2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Sergio Leone set the tone with A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars more, but the third chapter is such a virtuosic flowering of the established look and feel that the predecessors are rendered almost superfluous. Look no further than the climax – Eli Wallach’s frenzied search for gold in a sea of tombstones is a scene that defines both the film and the genre. Not only the best of the series, but also the greatest Western ever made.
The first two 007 films were stylish, superior thrillers, but this is the movie where Bond pressed down the accelerator of his trademark Aston Martin and blazed his way into cinema history. Despite some nagging third act problems, the film catches nearly all of the Bond formula trademarks when they were new and exciting – quips, supervillains, henchmen, car chases, and even lithe Sean Connery himself. Plus, subtle, funny moments like the one where a dallying Bond mutters “Discipline, 007 . . . discipline” make the film eminently rewatchable.
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
There is a certain laziness to this film’s construction, carelessly rehashing elements from Raiders in a questionable effort to return to that film’s spirit. Nevertheless, director Steven Spielberg delivers the goods in two key ways: action and character. That Spielberg is able to lend such a kinetic feel to a climactic pursuit based on a slow, lumbering vehicle like a tank is a major triumph, and the improvisational spirit that pervaded the scene’s creation gives it a wonderful burst of creative energy. Even more importantly, Sean Connery’s interactions with Harrison Ford are a true cinema Grail of sorts, and their scenes have a depth and heartfelt quality unique in the series.
5. Return of the Jedi
Unfairly maligned as the installment where Star Wars began to fall astray, this climactic chapter actually gets most things right and brings the first saga to a satisfying conclusion. The much-noted lapses – Ewoks, the limp first act, the reuse of tropes from A New Hope – do little to outweigh the operatic heft of Luke’s final confrontation with Vader. Could it have been better? Yes, but as the prequels demonstrate, it also could have been much, much worse.
6. Die Hard With A Vengeance
John McTiernan throws out the faded “one man” formula of the first two films and works with a largely blank canvas. Happily, McTiernan’s eye for action hasn’t deserted him, and it’s a delight to see cynical, closed-off John McClane bounce around the varied environments of New York. The lively odd-couple chemistry of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is something many ensuing action films attempted to emulate (The Rock, Live Free or Die Hard) but very few equalled. When villain Jeremy Irons peers over his sunglasses at the mayhem he wrought in downtown NYC and twangs “Somebody had fun!” he could just as easily have been referring to the audience.
7. The Exorcist III
Cerebral and sophisticated, Exorcist III scales back the comic excesses of Exorcist II: Heretic in favor of a more thoughtful, psychological approach. Less spectacular than William Friedkin’s original but also less dated, this sadly neglected 1990 sequel boasts plenty of genuinely unnerving sequences (the old lady in the confessional or the infamous hallway scene) in service to a plot that enriches the first film while also standing on its own merits.
8. Mission: Impossible III
Essentially a distillation of what director JJ Abrams learned as showrunner of TV’s Alias, MI:III easily outshines the disappointing previous efforts of Brian De Palma and John Woo. As with most Abrams films, willful suspension of disbelief is strictly required for any enjoyment, but those who check their brains at the door will be rewarded with two hours of absurd spy fun.
9. Back to the Future Part III
One quibble with the the Back to the Future films is that they never fully explored the possibilities of the time travel device, confining the adventures to a disappointing century and a half range. The rarely discussed third film is the only in the series to delve deeply into a past environment dramatically different than our own, and the results are an entertaining sci-fi/western hybrid. It can’t match the humor and charm of part I or the mindbending time travel paradoxes of part II, but we’ll take it over Cowboys & Aliens any day!
10. Red Dragon
The largely reviled Brett Ratner was never in better form than in helming this Hannibal Lecter prequel. His take is more flamboyant than the Jonathan Demme original while trimming down the Grand Guignol violence of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins still commands our complete attention in his defining role, his cold, reptilian stare now fixing on Edward Norton, who makes an admirable foil. The impressive cast, faithful adaption of the source novel, and handsome technical credits make for a film that arguably betters the overrated Michael Mann version Manhunter.
Honorable mentions to Day of the Dead, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Rocky III, American Wedding