A good Con Artist, or Scam Movie, is like a robust red wine. The enjoyment lasts long after the last drink has gone and the evening is over. And like a good red wine, a good Con Artist movie is incredibly rare. Hopefully this list of the Best Con Artist Movies will open your eyes beyond the obvious choices of The Sting, Ocean’s 11, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which seem to be the only con artist movies Americans know about.) So my list here will leave behind these three examples in hopes of finding more fertile ground elsewhere.
A little while ago I wrote an article about the best mind job movies of all time where we discussed in detail the difference between a head job and con artist movie. I think we came to the conclusion that a con artist movie is one that deals with a group of individuals trying to pull off a heist, which by its definition has multiple reversals as you continue to the denouement. And generally the guy you think is the helpless sap, is probably complicit in some way. And not only is he complicit, but it was his idea in the first place, and watch out because he’s the guy about to be conned. They get complex really really fast. Which is why I love them so very much. Sometimes the acting is well done, but that is actually secondary to a really good con. If the con isn’t any good the best acting in the world won’t save it. And so primarily, the best con artist movies are a contract between the viewer and the screenwriter. A good screenwriter is the most critical component to landing yourself on this list.
The greatest screenwriter in this space – BY FAR – is David Mamet. (Never mind the fact that there is an argument to be made that he could play in ANY space – with Untouchables, Glengarry Glenn Ross, Hoffa and Wag the Dog also written by his pen.) Which you will see by how many titles he has in this list. Mamet was a significant player in my Best Dialogue Movies blog as well. He plays in so many different areas and yet in this one space, the Con Movie, he absolutely owns it.
The Best Con Artist Movies Ever – The Rules
So lets set the rules. Because in order to determine who should be on the list, we have to know what a Con Artist movie is. Maybe we can define what it isn’t first. If you do a quick search on line for Con Artist movies you will find a wide range of candidates listed. For example, I have seen The Usual Suspects more often than not listed amongst the ranks. The end of The Usual Suspects is tricky, I’ll give you that. But there is no team of guys trying to swindle someone out of cash, or diamonds, paintings, stamps, what have you. Nothing. So it ISN’T a con movie.
So, rule number one, a Con Artist Movie is required to have an individual or a team trying to con someone out of something. Usually the conning not only involves one con, but many many cons. The genre has become so mature and so clever that they have become riddled with double-backs and reversals upon reversals. Cons upon cons. So, rule number two is – there has to be AT LEAST one massive reveal along the way where you the watcher are just as duped as the poor schlep being conned.
The Best Con Artist Movies Ever vs. Best Heist Movies Ever?
While writing this list of movies, I am simultaneously doing a list of the best heist movies too. They are very very similar in nature, and yet very different too. They are so close that many can’t even tell them apart. The best way to explain the difference is probably to look at two examples. So, take for example the Italian Job. In the Italian Job there is a heist of someone’s money and also a bit of conning going on. But it isn’t a con job at the root. There is no reversal or duping of the audience. It is amazing to watch and the cleverness of the characters makes it one of the best heist movies ever. But it isn’t a con artist movie.
The original Ocean’s 11 (Both Clooney’s original version and the 1960 version it was based on, now that I think about it) are perfect examples of a con artist’s play to swindle a mark and the audience in one fell swoop. A good con movie hits a character in the movie, but it also hits the audience even harder. Hopefully that makes sense.
I say we start digging into the contestants and argue about the list in the comments. This list is a bit different from other lists I’ve done (like the best mind job movies, or best dialogue movies, best guy movies and best documentaries (guess I’ve accidentally made quite a stable of ‘best of’ lists) because of the fact that there are so very few movies in the Best Con Artist Movies pool. In the action movie genre there are thousands and thousands of examples to pick from. In the dialogue realm, thousands again to consider. But here, in the Best Con Artist Movies, we are limited to a much smaller pool. So I will just be listing out the movies in no real particular order. I will definitely push the absolute best ones to the bottom – so if you want to know who takes the cake in my opinion head to the end of this list. But all of these movies are definitely worth checking out if you are looking to watch a great con artist movie.
#10 – Ocean’s 11 – I seriously considered leaving Ocean’s 11 (and The Sting as well, now that I mention it) off this list mainly because they are so well known and because of it’s Heist-ness. But it overcomes this. My biggest reservation is because I want to point you to movies you haven’t seen before. But by leaving it off the list it basically does a disservice to the list. So I placed both 11 and Sting at the bottom of the list. Not because they aren’t good, but because I want you to experience something new.
I definitely did not included Ocean’s 12 or 13 on this list because they were so terrible. Ocean 13’s solution to the con was to make it happen even before the movie had even started. Which is cheating in my opinion! (Wait, that’s exactly what Primer did… hold on a minute! Check out my review of Primer when you are done with this list.)
#9 The Sting – I always think of The Sting as the great granddaddy and originator of this genre. But I know there are many examples earlier than The Sting. And yet, this movie put Scam Movies on the map in a very big way. I still remember the first time I saw this movie. The “Holy Heck” look that was stuck on my face for a week afterwards. And the impression it left on me. Truth be told I think I was 10 the first time I saw it, and I’m almost certain I didn’t fully understand it at the time. But thanks to the brilliance of Beta-Max, I was able to watch it again soon after. (Yeah, I know… I’m old. Turned 40 the other day even. Shut it.)
#8 – Matchstick Men – Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell turn a fantastic performance as atypical individuals always out for the con. In the middle of the biggest score of Roy’s (Cage) life, Angela shows up and begins to pull Roy out of the funk that began 14 years ago. As the characters work their magic on one another and attempt to discover the larger purpose we are treated to a truly great surprise ending. This was a very underrated movie when it came out originally and I’d be surprised if many of you have even seen it. While a bit different from many of the other examples on this list, it is still a very good watch and a fantastic twist.
#7 – The Heist – Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. How do you start off better than that? I love these two guys in this movie. Nevermind the wickedly smart script. “My guy is so cool, when he goes to sleep, sheep count him.”
Basically, this begins as your normal run of the mill job-gone-wrong-heist-so-we’ve-got-to-do-another-one movie. But then it gets infinitely more complicated from there. The thieves are quickly at one another… each with an angle to cut the others out of their heist. And when you throw gold into the mix, and not to mention a girl, you have yourself the ingredients for a wonderful entry into our list of the Best Con Artist Movies of all time.
#6 – Confidence – Ed Burns is a Con Man who inadvertently swindles an insane mafia chief, (played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman) out of a fortune. And in order to save his life he must pull off an even bigger con than the first one. The brilliance here is the con with a con idea. Things get even muddier even faster as the con slips and slides this way and that.
Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman are at their best in this movie. Not to mention Ed Burns (who I can take or leave, but I know many who love him) and Rachel Weisz who also are fantastic here. The final twist will come out of left field, and if you say you saw it coming, it was just random dumb luck.
#5 – The Grifters – A dark stylish noir sort of con artist movie is this one. A fantastic one at that. This one basically is a Grifting Squared. While one con job is discovered another is proposed and hatched. And then when it is ultimately turned down by Roy (Cusack) the two other con artist women decide to up the ante with tragic consequences all the way around the horn.
Cusack is always brilliant – and he doesn’t disappoint here. And then there is Benning. Annette Benning has always been a favorite of mine since her awesome role in Bugsy. This is a great movie all the way around. t has an ending you won’t see coming. Let’s just put it that way.
#4 – The Spanish Prisoner – The Spanish Prisoner may possibly have more twists than any other movie on this list. Mamet wrote more switchbacks into this script than a crazy colorado mountain pass.
The story centers around Ross who happened to invent a formula to play the stock market. Obviously the company he works for stands to make an enormous amount of money. As is Ross, but he’s beginning to doubt he’s going to get what he’s entitled to. As Ross begins to negotiate a fair agreement he meets a businessman named Jimmy (played cunningly by Steve Martin). Soon enough Ross is being fingered for theft and maybe even murder as things rapidly fall apart for our poor inventor.
#3 – House of Games – This debut movie of David Mamet has such a wickedly complex screenplay that I don’t even want to try and explain it. And I tried to explain Primer once. (However mistakenly.) Basically, a Margaret Ford is a psychiatrist who gets pulled into some tom-foolery when a patient admits that he owes the mob $25k in gambling debts.
She is pulled into a con that tries to take $6k from her, only to have her figure it all out. But she’s hooked now. And she isn’t going to walk away. Conveniently one of the guys is going out on another con later that night and she decides to tag along. And the rest, as they say, is history. This is a fantastic movie with really amazingly well done plotting and scripting. Mamet at his finest in my opinion.
#2 – Criminal – An honest looking Spaniard is looking for $70k to pull off a gambling con. He gets coupled with a business man that wants to help him out. Along the way they come across forgeries of an extremely valuable note that they decide to try and sell. And then comes the girl that the honest guy falls for. The only thing that is certain in this movie is that someone is getting completely and totally worked. But who? And why?
Diego Luna plays the honest looking Spaniard. John C. Reilly is the business man looking to lend a hand. And Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the love interest. Its a triangle for the ages.
#1 – Nueve Reinas – Can I just say I love these last three entries here? No? Too bad. I love these three. Can’t say it enough – and I had a hard time deciding amongst them. So Nueve Reinas opens at a convenience store where Juan, a con artist, successfully scams the cashier. He soon messes up by attempting the same scam again on the next shift. Marcos, who has been observing the whole time, steps in pretending to be a police officer and saves him. Juan asks Marcos to show him the grifting ropes, because his father, also a con man, is in jail and he needs to raise money quickly to bribe a judge to reduce his father’s sentence from 10 years to 6 months. And that is when The Nine Queens fall into their laps.
Nueve Reinas happens to be the original, Argentinian version of the second choice on this list, The Criminal. One deals with a forgery of stamps, the other is a forgery of bills. Both movies are fantastic and I can’t say enough about each. Here’s another detail that might help you decide which one is for you: if you mind reading subtitles (what is it exactly about Americans and subtitles?!?) then you definitely won’t think this the Best Con Artist Movie of all time. Because, yup you guessed it, its in spanish. But it’s definitely my favorite grifter movie in this list and that I’ve ever seen.
Feel free to educate us all as to the ones that I errantly left from the list. Please don’t mention Dirty Rotten Scoundrels though. PLEASE. I’m begging you. Please. Other than that… any movie is fair game. Honest.
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