Heist movies can seem tired and formulaic, but movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Reservoir Dogs are inventive and fun, and spice up the Hollywood genre.
Rick and Morty’s recent season featured an episode that hilariously mocked heist movie clichés and traditions. And the program nailed the nail on the head so well that it may be tough to take heist flicks seriously now. To be fair, the most of them stick to a strict, predictable pattern and end up being tedious slogs.
However, there are many excellent entries in this area. Some filmmakers have taken advantage of the formulaic premise to concentrate on developing memorable characters and delivering surprising story twists and rug-pull finishes. So, here are the top ten heist movies of all time, in order of their importance.
10. Killing Them Softly (2012)
In Andrew Dominik’s bleak, gritty, ultra-voilent take on American crime films, three guys rob a mafia poker game. The heist turns out to be just the beginning, as the mob ruthlessly hunts down the men who stole their money. Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta, each giving stellar, subdued performances that suit Dominik’s grounded film making style.
Liotta plays the mob boss — in a fun nod to his unforgettable turn as gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas — and Pitt plays the relentless enforcer that he hires to track down the guys who robbed the collective winnings from his gang’s card game.
9. Oceans Eleven (2001)
Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Rat Pack’s run-of-the-mill 1960 heist film of the same title is the first name in modern heist movies. It set the template for 21st century takes on the genre.
The plot is a little predictable and relies on convention, but the cast is incredible: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Julia Roberts, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner — the list of Hollywood legends goes on.
8. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Unusually funny for a heist movie, A Fish Called Wanda is a timeless classic. Thanks to an intelligent script written by Monty Python’s John Cleese – who also stars in the film — A Fish Called Wanda is a rare Hollywood comedy that has both laugh-out-loud moments and an engaging plot.
Cleese is great in the lead role, but Jamie Lee Curtis and an Oscar-winning Kevin Kline are the true standouts in the cast.
7. Inside Man (2006)
Perhaps Spike Lee’s most mainstream film, Inside Man stars Denzel Washington as a cop trying to contain a bank heist from the outside and Clive Owen as the criminal mastermind on the inside.Intercut with the cops interviewing the hostages after the fact, Inside Man is a briskly paced cat-and-mouse thriller with some shocking twists and turns. It’s not 100% believable, but when a movie is this entertaining, that doesn’t really matter.
6. The Killing (1956)
Helmed by the great Stanley Kubrick on a shoestring budget, The Killing follows a career criminal who assembles a crew to pull off one last job before going straight. However, when one of the guys he’s recruited tells his wife about the scheme, she hatches a counter-plot of her own.
It wasn’t appreciated in its own time, but The Killing has come to be lauded as one of the greatest film noirs ever made. Kubrick’s command of the filmmaking craft deftly carries the complex plot across the movie’s sleek 85-minute runtime.
5. The Town (2010)
Adapted from the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves, The Town was Ben Affleck’s sophomore effort as a director. He stars alongside such greats as Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner in the tale of a career criminal who falls for the manager of a bank he once robbed while an FBI agent hunts him down.
It’s cheesy to say that a city is a character in a movie, but in The Town, Boston really does feel like a character. Affleck loves his native city, and knows how to depict it on the big screen like Martin Scorsese does with New York.
4. The Sting (1973)
Re-pairing the dynamic on-screen duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, The Sting tells the story of a couple of con artists who pull a series of elaborate cons. The main con in the movie is their plot to rob a mob boss, played by Jaws’ Robert Shaw.
With its anachronistic use of ragtime music and old-fashioned title cards, The Sting has a style entirely of its own, and it’s a delightfully breezy yet twisty caper.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The smartest thing about Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs is that it succeeds as a heist movie without even showing the heist. This was primarily due to budgetary restrictions, but Tarantino used those limitations creatively. In this story, the focus isn’t on the heist itself; it’s on the characters carrying out the heist.
When a jewelry store robbery goes wrong and it becomes apparent that one of the robbers is an undercover cop, the characters all turn on each other, and it becomes a father-son story as Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) sticks up for young Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who’s bleeding out from a gunshot wound.
2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
A classic of anti-establishment cinema, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalized dramatization of a bank robbery carried out by a guy and his friend to pay for his lover to get gender confirmation surgery.
The Godfather co-stars Al Pacino and John Cazale reunited to play the two bank robbers. They draw on the characters’ panicked state brilliantly as the situation slowly escalates and their hostages become endeared to them.
1. Heat (1995)
For Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s first on-screen appearance together, Michael Mann wrote and directed a visceral crime thriller worthy of their mighty talent clashing on the big screen at last. De Niro plays a notorious bank robber and Pacino plays the intense, coke-snorting (although his drug use is off-screen; that’s just how Pacino played him) detective on his trail.
Heat is more action-packed than the average heist movie, with one shootout in particular shining as one of the most breathtaking action set pieces ever put on film.