Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ranking Ridley Scott

2012 marks two significant milestones for 74 year director Ridley Scott – it marks the 35th Anniversary of his first film, and the release of his 20th feature over that time. That Scott is a master craftsman is beyond doubt – most of his films look fantastic. But looking over his entire filmography, it is tough to get a read on Scott as a director. He certainly isn’t an auteur – to me, his films are singular, and do not really add up to a cohesive statement as a whole. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, and I certainly do look forward to each new Ridley Scott film – and his latest, Prometheus, out this week, is one of my most anticipated of the year. So in preparation for that, I thought I’d look back at his previous 19 films, from worst to best – and really I only like about half of them. I know already that many of my choices will be controversial, ranking some of his films much higher than most would, and many much lower. Anyway, here they are.
19. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
There is a reason why this 1987 would-be thriller has been all but forgotten – it is a film that simply goes through the motions, and is drowning in 1980s visual clichés. Tom Beranger stars as a cop whose job is to protect the lone witness to a mob hit – the beautiful, wealthy Mimi Rogers, who he cannot help but fall for, despite the fact he seems happily married to Lorraine Bracco. The plot makes little sense – the moves of the would-be killer make no sense, and there really is no connection between tough Beranger and beautiful but blank Mimi Rogers. The only performance with any passion is Bracco’s, but even she behaves somewhat irrationally. The movie has all the clichés of 1980s thrillers – the horrible score, the cheesy slow motion, and the sex scenes trying too hard to be erotic. There is no reason to see this stinker.

18. A Good Year (2006)
A Good Year is the dullest film of Scott’s career. The film set is Provence where a ruthless London commodities trader played by Russell Crowe rediscovers his humanity when he inherits his uncle’s estate. Yes, the film is gorgeous to look at – but anyone with a camera can make Provence look gorgeous. And while normally, I would enjoy spending two hours looking at the beautiful Abbie Cornish and the even more beautiful Marion Cottillard lounging around in the French countryside, the movie has no narrative flow, and the film needs a much lighter tone than Scott can give – or for that matter than Crowe can provide as the lead. The movie is quite simply a long, slow, dull slog.

17. Thelma and Louise (1991)
I know a lot of people, mostly women, love this movie – and far be it for me to tell them they’re wrong, but I down right hated Thelma and Louise. Don’t get me wrong, I think both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are in fine form in the lead roles. But to me, the movie makes little to no sense – I do not believe these women would go on their crime spree, I do not believe after the abuse and rape Davis suffers, that she would be so quick to have sex with Brad Pitt, and the ending is just plain stupid. All this doesn’t even mention that the film has dated badly in the past 21 years. To me, Thelma and Louise is an incredibly phony movie – one that I did not buy for a minute. If you love Thelma and Louise, then don’t let me spoil it for you, but I cannot stand it.

16. Legend (1985)
I really don’t know what to say about Legend – a demented fairy tale that somehow isn’t demented enough. The blank faced hero (Tom Cruise) is matched by the blank faced princess (Mia Sara), as together with a group of fairies and elves have to stop Darkness from killing two unicorns and therefore getting superb power. The visuals are often quite striking – and I am a sucker for Muppets, or at least puppets that bring to mind Muppets – but the story is so paper thin, and in the director’s cut stretched out far too long for its own good. I suppose Tim Curry is good fun as Darkness – but he really only shows up in the last 20 minutes – and by then, I just wanted the movie to end. Had the screenplay been better, could Scott have had a good movie out of this? Sure, but it wasn’t.

15. 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
To commemorate 500 years since Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, there were two films in 1992 – Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (unseen by me) was widely considered a bomb – and Scott’s film not all that much better. The film is gorgeous to look at – Scott knows how to make an historical epic – but the story is long and slow. The scenes in Spain before the voyage are bogged down with too much boring talk – and the scenes in the New World lack any real flow. The biggest problem is that I don’t Scott knows what he thinks of Columbus – it’s all over the map and seems to change from scene to scene. Gerard Depardieu is a fine actor, but he is miscast as Columbus. At some point, Scott and his writers needed to decide what type of person Columbus really was – and because they didn’t, 1492 is a rather long, dull film.

14. Black Rain (1989)
Perhaps had I seen Black Rain closer to its release (when I was a pre-teen boy who loved action movies) I would have liked it more. As it stands, this was a movie I watched solely for the purpose of writing this post – and it justified by decision to not watch it for the past 23 years. It isn’t a bad 1980s action movie by any means – but it is one that makes little logical sense (why would New York send a Japanese gangster who just killed a bunch of people in their city back to Japan). The movie indulges in all the `80s action clichés you either love or hate – big hair (not on the women, but on star Michael Douglas), a maybe bad maybe good cop hero (Douglas), a cheesy score, slow motion in a scene where the hero`s partner is killed (accompanied of course, by him yelling `Nooooooooooooooo`), the hero delivering would be funny, tough sounding but really forced, one liners, and a final scene in an airport where two people smile at each other across a the crowded terminal. Yes, Black Rain is well made by the standards of the `80s action film, but there is a reason why Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are remembered, watched and loved even today – and Black Rain has been forgotten.

13. Gladiator (2000)
I am proud to say I am not one of those people who started bashing Gladiator only after it won the Best Picture and Actor Oscars in 2000 – I disliked the movie when I saw it in May of that year, and see no reason to change my opinion of it now. The best thing about the movie probably is Russell Crowe`s performance – he is appropriately tough and angry, and Joaquin Phoenix is pretty good as well as the petty Emperor. But Gladiator is such a miserable experience because Crowe`s character is so miserable from beginning to end – the whole damn movie, I was hoping someone would just kill him already to relieve him of his agony. True, you don’t need to have a happy character at the center of your movie, but he should at least be interesting – and he really wasn`t. Added to the this, the special effects looked like the belonged in a video game, not a movie (a major disappointment, considering Scott is usually so good at using them, AND the fact that they still somehow won an Oscar.) There are some good battle scenes but overall, I found Gladiator to be a fairly miserable slog.

12. Robin Hood (2010)
Robin Hood is one of the most famous, most filmed stories in history. The ultimate Robin Hood movie has always been, and probably always will be, the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn. But there have been other good versions of the story. When Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe teamed up (yet again) to make this one, they decided to make a more serious version – one that ends where most other stories of Robin Hood begin. By itself, that is not really a bad idea. The problem with this Robin Hood, is that the title character is rather dull and boring – and the rest of the cast has no depth and are even less interesting. I`m also not sure why anyone who was attracted to the Robin Hood story would try to make it into Braveheart. The battle sequences are well done, but there is little else in the movie that truly holds your interest. It`s not a bad movie by any means, but it certainly not very good either. The best way to describe the movie would be to say it is completely forgettable.

11. G.I. Jane (1997)
I know a lot of people didn’t really like G.I. Jane – they viewed it as a stunt by Demi Moore – then one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and a major sex symbol to bulk up physically and shave her head. And yet, the film is actually well made by Scott – who captures Navy SEALs training in all of its intensity and physicality, and surrounds Moore with interesting characters played Viggo Mortenson (as the drill instructor, a little more complicated than most), Scott Wilson (as the head of the program, who may be sexist, but tries to hide it) and Anne Bancroft as a Senator, who wants Moore to succeed for P.R. purposes. And it must be said that Moore, an actress I do not usually like, is actually very good in the movie – she is tough and driven, and plays the role as well as it could be played. Yes, the film tries to add in some plot twists and turns that do not really work, but overall G.I. Jane is a good, effective movie. Not great, but good.

10. White Squall (1996)
White Squall is clichéd, yes, but it is also fun, well-acted and brilliantly photographed and crafted. The story takes place in 1960, and involves a summer sailing journey for a group of troubled teenage boys, under the watchful eye of ship Captain Jeff Bridges. The purpose of the journey is to turn these troubled boys into men – and in many ways it does resemble Dead Poets Society on a boat. The boys are interchangeable in many ways and all the exact types you would expect to see on the boat. And yet, as clichéd as White Squall is, it is a fun adventure film – perhaps a little innocent and naïve, but effective. And the storm sequence climax is among the most exciting that Scott has ever filmed. White Squall may be pat and predictable, but it is also entertaining and extremely entertaining.

9. Body of Lies (2008)
Body of Lies feels more like a film that Scott`s brother Tony would direct instead of Ridley. It is a spy thriller-action movie, whose plot moves so quickly that you never really have time to think about it, and foregoes Ridley`s usual meticulous compositions for Tony`s rapid fire style editing and kinetic energy. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a CIA agent stationed in Iran, before a mission goes wrong and he`s shipped off to Jordan. His boss is played by Russell Crowe (of course), who spends his entire role on the phone telling DiCaprio what to do. Both of these performances are strong – DiCaprio in his The Departed mode as a trapped animal, and Crowe having a blast, and getting to have a cruel streak at the same time. But the best performance belongs to Mark Strong, as the Jordanian official DiCaprio has to partner with – who is the strong, silent type, able to scare the crap out of you with just one glare. Body of Lies is an effective CIA thriller – fast moving and entertaining from start to finish. And unlike many directors, Scott actually uses the rapid fire editing style effectively. And yet, somehow the movie never quite reaches the level of greatness.

8. Hannibal (2001)
I know a lot of people hated Hannibal – but the biggest problem with the movie is that it is not as good The Silence of the Lambs (and few thrillers are) and Julianne Moore, while quite good here, is not as good as Jodie Foster in playing Clarice Starling (a performance pretty much impossible to top). And yet, I actually kind of love Hannibal – with it’s over the top violence, Gary Oldman`s wicked performance as a deformed man who may actually be more evil and cruel than Hannibal Lector, it`s ridiculous finale which makes no sense (as it made no sense in the book it was based on), and of course, Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant performance as Hannibal Lector. Hopkins gets that Hannibal is far more over the top and less serious than The Silence of the Lambs, and so he decides to go way over the top right along with it. Is Hannibal anything more than a guilty pleasure. I`m honestly not sure, but damn, if I don’t love it every time I see it.

7. The Duellists (1977)
Scott`s first film is perhaps the most beautiful he ever made. He says he was highly inspired by Stanley Kubrick`s masterpiece Barry Lyndon, made just two years before, and the highest compliment I can pay to the film is to say that at least visually, he earns that comparison (even if, obviously, his film still isn’t as gorgeous as Kubrick`s). The story centers on two officers in Napoleon’s army who have a long running feud. Keith Carradine is sent to give bad news to Harvey Keitel – he duelled someone he should not have, and will be confined to the barracks – and Keitel never forgives him for it – challenging him to a duel every time they meet over the years. The story is a little thin, and Keitel`s motivations are never clear. And yet, the film is still fascinating and expertly crafted. Watching this film, you had to know that Scott was a director to watch – that at the very least, he knew how to make a great looking film.

6. American Gangster (2007)
American Gangster sees drug dealing through economic terms – which the main character is a drug dealer isn’t really the point – it’s that he has a one track mind solely focused on making money. Played by Denzel Washington, he creates another villain, but not an over the top kind that one him an Oscar in Training Day. His drug kingpin in all cold, emotionless efficiency. The other side of the movie is represented by Russell Crowe as an incorruptible cop that also has a one track mind – taking down Washington. The movie is long – nearly three hours – but never boring. It is meticulously constructed by Scott, and screenwriter Steven Zallian, and perfectly cast – not just Washington and Crowe (who are both excellent) but the supporting cast – Chiwetal Ejifor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin and especially the legendary Ruby Dee (who received her only Oscar nomination for her role). This is a violent movie, but one that looks as crime as a business – as ruthless as Wall Street.

5. Matchstick Men (2003)
Out of all of Scott`s film, Matchstick Men is the one that you would really associate him with. It is completely different than the rest of his films – and perhaps that`s why I liked it so much. Unlike most of his films, Matchstick Men is intimate rather than epic. It centers on a con man with OCD, played by Nicholas Cage, who discovers that he has a teenage daughter (Alison Lohman). These three elements – a man struggling with mental illness, a con man film and a film about a man trying to connect with the daughter he never knew he had – makes Matchstick Men somewhat thrilling – it jumps between these three storylines, and yet the only enhance each other, not distract from it. This is one of the best performances of Cage`s career, and you Alison Lohman was also brilliant. This is an intimate character study first, and a con man movie second, and yet both elements work tremendously well. I have no idea what drew Scott to this film, but I`m glad he made it. Perhaps the most underrated film on his resume.

4. Kingdom of Heaven (Director`s Cut) (2005)
When I saw Kingdom of Heaven in theaters back in 2005, I liked it – I admired the skill at which it was assembled, and how unlike Gladiator, it had interesting, complex characters to go along with the great battle sequences – and yet, I thought something was missing to make it go from a good movie into a great one. When I finally sat down and watched the Director’s Cut last week – which added 45 minutes to the film, that Scott always wanted, but the studio made him cut because they wanted a shorter movie – I found what was missing. While the original felt rushed at times, the Director’s Cut takes its time, builds it characters and tells its story with more detail. Specifically, the movie adds more of Edward Norton’s brilliant performance (behind a mask no less) as the leper King, as well as fleshing out the son of Eva Green, who was set to be the next king. This movie tells a complex story about the crusades – one that doesn’t take sides, and sees men of all faiths (or none as the case may be) as good – and the ones on all sides who wants war as the bad guys. Orlando Bloom is fine in the lead role – but the cast around him are even better. If you’ve only ever seen the theatrical version, and thought it was good but not great, you should take out the director’s cut. It is the epic that Scott intended – and one of his very best films.

3. Alien (1979)
The first movie in the Alien series remains the best of the lot – and one of the best horror films of all time. Even after 30 years, this movie still looks great – the special effects are amazing, the cinematography is still a master class in darkness and the art direction great, both in large and small scale. Yes, we all know the “shock” moments in the films – yet they still have the ability to pack a wallop. However, it is the quieter moments where Alien is at its absolute best – the second half of the film is a master class in building tension to an almost unbearable degree. Alien is a throwback to the horror/sci-fi films of the 1950s, and yet also looks forward, and has become one of the most influential films of its time. Unfortunately, most of the movies it has inspired aren’t very good – they take the shocking moments, the bloody moments, but not the attention to detail, tone and pacing – or the very real characters that populate this movie. All these years later, Alien remains an absolute masterpiece.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
There is no doubt that Blade Runner is the most influential film of Scott’s career – and one of the most influential sci-fi films ever. For better or worse, science fiction movies have never been the same since Blade Runner was released. You’d also be hard pressed to find a more debated film – with fans passionately debating whether the hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the sixth replicant mentioned at the beginning of the film but not dealt with during the course of the film, or if in fact he is human. I have read passionate defenses of both theories – and there will never be a definitive answer (I subscribe to the theory that he is, in fact, a replicant – but admit I could be wrong). Visually, the film is a masterwork – creating a world all of its own, that has been copied many times since, but rarely equalled (perhaps in Alex Proyas’ Dark City). The film is a masterpiece on several levels – and a film that I never get tired of watching. And although there are now about 5 different versions of the film, I respect the fact that Scott has resisted the urge to go all George Lucas on it – and allows Douglas Turnball’s magnificent special effects to stay. This film is a masterpiece – one of those films that you have to see – even if you hate it.

1. Black Hawk Down (2001)
This will probably seem like an odd choice to many as Scott’s masterpiece – sure both Alien and Blade Runner have had a much deeper, larger impact on the movie landscape in the years since they were made, and either would be very worthy of the top spot. But, for me, Black Hawk Down, is Scott’s best – the most intense movie he has ever made – and one of the most intense anyone has ever made. It focuses on a single day where a group of Marines raid a market in Somalia looking for the rebel leader – and becoming bogged down, surrounded by a city who wants to kill them, and a firefight that lasts for hours. The film is as bloody and violent as any war movie you’ve seen, and some have criticized the movie because the rebel’s forces really are nothing more than a blur – and an African blur at that. But to me, that’s just the point. These marines are surrounded by the enemy – anyone could kill them, everyone could be an enemy. The movie does utilize the shaky, handheld camera and rapid fire editing that has become vogue in the last decade – and yet the movie is never confusing – you always know precisely where you are and what is happening. As a movie about a mission gone wrong, Black Hawk Down is as intense as it gets – for two and half hours it keeps you in its grip. So no, Black Hawk Down is not the movie most would choose as Scott’s best – but to me, it is his greatest achievement.


  1. Yeah, Black Hawk Down just missed a key point... in the real world, the "hero" raped and sodomized a 12 year old. I'll skip that movie.

  2. True, one of the Rangers who fought in the battle was later convicted of raping and sodomizing a 12 year old - but during his time in Somalia or this battle. But since the movie is focused on the battle itself - and not the lives of the men who fought in it - and the character based on the real life guy was there, and was awarded for his actions on that day I don't see how it's relevant to the movie itself. Did you want a flash forward to show a scene that makes no sense within the movie? Is he a horrible human being? Undoubtedly. It has nothing to do with the movie however.