I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about how lucky I was to grow up at the time that I did. Born in 1994, I was raised at a time when Disney was hitting its greatest streak and Pixar was changing the course of animated film forever (with a bit of healthy competition from DreamWorks). I remember seeing movies like Antz, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. in theaters and just being absolutely blown away. But I can’t remember a time before I saw Star Wars.
Lucas’ original trilogy was all that existed in this illustrious franchise during my biggest movie-watching years, and I devoured each one more times than could possibly be counted. To this day, even if I go years without seeing one of the original trio, I can recite dialog throughout and even point out changes that Lucas made with the release of the special edition trilogy in 1997. And then, of course, the prequels happened, and while elder fanboys decried their rote dialog and over-abundance of tangental characters, I soaked them in with the same ferocity of the original three (well maybe not Attack of the Clones, but we’ll get to that). Each time a Star Wars movie was released, it was an event, even as we all knew that things were going downhill with Lucas at the helm. Until suddenly, he wasn’t. Now with Disney popping out Star Wars movies faster than The Beatles made albums, some decry this over-abundance of content and point toward the possibility of “Star Wars fatigue.” On the contrary, with each new release I find that my love of the series simply continues to grow and I still celebrate each new entry and look ahead with excitement to the future. Interestingly, as a longtime fan (and regular contrarian), I do find myself disagreeing with a lot of the stratifications and rankings that I see other sites and individuals putting out, and if there’s anything I love more than Star Wars, its making lists. So with that, here is my definitive (sort of) ranking of the current 10 entries in the Star Wars canon.
10. The Phantom Menace (1999)
For me, there’s no debate. The Phantom Menace scrapes the bottom of the Star Wars barrel. While I don’t hate the midi-chlorians or even Jar Jar as much as most, I find everything from Naboo through Tatooine to be one hell of a dull drag. Even worse are the majority of the fight scenes at the end; the rolling plains of Naboo are beautiful, but Jar Jar triumphing over a legion of droids wasn’t really the best way to establish the Trade Federation as a legitimate threat and Anakin lucking his way through the space flight is even worse. It wasn’t a total bust, though, as we still got the Liam Neeson as Jedi statesman Qui-Gon, Ewan McGregor as a young, headstrong Obi-Wan, and of course Darth Maul who helms arguably the most kick-ass lightsaber duel of the series. Too bad he went down so fast… Or did he?
9. Attack of the Clones (2002)
I know a lot of people think Episode II is actually worse than its predecessor, but I just can’t agree. Yeah, Hayden Christensen is no James Franco, but as a whole Clones lacks the plodding place that cripples Menace. It also introduced Jango Fett, who, in my mind, will always outshine Boba until they get on the ball with his hopefully still upcoming standalone. This is also where Ewan McGregor really started to shine outside of his action scenes and set himself apart as the most consistent bright spot of the dark side of the force that was the prequel trilogy.
8. Return of the Jedi (1983)
That’s right, the original trilogy had a black sheep, too. While Return of the Jedi is by no means a bad movie, it suffers from an intro that goes way longer than it needs to, the most underwhelming death in cinema history (looking at you, Boba), and Lucas’ borderline sickening focus on the irritating Ewoks. Everything with Luke Skywalker is great and Vader and the Emperor are, as always, fantastic, but there are a lot of bland spots in Jedi that hold it back from the peaks of its brethren in the original trilogy.
7. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
While Episode II and III were held back by the over-the-top monotonous acting of Hayden Christensen as the leading man (and playing the most important freaking person in the history of the franchise, Lucas) nobody can deny that the man looked the part. The fall of the jedi was gripping to watch and John Williams turned in his best work on what he thought would be his final score with the franchise that had brought him such fame. The movie was also (as of now) Ian McDiarmid’s swan song with the series as the sadistic Emperor Palpatine and he turned in the performance of a lifetime.
6. The Force Awakens (2015)
Upon its release, The Force Awakens was rightfully lauded as one of the greatest comeback films in the history of cinema, but frankly, it has been so effortlessly surpassed by every movie that has come after it that it falls just short of reaching the top half of the Star Wars lexicon. The overall package was hurt by Abrams’ unnecessary rehash of the Death Star (again) with Starkiller Base, insulting the originator in the process in a scene that should always live in infamy (especially after Rogue One). They did a hell of a job in casting though, and with Daisy Ridley as the lead, John Boyega as her silly sidekick, Oscar Isaac as the impatient flyboy, and on top of them all, Adam Driver as the absolutely gripping Kylo Ren, The Force Awakens set the tone for a great arc of films leading Star Wars into the next generation. And it goes without saying that Han Solo, as always, is fantastic.
5. Star Wars (1977)
While the original should always be celebrated for its pivotal place in history, I’m sorry to say there is no movie in the Star Wars canon more overrated than A New Hope. Without a doubt, it was a cinema masterpiece bursting at the seams with memorable characters and dramatic set-pieces and was a legitimate marvel for its time. But with long scenes of dreary dialog between pivotal moments and an introduction that lingers for way, way too long on the droids wandering around aimlessly in the desert (not to mention, a painfully stiff lightsaber duel between Vader and Obi-Wan), it’s not quite the perfect classic everyone has convinced themselves that it is.
4. The Last Jedi (2017)
Without a doubt the most polarizing Star Wars movie ever released, fans seemed to either love or hate The Last Jedi with passions that reflect the on-screen dichotomy of Kylo Ren and Rey. Purists panned director Rian Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker yet I find that Hamill’s performance is the film’s greatest achievement. It does drag when Finn and Rose run off on a seemingly pointless (until the end) tangent to Canto Bight, but I was truly gripped by just about every other scene, particularly when things go haywire aboard Snoke’s vessel between Kylo Ren and Rey (resulting in yet another contender for the title of most badass fight scene in the history of Star Wars). Like it or not, The Last Jedi was a bold step forward for the franchise and I absolutely loved it.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This was deservedly crowned as the greatest Star Wars film for many years by critics, but I think it’s nostalgia keeping it at that point more than anything. Regardless, The Empire Strikes Back really is a film that does everything right from the budding romance between Han Solo (who steals the show) and Princess Leia to Luke Skywalker’s epic confrontation with his father. It also saw the debut of Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian, two of the most beloved characters ever devised by George Lucas, and features grand set-pieces like the city on the clouds and the Hoth fight featuring the gargantuan AT-AT walkers. Controversially, my least favorite scenes are actually some of the most widely beloved: Yoda training Luke on Dagobah. I recognize the concept of Yoda was really fantastic and he is without a doubt one of the series’ crowning achievements as a character, but every time I re-watch the film I dread the minutes featuring Luke balancing rocks and fighting a ghostly version of Darth Vader. It doesn’t hold the film back from greatness by any means; it’s just simply been surpassed in recent years.
2. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
I’m going to get flack for this opinion for sure, but I absolutely adore the most recent addition to the Star Wars lexicon. I can understand why longtime fans (like me) are hesitant about supporting a recasting of one of the most iconic characters of all time, but for me the whole thing comes together damn near perfectly. Filled with twists and turns (especially at the end), surprising deaths, fantastic new characters, standout performances, and a fresh take on by far my favorite era of Star Wars, Solo is a film that I see kicking off a bright new path for the franchise if it ties in to the upcoming Obi-Wan and Boba Fett-focused films. I can’t sing the praises of this movie enough; if you haven’t seen it yet, you simply must give it a shot.
1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
As much as I tried to convince myself that The Empire Strikes Back was still the greatest Star Wars movie after watching Rogue One upon its release in December 2016, subsequent viewings cemented my opinion that Lucas’ original vision had officially been surpassed. What makes Rogue One remarkable is that it can be enjoyed as a true standalone on its own merit, even if you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie in your life. And for longtime fans, it enhances the appeal of the original film which occurs directly following Rogue One’s dramatic closing moments. Each one of the almost completely new cast of characters (with only a few cameos thrown in for fan service) is unique and interesting, and each brings a different flavor to the cast to create a wholly satisfying crew that I’ve only seen the greatest RPGs match. And the movie is a true cinematic marvel with each shot of The Death Star itself disturbingly beautiful as it hangs in the air ominously before leaving complete destruction in its wake. Even the score (from Michael Giacchino rather than John Williams) is my favorite in the series, consistently evoking a level of emotion usually reserved for only the very best moments in the rest of the films.
Some may find it strange (or even borderline sacrilegious) that I prefer the “Star Wars story” films to the traditional numbered entries, but I think what I like the most about them is that they’re more focused on emotion and empathy rather than mysticism and action, and they enhance the core films in a significant way. They remind me why I fell in love with the series in the beginning, and continue to keep me engaged even as we enter the double digits with no end in sight. All too often, I find Star Wars fans complaining about a “lack of direction” with the more modern Star Wars films and decrying Disney for playing God with their childhoods. But my contrarian opinion is that we are actually in the midst of the golden age of this great franchise, reborn again with no limits on what it can do or become. I’ve never been more excited to be a Star Wars fan, and I can’t wait to see where this great franchise goes next.