Crime capers, thrillers, and mystery movies all engage audiences in a similar fashion, inviting them into the action as a mystery is solved. The best spy movies do this better than any other as they are full of adventure, high stakes situations, and cheeky characters that an audience is never sure they can completely trust. In short, the best spy movies keep you guessing throughout in order to captivate audiences and elevate the climax of these films to be mightily rewarding.
From 007 to Agent Salt, there is no shortage of movie spies out there for audiences to fall in love with. Whether you’re joining them on a clandestine operation or a double agent plot, these spies never disappoint or fail to deliver on this genre’s promise to keep you guessing. In fact, spy characters are often the most enigmatic players of any genre. If you’re after a movie that can truly wrap you up in its plot, consider watching the best spy movies found on this list!
Check Out the Best Spy Movies of All Time!
The Conversation (1974)
Atmospheric, cold, and claustrophobic, The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as a spy who is obsessed with his own privacy. He’s tasked with spying on a couple who he eventually believes will be murdered. It becomes an absolute obsession. This is one of the best spy movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
After moving to Kenya, a quiet British diplomat finds his wife, an activist, murdered in the wilderness. Determined to find her killers, he inserts himself into a perilous conspiracy. The film was adapted from a novel of the same name written by John le Carré who is responsible for many of the best spy movies on this list.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
In this Cold War thriller, a US pilot is captured by the Soviet Union and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The CIA recruits a New York-based lawyer to negotiate a spy exchange. It gets complicated and ultimately extremely entertaining and taught. Mark Rylance is spectacular in this gem of a film.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Set in 1939, just after the formation of British intelligence agency MI6, The Imitation Game tells the story of one of the agency’s first recruits, Alan Turing. The mathematician from Cambridge becomes integral in cracking a Nazi code called Enigma. It’s a race against time in one of the best spy movies based on a true story.
Europa Europa (1990)
Also set during WWII, Europa Europa tells the story of a Jewish boy who becomes separated from his parents. He poses as a German teenager in Russia and unintentionally finds himself a “war hero” to the Nazis and is made to join the Hitler Youth. Will his cover be blown or can he ride out the war posing as the enemy?
Angelina Jolie soars as a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy. She must depend on all of the skills acrued working for the agency to elude capture. As she tries to absolve herself and prove to her peers that she is not a Russian asset, she realizes the task is much harder than she’d ever imagined. Fast-paced and action-packed this movie buzzes right along at such a clip that you can easily overlook how over-the-top the film is.
Move over, Austin Powers, 2015’s Spy proved itself one of the most successful, if not the most successful spy comedy ever made. Melissa McCarthy absolutely fires on all cylinders in this playful comedy that is actually quite action packed. It’s one of the best spy movies and the only comedy on this list. If you need a laugh, you owe it to yourself to try this treasure.
Flame & Citron (2008)
Following the Nazi invasion of Denmark, resistance fighters organize to assassinate Nazi collaborators. The story centers on two characters Flame and Citron who must grapple with their morality as the assassination assignments get more and more difficult. Partly based on real events, this is one of the best spy films to show European resistance against the Nazis.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
One of the best spy movies that doesn’t take itself too seriously is Charlie Wilson’s War which has a star-studded cast that includes Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts. Hanks plays a Texas congressman who partners with a wealthy socialite and a CIA agent to raise money for Afghan freedom fighters in their war against the Soviet Union. It might sound like a far-fetched plot but this movie is based on a true story.
Saoirse Ronan stars in the title role in this spy movie about a teenager who is raised by her dad, an ex-CIA agent, to be a cold-blooded soldier. Due to her strength and courage, she becomes the ideal, lethal assassin. Unfortunately, a murderous intelligence agent arrives looking to hunt her down. It’s one of the best spy movies to watch if you like your films fast-paced, operating at a rapid clip.
The Good Shepherd (2006)
The first film on this list to star Matt Damon, but not the last, The Good Shepherd finds him as a spy in this Robert De Niro caper. Damon stars as Edward Wilson, one of the founding members of the CIA. Audiences get to see the birth of the agency through Edward’s eyes. We often think of the CIA as being staffed with cold and calculating individuals. This film shows just how human they are.
After the assassination of 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich, the Israeli government mounted a secret mission to find and murder the members of the terrorist group Black September who carried out the initial attack. Munich follows the team tasked with the mission and their inner conflicts with it.
From Russia With Love (1963)
The second Bond film of the franchise finds the spy battling a criminal organization called SPECTRE. It turns out that Russians are out to obtain a decoding device. They attempt to seduce Bond into helping them with the help of a woman, whom Bond meets in Istanbul. This dazzling move is widely considered one of the best spy movies and a top-five pick among all of the Bond films.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
The first of seven movies in this franchise (with an eighth on the way), Mission: Impossible introduces us to Ethan Hunt, an American agent suspected of having dubious motives. Ethan sets out on a mission to clear his name by finding the spy who is responsible for his tainted reputation. However, he must do it off the books without the help of the organization that employs him.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
A successful television producer leads a double life as an assassin for the CIA, and purports to have a body count of 33. Can you take his word for it? The movie is based on the real-life allegations/confessions by gameshow host Chuck Barris. The CIA has denied ever working with him but it’s still one of the best spy movies to watch if you enjoy an unreliable narrator.
Enemy of the State (1998)
A corrupt NSA official, a political assassination, a tape of that assassination, and new surveillance legislation are all on the table in this somewhat paranoid and frantic film that’s anchored by Will Smith who plays a labor lawyer with a target on his back. It’s one of the best spy movies if you like moves that are fast-paced! This one barrels right along until its climax.
Burn After Reading (2008)
One thing that no spy wants is for their sensitive information to wind up in the wrong hands! Especially when the person who finds the information wants to sell it. That’s the premise of this dark comedy starring Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, and George Clooney. It’s one of the best spy movies to poke fun at the “intelligence” agencies.
The East (2013)
Longtime collaborators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling have made a number of excellent films together like Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice. For, The East the pair have crafted a story about an undercover agent is tasked with infiltrating a group of ecoterrorists. However, her association with the group causes her to start sympathizing with the enemy. It’s a fresh take on a tried and true plot. It’s one of the best spy movies for those who also enjoy films that act as character studies.
Shadow Dancer (2012)
In 1990s Belfast, an IRA member is arrested after a failed terrorist attack. She must choose between spying on her comrades for the government, or being sent to prison and leaving her young child. Andrea Riseborough is so astoundingly excellent in this movie that she will make you forget any other actor on Earth exists.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Set during the war on terror, a young Muslim man arrives in Hamburg, Germany, claiming that he’s entitled to his inheritance. He’s suspected of ties to a Chechen terrorist group, but agent Günther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) believes the man is innocent. It’s one of the best spy movies to address the mistakes that were made in the years immediately following 9/11.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Why aren’t their more spy movies starring women!? There is such a lack of them that we believe the next Bond should be played by a woman! Until that becomes a reality, we have the delightful movie Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent during the Cold War who is tasked with recovering a list of double agents. It’s one of the best spy movies starring a woman that feels like it’s strictly working in the confines of the genre.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
After walking into his office only to discover all of his colleagues murdered, a bookish CIA researcher goes on a quest to discover who is responsible. Alliances are tested and the researcher, played by Robert Redford, tries to get to the bottom of the situation all while being hunted by a group who uses familiar tactics. It’s one of the best spy movies that does not allow the audience to put their guard down for an instant!
Ben Afflek directs and stars in Argo, a film about the Iranian hostage crisis. The film tells the true story of a CIA agent who goes undercover as a Hollywood producer in order to gain access to Iran and rescue diplomats in 1979 Tehran. It’s one of the best spy movies that tells a true story you might know nothing to little about.
Casino Royale (2006)
Daniel Craig pumped new life into the Bond franchise’s 2006 feature, Casino Royale. The film disposed of the silly gadgets and campiness (not in a good way) of previous films and instead asked viewers to join the spy on a grittier, darker journey than they have previously Bond explore. The film finds Bond infiltrating a poker game at an exclusive casino to take down a funder of terrorist activities. It’s one of the best spy movies of the Bond canon.
One of the best spy movies with performances that will leave you gobsmacked, Breach finds Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe in a power game. Phillippe plays an aspiring FBI agent who suspects that his boss, played by Cooper, is selling government secrets to the Soviet Union. This film is so suspenseful and tense thanks in large part to the performance Cooper delivers in this stunning movie that’s based on a true story!
Goldfinger defined the James Bond franchise with some of his most famous lines like “Shaken not stirred,” appearing in the movie along with a slew of high-tech gadgets that would become a hallmark of the movies. Of all the Bond villains, Goldfinger might boast one of the most infamous. If you’ve always wanted to see a Sean Connery Bond film, start with one of the best spy movies in Goldfinger.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
If you’ve never seen this action-packed movie about Jason Bourne, an amnesiac spy who tries to uncover his identity all while battling enemies associated with it, you really need to give it a try. It turned Matt Damon into a Hollywood leading man. Before his credits included Dogma and Good Will Hunting. This gritty, rain-soaked movie would go on to influence Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy and the Daniel Craig Bond movies.
North by Northwest (1959)
One of Alfred Hitchcock‘s best spy movies and likely audience’s most favorite of his films, North by Northwest tells the story of a regular guy, played by Cary Grant, who gets framed for murder. As he tries to absolve himself, he is targeted by a ruthless spy and his agents who will stop at nothing to take him out. Watch this classic and you will quickly understand why it’s considered one of the most celebrated films ever made.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Hands down one of the best spy movies you’ll ever watch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is another Cold War thriller that tells the story of a retired MI6 agent who is pulled from retirement to try and find a Soviet Agent in the agency’s ranks. What he uncovers is a plot much larger than any could have imagined. This yet another adaptation of a John le Carré and we believe it is the best adaption of any of the writer’s novels. If you love this one, we highly encourage you to read the book as well! You’ll see just how incredibly adapted it is for the film.
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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
An absolutely perfect film from director Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden as told from the perspective of a CIA agent who was instrumental in tracking him down. It’s one of the best spy movies because it bucks convention and leans into the gritty nature of intelligence work without romanticizing it. Bigelow manages to make a narrative film feel like a piece of journalism through her impeccable attention to detail and honest retelling of how the terrorist leader was taken out.
There you go! We hope you found our list of the best spy movies insightful. Mystery movies and thrillers are so incredibly fun to watch because they invite you into the worlds they have created and ask you to join along as they track down clues, fight foes, and ultimately share in the adventure. There are so many excellent spy movies and we feel like we just scratched the surface with this list. Luckily, many of these movies are parts of larger franchises that you can continue to enjoy further! Now, go and watch these thrilling movies!
Andrew is a Chicago-based writer who enjoys finding the best of the internet, obsessively making lists, and cooking for friends. After studying Film and Art History, he developed a deep love for both topics. Celebrity news, pop culture, and stories that bring people together are his passions.
- 1 Check Out the Best Spy Movies of All Time!
- 1.1 The Conversation (1974)
- 1.2 The Constant Gardener (2005)
- 1.3 Bridge of Spies (2015)
- 1.4 The Imitation Game (2014)
- 1.5 Europa Europa (1990)
- 1.6 Salt (2010)
- 1.7 Spy (2015)
- 1.8 Flame & Citron (2008)
- 1.9 Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
- 1.10 Hanna (2011)
- 1.11 The Good Shepherd (2006)
- 1.12 Munich (2005)
- 1.13 From Russia With Love (1963)
- 1.14 Mission: Impossible (1996)
- 1.15 Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
- 1.16 Enemy of the State (1998)
- 1.17 Burn After Reading (2008)
- 1.18 The East (2013)
- 1.19 Shadow Dancer (2012)
- 1.20 A Most Wanted Man (2014)
- 1.21 Atomic Blonde (2017)
- 1.22 Three Days of the Condor (1975)
- 1.23 Argo (2012)
- 1.24 Casino Royale (2006)
- 1.25 Breach (2007)
- 1.26 Goldfinger (1964)
- 1.27 The Bourne Identity (2002)
- 1.28 North by Northwest (1959)
- 1.29 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
- 1.30 Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
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