The Last Jedi is positively filled with compelling and potentially iconic moments. From Rey and Kylo Ren’s highly choreographed, beautiful lightsaber ballet against the crimson Praetorian Guard to Vice-Admiral Holdo’s gutsy lightspeed maneuver to a Force projected Luke Skywalker snarling to his former acolyte that he’s not the last Jedi – this movie understands how to establish an epic scene fitting of an epic movie-spanning saga. Its very Ratatouille-esque assertion that a great Jedi can come from just about anywhere is also a breath of fresh air. Of course, The Rise of Skywalker would quash that notion and many other ideas presented in The Last Jedi. That makes the already-distinct middle chapter feel even more separated from its peers. Still, the movie stands on its own as a worthy entry into the Star Wars canon. – AB
3. Return of the Jedi
The first time a Star Wars arc really ended on the big screen, it ended with a bang. The conclusion of Luke Skywalker’s story took us from the sands of Tatooine (“I used to live here, you know.” “You’re going to die here, you know. Convenient.”) to the half-completed second Death Star, masterfully tracing a young man’s journey to adulthood at the same time. The movie is both a technical marvel and a snapshot of what now seem to be the idiosyncrasies of the time, including the still-astonishing space battle above Endor and Lucas’ love for puppetry and practical effects. Certainly, there are fair criticisms of the original finale, from Leia’s role to the goofiness of the Ewoks and the Jabba’s Palace musical number.
However, the heart and strength of Luke’s story still shine bright in Return of the Jedi. It’s a movie that seems to say something different at any age at which you watch it, depending on where you are in your own life journey compared to Luke’s burdened self-discovery. Where as a teenager I thought his black-clad heroism was as cool as the movies got, as an adult I gain new appreciation for the way in which the Skywalker family dramatizes the much smaller clashes most people have with their equally fallible, human parents. It’s hard to find a better example of Star Wars’ operatic scale than Luke’s solemn conflict with his father and the Emperor. – MC
2. A New Hope
This is where it all began, and 45 years later, it’s still tough to beat Lucas’ original vision of a sci-fi fantasy universe full of space wizards, advanced civilizations on distant planets, cool-looking aliens, gritty gunslingers, and epic space battles. Inspired by the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials he adored as a boy, as well as the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Lucas in turn created arguably the most influential blockbuster of all time, a spectacle whose presence is still felt today, whether its in the MCU or Jurassic World‘s nostalgic dinosaur-filled extravaganzas. Nerd culture just wouldn’t be the same without the story of a young Luke Skywalker learning the ways of the Force and taking on the evil Empire with all of his friends.
Not only does this tale of underdogs fighting oppression feel universal and poignant to this day, but A New Hope is also visually stunning, an absolute trailblazer in terms of what could be done with practical effects in the late ’70s. In fact, watching this movie in 2022 still feels like a timeless experience. The film hardly looks dated so many decades later, a testament to the innovative effects work from ILM. That third act battle above the Death Star, with X-wings and TIE fighters zooming through space and past endless barrages of laser fire, still gives modern CGI fests a run for their money. – JS
1. The Empire Strikes Back (READER’S CHOICE)
Some audiences didn’t know what to make of The Empire Strikes Back when it opened in 1980. The New York Times complained it lacked the wittiness of the original Star Wars, and The Wall Street Journal pondered whether Lucas’ fantasy had “lost its innocence?” In retrospect, these criticisms are due to what a departure from the glistening first movie Empire turned out to be. Rather than a pure swashbuckling romp, Lucas and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan crafted a movie that, while still a lively pop culture pastiche, suggested there was a truly brooding dark side to this mythology.