Too Hollywood for art houses and too art house for Hollywood, iconoclastic French filmmaker Luc Besson has always had to blaze his own trail. Unwilling — or unable — to compromise from the very start (his debut feature was a dialogue-free post-apocalyptic drama about a waterless future where it occasionally rains fish), Besson continues to offset his pigheadedness with his passion. He eventually got so sick of looking for support that he launched his own production company, EuropaCorp, which has become one of the most profitable in all of Europe by churning out the kind of carnivalesque shlock that made its founder so famous in the first place. Besson may not have directed the likes of “Taken,” “Lock-Out,” and “Colombiana,” but his fingerprints are all over them.
Written off as a brainless aesthete when critics belittled his early work as the cinéma du look, Besson has spent the last three decades complicating that reputation in any number of ways. On the one hand, he’s a perpetual teenager whose movies have only grown more deliriously juvenile as he’s gotten older (the guy is now 58 going on 15), and his lifelong obsession with female empowerment is sometimes hard to square with his lifelong hobby of female objectification. On the other hand, the “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” director has displayed a unique knack for layering heady concepts in a cotton candy gauze of pop spectacle, and he has pushed modern action filmmaking to a whole new level.
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With the biggest film of his career about to hit theaters, we’re taking a look back at everything Besson has ever directed. Here are all of his movies, ranked from worst to best.
17. “The Family” (2013)
It’s something of a backhanded compliment that the most anonymous film Luc Besson has ever made is also the worst. A witless misfire that tries to split the difference between a gangster drama, a domestic satire, a coming-of-age story (or two), and a fish-out-of-water comedy about foreigners in France, “The Family” is ultimately none of those things. Instead, it’s just a stale mishmash of lazy ideas that builds to the single most contrived “Goodfellas” gag of all time.
Robert De Niro hits bottom as a turncoat mafioso who relocates his all-American family to Normandy under witness protection, only to discover that godawful screenwriting doesn’t respect international borders. While he’s preoccupied with notions of becoming a novelist and fantasies of murdering the locals with barbecue equipment, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) is having a spiritual crisis, his son is mobbing up the village high school, and his daughter is lusting after her tutor while dealing with sexual harassment (“Girls are not some toys that you fuck in the park!” screams Diana Agron while severely beating some horny classmates in one of the film’s only vintage Besson moments).
14. “Arthur and the Invisibles” (2006)
15. “Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard” (2009)
16. “Arthur 3: The War of the Two Worlds” (2010)
It’s entirely possible that Luc Besson has a pathological inability to tell the difference between his good ideas and his bad ideas — he overcommits to both of them equally. Not only did he write a hackneyed children’s book about a kid who shrinks down to the size of a bug and discovers a kingdom of sprite-like creatures living in his grandmother’s backyard, he wrote three of them. And then, just for good measure, he adapted the entire series into a trilogy of cinematic misfires, each installment more painful than the last.
The story unfolds in an embellished version of Connecticut, where an overactive kid named Arthur (Freddie Highmore) lives with his grandmother (Mia Farrow). It’s all whimsical Jean-Pierre Jeunet vibes and Rube Goldberg machines until our hero meets a magical African man (oof) who makes him super tiny and introduces him to the world of the Minimoys. Elfin monstrosities with orange skin and hollow eyes, these crudely animated Lilliputian eyesores look like they’ve been copy and pasted directly out of a Mucinex commercial; Besson embeds the Minimoys in a grassy world comprised of the worst CG since “The Lawnmower Man.” The graphics here are so flimsy that it becomes impossible for him to bridge the gap between his film’s live-action and animated halves.
You haven’t known true misery until you’ve heard Jason Bateman hold his nose to voice the bad guy’s sniveling sidekick (only in the first film, thank God), or Madonna attempt to breathe life into the princess Minimoy. And I haven’t even gotten to Jimmy Fallon yet.
The “Arthur” saga is spared from last place on this list because of all the other people who Besson hired to round out the cast. You never know whose voice you might hear next. Snoop Dogg as a Rastafarian garden creature? Sure. Emilio Estevez? Quack! Harvey Keitel? Little kids love him. David Bowie!? Okay, he’s actually really great as the Groot-like villain, and you won’t believe your ears when Lou Reed subs in for him in the sequel.
13. “The Lady” (2011)
Maybe it shouldn’t seem so insane that the guy behind “The Fifth Element” also directed a biopic about Aung San Suu Kyi, a scholar who went on to become “Burma’s First Lady of Freedom” (the details are a bit complicated). In theory, this material should play to Besson’s strengths, or at least his obsessions. In practice, it doesn’t. At all. Maybe an action auteur wasn’t the ideal person to make a movie about the nobility of non-violence? Despite Michelle Yeoh’s Herculean effort to wrest a real woman out of the CliffsNotes to which Besson’s reduces her, “The Lady” is as unfocused as anything the director has ever made.
12. “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (1999)
Sorry, Luc, but “What if Joan of Arc was hot?” isn’t really enough of an idea to sustain an 165-minute movie.
The ranking continues on page 2 with an angel, a brute, and an 100-year-old Mathieu Amalric.