It takes great skill to make a consistent, enthralling trilogy. Making one great movie is hard enough. Performing a hat trick of great films is exponentially harder. Many trilogies fall victim to the sophomore slump where the middle chapter feels like wasted time before a climactic finale. Other series get long-in-the-tooth by their third entries or run out of new ideas.
This weekend, the third chapter in the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise opens in theaters. The first two films were Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, received critical acclaim and were box office hits. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” already has plenty of positive reviews and hopes to add box office success to its win column. In honor of this latest, we’re counting down the ten best movie trilogies.
The Cornetto Trilogy – “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “Hot Fuzz” (2007), “At World’s End” (2013)
Best Entry: “Hot Fuzz” (2007)
Director Edgar Wright made three genre send-up films that deployed his creative wit in wonderfully different ways. All three films star Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and are written by Wright and Pegg. These became known as the Cornetto Trilogy. They first take aim at zombie movies with “Shaun of the Dead,” a gruesomely hilarious film with as much energy as heart. While being a comedy, it adheres to real cinematic stakes and even makes one tear up a bit. Following that up is “Hot Fuzz,” which skewers the cop procedural. This second film cemented the well-oiled dynamics of this dream team. Their final collaboration, “At World’s End,” unfortunately falters. The idea contains their signature creativity. An alien invasion occurs as five friends go on a pub crawl. However, the jokes and insight are lost within the high concept. Still, this signature trilogy represents a truly talented trio.
The Die Hard Trilogy – “Die Hard” (1988), “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990), “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” (1995)
Best Entry: “Die Hard” (1988)
Few heroes are as fun and entertaining as John McClane (Bruce Willis). The original “Die Hard” takes the basic mechanics of an old-fashioned western with a high concept heist movie. McClane is an off-duty cop who finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation at his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) place of business, Nakatomi Plaza. The bad guy, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), is one of the most charismatic villains in action film history. “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” replaces Nakatomi Plaza with an airport, but suffers from diminishing returns. It’s fun but fair. Yet, the series gets its groove back in a major way with “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.” The main reason? The third entry pairs John McClane with Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus Carver, a street smart electrician who helps defeat a gang of terrorists. Jackson and Willis’ chemistry anchors a delightfully R-rated zany action fest.
The Dark Knight Trilogy – “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Best Entry: “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Christopher Nolan ignited the superhero fanboys with his dark, brooding take on the Caped Crusader. Christian Bale’s darker, more grounded portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne shines through in this first entry. The same can be said of Cillian Murphy’s haunting version of the Scarecrow. However, the villain game of the series was kicked up 1,000 notches in “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Heath Ledger more than earns his Oscar as the diabolical Joker. The film also presents many amped up sequences of conflict, most memorably two barges hooked up with bombs. Expectations couldn’t have been higher for “The Dark Knight Rises” when it opened in 2012. The trilogy capper, however, fell short. Tom Hardy’s Bane was meme-worthy for the wrong reasons. A third act twist came off more desperate than exciting. Still, overall, the series holds up because it took the superhero genre to new places.
The Evil Dead Trilogy – “The Evil Dead” (1981), “Evil Dead II” (1987), “Army of Darkness” (1993)
Best Entry: “Evil Dead II” (1987)
Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series represents an interesting exercise in tone. The micro-budget first entry, “The Evil Dead,” plays like a screwed up home movie. On its own, it’s an effective, fun horror film with some memorable gross-out moments. This sets the stage for “Evil Dead II,” one of the most inventive entries in the horror genre. It takes the iconographies set up in the first film and shifts to a more tongue-in-cheek approach. In doing so, it achieves the perfect balance of humor and horror. All hell breaks loose in “Army of Darkness,” as our hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) transports himself to the medieval times. It’s a wild, ambitious swing that pays off. Few trilogies are as fun and original as Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series.
The Star Wars Trilogy – “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977), “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi”
Best Entry: “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Few films have redefined the film landscape like “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) joins the Rebel forces to take down the Death Star. All of the building blocks of a blockbuster hero journey are laid out in George Lucas’ space epic. It would have been so easy to play it safe on the second go around. However, “Empire Strikes Back” takes big narrative risks and pushes the characters to their lowest points by the end. It’s bold, risky storytelling that leaves one excited for the next chapter. Unfortunately, “Return of the Jedi” feels like a minor whimper as the trilogy closes its story. A combination of Ewoks and wonky pacing brings to light problems that only become more glaring and pervasive once the prequels come around.
The Godfather Trilogy – “The Godfather” (1972), “The Godfather Part II” (1974), “The Godfather Part III” (1990)
Best Entry: “The Godfather” (1972)
Is there any one-two punch of films more classic than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.” Francis Ford Coppola crafts a stunning portrait of the Corleone Family, an Italian mob family whose rise and fall from power is profoundly cinematic. The transfer of power from father Don Vito (Marlon Brando) to son Michael (Al Pacino) is utterly iconic. This central focus on power is expanded further in “The Godfather Part II,” which brilliantly pairs Don Vito’s rise to power as an immigrant (now played by Robert De Niro) with Michael’s fall from grace. The series loses points for “The Godfather Part III,” a film that plays more like an appendix rather than a continuation of the story of the Corleone family. Still, the trilogy averages out to be one of the best.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The Two Towers” (2002), “The Return of the King” (2003)
Best Entry: “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)
Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal books to life with stunning scope and clarity. “The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces us to the world of Middle Earth and sets us off on an unforgettable journey. Up next, “The Two Towers” introduces new forces of conflict for our heroes as they make their way to Mordor. All this builds to the “Return of the King,” a conclusion that swept the Oscars with eleven wins, including Best Picture. Filming all three in one go helped the series feel as cohesive as it does. Jackson never buckles under this massive undertaking. Instead, the movies play as one long, engrossing story of friendship, good vs evil and a journey that astounds.
The Before Trilogy – “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), “Before Midnight” (2013)
Best Entry: “Before Sunset” (2004)
Richard Linklater’s romance trilogy continues to amaze as it shows the progressions of a decades-long romance. The 1995 indie hit “Before Sunrise” shows two idealistic twentysomethings spending a whirlwind night in Vienna. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an idealistic American who just got dumped and Celine (Julie Delpy) is a passionate-yet-discerning French woman. Nine years pass and the two are reunited in Paris for a 90-minute real-time discussion in “Before Sunset.” We check back in with the two of them on a trip to Greece that turns sour in “Before Midnight.” The trilogy is particularly magical because it understands how feelings and relationships change over time. The collaboration of Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater only grows richer and more textured over time.
Indiana Jones Trilogy – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)
Best Entry: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
Steven Spielberg perfected blockbuster entertainment with his tales of archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). The three 80s installments all served different functions that managed to both entertain and deepen the character’s mythology. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” gave us some of the most recognizable moments in a blockbuster. On top of that, it grappled with the proper reverence of religious artifacts. Next, with “Temple of Doom,” Spielberg jumps back for a prequel. It features one of the most fun action sequences with the mine cart chase, while also showing how Indy developed his values around archaeology. Finally, “Last Crusade” introduces Sean Connery as Indy’s Dad. The chemistry between Ford and Connery ranks as one of the best father-son pairings. We can ignore the most recent “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” entry, which added, “nuking the fridge” to the lexicon.
Toy Story Trilogy – “Toy Story” (1995), “Toy Story 2” (1999), “Toy Story 3” (2010)
Best Entry: “Toy Story” (1995)
The “Toy Story” franchise has morphed with the times and defined multiple generations. With the first entry into the series, “Toy Story” launched Pixar as a powerhouse animation company. Yet, the film is more than just a technical achievement. It is a timeless tale of friendship and teamwork. “Toy Story 2” took the basic tenants of the first film even further, while adding more iconic characters to the mix. Finally, “Toy Story 3” wrapped the entire series up while also addressing the passage of time. The final 30 minutes feature some of the most wrenching moments in Pixar’s history. The studio’s flagship series looks to return to theaters with “Toy Story 4” this summer. Only time will tell if it lives up to the previous entries in the trilogy. However, the bar is set very high with this already perfect trilogy.