- OnScreen Chief Movie Critic
A few friends of mine like to poke at me from time to time by trying to talk about how Jar Jar Binks is the best Star Wars character or that Homeward Bound is so great or that the Back to the Future trilogy is the greatest trilogy of all time. Now, those three things are not nearly equal in their absurdity, but to some degree they are said to get under my skin. Jar Jar Binks is insufferable, Homeward Bound is probably a lot better if you see it for the first time when you are 5 instead of 35, and I love the Back to the Future movies, but I cannot in good faith say that it is the greatest trilogy of all time. However, the trilogy comment came up at a Super Bowl party I was at this year (Go Pats!), and a few people threw out a couple different suggestions, which got me thinking about making a list of the greatest trilogies, and how I would craft that list.
So how do I define a trilogy for the purposes of this list?
Some of these trilogies are more loosely or specifically defined than others. The parameters I gave myself were to exclude franchises that have a 4th installment unless that 4th entry was more than a decade later and does not feel like it is a part of the previous films. So, for instance, Indiana Jones will be on the list because Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released 19 years after The Last Crusade. The Bourne franchise is not included, however, because of The Bourne Legacy in 2012 and Jason Bourne in 2016. If that franchise had ended after The Bourne Ultimatum, like it should have, it would be ranked quite high. Sadly, Die Hard does not make the list because not only did they make a 4th movie, they did a 5th as well; if it had just been Live Free or Die Hard, produced over a decade after Die Hard: With a Vengeance, I would have included the original trilogy.
Speaking of original trilogies, like many people, I separate the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars as there is a significant time gap between them and most people differentiate between them as separate trilogies within the same saga. The same basically applies for the three Lord of the Rings films and the three Hobbit films. The same basic premise applies to superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man. Nolan’s Dark Knight exists as its own thing and is not part of a continuous series of Batman sequels and Sam Raimi’s Spidey stands apart from Marc Webb’s more recent version. On the flip side, I included a handful of threesomes that are a trilogy in a looser sense, in that their stories are not connected, but they feature the same director and star(s) and people generally refer to them as a trilogy. Some may have been planned as a trilogy based on theme or people came to refer to them as a trilogy over time. An example of this would be Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy or the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy from Edgar Wright.
With the parameters established, this is my list of The Greatest Trilogies of All Time:
5. Three Flavors Cornetto/Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy
Director Edgar Wright collaborated with actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost three times for three of the best genre-based comedies of the 21st century. Shaun of the Dead was a pitch perfect homage/parody of the zombie genre that was so good that it is also a genuinely great zombie movie. Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy that parodies movies like Bad Boys, Point Break, and countless others while taking place in a small, idyllic English village with a killer on the loose. The World’s End is a comedic take on the sci-fi alien invasion flicks. It’s my “least” favorite of the three and I still thoroughly enjoy it. There’s not a bad movie in this bunch; every single one is thoroughly enjoyable and full of genre-based jokes that show a love and appreciation for the genres. Shaun is widely considered the best of the three, but my personal favorite is Hot Fuzz. The “Three Flavors” moniker comes from the previously listed “Three Colors” trilogy by Kieslowski. Cornetto is referenced in all three movies.
4. Indiana Jones Trilogy
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created perhaps the most iconic action adventure character of all time in Indiana Jones. Casting Harrison Ford, coupled with his Han Solo role, made Ford into a massive movie star. The fedora and the whip are iconic pieces of movie history. Strangely, while many trilogies seem to have the 2nd movie be the strongest, the opposite seems to be true of the Indy trilogy. Temple of Doom is the “weakest” of the three, a little more pulpy and cartoonish compared to the other two, but it’s still fun in its own right (“Indy, cover your heart!”). Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first and best of the three, but The Last Crusade is also really, really good, and bolstered by the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. Yes, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released 19 years later, but it’s never felt more than tacked on.
3. The Godfather Trilogy
The first two films in this trilogy are considered to be two of the best films ever made. So even though the third does not come close to matching them in overall quality, and is viewed with derision by some people, the fact that this trilogy houses two of the greatest movies of all time means that it has to be on the list, even in a slightly diminished capacity. Spanning three epic movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s crime family saga details the transformation of Michael Corleone from being the youngest son of Don Vito Corleone who wants nothing to do with the family business to being the head of it all. Pacino is terrific as are so many others, like Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Talia Shire, and of course Robert Duvall and John Cazale. It’s rare that a sequel is made to a film that is on the short list for the greatest of all time and it turns out that the sequel is so good that it could be considered the greatest of all time. They’re both towering, defining films of the period that is considered the greatest decade of movies.
2. Original Star Wars Trilogy
Star Wars was a massive part of my childhood; the same is true for millions of others and there’s no getting around that. I can’t count how many times I watched Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. George Lucas created a movie monster that played a huge part in reshaping Hollywood. It more or less invented the summer blockbuster season. Star Wars became so popular that it transcended the movies and became a cottage industry all its own. People who haven’t even seen the movies know who Darth Vader is and what a lightsaber is. Vader is an all-time villain. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Lando, the Emperor, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt; the list of memorable and beloved characters is immense.
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
As Omar said in The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” It takes a lot to unseat the Star Wars trilogy as the king of the trilogy mountain. For some people, that is like saying someone other than Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. But as much as I will always love the Star Wars trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings reigns supreme for me. In my mind, the Star Wars trilogy is the progenitor of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Tolkien fantasy epic is a magnum opus. Filmed consecutively, all three of these films are great. The Fellowship of the Ring tells the most concise story since there is less jumping around before the stories splinter after the breaking of the fellowship. The Two Towers has the Battle of Helm’s Deep which everyone loves. And I love the sheer scale of the Siege of Gondor in The Return of the King. It also has quiet, intimate character moments built in amidst all of the fighting. And the Extended Editions, which are loaded with extra little goodies that were cut out of the theatrical versions of the films puts this trilogy over the top (in particular, the Mouth of Sauron in Return of the King). People wondered at the time if the Lord of the Rings could be translated to from text to screen effectively. Not only did Peter Jackson do it effectively, he excelled, bringing Tolkien’s Middle Earth and its inhabitants to life through groundbreaking technology. One Ring to rule them all.