11. “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” (2010)
The first live-action Luc Besson movie since “The Last Battle” not to receive a proper American release, this half-baked period fantasy (adapted from the Jacques Tardi graphic novels of the same name) might be the Frenchiest thing he’s ever made. Set in 1912 and chronicling the “extraordinary adventures” of the eponymous travel-writer (Louise Bourgoin) as she tries to resurrect a mummy in order to save her sister’s life, Besson’s zaniest effort is a madcap adventure in which every scene feels like it belongs to a different movie. The first 10 minutes alone introduce a horny aristocrat who’s having an affair with a Moulin Rouge showgirl, a scientist who accidentally hatches a pterosaur egg from an exhibit in Paris’ National Museum of History, and an 100-year-old (played by Mathieu Amalric) who’s stuck in the bowels of an Egyptian burial chamber. Adèle eventually shows up to stake her claim in this overactive story; one of Besson’s hyper-capable women, she’s a shape-shifting goddess whose mastery of disguise allows her to be any kind of doll her director might require (Rihanna’s “Valerian” character tickles the same kink). She’s the perfect heroine for a movie that cares more about its costumes than it does the people wearing them, a movie that’s all imagination and no soul.
10. “Angel-A” (2005)
After six years of silence, just when it seemed like “The Messenger” really would be Luc Besson’s last hurrah, the newly-minted studio head returned to the director’s chair with a movie that took him back to basics. The tense and tentative work of someone who’s hopping on a horse after recovering from a major accident, “Angel-A” is pure, undiluted Besson; it’s what happens when an aging auteur gets to make a first movie for the second time.
The plot is really just a scaffolding to support the filmmaker’s pet obsessions. Jamel Debbouze stars as a suicidal burnout named Andre who owes a lot of good money to some very bad people. He tries to drown himself in the Seine, but, this being a Luc Besson movie, he’s naturally rescued by a statuesque woman (Rie Rasmussen) who needs him almost as much as he needs her. And so begins the hollowest and most transparent of the director’s “Beauty and the Beast” fantasies. These characters are the director’s twin engines of an impossibly shrill romance that once again sees masculinity as a toxin and sexy babes as its cure. Fortunately, it wouldn’t be long before Besson got back up to speed.
9. “The Last Battle” (1983)
Besson’s career began with a man having sex with a blow-up doll, which promptly deflates because… well, that’s left to our imagination. Likewise, whether or not the first scene of Besson’s first feature might serve as a metaphor for the rest of his working life… that too is for everyone to decide on their own. All that can be said for certain is that “The Last Battle” remains a beguiling debut; a film that immediately established its director’s flair to create convincing cinematic worlds, his gift for poetic nonsense, and his enduring belief that women are hyper-evolved creatures who exist to humanize a society of self-destructive brutes (wait until the third act).
Set in a post-apocalyptic desert hellhole where the remaining humans — all of whom appear to be men — can no longer communicate with words, “The Last Battle” established Besson as a fully-formed auteur right off the hop. An obsession with water runs through the movie, even if there’s barely enough of it here to fill a glass. And then there’s Jean Reno, decked out in some sweet round specs and making an unforgettable impression even without the use of his distinctive growl. The delirious imagery tells an intoxicatingly thin story, one that always seems to know a little more than it let on. In a film where humans have lost the ability to speak, Besson found his voice.
8. “Atlantis” (1991)
Luc Besson loves the ocean. If James Cameron thinks of it as the final frontier, Besson thinks of it more like a canvas for his dreamscapes, a beguiling place that seduces his imagination and calls to him from a place deeper than he can see from the surface. And so, after making a splash with “The Big Blue,” the rising director went back underwater for a funky nature doc melts into pure joy once it dives past its characteristically clunky opening voiceover (“He trained his senses in this world with no gravity,” the narrator intones, as if… uh… there’s not gravity underwater?). After that, it’s just 76 minutes of manatees and floppity seals and manatees and the most stunning emerald turtle you’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to watch “Atlantis” now and not feel like Besson was doing late Malick before Malick was even doing late Malick. But Malick has never had Éric Serra at his disposal, and the music here is early ’90s pop gold. This is edutainment you can groove to.
7. “Nikita” (1990)
Samuel Goldwyn Company
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that “Nikita” is one of the most influential action movies of the last 30 years. Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but it took a visionary like Besson to realize that a girl with a gun is even better (especially if it’s a sniper rifle).
Besson’s hyper-violent take on “Pygmalion” felt like something new — and it helped enormously that Anne Parillaud was so feral in the title role, playing Nikita as a drug-addled teen who can’t stand the thought of being domesticated, at least not until she finds herself caught between two very different men, each of whom represents one half of her nature. Besson does an increasingly poor job of balancing combat with character development (he and Jean Reno would need a few more years to solve that problem), but the film’s precious few action beats are each indelible in their own way, and not only because movies like 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell” have repeated them over and over again.
6. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (2017)
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is independently-financed $200 million intergalactic adventure so high on its own supply that it makes makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” look like an Ozu film. Based on the Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ graphic novel series “Valérian and Laureline,” Besson’s latest brain-scrambler is exactly the movie you’d think might result from giving the director of “Lucy” the GDP of a small country and sending him into the stratosphere with complete creative control. The story of two intergalactic cops probing a mystery at the heart of a satellite planet that’s diverse with alien life, this is a movie that offers more things to see in every frame than you can find in some entire franchises. It’s a movie that features Herbie Hancock as a deep space defense minister, Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien stripper named Bubble, and Ethan Hawke as a guy named “Jolly the Pimp,” and it’s a movie so full of stuff that those three characters barely manage to stand out.
Like everything else here, they congeal into a spectacle that feels like a necessary corrective to the sterility of modern blockbusters until it runs out of gas. The first 25 minutes of the film deserve to be screening in a constant loop on a wall at the Louvre, but bickering leads Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevinge, respectively) are two of the least interesting characters Besson has ever brought to the screen, and he never figures out what to do with them.
The ranking concludes on page 3 with a deep dive, a killer Jean Reno, and the perfect woman.