While the concept of a film trilogy was nothing new in the 90s, it’s safe to say the idea of marketing films as a full-fledged series erupted as an industry staple during that time. That mentality didn’t fade away in the 2000s either, making those two decades rife with memorable three-part film series that still hold up today. Many of these series have become modern classics and that’s what this list focuses on today as I continue my first Cinema Spotlight Series exploring the greatest film trilogies of all time. It’s time for part two, the Top 10 Classic Modern Trilogies (90s and 2000s).
For this list I looked at trilogies that are all part of the same overlapping story. So no nontraditional trilogies related in theme only. However those trilogies will have their own list as part of this month-long celebration of the greatest trilogies of all time. This time around I looked at trilogies from the 1990s and 2000s that can be considered modern and iconic three-part series in the medium.
This list explores any film series from 1990 to 2009, but because some trilogies didn’t conclude within a certain decade I counted a trilogy as part of the decade where most of the films were released. So, for example, if two of the three movies were released in the 2000s but the third one was released in, say, 2010 or 2013 it works for this list. ALSO, I will not be counting ANY series that has expanded beyond a trilogy without a reboot as of May of 2018 so series like The “Bourne” Trilogy and “Mission Impossible” won’t be seen here. Series that currently remain a trilogy, even if a fourth one is rumored or truly is in the works, were considered because the fourth films don’t technically exist yet. If a series was rebooted, such as the “X-Men” franchise, the original standalone series can count as long as it’s just three films.
Remember, the TOP FOUR of each of these lists will be in the running for my Top 10 Greatest Movie Trilogies of All Time on Memorial Day. Stay tuned for the rest of the series over the course of May and if you missed it you can check out my first list in the series, the Top 10 Classic Movie Trilogies, here.
This was by far one of the hardest lists I’ve ever had to narrow down, so I’m sure I left out a few you might appreciate. I don’t always do honorable mentions but I have to give one to the “Star Wars” Prequels who barely missed this list as I found they weren’t great on their own but rather flawed films that benefited more from their legacy than anything else. Feel free to tell me your favorite movie trilogy from the 90s and 2000s in the comments below. Enjoy the list
10. The “Ocean’s” Trilogy
Based on the 1960 Rat Pack film of the same name, “Ocean’s Eleven” started off a trilogy of heist films in the early 2000s that brought together some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars of the time as either targets of the titular group or as members of Ocean’s team. The following sequels, “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen”, completed the story by embracing the same general format but adding unique spins on the concept from movie to movie. Together the three films grossed $1.12 billion worldwide earning critical success along the way and even earning a spin-off film, “Ocean’s 8”, which will be released this year. While a bit repetitive by nature, the “Ocean’s” Trilogy is Director Steven Soderbergh at his best. He even recaptured the same heist-themed magic with 2017’s NASCAR-themed “Logan Lucky”, a spiritual successor of sorts to the “Ocean’s” films. The trilogy still holds up today, even though it’s been dormant for over ten years, and continues to be a fun and exciting collection of plots and schemes that, while unbelievable in their execution, are still entertaining to experience. Even years later you shouldn’t be shocked to catch new details about Danny Ocean’s exploits and how his team pulled off their incredible heists as these three films combined are brimming with hidden plot elements and great cinematic sleight of hand.
9. The Mariachi Trilogy, AKA The Mexico Trilogy
A trio of modern western classics, the Mariachi Trilogy is composed of “El Mariachi”, “Desperado” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” all focusing on the exploits of El Mariachi, a gunslinger and musician traveling through Mexico. Similar to the “Dollars” trilogy, these films each have their own self-contained stories that can be enjoyed without having seen the other two, but also present the evolution and journey of a man who can’t seem to escape the darkness of the world around him. Filled with excellent gun fights and some pretty neat weaponry hidden within the confines of guitar cases, the Mariachi Trilogy helped revitalize the western genre for a modern audience between 1992 and 2013 and also played a big part in making Mexico a marketable setting for films in the modern day. The three films also utilized a theme specific to writer and director Robert Rodriguez that he called “Mariachi-style” filmmaking where the director used creativity versus money to solve problems. The lead character does the same which allows each film to maintain substance over style but still look flashy and fun. The series’ popularity grew from one film to the next with “Once Upon a Time In Mexico” eventually holding the record for most improved second sequel ever at the box office. If the goal of a trilogy is to bring in new viewers and more money from entry to entry, the Mariachi Trilogy wrote the book on that over an impressive span of over ten years.
8. The “Spider-Man” Trilogy
While today super hero trilogies are more commonplace than almost any other kind of film series out there, in the early 2000s they were a relatively new and risky concept especially after the “Blade” trilogy showed a dip in quality in its third film. While it wasn’t intended to end at three films, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy remains a quintessential superhero series sidelined mostly due to the lackluster third film and its waste of the villain Venom. Regardless, this was a series that proved the superhero movie genre was here to stay and produced one of the most legendary sequels ever in “Spider-Man 2”. With (mostly) great villains and a narrative that seemed to have a good grip on tone and character development, this trio of films may leave the original Spidey saga somewhat incomplete but it also gave us the origin of many modern comic book clichés on the big screen and continues to be an trend setter today. Despite failing to live up to expectations in the end, this franchise made every major hit that followed it possible. With incredibly iconic scenes, including the train showdown with Doctor Octopus and the upside down kiss, great costume design the right balance of comic book campiness and modern cinematic flair the original “Spider-Man” trilogy deserves more respect than it tends to get. Although, there was one other superhero trilogy of the 2000s that, for me, proved to be even more significant.
7. The “X-Men” Trilogy
There have been a LOT of movies within the “X-Men” universe so it wouldn’t be shocking if many people forgot that the original films that started the franchise were confined to a trilogy. While the “Spider-Man” series was iconic in its own way the “X-Men” trilogy, composed of “X-Men”, “X2: X-Men United” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”, was an even more important saga that truly launched the age of superhero films. Each film preceded its complimenting “Spider-Man” movie entry which means “X-Men” was the true kick starter franchise that solidified the path for all superhero-themed movies that followed. Although, like “Spider-Man”, the third film failed to live up to expectations this trilogy is more complete than it’s Marvel cousin and wasn’t afraid to take risks even if those risks didn’t pay off. It also touched on timely themes of racism and prejudice with conviction and gave us an iconic villain in Magneto as well as one of the most beloved superhero scenes in film history, Nightcrawler’s attack on the White House. The series was rebooted after the reaction to “The Last Stand” but the old cast eventually returned for “Days of Future Past” which erased the timeline of these first three movies. All things considered though the “X-Men” trilogy remains a fun and entertaining series with memorable heroes, powerful villains and social awareness that paved the way for an entire genre to blossom.
6. The “Austin Powers” Trilogy
While a fourth film has long been rumored, the “Austin Powers” franchise still remains a three-piece story and one of the most successful and cherished comedy series and parody collections out there. Mike Myers brought to life the big-toothed secret spy for the first time in 1997 and followed his legendary performance with “The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Goldmember” over the next four years. Myers also portrayed the hilarious Dr. Evil and today both Powers and Evil are among Myers’ most iconic characters and staples in pop culture. The series as a whole serves as a parody of classic spy franchises, mostly the James Bond films, and pokes fun at the villains, clichés, and sexual content of such films while also telling its own series of misadventures. Another case where the third film is often seen as the weakest, the “Austin Powers” series launched Mike Myers into the superstar spotlight and proved that parody films still had a place in cinema. Each film was smartly written and balanced a consistent tone and creative laughs, not to mention they introduced the world to one of the most famous movie sidekicks of all time in Mini-Me. What makes the “Austin Powers” films so great is that they stick to a formula but never really rest on their laurels. Myers and crew added something knew to each entry to give them their own identities, another trick stolen from the films they parodied, which is probably why even today each film on their own remain fun to view and all three together make up one of the most iconic modern comedy franchises around.
5. The “Matrix” Trilogy”
It’s probably not a popular opinion from me that this trilogy is this high on the list, but say what you will about the sequels there’s no denying “The Matrix” and its follow-up films have become collectively an iconic cinematic genre story. The Wachowskis transformed action and science fiction with 1999’s “The Matrix” introducing the world to bullet time and popularizing the conspiracy that the world around us may simply be a simulation. In 2003 the duo released both sequels, “Reloaded” and “Revolutions”, back to back only months apart to complete one of the most iconic science fiction series ever put to film as humanity waged war against the machines in both the Matrix itself and in the dystopian wasteland of Earth. This series debuted so many pop culture quotes and clichés I could do an entire list just on them and characters like Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are now forever ingrained into the genre as philosophical warriors of freedom who can kick some major ass. The franchise also spawned video games, comic books and a spinoff short film called “The Animatrix” that all filled in gaps in the original story. While today the films might feel a bit dated and may seem less than spectacular in hindsight, the “Matrix” trilogy is still a one of a kind franchise that many films and filmmakers have tried to copy and emulate but none have truly mastered quite the same way as the Wachowskis.
4. The “Before” Trilogy
A film series that spans three decades, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy is an incredible three-part story of love and serendipity showcasing the growing relationship between an American man, played by Ethan Hawke, and a French woman, played by Julie Delpy, over three phases of their lives. The first film, 1995’s “Before Sunrise”, shows the two meet and spend a single night getting to know each other in Vienna. The second occurs nine years later in 2004 and is called “Before Sunset” where the two characters meet once again and spend an afternoon together in Paris. The third and final film, 2013’s “Before Midnight”, sees both characters spend a summer vacation in Greece. Seeing this love story blossom, even with nine years in between each film, is mesmerizing and gives hope to the belief that love is undeniable and everlasting despite distance and time. It’s possibly the most magically made romance film series of all time and the use of real-time storytelling only adds to the sincere nature of story. It’s not a perfect love story in the best ways as we see the flaws of both of these people and the stresses of the world around them take their toll. However they always seem to come back to each other in the end and seeing their joint journeys from start to finish adds to the magic and grounded realism of this three-part love story.
3. The “Toy Story” Trilogy
Yes, there is a fourth movie coming next year (supposedly) but for now the “Toy Story” series is a trilogy and how could I not add it into the mix? Composed of three near perfect films, including Pixar’s first project in the 90s that popularized three dimensional computer animation, the “Toy Story” trilogy follows a group of toys in their misadventures tackling very human concepts like loss, rejection, and, of course, growing up. Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Slinky and the rest of the gang have all become iconic cartoon figures and are among Disney’s most beloved modern characters with even an entire section of a Disney park now being transformed into Toy Story Land. What’s more these films are near perfect in terms of critical response and the third film was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The jury is still out on whether or not the fourth film will live up to expectations or is even warranted, but the three movies we have now are a perfect trilogy that explores the relationship the toys have with their owner, Andy, and conclude on a tear-jerking note where Andy must finally grow up and see his toys off to a new owner. No matter how old you are this film series will hit you right in the childhood embracing nostalgia and genuine human emotion and themes to get the job done. It just might be the most perfect animated film series ever made which is impressive seeing as the second film escaped the often-unfortunate reality of being a straight to video release that could have doomed this franchise from the onset.
2. The “Dark Knight” Trilogy
In an era filled with epic superhero trilogies this one is one of the best. Christopher Nolan took Batman from the brink of irrelevance in cinema and rebooted the franchise to create his own trilogy of superhero films with well-developed villains, a darker tone, and a grittier presentation focusing more on natural stunts and special effects than CGI. Composed of “Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises”, this trilogy not only breathed new life into Batman as a big screen star, but also provided something new for the superhero genre in general by feeling more grounded and injecting a heart and soul into its dark and damaged hero. The second film alone is considered one of the greatest superhero movies ever and showcases the Oscar winning performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker but the first and third films also have merit with equally memorable villains like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow and Bane. Unlike other superhero franchises, this was a trilogy built to remain a trilogy and starts, progresses and ends with Bruce Wayne evolving from a vengeful billionaire to a self-sacrificing knight of his kingdom. It’s one of the most engaging, fun, and realistic superhero series you’ll ever see that proves superhero films don’t have to be all color and laughs. Warner Bros. and Nolan took a chance by bringing Batman back out of the shadows and it paid off tremendously. It worked so well in fact that it outshined all that came before it and continues to be the series most superhero films strive to emulate today, especially ones from DC.
1. The “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy
Did you really expect anything else? There are few, if any, film trilogies in the modern era of cinema more beloved and respect than Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Composed of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers” and the best Picture winning “Return of the King”, this franchise was previously considered unfilmable but is now among the most legendary movie series ever created. The story follows a hobbit and others as they try to destroy the One Ring and defeat the Dark Lord Sauron who seeks to conquer Middle-Earth. The characters of this film need no introduction with household names like Gollum, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf, Legolas and others making up the cast. The lore of the series has captured the imaginations of fans worldwide even years after the final film was released and even led to a prequel trilogy. The “Lord of the Rings” movies are often the most idolized by cosplayers and led to extreme merchandising that still exists today. To top it off, “Return of the King” is a rare film that swept every category it was nominated for at the 76th Academy Awards, earning 11 and claiming a record for highest Oscar sweep ever while also becoming the first, and so far only, third film in a series to win Best Picture. Despite stretching out a single book into three films, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy managed to never feel tired or lose itself in its extensive story which makes it a near-perfect trilogy of films that all feel warranted and like one part of a whole. It’s a strong contender for my best trilogy of all time, but for now it will have to settle for topping this list of modern classic trilogies from the 90s and 2000s.