The 30 best prison movies

Chicken Run (1998)

The movie: Aardman Studios riotous claymation send-up of The Great Escape is one of the only prison movies that will have you smiling throughout. Lifting its general plot from the aforementioned cinema classic, it replaces the humans with... chickens. A whole coup of them, in fact, who are bred by an evil farmer with plans to kill and sell them. The hens bunch together and plot their escape, which is repeatedly foiled, and opt to take a new tactic when the exotic Rocky (voiced by Mel Gibson) arrives.

The vocal cast blasts this out of the park, along with the wizards at Aardman working their clay-may mojo.

Best cellmate chatter:
Babs: Morning, Ginger. Back from holiday?
Ginger: I wasn't on holiday, Babs. I was in solitary confinement.
Babs: Oh. It's nice to get a bit of time to yourself, isn't it?

Down By Law (1986)

The movie: Jim Jarmusch directed a prison movie? He did. Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni and John Lurie star as a trio of inmates who band together to escape. While two of the cellmates, Zack (Waits) and Jack (Lurie), were wrongly-convicted neither can ascertain Bobs guilt as he doesnt speak a lick of English. Some of the films best one-liners stem from his attempts at learning the language.

An amusing mediation on the prison genre, thats given a neat twist with Jarmuschs minimalist aesthetic approach.

Best cellmate chatter: Roberto (trying to use the word scream in a sentence) - I scream-a, you scream-a, we all scream-a for ice cream-a.

Scum (1979)

The movie: Alan Clarkes grim expose on life inside was initially decried for its unflinching approach to violence. In the years following its release the backlash receded and the film has since been heralded as a cult classic. A young Ray Winstone stars as Carlin, an inmate whose method for dealing with life inside is to build himself into a fearful figure.

A cutting piece of social commentary on the British borstal system, which at the time was under scrutiny for its lack of rehabilitative measures, its no surprise Scum was greeted with controversy.

Best cellmate chatter: Archer - Sometimes, someday I somehow get the strangest notion they're trying to break my spirit.

Papillon (1973)

The movie: A true story about one mans life-long plan to escape a penal colony in French Guiana. Wrongly-convicted of murder, Henri Charriere - aka Papillon - is shipped off to prison and on the journey befriends embezzler Louis Dega, who becomes integral to his freedom. Their struggle to survive is crippled by extended stints in solitary confinement - but never dampens their steely resolve.

Steve McQueen commanded a $2 million paycheck for his turn as the French safecracker - so considering its regarded by some as his best ever performance it was money well spent.

Best cellmate chatter: Papillon - We're something, aren't we? The only animals that shove things up their ass for survival.

Brute Force (1947)

The movie: Before Jules Dassin was run out of Hollywood and placed on its blacklist, he directed Brute Force - a sterling example of the prison flicks from the postwar era. Its a surprisingly violent piece that places focus on the sparring between a convict (Burt Lancaster) and the the unrelenting brutality he and his fellow inmates suffer at the hands of sadist jailer (Hume Cronyn) .

Its said to be inspired in part by the Alcatraz prison riots of 1946, in which a failed escape attempt made way for a two-day battle between inmates and staff.

Best cellmate chatter: Gallagher - Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!

Escape To Victory (1981)

The movie: Combining football with the Hollywood A-list AND World War II was an unusual choice for auteur John Huston, whose previous credits include the likes of The Misfits and The African Queen. Still, this prisoner of war drama is just too damn odd to not warrant inclusion.

The film takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris and stars Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone star as two Allied prisoners who lead a troop of captives in a game of football against their German jailers. Its worth it just to see real-life players - like Pele, for example - on the pitch with Stallone.

Best cellmate chatter: Hatch - This friggin game is ruining my life.

Dead Man Walking (1995)

The movie: AKA - The one that bagged Susan Sarandon an Oscar. Directed by Tim Robbins, who scripted the film based on the non-fiction book, the film tells of convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) who looks to Sister Helen Prejean for counsel and guidance before his execution.

Questions of forgiveness and absolution structure the central core of the movie, that covers two sides of a morality tale; Poncelets role in a double homicide and the surviving families desire to see him executed. Heart-wrenching stuff.

Best cellmate chatter: Poncelet - It's quiet. Only three days left. Plenty of time to read my Bible and look for a loophole.

Hunger (2008)

The movie: The world stood up and took notice of Michael Fassbender following his turn in Steve McQueens hard-hitting historical drama about those who died in the 1981 IRA hunger strike. Fassbender stars as Bobby Sands, an Irish republican who refused sustenance in order to gain political prisoner status while incarcerated at Belfasts Maze Prison.

To fully prepare for the part, he adopted the method practice used by Christian Bale, and shed several stone to acquire the emaciated look of Sands.

Best cellmate chatter: Sands - I have my belief, and in all its simplicity that is the most powerful thing.

A Prophet (2009)

The movie: A Prophet makes no bones about the grim reality of prison life. Beginning with the first day of a young mans sentence right through to his last, his ability to adapt to his predicament drives events forward. Whether he wants to or not, he rises through the inmate ranks under the tyrannical rule of his Corsican crime boss Cesar.

Subtle and beautifully shot, it won practically every award the year of its release.

Best cellmate chatter: Reyeb (to Malik) - The idea, is to leave here a little smarter.

Escape From New York (1981)

The movie: Picture the scene: the world is going down the pan, and we now live in a dystopian future where Manhattan has been transformed into an quarantined hellhole for convicts. When the Presidents chopper crash lands, theres only man to send in to rescue him - infamous bank robber Snake Plissken.

Another winning genre flick from the collaborative duo of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, and simply put: theres no other prison movie like it. A trashy retrofuturist look at the penal system.

Best cellmate chatter:
Brain - Swear to God Snake, I thought you were dead!
Snake Plissken - Yeah, you and everybody else!

Gem Seddon

Gem Seddon is GamesRadar+'s west coast Entertainment News Reporter, working to keep all of you updated on all of the latest and greatest movies and shows on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Outside of entertainment journalism, Gem can frequently be found writing about the alternative health and wellness industry, and obsessing over all things Aliens and Terminator on Twitter.