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THE 15 BEST FILM SERIES OF ALL TIME

 

 

As we all know, the problem with criticism is that it’s all too arbitrary. People are wrong about things all the time! Without a consistent, strictly codified system of defining and assigning value to art, how can I be sure that the reviewer describing The Chronicles of Riddick as a white-knuckle thrill ride can be trusted? So we spend our adult lives molding our taste, comparing it to this critic’s body of writing and that, weighing agreements against disagreements until we’ve found a handful of simpatico minds that can be safely relied on. But god, who has the time? Life is full of enough uncertainty already, who has it in them to accidentally watch a bad movie?

In the spirit of appeasing the ever-more-vocal “facts, not feelings” crowd, we have introduced some hard rationality to this namby-pamby film-crit game. We’re toying with a new system of appraising film franchises, in which each individual installment takes on a numerical rating set at an integer between 1 and 5, which are then totaled and divided to reach a single aggregate score that can be easily compared between series. At long last, instead of pondering the thousand nuances of preference, a curious viewer can simply make their decision based on the numbers. (All rulings are final.) Read on:

15. The Terminator

The Breakdown: Another franchise that began with a mighty one-two wallop. James Cameron found the ideal killing machine in the unstoppable Arnold Schwarzenegger, a being that seemed immune the effects of our pathetic human exhaustion. He then reproduced the miracle with the T-1000, the then-groundbreaking liquid-metal effects rendering him even more harrowingly inhuman than Ahnuld. 5s for both. Bringing director Jonathan Mostow into the fold precipitated a steep drop-off in quality for Rise of the Machines, which gave us a lady Terminator sadly unrelated to Lady Terminator. The T-X was running on fumes from her first steps, a sexed-up copy of a copy stuck in a film without a new angle for the “robot comes from the future to kill people” premise (2). Ditching Schwarzenegger entirely (someone was busy governing California) did not help matters, and Terminator Salvation turned out a brain-dead, ugly, incoherent slog. Returning Arnie didn’t help matters much, either. By Terminator: Genisys, it was broken beyond repair. The stultifying mishmash of future-shock signifiers and time-travel nonsense had metastasized like a tumor and taken over what was once the sleekest franchise in the business. 1s for the both of them.

Aggregate Score: 2.80

14. X-Men

The Breakdown: If the first X-Men movie feels like it was released a thousand years ago, that’s just because in superhero-industry years, it was. The film was released in a different, simpler climate, where comic book movies acted more like that term would imply and less like focus-grouped studio output. Combine that with Jackman’s gruff charm as Wolverine, it’s a 4. X2 raises everything that worked in the first film to the Nth degree, from colorful new characters and exhibitions of their powers (remember Pyro?) to a technical tautness unmatched by superhero cinema since (rewatch Nightcrawler’s assault on the White House). I say 5. The Last Stand cast its lot with a hoary “cure for being mutant” plot device and a thoroughly un-stimulating portrayal of Dark Phoenix, for a 2. The franchise rebooted in earnest following a Wolverine solo picture with the ‘60s throwback First Class, which introduced a fresh-faced new cast and, more importantly, the bubbling tension between James McAvoy’s Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto (4). The new trilogy then attempted to repeat this to diminishing returns while adding zero additional imagination, going to the ‘70s in Days of Future Past and the ‘80s in Apocalypse. Right in line, that’s a 2, then 1.

Aggregate Score: 3.00

13. The Road Movies

The Breakdown: Though Road to Singapore demonstrated that the rat-a-tat chemistry between radio comics Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with their regular distaff opposite Dorothy Lamour could be translated feasibly to the screen, the series would take another couple years to get its bearing. That’s a 3. The Road to Zanzibar probably ranks as the most racist entry in a series that frequently falls back on regional caricature, but it’s also hilarious when not making modern viewers wince. That shakes out to a 4. Then came Road to Morocco, and the trio hit their stride, churning out some of their best slapstick, fourth-wall gags, and original tunes for a 5. Road to Utopia kept things lively, tapping a new vein of humor with its unlikely Alaskan setting and picking up an Oscar nomination along the way (4). Road to Rio found Hope and Crosby starting to get long in the tooth and estranged from their reputations as cutting-edge humorists, stale writing earning them a 3. By Road to Bali and Road to Hong Kong, it had soured completely into an unsavory lecherousness that had no place in the youth-obsessed ‘60s. 1s, both of you.

Aggregate Score: 3.00

12. A Nightmare on Elm Street

The Breakdown: Wes Craven’s demon seed for the franchise envisioned Freddy as an indelible demon, and the “hand in the bathtub” scene remains one of the finest in his filmography. Strong start with 5. While many knock Freddy’s Revenge for lacking the malevolent power of the first film, the roiling undercurrent of homoeroticism (the writer knew; the actors didn’t) elevates the overall experience for a 4. My beloved Corny Freddy rears his pepperoni-textured head for the first time in Dream Warriors, and his potent fusion of demented prop comedy with surreal murder works through following installment The Dream Master. 4 for both. By The Dream Child, the schtick had started to get old (3), and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmarehad no idea what to do with the character after returning him to his more serious-minded origins (2). Wes Craven had to step in and go back to basics in the most brilliantly convoluted way possible with the self-referential New Nightmare, a 5 that doubles as his warm-up for the parodic bent of Scream. The less said about Freddy Vs. Jason, a cynical cash-in that tricks you by sounding awesome, the better. 1 for you, and then another 1 for the equally calculated, lifeless remake from 2010.

Aggregate Score: 3.22

11. Rocky

The Breakdown: The Italian Stallion is at his best in the first film that bears his name, all blue-collar grit and determination. It’s a classic for a reason, and gets a fitting 5. Rocky II did what it had to do by letting Rocky claim victory over foe Apollo Creed, and while audiences responded positively to the closure, it hobbles its own conflicted emotional heft. That scans as a 3. Like Die Hard, the mid-period Rocky films live and die with their bad guys, and the Mr. T.-played Clubber Lang from Rocky III (2) can’t stack up against the infamous Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (4). Starting in Rocky V and continuing through the rest of the series, our man’s true enemy is his own mortality, as he confronts brain damage that threatens to end his career. It’s a bit depressing to watching Stallone practically age in fast-motion with V (3), though not nearly as bleak as the lumpy, washed-up Stallone we see in Rocky Balboa. A sequel that exists primarily now to illustrate why the series needed to be rebooted, it’s best erased from the boxer’s legacy (1). Creed is an unqualified triumph, as charged with raw, rip-snorting power as Rocky Balboa was flabby and ineffectual. That’s a clear 5, though the jury’s still out on Creed II. We’ll all have to sit with it a bit longer, but right now its workmanlike adequacy looks like a 3.

Aggregate Score: 3.25

10. Star Wars

The Breakdown: The original laid out an expansive universe, dinged only by its rudimentary script. Episode IV gets a 4. Episode V and VI are unimpeachable, enshrined in the canon for a good reason, dynamos of comfort-food adventure thrills — 5 for both. Things got dismal with Episode I, and while Darth Maul saved some red-and-black face, Watto duly un-saved whatever face he had saved. That’s a 2. The series hit rock bottom with Episode II, a film that could be cut down to the shameless Gladiator ripoff and re-released as a semi-successful short, scoring 1. George Lucas somewhat righted the ship in the final prequel, getting those cathartic blockbuster moments in the cross-cutting showdown for a solid 3. A bothersome blandness plagued The Force Awakens (2), but was nowhere to be found in the superb The Last Jedi, which returned to the big-hearted Campbellian spirit of the very first trilogy for a 4.

Aggregate Score: 3.25

9. Hellraiser

The Breakdown: The series started strong, tapping into the potent combination of violence with sex in a then-timely BDSM-tinged aesthetic, a sound concept that’s gotten them through the better part of three decades for a 4. Though the sequel introduced poster boy Pinhead’s gigantic, evil supervisor, it altogether lacked the outré spirit of its predecessor (2). Things got good with Hell on Earth, which turned a camera crew into a gaggle of Cenobites outfitted with forehead disc-drives shooting razor-sharp CDs. Instant 4. The franchise peaks with the fourth installment, an ambitious triptych stretching from 18th-century France (a babyfaced Adam Scott wears a wig!) to space in the future. All horror movies must necessarily include one installment set among the stars, and this one gets a 5. The Scott Derrickson-directed Inferno boasts what may be the franchise’s finest script, tossing Pinhead into what is otherwise a film noir and emerging with a 3. The downward slope of the ‘00s continued with Hellseeker and Deader, which cannot compensate for long stretches of tedium with their one respective interesting element. (The former stars Dean Winters; the latter features extensive sequences on an Eastern European murder-rave train.) 2s all around. Hellworld is the kind of gambit that only undertaken by a franchise with nothing to lose. The series’ headlong plunge into metafictional cybergoth teen randiness gets a well-earned 5. Revelations fell off, introducing the round-faced Garbage Pinhead to replace Doug Bradley, landing a 1. But this year, the franchise came back stronger than ever with the Boschian, process-based, peerlessly grotesque Judgment for a 5.

Aggregate Score: 3.3

8. Alien

The Breakdown: Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver. North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ. Whether a person prefers the perfect Alien or the also-perfect Aliens is entirely a matter of taste in which there’s no wrong answer. Ridley Scott’s film is a bulletproof work of slow-burn horror, trapping a space crew in a contained space and letting the pinnacle of evolution kill them with extreme prejudice (5). James Cameron’s sequel shoots for blockbuster highs, recasting Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from a final girl survivor to a robot-armor-clad hero (5). Alien 3… did not go quite as well. Much-publicized beef between David Fincher and the studio resulted in a compromised and scattershot cut that the director has since disowned (2). As a piece of the total Alien puzzle, Resurrection doesn’t fit in the slightest. But as an idiosyncratic expression of its director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and writer Joss Whedon’s unique sensibilities, and as a chance for Winona Ryder to do a ‘90s heat check, it has worth enough for a 2. 15 years would pass before anyone dared to reboot, and while Prometheus gave us the instantly unforgettable C-section set piece, it was more slight than the gargantuan return-on-investment would suggest (3). But that was enough to get us Covenant and the uncanny tableau of two robotic Michael Fassbenders making out with each other. Again, a moment of mad brilliance stuck in a half-dead film (3).

Aggregate score: 3.33

7. Planet of the Apes

The Breakdown: Charlton Heston, pounding the ground in futile desperation after discovering the remains of the Statue of Liberty on what he thought was an alien planet — that’s cinema. That’s a 5, that moment alone, discounting the sage allegory containing it. The second installment goes nuclear, training its focus on a simian cult that worships the bomb; I give a 4 for having the cojones to end the film with the complete annihilation of Earth and then keep the series going anyway. The third film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, centered on ape heroes adrift in the human-dominated United States and leaned too hard on the ever-present metaphors about prejudice and iniquity (2). Props to the great scribe Paul Dehn for modeling Conquest of the Planet of the Apes on the choppy currents of change pushing the Civil Rights movement through America’s ingrained racism. He claimed to have been inspired by the Watts riots to craft a script that sees Cornelius and his brethren throw off their bondage as future-slaves in a tableau at once hokey and radical. Weird, satisfying 4. Though John Huston as an Orangutan is just as good as it sounds, pretty much everybody phoned it in for misfire Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The franchise had run out of steam, but Fox was intent on running it into the ground instead of letting it die peacefully, its reputation now marred by a final 2.

Aggregate Score: 3.40

6. Scream

The Breakdown: Wes Craven’s O.G. Scream is everything I loved about ‘90s horror, distilled into one tidy package that is also full of spring-loaded knives. Clever, sarcastic, inventive, and allusive, it gave the flagging slasher genre a desperately needed shot in the arm. Clear 5. Its sequel made hay from the very notion of sequels, mocking a whole new set of tropes and clichés, eking out a 4. A post-Columbine pushback against media violence neutered the third installment, which played up some creaky comedy while toning down the blood, for a regrettable 2. But some clutch casting (Alison Brie and Emma Roberts were both well selected) and a humdinger of a matryoshka opening earn the final film a firm 3.

Aggregate Score: 3.50

5. Harry Potter

The Breakdown: The Sorcerer’s Stone has the densest timeless-moment-per-minute ratio, from Harry’s letter tornado to the wand selection to his various proving grounds at Hogwarts. It’s a grand, warming adventure picture, a 5 in line with the Star Warses it baldly emulates. The Chamber of Secrets now looks rather downbeat and inconsequential as part of the franchise’s larger scheme (3), but Prisoner of Azkaban restored the big sense of occasion that would come to accompany a new Potter movie. Gary Oldman would be a constant MVP, and his arrival introduced a much-needed shade of grown-up darkness to Harry’s world. That’s a 4. The Goblet of Fire acquainted Harry with death, mounted some cracking fantasy sequences in the Triwizard Tournament scenes (Harry turned fish!), and hinted at Robert Pattinson’s future as a good actor, another 5. The Order of the Phoenix signaled the beginning of the show’s slide into po-faced miserablism, swearing off the fun of the earlier installments (3) for bland political commentary. The wonder of the wizarding world slowly leaked out of the pictures in The Half-Blood Prince (2) and the first half of The Deathly Hallows (2), which look and move more like Avengers movies than anything else. The latter half of The Deathly Hallows returned to the heart of the books and placed the emphasis back on the interpersonal relationships in Harry’s life, a nostalgia-baiting end that nonetheless worked (4).

Aggregate score: 3.50

4. Fast & Furious

The Breakdown: When it first skidded into multiplexes, the highest-octane series on four wheels felt competent but unexceptional. Vin Diesel couldn’t carry this thing on his own, and managed a 3 in his first outing as Dom Toretto. Box-office receipts slipped in the second installment, and rightly so, as the film stalled out while switching gears into a bigger moviemaking scale (2). Tokyo Drift was pretty much a flop, and yet it includes some of the wildest production design and the most lucid sense of place to be enjoyed in the entirety of the series for a 4. The series rebooted in its fourth installment, playing up Paul Walker’s star-quality and the fixation on [growling voice] fambly that would see it through to the present day (3). Fast Five saw the franchise come into its own as it loosened up the premise to allow for extreme exploits of all stripes, from heists to shootouts, clinching its 4 with the introduction of Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs. Furious 6 leaned into the ensemble-piece vibe, which worked, though it also got too far from the core of gonzo car stunts, which didn’t. Tough 3. But everything went right with the seventh installment: the action, the one-liners, the villain (Jason Statham was a key addition to the cast), and the sentimentality left over from Paul Walker’s untimely passing. A triumphant 5. While diehard fans of the series objected to the narrative concessions of Fate of the Furious’ script (justice for Han!), it remains the only film including a submarine race, and therefore merits a 4.

Aggregate Score: 3.5

3. The Ocean’s Movies

The Breakdown: Steven Soderbergh never found greater mainstream success than on the Ocean’s series of heist films, a testament to their emphasis on fleet-footed fun above all else. The first film may not have dug as deep as Soderbergh’s headier work, but it’s the best there is when it comes to zippy caper antics. He assembled an impeccable ensemble, a formidable coalition of A-list talent that got along like gangbusters when corralled in one location. The first gets a 5, and for doing it all again with an even more labyrinthine plot and an added Catherine Zeta-Jones, lucky number 12 gets a 5 as well. The third part of the original trilogy slightly overreached, distracting from Julia Roberts’ departure by throwing in Al Pacino as a hopping mad casino owner. His addition speaks to an over-reliance on star power, the belief that raw charisma could pick up the slack from a messier script than usual. But even so, it’s still a 3. Can’t say the same for the disappointing Ocean’s 8, which squanders the concept of an all-female heist picture (how do you foul that up?) and a stellar cast including Cate Blanchett and Awkwafina (2).

Aggregate Score: 3.75

2. The Muppets

The Breakdown: The Muppet Movie zips along with the antic, let’s-put-on-a-show vim and vigor of the show, leaving inside jokes and celebrity cameos in its dust. It’s a big, fun 5. While The Great Muppet Caper doesn’t quite match its predecessor’s charm offensive, direction from Jim Henson himself grants the film a technical and creative excellence that sets it head and shoulders above later efforts (4). We have The Muppets Take Manhattan to blame for the cloying scourge that is the Muppet Babies, and it deserves the 2 that it’s getting. The Muppet Christmas Carol stages Dickens’ classic redemption fable with a felt-and-googly-eyed cast, a perennial treat in turns irreverent and unabashedly sentimental (5). Same goes for their sublimely side-splitting take on Treasure Island, featuring a robust Tim Curry as Long John Silver, another 5. Without the keen mind of a Henson or a Frank Oz at the helm of Muppets in Space, thin, broad writing lacking the signature showbiz sheen got the franchise slipping to a 3. After letting things cool for a decade, the Muppet gang returned in the simply titled The Muppets, and recovered the magic. Their mission to save their beloved theater from being torn down, a classic musical premise to boot, provided a fine vessel for the compositions of Bret McKenzie. That gets a 4, though its follow-up Muppets Most Wanted, which stars Ricky Gervais, does not (2).

Aggregate score: 3.75

1. Mission: Impossible

The Breakdown: Perhaps the most consistent franchise in Hollywood history roared onto the scene with Brian De Palma’s agile, breath-shortening original, a 5 if ever there was one. Putting John Woo behind the wheel for the sequel was a wise move, but we only get snatches of the inimitable Hong Kong style between long interludes of Tinseltown flatness. That’s a 3. I love Phillip Seymour Hoffman as much as the next guy, if not more, but he can’t stop scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci from tarnishing director J.J. Abrams’ vision (2). Brad Bird started the game of brinksmanship that the series would continue in its back half, growing bigger and more expensive with each installment. He gets a 4, as does Christopher McQuarrie for the death-defying cling to the side of an aloft plane in 2015’s Rogue Nation. But McQuarrie outdid himself and got the elusive 5 for the more recent Fallout. All he had to do was jettison Tom Cruise out of an aloft aircraft for a full HALO jump.

Aggregate Score: 3.83

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