WARNING: Spoilers abound in this post of every Star Wars movie made to date. Be forewarned.
With the 2019 release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, the “Skywalker saga” that began in 1977 has apparently come to a close. While Disney is already planning more Star Wars films down the road, they will not be a part of this Star Wars time period, and there are no plans on the horizon to revisit this era in any theatrical sense. Instead, future installments related to the Skywalker era will be limited to other media, such as the Disney+ hit The Mandelorian.
For that reason, 2019 marks the end of an era that has encompassed 11 films. Fans and critics alike have been ranking the movies for some time now, and that exercise will no doubt escalate now that all the films are out.
In that spirit, here is my current list. Like all lists, it’s subjective, although I’ve done my level best to explain my reasoning in each instance. Also, since I try to keep an open mind about things, I reserve the right to change my mind down the road.
Here we go.
1. Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
What works: Empire is, far and away, the most popular choice for greatest of all time among the Star Wars films, and for good reason. Leaping forward on the colossal success of what we now call A New Hope, the film succeeds in almost every single way. From the intense opening moments on Hoth to the final clash in the Cloud City above Bespin, the movie deepens the characters, broadens the mythology, and ups the stakes. For me, everything works: the action, the drama, the humor, the banter … all of it.
And the plot twists! “I am your father” is the gold standard for thing you never saw coming, and it alone might make this movie worth its salt. But there are other little wrinkles, too, from Obi-Wan’s mysterious reappearance, to Lando’s double-cross of our plucky heroes, to Yoda’s intriguing remark that “there is another.” The movie somehow does so much without doing too much, and decades later, it’s still amazing to watch.
What doesn’t: Empire is so good that criticizing it feels like true nitpicking. I suppose one might argue that the scenes on Dagobah run a little slow, and are a bit trippy at times. I also suppose some of the one-liners might not age as well as others. They’re such minor gripes, though, that they hardly feel like mentioning.
Favorite song: The Asteroid Field
2. Episode VI — Return of the Jedi
What works: I love the way Jedi gave us a glimpse into what a young Jedi Knight might look like. Skilled with both the Force and a lightsaber, Luke is far removed from the whiny kid of IV or even V. His emergence is set against the backdrop of some truly terrific drama, including the showdown with Jabba the Hut and his minions and, of course, the endgame against Darth Vader and the Emperor. The last ten minutes of the film are a case study in how to stick the landing with regard to a story arc.
Jedi has its critics, especially with regard to the third act on Endor. I get it. I also think those scenes still provide some pretty memorable moments. I happen to love the way Luke helps free his friends from the Ewoks: the setup and execution are hilarious, but also powerful, because it shows Ewok and human alike just what Luke is capable of.
What doesn’t: There are a few missteps in the movie. George Lucas underestimated the broad appeal of Boba Fett, prematurely and unceremoniously killing off a character that has become one of the franchise’s most-beloved villains. Some people have argued that the second Death Star was a recycled trope. And, as I mentioned before, you could pick on the decision to go kid-friendly with the Ewoks on Endor.
3. Solo: A Star Wars Story
What works: I know what you’re probably thinking. I’ve lost my mind, right? How could I reasonably believe that that Solo — the movie that disappointed at the box office and was met with a collective meh from critics — deserves to be this high on the list?
I’ve written elsewhere in more depth about the myriad of ways I think the movie succeeds, but to recap: I think Solo is thoroughly underappreciated. I believe the the heroes and villains alike are capably acted, buttressed by effective character development even of seemingly less important players, including Beckett, Qi’ra, L3-37, and Paul Bettany’s wickedly constructed Dryden Voss. Likewise, I think this film does a better job in establishing depth and motivation to the principals than Rogue One does, lending loss more depth. It’s a testament to the roots of this film that I wanted to know more about some of these people when the movie was over.
The plot, meanwhile, is surprisingly good at fleshing out Han’s backstory while also carving some new territory. The final act, in my view, is a treat. It includes a slick plot twist with Enfys Nest, a well-choreographed fight scene with Vos, and the appearance of the former Darth Maul. I believe Solo would have made for great future movie fodder had the film been more successful. We’ll probably never know.
Behind it all, John Powell’s soundtrack is a love letter to Star Wars fans, and — heretical as it may sound — is, in my view, superior to the Williams scores of Episodes VIII and IX.
Overall, I think it’s the best of the Disney Star Wars movies. More importantly to me: it’s just flat fun to watch.
What doesn’t: As much as I like the movie, I’ll concede that not everyone rates it that highly. Part of the problem: because it’s an interquel of sorts, you already know that certain characters are going to make it, which lowers the stakes in some cases. It also suffers from the fact that it feels much more of an outsider compared to even Rogue One. What I mean by that: where Rogue One clearly ties into A New Hope, Solo ties into characters rather than any major Star Wars plotlines. Future installments might have resolved that problem, but because of Solo‘s relative failure, that won’t happen. Those possibly-never-resolved loose ends diminish the value of the film.
Favorite song: Reminiscence Therapy
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
What works: This gritty, bold, poignant story is a beautiful gap film between Episodes III and IV. In fact, it’s really fun to watch it right before you watch Episode IV. The film is best on the second viewing (more on this in a moment) but that second viewing really hammers home the various threads that come together. The various Easter eggs in the movie are fun, too, from Saw Gerrera to Jimmy Smits coming back to reprise his role as Bail Organa. Michael Giacchino, meanwhile, constructs a haunting soundtrack that, while different than John Williams, does a nice service to the film’s mood.
Also, that Vader scene at the end. Absolute chills.
What doesn’t: I think Rogue One suffers from a couple of flaws which render it, in my view, inferior to Solo. For starters, I don’t think it’s a great first-watch film — the first time I watched it, the opening sequence was so dizzying that I had no idea what was going on. A second flaw is character development — I think Jyn Erso is a well-developed character, and the droid has a few moments, but the rest of the cast feels mostly like cutouts, and I’d be hard-pressed to name most of them outside of nicknames like “blind Force guy” and they’re not well established in terms of their motivations or personalities. That diminishes the sense of loss in the end.
Favorite song: Hope
5. Episode VI — A New Hope
What works: The 1977 film that launched the franchise has some rough spots, but it still does a fine job of anchoring the franchise. The opening act is a slow burn that gradually introduces Luke Skywalker, and by extension the audience, into this larger galactic drama unfolding. Despite George Lucas not knowing if he’d be making more films, he lays the groundwork for everything that follows, from the first glimpse into the Force mythos to our gradual understanding of the six-movie Anakin Skywalker plot arc. The finale, with Luke making that attack run on the first Death Star, is, in my view, high drama.
What doesn’t: It was perhaps inevitable that the first installment of the series would have its shortcomings, and it does. The acting and plotlines aren’t as good as Episodes V or VI, and the dialogue and the special effects suffer from moments of dated campiness. The character synergy that would mark later installments isn’t quite there yet, either, although I saw glimpses of it.
Favorite song: Imperial Attack
6. Episode III — Revenge of the Sith
What works: I’m sure some people are going to be surprised to see me rank Sith this high, and there are some flaws in the movie I’ll get to in a second. But what the movie does well, it does so well that it stands out for me as some of the most memorable moments in the entire franchise.
The final act of the film is incredible. Order 66 is everything I hoped (and feared) it would be. The way Palpatine rises to absolute power is an exercise in pure malevolence. The two great duels — Palpatine vs. Yoda and Anakin vs. Obi-Wan — live up to the billing. The ending is both hopeful and haunting, and sets things up nicely for the original trilogy. And John Williams orchestrates the whole thing with brilliance.
What doesn’t: While I think it’s still head and shoulders the best of the prequel movies, it’s not perfect. As impressive as the third act is, there are parts of the first and second act that almost derail the movie. The romance subplot, carried over from Episode II, is terrible: it’s easy to forget that some of the worst romance dialogue in all of Star Wars comes from Episode III. (“Hold me like you did by the lake at Naboo.” “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”) The movie takes its time getting its legs in the early going before the payoff moments at the end, and for stretches of the film it seems plodding. I also wish Padmé had been granted more agency in this film — compared to previous films, she felt less like a fighter and more like a victim.
Favorite song: Anakin vs. Obi-Wan
7. Episode VII – The Force Awakens
What works: The first installment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy generally acquits itself well. The newcomer characters of Poe, Finn, and Rey are all well-developed, interesting characters, and the movie sets them up nicely to be fleshed out in future movies. (How well future movies take advantage of it is a subject I’ll tackle below.) From the deserts of Jakku to the snows of Starkiller Base, the trio experiences plenty of action and drama, including brushes with the unstable and dangerous Kylo Ren. The plot twist in the final act, where Rey turns out to be a Force user, creates a climactic battle that, while different than other Star Wars films, is pretty memorable in its own right.
What doesn’t: There’s nothing wrong with reverence for the past in film — in fact, I think it’s a crucial component of a successful franchise — but Episode VII is derivative to the point of feeling lazy. Did we really need another Force user emerging from a desert planet, banding together with outlaws, and going after a planet-destroying planet-sized base? As a viewer, rather than feeling nostalgia the way I did with, say, Solo or Rogue One, I came away more with the sense of, “okay, we’ve done this once already.”
Favorite song: Rey’s Theme
8. Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker
What works: There are a lot of flaws in this film, but there are virtues, too. From a strictly visual perspective, this is one of the most striking and beautiful films in the series, and not just because of modern special effects. The artistic vision of this film is neat, from the haunts of Exegol to the ruins of the Death Star. At least from a location perspective, this film is anything but derivative. (Oh, and that yellow lightsaber at the end? From a fan of the classic video game Knights of the Old Republic, I approve.)
I also liked the way the film made better use of Finn compared to its predecessor. Episode VIII seemed at a loss for what to do with the former stormtrooper, but he was a focal character here, and the uniting of Finn, Poe, and Rey are the best parts of this movie. I also appreciated I the movie giving Poe a more fleshed out backstory.
One other improvement in character use: Han Solo. While he was fine in back in Episode VII, I thought his appearance here was my favorite moment in the movie. I may or may not have choked up a little bit.
What doesn’t: This film suffers, in my view, from the tragic lack of vision that doomed the entire sequel trilogy. From the opening crawl, this is an overstuffed and honestly ridiculous movie, even by the generous cinematic standards of Star Wars. Palpatine is shoved into the film with almost no fanfare or warning, and the film spends the rest of the runtime racing to and fro, trying in vain to either make amends for or downright discard the previous film.
Whatever the intention, that reconstruction largely fails. Rey’s suddenly important family lineage (and her out-of-the-sky kiss with Kylo Ren) feels jarring and unconvincing, especially in the context of Episode VIII. Ren’s sudden turnaround feels like a betrayal of two movies of character development. The Knights of Ren are thrown back into the fray with little reason why, and honestly little purpose, for that matter. And two characters from previous movies that had great storyline promise — Maz Kanata and Rose Tico — are essentially discarded. Rose’s shift is, we’re told, necessary to make Leia’s recycled footage work, but I have to wonder if we would have been better off letting Leia pass away sooner and using Rose in a more meaningful way. I think fans would have understood.
Favorite song: A New Home
9. Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
What works: As a standalone movie, it has some merits. Rey plays the role of the acolyte trying to get help from her curmudgeonly jaded teacher in Luke Skywalker, and the interplay between them isn’t bad, especially in reckoning with the Dark Side. Same with Rey and Kylo Ren, whose interactions are high drama. The puzzle of what happened between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker is a unusual, but it works, as does the destruction of the Jedi mythos at the end of the movie. It takes some risks, and it deserves credit for that.
What doesn’t: Is it fair to score a movie based on the collateral damage it does to a franchise? If so, it’s hard to see a movie that did more damage to Star Wars then this one. By systematically discarding all the set pieces of The Force Awakens, writer and director Rian Johnson set the stage for a fractured, visionless series from which The Rise of Skywalker failed to recover.
But the movie has problems within its own narrative, and I’m not just talking about blue milk. Dropping bombs in space is stupid, even by the lax physics of Star Wars. The slow speed chase that occupies the middle third of the movie is a pretty uninspiring plot device. Vice Admiral Holdo, who pretty much appeared from out of nowhere, is egregiously incompetent. Supreme Leader Snoke is a character without a purpose. The Finn and Rose subplot are this movie’s version of pod racing: it occupies a lot of time and doesn’t matter. As subversive as Rian Johnson tried to be, I felt like he mostly just subverted himself.
Oh, and as for Luke Skywalker being altered into a cynic that even Mark Hamill didn’t like? I didn’t personally like it, but I’m agnostic on whether it was a positive or negative. If you didn’t like it, though, it’s icing on what is already a frustrating cake.
Favorite song: The Battle of Crait
10. Episode II — Attack of the Clones
What works: For me, Clones is really a tale of two movies. One of those movies is a detective story, with Obi-Wan Kenobi trying to figure out where the evil lurks. I liked that story. The chase scenes through Coruscant, for example, come together pretty well. The whole trip to Kamino doesn’t come together quite as well, but it does help explain the onset of the Clone Wars, and, more immediately, it helps lead into the final confrontation on Genosis, a grand land-based battle the likes of which you don’t often see in Star Wars.
And Yoda. The Jedi Master’s clash with Count Dooku is a polarizing subject among Star Wars fans. When I saw it in theaters, the crowd went nuts, and subsequent viewings haven’t diminished by belief that it’s still one of the more unexpected and fun moments in the franchise. In fact, the entire sequence with Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda all taking turns against Dooku is entertaining. The little things, like seeing what a Jedi could do against Force lightning, was a treat.
What doesn’t: The “other” movie, the one that tries to manufacture a romance between Anakin and Padmé, is just flat awful. Cringe-worthy, unwatchable, awful. “I don’t like sand,” Anakin tells us. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”
Anakin was wrong. That part of the movie was the roughest, most irritating part of the entire franchise. It’s impossible to concede how anything Anakin did, whether it was the terrible dialogue or his psychopathic slaughter of sand raiders, would have made him remotely interesting to Padmé. Lucas botched this arc badly, and none of us ever recovered.
Favorite song: Dooku vs. Obi-Wan
11. Episode I — The Phantom Menace
What works: I remember seeing this movie in theaters, and I remember how good it was to see Star Wars back. To its credit, the film does have the distinction of introducing us to the classical Jedi Order, something we hadn’t really seen in film up to that point. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are Jedi worth following. By far the best moment, in my opinion, is the final showdown with Darth Maul, whose double-bladed lightsaber set up one of Star Wars’s better fight scenes. Bonus: John Williams amplified the moment with an unforgettable musical theme.
What doesn’t: Despite its great hype, I feel like The Phantom Menace is Star Wars’s least inspired movie, epitomized by the fact that you could pretty much skip it and not miss much in the Star Wars cinematic universe. Nothing important happens here that you couldn’t explain in about 2 minutes.
Instead, we get wasted time. The pod racing plot arc, while containing bit moments of fun, occupies 45 minutes of the film while doing almost nothing to move the movie or Star Wars forward.
Maybe the saddest indictment, though, is the way characters are wasted. Natalie Portman’s flat portrayal of Padmé Amidala belies actress’s Oscar-winning talents, a sad indictment of the way George Lucas executed this film. Even Darth Maul is a casualty: he gets only a few minutes of screen time before his climactic battle, robbing an otherwise-great ending duel of some emotional punch. He’s saved later on by his reappearance in other Star Wars properties, but that’s in spite of this movie, not because of it.
Buy hey, we did get considerable time Jar-Jar Binks, one of the most despised figures in Star Wars history.
In my opinion, Attack of the Clones and The Last Jedi have worse moments. But they also have better ones, too. From start to finish, I think this is the flattest of the movies.
Favorite song: Duel of the Fates