#4 – Return of the Jedi
Pretty much everything involving Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor is fantastic in this movie. Luke genuinely seems tempted by the Dark Side, and it was a real surprise the first time the Emperor unleashed Force Lightning. Vader’s death and redemption is also handled extremely well as he gives his life to save his son and restore the Jedi, apparently bringing balance to the Force at long last. It was also a huge pay off to see what was under Vader’s helmet after three movies, especially before the prequels came out and audiences knew little about how he ended up in that black suit.
The beginning of the film, set in Jabba’s palace is also great. It’s sort of a more in-depth version of the Cantina scene in A New Hope. There’s a reason it’s been parodied in so many other films and TV shows. Just try to ignore the extra CGI scenes that were added to the Special Edition. They were kinda impressive back in 1997, but now they just look like terrible outcasts from late ’90s soft drink commercials. The Special Edition content didn’t really help any of the original movies, but it definitely hurt Jedi the most.
So why does Jedi fall in the middle of the pack? The Ewoks. They’re not the worst thing about Star Wars, and they’re even kind of likable. But really, a bunch of primitive midget bears nearly destroyed the great Galactic Empire? (Fun fact: the Ewoks were originally supposed to be Wookies, but they eventually were changed for story and budget reasons.)
#3 – The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens really is on par with the original trilogy. Yes, there are plenty of plot holes if you really think about everything, but the first entry in the sequel trilogy has already accomplished something the prequels never could: It introduced new characters that Star Wars fans actually care about. The mystery of why Rey has been hidden on Jakku is genuinely intriguing. Finn is a really funny and likable guy whose defection from the First Order has introduced a new type of character to the Star Wars mythos. Then there’s the conflicted Kylo Ren, a villain just as intimidating as Darth Vader, and possibly even more ruthless. And they all fit in perfectly with the returning cast members from the original trilogy. The Force Awakens may not be the best Star Wars movie, but if Episodes VIII and IX follow its lead, either of them could some day top a list like this.
#2 – A New Hope
Almost 40 years on, few sci-fi movies have accomplished what A New Hope did, and that’s not just creating a billion-dollar media empire. Despite being shot on a relatively low budget, A New Hope managed to feel like a real alien world was being captured on the big screen. Watching the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, it still feels like you’re watching actual aliens meet in a bar. They each seem to have their own backstory, and those are stories you want to hear. And through smart prop and set design, this world looks “lived in.” It doesn’t seem like just a story that the Empire and the Rebel Alliance have been locked in a war for years now. This really is happening in a galaxy far, far away.
If there’s one down side to A New Hope, it’s that it feels like more of a standalone film than the other Star Wars movies, and that’s of course because George Lucas didn’t know at the time if he’d be able to make any more. But it’s also that independence that allows it to tell such a cohesive story and that has made it so enduring.
#1 – The Empire Strikes Back
While standalone stories are all well and good, there’s a lot to be said for a great sequel too. The Empire Strikes Back is when Star Wars really became Star Wars. Empire introduced more beloved characters than almost any other chapter in the saga, like Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and Boba Fett (the cartoon appearance in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special doesn’t really count). This is the movie that gave the world the unforgettable battle on Hoth, Han Solo frozen in carbonite and of course the big reveal of Luke’s father. The entire movie is like a greatest hits real of the best moments in sci-fi. The only downside is that it’s so good, it’s been almost impossible for any Star Wars movie ever since to live up to it.