Not every movie trilogy contains a unified story. Some trilogies are related more by a theme than anything else. Dubbed Nontraditional Trilogies or more professionally known as “Thematic Trilogies” these movies are usually linked by a common director, common themes, and/or common settings, characters, actors or concepts. Rather than including them in my previous trilogy lists I decided to give these three-part series a list all their own and explore the greatest trilogies that may not make up a full story but are all related in some way. These are my picks for the Top 10 Thematic Film Trilogies.
As you can guess this list focuses on trilogies of films that are not related necessarily by a single story or character arc, but instead by their themes, setting or some connection outside of the normal standards of a film trilogy. It was hard to set limits for this list because many thematic trilogies were only considered such in hindsight and were labeled as such by viewers or movie professionals rather than the filmmakers that produced the films. So I decided not to limit myself too much. Any series consisting of only three films that has become known as a thematic trilogy either by design or in hindsight worked for this countdown.
That being said there may be some trios loosely considered trilogies I left off this list and there might be some you, my readers, may argue against as unworthy thematic series. So PLEASE let me know your thoughts on this list in the comments below.
Also I’m not limiting my list to different decades here. Any thematic trilogy from across the history of film was considered and, as with my other trilogy lists, the top four on this countdown will be considered for my Memorial Day countdown of the best film trilogies of all time. Let’s get to it!
10. The Apartment Trilogy
Despite his less than acceptable personal behavior away from the camera, Roman Polanski has long been considered a visionary director with some of his best work being contained within this trilogy of standalone films that all take place within apartments. Composed of three psychological horror films, “Repulsion”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, and “The Tenant”, this legendary horror trio is often praised for its use of claustrophobia and an overwhelming focus on atmosphere and paranoia to strike fear into not only the characters, but the viewers as well. “Rosemary’s Baby” alone is a triumph and one of the most iconic horror films ever made with its sister films also managing to capture the same unique insecurities that plague the human mind. While they all balance the same tones, themes and setting all three films still manage to feel unique in their own way making them worthy thrill rides to view alone or an intense experience to view together.
9. The Frontier Thrillogy
Screenwriter turned director Taylor Sheridan has quickly made a name for himself over the last few years with the creation of three films he himself has affectionately called the “Frontier Trilogy”. However I personally gave them the label of Thrillogy last year so I’m combining to two labels for this list. Sheridan wrote all three films so far in the thematic series, “Sicario”, “Hell or High Water” and 2017’s “Wind River” which he also directed. All three films are considered “connected” mostly through their settings on the frontier, but Sheridan himself revealed another connection theme in an interview with Collider. All three films also feature father figures dealing with the failures of their past. This hidden theme involving fatherhood spans all three movies and manifests itself in different ways and when watched together these movies tie up each other’s loose ends proposing questions and providing closure on many human issues including the true civility of man. We’ll see if these themes continue in the upcoming “Sicario” sequel later this year.
8. John Ford’s Calvary Trilogy
Director John Ford himself has not actually confirmed this to be a true trilogy, but it’s often considered as such by film historians. Composed of “Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”, these films are not only connected by Ford himself but also by their setting on American Calvary forts. They’re all based on works by James Warner Bellah, feature the same composers, and star John Wayne. Aside from all that all three movies, released one after another from 1948 to 1950, share similar themes with a focus on men involved in the military in the olden times of the United States. Together these three movies offer insight into colonialism and the concept of the thirst for war and are among the most iconic western films of the time. While John Ford himself may have never confirmed any interconnection between these movies, today they are often considered a fine trio of thematically related films focusing on post-Civil War America and the role armed service plays, even today, in the American mentality. That said it’s no surprise they have gained a united reputation as an iconic thematic series over time.
7. The Depression Trilogy
Lars Von Trier is a fascinating filmmaker unafraid to tackle some pretty heavy themes in his work. Three of his most interesting movies make up his Depression Trilogy, all focusing on different forms of depression while also tackling different genres. Composed of the 2009 horror film “Antichrist”, the 2011 disaster film “Melancholia” and the 2013 coming of age two-part movie “Nymphomaniac” this trio of films shows us characters dealing with loss, regret, a lack of meaning and a lack of fulfillment in artistic and emotionally driven narratives. These are not films for the faint of heart as they are drawn out and very artistically crafted to capture the slow burn of each character’s mental state. “Melancholia” is my personal favorite as its climactic tragedy delves into how death is seen through the eyes of the depressed versus the level headed. Together or apart these movies are fascinating works that delve into the human psyche like few have ever done before.
6. The Vietnam War Trilogy
Oliver Stone is one of the most respected filmmakers of his time but he’s possibly most famous for writing “Scarface” and for directing three movies focusing on the controversial Vietnam War. Known today as the Vietnam War Trilogy, Stone’s collection included “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”, both of which earned him Best Director Oscars, and the weakest entry “Heaven & Earth”. A Vietnam War veteran himself, Stone set out to create projects that would capture the essence of possibly the most divisive international war America has ever been a part of. “Platoon” puts the focus on a group of soldiers in the midst of the conflict while “Born on the Fourth of July” is more focused on a soldier’s experience after he comes home with scars from the war. The final film, “Heaven & Earth” tackles a Vietnamese woman’s life during the conflict and her move to America. Together they create an unapologetically brutal picture of the realities of the war but separately they tell standalone stories with well written characters and a legacy of award success that can’t be ignored.
5. The Vengeance Trilogy
Give you one guess what the theme of this trilogy is. Composed of three violent movies by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook this series, which includes “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”, tackles the themes of revenge, violence, and salvation through three unconnected stories. While not originally intended to be a trilogy, these three films have been connected in hindsight by international film experts making it one of the most notable franchises linked by thematic content. Today they are often sold as a three-piece set and helped make Oh Kwang-rok, the only actor to appear in all three films, a household name. “Oldboy” specifically became the stuff of legend as a brutally violent look at human rage and an iconic revenge flick that received a less-than-stellar American remake. All three movies have attained cult status and while they tell their own great stories, they shine the most when viewed as a trilogy as they delve into the most animalistic aspects of humanity by chronicling the struggles of three very different people whose sanity is compromised by the world that left them to rot.
4. The Apocalypse Trilogy
John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is a dark trio of films focusing on one obsession, the end of it all. Carpenter set out to present projects that reflected his childhood fear of the atomic bomb and thus we got “The Thing”, “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”. Each film focuses on a different apocalyptic possibility, the first on aliens, the second on Satan, and the third on otherworldly beings. All three are mind-bending experiences that helped make Carpenter a household name with “The Thing” specifically becoming one of the most iconic science fiction horror films of all time. One underlying theme connects them all and that’s a loss of self. Each movie involves characters losing touch of what’s real and what’s not and what’s human and what’s, well, something else. It’s a delightfully spooky trilogy meant to make viewers question everything they know and is as effectively creepy as it is provocative and symbolic. Carpenter set out to create stories that captured his own fear of the end and after watching the resulting trilogy I’d have to say he succeeded.
3. The Three Colours Trilogy
Also called the Trois couleurs trilogy in France where the films are most popular, this trio of films, two filmed in French and the third in Polish, remains among the most respect foreign film franchises ever. Composed of three different stories, 1993’s “Blue” and 1994’s “White” and “Red”, all were directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, these films share the common theme of having a character attached to something from their past. Intended as a trilogy when conceived, the films also follow the color pattern of the French flag, blue which stands for liberty, white which represents equality, and red for fraternity, with the themes of each color worked into the stories. While “White” is often seen as the weakest of the three “Blue” is seen as a symbolic take on grief and freedom while “Red” earned numerous award nominations as the strongest of the bunch. In the end “Red” also subtly connects all three films speaking to the theory that all life is connected in some way. It’s a delightfully engaging trio of artistic projects that take a simple item like the French flag and utilizes the themes of the country’s most prominent symbol to create a series of very human stories that can speak to the soul in us all.
2. The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy
Also known simply as the Three Flavours Trilogy, the Cornetto Trilogy, or the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, this series of three thematically connected films is often the one people turn too when they think of a nontraditional trilogy. All directed by Edgar Wright and written by Wright and perpetual star Simon Pegg, the trilogy consists of “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” with each movie paying tribute to different genres of film. “Shaun of the Dead” focuses on horror, “Hot Fuzz” references buddy cop and action films and “The World’s End” is a send-up to science fiction classics. All the films are connected by the appearance of Cornetto ice cream somewhere in their plot, giving the trilogy its name, and Pegg and Nick Frost playing the lead roles. Often compared to the Three Colours Trilogy which led to the stylized “Flavours” in its name, each film in this series also tackles specific themes connecting all the characters including perpetual adolescence, maturity, and the benefits, and dangers, of people serving as a group. Even without the interconnection all three movies are delightfully entertaining on their own and pay tribute to three of the most prominent genres in all of film with a fourth genre, comedy, incorporated into all three.
1. The Trilogy of the Dead
George A. Romero was a master of horror and originated the concept of the movie zombie we know today. He did this through an epic, legendary trilogy that, as you might have guessed by now, contains three related movies that tell their own story. The original series of “Living Dead” films, “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and “Day of the Dead”, are iconic on their own, but as the legendary Trilogy of the Dead they make up one of the most iconic genre franchises ever if not THE most iconic. Each film tells its own self-contained story of the zombie apocalypse and it has never been undeniably confirmed that they even take place in the same universe. Each movie is famous for adapting social issues into the story including racism, consumerism and isolation. While each movie is an independent story the state of the world gets worse and worse with each film making them a perfect trilogy depicting the deterioration of society as a result of the zombie infestation. Since the original trilogy concluded remakes and unofficial sequels have come about, some better than others, but the original trilogy, which all but founded the idea of a thematic film series, is still the best of the bunch. I’ve waited all month to put this trilogy on a list and I’m happy to call it my pick for the best thematic film trilogy of all time.