The Skywalker saga, which dates back to 1977, came to a close on December 19, when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hit theaters. Between that end of an era, and Baby Yoda taking over the internet with his scene-stealing performance on The Mandalorian, we thought now is as good a time as any to rank all the live-action Star Wars movies. That includes the original trilogy, prequels, new trilogy, and the anthology films, but not The Clone Wars or Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and its sequel, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, which would obviously be number one.
11. Solo: A Star Wars Story
Honestly, it’s impressive Solo turned out as well as it did, considering all the behind-the-scenes drama. Alden Ehrenreich makes for a halfway decent Han Solo, which is no small task, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of an outspoken droid is inspired casting. But otherwise, Solo is the only anonymous Star Wars movie. There’s very little engaging about it, and the only truly memorable sequence is the train heist. Oh, and when Han Solo “gets” his name. But that’s not the good kind of memorable.
10. Revenge of the Sith
Just because it’s competent, doesn’t mean it’s good. Revenge of the Sith is generally considered the best of the prequels, because it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks fart jokes or Anakin monologuing about how much he hates sand. My response to that? Noooooo. Sith should feel stirring, considering it’s when Padmé dies and Anakin becomes Darth Vader and Obi-Wan and Yoda retreats into exile and we get to see the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk for the first time since the Star Wars Holiday Special (this is important to some people… me), but George Lucas is too concerned with crossing off items on his “things that have to happen to set up A New Hope” list for it to leave much of an impact.
9. The Rise of Skywalker
Simply put, The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. A widely entertaining mess at times, but a mess nonetheless. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of good stuff in there, from Rey and Kylo Ren’s fascinating relationship (and electric chemistry), to Rey, Finn, and Poe spending so much time together, to the introduction of my best friend Babu Frik. But every time Rise finds a groove, it lightspeed skips to another planet or, worse yet, indulges in an unnecessary callback or opens up one of J.J. Abrams’ mystery boxes (someone clearly wasn’t listening when Kylo instructed Rey to “let the past die”). The Rise of Skywalker isn’t the worst Star Wars movie, but it’s the most disappointing.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
When Rogue One came out, it was, I must admit, my least favorite Star Wars movie. It felt pointless, answering questions that were more fun to self-canonize, but in the years since, I’ve come around on the franchise’s first non-Skywalker film. I can appreciate the movie it’s trying to be, Disney’s Saving Private Ryan… in space, even if it never quite gets there. It comes close in the thrilling third act, though, especially Vader’s brutal assault in the moments leading up to A New Hope. But mostly, I was reminded, “I wish I was watching A New Hope instead.”
7. Attack of the Clones
My colleague Mike Ryan recently referred to Attack of the Clones as the “best Star Wars prequel.” I, with all due respect, disagree, but there’s one thing we do agree on: it’s bad, “but not quite as bad as its made out to be.” That’s because, what a weird movie! In the first 30 or so minutes, we get death sticks and diner owner Dexter Jettster and impossibly clunky lines like “investigation is implied in our mandate” (this is not a full-hearted defense of Hayden Christensen, but you try making that sound natural while surrounded by green screen nonsense). It’s also 17 movies in one, including Detective Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme’s much-mocked romance, Yoda v. Dooku: Dawn of CGI, and the Gladiator antics on Geonosis. Attack of the Clones is a mess, but what a mess!
6. The Phantom Menace
Am I over-ranking The Phantom Menace? Probably. Is that because it was the first Star Wars movie released in my lifetime, and I was 11 years old when it came out, and now, as a 32-year-old adult, I own a Watto shirt? Most definitely. But unlike the other two prequels, The Phantom Menace has one unequivocally great set piece: the podrace sequence. It’s a narrative stall, and when you think about it, it’s weird that the tension comes from an adult space-wizard betting a slave child will drive his floating car faster than some weird looking aliens (including poor Ben Quadinaros). But! It’s cool! It’s not enough to forgive all tax negotiation talk and Jar Jar Binks tomfoolery, but I’ll take the podrace — not to mention the Darth Muel duel — over General Grievous any time.
5. The Force Awakens
Do you remember how you felt entering the theater to see The Force Awakens, that mix of dread, excitement, and cautious optimism? And what was it like leaving two hours later, relieved that Star Wars was back, baby? Chewie, we’re home. The Force Awakens established a new group of fan-favorite characters, including Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe, and Finn, and you’d have to be a real piece of sith to not have felt a chill down your spine when Luke returned for the first time in 30 years, but while there are no massive miscalculations in the movie (except maybe the rathtar), it’s too much of a slavishly faithful recreation of A New Hope to rank higher. I give it one out of two BB-8 thumbs up.
4. Return of the Jedi
Return of the Jedi has its issues, sure, including Luke’s plan to escape Jabba’s depraved sail barge, the flat direction, and, of course, the Ewoks, but it’s also wildly fun. And no one looks like they had more fun making Jedi than Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. The cackling laughter, the slow swivel on his villain chair, the scenery consuming (he doesn’t chew, he gorges) — if I could give one performance from any Star Wars movie an Oscar, this is the one. Sheev more than makes up for the ewoks, though “Yub Nub” is a jam.
3. The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi is a tough movie to rank, because no matter where I put it, many someones are going to yell at me about it being too high or too low. This is the most controversial entry in the franchise, and also one of the best. The Last Jedi subverts some of the worst Star Wars tropes, which is precisely the reason so many people hated it. Beginning with a joke? Luke as a grumpy hermit? Rey not being a Skywalker? How dare Rian Johnson. But it’s his daring script that makes The Last Jedi so thrilling and fresh (no easy task for a four-decade-old franchise), how unlike every other Star Wars movie it is, while also having a deep understanding of what made Star Wars so special in the first place. Also, the throne room fight scene? Now that’s the good stuff.
2. Star Wars
If I could show only one Star Wars movie to someone who has been living in an underground bunker since 1975 (a Blast from the Past scenario, if you will), I would go with, well, Star Wars (which I’m going to refer to as A New Hope from now on). Not only because it’s the first film in the franchise — I’m already dreading having to explain the “why is it Episode IV?” thing in this hypothetical scenario — but also because it’s the only standalone Star Wars movie, and that includes the standalones. A New Hope requires no previous knowledge of the (ugh) cinematic universe, and it has an actual ending that isn’t setting up a sequel or resolving the action from previous films. It’s its own thing. It’s also, to put it simply, still really good, which is no easy feat. It’s not like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is anyone’s favorite Harry Potter movie. A New Hope established everything to come, and it was fully formed from the beginning.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
With these kind of ranking, it’s tempting to put something unexpected in the top spot. Like with our recent Pearl Jam songs post — number one is probably “Jeremy,” the band’s best-known song, right? Wrong! It’s “Release.” That’s way more fun than the obvious choice. Well, my fellow Star Wars fans, I regret to inform you that I went with the obvious choice. The Empire Strikes Back is not only the best Star Wars movie, it’s also, I would argue, one of the best movies of all-time. It looks great; Mark Hamill gives his finest non-voice of the Joker performance, especially compared to Luke’s whininess in A New Hope (Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were already great); the score is iconic (John Williams was flexing hard the day he composed “The Imperial March”); Lando’s betrayal still makes me gasp, even though I’ve seen the movie dozens of times; and it’s the rare sequel where the good guys lose. That’s not supposed to happen! But The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the moody teenager of the original trilogy (despite Luke’s reaction) — the dark themes of regret and loss are there, but it’s also a hopeful movie about the human (and, uh, droid) spirit to keep trying, even after you lose. And lose again. What keeps me coming back to Star Wars isn’t the lightsaber fights or space battles, although those are cool, obviously. It’s the characters, and The Empire Strikes Back is where Luke, Han, and Leia, not to mention Yoda, Lando, and Chewbacca, shine brighter than an exploding Death Star. Also, there’s no Death Star. More Star Wars movies should have no Death Star. I I love you, The Empire Strikes Back. (I know.)