Making Top 10s isn’t easy, folks. Considering that “Toy Story 3” just opened a couple weeks ago and the third movie in the “Twilight” franchise opens tonight at midnight, it was foretold that this list would happen. There was no avoiding it, simple as that.
Having already written the Top 10 Fourth Movies in a Franchise list last year (if for no other reason than to prove that there is almost never any reason to do four movies—with maybe only one major exception–that list’s #1), I knew it was time to embark on a list that had to include better films.
What I found was really, really interesting. It turns out that there are certainly more solid third films in a series than there are fourth movies. (That said, we are not rating films based on their ranking within the series themselves, just ranking based on his third movie versus that third movie.)
But most of the best third films are the ones that only tangentially have anything to do with each other, not the ones that actually follow the same main characters through into a third story or adventure. Because of that, I’m going to just briefly browse the films that actually made the list to talk about some of the films that don’t necessarily qualify but, frankly, are more interesting.
I would also argue that it is because some of these “unlisted” films aren’t hamstrung by using the same characters in similar plotlines as their predecessors that they were able to transcend the fact that they are third in a “series.”
One movie that doesn’t qualify is 2005’s “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” the third movie in Park Chan Wook‘s vengeance trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and the infamous “Oldboy” preceded it in 2002 and 2003). Numerous actors and actresses are repeated throughout the trilogy, but only as cameos and in different roles. Instead the characters in these three movies were motivated by revenge and were considered “spiritual successors.” I don’t even think the director planned on a trilogy, but that’s the way all three movies are marketed on DVD now.
I also have to exclude George Romero’s third zombie film, 1985’s thought-provoking “Day of the Dead.” It takes place in the same universe as 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” but with no connecting characters. Still, it keeps right up with the social commentary and pits scientists (who want to domesticate the zombies that have overrun the Earth above them) against soldiers (guess what they want to do?) in an underground bunker. It’s the most talky of the bunch, but it serves up a lot to think about and a fine, gory, bleak ending.
1997’s “Chasing Amy” still ranks as the best movie writer/director Kevin Smith ever made, but it focuses on new lead characters played by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee (who played different people in 1995’s “Mallrats.”) Both of those films and his 1994 debut “Clerks” featured Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), but in minor roles only. Each film had a different thrust (Smith would like my word choice there) as well. “Chasing Amy” still features some of the most perfectly realized portrayals of male ego and insecurity ever committed to film and some of Smith’s most insightful and filthy writing.
Like The Vengeance Trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy is tied together by theme only. Like Smith’s ViewAskewniverse movies, the third one is also the best. (That’s right—I just compared Kevin Smith to Krzysztof Kieślowski.) Each movie is based on a different theme inspired by the colors of the French flag and the country’s political ideals. 1993’s “Blue” examined liberty, 1994’s “White” looked at equality, and 1994’s “Red” tackles fraternity. A beautiful model (Irène Jacob) forms a strong and unlikely bond with a reclusive retired judge in “Red,” and, like the two preceding movies, the title color is used heavily in the visual palette. Although the main characters from “Blue” and “White” appear briefly in “Red,” it’s not really a franchise, so I couldn’t consider “Red” for this list either.
“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is the third movie in Sergio Leone‘s violent and episodic Man With No Name Trilogy. Or at least that’s what everybody else says about 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” 1965’s “For A Few Dollars More,” and its way-more-famous final installment from 1966. Clint Eastwood plays the anti-hero in all three films with the same tough-as-nails demeanor and dressed in the same distinctive poncho, but despite the commonly accepted title of the unofficial trilogy, he actually does have a name. Only problem? Three different ones: Joe, Manco, and Blondie respectively. Sure, they could be nicknames. But a number of actors play different characters in more than one films, none more notable than the menacing Lee Van Cleef. These films singlehandedly changed what a Western could be and are all worth checking out if you still haven’t.
And then there’s this quandary: Which movie is considered third in the Anthony Hopkins-Hannibal Lecter series? “Hannibal” (the third book, the second movie) or “Red Dragon” (the first book, the third movie)? To complicate matters first, Michael Mann filmed “Red Dragon” as “Manhunter” in 1986 with Brian Cox as Lecter! I give up.
Well, I spent all of my time talking about most of the movies I really wanted to write about and I haven’t even started the list proper yet. Eh, big deal. I’ll blow through the rest of these movies real quick-like.
No thanks to these, who didn’t make it:
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Boo. All zoomy, fidgety chases, no character. The worst of the series.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
A lot of people like this movie and the only reason I can point to explain that is that they’ve seen “A Christmas Story” too many times, they set the bar extra low for their poo jokes, and have yet to discover the greatness and holiday warmth of “Elf.”
Finally, the actual list (I’m bored already):
10. Back to the Future III (1990)
I know at least one person who really, really loves this movie, a sloppy Western shoehorned into the “Back to the Future” lost-in-time premise, notable only for the fact that Christopher Lloyd finally got to kiss a woman onscreen (Mary Steenburgen) for the first time.
9. Naked Gun 33 1/3 The Final Insult (1994)
The Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team that originated this gag-oriented Leslie Nielsen series and the TV show that spawned it, “Police Squad!,” didn’t direct this one, but it still has a higher laugh-to-gag ratio than any movie Nielsen has been in outside this series.
8. Return of the Jedi (1983)
Jabba is cool, Boba Fett dies like a chump, and Ewoks ruin everything—especially when they sing. Worst “Star Wars” movie until “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” but still better than the worst “Naked Gun” movie.
7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Sean Connery and Harrison Ford’s father-son rivalry lifted this Indiana Jones movie far above the weak and annoying “Temple of Doom” (which had a couple of heart-ripping brilliant moments at least).
6. Army of Darkness (1993)
I’ll let the purists argue whether the second “Evil Dead” movie is a sequel to or a remake of the first one, but I say it’s a sequel. (Doesn’t Ash go back to the cabin or something?) Either way, it’s “Ash III” and it rocks. Bruce Campbell at his hilarious, faux self-confident best.
5. Goldfinger (1964)
Is it the best James Bond movie? No. That falls to the superb, taut thriller “Casino Royale,” which featured Daniel Craig as an arrogant and flawed Bond. Still, its Sean Connery at his debonair best with a firm (pun intended) cast of ridiculously named supporting characters such as Pussy Galore.
4. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
A lot of people will want to fight me for this and they’d be wrong. J.J. Abrams directed the best film in the series so far, giving it a much-needed sense of hardcore drama, shifting backwards in time from a tense opening to tell a dizzying, action-packed story filled with real danger, a believably slimy bad guy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and very real consequences for superspy Tom Cruise.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Alfonso Cuaron may not have followed the book, but he easily created the most emotionally true and stirring tale from a series that continued to lose steam after this go-round. The final scene where Harry must realize his own potential in a very adult way (against terrifying cloaked Dementors) packs more of an emotional wallop than any that has come since. Considering what happened in the last film with Harry’s mentor, that statement is a firm scolding to the directors that have followed Cuaron.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Let’s talk emotional for a second. Pixar, the studio not afraid to get dark and strangely moving in its computer-animated, Disney-distributed movies does it again—except this time they sucker punch us with their heretofore happy-go-lucky franchise. Read my full review of “Toy Story 3” here, but suffice to say it’s the real reason I had to make this list, not “Twilight: Eclipse.” It may be to early to tell, but I think it’s the best of the series and somewhat of a modern classic.
1. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Duh. So what if the epilogue is 30 minutes long? It’s the ending to an eight-hour movie—there was a lot of wrap-up to be done! Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien books is still the model of epic, character-driven adventure storytelling and is packed with enough detail (and director’s cuts) to pack another eight hours worth of universe-expanding material into its filmic world. Did I mention it’s a fantastic character journey as well?