With this week’s release of the Oscar-nominated director’s latest epic, “Napoleon,” now feels like the right time to revisit Ridley Scott’s filmography and, more specifically, his ten best films to date. From historical epics to groundbreaking science fiction, the 85-year-old filmmaker has left an indelible impression on the cinematic world (and he’s not done yet).
10. “Kingdom Of Heaven – Director’s Cut” (2005)What a difference additional footage can make. While the initial version of “Kingdom of Heaven” most audiences saw in May of 2005 received a rather lukewarm reception (critically and commercially), Scott, unhappy with the theatrical cut, personally supervised an extended version of the movie released in December of the same year. And the upgrade in quality is undeniable. Though some audiences may be reluctant to take the leap from a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie to one that is fifty minutes longer, what was once a rather mediocre account of the Crusades is now a substantially richer piece, no longer hindered by suggested studio edits and, instead, allowed to unfold at a much more comfortable pace. It still may not be a masterpiece, but ultimately, it makes a very strong case for the power of a director’s cut.
9. “The Last Duel” (2021)Historical epics commonly showcase how brutal men can be both in battle and in their quests for power, but how often do we get a glimpse at what life might have been like for women during these times? In “The Last Duel,” Scott does not hold back in showcasing just how ugly things could get when the classic “he said/she said” scenario involves swords. Jodie Comer is exceptional in the lead role (particularly in the film’s final act), proving that the leap from television to the big screen was no challenge for her. She’s aided by a handsome cast, typically intense Ridley Scott battle scenes, and immersive sound design that puts you in the center of violent jousting matches. A bit of a disappointment at the box office (and one that the director blamed on millennials), the film finally found an audience in the streaming world.
8. “Black Hawk Down” (2001)
One thing Scott has a knack for is assembling impressive ensembles, and this features one of his best casts to date. Boasting a who’s who of future stars who were just making names for themselves (including Tom Hardy, in his very first film), “Black Hawk Down” is a riveting war drama that recounts the true story of how the Unified Task Force attempted to capture Mohammed Farrah Aidid, only to discover that doing so would bring about deadly consequences. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (including one for Scott’s direction) and deserved the two Oscars it received for its brilliant editing and sound. Many films have attempted to portray “War is hell” accurately on the big screen, but this remains one of the best in truly capturing the intensity of what it must be like to find oneself right in the middle of a firefight.
7. “Matchstick Men” (2003)
Scott moved away from his usual historical epics and science fiction dramas to helm this black comedy in what is perhaps his most underrated film. Nicolas Cage is fantastic (and enjoyably deranged) as a con man whose routine is drastically interrupted when he discovers he has a teenage daughter (something a then 23-year-old Alison Lohman could pull off quite convincingly). As fun as it is funny, “Matchstick Men” offers a nice respite from the normally intense nature of Scott’s other films. It features some of the most off-the-wall Cage reactions you are likely to come across in the actor’s filmography. Though perhaps not quite as manic as his co-star, Sam Rockwell is just as effective in his role as the partner who seems to relish acting as an agitator.
6. “American Gangster” (2007)Another handsomely crafted ensemble piece from Scott, “American Gangster,” finds former Oscar competitors (and Virtuosity co-stars) Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe facing off once again, this time in a 70s-style crime drama. The performances range from charismatic to terrifying (particularly in Washington’s case). But even in a cast that features two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, along with several other notable names (Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr.), the film’s secret weapon is the late Ruby Dee. Acting as the movie’s beating heart and Frank’s moral compass, she manages to leave a lasting impact in less than ten minutes of screen time. Her brief but memorable turn is a testament to the adage, “There are no small parts, only small actors,” as she was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award.
5. “The Martian” (2015)Scott’s highest-grossing film to date and one of those rare movies that demonstrated critics and audiences seemed to be on the exact same page (check out those Rotten Tomatoes scores), “The Martian” is both entertaining and thrilling. Matt Damon has rarely seemed more at home in a performance than here, where, ironically, he is isolated for most of the film’s runtime. The script is sharp and funny, which, along with Damon’s turn, helps to keep things much lighter than you would expect for a story about being stranded on another planet with no way home. The movie may run for nearly two and a half hours, but it never feels laboring. Even if audiences see the ending coming a million light-years away, it still makes for a good time, and it may even accomplish the rare feat of exhibiting how science can be cool.
4. “Gladiator” (2000)Scott’s epic historical drama solidified Russell Crowe as a bonafide movie star, gave audiences an early glimpse into the kind of talent we would come to appreciate in Joaquin Phoenix, and rekindled interest in a then fading sword-and-sandal genre, ultimately becoming the second highest-grossing film of 2000 (and of Scott’s career). It’s not too bad, especially when you factor in the film’s troubled production (which included the great Oliver Reed passing before the movie officially wrapped). While the plot may bear a striking resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic “Spartacus,” the film easily stands on its own, thanks in large part to Scott’s measured direction, which is perhaps most evident in the expertly choreographed fight scenes, including the opening battle between the Roman army and the Germanic tribes. Additionally blessed with Oscar-winning costumes and visual effects, an excellent Hans Zimmer score, and a talented ensemble, it’s no wonder “Gladiator” remains one of Scott’s most noteworthy contributions to cinema.
3. “Thelma & Louise” (1991)Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are both fantastic (and the Academy correctly recognized both in the appropriate acting category) in this road trip drama that has stood the test of time and remains one of the best feminist films ever made. Though it covers some pretty dark territory, “Thelma & Louise” never feels overwhelmingly sad. In fact, it’s pretty fun, particularly in scenes like the one where we are introduced to a then-unknown Brad Pitt using a hair dryer to demonstrate how easy it is to commit a robbery. Even that famous finale on the cliff has a curiously hopeful, satisfying feel to it, despite the audience knowing that it is not the typical Hollywood happy ending. It proved to be the immaculate marriage of screenwriter (Callie Khouri won an Oscar for her script), director (it was Scott’s first Academy Award nomination of his career), and performers.
2. “Blade Runner” (1982)You can practically hear Vangelis’s flawlessly composed score just by thinking of the film. Moody, hypnotic, beautiful, and, at times, terrifying, “Blade Runner” is a visual marvel that has wowed more than 40 years after its initial release in 1982. The production design and special effects hold up amazingly well, even by today’s technological standards. Jordan Cronenweth’s lush cinematography and Rutger Hauer’s completely committed performance additionally aid in drawing in the audience. Though it may require a few revisits (to both get used to the somewhat slow pacing and to allow for ample time to indulge in the many different versions of the film), it is ultimately a rewarding viewing experience that demonstrates why Scott is considered by many to be a master of the science fiction genre.
1. “Alien” (1979)While “The Martian” showcased isolation in outer space as a momentary hiccup that essentially could be remedied with a positive attitude and some good tunes, this film presented a scenario that could not be any more different. Frightening, unsettling, and inescapable, “Alien” mostly forgoes the use of any music and instead relies on carefully rendered sound work and extremely convincing visual effects to ratchet up the tension, leaving viewers in a state of anxiety-inducing terror. And the result, quite simply, is a perfect motion picture, perhaps the greatest science fiction film of all time. Though several sequels and prequels have come since, none (including those directed by Scott himself) have come close to capturing the magic of the 1979 original film.
What do you think of this list? Have you seen “Napoleon” yet? Where does it rank in Ridley Scott’s filmography for you? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Freeman and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @unkeelman87