12 Best Conspiracy Movies
By Shane Rivers
This Friday, Angels & Demons (starring Tom Hanks) hits theaters across the globe, and the plot involves a conspiracy by the Illuminati to blow up Vatican City. While it will no doubt make a killing at the box office, I’m more than a little skeptical about its overall quality. With that in mind, I decided to put together this list of the 12 best conspiracy movies. As you may notice, many of these films were made during the ‘70s, an era influenced by the troubles in Vietnam, the divisive resignation of President Richard Nixon, and an overall disillusionment with the U.S. government.
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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Manchurian Candidate is a mind-bending look at brainwashing and the Communist conspiracy. Frank Sinatra does some acting (and also a little butt-kicking on poor Henry Silva), while Angela Lansbury plays a character far darker than anything ever seen on Murder, She Wrote. On an interesting note, this was also the first American film to feature a hand-to-hand battle between two practitioners of karate. See this version and skip the 2004 remake.
The Game (1997) – Fresh off of Se7en, David Fincher directed this tale of paranoia, regret and, yes, conspiracies. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an investment banker who is given a mysterious birthday present by his younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn). The gift includes participation in a game both vague and dangerous for everyone involved. Expect plenty of twists and turns, as the film refuses to fully reveal its mysteries until the last possible minute. Michael Douglas gives a great performance as a control freak who’s dragged kicking and screaming outside of his comfort zone.
They Live (1988) – John Nada (Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see the world for what it truly is: overrun by aliens. Before long, he’s gunning them down and pausing to deliver one of the best lines in movie history: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” His marathon fistfight with Keith David is also a can’t-miss scene, and it’s even been re-enacted (blow for blow with handicapped children, no less) on the mighty South Park.
Soylent Green (1973) – If you’re aware of the film’s most famous line, then you already know the surprise ending to this Charlton Heston classic. If not, then I’ll let you discover it for yourself. Chuck Heston is a New York detective assigned to investigate a murder in the bleak future of 2022 where food is in very short supply. But as the mystery begins to unravel, Detective Robert Thorn (Heston) learns a most uncomfortable truth about Soylent Green, the government’s latest attempt to feed the masses.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Directed by Roman Polanski and based on the 1967 horror novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby stars Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse, a young housewife who falls prey to a sinister presence within her new apartment building. Ruth Gordon gives a great performance as Minnie Castevet, the sweet old lady who lives down the hall and may know more than she lets on.
JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s gonzo film about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy stars Kevin Costner as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, a man obsessed with learning the truth. Stone lets it all hang out as a director, infusing the film with a palpable sense of paranoia. Anchored by an excellent cast which includes Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland and Ed Asner, this film remains a titan amongst the conspiracy genre. Back and to the left.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) – Robert Redford plays a CIA operative who stumbles across something he shouldn’t. For the rest of the film, he must deal with doubles-crosses and attempts on his life, especially at the hands of the menacing Joubert (Max von Sydow). He does, however, manage to get some lovin’ from Faye Dunaway, so maybe it was all worth it. Also starring Cliff Robertson and John Houseman.
Capricorn One (1978) – When a mechanical failure cancels the first manned mission to Mars, NASA decides to fake it by filming the landing at a remote base in the desert. When the information is in danger of being leaked, that’s when the bodies start piling up. Elliott Gould plays the reporter on the trail of a massive conspiracy, while Sam Waterston, James Brolin and a pre-homicidal O.J. Simpson play the astronauts being forced to fake transmissions from Mars.
The Boys from Brazil (1978) – An elderly Nazi hunter named Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) tries to stop Josef Mengele’s (Gregory Peck) plans to clone Adolph Hitler. A great cat-and-mouse game ensues between the veteran actors, and it all culminates at a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania. An example of the best conspiracy films from the 1970s.
The Matrix (1999) – While it’s not generally considered a conspiracy movie, what else can you call a film which revolves around the entire human race being plugged into a fantasy world while their body heat and electrical energy are harvested by evil machines? The only thing I never understood about The Matrix was this: if their goal was to save all the humans still plugged into the matrix, why did they seem to gun down these unwitting henchmen with such zeal? I guess marching into an office building packing tasers and rubber bullets just wouldn’t seem as cool.
Marathon Man (1974) – Nobody likes dentists, but the release of this Dustin Hoffman/Laurence Olivier thriller didn’t help things one little bit. In fact, the film’s most famous moment comes when Olivier, playing Nazi dentist Dr. Christian Szell, tortures Hoffman’s character by drilling into his tooth without anesthetic. All the while, the villainous Szell keeps asking, “Is it safe?”. If there’s one thing worse than a dentist, it’s undoubtedly a Nazi dentist.
All the President‘s Men (1976) – When it comes to conspiracies, it doesn’t get much bigger than the infamous Watergate scandal which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon. From shadowy meetings with sources in parking garages to a constant sense of danger around every corner, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward risked everything to get the truth out to the American people (and make their careers in the process). Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford star in this film based on the 1974 book of the same name. It’s interesting to note that the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward’s secret source, was kept hidden until 2005.