The Unsung Heroes of Star Wars
The runaway success of “The Mandalorian” (aka ‘the baby Yoda show’) and to a lesser extent, its season 2.5- “The Book of Boba Fett”, have made it safe to be a Star Wars fan again. And while the past twenty years or so have given Star Wars fans a bad name as people who will find fault in anything and can literally never be satisfied, we remain some of the most passionate movie-lovers around. But one thing Star Wars fans can agree on is we love to hear people gush about the awesome bits. So after just finishing my semi-annual international Star Wars Day film marathon, here is my completely unobjective ranking of favorite Star Wars films, and some of their awesome bits that deserve more praise. (And if you don’t count yourself a fan, then move along. Move along.)
10. “Ewoks: The Battle for Endor” (1985)
Hey, I said “favorite”, not “best”. For pure unadulterated “you will never see this coming” expectation-upending batshit craziness, don’t turn to Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi”, instead check out the Ewok movie sequel. Yes, that’s right, sequel, because they had one before this. Main characters getting killed off, houses getting burned down, genuinely scary nightmare sequences, a downright malignant Wilford Brimley, and flat out witches, that’s right, not Jedi or Sith, but just a straight up magical shape-changing witch…this movie just decided to take the Star Wars canon and blow it up. Made for TV, but released in some theaters internationally, Disney+ wants to bury this one but I say it’s firmly in so-bad-it’s-good territory.
9. “The Attack of the Clones” (2002)
While this film suffers from some pretty cringeworthy moments, it also has some great stuff that tends to get overlooked. Ewan McGregor is doing a really admirable job bridging the gap between his earlier performance and that picture of Jesus that every suburban mom had up on the wall. George Lucas heard everyone that hated Jar Jar and said “okay, that didn’t work, so he’s going to be in this for about 2 minutes just to help bring down civilization as we know it.” It has so many Jedis battling that you’d think Oprah was passing out lightsabers. Badass Jedi v Bounty Hunter fight, and I don’t care what you say, Wushu-flipping Yoda is awesome. Too bad all the good romance scenes got left on the cutting room floor. Literally.
8. “Solo” (2018)
The task of finding someone to fill Harrison Ford’s gold-striped pants was almost impossible, much less his frenemy Lando, the most stylish man in the galaxy. And yet despite a famously-troubled production, this prequel set about ten years before “Episode IV: A New Hope” manages to pretty much nail all its casting. It was too ambitious and had a sprawling story that tried to wedge in too many setups and callbacks, but there are moments where “Solo” managed to do something rare: capture that joyous Star Wars magic while doing something fairly different. With an overt Old West train robbery as its centerpiece, this paved the way for “The Mandalorian”, too.
7. “The Phantom Menace” (1999)
Some people hate on this film quite a bit, but I think it really only has two major faults. Lucas broke the cardinal rule of Hollywood on this one: you’re never supposed to work with children (lil Anakin) or animals (Jar Jar). The net result is a film that kids loved but grown Star Wars fans griped about…the same thing that happened a generation before with “Return of the Jedi”. The fact is that even “The Empire Strikes Back” has moments of comedy and levity to it, and the trick of Star Wars is in having them feel like grand adventures, where you’re then surprised by the moments of genuine darkness and loss. The contrast is part of what allows great characters and scenes like Darth Maul and the Duel of the Fates to stand out. Plus, that podrace? Movie gold.
6. “The Revenge of the Sith” (2005)
Okay, you want dark and grown up? How about the only Star Wars film to receive a PG-13 rating. This film is like a president sweeping into the office and having the economy improve a lot their first year. They get to take a lot of credit for work that was mostly put into place long before. While you can argue that for all the groundwork over the past two films, Anakin’s final turn here is way too abrupt (a roomful of younglings? First thing?), it remains a pretty satisfying conclusion to an epic amount of foreshadowing. Lucas unfortunately bowed to fan pressure and dropped out the excellent Padme scenes where she helps start the Rebel Alliance, but at least the Anakin/Obi-Wan conflict ends strong and emotionally believable.
5. “The Return of the Jedi” (1983)
The other culmination of two movies of groundwork, although in retrospect the film adds up to the fulfillment of a six-film story! When it came out, people lamented the return to a fun, adventurous romp after the dark, cynical middle film. But I can tell you after ending my marathon with this one that Lucas understood something Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan and all the serious naysayers didn’t: the audience needs a bit of a happy ending after everything these characters have been through. Star Wars ultimately is a series of hope, that with perseverance and the sacrifice of many limbs, good can win out over seemingly insurmountable odds. This sixth episode is a redemption story, and it brings together all the threads from the previous character arcs in something of a minor miracle.
4. “A New Hope” (1977)
I mean, yeah. The quintessential space adventure film. A movie that is so archetypal, so resonant, that it somehow connects with new audiences no matter how dated it gets by the industry it helped revolutionize. It merges Eastern and Western ideologies to tell a ripping yarn that homages such a wide variety of earlier films that even Quentin Tarantino should be jealous. It’s a little rough around the technical edges at this point and some of the plot points don’t match all that well with what came later, but it’s still undeniable that this is an awesome movie that beats Annie Hall hands down any day of the week! <ahem> Personal favorite parts: The whole trash compactor scene. “Boring conversation anyway!” and “This station is now the ultimate power in the galaxy!” which used to play as an identifier on my local rock radio station as a kid.
3. Genndy Tartakovsky’s “The Clone Wars” (2003)
Words cannot do justice to how essential this is to appreciating the Prequel Trilogy. Ultimately, Lucas decided to move to the CG format and went ahead with a Disney version of future Star Wars animated shows, which would give some great ones like “Rebels” in later years. But that first effort (a CG “Clone Wars” movie) was pretty bad, especially in comparison to this amazing hand-drawn story which does ‘Show, Not Tell’ better than any other Star Wars property. Initially airing as shorts, this is now collected into a single Blu-Ray that tells a 2 hour-ish story literally linking the end of Episode II to the start of Episode III, and showing how Anakin got so much closer to the Dark Side, and how the Jedi Council was too busy to do anything about the Sith plot.
2. “Rogue One” (2016)
A film that works hand-in-hand with Episode IV, it is the “darkest before the dawn” setup that somehow makes “A New Hope” seem like not such a cheesy 1940s serial title. Rather than coasting on and contradicting the previous films (as so many other Star Wars stories do), this film adds new material that both stands on its own and also enriches the original. It’s a bit grimmer and grittier than the Original Trilogy, a counterpoint to the inspiring heroes of those films that shows instead some very flawed, compromised characters who are no less a vital part of the Rebellion. The digital likeness debate is a healthy one to have, and the one thing that probably holds this film back in the grand scheme, but I don’t care…that Vader tie-in at the end more than makes up for it.
1. “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
As if there could be any doubt. Not only probably the best sequel of all time, but also a good candidate for the best film of all time, Episode V of the Star Wars saga is more than the sum of its parts. We get to see both Luke and Leia grow up a bit, plus doubling down on what made audiences love Han Solo. Darth Vader gets even more time to be even more menacing, resulting in us watching Captain Piet rise to Admiral and manage to survive into the next film while Vader leaves a trail of force-choked military commanders in his wake. Awesome looking bounty hunters, a quirky Pai Mei-like kung fu master, and a reverse-image of Han in the charming-but-sleazy gambler, Lando. The film built on the original in amazing ways, and almost succeeds in making you forget George Lucas changed a bunch of elements as he was making the original films in case he never got to make sequels. Imagine waiting three years to find out how Luke and gang come back from that ending… wow, did this film have guts.
Nope! None of the Sequel Trilogy makes the list. Sorry, but as much as I enjoyed “The Force Awakens” when it first came out, those are movies that are very much coasting on the work already done by previous Star Wars films, while also feeling free to sideline those characters and plotlines and undercut their importance. The movies have great aspects, but without any grand architect, it’s obvious that the overall story is asking questions it has no meaningful answers for. The films were made by committee and focus group tested to ensure the casting and themes made modern audiences happy, but somewhere along the way, they lost sight of the fact that Star Wars is about telling a grand, archetypal story before all else.
On second thought, maybe I should give a nod to “Caravan of Courage”. The Gorax was pretty awesome.