Quarantine Watchlist #2 – The 10 Best Movie Trilogies to Watch Right Now (and Possibly of All Time)
COVID-19 has us all stuck inside for the foreseeable future, and if the antics of the President and his administration are to continue as they have been, that future stretches a very long way. And since we are stuck inside, and likely about to get hit with yet a second wave of this bullshit, most of what we have to comes down to keeping ourselves entertained and active until such a time as this virus can actually be brought under control (which, it can, if people would just wear the damn masks). Keeping oneself entertained is easy enough, what with all the new original content streaming services are providing, and the number of films that studios sent to VOD for a reasonable price so we could see them without having to risk our lives by going to a theater. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know when or where to start a new story. After all, most of them still haven’t stopped, and that sense of finality is one of the most underrated aspects of watching things that are meant to stand on their own. Before COVID came along, we were all eagerly anticipating the likes of Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984 as the highlights of our (now nonexistent) summer movie season, maybe with a Fast & Furious 9 thrown in there to shake things up a bit. Franchises were all the rage (and still are, as far as studio business goes). Thanks to the unparalleled success of such iconic IPs as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the resurrected mainstream enthusiasm for other properties like Star Wars (post-Force Awakens), every major studio in Hollywood with any blockbuster potential was lining up to establish their foothold in the box office with their own lengthy “shared universe” projects. There is something to be said, however, for allowing a story to end before milking it dry and robbing it of its original charm. And that is where trilogies come in*.
A movie trilogy is the most succinct, efficient, and digestible way for any audience to receive a multi-chapter story on film without feeling at some point that they might burn out. The best of these build on their characters as the story moves along, and develop their central themes by adding more layers to their narrative complexity. The immediate sequels challenge the status quo set by the first film, and the trilogy closers reckon with how that status has been upended. Sometimes this works to an astonishing degree, and sometimes, you end up disappointed that there wasn’t a better ending. Nevertheless, there is an ending, and if you’re lucky, it builds on and wraps up everything that came before. So what are the best of the best? What are the three-part stories so well-told and so smartly crafted that they stand the test of time not just as some of the best trilogies ever made, but some of the best films ever made, full-stop? Well, you’re about to find out. This is The Friendly Film Fan, and these are the 10 Best Movie Trilogies to Watch Right Now (hopefully soon, a Paddington trilogy can be added to this list).
*(Trilogies such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Cornetto Three Flavors, and The Man With No Name are not included because their stories are either loosely connected while not actually being continuations of previous narratives – i.e. “spiritual sequels” – or they are part of a larger, interconnected story and are separated by other films between them in that story. Also, this should go without saying, but trilogies I have not seen will also not be included, so don’t expect to find Three Colors or The Evil Dead on this list.)
10. John Wick Trilogy (dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
While this is sure to be a quadrilogy soon, right now it’s a trilogy, and although it may not be the most sophisticated or complex or nuanced, it is a damn entertaining one. Post-Matrix Keanu Reeves was always a bit of a mixed bag, until he stepped into the arms of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who gave him a gun, a car, and a dog, and let him loose on the world. The result of this was a slick, clean action movie with a built-in mythos and just enough world building to keep us interested, plus a gun-wielding Keanu landing headshot after headshot without missing a beat. The fact that the next two films are almost as good as the first (though slightly declining each time) is as much a miracle as the first film’s existence. The action in this trilogy escalates to such a level, one never knows how Stahelski (who directed the second and third installments himself) is going to top it in the next one, and yet, he always seems to do so. I mean, who doesn’t remember the club scene in the first one, the cat-and-mouse chase with Common in the second, or the library and knife fights in the third? John Wick came along and accomplished what Die Hard tried and failed to, becoming a consistently entertaining, always exciting action franchise that expanded its world organically and to consistent acclaim without losing any of what made it great. I have no idea how the fourth one could possibly be as good as these, but I can’t wait to find out.
9. Indiana Jones Trilogy (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Yes, technically this is a quadrilogy now, but it was never conceived that way in its inception (much like another entry on this list), so it counts here. It will shock no one to learn this trilogy is on the list, but its placement this far down may come as a bit of a surprise. The truth is, while the first and third installments of this trilogy are iconic entries into the pantheon of cinema, the second one (which acts as a prequel to the first, rather than a sequel) is a lot tougher to sit through than those two. That’s not to say it isn’t good, or that it’s not entertaining in its own right, but Temple of Doom doesn’t quite have the adventurous energy of its predecessor, nor the comic charms of its immediate follow-up. Luckily for Raiders and Last Crusade, however, they’re both so good that they bolster the entire trilogy’s reputation by themselves. We all know how much Indy hates snakes, we all know the sound of his cracking whip and the triumphant march of discovery within John Williams’ iconic score, we’ve all seen Harrison Ford shoot a swordsman because he was too tired and sick to engage in combat during filming, thus creating one of the most iconic movie moments in recorded history. And we know all of this because these movies are so pervasive within cinema history that their reputation precedes them. Problematic historical context of stealing/looting precious, sacred items from indigenous cultures notwithstanding, the Indiana Jones trilogy is the apex of adventure filmmaking, and if you haven’t seen them yet, now would be a great time to catch up.
8. How to Train Your Dragon Trilogy (dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)
There are two animated trilogies on this list, and while I’m sure you may have guessed what the other one is, this one is just as fulfilling and exciting a watch as any. The original How to Train Your Dragon was released in theaters in March of 2010, but I wouldn’t catch up with it until almost four years later, just before the release of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Quite quickly, it became not only my favorite animated movie of all time, but one of my favorite movies of all time, full-stop. I’ve written so much about it on this site that I won’t beleaguer the point here, but that first How to Train Your Dragon belongs in the company of movies like The Lion King, The Lego Movie, and Toy Story in terms of how well its story is told, and how iconic many of its endlessly quotable moments truly are. The characters, the dialogue, the animation, the story, everything about that first movie works just as well, if not better, than most movies in any other category, not just animation. And, while the sequels do decline a bit in overall quality, and the dialogue and characters get a little more cartoonish over time, they also get more ambitious and more mature with their conflicts, which most animated franchises fail to do even with their first entry. The care that went into crafting these beautiful, epic films is evident in every frame, and the musical score by composer John Powell remains one of my absolute favorite musical scores of any composer to this day. This is DreamWorks’ best animated property, and allowing to end on the third and final movie is rare enough for a more successful animation studio, but they did, and the trilogy’s emotional finale is every bit as powerful as anyone could hope for.
7. The Godfather Trilogy (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
If the third film in this trilogy was anywhere close to as good as its predecessors, this easily would have been competing for #1 with what’s currently placed there. Alas, the uncomfortable incest storyline and Sofia Coppola’s pretty stale performance in Part III cost this trilogy not only its status as the greatest ever committed to film (at the time), but its third Best Picture Oscar. Setting that aside, however, what person watches movies that’s never heard of The Godfather or The Godfather: Part II? Even if you’ve never seen them, their reputation so precedes them that it’s nearly impossible to have any conversation about great movies without them coming up, and once you have seen them, it’s easy to understand why. Movie after movie has ripped off, paid homage, or made tribute to those first two iconic classics so many times, people unfamiliar with the source material may be starting to forget that “the day of my daughter’s wedding” and “make him an offer he can’t refuse” originated from that first film, which frequently tops charts citing the greatest movies of all time, often followed by its sequel. To say that this trilogy houses one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled would be an understatement; everyone, from Brando to De Niro to Pacino to Keitel to Keaton, everyone in those first two movies absolutely nails every second of screen-time they have, and there is no more iconic moment in cinematic history than the introduction of Don Vito to the world of movies. Yes, Part III dropped the ball in a pretty significant way, costing the trilogy its status as the greatest of all time (at least for the next 13 years), but as far as the world of movies is concerned, The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II belong not just in the hall of fame, but on the throne at hallway’s end.
6. The Dark Knight Trilogy (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Unfortunately, the strength of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy wasn’t quite enough to land it on this list since the third film falls way short of where those first two masterpieces are (although, in my book, it does get more hate than it deserves – there’s a lot of good there), which means there’s only room for one superhero trilogy on this list. Luckily, that superhero trilogy is also pretty damn great, boasting not just the greatest superhero film of all time as its middle chapter, but a really solid conclusion (even if that conclusion is weaker than the previous two films on the whole). Christopher Nolan’s realistic take on the Caped Crusader perusing the streets of a fully realized Gotham City taking down criminals and fighting almost perfectly-rendered supervillains is one of the finest ever committed to film, and to get a sense of just how iconic it is, take a look at its imitators (pretty much all of which failed to capture the same spirit). Not everything about these movies works perfectly, but what does work is so well-realized that the imperfections fade into the background of the trilogy’s overall quality. There is no end to the level of popularity Nolan re-injected into the Batman character as an on-screen box office phenomenon post-Batman & Robin, and The Dark Knight remains one of cinema’s finest works to this very day. In fact, it was the success and acclaim of that very film which forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to open up the Best Picture nomination slots from five to ten, after The Dark Knight failed to secure a nomination in that category despite garnering 8 others, one of which would turn into a posthumous win for Best Supporting Actor Heath Ledger (not only was this was the first time any superhero movie would be nominated or garner a win for acting, there wouldn’t be another nomination or win for an acting performance in a comic book film until Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor in 2019 for playing the same character). The iconography of The Dark Knight Trilogy is simply undeniable, and the excellence of its character work, its worldbuilding, its design, its villains, the incredible score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, and its writing far surpassed most other superhero fare at the time of its release. As noted before, other films and franchises that tried this approach pretty much failed due to a misunderstanding that audiences were hungry for “dark reboots” when really we just wanted great writing that fit the spirit of the characters, but The Dark Knight Trilogy did pretty much all of that first and then some, and did it all so well, it remains one of the best film trilogies ever.
5. Planet of the Apes Prequel Trilogy (dir. Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves)
Before this entry, pretty much every trilogy on this list had (on some level) one film that didn’t quite work as well as the other two, or suffered from a very gradual decline in quality despite more or less sticking the landing. Here, however, is where the true cream of the crop comes to rest. The Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy should never have worked as well as it did. In fact, most people who saw the trailer for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes understandably assumed it was doomed to fail, especially after Tim Burton atrocious 2001 remake of the original soured so many on the franchise. But Rise wasn’t just a hit, it was a critical success, and landed on many Top 10 lists at the end of 2011 as not just a great movie, but one that was worthy of being upheld alongside the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film as both a prequel and a semi-soft reboot. That soft reboot status would soon fade away in the wake of Matt Reeves’ equally acclaimed follow-ups, but the respect and affection for Rise never wavered. Then, in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Matt Reeves (now director of Warner Bros’ upcoming The Batman) delivered two of the most subversive, intelligent, mature, and nuanced summer blockbusters ever committed to screen in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, rounding out the trilogy with finesse, with poise, and with purpose. The story of Caesar and his band of apes (all of which had distinguishing features, characteristics, and voices…for those who had voices) was not just an entertaining journey, but a powerful and reflective one, turning a mirror on humanity whilst refusing to demonize either them or the apes as a monolithic species. As far as I’m concerned, Dawn is the best of these films, but anyone could say the first or third is their favorite, and I couldn’t argue with their reasoning – such is the strength of the entire trilogy. Much has been said of which trilogies are the best and most consistent, but somehow, the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy seems to almost always miss those conversations when it shouldn’t. And this is all without referencing the astounding visual effects that bring the whole story to life, which only improve from film to film. If you’ve been putting it off, or if you haven’t yet, please take some time, and watch this trilogy from start to finish – your cinematic palette will be all the richer for it.
4. The Before Trilogy (dir. Richard Linklater)
There are few auteurs as widely respected or frequently celebrated as Richard Linklater, and although Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time is one of his hallmarks, the way Linklater works with time takes a much more subtle approach. Many will recognize Linklater as the director of such classics as Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and School of Rock (okay, that last one some people might not have known he directed, but still), but far fewer have been made aware of his work on easily the most underrated and underseen trilogy on this list: The Before Trilogy, which contains Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, in that order. Separated by the same amount of years in which its characters experience the passage of time, this trilogy’s take on love and life through every corner of its many facets remains one of the most wonderful and emotionally complex experiences in all of cinema. Before Sunrise is a glorious, enrapturing tale of discovering young love set against the gorgeous backdrop of Vienna, Before Sunset explores the complexities of life happening outside of that love and the nuances of how we justify our lives while our characters explore the streets of Paris, and Before Midnight, while not as fun or lovely as those first two films, takes the story to its most logical and most honest endpoint as Jesse and Celine spend some time in Greece, showing us that although what we were promised at the end of Before Sunset doesn’t always come to pass as we hope it will, it does come to pass in its own beautifully complicated way. The writing in these films is some of the absolute best in cinematic history, and in fact, so excellent are these films and such a fan am I of them, that when I visited Paris for the first time on the eve of the new year, the locations in Before Sunset were the ones I was most excited to visit. The authenticity of these films, from the writing, to some of the finest performances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s respective careers, to the way Linklater crafts certain moments without a single one of those moments ever feeling manufactured or dishonest, is unsurpassed in the scope of cinematic history, and will likely remain unsurpassed for generations to come. If you’ve never seen or heard of these films, watch them right now, and thank me later.
3. Toy Story Trilogy (dir. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, and Lee Unkrich)
Pixar’s pioneering of 3D animation technology is nothing to scoff at, but it is perhaps the least of the company’s achievements when it comes to having crafted this remarkable set of films, starting with the original Toy Story in 1995 (which was the first-ever fully computer animated film). Apart from containing one of the greatest voice cast ensembles of all time, and containing some of the most quotable moments and phrases ever put to page, the true strength of the Toy Story trilogy lies in how it evolves its story and characters to reflect the passage of time in the lives of its audience. Many have made note of how Toy Story 3 came out right as many of the people watching it were heading off to college themselves, and that connection to real-world events gave the film an added, almost meta level of emotional power so strong that the film went on to garner a Best Picture nomination, which only two other animated films had ever been able to do**. Yes, this is also now technically a quadrilogy, but much like Indiana Jones, it was never originally conceived that way, so it’s able to go on this list with little issue. The adventures of Woody and Buzz are so ingrained into the popular consciousness, so iconic to the world of movies, and so pervasive to the world we live in, you can’t talk about almost any excellent animated feature without someone bringing up how that feature compares to or is the most innovative since Toy Story (this happened with both The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and it’s not hard to see why when one watches these films. Each one successfully and effectively builds on what came before, to such an excellent degree that if you were to make a list of the best quadrilogies of all time, Toy Story would easily top that list on the strength of its fourth entry, which is almost as good or better than its immediate predecessor, depending on who you ask. It’s unfortunate that Lasseter’s behavior at the studio was as insidious as it was, and it colors him in a more unflattering light for sure, but these films are more than just the work of one predatorial man; they are the tireless efforts of many more people who are not him, and their status as some of the most essential films for children and families to enjoy is not lessened by their association with him, because those other people are also there to look to. Toy Story isn’t just one of the greatest and most consistent trilogies of all time – they’re some of the greatest movies of all time, full stop, and unlike most other trilogies on this list, that sentiment can apply to each and every film in this trilogy in equal measure.
2. Star Wars Original Trilogy (dir. George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand)
I’ll say this much as far as Return of the Jedi: it’s not one of the better Star Wars movies, despite giving us some iconic scenes and sequences to round out the original trilogy’s story. However, much like Indiana Jones, the strength of the other two films is so monumental, they’re more than able to lift whatever that film drops in terms of quality storytelling or consistency of character. Star Wars (1977) is the most iconic, recognizable, and culturally impactful movie of all time (and no, I’m not calling it A New Hope, call me a purist if you want). So prevalent is its presence in popular culture that the MCU, by far the most successful franchise since Star Wars, references it and its sequels constantly, and so bound with our understanding of cinema and cinematic techniques is it that most of us have forgotten just how radical pretty much all of those techniques were. Here was a film that dropped us into the middle of an ongoing conflict with little explanation, had us follow two character types we were largely unfamiliar with to the story’s protagonist, gets us used to the environment we’re in, and then promptly drops us into the Mos Eisley Cantina. This is where we see all manner of creature we don’t know and meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, two of the saga’s most iconic characters, but the point is that we’re now thrown for a loop and completely unsure of what to expect next. And then we straight-up leave the planet to go to a place that’s been blown up by a space station the size of a small moon! I mean, how on earth do you square that with logic and reason in the world of movies? And yet, not only was Star Wars the biggest thing around, The Empire Strikes Back then went and did the same thing by making good on Luke’s being a naïve, impatient, and undeveloped young man, and getting him into trouble because of his failure to listen to Yoda, leading to arguably the best and definitively the most famous (and famously misquoted) twist in cinematic history. And yes, even though most of it doesn’t work quite to the iconic level as its predecessors, Return of the Jedi finishes off the trilogy with some of the most iconic sequences ever committed to screen, specifically the Emperor’s throne room lightsaber fight and the ongoing space battle surrounding the in-construction death star. The original Star Wars trilogy is not a perfect trilogy of movies, but it is a perfect distillation of what makes us love movies, what makes us want to go to a theater and share in an experience with however many other people are there or not there, and what makes us want to talk about the story we just saw when we exit back out into the real world. There are any number of reasons why people got into movies or got into reviewing movies, but Star Wars always seems to be the one that unites every single answer to that question (hell, it’s even listed as an actual organized religion, which no other film or film franchise has ever done). So hungry were audiences for new content from this franchise, in fact, that after a 10-year hiatus, The Force Awakens became the #1 domestic box office earner of all time, surpassed internationally only by Avatar and Titanic as of its release in 2015. And all the success and money that Disney has made off this franchise, every bit of Star Wars media from the shows to the books to the comics to the supplementary materials to the home marketing lunchboxes and pencils and puzzles, and all manner of other related material from whence spun other copycats, lookalikes, and homages – it all starts with that original Star Wars trilogy.
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (dir. Peter Jackson)
Yes, Star Wars, Toy Story, and The Dark Knight are all iconic, well-made, essential trilogies, but sometimes there really is no alternative but to give the win to the most obvious candidate vying for #1. The Lord of the Rings films, all shot at the same time and then released in one-year increments from 2001 to 2003, are the quintessential fantasy epic laid on screen. The sheer magnitude of the production meant that it not only had to be done right, it had to be done perfectly, and boy, did they ever pull it off. Apart from assembling perhaps the greatest ensemble cast ever devised for a fantasy feature, director Peter Jackson accomplished with this trilogy what no director before him had quite been able to do, telling a seamless story on an epic scale with virtually no flaws to speak of. Okay, there were some very small flaws in a few filmmaking choices, if you want to get nit-picky about it, but these are so small by comparison to what works about this series that they’re essentially nonexistent. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, across all three films, pioneered some of the most impressive and essential visual effects technologies that are used in and around Hollywood to this day; it boasted both major financial success and critical praise, and captured the hearts and minds of young movie-goers everywhere so much so that over a decade after its final installment was released and a most failed Hobbit adaptation tried to cash in on its success, Amazon is pouring well over a billion dollars into an original series set in that glorious vision of Middle Earth present in these films. Every performance, every music cue, every set and costume design, every visual effect, every shot, every sound, everything about every one of these movies works at the peak of its power – there is simply no room here for anything less than perfection, and that perfection bred critical and commercial success on a level yet to be surpassed by any fantasy film to come out since. The success of this trilogy was so great, in fact, that it remains the only other trilogy besides The Godfather to garner a Best Picture nomination for each film, and marks the only time a third film in any trilogy actually won that award (as well as all other Oscars for which it was nominated – the only film able to ever claim that distinction – making The Return of the King the third film to tie for the most Oscar wins ever at 11***). Ask any Lord of the Rings fan, ask any fantasy fan, ask any movie fan, and they’ll all tell you that this is the pinnacle of trilogy filmmaking. The debate on whether to watch the theatrical or extended cuts of each film stems from an ongoing majority consensus about just how incredible these movies are, especially with so many moving parts on each one, and that (and so many other reasons) are why The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the greatest movie trilogy of all time.
So, what are your favorite movie trilogies? How would you order this list? Are you going to check any of these out? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
- Back to the Future Trilogy (dir. Robert Zemeckis)
- Spider-Man Trilogy (dir. Sam Raimi)
**Beauty and the Beast (1991), Up (2009)
***Ben-Hur (1959) – 11 wins, Titanic (1997) – 11 wins
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.