Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: The Best Trilogies of All-time

Ahhh “trilogy”. Is there any phrase more likely to gladden the heart of a movie fan? That knowledge that a good first film has not totally been ruined by a sequel and thus the studio has consented to make one more film in the hope of eking a bit more cash.

Back in January when I did a list of the best Pixar films of all time I said of Toy Story 3 – “it is without doubt the greatest 3rd film in a trilogy ever”. After boldy making such a statement I knew I would not be able to leave it rest. I also started thinking about what is the best trilogy of all time – a much tougher question given you have to weigh the merit of all three films – such a quandary becomes most stark when you encounter The Godfather trilogy.

Screenwriter William Goldman once said that all sequels are whore’s movies – meaning they are only ever made for money. That is true to an extent – after all there’s a reason George Lucas hasn’t explored the “Willow” galaxy to the extent he has the Indiana Jones or Star Wars worlds.  Sometimes though – such as with Mad Max 2, a sequel can be an improvement (perhaps) on the original because the first was on the cheap and the second allows the filmmakers to do everything he or she wants. Sometimes though this extra money can lead to Mad Max 3.

But while this year there are more sequels being released than ever before (Box Office Mojo has it at 27 this year compared to 19 last year), we need not get too snooty about sequels – after all Shakespeare had no concerns churning out Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and also Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Antony and Cleopatra is a virtual sequel to Julius Caesar. A good sequel can still be a good film.

The first problem in deciding to examine the best trilogies and best third films etc, is to remember them all. This was proving to be a fairly annoying enterprise, until I remembered the good folk at Box Office Mojo have a page for “franchises’. Now I have been very liberal with my use of the phrase “trilogy”. I haven’t included the Harry Potter films because the story obviously did not end with Number 3, but I have included Twilight and Narnia series because this far they only have three (the next Twilight film comes out in November – incidentally up against Happy Feet 2). Similarly I’ve kept in Star Trek even though there are many of them, mostly because I feel the first three do feel like a nice story arc. Ditto the first three Alien films, but the Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and James Bond series are not.

Other series where the fourth film has come a long way after the third – Indiana Jones, Die Hard – are in. I try my best to forget there even is such a thing as the fourth Indiana Jones film, so that works out well. The Rocky first three are in as well, because with the end of the third a nice circle had been completed, and if it were not for the fact that Rocky needed to win the Cold War for us (and I think I speak for all of us when I say, I am glad he did) the series probably would have ended there.

Other were tricky – the Hannibal Lector films, for example. Not really a trilogy, but I thought bugger it, and so put in the first three with Anthony Hopkins. Other films like the Sergio Leone “Dollars Trilogy” of spaghetti westerns are not strictly a trilogy, but I love them, so they’re in. There was a Jaws 4? Oh dear yes. So horrible, so let’s pretend there wasn’t and call it a trilogy.

All in all I came up with 61 trilogy series.

The way to judge them? Well I could do it myself, but you may be shocked to know I have not seen all of the Blade films, nor all of The Santa Clause films. So instead I have left it up to the Rotten Tomatoes scores. Sure Rotten Tomatoes is not perfect, and in some way I prefer Metacritic – but both have their faults – Metacritic for example gives Superman II a score of 99. And I doubt anyone, even director Richard Donner, would give it that high a mark. I also could have used the imdb scores. But I feel they are too compressed, and also too fanboy-centric. So Rotten Tomatoes it is. I must acknowledge there is a bias towards older films – mostly because there are fewer critics from which to gain an average score, and also because generally only good older films get reviewed. 

But hey, let’s not get too precious about it.

Before we get to the good ones let’s dispel a few myths. As a rule the second film is not the best film of a trilogy, even if The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars trilogy and Mad Max 2 is the best of the Mad Max film, or even if Aliens is the best of the Alien films. Far and away the best film of the trilogy is usually the first. Out of the 61 films the first film had the best Rotten Tomatoes score of the series 49 times. The worst film? The last – that happened 34 times.

Only in five trilogies was the “worst” film the first one – Jackass, The Phantom Menace, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mighty Ducks and Step Up


Ok now, let’s have a look at the Rotten Tomato scores of the Top 10 worst first film of a trilogy – ones that obviously did not generate sequels due to artistic merit but lots of cash:

Trilogy First
Mighty Ducks 12
Step Up 20
Big Momma 30
Underworld 31
Porky's 32
Home Alone 43
Jackass 49
Twilight 50
Blade 55
Free Willy 55

The Mighty Ducks scored 12 on Rotten Tomatoes, but $50m box office in the US for a $10m budget means give more – especially when they don’t get any more expensive to make. But as you can see even the 10th worst gets a 55 score, which isn’t horrible.

The biggest differential in quality is also interesting. How many times has an excellent first film been destroyed by the sequels (yes, The Matrix, I’m looking at you)? Here are the top 10 series with the biggest differences in quality from best to worst:

Trilogy High Low Difference
House Party 95 0 95
Alien 100 10 90
Jaws 100 13 87
Hannibal 96 15 81
Major League 85 5 80
Crocodile Dundee 88 11 77
Meet the Parents 84 9 75
Beverly Hills Cop 84 10 74
Superman 94 24 70
The Santa Clause 80 15 65

Yep – House Party the first got a 95 score (no I haven’t seen it either) But by number three it was scoring zero. Alien III did not quite live up to the brilliance of Aliens, and neither did Hannibal ever look like winning the Oscars that The Silence of the Lambs won.

Of course having little difference in quality of the three films is no guarantee of greatness. For example the difference in Rotten Tomatoes score of the first three American Pie films is only 7, but I doubt given the high is 59 and the low is 52, that will have you rushing to buy the box set.

But enough time now to unveil the Top 10 best third film of a trilogy of all time:

Trilogy Third
Three Colors: Red 100
Toy Story 3 99
The Good the Bad and the Ugly 97
The Return of the King 94
The Bourne Ultimatum 93
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 89
Mad Max III 81
The Revenge of the Sith 80
Clear and Present Danger 78
The Return of the Jedi 78

As you can see, we are not talking the greatest films of all-time. By and large, when filmmakers get to the end of the trilogy they are really struggling to sustain any narrative. The first does because the Three Colors films were conceived as parts of a whole. The Good the Bad and the Ugly, as I say is a bit of a cheat, and The Return of the King is really just the end of the whole big long film that happened to be split into three parts. That Toy Story 3, a film not even conceived of when the first Toy Story was made achieves such excellence is a pretty major achievement (and also shows I wasn’t too far off!).

For your amusement, here are the best 2nd films in a trilogy:

Trilogy Second
Toy Story 2 100
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior 100
Aliens 100
Evil Dead II 98
Terminator II 98
The Godfather Part II 98
The Empire Strikes Back 97
The Two Towers 96
Spiderman II 93
For a Few Dollars More 92

Again Toy Story is at the top (given a pretty good indication of which finishes top overall! What you also see here is that the quality of the best second films is a long way above that of the best third films. I have never seen Evil Dead II, but have all the rest, and apart from Toy Story 2 and For a Few Dollars More, these are my favourite films in each of the series (though I may reconsider on The Godfather Part II).

But enough. Let us see the Top 20 all time best trilogies (all 61 seemed a bit of a stretch!)

  Trilogy Average
1 Toy Story 99.7
2 Colours Trilogy 96.7
3 The Dollars Trilogy 95.3
4 The Lord of the Rings 94
5 Mad Max 92
6 Star Wars Original 89.7
7 Evil Dead 89.7
8 Indiana Jones 89.3
9 Terminator 89.3
10 The Godfather 88.7
11 Star Trek 86.3
12 Jason Bourne 85.7
13 Jack Ryan 82.7
14 Spiderman 81.7
15 Alien 78.7
16 Back to the Future 78
17 Lethal Weapon 76
18 X-Men 75.7
19 Rocky  74.7
20 El Mariachi 73.7

Toy Story just nabs it over Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Blue, White and Red. Evil Dead gets in there for horror fans, and even the execrable mess that is The Godfather Part III isn’t enough to keep that series out of the Top 10.

My Top 10? Here you go:

1 Toy Story
2 The Lord of the Rings
3 The Dollars Trilogy
4 Star Wars Originals
5 Jason Bourne
6 The Godfather
7 Indiana Jones
8 Terminator
9 X-Men
10 Alien

I must admit I made that selection very quickly. The first two Godfather films are so good I am prepared to go through the third. And why no Three Colors trilogy? Well because I… ummm… haven’t seen them.

And with that I shall duck out of the way from all the scorn from film fans everywhere!!

Have a great weekend


Adrian Liston said...

Far and away the best film of the trilogy is usually the first.

This would be expected by the statistical principle of regression to the mean. Movies that get a sequel tend to be above average, hence they wouldn't get a sequel. Yet on average, movies are expected to be average (makes sense, yes?). So follow-ups will tend to regress to the average mean.

Diogenes said...

[And why no Three Colors trilogy? Well because I… ummm… haven’t seen them.]

They aren't a trilogy really. More a collection of three films. They are not even all in the same language. Red is the best.

Typing_Monkey said...

Very very surprised to see Blade and Home Alone rated the worst in their trilogies. Blade 3 stars professional wrestler Triple H for pete's sake! Although Blade 1 has what I think is the most unintentionally funny action hero line in the history of film:
"Some motherfuckers always tryin' to ice skate uphill"

Otherwise, a good list that makes me want to do some film marathons with these trilogies.

Greg Jericho said...

Adrian - movies that get a sequel tend not to be above average quality wise, they tend to have made a lot of money - that does not equal a solid critical score. eg Transformers of The Pink Panther (the Steve Martin one) scored low RT scores - The Pink Panther scored 22! But it made $160m worldwide so bring on the sequel!

Many movies then die at the second hurdle - eg The Pink Panther 2 and thus there is no third movie. So you would think that the second movies would tend to be a bit better - as that would mean they would make a third. But it seems if the first movie is good enough (money wise) it may sustain a poor second film and get to the third.

I'll do a look at sequels/trilogies and box office some time in the future. It's quite interesting (well it is if you are a bit of a statistics nerd!)

Jaeger said...

Grog - Well done; I was mostly satisfied with you Top 10 selection.

Toy Story is great, but the Lord of the Rings was the definitive trilogy for me. (Twice at the cinema, each.)

I'm looking forward to The Hobbit, but not in the "milk cow" two film format. :-/

Anonymous said...

Sorry Greg absolute tosh! Not even close. Mad Max III is a complete joke. The Matrix trioligy is excellent, what the sequels lost in mind-bending they made up for with eye candy megga action!

Mr. Eyesore said...

No mention of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition trilogy? Greatest war film(s) ever, in my opinion.

If you haven't seen them - your loss.

Moneypenny said...

Grog - you need to do yourself a favour. The Colours Trilogy is worth the effort.

White (the 2nd film) is my favourite, partly because of its humour (with Poland coming in from the cold with a vengance, as it were).

Red reminds me a lot of the Double Life of Veronique (not just because of Irene Jacob). That said, Red is still a beautiful film. I think I might watch them again over Easter.

Greg Jericho said...

Anon - they're not my scores - they are the averaged scores of Rotten Tomatoes (agree with you about Mad Max III).

Notus said...

Does re-making the same movie three times count as a trilogy? if so there have been some shocking rehashes of Pride and Prejudice.

Anonymous said...

Did you look at Wikipedia 'List of film series with three entries' for your piece?


Goran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I still don't understand how the bloated, homophobic, imagination-bereft Mad Max 2 is meant to be an improvement on the strange, inventive, exciting original. Yes George Miller had a lot more money to spend, but he fell for the credo that you don’t need to try as hard when you have a bigger budget. I find Mad Max 2 a perfect demonstration of how big budgets can destroy cinema.

As for best third-part of a trilogy ever: Three Colours Red, hands down. Toy Story 3 made me cry but Three Colours Red made me see life and the world in a new light - it's one of the greatest films, period.

(The above is by no means meant as a knock against Toy Story 3, a far tighter, deeper and genuinely warm crowdpleaser than the middlebrow BBC-Sunday tripe that beat it for Best Picture.)

Dermott Banana said...

I was gunna question the "Second Film sucks" theory using Highlander as an example, till I worked out there were more than three movies total.
Just kidding.
I've never been a fan of the Empire Strikes Back faction though. I found it the least interesting of the three when I saw them as a teen, and remain of that opinion.
As for the Three Colours, I see them as three separate movies with a common theme, rather than a trilogy.

Marty Fly said...

Surely "Back to the future" is hands down the greatest trilogy of all time!

Marty McFly said...

Hmmm... My "Mc" disappeared...

Michael Cooper said...

I can't believe the High School Musical trilogy didn't make it to the top 10! It's certainly my girls' favourite - the 7yo is watching the first one now - I prepfer the duets from No. 3, but I'm soppy that way.

The Bishop of Aquila said...

so disappointed that the three Starship Troopers movies didn't rate a mention!! :)

Stephen Hill said...

Other Trilogies that should be mentioned

The Sympathy Vengeance (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance/Oldboy/Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)
The Matrix

hopefully next year C. Nolan's third Batman will be out, which will be worth seeing