There is a great scene in the recently released American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018), in which the four thieves, who are starting to prepare a heist of their own, buy every heist film they can find and watch them all in an attempt to gather ideas. Of course, this isn’t really the best idea, however, they definitely saw some terrific films.
Heist films are almost always guaranteed to entertain. Even if it’s not exactly the most consistent genre in terms of the quality of the output, there is just something about the heist film that is so exciting and so easy to sit back and enjoy that it can be genuinely difficult to find a heist film that isn’t entertaining.
With recent heist films continuing to impress (American Animals, Good Time, etc) and the classics remaining as strong as they would have been at their time of release, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss our favourites of the heist film genre, so here are ten of the greatest heist films these eyes have ever seen.
10. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)
Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright (potentially known more by most for his Cornetto trilogy) and released in 2017 was a much needed jolt to the heist genre, which has been dormant for quite some time aside from the occasional release, such as Ben Affleck’s The Town.
With a director as passionate and energetic as Wright behind the camera, the film was almost destined to deliver and to re-inject the heist sub-genre with a new life, and it would appear that it has been successful already.
With its energetic editing, non-stop soundtrack and charismatic performances (for the most part, anyway), Baby Driver is just such a thrill ride, one that seems to be having as much fun as the audience but not to a detrimental degree – it somehow manages to get it just about right, and with the more emotional side to it, it is easy to see why this film could easily become a heist film favourite as the years go by and more people see it. With a sequel supposedly on the way, it’s also not the last we will see of the characters, and hopefully the sequel can impress us all just as much as the first managed to.
9. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee, a director mainly known for only one or two of his films, Do The Right Thing and, on a good day, Malcolm X (okay, maybe BlacKkKlansman can be included now, too), continues to go under the radar for some unknown reason with the wonderful Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Chiwitel Ejiofor.
Spike Lee’s film takes some great steps away from the tropes of the genre, focusing on the inside of the bank just as much as the outside, and seeming to think of the heist as more of a magic trick more than anything else, using subtle editing and careful moments of skipping over information so that the film hides all of its’ secrets until the ending, then, placing all of its’ cards down at once, manages to blow an audience’s mind.
Add to that the phenomenal acting across the board, the terrific cinematography, the wonderful score from the always excellent Terence Blanchard (seriously, does he even make bad scores?) and you have one of the most surprising films of the century so far.
8. Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
Soderbergh’s entire Ocean’s trilogy could have easily taken up three of the spots on this list, maybe with the exception of the third, which lacks the fun of the first two entries, however, the point is that in an attempt to be slightly more diverse and interesting, only one could make the list, and it just has to be the one that started the trilogy off.
Soderbergh is just such an endlessly charismatic director, something that can’t really be said about many directors at all, but Soderbergh’s presence can be felt emulating from behind the camera and just making the film run beautifully.
There is something to be said about the kind of film that just feels as slick as this one does, and the way that Soderbergh manages to do this with such an intricate plot at the centre of the film is a marvel.
The fact that Soderbergh manages to create this kind of spellbinding effect on his audiences consistently also just goes to show that he is one of the best directors working now, and whilst Ocean’s Eleven may not have the technical persuasion of being shot on the only thing in your pocket, it boasts one of the greatest ensemble casts ever put on the same screen, so surely, you can still make time for it!
7. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
The film that many think was Michael Mann’s debut feature, Thief, released in 1981 and starring James Cann, focuses on a thief determined to leave his life of crime… after one more big hit.
With themes that are surprisingly unique from Mann, this time focusing on a man determined to leave his life of crime as opposed to his typical cops vs crooks focus, the film is a shockingly poignant look at a man trapped by his past, hidden in one of the most exhilarating heist films ever made.
With some beautiful tender moments hinting at the life that Cann’s character could have, and the yearning presented by Cann being so real you can almost touch it through the screen, he manages to portray the difficulty of escaping the life of crime perfectly, but also manages to make the heist scenes as exciting as all hell, with some ridiculously impressive shots of the inside of safe locks, in a way that Mann replicated later on in Blackhat with the shots of the interior of computers throughout the film.
Thief is just another one of Mann’s excellent films, and is even one of his best. Missing it would be a huge mistake, not just for heist fans but for fans of crime cinema as a whole. It’s really a fantastic work.
6. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
Sidney Lumet, a director known for his excellent looks at realism, particularly in New York, made multiple great heist films. His final film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, released in 2007, is also one of the best films in the genre, however, it’s with Dog Day Afternoon, also starring Al Pacino, that Lumet really impressed audiences.
The film, based on a true story of a bank robbery gone… terribly, terribly wrong documents the robbery in a surprisingly unique way, starting as the characters approach the bank and focusing on the robbers inside the bank, as they desperately attempt to find any solution to their limitless problems whilst simultaneously showing some of the media and the police reactions to the situation on the outside of the bank.
The film is also surprisingly funny, mocking the inept robbers consistently, with the hostages even having some hilarious dialogue throughout as well as the authorities. Working as a riotous celebration of one of the most ridiculous bank robbery attempts of all time, Dog Day Afternoon is just so entertaining, so brilliantly performed and so tragically hilarious. It’s a film that has to be seen to be believed.