The debate over what is in fact the “greatest movie trilogy of all time” is not an easy one to determine. While comparing individual films is one thing, seeing how entire trilogies stack up against each other forces film fans to consider other factors. This is why more often than not, the original Star Wars film trilogy and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are often cited as the greatest of all-time; not only do both film trilogies tell complete and wholesome stories, but each installment is fairly equal in quality, even if The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the only installment to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Even if you won’t find a lot of film fans saying that Return of the Jedi or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers are the best of their respective trilogies, they are still great films nonetheless. This can’t be said for some trilogies with one clearly terrible entry; even though The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are among the greatest films ever made, the disappointing nature of The Godfather: Part III makes that trilogy more challenging to hold up in overall quality.
However, film trilogies with one standout entry that are supported by other great films are still worthy of consideration. The Dark Knightis perhaps the greatest superhero film of all time, but the similarly high quality of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises makes Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy a worthy contender. Few would argue that the sequels to Back to the Future are better than the original, or that A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More surpasses The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in terms of quality. That doesn’t mean that the modern Batman trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, and Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” aren’t all worthy contenders as well.
The Before Trilogy
While movie trilogies are often thought of as the expansions of action movie franchises, many of the best cohesive stories told over time are the ones that are strictly about realistic relationships. This is one of the reasons that Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy stands as not only one of his best achievements, but one of the best sagas in film history. The three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, explored the development of a relationship between the American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the French woman Celine (Julie Delpy). With nine years between each installment, Linklater was able to make each film feel like a unique time capsule.
While Linklater attempted to capture the same sense of realism with his 2014 film Boyhood, the Before trilogy showed more narrative cohesion because of Hawke and Delpy’s contributions to the story development; it felt like they were all equally responsible for the way the story was headed, while Boyhood felt like it was more off a straightforward representation of Linklater’s childhood.
The Apu Trilogy
Satyajit Ray Productions
While Linklater’s trilogy explored the development of a relationship over time, the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray laid the groundwork with The Apu Trilogy. The three films explored the creative development of the young writer Apu as a child in 1955’s Pather Panchali, a teenager in 1956’s Aparajito, and as an adult in 1959’s The World of Apu. Seeing Apu take his experiences in Pather Panchali and share them in The World of Apu was a great way to complete the “coming-of-age” narrative over time.
The Hobbit Trilogy
Warner Bros. Pictures
Few would argue that The Lord of the Rings isn’t at least one of the best movie franchises of all time. It’s one of only two trilogies in which all three installments were nominated for Best Picture, and Return of the King’s 11 wins ties the all-time record for most Oscar wins with Ben-Hur and Titanic, respectively. While it made sense that The Lord of the Rings would be adapted into three films, the decision to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy of three films (each over two hours in length) was more devise among fans. Given the parameters that Peter Jackson was working under, The Hobbit trilogy is about as good as it could have been. While they may not match The Lord of the Rings film in terms of quality, that’s a pretty high standard to set!
Like The Lord of the Rings, there’s an argument to be made that each installment in The Hobbit trilogy is the best. 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey showed a compelling hero’s journey for Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins as he leaves the Shire in a way that felt very familiar to what Jackson did with 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 2013’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug added more action and suspense, and Jackson even dug into his horror roots with 2014’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. While all prior installments in the saga were rated PG-13, the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies actually earned an R-rating from the MPAA when it was included on the Blu-Ray release.
The Hannibal Lecter Trilogy
The character of Hannibal Lecter has appeared in five films overall, but Manhunter and Hannibal Rising didn’t feature Anthony Hopkins as the iconic serial killer, and thus are not considered to be part of the official trilogy. 1991’s Silence of the Lambs instantly became a classic, as it was one of the few films in history to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay. That being said, 2001’s Hannibal was a worthwhile sequel that benefited from the direction of Ridley Scott, and 2002’s Red Dragon essentially retold the story of Manhunter with Hopkins’ version of Lecter inserted within the narrative.
The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy
LucasfilmThe Star Wars sequel trilogy could have easily been in consideration if it wasn’t for its last installment. The brilliance of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi stand as bold ways of living up to the original trilogy, but sadly, The Rise of Skywalker was a major disappointment that ended the “Skywalker Saga” on a sour note.