Creative Sensemaker

A cowboy in the wild west

A roundup of the best movie trilogies, chosen by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

More than one of last Tuesday’s newspapers riffed on the theme of the third national lockdown as the final part – we hope – of a pandemic movie trilogy. It’s not a hard game to play: Lockdown 3: The Rise Of The Mutant Strains or Lockdown 3: The Vaccine Fights Back… you get the idea.

Once again, all cultural venues are closed; we are confined to our homes; and we have a lot of time on our hands. So, in a spirit of optimism, Creative Sensemaker offers its own top 10 list of movie trilogies.

You may object to the choices which are – of course – matters of taste. You may howl at the omissions. Some three-part sagas failed to make the cut because they were drastically let down by a single movie. For instance: Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003) is an unbelievably terrible film; Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) is not a patch on Harrison Ford’s adventures with the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail.

Here, then (in no particular order) is our top 10.

A group of men in dark suits

The Godfather trilogy
Perhaps the greatest of them all, in spite of the comparative weakness of the third instalment – which Francis Ford Coppola made only because he needed the money. The transformation of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from a fresh-faced military veteran in the first movie (1972) to a morally-drained husk of a man, all-powerful but utterly isolated, in the second (1974), is one of the true myths of modern culture. And The Godfather: Part III (1990) – recently restored and re-edited – is a flawed study of the quest for redemption that is much better than it first seemed. 

A cowboy in the wild west

The ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy
You think your local shopping centre is dystopian? Try the windswept prairies through which Clint Eastwood’s unnamed anti-hero rides in Sergio Leone’s fabulous spaghetti westerns: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966). As James Oliver argued in a recent Slow Review of the first, Leone completely transformed the business of making genre movies, and for the better. 

Two man in caps with a phone

The Jersey trilogy
No director better captured the new spirit of 1990s indie film-making than Kevin Smith. His ‘View Askewniverse’ of interconnected characters and plotlines continues in different forms to this day – principally in the adventures of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), the stoner duo most recently seen in the woeful Jay And Silent Bob Reboot (2019). Their first appearance, in Clerks (1994), was something else entirely: a shot of punk adrenaline to the cinematic bloodstream. The movie, set in and around Quick Stop Groceries in Leonardo, New Jersey, was made for less than $28,000, and earned more than $3m at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. Mallrats (1995) is a frothier romp through youth culture, whose defects are more than made up for by Chasing Amy (1997), in which Ben Affleck pursues the love of his life, played by Joey Lauren Adams – who happens to be a lesbian. A sublime romantic comedy.

A black and white close up portrait of a couple

The Apu trilogy
Most lists of the top 50 films of all time – and some top 10s – include Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), which recounts the early life of Apu (Subir Banerjee) in rural Bengal in the 1920s, and is heavily influenced by Italian neorealism. Much less attention is paid to the film’s magnificent sequels: Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), which follow the character into marriage and parenthood. Tragically, the original negatives were lost in a fire, but the films have been meticulously reconstructed and are probably best enjoyed in the Criterion Blu-ray box-set edition.

A woman up close with an alien

The Alien saga
Leave aside the desecration of the Aliens Versus Predators spin-offs, Ridley Scott’s controversial prequels Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s truly terrible Alien Resurrection (1997). The core trilogy, with face huggers, John Hurt’s exploding chest, xenomorphs, the ‘space jockey’, the alien queen, and genetic mutation galore, comprehensively redefined the sci-fi monster genre, and established Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as the model for a new generation of badass lead woman action heroes. Scott’s Alien (1979) is essentially a haunted house flick set in space, while James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a high-octane war movie. And David Fincher’s Alien 3? Nobody quite knows, including Fincher: it is set on a prison colony planet, is irredeemably bleak, and bears all the telltale signs of a movie that the studio meddled with to its detriment. All the same: it remains compellingly watchable, almost three decades on.

A man in the foreground sat in front of two women
The Noriko trilogy
As with Ray’s Apu films, only one of Yasujirō Ozu’s three-part series is widely known. Tokyo Story (1953), an exquisite study of the Hirayama family and its intergenerational tensions, usually features in film writers’ lists of the top 10 movies of all time. But much less attention is paid to the preceding instalments in the saga: Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), which follow the fortunes of Noriko Hirayama (Setsuko Hara). As David Thomson remarks in his great Biographical Dictionary Of Film: ‘Ozu’s most important characteristic is his way of watching the world. While that attitude is modest and unassertive, it is also the source of great tenderness for people.’ The Noriko trilogy is most easily available in the BFI’s DVD series or on its excellent BFI Player rental platform. 
A group of toys looking up

Toy Story
It is all too easy to forget how mind-blowing the first Pixar feature film was when it was first released in 1995, when the adventures of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) seemed a near-miraculous technical achievement. Even so, it is not technology that makes the first three Toy Story films the classics that they are, but story, wit and heart, capturing both the enchantment of childhood and the bittersweet inevitability of its end. The stars are the toys, but the audience is their owner, Andy, who must sooner or later grow up and move on. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

A close up of a woman's face

The Three Colours trilogy
Krzysztof Kieslowśki’s landmark trilogy – Three Colours: Blue (1993), Three Colours: White (1994) and Three Colours: Red (1994) – was intended to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution with a trio of movies broadly inspired by the three colours of the nation’s flag and the themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But the films are far from didactic political cinema, exploring instead the detail of character, folly, and human interaction. Stylish, chic, comic and tragic, the three movies represent modern European arthouse at its finest and deserve to be watched in quick succession. The undoubted star of the show is Juliette Binoche in Blue – but there is so much more here to relish and ponder.

A strange man with his face painted

The Dark Knight saga
As we await Robert Pattinson’s performance as Batman and try to forget Ben Affleck’s, Christopher Nolan’s masterly directorial interpretation of perhaps the greatest superhero myth certainly deserves to be watched again. In Batman Begins (2005), he did not behave with the deference of a film-maker tasked with rebooting a franchise, but as an auteur starting from scratch. In Christian Bale, Nolan found the perfect Bruce Wayne – plausibly suave and plutocratic, but also deeply damaged and, on occasion, close to psychosis. In The Dark Knight (2008), Bale was presented with a mesmerising foil in Heath Ledger’s Joker. Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was a pretty spectacular villain, too, and – with fantastic supporting performances by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman – the trilogy reached a satisfying, and satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.

A sci-fi scene

The original Star Wars trilogy
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… there have now been 11 live-action Star Wars films, many animated productions and a first-rate television spin-off, The Mandalorian. Many more such TV series are in the works, as well as more movies, more books, more everything. But all roads lead back to the original three films, now classified as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi (1983). As complex as the accompanying mythology has become, the essential appeal of the first three films was the interplay between the three main characters, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), pitched against the greatest screen villain of all time, Darth Vader. Everything else, however well-executed, is an afterthought.

That’s all for now. Stay safe, and be kind to yourselves and one another.


Best wishes,


Matt d’Ancona

Editor and Partner

Tortoise Media



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