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The 10 Greatest Escape Movies of All Time

We offer up ten of the greatest escape films of all time, additional examples where cunning and cleverness try to overcome injustice and indignity... or as above, the legal and the lawful.

Perhaps no single sequence in a movie maximizes the strength of the human spirit better than an escape. It's almost always a question of resolve, of making peace with who we are while pushing our otherwise untapped talents to their very, very limits. It's about recognizing that, beyond the basics, we all have the mantle to survive, we just don't know it until the time comes to truly test it. Of course, there are the other ends of the escape spectrum where the wicked and evil try to avoid paying for their crimes through violence and mayhem. For them, it's not a question of extremes. It's an attempt to avoid responsibility by any means necessary.

Thus, when a group of baddies concoct a mid-prison transfer ambush, hoping to make it to the Mexican border and freedom, there is usually only one guy (or small group of people) to stop them. In the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger's quasi-comeback, The Last Stand -- now out on DVD and Blu-ray -- that barrier is aging sheriff Ray Owens. Like a post-modern crime concoction of several stereotypes and High Noon, the story sees this old man and his ragtag collection of citizens trying to stop the villain and his posse from seeing his plan through to the end. With that in mind, we offer up ten of the greatest escape films of all time, additional examples where cunning and cleverness try to overcome injustice and indignity... or as above, the legal and the lawful.

Our first example, however, centers around our initial appreciation, involving a group of everyday people forced to look inside themselves when placed in an unusual and horrific situation:

10. The Poseidon Adventure [1972]

When most think of this film, it is always viewed in the nostalgia-dappled light of that '70s staple, the disaster epic. But this is really an inventive thriller with a premise that requires the cast to navigate from the top to the bottom of a capsized ship. The ingenious use of sets and set-up creates a real nailbiter, and the actors essay characters we sympathize with and root for, which makes their unexpected obstacles all the more dramatic. The result is one of the more enduring popcorn entertainments of the last 40 years.

9. Ferris Bueller's Day Off [1986]

Escape? Escape from what? Responsibility? Adulthood? Conformity? Well, you could say "yes" to all of those suggestions, and you'd be right. While he really isn't trying to get out of anything except another boring day in high school, our hero (Matthew Broderick) goes to great lengths to have a private public day out in Chicago. Bringing along his jittery best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and sexy best gal Sloane (Mia Sara), he concocts an outing that undermines authority, challenges convention, and, in the end, helps one unhappy young man come to terms with his familial dysfunction.

8. Cube [1997]

Before there was Saw, before there was the carefully plotted deadly interconnections of a revenge minded man named John Kramer, there was this equally effective Canadian suspense ride. When a group of people find themselves locked inside a terrifying maze filled with fatal consequences, we witness their often ineffectual means of trying to find their way out. No explanation of how they got there. No real connection or character beats to suggest a reason for their persecution. The outcome is almost always horrific, and gory, arguing for the danger involved in any real escape.

7. Papillon [1973]

This film is really one big set-up for what ends up being a pretty intense escape. Or two, for that matter. Our hero, played with great authority by Steve McQueen, is a safecracker sentenced to a French penal colony on Devil's Island. Notorious for being nearly inaccessible, this crafty criminal, along with help from a forger (Dustin Hoffman), devised plans and plots with corrupt prison authorities to flee. As much as story of survival as anything else, we see conditions so cruel that we hope for a happy ending, even if it involves another breaking of the law.

6. Public Enemies [2009]

While Johnny Depp may be a bit too good looking to convince us he's John Dillinger, Michael Mann's movie about the notorious criminal's crime spree and killing remains a solid action drama. Even better, the director stages two dramatic escapes among the many first class firefights. One involves Dillinger breaking into prison to free a buddy. The second involves an FBI ambush at the Little Bohemian lodge outside of Chicago. In the first case, careful planning (almost) wins the day. In the second, it's a blaze of bullets acting as a barrier to freedom.

5. Escape from Alcatraz [1979]

The title says it all. Clint Eastwood had a big late '70s hit with this adaptation of the J. Campbell Bruce non-fiction tome. In it, he plays a notorious escapee from other prisons sent to 'The Rock' for its equally contentious reputation against same. As Clint and his co-conspirators plot and plan, we wonder how they will ever pull it off. The resulting last act, filled with digging, disguises, and a final watery dash to freedom, makes up for an otherwise tepid trip through life in one of the nation's most controversial correctional institutions.

4. Escape from New York [1981]

There is actually two parts to this title. The first offers up the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance), who is kidnapped by radicals. Hijacking Air Force One, the terrorists down the plane inside the maximum security prison known as Manhattan. This requires former war hero turned government headache Snake Pilssken to infiltrate the former Big Apple and bring the leader of the Free World to safety. One is escaping the anarchy inside this future shock Hellhole. The other is trying to escape his past, and those who want to persecute him for it.

3. The Raid [2001]

The premise is pretty simple: a huge apartment block in Jakarta, Indonesian, is owned by a powerful mobster and he uses the place as a hideout, storehouse, and security system. Most of the residents are his underlings, charged with protecting him at all costs. When a rookie cop and his fellow officers invade, hoping to end his evil rein. The ensuing floor by floor fights sees the police outnumbered, out-manned, and eventually, out maneuvered. But our hero wants his man, even if it means threatening his ability to get back out.

2. The Shawshank Redemption [1994]

For most people, this is the ultimate escape movie. We have a man, unjustly imprisoned, his life destroyed by a corrupt system in a corrupt time, and for the next few decades, he meticulously plots his revenge both against the people in power and against the walls that hold him. Thanks to Frank Darabont's deliberate scripting and excellent direction, as well as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman's fine acting, the final reveal is more emotional than most escapes. In fact, the film elevates Stephen King's otherwise pulpy novella into something akin to high art.

1. The Great Escape [1963]

Since it contains one of the most iconic images in the history of motion pictures involving one on the silver screen's most charismatic stars, this has to be at the top of the list. When POW Steve McQueen (yes, him again) sends his rickety motorcycle over a barbed wire fence in an attempt to flee the Nazis, it stands as a solid example of '60s defiance. The rest of the film isn't so hopeful. In fact, it's based on the gritty true story of hardship of prisoners at the hands of German's horrific Stalag system.

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