We all know that there are some movies that start out strong, and then an inevitable sequel is made. Sometimes, that sequel lives up to the original, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it does, but then a third film is made that ends on a sour note. Then every once in a while we get one of those little gold mines that has each and every film in the series just as good as the one before it. These are rare and hard to come by, though we occasionally still get them from time to time, where the whole set is, essentially, a masterpiece in filmmaking and entertainment value. While we all have our own opinions, this list of trilogies pretty much can be agreed by the majority of the movie-viewing and movie-critic public.
Now before you get all up in arms, no, The Godfather trilogy (1972-90) is not on this list, as the third film is not as highly regarded or beloved as the first two. The Back to the Future trilogy (1985-90) is a great one too, but let's face it, the second one is a little weird and not as strong as the first and third films. It should be kept in mind that four of these five to be mentioned trilogies have more than three films now in their series, but we are going off of initial trilogies that were completed before more sequels were given a thought. We also know that awards do not mean everything, and these films can certainly stand on their own without them, but the accolades are mentioned here just as bits of proof to support these arguments. It should also be noted that these are not the top five movie trilogies of all time, just five of the best (although some of these should be in the top five). Here are five of the greatest movie trilogies of all time:
CAUTION - THERE MAY BE MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
The Indiana Jones Trilogy (1981-89)
Yes, we know there is now a fourth film entitled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), as well as an untitled Indiana Jones 5 (2020) in our future, but for the sake of this article, and because the original series closed after a trilogy in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, riding off into the sunset, we will be focusing on the first three films (for those supporters out there, know that this writer enjoyed Crystal Skull and personally has very little against it). Here you have a series from the creative minds of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, inspired by the classic adventure serials, where each film is just as good as the last, and the third film actually rivals the original. While Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) might not be everyone's favorite Indiana Jones adventure, there are certainly things in it to love, and over time has gotten to be more appreciated than when originally released for the risks it took (where the filmmakers apologized for the dark turn of the franchise). While Temple of Doom was later found out to actually be the "prequel" to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Raiders is the one that was made first and thereby the one that started it all. It is at #60 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, and at #66 on the 10th Anniversary of that list. Oh yeah, and it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Who can forget that introductory running from the giant boulder scene, simply shooting the deadly sword-swinging ninja, climbing underneath a moving Nazi truck, and the unveiling of the Ark's powers? The trilogy even inspired the immensely entertaining attraction at Disneyland, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, which opened in 1995. Again, it's rare when you get a trilogy where each one is an enjoyable ride that you could pop any of them in and be in for a fun adventure. You can't go wrong with Indiana Jones; whether you are a hardcore or casual fan, there is something to love and respect in each installment. What's not to love about these films? The action is fun and thrilling, Harrison Ford is at the top of his game each time along with the rest of the outstanding supporting casts, the iconic adventure music by John Williams never leaves your head (which was Oscar-nominated in all three films), and not only do you have three movies that are entertaining, but three movies that are films, that combined together define what is undeniably the quintessential adventure film.
The Toy Story Trilogy (1995-2010)
Wait, wait! This list includes animated films too? You better believe it, especially with a franchise trilogy as impressive as the Toy Story films. Yes, Toy Story 4 (2019) is in the nearby future, but Toy Story 3 (2010) closed out the trilogy before a fourth was even given a thought. The first film in 1995 of course was groundbreaking, revolutionary, and a huge game-changer for not just the world of animation, but for the world of movies. It was, and still is, entertaining, funny, emotional, relatable on several levels, with stories and characters that charm your socks off. The second film upped the ante, which was no small feat, building on the ever-growing computer animation technology and capabilities, and raising the emotional bar for storytelling. It is in fact an achievement and miracle in itself the second film was released, and as good as it was. You can look up the stories of how the film was made, how it was planned as a direct-to-video release and after many trials and tribulations hit theater screens in the nick of time. Toy Story 2 was released in 1999, and third film wasn't really in the works, at least for a while. Early on before PIXAR was bought by Disney, Disney wanted sequels to all of PIXAR's films, with or without their help. Toy Story 3 was not really an ambition at this point; the second film closed the story off quite well, and it seemed unnecessary to revisit that world. Well we are sure glad they did. Over a decade later, several years after Disney had bought them, Toy Story 3 was released and it was a critical and financial smash success. Of course, PIXAR's record up to that point had been nearly flawless, so another film of this caliber was no surprise, but there was some hesitation about revisiting those characters and those films (as well as being helmed by a different director than the original John Lasseter), but it was pulled off with flying colors, largely due to PIXAR veteran Lee Unkrich as director. Toy Story 3 wrapped up the trilogy beautifully, with the emotion heightened even more than the last film. We dare anyone not to cry at the end of the film. It was not only nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Oscars (which it won), but it also was nominated for Best Picture. If that isn't a testament to the third film's reputation I don't know what is. All three films offer fantastic, believable performances by the cast (led by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), catchy, delightful music by Randy Newman, and we have the original film to thank for leading the way for PIXAR's amazing company and filmography. Toy Story is at #99 on the 10th Anniversary list of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. I'm just going to say it: this trilogy is a masterpiece of animation and filmmaking. Each installment is just as impressive and enjoyable as the last. Thank you PIXAR from the bottom of our hearts.
The Bourne Trilogy (2002-07)
This might sound like a surprising entry, but have you seen each of these films? Before we got The Bourne Legacy (2012) with Jeremy Renner and the recent Jason Bourne (2016) with the return of Matt Damon, the series concluded in 2007 with The Bourne Ultimatum. Based on a series of books by Robert Ludlum (which interestingly are very different from the movies), all three films offer stellar performances across the board, edge-of-your-seat action, suspense, and intrigue, and like the Indiana Jones movies mentioned above defining the adventure film genre, these films define the American genre of the spy film. Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity (2002) is where it began, something that helped make Matt Damon's career take off, and offered a unique, refreshing take on a romance between him and the beautiful and subtle Franka Potente as Marie. Chris Cooper gives one of his best performances, an enigma throughout, participating in the nail-biting final staircase scene with Jason Bourne. Some people give The Bourne Supremacy (2004) a lot of flack (which director Paul Greengrass took over along with the next film in line), which it doesn't deserve. The problem with Supremacy is that so many people love the first and third installments so much that they rarely watch the second one. I urge you to go back and watch it if you haven't in a while. It is just as good as its predecessor and its follow-up, with Julia Stiles proving herself being in the forefront, and some of the best action scenes of the series. The Bourne Ultimatum is not only a great film, but a fantastic conclusion to the trilogy, that was nominated for three Oscars. It keeps you guessing and glued to the screen all the way to the slam-bang finish, an ending that may have been open to interpretation before the later films followed it, offering what might be one of the best film endings of all time, and one of the best film trilogy endings of all time. And let's not forget that arguably now classic moment in the film where Bourne is calling his pursuer Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who is away, in his own office! What is so great about this spy trilogy is that besides each film being able to stand on its own, the films connect so well into an overarching story from the very top of the first film to the moment the screen dips to black in the third film. Who can forget that heart-pumping John Powell musical score, and that high pitch two-note electronica tune that signals the end of a Bourne film, his inevitable escape, into Moby's "Extreme Ways." The car chases in these films alone are worth praise, and let's not forget Joan Allen and Albert Finney's award-worthy performances. These movies, like the James Bond films and the Mission: Impossible films (1996-2018), are the perfect example of how to make an outstanding action espionage thriller that will stand the test of time.
The Original Star Wars (Episodes IV-VI) Trilogy (1977-83)
Let the Ewok naysayers come forth! That's right, come at me. Return of the Jedi (1983) concludes the original Star Wars trilogy with a bang, that, in this writer's opinion, is just as good as the two previous films. While a massive Star Wars fan, I am also a massive fan of filmmaking, and the original Star Wars trilogy from 1977 to 1983 is without a doubt... perfect. They are three of the best sci-fi films of all time. Sure, every movie and every series has flaws or little goofs in them, even the ones we love or the Oscar-caliber ones, but there is something to be said for when one of these films or trilogies is successfully entertaining enough to detract us from those flaws (which it should be mentioned, are few and far between). George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) as we all know changed moviemaking forever, similarly to how PIXAR's Toy Story would many years later, but in different ways. It impressively sits at #15 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 American Films of All Time, and at #13 on the 10th Anniversary edition of that list. The original film was nominated for ten Oscars, including most notably Best Picture, as well as the only acting nomination any of the Star Wars films up to this point have received for Sir Alec Guiness for Best Supporting Actor as Ben Kenobi. It won six of those Oscars. It was nominated for four Golden Globes, winning one of them. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is regarded by many Star Wars fans to be the best of the bunch, not just of this trilogy, but of all the films to date. It got darker for round two, often mentioned now as a blueprint example for a second film in a series for the change in tone (and hopefully, equal success in that regard). "This will be The Empire Strikes Back of the series!" It is not only regarded as a phenomenal Star Wars film, but as a phenomenal film period. It is certainly in my personal top 20. Empire also offered one of the most memorable, surprising moments in all of film history with Darth Vader revealing he his Luke's father. The film was nominated for three Oscars, one of which it won, as well as one Golden Globe nomination. Return of the Jedi some will say receives a lighter tone than Empire, and in some ways this is true, although the third act of Jedi with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) being brought before the Emperor is perhaps one of the most chilling scenes in the series. In fact, the end of Return of the Jedi might be one of the most intense, emotionally satisfying endings ever with Luke confronting his father and then the Emperor, only to have his father save the day. Jedi was nominated for four Oscars. No one can forget John Williams' impeccable themes from all of these movies from the iconic opening theme over the star-studded galaxy, to Darth Vader's "Imperial March," to the emotional "Luke & Leia," to the inspiring "Yoda's Theme." While we have come very far since these films technologically, we have these films to thank for a lot of that. The effects were groundbreaking at the time, and you can't tell me that even the puppets like Yoda (Frank Oz) or the space worm in the asteroid or Jabba the Hutt don't look real. You can't tell me that those miniature models of ships don't look gargantuan. Everything... holds... up! To this day! You have one of the scariest, most recognizable villains ever with Darth Vader, and a trio of actors' performances that could never be replicated of: Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo. These films are fun, action-packed, entertaining, funny, space opera adventures with mouth-dropping set pieces, characters, and special effects, that combine to appeal to all ages. Each of them is SO good! There are so many things this trilogy did right, and this original trilogy can sit on a shelf all by itself, because it is golden and of the best trilogies we will ever be lucky to get as long as the world turns. This article is not ranking trilogies, but... this might just be number one.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03)
You were waiting for it, right? Especially since it is the cover photo for Heaven's sakes! How could we not include this trilogy on our list? It's impossible not to. This trilogy is not just exceptional on an entertainment level, but on a filmmaking level as well. These three films served and continue to serve as a blueprint for how to make good movies. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one book, but for obvious reasons, the film adaption was split into three parts (which some releases of books had been doing already for years). The thought of undertaking a project like this must have been completely daunting, to say the least, especially attempting a simultaneous shoot of all three films inside of three years in New Zealand (ahem, Peter Jackson). The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) was nominated for thirteen Oscars and four Golden Globes, winning four of those Oscars. One of these Oscars was the well-deserved nomination and win for Best Supporting Actor for Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Wizard. The movie is right at #50 on the 10th Anniversary list of the American Film Institute's Top 100 American Films of All Time. The Two Towers (2002), hugely opening new doors with its performance capture of Andy Serkis as Gollum alone, was nominated for six Oscars and two Golden Globes, winning two of those Oscars. Last but not least, The Return of the King (2003) was nominated for eleven Oscars and four Golden Globes, and it won each and every one of them. All three films were nominated for Best Picture (how often does that happen in a trilogy?), which the last film won hands down. While some fans of the book have their qualms, most still respect and have an appreciation for the films. This trilogy is arguably flawless, at least from a cinematic standpoint, with each installment getting better and better. Each and every member of the cast delivers outstanding performances in every film, the locations are breathtaking, the practical makeup and effects groundbreaking, and the Howard Shore musical composition makes you wonder, "What ever did The Lord of the Rings sound like in my mind before this?" The amount of care, detail, and passion devoted to every moment of every frame of each movie is astounding, inspiring, refreshing, and just plain jaw-droppingly entertaining. The films offer true fantasy escapism, but still feel like home in the end. Despite their long run times, the films never feel their length because we as the audience are always too engaged and entranced to notice (even those extended versions... okay, maybe not the last one, but we can still enjoy it). Alright, enough gushing, but there's a reason they are on this list, and why they should be on every list. It might be the best trilogy we have had in the last twenty years.