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The Best Movie Trilogies Ever Made — IndieWire Critics Survey

From the three "Trip" films to the "Three Colors," our panel of critics picks the greatest trilogies the movies have ever given us.

The Trip To Spain

“The Trip to Spain”

IFC Films

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of “The Trip to Spain,” what is the best movie trilogy?

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“Through the Olive Trees”

Far be it from me to choose between Antonioni’s non-trilogy “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” and “L’Eclisse” and Kiarostami’s explicitly-denied “Koker” trilogy of “Where Is the Friend’s Home?,” “Life and Nothing More,” and “Through the Olive Trees” (and I’m tempted to make a trilogy of trilogies with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath,” “Ordet,” and “Gertrud”), but if I put Kiarostami’s films first, it’s because he puts their very creation into the action. Reflexivity isn’t a mark of intrinsic merit — in fact, because it has long been a modernist cliché, it’s hard to do without eliciting an eyeroll at the aesthetic virtue-signalling — and instead, Kiarostami renders the display of filmmakers at work as noble and hard-lived drama (as he does more or less everything else that he films).

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

As impressive as something like Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” is, I love the idea of a trilogy coalescing in hindsight, when three movies just seem to belong together. Sometimes, these “accidental” trilogies are the creations of critics, other times, marketers (like the one I’m about to mention). For me, the ultimate accidental trilogy is the “Dollars Trilogy,” a.k.a. “The Man with No Name Trilogy.” Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and key collaborator Ennio Morricone were just doing their thing in the Spanish desert over a couple of years. But the three films they made together invented and refined an entire subgenre. It’s impossible not to be blown away by these Westerns, loaded with stealth pomo political commentary, brutal violence and some of the most gorgeous music ever composed. After you’ve watched “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” you can never go back to “Shane.”

Jude Dry (@jdry), IndieWire

“Back to the Future”

As a child of the 80s, I’ll graciously forego pretension and say “Back to the Future.” Even though part III’s wild west caper plummets from the zany brilliance of the first two, the first two adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) are too much fun to discount the lot. My earliest associations with the movies are of playing “Back to the Future” with an unmedicated pre-school friend who most certainly was diagnosed with ADHD a few years later. Pre-Ritalin, however, James Laffin cut as fine a Doc as Christopher Lloyd himself, and I was the unwitting Marty to his shenanigans. When I finally watched the movie as a slightly older child, I was flooded with a special kind of nostalgia fueled only by vague memories of a most rambunctious playmate. I was pleased to learn that James’ enthusiasm had not been misplaced, and “Back to the Future” was every bit as funny, engaging, and wacky as his ardent re-enactments had promised.

The original and part II are equally excellent. Beyond the charm of the broadly comedic characters, there are the twists and turns of a satisfyingly saccharine plot that appeals to kids without talking down to them and holds up upon adult viewings. Coming to sci-fi later in life, I now see “Back to the Future” as an accessible precursor (at least in my own viewing chronology) to the more cerebral futurism of “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” and even “The Matrix.” Time machines are an incredibly appealing concept, and it’s hard to think of a series that plays with it quite as flamboyantly as “Back to the Future.”

Vikram Murthi (@fauxbeatpoet), Freelance Writer for RogerEbert.com, The A.V. Club, Vulture

Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy captures how space and time turns earnest first love into regretful yearning into an embittered status quo masking as comfort. This is very good.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

"Before Midnight"

“Before Midnight”

As always, it is tough for me to pick just one answer to these great questions. I cannot nominate “The Trip” and its sequels, because I have yet to see “The Trip to Spain.” I loved the first “The Trip,” and liked “The Trip to Italy”; here’s hoping the third one does not continue the mild downward spiral in my appreciation of that series. Which brings us to what I look for in a trilogy (or any series, of whatever length): that it justify the expansion of its original universe with a reason other than the mercenary. In other words, does the director (or producer, or writer, or whoever is in charge) have an idea to enrich the story and the characters? Ideally, for me, a true trilogy continues a narrative begun in the first film, rather than simply linking three films thematically. The great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s 1950s “Apu Trilogy” would therefore qualify, but sadly I have only seen the first film, so cannot comment. Speaking of Indian directors, the Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s “Elements Trilogy” of “Fire” (1996), “Earth” (1998) and “Water” (2005) is beautiful and profoundly moving, but each film has a stand-alone plot and set of characters, so by my own criteria I have to choose a different series. Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s elliptical and profound “Three Colors Trilogy” of “Blue” (1993), “White” (1994) and “Red” (1994) has some gentle overlap, film to film, but similarly takes on a new story within each volume.

And so I have to choose Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” of “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013), the perfect series for someone of my generation, as I am the same age as stars (and later, co-writers) Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Beyond my age-based affinity, however, I find this in many ways the perfect kind of trilogy, as each film builds on the previous one, imbuing Delpy’s Céline and Hawke’s Jesse with rich nuances of character and deep humanity. They change, they grow, and their romantic trajectory is anything but rom-com hackneyed. They are genuine people, evolving over the course of 20 years, and theirs is a story I can revisit over and over again. Linklater’s ability to film lengthy scenes of dialogue in a cinematically dynamic way helps elevate the movies beyond static gabfests; indeed, he celebrates the art of conversation in a way few other modern directors do or can. If one day this ceases to be a trilogy with a fourth film in 2022, I will be one very happy man.

Ray Pride (@raypride), Newcity, Movie City News

“Pather Panchalli”

Best Trilogy: “Three Colors” for its haunt and ache, its elegant structures and bountiful beauty, although there are others indispensable to history and the heart, not least “The Apu Trilogy.”

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Film School Rejects

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”

There’s only one proper answer to this question, because only one movie trilogy saved people’s lives and freed innocent men: “Paradise Lost.” Frankly, the first movie is still the only one that truly matters as it got Damien Echols off death row and got the ball rolling on support for the West Memphis Three. The second movie is fascinating in its showcase of the first movie’s effect, even if part of that involves its own character assassination and finger pointing, but that’s it. The third documentary is good, though it’s more the pressure from its production (and the unassociated West of Memphis) that resulted in the trio’s release. Together, they’re a phenomenal package even if they hadn’t made a difference. The collective impact of their existence is the best sort of bonus possible.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic), Freelance for Little White Lies

“Three Colors: Blue”

The “Trip” series is a rough diamond made of pop culture and Britishness that offers itself unadulterated to its audience with a generosity and confidence rarely seen in TV, or in cinema, or in life. As diamonds do, it will probably get ever brighter and precious as the years go by, its jokes fermenting into sharp, cult quotes and Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s impressions outshining the subjects they copied in the eyes of future generations.

And yet, if a trilogy is to form a perfect triangle of emotions, a “Trip” for the heart lead by characters or places or simply a director’s sensibility, only one trilogy can be said to know all the angles. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Trois Couleurs” films form an odd triptych, with each episode following the wildly different stories of different characters. But what at once brings coherence to this collection and makes it even stranger are the links that connect these films together. The most evident are tongue-in-cheek visual elements recurring across the series, such as old people seen recycling bottles, or the fact that characters of one film appear as cameos in the others. But even these in-jokes reveal a deeper unity of sentiment.

Even though each colour is supposed to vaguely refer to one of the three political ideals of the motto of the French Republic (liberté, égalité and fraternité), the “Blue,” “White,” and “Red” films explore the varied and interconnected themes that are the stuff of life itself. Juliette Binoche’s Julie grieves her dead family in “Blue,” but Zbigniew Zamachowski’s Karol too in “White” mourns the love of his wife who left him, and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s voyeur Joseph in “Red” can be said to regret his younger years.

Love, however, is at the centre of all these stories, and as such, all these characters go through the highs and lows that only real life can bring. Each is pushed to extremes of pain and determination by events either beyond their control, or entirely their fault, and which only Kieslowski can translate to the screen with such a sense for the inescapable and maddening contradictions of life.

Like those bottles that somehow miraculously encase a ship, these short tales capture the whole human condition, at once realistic and dramatic, horrifying and beautiful, tender and cruel.

E. Oliver Whitney (@Cinemabite), ScreenCrush.com

“Three Colors: White”

Unlike most traditional trilogies, Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” doesn’t follow one arc or the same set of characters, but loosely weaves together the stories of three separate lives. Besides representing the colors of the French flag (mostly for financial purposes) and partially taking place in Paris, “Blue,” “White,” and “Red” have little to do with one another narratively. But Kieslowski’s trilogy is all about the ways tragedy and comedy intersect and how we transcend through isolation and connection. In “Blue,” Juliette Binoche’s mother grieves the loss of her daughter as she’s haunted by her dead husband’s unfinished score. In “White,” Zbigniew Zamachowski’s Karol schemes to win back his ex-wife (Julie Delpy) only to pull off a devastating revenge plot. And in “Red,” Irene Jacob strikes up a friendship with an older man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends his days watching others. The three films could exist separately, distinct in their tone and style, and shot by three different cinematographers. But there’s an unspoken magic that ties them together into one cinematic poem. We should be lucky that Kieslowski’s final gift before his death was a triptych that was aching, funny, and hopeful.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for the Guardian, Vulture, Nylon

“Three Colors: Red”

Krzysztov Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy does for the national virtues of France what his “Dekalog” did for the Ten Commandments; specifically, turn them on their head in a series of parables that split the difference between full emotional embrace and wounding ironic commentary. The principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity are neither exposed as fakery nor taken as sustenance for the soul, instead providing jumping-off points for thornier inquisitions Kieslowski refrains from definitively resolving. How do we claim happiness, and keep it? How do we make sense of a world in which consequences so seldom befit their actions? And to quote the poets of Third Eye Blind: can you put the past away? Kieslowski was a moral philosopher, couching profundity in the petty details of the quietly desperate lives that the mass of men (and, as frequently, women) lead. It is in this respect that I consider the late Polish filmmaker to be the closest thing the 20th century had to Jesus Christ.

Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox

“Three Colors: Red”

Nothing has ever beat Kieslowski’s “Three Colours” trilogy, in my mind. They’re linked, but in ways that don’t reveal themselves till the end; they’re thematically rich; and they’re so subversive — Kieslowski was tasked with making films about the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity), but took the opportunity to subtly show their limits, too. Plus the trio of Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, and Irene Jacob is basically unbeatable. I could watch them on repeat forever.

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