The 15 Greatest Film Trilogies of All Time – Part 1

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film 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 Part 1 of a planned trilogy (see what I did there?) list of The Greatest Trilogies of All Time:

15. Vengeance Trilogy

South Korean director Park Chan-wook made a trio of films from 2002 to 2005: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady VengeanceSympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a film about a kidnapping scheme gone horribly wrong.  Oldboy, the most well-known of the three films, is about a man who is locked up in a hotel room for 15 years.  When he is suddenly released, he goes on a mission to find the man who locked him up and the reason why.  Lady Vengeance is a film about a woman who is wrongfully imprisoned for the death of a child, and plans an elaborate scheme to get revenge on the person she took the fall for when she gets released.  These films are some of the definitive pieces of South Korean cinema in the 21st Century.  All three are visceral and have some graphically violent content and moment that are disturbing.  But they all grapple with the nature and cost of revenge.  Also, Oldboy has a memorable fight scene in a cramped hallway where the protagonist takes on a gang of men with only a hammer.  The Netflix series Daredevil is clearly a big fan of this movie.

14. Evil Dead Trilogy

This trilogy launched the career of director Sam Raimi and made its star, Bruce Campbell, a cult icon.  The Evil Dead franchise spanned The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness.  Furthermore, it would spawn a remake and an eventual TV series on Starz.  The three films all feature Bruce Campbell’s iconic Ash fending off Deadites unleashed by the reading of the Necronomicon at a remote cabin in the woods.  The original is a master class in low budget horror filmmaking.  The sequel is more of the same with more comedic horror thrown in, while Army of Darkness takes the franchise back to medieval times as Ash leads forces to defeat an army of the dead.  Plenty of scares, impressive monster makeup, and copious amounts of fake blood abound.

13. Spider-Man Trilogy

We’re going back to back Raimi here.  The original Spider-Man trilogy had Raimi as director and Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as the stars.  Make no mistake; Spider-Man 3 is a dud that I still haven’t gotten over.  But the strength of the first two is enough to warrant this being on the list.  Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are still two of the best superhero movies made, with Spider-Man 2 still ranking among the very best.  Spider-Man is a character that has always had a special place in my fanboy heart; it was my favorite comic book as a kid, and the physical appearance of Spider-Man in these movies most closely resembles the comic books I grew up reading in the 1980s.

12. Three Colors Trilogy

The Three Colors Trilogy by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowskiis an ode to France, representing the three colors of the French flag (Blue, White, and Red), as well as the three tenants of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.  These three themes took on new significance in Europe in the early 90s, in the wake of the Berlin Wall coming down and the fall of the Soviet Union.  The three films showcase Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, and Irene Jacob.  Kieslowski was a prolific filmmaker at the end of his life, and these films were the last that he created.  It’s as impressive a swan song as any director can hope to have.

11. Back to the Future Trilogy

I think it is safe to say that Back to the Future is one of the most generally beloved trilogies of all time.  I honestly don’t think I’ve even heard anyone badmouth Back to the Future.  It’s an essential 80s movie.  But in reality, the 2nd and 3rd installments, filmed back to back, aren’t as great as the original, but there’s no denying the appeal of these movies.  Whether in 1955, 2015, or 1885, the adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown are so enjoyable.  To this day, it remains the best stuff that Robert Zemeckis has ever done.  Plus, the generational aspect of it all is pretty interesting too.  The prospect of going back in time and interacting with your parents when they were your age is… heavy.  And let’s not forget Biff Tannen as a great comedic movie villain.

To be continued… in Part 2.