the man with the Midas touch while the horns blare in the best Bond theme song to date.

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8. Rififi
Year: 1974
Director: Jules Dassin
After being blacklisted from Hollywood during the reign of McCarthy, Jules Dassin, the director of such classic film noirs as Brute Force and The Naked City looked overseas for employment. Settling in France, he was offered the chance to direct the movie version of a crime novel by Auguste le Breton. Centering on four criminals planning a heavily guarded jewelry shop on the Rue de Rivoli, Rififi was right up Dassin’s alley, though he reportedly did not care for sections of the novel. The resulting film has long been considered as one of the greatest French crime thrillers of all time. In perhaps the film’s most virtuoso sequence, Dassin films the long-anticipated heist scene as a quasi-silent 30-minute sequence devoid of dialogue or music.—Mark Rozeman

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7. Heat
Year: 1995
Director: Michael Mann
The diner scene alone, where heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro face off (for the first time in cinema history) would be enough to put Heat near the top of this list, but the whole cat-and-mouse story holds up all the way through. And Val Kilmer gives one of his best performances. The film is dark, human and wholly engaging—everything a heist movie should be.—Josh Jackson

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6. The Usual Suspects
Year: 1995
Director: Bryan Singer
With all its twists, turns, rumors and flashbacks, The Usual Suspects could have easily been a mess, but director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and the outstanding cast, led by Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, hold it together. Five crooks meet in a police lineup and plan a heist together, getting mixed up with a secretive criminal kingpin named Kayser Söze. While technically a mystery film at the core, it goes gangster by the end.

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5. Inception
Year: 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). How, then, to create a compelling movie where that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story? Director Christopher Nolan does just that with Inception, a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and the gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail on Nolan’s part. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work towards the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream.—Michael Saba

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4. Dog Day Afternoon
Year: 1975
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon
While a Brooklyn bank heist on a hot summer’s day provides the setting for Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Oscar-nominated film, Dog Day Afternoon is about what happens when the job doesn’t go according to plan and Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) find themselves backed into a corner. Pacino turns in some of his best work as one of cinema’s most sympathetic bank robbers: Sonny’s a Vietnam vet who had a hard time transitioning back to civilian life and needs the money to pay for gender reassignment surgery for his pre-operative transsexual lover (Chris Sarandon). His chant of “Attica! Attica!” (referencing the 1971 Attica prison riot and lending the film its important anti-establishment undertones) has become one of the most oft-referenced movie scenes of all time, and even though he’s got a building full of hostages and we know things can’t end well for him, it’s tough not to root for the poor guy.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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3. Reservoir Dogs
Year: 1992
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Reservoir Dogs’ debut at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival launched not only the career of one Quentin Tarantino but an American indie genre unto itself characterized by extreme violence, profane dialogue, nonlinear storytelling and a curated soundtrack. Many have tried, but none of his imitators has achieved the visual and aural poetry at work in Tarantino’s oeuvre, particularly his magnum opus Pulp Fiction, upon whose release in 1994 newly minted fans went back to discover the aftermath of Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink and Mr. White’s botched diamond heist (but not the heist itself). This is where it all began.—Annlee Ellingson

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2. The Killing
Year: 1956
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Before his name became synonymous with cold, yet visually exuberant films about man’s dehumanization (Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.), Stanley Kubrick originally broke into the film industry as a director of pulpy crime films. Released in 1956, The Killing serves as Kubrick’s first masterpiece as well as a huge indication of the greatness that would follow. The film stars Sterling Hayden as a long-time criminal who undertakes the dreaded “one final job.” This time around, the target is a racetrack on a particularly busy day. Shot in a quasi-documentary style (complete with a somewhat over exaggerated voiceover narration) and boasting a non-linear structure, The Killing is a film that feels shockingly ahead of its time. No doubt, it’s precisely the kind of film Quentin Tarantino had on his mind when he sat down to write Reservoir Dogs.—Mark Rozeman

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1. Ocean’s Eleven
Year: 2002
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Ocean’s 11 may not be the best movie on this list, but it’s the best heist movie, perfecting the genre with an amazing ensemble cast led by Brad and George but filled with as much talent all the way through as the experts involved in the casino robbery. It’s the perfect crime, and rarely in film has it been more fun to root for the criminals as they outsmart Andy Garcia at every turn.—Josh Jackson

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