Depth of Field: The Top Ten Trilogies of All Time

[5 August 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

It’s safe to say that, unless they are based on some similarly styled source material (book, play, etc.), the motion picture trilogy is a product of popularity. Though its narrative and cinematic symmetry can be breathtaking to behold, most three part films were not preplanned. Instead, they were forged out of a desire to please the audience mixed with a need to repay the cast/crew. George Lucas can argue all he wants to that his Star Wars saga was always intended as three separate three-part projects (guess the crappy prequels destroyed that dream, right big G?) but Fox barely wanted to release the first film. So what fodder did he have for contemplating such a massive vision? The answer is obvious – he didn’t. Like most eventual franchises, box office gave Luke Skywalker’s real pappy a chance to dream, resulting in the genre’s first example of the law of diminishing returns.

There are a couple of factors inherent in determining the best trilogies of all time. First, the three films included have to be linked in some significant way. They can’t be a pure product of money-oriented moviemaking. Secondly, all three movies must be worth watching. A sloppy second act or atrocious third movement means the overall quality is compromised. A few can survive this kind of scrutiny – most cannot. Finally, there is a subjective element known as “completeness”. Do the films that make up this multi-faceted narrative really deliver on their designs, is there an all encompassing arc, or are we stuck seeing the same old story told over and over again? By answering these important questions, and taking into consideration other objective criteria like continuity and completeness, a final assessment can be reached.

This does mean, however, that there are a few examples that barely miss making the list. For all the splendor and drama they bring to the artform, the Godfather Trilogy is hampered by a third film that just can’t match its Best Picture winning brethren. Similarly, we won’t know if Dario Argento has completed his Three Mothers triptych until sometime later this year. While Suspiria and Inferno are masterworks, early buzz suggests a less than successful conclusion. Speaking of the Italian maestro, one could consider his infamous slasher style/giallo efforts – Profundo Rosso, Tenebrae, and Opera – to be some manner of Gloved Killer trilogy, but without anything linking them besides the murderer’s methodology, that may seem like a reach. Similarly, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman may have invented the gore film, but their Blood Trilogy is a collection of corpuscle caving in name only.

Others miss out because of the director’s desire to keep tapping into the same cinematic source. George Romero would easily make the list if it weren’t for the wonderful Land of the Dead. The fourth time around for the politically tinged zombie series was excellent, but warrants a new quadrilogy classification. The same goes for the Alien films (though they’re decidedly more tenuous in their polish). Die Hard could have made the final list if it weren’t for the obvious cash grab of the Live Free installment, while Indiana Jones junked his chances with its fourth dip into the audience goodwill well. Indeed, at a certain point, a potential interconnected threesome makes the leap over to full blown franchise status. So if you’re a superhero (Batman, Superman) or a serial killer (Freddy, Jason, Hannibal), chances are your potential inclusion on this list was ruined several sequels ago.

With Jason Bourne bludgeoning the box office in the latest installment of Paul Greengrass’s action narrative tilt-a-whirl, now’s as good a time as any to countdown the all time greats of triangular tale-spinning. Some may surprise you. Others will shock you. But in the context of this discussion, all are worthy of classics consideration.

10. The Flesh Trilogy
The Touch of Her Flesh/The Kiss of Her Flesh/The Curse of Her Flesh

Miscreant Michael Findlay and his wife Roberta made a lot of sleazy exploitation flicks in their time, but these were, perhaps, their most repugnant. Not for what they showed on screen – this was the mid ’60s after all, not the most lenient of censorship eras. No, these three films formed the foundation of the modern slasher shocker, with the mindless torture and killing of nubile young women at the fore. Cringe all you want at their seedy mix of sex and slaughter, but you’ll never look at your favorite knife-wielding maniac the same way after watching madman Michael (who also starred as the killer) put the wicked wanton smack down. 

9. The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes 4 through 6)
Star Wars/ The Empire Strikes Back/ The Return of the Jedi

What? You think we’d leave this off? No way, woo-kie. George Lucas may be a money grubbing, soul stealing, dream dashing basta…businessman, but he did help co-create the entire popcorn movie era of cinema. Unlike anything anyone had seen at the time of its release, the original Wars stands as one of those unique audience epiphanies. After a decade drenched in sodden self examination and social commentary, movies were actually fun again. And with the release of each additional installment, things just got better and better. Sure, over time, Darth’s real demagogue has drained all the joy out of his original vision, but we still have our memories. Luckily, he can’t digitally redesign them.

8. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Curse of the Black Pearl/ Dead Man’s Chest/ At World’s End

Who would have thought that the man responsible for Mouse Hunt and The Mexican would end up singlehandedly reinvigorating the sword and surf surreality of the swashbuckling pirate film? Gore Verbinski was considered a lot of things, but the maker of larger than life blockbuster entertainment was not one of them. Sure, some will argue that the Disney revamp of its theme park attraction lost a little of its luster along the way, but they’d be missing the bigger picture. Thanks to this director’s attention to detail, and the vast cinematic canvas he works within, there’s nothing here but acknowledged talent and an astonishing array of stylistic strengths.

7. The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix/ The Matrix Reloaded/ The Matrix Revolutions

Oh stop whining. If Lucas belongs here, so do the Wachowskis. Bellyache over the final two phases in this virtual reality rigormoral, but when the Annotated History of Future Shock is written, the story of Neo, the Machines, and the saving of Zion will have its own hollowed place. Besides, it’s rare when a single film can jumpstart a whole genre, and yet the first installment proved that audiences were hungry for speculation done with flash, finesse and just a small amount of philosophizing. Granted, some of the intelligence got lost along the way, and the final battle with Agent Smith is overkill for excess’s sake, but these are good movies. Go on, admit it.

6. The Back to the Future Trilogy
Back to the Future/ Back to the Future Part 2/ Back to the Future Part 3

Just like the POTC production legend, here is another case where a fantastic first film mandated another two trips to the box office trough. Luckily, director Robert Zemeckis and his buddy Bob Gale were along for all three time travel tales. Some complained that Part 2 was nothing more than an extended set up for the last episode, but there is still a great deal of imagination and invention inherent in the crazed continuum cock-up. Better still was the decision to move the entire narrative back to the Wild Wild West, thereby completing the sense of apocryphal Americana. Like well tuned machines, these movies still work on many endearing levels.

5. The Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead/ Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn/ Army of Darkness

Sam Raimi was too young to have such success. By 22, his debut horror film was being heralded by none other than Stephen King as the most terrifying scarefest ever. By 28, he was every fright geek’s favorite filmmaker. And by 33, he was ready to jump into the ranks of Tinsel Town titans. Oddly enough, each of these milestones was met by an installment of his sensational (and influential) Evil Dead efforts. By bending genres to fit his needs, investing fear with funny business and heroism with the hackneyed, he formed the basis for an entire generation of reference-happy visionaries. Looking over the 2007 cinematic landscape, his imprint still remains.

4. The Vengeance Trilogy
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/ OldBoy/ Lady Vengeance

It should come as no surprise that Korean director Chan-wook Park was a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul. His movies are as much about virtue as they are about violence. For many in the West, Oldboy announced this filmmaker’s fanciful way with payback. Yet it was the other parts of his terrific trilogy that argued for his place among the current track of trendsetters. It was there where he merged ethics with evil, the need for personal justice accented by the desperation of human pain. Like all feats of greatness, it takes time for a clear critical consensus to be formed. But it’s coming – if it hasn’t already arrived.

3. The Man with No Name Trilogy
A Fistful of Dollars/ For a Few Dollars More/ The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Sergio Leone never set out to redefine the western. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to use the spaghetti style to revisit the Hollywood staple. But thanks to his directorial disregard for convention and cliché, his literal view of the old fashioned oater as real horse opera, and the stellar actors he chose to work with, the results speak for themselves. Though many of his fellow Mediterranean moviemakers ventured deep into the bullets and black hats genre, none left the artistic impact of this cinematic maestro. When you add in his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, the case is all but closed.

2. The Ageism/Dream Trilogy
Time Bandits/ Brazil/ The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Here’s hoping that Terry Gilliam can get off his self-serving soapbox sometime soon and start making movies again. To listen to him talk, he’s a picked-on pariah who can’t catch a break in the conspiratorial, commercial-minded industry. Yet he’s often his own worse enemy (right, Mr. Could Have Helmed Harry Potter???). In either case, we will always have these examples of celluloid spectacle to fall back on. Of the three, Munchausen remains the most underrated – which is odd, considering it focuses on an angry old man who, Don Quixote style, fights off the imaginary bullies who propose to steal his joy. Now why does that sound so familiar?

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring/ The Two Towers/ The Return of the King

Peter Jackson rules, while all other trilogies drool. Let’s face facts – the man made a nearly 13 hour epic in 18 months – and the fans are still foaming for more. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, his take on Tolkien’s time honored novels just keeps getting deeper and richer with age. This is partly due to Jackson’s intrinsic belief in the emotional impact of film. All other media may make its importance known, but no other format finds a direct and undying connection with the audience easier than the motion picture. It’s safe to say that, even if every other entry on this countdown lost its legacy luster, this terrific triptych will still be standing, strong and ever so tall.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/depth-of-field-the-top-ten-trilogies-of-all-time/