Over a nearly 40-year career, Ridley Scott has established a reputation as a master technician, a meticulous, painterly filmmaker, a strong director of actors, and one of the most uneven of all great directors. Scott has made as many bad, mediocre or just-OK movies as he has made good-to-great ones. He seems incapable of distinguishing a good script from a sloppy one, which means that his undeniable gifts as a craftsman usually augment whatever idiocies lie in the text. But Scott has a number of bonafide classics under his belt, as well as several overlooked or undervalued films. For his 77th birthday, Indiewire has ranked all of his features, from worst to best.
21. “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992)
On paper, Ridley Scott directing a film about the divisive historical figure Christopher Columbus sounds promising – Scott has always flourished when dealing with stories about when obsession and ambition leads to cruelty. The trouble is that screenwriter Roselyne Bosch is a better researcher than she is a screenwriter, and she and Scott get lost in the bric-a-brac and period surrounding Columbus in a lumbering, dryly historical way without establishing how, for example, the Spanish Inquisition connects to Columbus’ journey. It abandons historicity, however, when coming to Columbus in America, whitewashing its central figure’s genocide of natives as “the other guys who traveled with him did it.” The film posits that Columbus is a man of ambition without understanding or grappling with his ambition. Gerard Depardieu is also an awkward fit for Columbus, a conspicuously French actor playing an Italian speaking English in a thick accent that’s often hard to understand (and he has a lot of speeches). “1492” is notoriously difficult to locate on DVD or video. There’s a reason.
20. “Robin Hood” (2010)
This film, on the other hand, took a fascinating idea and made it generic: Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’s original script, “Nottingham,” focused on a sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham and his love triangle with Maid Marian and a positively unlikable version of Robin Hood as the sheriff investigates a series of grisly murders that Robin was framed for. Instead, Scott brought on Brian Helgeland to rewrite it as a Robin Hood origin tale. “Robin Hood” is the most tedious film of Scott’s career, a dreary, murky film that wastes actors like Danny Huston and Max von Sydow in stock roles and forcing Oscar Isaac to do a pale rehash of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in “Gladiator.” Really, the whole film feels like a pale rehash of “Gladiator,” complete with a comically solemn Russell Crowe performance at the center. There’s no sense of why Scott, Crowe or anyone else wanted to make this ossified dud, much less this take on the story over the more original version they had in their hands.
19. “Black Rain” (1989)
“Black Rain” comes at the tail end of Ridley Scott’s wilderness years in the late-80s, and while its modest success made up for a string of commercial disappointments, it’s is one of the director’s emptiest films. Scott’s touch is very striking, his use of neon, contrasting shadows and lights monolithic buildings making Tokyo look like a less futuristic version of “Blade Runner’s” Los Angeles. But the film has a void at its center with Michael Douglas’s unnecessarily mean-spirited cop, who’s unlikable and intolerant in the dullest way possible (Andy Garcia’s sidekick fares a bit better, though none of his comic relief is funny). The Japanese characters, meanwhile, are all either gutless suits, mindless psychopaths or sources of lecture, with even the charismatic Ken Takakura (R.I.P.) reduced to being a guy who needs to be taught how to play rough with the criminals by Douglas, which make its trite moral lessons about Japanese-American relations feel disingenuous. Its wan attempts at political relevance can’t mask the thoughtless macho porn at its heart.
18. “Hannibal” (2001)
To Ridley Scott’s credit, he made what’s probably the best possible movie that could have come out of Thomas Harris’ novel. Scott takes the film’s absurd, over-the-top plot and runs with it, blending in operatic influences with the film’s grand guignol excess, and Scott did try something different from Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film (he’s arguably the polar opposite of Demme, cold vs. warm, expressionistic vs. realistic, apolitical vs. political, though they’re both feminists). But the film makes a mistake in turning Hannibal Lecter from a psychopath working within confines to a nut on the loose, encouraging Anthony Hopkins’ hammiest tendencies. The film is painfully explicit in articulating its themes, as well: the original’s exploration of sexism was suggested, here we get Ray Liotta’s boorish FBI head. Where earlier villains were fully realized, human killers, Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger is made too literal a monster. And while Julianne Moore is arguably the finest actress of her generation, she has impossible shoes to fill even under ideal circumstances, and she rarely feels like she’s in danger because A. Lecter likes her too much, and B. she’s behind a goddamned desk the whole time. For all of “Hannibal’s” florid violence, it’s strangely lacking in urgency.
17. “A Good Year” (2006)
After the mammoth undertaking of “Kingdom of Heaven,” it’s easy to see why Ridley Scott might want to try something a bit more modest. But “A Good Year” isn’t just the most uncharacteristic film of Scott’s career, it’s one of the dullest. The film’s attempts at physical comedy are feeble (Russell Crowe is in a tiny car! Marion Cotillard bruises her fanny and shows the crowd what happened!), and Crowe, not a naturally comic actor, seems at sea. So does Scott, who replaces his usual vivid use of color with a generic arthouse view of Tuscany. After a certain point, it’s hard to keep trying to fit it into Scott’s filmography instead of counting the number of glasses of wine consumed. The scenery is nice, but it’s all scenery, no substance.
16. “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1987)
There isn’t much to say about “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Ridley Scott’s painfully generic cop thriller. Tom Berenger plays a tough NY cop assigned to protect a socialite (Mimi Rogers) who witness a murder, and he starts to fall for her even though his marriage to his wife (Lorraine Bracco) is a perfectly happy one. The film never complicates its predictable storyline: cop is loose and scruffy. Socialite is prim and proper. They have nothing in common (and no real chemistry) but fall in love. Cop’s wife finds out, leaves him. Cop’s superior blows a gasket. Murderous psychopath kidnaps cop’s family for climax. Howard Franklin’s script is so thin that it’s practically translucent, with none of the conversations feeling like they’re anything more than time-fillers between set-pieces. Only Bracco is able to turn her character into anything resembling a pulse, and Scott’s signature chiaroscuro can only elevate these cardboard cutouts so far.
15. “Legend” (1985)
“Legend” was Scott’s second film in a row to suffer from studio-mandated cuts, and its theatrical cut’s ill-matched Tangerine Score and confusing, choppy story was improved upon by Scott’s 2002 Director’s Cut. But the extended version only makes the film an admirable misfire rather than an all-out dud. The film plays like a high fantasy-phobe’s worst fear come to true, with a villain named Darkness, a good princess named Lily, and sidekicks named Honeythorn Gump, Brown Tom and Screwball (I’m reminded of Paul Rudd’s line in “Role Models”: “I just spent the afternoon in Middle-earth with glee-glop and the floopty-doos”). Tom Cruise, a year away from “Top Gun,” is ill-suited to play a painfully sincere nature boy hero, and with the exception of a game Tim Curry as Darkness, none of the actors are able to turn their fantasy archetypes into vivid fantasy archetypes. The film does look great, but the director goes over the top using dandelions and flowers floating through the air to remind us that nature is good and darkness is evil. It’s a visually astonishing but supremely goofy movie, the “Avatar” of its time in form, if not in box office success.
14. “Body of Lies” (2008)
On its own, “Body of Lies” is a passable (if forgettable) spy thriller, featuring mostly solid performances and competent action. It’s only as a part of Ridley Scott and screenwriter William Monahan’s filmography, it becomes a bigger disappointment. While the supporting players (Mark Strong and Russell Crowe in particular) manage plenty of great moments, the film has a weak center in Leonardo DiCaprio, doing an overheated variation of his “The Departed” character without that film’s moral ambiguity or reflectiveness. Monahan is also guilty of self-cannibalization, with the film feeling like a flimsy mishmash of “Kingdom of Heaven” (with its view of religious conflict) and “The Departed” (with its fascination of modern technology’s role in war on crime and terror), and Scott never manages a set-piece that doesn’t feel like it’s an imitation of a “Bourne” movie or one of his brother Tony Scott’s films.
13. “G.I. Jane” (1997)
“G.I. Jane” has a handful of provocative questions at the center of its narrative (“Should women be able to serve in the military?” “Does the military’s brutal conditioning system shut down their empathy?”), neither of which it bothers to ask. It never asks why its military men are sexist shitheads that oppose Demi Moore’s determined Navy SEAL candidate so much as it makes sexism to be overcome and fought (literally, she kicks the shit out of military sexists). That said, “G.I. Jane’s” middle section, focused on the training, is viscerally exciting stuff, with Scott using his most expressionistic touches to sequences of SEALs being forced to push giant barrels up hills or run obstacle courses, turning familiar material into something exhilarating and fresh. The film also benefits from using Moore’s limited, non-emotive talents for a character who’ll make an ideal killing machine and casting Viggo Mortensen as the film’s main antagonist, as the actor doesn’t play him strictly as a villain, elevating him above the shaky material. “G.I. Jane” is overlong and dumb, but it’s also a lot of fun.
12. “White Squall” (1996)
For most of its runtime, “White Squall” isn’t anything special. It’s essentially “Dead Poets Society” on the sea. Most of the boys blend together, and though Jeff Bridges’ take on Charles Keating is tougher and sometimes lacking in compassion, he’s still the mentor that the boys are going to revere and stand up for in the end. It’s effective enough, but unmemorable. But “White Squall” has one incredible set-piece near the end when the ship encounters the titular storm and Scott goes all-out on pushing the characters to their physical and psychological limit. The director utilizes the space brilliantly, twisting and turning the ship and getting the most out of the increasing claustrophobia as the ship floods. The sequence feels like it’s part of an adventurous masterpiece instead of the best part of a minor work.
11. “American Gangster” (2007)
“American Gangster” has a hell of a supporting cast: Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a flashy gangster, Armande Assante, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Ruby Dee in her only Oscar-nominated performance. It’s a shame, then, that most of them are stuck in a frustratingly familiar (if effective enough) narrative. “American Gangster” feels like every gangster movie ever made, borrowing bits from “Scarface” (scrappy gangster rises), “The Godfather” (cool-headed mobster), blaxploitation films, “Goodfellas” and more, while Russell Crowe’s half of the movie feels like a “Serpico” retread with a dash of “Donnie Brasco,” without the immediacy or quiet desperation. It’s well made, but Scott’s signature touch is missing, replaced by workmanlike competence. The film has one element that keeps things reasonably fresh: Denzel Washington, whose stillness and gravitas distinguishes him from the rest of the film’s busyness. He’s the one thing in the film that’s inspired instead of merely solid.
10. “Prometheus” (2012)
“Prometheus” went on a strange journey from being one of the most anticipated films of 2012 to one of the most hated, a lightning-rod for internet backlash and plot hole police. Their criticisms aren’t unsubstantiated: Damon Lindelof’s script raises several questions, few of which it explores satisfactorily, and too many characters behave idiotically for no reason. But as messy as it is, it’s often fascinating, especially whenever it devotes time to Michael Fassbender’s David, whose polite detachment from humanity makes him one of the most thrillingly unpredictable characters in recent memory. And even the film’s detractors should concede that the film is often formally stunning, contrasting moments of wonder and awe with startling body horror with remarkable deftness.
9. “Gladiator” (2000)
“Gladiator” does almost nothing new with the Roman Epic, but it does what it does exceedingly well. Scott revives a dead genre by marrying “Saving Private Ryan” intensity to old-fashioned spectacle in its battle sequences, and he contrasts the expansiveness of the film’s setting with the claustrophobic, constricted chambers its heroes are stuck in, either in chains or next to raving psychopaths. More importantly, the film’s story, simple as it is, is told with the utmost conviction by everyone involved. Crowe brings a brutish sensitivity and intelligence to his hero that distinguishes him from the glowering bores that followed “Gladiator” (Gerard Butler in “300,” I’m looking at you), and Joaquin Phoenix tears into every overwritten line like it’s a juicy steak, giving a gloriously hammy performance. The film distinguishes itself from its forebears, meanwhile, by putting a greater emphasis on mortality, both the fear of it and the need to accept it when it comes (the primary theme in Scott’s works). It doesn’t much matter that “Gladiator” is mostly familiar, though, because damn it, it just works.
8. “Matchstick Men” (2003)
“Matchstick Men” is one of Ridley Scott’s most modestly-sized films, and one of his most personal. An eternally meticulous filmmaker, he no doubt found some connection to Nicolas Cage’s OCD-driven con man, whose condition gives Scott a chance to experiment with lighting and montage not just as an atmospheric touch, but as a necessity. Every shaft of light is invasive, every quick edit a way to put us in Cage’s frantic state of mind. Ted and Nicholas Griffin’s script, meanwhile, boasts a long con plot worthy of David Mamet, and Scott makes a shrewd bit of casting in partnering the neurotic Cage against a similarly off-kilter but more overtly brash Sam Rockwell. The real revelation, however, is Alison Lohman as Cage’s estranged daughter, whose mix of giddy naiveté and precociousness is a welcome counterbalance to all of the masculine hand-wringing. Her relationship with Cage takes what could have been a cold exercise and turns it into one of Scott’s warmest films.
7. “Black Hawk Down” (2001)
“Black Hawk Down” is Scott’s least character-driven film, but that makes sense in a film that’s less about individuals and more about a collective force of men working together in an impossible situation. Scott takes the film’s central conflict and turns it into one of the most viscerally punishing war movies in recent memory, counteracting most of the jingoism at the story’s heart. Scott makes the heaviest use of shakycam in his career, but it’s never too obtrusive, and it puts us in the shoes of the confused, frightened men in the middle of the battle. Above all else, it’s a nightmarish procedural focused on grit, grime and guts spilled whenever something goes wrong.
6. “The Counselor” (2013)
Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Counselor” was received poisonously by both the public and by a number of critics, with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir going so far to call it “the worst movie ever made.” But the film has quickly developed a fervent cult following (only growing since the release of its extended cut) for anyone on the film’s pitiless wavelength. “The Counselor” is one of the most perversely thrilling films of the past several years because it’s so determined to buck convention and alienate audiences by taking McCarthy’s grim, deterministic portrait of hubris to its logical endpoint. Scott’s lifelong obsession with mortality, meanwhile, dovetails perfectly with McCarthy’s fatalism, and he contrasts slickness and sterility of interiors with the harshness of the desert as a way to suggest something violent and primal is on the way to tear down its characters’ lavish, isolated lifestyle. The screenplay devotes itself more to long, floridly written conversations about death, murder, sex, and the meaning of it all more than any “payoffs” (though the action scenes that are there are terrific, if brutal), but that’s largely in service of a film filled with people who think they’re too smart to be taken down, only to find that things are beyond their control and they’re not ready for what’s coming.
5. “The Duellists” (1977)
Scott’s debut establishes not only what kind of a director Scott was, but also the two primary themes of his filmography: obsession and mortality. The former is represented by Harvey Keitel’s Feraud, a man with an old-fashioned view of honor who develops a lifelong obsession with David Carradine’s d’Hubert defeats him in a duel. The latter is d’Hubert’s greatest fear, which Scott illustrates beautifully in one duel that’s interrupted by staccato intercuts of his life flashing before his eyes. Scott’s painterly style takes pages from Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” but the film has its own rhythm, a constant march towards life-or-death conflict even in the brief moments of respite. Scott also manages to stage each duel differently, from an early swordfight in a wide shot that highlights Keitel’s physicality to a final pistol battle that uses fog like a shroud of doom. And while “The Duellists” can’t match the masterpiece it’s clearly patterned itself after, even Kubrick has to tip his hat to the film’s final shot, one of the greatest lens flares ever caught on film.
4. “Thelma & Louise” (1991)
Scott’s comeback film after nearly a decade’s worth of disappointments is still daring, a film that casts its two heroines (by the way, how many Hollywood movies are doing that now?) in an almost totally heroic light even as they break the law. Callie Khouri’s script veers back and forth between lighthearted comedy to drama on a dime (Thelma’s flirtations to her near-rape and subsequent rescue by Louise; Thelma having a fling with an almost impossibly gorgeous Brad Pitt, then losing their money to him), but the transitions are smooth and masterful. Scott’s visual stamp is evident throughout, as he gives the film an omnipresent haze as things start getting murkier for his heroines. And while the male characters are a bit too broadly drawn, either unrepentant boors or saints (Pitt aside), it’s hard to care too much when it provides two rich characters for its actresses, one eternally daffy (Geena Davis, who needs to be in more films again), one more world-weary and sad (Susan Sarandon). The film’s conclusion is particularly great, somehow both downbeat and triumphant as Thelma & Louise find a way to beat the system that’s dead set against them.
3. “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)
The theatrical version of “Kingdom of Heaven” is a mess: its pacing is choppy, its characters poorly defined, its subplots go nowhere, and its commentary on modern religious conflict thin. The film’s director’s cut, restored to 191 minutes, is close to a masterpiece, restoring the meat to the characters’ relationships, a more cohesive structure, a more purposeful pace and real thematic weight, as well as the “Lawrence of Arabia”-style sweep Scott is going for. Performances shift from negligible to rich, particularly Edward Norton’s subtly expressive performance as a leprous king, Eva Green’s pragmatic queen and Ghassan Massoud’s compassionate Islamic leader Saladin. Even the eternally inexpressive Orlando Bloom is effective enough once his story is restored, his crisis of faith more believable. What was butchered into “‘Gladiator’ Goes Crusading” in theaters turns into a thoughtful epic about religious conflict and the need for all sides to value the lives of others.
2. “Blade Runner” (1982)
Arguably Ridley Scott’s richest film, “Blade Runner” has gone from cult classic to near-universally acknowledged masterpiece. It’s the director’s most visually dense film, with every frame brimming with detail and vitality, every bit of chiaroscuro adding to the film’s melancholy mood. It’s also Scott’s most morally complex film, with a hero (Harrison Ford, perfectly jaded) whose mission is completely nonheroic, a villain (Rutger Hauer) who’s a messianic figure trying to keep his people alive, and a city that’s a total wasteland filled with racist cops and ethnic conflict (the replicants are second-class citizens). It’s a film where nearly every character is in existential crisis, and what brings all of them together (figuratively, if not literally), is their shared desire for life, fear of death, and terror that they’ll be forgotten after they’re gone. What’s more human than that?
1. “Alien” (1979)
Ridley Scott’s breakthrough film is still revolutionary by today’s standards. Its final girl (Sigourney Weaver) sticks around not because she’s a type designated for survival, but because she’s the smartest and most resilient of the crew. Its contrast between slow, methodical pacing and abrupt bits of violence is a model of how to make a perfect horror movie. H.R. Giger’s designs are still some of the greatest and most monsters of all time. Above all else, though, Ridley Scott’s obsession with mortality comes through, and each death has weight because of it. Scott builds to each bit of violence because he knows the fear of death is often greater than death itself, and that showcasing that fear will make it feel more concrete and inevitable. The famous chestburster scene has been parodied and referenced endlessly, yet the look of panic on the actors’ faces (real, as none of them knew it was going to happen) and the thrashing of John Hurt’s helpless astronaut keeps it frightening. Even with three sequels, two fanboy-pitched spinoffs and an ambitious but messy prequel following it, “Alien” stands as a singular achievement.
Odds and Ends: We’ll know in a few weeks whether Ridley Scott’s new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is another triumph for the director or a sign that he’s gone back to the epic well one too many times. After that, he’ll go back to sci-fi with the Matt Damon-starring “The Martian” and produce sequels to “Blade Runner” and “Prometheus.” Scott also a pair of shorts that are well worth checking out: the film school project “Boy and Bicycle” and his Apple commercial “1984,” a minute-long showcase for Scott’s gifts for production design and light. Finally, one could write a book about all of the films Scott almost made, which range from fascinating (the Ebola outbreak thriller “The Hot Zone,” which was canceled when it couldn’t get together soon enough to beat “Outbreak”) to questionable (a remake of the “Red Riding” trilogy) to utterly baffling (“Monopoly,” based on the board game…really).