Renegade Cinema Staff Picks: Best Prison Movies

best prison movies
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Staff Picks: Best Prison Movies

 

best prison movies

The Green Mile

Ruby Le Rouge: I have a thing about crying in movies, I hate it, and do my best never to do it. I’m sitting in The Green Mile, swearing to myself I will not cry, then the scene comes (everyone who has seen this movie knows the one I’m talking about), and my lip starts to quiver….be strong Ruby! Be strong! I look to my left and to my right, where there is a 350 lb biker bawling his eyes out, along with the rest of the audience, and…it’s over. Damn you John Coffey, damn you. ;.;

Caleb Masters: I have to go with The Green Mile. Tom Hanks makes a powerful lead as he reflects on his sins and memories of his time as a prison guard over John Coffee. This movie has a lot of really touching moments, but also has the Stephen King we all know and love. This was the Darabont/King follow-up collaboration to The Shawshank Redemption, but I found this one to have more intrigue and is the one I find myself more regularly thinking about and going back to. Michael Clarke Duncan is really what sells the movie which his tragic and sympathetic story being the emotional core of the movie that makes Hank’s dilemma all the more interesting and difficult. I believe it’s an absolutely essential movie on prisons from the perspectives of both the prisoners and the guards.

 

best prison movies

La Grande Illusion

Bethany Lewis: My pick is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), a French film about French prisoners of war during WWI. For those of you who are unfamiliar, its basically The Great Escape, except in French and without Steve McQueen. But don’t let that fool you, because this movie is amazing, with or without Steve McQueen. Its less about the war than it is about men coming together, becoming friends despite nationality, ethnicity, religion, or class differences, and helping each other to pass the time during their incarceration. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay have the most beautiful of bromances, both tragic and touching. Erich von Stroheim is also mesmerizing as the aristocratic Captain von Rauffenstein – a man so obsessed by class standing that he desperately pursues the friendship of his aristocratic French prisoner. And while it might not sound exciting, there is more than enough humor and action in equal measure, grounded by the most human of experiences, brought to us by the most human of filmmakers.

 

best prison movies

The Shawshank Redemption

Eric Norcross: The Shawshank Redemption is pretty much the only prison movie I have any positive feelings for. It’s a good story and it’s a fantastic ending. I am not sure if The Rock counts, but if it does, then certainly add that. It takes place in a prison and features a prison escapee as a hero.

Derek Johns: This one is no contest for me. The Shawshank Redemption is my absolute favorite film. Morgan Freeman is at his narrating best here and Tim Robbins gives one of the most underrated performances of all time. No matter how many times they show it on TNT and AMC, I seldom pass up a chance to watch it again.

 

best prison movies

Hunger

Patricia Márquez: I’m tempted to say Shawshank Redemption is the best prisoners movie. I mean, it’s the quintessential movie about the prison system, hope, freedom, redemption, friendship between inmates, etc. However, I really like Steve McQueen’s Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strikers starring Michael Fassbender. I guess similar to his Oscar nominated 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has a knack for conveying via minimalist imagery how frightening and frustrating it feels to not be able to attain freedom. His movies are bleak and hopeless, a solid trait for movies about prisoners, and although there is little hope hinted at throughout Hunger, the absence of hope makes you aware that it exists, somewhere outside the screen. Also, Fassbender is incredible, of course; it was the first movie in which I noticed his sublime acting. And his uncut, twenty minute long scene of dialogue between him and a priest (played by the excellent Liam Cunningham, Davos Seasworth in GoT) in which he espouses his motivations for being a prisoner fighting the system… that scene alone makes the entire movie worth watching.

 

best prison movies

Cool Hand Luke

Jesse Blume: Having read the opinions of some of my fellow Renegades in this category, I’m going to choose an excellent film that has not yet been addressed on this list; COOL HAND LUKE. I choose it not because it is one of the rare films with 100% approval on theTomatometer, or the fact that any list of prisoner films would be incomplete without it. Prison films are an excellent vehicle for some of the deepest themes in humanity: hope, love, freedom, despair, friendship, and independence. Cool Hand Luke is no exception, although it is a different kind of prison film than one may expect. It’s been described as anti-establishment, anti-conformity, and as an example how human will can triumph over all. I recognize those descriptions, but I feel they don’t fully encompass the scope of the film. The film is less an indictment of the establishment of the sixties, and more of a character study focusing on Luke. Luke is an eternal malcontent who reveals late in the film that he doesn’t ever seem to fit in anywhere he goes, and wonders why he was in ever made in such a way. Despite this more pessimistic moment of self-awareness, his spirit and refusal to give in is too strong to deny. His legend makes him a martyr, but the astute viewer will wonder whether he was a willing one or not. Also, consider one of the film’s antagonists, the silent Captain of the guards. The inmates call him “man with no eyes,” due to his ever-present mirrored sunglasses. If the eyes are the window to the soul, and the captain has no eyes, does he even have a soul at all? Perhaps not even Luke can defeat such a man. But then, Luke himself is already larger than life, and perhaps he knows another way to win. As much as I adore The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, I must tip my hat to Luke. That crazy handful of nothing is impossible to deny!

 

best prison movies

Bronson

Shawn S. Lealos: If you thought Tom Hardy was great as Bane in Dark Knight Rises, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you thought Drive was a great movie, you have to see Bronson, the movie that Nicolas Winding Refn made three years before that. The movie is based on the true story of a man sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office, only to end up behind bars for 30 years, almost all of it in solitary confinement because all he likes to do is fight. He takes on the name Charles Bronson, based on the legendary actor, and Refn turns the movie into one of the most spectacularly violent films since Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange. The movie is damn near brilliant and proved to me that Tom Hardy was a HUGE star before most of the world figured that one out.

Brandon Groppi: I too have to go with Tom Hardy in Nicolas Winding Refn’s BRONSON.

Before THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came out I was on the hunt for films starring Tom Hardy to see if he had the acting chops to play Bane in Nolan’s Universe.

BRONSON was the film I stumbled upon, and I didn’t have to search anymore. BRONSON is the true story about Britain’s most violent prisoner. Michael Peterson (his real name) always wanted to be famous, and he did so by becoming his “alter ego” BRONSON.

I actually did several papers on the real Charlie Bronson and he has such an intriguing life! The real Bronson has been in prison for 39 years and has been in solitary confinement for 35 of those 39 years. He has 11 published books, one of which I own, and has art work that is shown all over the world. What’s truly intriguing about him is usually for a man, who has no record of EVER killing anyone (mainly because that was never his intention) or ever had a bad childhood, could become such a man as this.

The film is very fun to watch. It is a kin to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in a sense. And it is actually quite funny and done in an artistic way, as goes with most Refn films.

Mike Luxemburg: BRONSON BRONSON BRONSON BRONSON!

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About the Author

Shawn S. Lealos
Shawn is a film critic with over 25 years of experience in print and online media. He is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle and loves everything from critically acclaimed movies to B-level action flicks.
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