Often described as one of cinema’s supreme visual artists, Ridley Scott has enjoyed a directorial career spanning some 40 years, graduating from British commercials to The Duellists in 1977, his first feature film. Ever since, Scott’s mastery of the cinematic medium has given us some of the most iconic moments in movie history – from the first glimpse of the terrifying Alien chest-burster, to Rutger Hauer’s most effective performance as a renegade replicant, to Russell Crowe’s thunderous battle-hardened portrayal of a gladiator in ancient Rome, his camera captures both the visceral bloodlust humanity often displays and the most innocent, heartbreaking elegance of life – through Ridley’s keen eye we’ve been taken to the deepest reaches of outer space, the historical schism of the Crusades, the shrapnel-ridden streets of Mogadishu, and everywhere in between. There’s no denying that Ridley is a film-maker of incredible visual style.Here, we have tried to determine which of his 19 theatrical films would fit into the 10 best – there’s plenty to choose from, and there’s quality everywhere, but only room for ten. Let’s get to countin’!
Slow-burn twist film, with plenty of great surprises, Matchstick Men appeared and disappeared almost without a trace upon initial release. Which is annoying, because it’s a stylish, layered and highly competent film (unlike A Good Year, which reeked of self-indulgence) and the key performances from Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman are sublime to watch. Nic Cage delivers a performance well above his more recent standard, but even he seems bored by the end result here. An enjoyable entry into the top 10.
Slick, polished and pointed action-thriller starring Michael Douglas, who was at the top of his game when this film was made. Set between Japan and New York, the film makes a point of highlighting the differences between the Japanese and American law enforcement ideals, and while it may have dated somewhat in the intervening years, Black Rain is still an effective thriller even now.
Scott re-teams with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington for this 70’s based crime thriller, based on a true story, in which Washington plays against type as a criminal kingpin being pursued by Crowe’s hard-bitten and dedicated cop. Less flashy than Scott’s usual theatrics, American Gangster is a simple story told in a simple, effective style. The casting and performances are superb, and the brutality of Harlem back in the 70’s is effectively reproduced with some detailed and well shot production design. One of Denzel’s better performances on film, in my mind.
Scott re-teams with Russell Crowe (yet again) and Leonardo DiCaprio for this thrilling, hi-octane spy flick. Set in the Middle East, where tensions and terrorist plots are rife, Leo plays an undercover CIA operative being “handled” by Crowe back at the Pentagon. When his mission to uncover and capture a (fictional) Arabic terrorist starts to get a little sticky, Leo’s operative character must use all his ingenuity and guile to deliver the good and stay alive – not an easy task in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. Scott’s usual visual acuity is once more on display, and the script (and plot) is intelligent, sharply delivered and never once dumbs down to the audience.
Quintessential feminist flick, and the now infamous introduction of Brad Pitts abdominals, Thelma and Louise hit a nerve with audiences of the time (1991) for its reversal of normally masculine themes of escape from a dull, repetitive life. Both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars for their roles here, and deservedly so. They brought a realism to their portrayal of two women seeking to escape the drudgery of modern life and unloving husbands. They embark on a road trip, traversing the country in an open-top and getting up to all manner of mischief. Fun, poignant, and uplifting, Thelma & Louise is definitely one for the girls.
Quasi-politics aside, Black Hawk Down remains one of the most brutal war-flicks ever made. The US military goes into strife torn Mogadishu to capture a wanted warlord, and ends up in a siege with the local militia when one of their vaunted Black Hawk helicopters goes down (hence the title!). With the “leave no man behind” creed smothering almost all human logic to simply cut and run, Black Hawk Down is a barrage of bullets, explosions, and subtle, nuanced American machismo without the machismo. It’s stoic, visually stunning, and performed by one of the best ensemble casts ever put on screen – Josh Hartnett doesn’t stretch his range too much, even though he pretty much headlines the film, but he’s ably backed up by a plethora of talent both young and old.
I know, I know, many of you will say I’ve put this film in about three places too early. Alien, as definitive a sci-fi thriller as you’re likely to get, stars Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, battling it out with a vicious, unstoppable alien killing machine on her enormous mining ship floating through space. Filled with iconic moments, the most famous being John Hurt’s last ever cinematic breakfast, Alien remains one of the the genre’s most evocative and copied films.
Not to be confused with the truly awful Theatrical Version that Fox decided to breech-birth into cinemas originally, Ridley was allowed to produce and release his official Director’s Cut on DVD to show us all exactly what he was trying to do the first time round. In what can only be described as an astonishing vision of depth, humanity and style, the lengthier, meatier version of Kingdom of Heaven is truly a cinematic event. Characters are more fleshed out, the narrative doesn’t feel as compressed or as wooden as the theatrical version, and sub-plots are given time to breathe and allow the story to marinate. Those of you who saw the theatrical version and, like me, were amazed a major studio would allow a film so hollow to be released, should – nay, must – do yourselves a favor and revisit this film in its extended version. A more rewarding cinematic treat you won’t find.
Iconic, almost impossible film to try and pick apart (which is perhaps why a half-written review for it is still sitting in my “to be completed” list on my own site!) and critique in any negative way, Blade Runner stands the test of time as one of Hollywoods all-time great science fictions films. Amazingly, Blade Runner wasn’t a massive success initially, and took the video (and DVD) market to really initiate it into the “classic” status it now enjoys, Blade Runner has been released in a variety of versions over the journey, all with varying results. The most recent version, now available on Blu-Ray, is the version Ridley Scott himself approved for the HD format, and you’d think that yet another version of this film might lessen its impact after all these years, you’ll find it’s not so. New viewers may well be baffled and amazed, but hard-core fans will know what I’m talking about.
Ridley’s stunning photography and scripting, Russell Crowe’s defining role, and Hans Zimmers best score, all combine to make Gladiator one of the finest films in Scott’s oeuvre. Bloody, brutal and also magnificent, Gladiator remains Ridley Scott’s most accomplished film, hitting the top of the class in every aspect. Deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, and remaining an enthralling film even a decade later, Gladiator is the maximus film Scott has delivered. Crowe plays a Roman General, Maximus, who is betrayed by the Emperor’s angry young son (Joaquin Phoenix), and ends up becoming a celebrity in the world of gladiatorial combat – Maximus works his way up from the minor skirmishes of the ring to the major leagues of the Colosseum in Rome, where he confronts his betrayer and brings about a long-sought revenge. Action packed, emotional and evocative, Gladiator set the standard for the new millennium and raised the bar for Scott himself.