The 30 best prison movies

Behind bars

Unrestricted by the boundaries of genre, the prison movie overlaps with every type of imaginable story. The quiet drama of solitude. The brash, brutal violence of gang culture. The heart-palpitating threat of an alien let loose within the walls. Filmmakers have turned to the prison setting as a way of exploring the behaviour of an isolated group of people in close proximity.

Be they fearful or funny, cinema has a healthy track record for some astounding feats of brilliance behind bars. And to celebrate the return of Orange Is The New Black to Netflix this Friday, heres some of the very best.

Starred Up (2013)

The movie: A gritty Brit prison flick. Based on the real-life prison experiences of screenwriter - he worked as a voluntary therapist - this punchy chronicle of a troubled youngster launched the career of its leading man Jack OConnell.

He stars as an arrogant and violent teenager, whose extreme behaviour in a youth offender institution finds him starred up to an adult prison. Where he quickly learns that one of his fellow inmates is his estranged father - played by Ben Mendelsohn - who is scheming lackey for the prisons head honcho.

Best cellmate chatter: Dennis Spencer - Starred up means youre a leader.

The Rock (1996)

The movie: As its title suggests the events of the mid-nineties actioner take place on an island; specifically Alcatraz. Hammy, over-the-top dialogue, bonkers plot contrivances and tons of explosions mean this could only be the work of one Michael Bay.

Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage star as a former Alcatraz escapee and chemical weapons expert respectively, whose task is penetrate the isolated fortress which is under siege by Ed Harris group of rogue U.S. Marines. If they dont remove him, the entire city of San Francisco will get obliterated by rockets. Solid action fare.

Best cellmate chatter: Stanley Goodspeed - I love pressure. I eat it for breakfast.

I Love You Philip Morris (2009)

The movie: It might be hard to believe but this zany romance is actually based on the real-life exploits of con man, identity thief and impostor, Steve Russell. Played onscreen by Jim Carrey, who harnesses his rubber-faced antics, he chooses to go back in the slammer on multiple occasions to be reunited with his lover - the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

A funny and emotional flick thats criminally underrated. Go for the Carrey and stay for McGregors lovable dimwit.

Best cellmate chatter: Steven Russell - (after swearing) Pardon my French. My mother smoked during pregnancy.

Bad Boys (1983)

The movie: Mick OBrien, a young delinquent played by a wet-behind-the-ears Sean Penn, gets embroiled in an ugly gang war, resulting in the death of his best friend and accomplice Carl (a pre-Ferris Bueller Alan Ruck.) Hes thrown in the slammer and wises up quickly to life inside.

Best cellmate chatter: Horowitz - That's Lofgren. They call him Viking. I call him shit for brains.

Con Air (1997)

The movie: Taking the typical grounded element of prison and elevating it about 30,000 feet into the air, the claustrophobia of being stuck on a plane is heightened considerably; this jets packed with unhinged convicts. Nic Cages mulleted hero leads a pack of prisoners aboard the Jailbird - an aircraft used by the prison system to transfer inmates./p>

With a schlocky bunch of OTT stereotypes (Malkovichs Cyrus the Virus) and cheeseball dialogue, Con Air doesnt attempt the social commentary aspects of the modern judicial system. It just wants to blow shit up.

Whats not to love about it?

Best cellmate chatter: Cameron Poe - Put the bunny back in the box.

Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962)

The movie: While you might not expect convicted murderers to appreciate the finer things in life - on account of snuffing it out - the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz became an ornithological guru during his time on the island fortress.

Based on the true story of Robert Stroud, Burt Lancaster leads as the titular Birdman who took up the study of our feathered friends to pass the time. And while a flurry of those prisoners who knew him have since denounced the film - and Lancasters kind-hearted performance - its still worth a watch.

Best cellmate chatter: Robert Stroud - You know what they used to call Alcatraz in the old days? Bird Island.

Das Experiment (2001)

The movie: Influenced by the real-life Stanford Prison experiment of 1971, this German adaptation of those events is a shocking dramatisation of mans true nature. The story begins with 20 volunteers at a university opting in on a mystery experiment, that finds them divided in two groups; ten are prisoners and ten are guards. The overall objective, to document behaviour, is cast aside when the guard-volunteers devolve into thuggish, power-hungry bastards who rule the cells with an iron fist.

Best cellmate chatter: Tarek - Nothing just happens in life. Even the worst things somehow make sense.

American History X (1999)

The movie: Remembered for the gut-wrenching curb stomp scene, Tony Kayes neo-nazi drama also comments on the rehabilitative aspects of the penal system. Ed Nortons white supremacist is locked up after years of getting off on violent crimes. Prison changes him for the better when he befriends a young African-American lad inside, and he reflects on his hateful world view and all the anger and pain its caused both he and his family.

Best cellmate chatter: Lamont (talking with Derek) - Don't f*ck with me 'cause I'm the most dangerous man in this prison. You know why? 'Cause I control the underwear.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

The movie: Werner Herzogs Vietnam prisoner-of-war drama is based on the real-life story of US pilot Dieter Dengler, played in true method fashion by Christian Bale. Shot down in Laos during an undercover mission he is captured by the Viet Cong who incarcerate him in a jungle camp.

A fist-pump escape attempt is one of the standout scenes, as Dengler and his fellow Americans - played loyally to type by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn - finally free themselves from their torturous imprisonment.

Best cellmate chatter: Dieter - I love America. America gave me wings.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gem is GR+'s west coast entertainment news reporter. She’s a bit obsessed with all things Aliens and Terminator.
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