The 12 best spy movies of all time, ranked

Our list of the best spy movies will turn you into the next Ethan Hunt in no time, or just give you great films like James Bond and Spy Kids to watch.

What are the best spy movies of all time? Between all the espionage and double-crossing, spy films have long been reliable for an enthralling story. With daring stunts, gadgets, glamour, and a world of paranoia, they spark the imaginations of filmmakers and audiences alike.

From Mission: Impossible to James Bond, they can be cerebral thrillers, the best action movie blockbusters, goofy flicks, and more. So, in a sea of high-stakes missions and some world-saving antics, you may be left wondering what are truly the best movies for a bit of covert operations?

Well, The Digital Fix is here to hand over the intel. After doing some in-depth recon of our own, we’ve gathered intelligence on the best films for all your secret operative needs. From the high-budget explosive hits to the suave noir capers, here are the best spy movies of all time.

Best spy movies: The Spy Who Came in from The Cold

12. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

The Cold War is the spy movie genre’s bread and butter. And when it comes to flicks that unpack the tense and passive-aggressive attitude of the time period, few can hold a candle to Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

The film tells the story of the British MI6 agent, Alec Leamas, who is on a mission as a faux defector. He has to start spreading misinformation about a powerful Communists officer. However, the double agent antics become tricky once another plant is revealed. This is a slow-burn thriller. So, if you are after a spy movie with tons of stunts and action, then this isn’t the film for you.

But if you like cerebral mind games with agents on both sides constantly trying to trip each other up during conversations, then The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a must-watch.

Best Spy movies: Atomic Blonde

11. Atomic Blonde (2017)

Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is one of the most stylish spy movies you can find. Leaning fully into an ‘80s aesthetic with some John Wick-esque action scenes, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level MI6 spy.

The year is 1989, and days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall is set to take place, a list containing the names of every active agent in Berlin is stolen. As you can guess, it is Lorraine’s job to recover said list and save the lives of her fellow spies. Along with the high-stakes plot, Atomic Blonde has some brilliant hand-to-hand combat scenes, adrenaline-filled car chases, and some stunning lighting all around. The film is also one of Charlize Theron’s best performances to date, so it’s rightfully earned its place in our top picks.

Best spy movies: Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt

10. Mission: Impossible (1996)

As one of the biggest franchises of the century, you know we had to put a Mission Impossible movie on our list, and when it comes to the best of the best, you just can’t beat the original. Directed by Brian De Palma in 1996, Mission: Impossible is where all the crazy Tom Cruise stunts began, and is pretty much pure action and entertainment fuel at its finest.

A continuation of the ’60s TV series of the same name, the movie follows spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who, after being framed for the murder of his elite field team, goes on a mission to uncover a mole and clear his name. The film is incredibly enjoyable, giving you all you’d want out of a high-budget spy movie. From thrilling chase scenes to tense break-ins, this Tom Cruise movie has it all.

Best spy movies: From Russia with Love, Sean Connery as James Bond

9. From Russia with Love (1963)

Watching the James Bond movies in order will give you plenty of thrills, but the Cold War thriller, From Russia with Love, is Bond perfected. After killing Dr No in the 1962 film, James Bond (Sean Connery) is being hunted by an international criminal organization called SPECTRE.

Our favorite agent is sent on a mission to help Tatiana Romanova (a corporal in the Soviet Army) ‘flee’ to the West in exchange for a Lekor (a cipher machine used by Soviet intelligence).

As one of the best thriller movies, it’s full of twists and grit, without being gimmicky or too misogynistic (at least no one is called Pussy Galore in this one), making it stand out in the Bond universe as one of the most serious features you can watch.

The world of espionage and spies is also built up beautifully here, and the movie has some of the best-choreographed action scenes seen in any Bond film today.

Best spy movies: The Conversation, Gene Hackman as Harry Caul

8. The Conversation (1974)

Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), The Conversation shows a spy doing what a spy does best – spying on people. In response to the Watergate scandal, and growing anxiety around privacy back in the ’70s, the detective movie tells the story of mass surveillance and was so inventive that it received three Oscar nominations in the year of its release.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who does questionable missions for people in power. After taking a job to spy on a young couple from someone called the Director, he is sent into a tense mind trip of second-guessing and guilt-fueled anxiety – as his eavesdropping may have dire consequences.

The film focuses on a spy’s slow descent into paranoia and guilt, giving a fresh take on espionage that is intertwined with morals.

Best spy movies: Top Secret! Jeremy Kemp as General Streck

7. Top secret! (1984)

From the brilliant mind behind the hilarious comedy movie Airplane!, Jim Abrahams does it again, spoofing a cinematic genre into a comedic masterpiece. Top Secret!, delivers gags like no other, and in terms of a spy movie parody, it stands proudly as the most ridiculous feature out of the bunch.

Set in a combination world of World War II and the Cold War with some Beach Boy aesthetics, the movie centers around the East Germans facing off against an American Rockstar (Val Kilmer), who, after traveling to Germany for a concert, gets caught up with the resistance and dragged into a rescue mission.

Not only is this the film where Kilmer made his acting debut, but it is still one of the best spy comedies you can experience. It’s completely ridiculous, full of visual puns, and has a collection of dad jokes that we’ve come to know and love from Abrahams’s work.

Best spy movies: The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne

6. The Bourne Identity (2002)

What happens when a spy forgets that he is a spy? Loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s hit novel of the same name, The Bourne Identity follows Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a man with amnesia and a dangerous past.

After being rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Jason has no memory of who he is, but quickly learns that he holds several special skills… oh and that the CIA is tirelessly hunting him down.

The film is presented as a tense mystery, turning the typical spy movie formula on its head as we follow Jason discovering clues to his identity as the story progresses and trying to survive while piecing together his sketchy backstory. The close-combat fight sequences, handheld camera work, and general moodiness have made the film go down in history as one of the best openings to a spy franchise you can find.

Best spy movies: Gary Oldman as George Smiley, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, and the cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

A Cold War thriller with one of the strongest casts that you’ll ever see, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that focuses on creating a perpetual sense of doom. Based on John le Carre’s novel of the same name, the movie’s main crux revolves around British Intelligence trying to uncover a mole within their ranks.

From affairs and interrogations to some emotionally packed killing, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cerebral film led by a fantastic story. Instead of the typical action-filled sequences, you’d get in a blockbuster, the war movie revolves around subtle moments, relying on deceit and second-guessing to craft suspense, and boy does it work. As you watch a stressed-out Gary Oldman trying to navigate a web of lies and dodging a few daggers aimed at his back, you can’t help but feel tense, waiting for an explosive outburst to consume your screen at any moment.

Best Spy movies of all time: Spy Kids

4. Spy Kids (2001)

Let’s be honest, as a kid, Spy Kids was the coolest film you could watch on family movie night, and even if those walking thumbs are certifiably terrifying, it is still super enjoyable to watch today, even as an adult. A fun movie that embodies all the imagination and wonder that the spy genre could possibly offer, Spy Kids is an irrefutable, chaotic masterpiece.

Created by Robert Rodriguez, the movie follows two young siblings on a mission to save their spy parents from a dastardly children’s TV host, who has been kidnapping special agents and turning them into mutated creatures. It’s stupidly hilarious, full of imaginative gadgets, and perfectly shows the fantasy of a life of espionage through the eyes of a child.

Best spy movies: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Mr. Yee and Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in Lust, Caution

3. Lust, Caution (2007)

Seduction and spies go hand in hand, but no film combines the spy genre with some good old romance quite like director Ang Lee’s feature – Lust, Caution. Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during World War II, back when it was occupied by the Japanese Army, the film follows a young theatre troupe who plan to assassinate special agent Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai).

An erotic plan full of espionage and betrayal ensues, with a young woman attempting to lure Mr Yee into a honey trap. The pacing throughout the movie is second to none, making sure there isn’t a dull moment in sight as it moves through its engaging and emotionally charged script. Truly an underrated and intimate film; for any fans of the genre Lust, Caution is a must-watch.

Best spy movies: Ulrich Mühe as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others

2. The Lives of Others (2007)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature, The Lives of Others, sees spy work being done at a distance, quietly impacting lives, and watching calamity unfold from afar. Set during 1984 in East Germany, The Lives of Others revolves around Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, who is ordered to quietly monitor a playwright whose communist views and acclaim have gathered the government’s attention.

However, as he gets to know the man through his sneaky work, Wiesler begins to feel for him as well, causing some engaging internal conflict to unfold. The movie stands as a phenomenal period piece, perfectly capturing the sense of constant danger and mistrust from a surveillance state during the Cold War.

Like The Conversation, the movie also shows spy work grounded in reality, seeing a unique take on espionage, and diving into the personal consequences of the job.

Best spy movies: North by Northwest

1. North by Northwest (1959)

You can’t list the best spy movies without mentioning one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, North by Northwest. The light caper made history in the genre by being the original anti-spy film, showing an average person doing dangerous deeds and uncovering a dastardly plan. Due to a case of mistaken identity, advertising executive Roger Thornhill becomes entangled in a convoluted plot, and finds himself hunted by a criminal organization.

North by Northwest shows Hitchcock doing what he does best, presenting us with a thrilling story, a well-written script, and a good old entertaining time. Besides being a hugely influential title on the spy genre, and considered one of Hitchcock’s best pieces of work, the movie also has one of the most dramatic final standoffs. With a thrilling grapple on top of Mount Rushmore, and Thornhill literally clinging for survival, the film gives you – a memorable shot of suspense every time you sit down to watch it.

And there you have it, the best spy movies of all time. If you are looking for more heart-racing films, find out what we know about the Mission: Impossible 8 release date and The Kingsman 3 release date. Luckily, we also have guides on how to watch all the Mission: Impossible movies in order and everything you need to know about Avatar 3.

Alternatively, check out all the new movies coming in 2023 – but you better hurry because this article will self-destruct in 3…2…1.