20 Prison Movies You Must See Before You Die

A lot can happen when you're locked up.

You can do a hell of a lot with a prison film, which is perhaps what has made it such an appealing sub-genre for all kinds of filmmakers over the years. A prison movie doesn't have to be depressing, after all - it can also be inspiring, touching or just plain exciting. And a prison movie need not always be dramatic; it can be comedic, too. It can be about the incarceration of a character or their release into the wider world. It can be about prisoners of war, or it can be set around a breakout. The great thing about pretty much all prison movies, however, is that they set the stage for unforgettable characters. Prisons are filled with all kinds of strange, colourful and enigmatic individuals, living at the extreme limits of characterisation, after all, and cinema has continually mined this fact for all it's worth. Audiences have been compelled by the prison genre for close to a century as a result, because it offers a rare insight into a compelling world they'll never themselves get to see first-hand. And of course there's the rubber-necking like fascination with criminality and punishment (the same reason public executions used to be top of the box office). To celebrate this wonderful sub-genre, here are 20 essential prison movies spanning several decades of cinema that you absolutely have to see before you die...

20. Get The Gringo (2010)

A few years after Mel Gibson said all those bad things and burned all his bridges in Hollywood, Get the Gringo was quietly unveiled in a few cinemas and to VOD services across the globe. As a result, it's a prison movie that fell well below the radar, and one that most people would probably assume to be downright terrible as a result. Fortunately for Gibson, Get The Gringo is actually kind of brilliant. No, it's not a masterpiece, but as a throwback to '70s exploitation films and as a modern take on the B-movie, this flick is a throughly enjoyable - and incredibly well-paced - affair. The plot concerns a getaway driver who ends up locked in a Mexican prison after a job gone wrong. He soon learns that the place functions like a little town, with its own hierarchy, shops and rules. This basically gives Gibson a platform to unleash his trademark charisma, which he manages to great success. All in all, this is a fun movie that doesn't take itself too seriously; it settles to be a crazy genre exercise, and its intentions pay off.

Sam Hill is an ardent cinephile and has been writing about film professionally since 2008. He harbours a particular fondness for western and sci-fi movies.