A long time ago, in a brick double-wide a mere 40 meters outside the city of Cincinnati boundary, I first saw The Empire Strikes Back with limited commercial interruption on Fox 19 while Dad slept on the couch (his Sunday tradition). The pew-pews of the blasters, the swagger of Lando’s cape, the unrelated advertisements for McCluskey Automotives. I was hooked from that moment. I would go on to break several plastic lightsabers and overplay two Lego Star Wars games before reaching adulthood, all while taking in each movie with enough repeat viewings and overdue library VHS charges to constitute parental concern for childhood mediocrity. To even try to rank them is so hard, if only because I legitimately enjoy all but one of them (foreshadowing). Still, each one up the list just barely edges out the others in a cinematic podrace of funky sci-fi films.
10. Attack of the Clones
The dialogue is coarser than the sand, a diner scene shouldn’t be the highlight of a Sci-Fi film, and the justified genocide is not only inhuman, but inhuwoman and inhuchildren, too.
9. The Force Awakens
Finally, on to the movies I can relish without giving in to substance abuse (by substance, I am, of course, referring to Papa John’s Garlic Sauce). While near the bottom of the list, The Force Awakens is not a bad movie. It’s got some solid new characters, appropriate treatment to the ones that came before, and droids cool enough to justify a bloated merchandise line. Where I find fault is in the parallels to A New Hope. This isn’t the first time you’ll find homages in this ongoing series. The Last Jedi contains many nods to Revenge of the Sith, but handles these with nuance and twists. The Force Awakens seems content to make these new dualities simple carbon copies, where planet killers and wrinkly bad guy holograms have only gotten bigger, not deeper or weirder.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The last half of Rogue One is, quite possibly, the best Star Wars film of all time. The first of half of Rogue One, on the other hand, are the 26 DragonBall Z episodes it takes to get to that one cool part where the guy with the hair does the laser thing with his hands (I don’t watch DragonBall, sue me). A solid cast and bittersweet ending carry this film up, but boy, does it make you earn it.
7. Revenge of the Sith
When I first saw this film, I thought it was the coolest s*** I had ever seen. There was lava, and a lizard, and General freakin’ Grievous, who was too cool to even try and make jokes about. Now that I’ve grown up a bit, I can kinda see all the stupidity seeping out of the plot. But for me, that’s part of what Star Wars was all about. There’s this overly dramatic, theatrical quality to these nonsensical moments: Dying from sadness, not having the high ground, and suggesting that a lava lamp light show would ever be attended by the grandest of political dignitaries. It’s one of those films that invites a group viewing, where the moments of spectacle are taken in with awe and excitement, while the scenes of overwrought tragedy can be received with jokes and entertained groans.
6. Return of the Jedi
This one came very close to tying with Revenge of the Sith. They both ham it up in the script and portray some truly fun instances of action and sci-fi. Where Return of the Jedi ultimately wins out is in its handling of what came before. There is a beauty and a privilege in getting to end a story, and Return of the Jedi goes for the emotional jugular without overreaching for something undeserved. There are also moments of camp and dialogue bewilderment that bring out laughter, and while these moments sometimes pull away from the emotive beats of the plot, they’re also what make Star Wars the unique story that it is. For better and for worse, Return of the Jedi is the ultimate Star Wars film.
5. Solo: A Star Wars Story
This is the safest narrative in the Star Wars universe, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s warm and familiar, like your favorite boxed brownie recipe. Finding out how Han Solo became the rabble rouser he is in future films isn't exactly a necessary movie, but it turned out to be more thoughtful and more exciting than I was expecting. There's more grit, and some moments lag because of the straining plot, but it's a great joyride in dad’s convertible.
4. The Phantom Menace
There are three parts of The Phantom Menace that absolutely suck: Jar Jar Binks, Young Anakin, and those force fairies that swim in everyone’s bloodstreams like an STD with super powers. That said, Phantom Menace also has some of the absolute best moments in the Star Wars saga. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are expertly cast alongside each other, Natalie Portman brings the best acting chops she can to a character that isn’t yet ruined by Episode II and III, and Darth Maul had a FRICKIN’ DOUBLE LIGHTSABER. The story is also interesting when not bogged down by space politics, and the ending lightsaber fight is hands down the best in all of these movies. This movie is too damn fun to be lumped with the other prequels, even with its many flaws.
3. The Last Jedi
(I would just like to say that I respect any disagreement you might have to this list and where I’ve ranked this movie, but I understand you might still want to fight me behind the school gymnasium after the last bell rings but before football practice starts. Just know that I am a master of the Art of the Possum, where I’ll just fake an asthma attack on the ground until you leave me and my dignity to rot.)
The Last Jedi is so high on my list because it mirrors the intentions of a middle piece like Empire, without copying the schematics to the point that can draw scandalous comparison. This film whips when everyone thinks it would nae nae (I know, I’m going to hell for that reference). Rian Johnson, the singular madman behind the wheel of The Last Jedi, brings forth a tradition of weird and wonderful, and mostly sticks the landing. There are bits that falter and fail to live up to the rest of the film’s elements. Namely, the Finn and Rose storyline is meh with a capital “MEH”. But overall, I found this entry in the Star Wars canon refreshing yet familiar in equal fashion.
2. A New Hope
This one hits home for me personally, mostly because my dad’s best friend also watched me grow up from his desert cave.* A New Hope is spectacular in its simplicity and its heart. There isn’t a need to explain every little bit of the universe, but instead a path for these characters to grow and to follow. Each character now lives in greater fame than some of those on Mount Rushmore, and their legacy has instilled young people with intergalactic heroes and role models. Han, Chewie, Leia, Luke. Even writing them out gives me chills. To begin a movement as interstellar as Star Wars is a feat enough, but to stand tall in your own right is the cherry on top. A New Hope has the best Star Wars essence of any movie, setting sail for adventure and understanding. Few could ask for a more perfect start.
*Not true, whatsoever. Dad’s friend Jerry just comes into town sometimes. I don’t even know where he lives or what he does.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
The curve ball. The left hook. The rise of the Third Reich after Germany’s fall in World War I. Michael Keaton. These are all the second attacks you don’t see coming. Nothing about The Empire Strikes Back falls in line with what you think would happen. We learn that Darth Vader forgot to use birth control. We see Luke isn’t the Force Hotshot we all thought he was, and some wrinkly green kid has to show him a thing or two. We even come to find that losing your first kiss to Leia isn’t all it was cracked up to be. Empire Strikes Back is a monument to storytelling. These reversals and switcharoos aren’t just for the shock value. They establish grand paths for our heroes, and our villains. What could’ve been more of the same instead provided something different, something tragic. The Empire Strikes Back is the best film because it jumps right in and throws everyone for a loop, and every risk pays off.
Joe Brueggemeyer hosts and edits The Marquee podcast with Logan, and has an unhealthy obsession with baking.