When asked about his diversity of films and if he himself had any idea what constitutes a Ridley Scott film, the 77-year old director admitted, “There never was a plan and there still is no plan. I just jump into what fascinates me next.” His fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude towards picking projects is illustrated by his definitively wonky filmography.
Before making the transition into full-time filmmaking, Scott directed a staggering 2,700+ commercials. In 1977, he debuted his first feature film The Duellists at Cannes. It won the Best Debut Film award. In the following 37 years that he’s been making feature films, Ridley Scott’s directed a whooping 22 movies. Some were soaring victories, others utter failures. With brother Tony Scott, Ridley formed the Scott Free production company in 1984 (which produced anything from The Grey and The A-Team to Out of the Furnance and Cyrus.)
The 2000s were his most prolific age, making nine films between 2000 and 2010. That being said, if that workhorse decade proved anything, it’s that he’s a filmmaker who produced his best material when given more time to marinate. His earlier features took ample time between filming (usually a few year period) but as his career of late has showcased, his wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am tendencies haven’t always yielded positive results
He’s a confident fella still, never reading his own press and thinking himself all the better for it. Ironically enough, he still calls himself his biggest critic (an easy claim if you’re not reading any other criticism.)
Just in time for the December 12th release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to go through and watch and re-watch all 22 of Scott’s films to provide you with the ranking you know you want. Do note that for this ranking, only director’s cuts will be considered. Thrash and rage as much as you please, just know your pleas will not be heard. For this is the only ranking from across the abyss of the vast internets that actually needs attention paid. So get ready to be entertained and let’s get down to ranking.
22. LEGEND (1985)
Legends tell the, uh, legend of lostboy/loverboy/ponyboy Tom Cruise who must stop a heavy metal Prince of Darkness (a red Tim Curry in giant horns) from exterminating the last living unicorn. I’ve heard a fair amount of defense for this movie (not buying it) but that does little to quell my utter confusion and distain for this messterpiece. Seriously, how was this crud ever released? (a thematic question that runs through Scott’s career.) It’s too dark for kids and too dumb for adults; a puzzling crossroads between shamelessness and stupidity. It’s borderline prosperous to think that Scott’s dark fairytale came on the heels of Alien and Blade Runner (two of the most appreciated and influential sci-fi films of all time.) Legend is so poorly written and so horrendously acted, it made me wish I were watching The Chronicles of Narnia. Imagine Labyrinth by way of Schumacher. The Neverending Story by Nick Sparks. Featuring unicorns glimmering in fields so hard they make Lisa Frank look subtle and Tom Cruise is thigh-high chainmail (complimented by an equally chainmail jock strap), Legend is everything wrong with the ’80s. The dialogue is as complex as a pop-up book with gag-worthy rhymes and mushy love speeches that invite more gags than tapioca jellies. It’s hard to knock the righteous practical effects and creature design (horny Curry is one badass sexy mama) but everything else is startlingly bad and horrendously colorful.
21. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987)
After the utter glitter garbage that is Legend, Scott threatened to become even less relevant by directing a movie who’s biggest star was a supporting character in 1998’s Lost in Space. And yes, I am referring to Mimi Rogers. Notorious “badass” filmmaker Guy Ritchie made a Madonna island movie, so Scott seemed entitled to his own low rent crime thriller. Pity that Scott’s romantic whodunnit only further fleshed out how uninspired Scott’s films were willing to be. The acting from Rogers and Tom Berenger is thoroughly spotty, particularly in emotion-driven moment, making for a film that sticks out more than any in his oeuvre as completely uninspired (yes, moreso than A Good Year); a detour into a genre that benefited little from his creative control. Contrived and thoughtless, Someone to Watch Over Me is without interesting characters or plot twists, stuffed with lackey ballads, proving once again the devastating power of bad ’80s music. Not only is this Scott’s most uninteresting film, it’s also his least stylish.
20. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)
Scott’s laughable take on a classic old Testament story is as misplaced as my wallet usually is. A wrathful god spits plagues like a Dilophosaurus as Christian Bale plays guerilla warfare with Joel Edgerton‘s army of hairless peons. It’s a tragically long take on a senseless story (how do all the animals die and yet the Hebrews still have sheep around to blood let? Did only the Jewish sheep live? Are sheep not animals?) that can’t escape a total sense of purposelessness. An unenviable watch for beliebers and nonbeliebers alike, Exodus: Gods and Kings shows off Scott’s knack for re-imagining the former glory of empires past and little else.
19. HANNIBAL (2001)
First introduced in a series of novels from Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lecter has appeared in some form or other in five films and an ongoing NBC television program (with the always fabulous Mads Mikkelsen in the role.) No actor has quite filled the shoes of the famed psychologist cannibal like Anthony Hopkins (who won an Oscar for his turn as Lecter in Silence of the Lambs) but all the creepy charisma in the world couldn’t save Hopkins from a lame script and uninspired plotting. More interested in gross-outs than smart psychology, RS’s follow up to Jonathan Demme‘s Oscar winner is almost a mockery of its predecessor. And although it made for some admittedly beautiful celluloid, nothing can account for its hollow and angry center.
18. WHITE SQUALL (1996)
Scott seemed on an ill-fated sailing kick after 1492 as his next film White Squall was basically Outsiders at sea; his wave-riding Dead Poet’s Society. That the plot – a group of jettisoned teens take a semester at sea to become men under the tutelage of a stern but just captain – is such standard feel good material detracts from Scott’s early impeccable camerawork. Ships, seascapes and islands glow and DP Hugh Johnson helps Scott to paint a gorgeous picture of ocean bound coming-of-age. Once White Squall starts to get all white squall-y though, Scott’s technical aptitude melts away, revealing set pieces that look devastatingly artificial, yanking us right out of the moment and dosing us with laughing gas. Jeff Bridges puts in a solid turn as the strong-jawed captain, while a wailing Ryan Phillippe represents everything so sorely lacking in this pre-Titanic catamaranastrophe.
17. A GOOD YEAR (2006)
An airy, underwritten rom-com that thrives on the staying power of its cast, A Good Year is Scott at his least inspired. A strange descent into unexplored cliche territory for the director, this French-set wine comedy is as close as you can get to an acceptable romantic comedy, though its charmed, saccharine taste is as sweet and juvenile as two buck Riesling. Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard star as an odd couple who fall cripplingly in love after a one-night tryst, as people are wont to do in rom-coms. Wine talk and vine talk follows with oaked barrels of hackneyed dialogue that has Crowe trying out comedic grounds about as sturdy as the Hindenburg. Scott proved that Crowe doing comedy is like Rob Schneider doing drama. No need to ever do THAT again. But though fluffy and without any cultural staying power to speak of, A Good Year is a pleasing, sunny chateua rom-com for people who don’t like rom-coms.
16. BLACK RAIN (1989)
As I’ve already harped on, the mid- to late-80s held few victories for the gingery British auteur with Scott’s reliance on dated soundtracks and schlocky ballads ringing out as especially antiquated today. By 1989, he seemed like a filmmaker who’d lost his footing, damned to repeat the many mistakes of his recent past. With Black Rain, Scott attempts to steer his name into new territory with a super stylized Japan-set shoot-em-up the likes of Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours. It’s not without its fair share of movie sins – this being the late-80s, the chauvinistic, xenophobic and borderline racist elements of Black Rain can be slightly written off as a product of the times but that doesn’t make it any less cringe-worthy today – but as the movie moves into a series of titillating action scenes, they can almost be forgiven. Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia star as a pair of Brooklyn detectives who must deliver a criminal gang member to Japan only to lose him in the hubbub of everyone looking alike. It’s basically Rush Hour without the jokes and Jackie Chan with the added technical brilliance of Scott’s camerawork. It takes a while for the film to heat up but the later half is a truly solid buddy cop/action flick with some genuinely gorgeous camerawork uncharacteristic of the genre.
15: ROBIN HOOD (2010)
The last of five films Scott made with star Russell Crowe, Robin Hood caught a lot of flack for being, well, not that good. The biggest problem with the film is that doesn’t really have anything to do with the Robin Hood we know and love. There’s little to no actual stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and Robin Longstride’s (he’s not even called f*cking Robin Hood!!!) journey could have been one of any archer rising against a corrupt Colonial England. Overstuffed with too many side plots that don’t fold together into a totally cohesive whole, Robin Hood is basically Gladiator with arrows but it lacks the kinetic energy and intriguing character arcs of that former Scott-Crowe pairing. Scott aping his earlier success is not entirely without merit though; the spectacle is nothing short of enchanting and it’s always fun to see Crowe in howling warrior mode. But considering that this never even reached the heights of the 1991 Kevin Costner rendition, all you’re left with is a mildly forgettable and ultimately unnecessary entry to Scott’s oeuvre.
14. BODY OF LIES (2008)
Scott’s sense for grizzly combat realism reared its head again in Body of Lies, a devastatingly dense and yet largely hollow account of an undercover operative and his handler. Russell Crowe is a relegated to little more than a political mouthpiece while a never-been-less-charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio – who’s eyes look like black scarabs in those dark lens contacts – runs around Jordan stabbing dogs and stuff. There’s more short order Islamic political intrigue (Scott seems to have developed an Islam obsession in the last few decades) but the pieces fit together awkwardly and tiredly. Both actors do their best to elevate the material beyond the spy thriller basics but even they aren’t entirely up to the task.
13. G.I. JANE (1997)
Scott’s on-the-nose meditation on battlefield feminism falls in line with similar “minorities overcoming the odds and earning the respect of their white male peers” stories but a solid turn from Demi Moore amidst timely themes of perseverance helps make G.I. Jane an enjoyable, if not entirely unforgettable watch. But to see the patriarchal motifs echo still in today’s military culture (check out doc The Invisible War for more on that) is a sign of just how important this 1997 film should have been. Little known fact: in the original cut, Moore’s Jordan bites the bullet while saving her C.O. in a standoff. Studio executives deemed it too dark and landed with the more down the middle finale audiences have exclusively been shown.
12: 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992)
The beginning of a string of historical epics, Scott’s first foray into large scale is beset by as many issues as it has moments of transcendence. As historically accurate as Hook, 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a history lesson without the burden of truth. A cinematic puff piece about Columbus (who was actually a real dick), 1492 has Gérard Depardieu play a version of the famous explorer who’s more of an Italian Jesus (played by a French man) than any accurate depiction. This Columbus likes his conquest served with a side of peace. He’s a devout and moral servant of the good. A bigger pile of malarkey cannot be imagined. A gravelly Michael Wincott as a corruptible noble/man in black is attributed with all the vices of Columbus, making this historical fiction all the more misrepresenting and feeble. As example, we see Wincott chop off the hands of natives who don’t bring forward a satisfactory amount of gold as tax where it was indeed Columbus who actually introduced this barbaric practice. Nonetheless, 1492 is a beautifully lit, absolutely riveting visual feast with a barrage of amazing set pieces, costumery and dedication to scope. The mincing of history is thoroughly disdainful but Conquest of Paradise was the start of a fascination that would eventually lead to bigger and better things. It was also the closest he’s ever gotten to aping Werner Herzog.
11: MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)
Steven Soderbergh made his Ocean’s 11 (through 13) and Ridley Scott made his Matchstick Men. Everyone has to pan to the masses at some point or other. Though it took Scott a good few times to actual pan the right way. Featuring a whacked out performance (don’t necessarily confuse that with good) from Nicholas Cage – who hoots and yips his way through a crippling case of OCD – Matchstick Men is your run-of-the-mill con job movie mixed up with a “getting to know you” father-daughter tale. Major plot holes suggest the kind of long con Scott is driving towards but we can’t help but collectively disown a heralded con man who’s very clearly being conned all along.
10: THE COUNSELOR (2013)
Stepping away from the big, lavish productions of Scott’s more recent material, The Counselor was a bold, gloomy step in a new direction for the prolific director. Michael Fassbender starred opposite a cheetah-obsessed Cameron Diaz in a cartel revenge narrative that swerved between zany and ice cold and the reviews were mixed to say the least. Based on an original script from Cormac McCarthy, many found issue with the dialogue-heavy architecture of Scott’s neo-Western but missed the larger picture at play. As I wrote in my 2013 review, “Illustrating his potential for staggeringly intelligent storytelling, there are explosions of excellence scattered throughout The Counselor and a surgeon-steady backbone of thoughtful inspiration but it gets a little muddled along the way. The wealth of intriguing ideas are there but I’m not convinced that they are ever fully realized.” That assessment holds up today.
9: KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005)
Scott’s third foray into ancient times (not to be his last) proved as hit or miss as his career. On making this list, we took into account the three-plus hour Director’s Cut (the only version that Scott himself recognizes), a cut superior to the original in many but not all ways. Most decisively, the length is unenviable. Kingdom of Heaven tells the story of a blacksmith who unwittingly becomes the protector of Jerusalem and is bequeathed with a noble cast: Liam Neeson, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Michael Sheen. The trouble is lead Orlando Bloom has the charisma of soggy Chow Mein and struggles under maintaining the weight of a 3-hour historical epic. For a film clocking in at 188 minutes, that’s a lot of time to spend with a character who’s barely so-so. Scott’s knack for framing battle though has never been better, especially when he has Muslim and Christian armies go head-to-head with missiles blazing overhead, thunderous siege towers slamming against a bevy of massively impressive sets and too many high-cocked swords to count lobbing off life and limb. Deliberately less politically motivated than 1492, Kingdom of Heaven provides an intriguing counterpoint to the tales of the Crusades. The film however is never overwhelmingly good.
8: BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)
War films have tackled many a theme throughout the years but none play as cold a number game as Ridley’s Black Hawk Down. Featuring a menagerie of young talented stars (…and Josh Hartnett), Hawk is a balls-to-the-walls military onslaught; a deeply frustrating (predominantly because of its trigger happy politics) and yet empathetic film. The stage is established around a 1993 raid in Mogadishu by special US Delta forces in which a special ops’ attempt to capture leaders from Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s inner circle ends up in a vicious rescue circle. The battle is fierce and visceral, with palpable pain surging through it, but that cannot hijack the fact that none of Scott’s characters are developed in the least. For a movie whose central thesis is, “We do it for the man next to us,” we learn almost nothing about these men beyond their sense of duty and penchant for bravery. Nonetheless, Black Hawk Down is a first-rate war saga that’s blindingly intense and impeccably photographed.
7: PROMETHEUS (2012)
A long-awaited return to the Alien universe, Prometheus is a film of great proportion. The visual palette is among Scott’s best, even if the story gets away from scribes Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. Nevertheless, there’s enough intrigue within the walls of Scott’s quasi-prequel/sequel/sideways-quel to overshadow the bulk of wrong turns taken in the story, i.e. a biologist who inexplicably decides to try and touch an alien snake species. Obviously that isn’t going to end well. Scott establishes early on that Prometheus is going to be a film that takes on something as massive and heady as the creation of our species but by the second act, it was little more than a by-the-books sci-fi horror bout. A sturdy cast – Michael Fassbender has a blast as an untrustworthy AI – and impeccably realized alien landscapes makes the film arresting and immersive even if it never quite lived up to its promise of going to infinity and beyond.
6: AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)
My man. Denzel Washington‘s cocky smile and killer style are put to the test in Scott’s decade-spanning deconstruction of the inner workings of criminal socio-politics as inner-city black gangster Frank Lucas builds a Scarface-sized drug empire. Restrained and epic in scope, Gangster works foremost because of screenwriter Steve Zaillian‘s equal dedication to its main characters, allowing the good and the bad to bleed into one another for a real potpourri of values judgements. Washington makes for a gripping anti-hero (a real Robin Hood of the streets) and he gives the performance all he has. Facing down “uncorruptible” cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), Denzel’s Lucas became a fast icon of steely success – a one-man empire hotter than the mob and just as quick with a trigger finger. Scott’s true life tale was a return to form for the director (following A Good Year) and has gone on to become one of Scott’s most celebrated, with a small but fervent cult following.
5: THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)
Breaking into Scott’s top five, this is where things begin to get truly great. Crammed between the unsung Black Rain and critically reviled 1492: Conquest of Paradise came Scott’s early-90’s saving grace: Thelma and Louise, a girl power, high-octane flick with real staying power. Scott turned Callie Khouri‘s dynamic script of a housewife and waitress escaping the domesticity of suburbia into a true power house, offering stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandan a chance to break out of the spotlight in a big way. Even today, Scott’s gun-totting neo-feminist road movie is amongst his best; it’s fierce, uncompromising and iconic. A dirty look into the cogs of gender revenge, Scott blows the dust off of cultural stagnation with Thelma and Louise, reasserting himself as a name worth remembering.
4. THE DUELLISTS (1977)
The first film Scott directed is also one of his best. Starring a young Harvey Keitel and an even younger Keith Carradine as a pair of rival swordsmen enlisted in Napoleon’s army, Scott’s film debut is a period piece decked out in fanciful costumery, soaring sets and perfumed dialogue that’s surprisingly centered in a sense of violence and crippling rivalry. It’s that rare costume drama with guts. Scott’s touch is as sharp, cold and deadly as his sword-swinging characters and the French warscapes that ebbs in and out of the film are surrealistic, proving that Scott could achieve wonders on a shoestring budget. The string of duels become increasingly intense, until Scott caps it off with a final shot that is quite simply amazing. First time DP Frank Tidy shoulda won best cinematography for that sequence alone. Though often overlooked in Scott’s oeuvre, The Duellists is one of his most unforgettable.
3. GLADIATOR (2000)
Scott’s tale of a Roman commander turned slave who rises up against a childish and salacious Emperor is a thing of testosterone-laden high art. Beaten and battered almost as much during the filming as he is in the film – star Russell Crowe suffered broken bones in his hip and feet from his gladiatorial acrobatics – Crowe embodies the throbbingly muscled Maximus but it’s Joaquin Phoenix who steals the show as the lecherous, spindly Commodus. And Scott offers the perfect blend of the two; mincing brains with brawn in irresistible manner. With Gladiator, Scott showed off maybe his finest example of showmanship; his deft ability to balance irresistible drama with neck break action in blood-pumping, gory display. Gladiator marked the first occasion that Scott and Crowe worked with one another and is easily their best product and one of the director’s most fully satisfying works.
2. ALIEN (1979)
Ruthlessly blending imaginative sci-fi scenery, supernatural thrills and horror, Alien truly is a space-bound achievement like none other. While The Duelists announced the birth of a filmmaker full of life and intelligence, his sophomore effort introduced the whole world to Ridley Scott and he took full advance of his relative unknown status, delivering a movie light years away from the genre of his first feature. His direction here is impeccable and cryptic, unveiling its mysteries at an absorbing pace; his world flush with complexly expansive sets that hold up 35 years on. More of a waiting game than the onslaught that Cameron would later turn it into, Scott’s Alien was more focused on telling a story of semi-believable horror. He strategically combs our collective unconscious for that most heinous of corners and no thing (save for maybe an alien abortion) is flat-out yuckier than a chest-bursting weiner with metal teeth or a milky severed AI head.
1. BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Philip K. Dick has been adapted by many prolific filmmakers – Steven Speilberg (Minority Report), Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly), Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) – but none took the task quite as deadly serious as ol’ Riddler Scott. Blade Runner stars a Harrison Ford hot off Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark as the tormented, titular blade runner – a ruthless hunter of AI’s known as replicants. A sci-fi film more interested in philosophical pondering (“tears in the rain”) than shoot ups, Blade Runner redefined the genre, proving that less is often more and that atmosphere could be a character in and of itself. The director’s cut of the film is infinitely better than the theatrical version – which subbed in voice-over and an altered ending – so make sure that whenever you’re watching to pop on Scott’s definitive vision or else you might as well skip it. Few films have gone on to effect the world of cinema as much as Scott’s third and for good reason; it’s a damn near masterpiece.
1. Blade Runner
4. The Duellists
5. Thelma and Louise
6. American Gangster
8. Black Hawk Down
9. Kingdom of Heaven
10. The Counselor
11. Matchstick Men
12. Robin Hood
13. 1492: Conquest of Paradise
14. G.I. Jane
15. Body of Lies
16. Black Rain
17. A Good Year
18. White Squall
21. Someone to Watch Over Me