There should be no question about whether or not Sir Ridley Scott is the greatest film director out there, but he does face some stiff competition from rivals like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. Sir Ridley has directed everything from huge, commercial blockbusters to smaller, more intimate pieces. His movies have won Oscars and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s famous for his very precise and atmospheric visual style, but this has ranged from all kinds of movies. He’s directed cinematic stories set in Ancient Rome, Crusades-era Jerusalem, Medieval England, the war-torn Middle East, futuristic Los Angeles, Mars, and planets many lightyears away, as well as gracing the silver screen with so many strong and iconic female characters. He’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director three times, but that’s not why he’s doing it. Sir Ridley continues to make movies purely because he wants to bless the world with the stories that need to be told, and for that, he has been rewarded with a BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution To Cinema and a knighthood for his “services to the British film industry.” He’s the best director out there. Here are 15 movies that prove it.
15. Matchstick Men
This is one of Sir Ridley’s smaller films. He’s directed a lot of great historical epics and science fiction opuses, but sometimes going smaller and more intimate can be a good idea, too. This was a little black comedy caper about con men that starred some great actors, particularly Sam Rockwell and Nicolas Cage. Yes, it’s finally time to admit that Nic Cage is a great actor. What he’s not great at is choosing projects, but when he chooses the right one, like Raising Arizona or Leaving Las Vegas or Wild at Heart or The Croods, he shines. Matchstick Men also ends with one of the greatest and most underrated plot twists in film history. In fact, the entire movie as a whole is underrated. It didn’t do so well at the box office and no one ever talks about it, but it’s a hell of a movie.
14. Robin Hood
Despite mixed reviews and a mass of historical inaccuracies, Ridley Scott spending $200 million of Hollywood’s money on a grim, Gladiator-esque blockbuster version of the Robin Hood legend was never going to be a bad thing. Scott’s direction is by far the best thing about this movie, and the critics agree. They wrote that “Scott has great command of his action sequences” and applauded the filmmaker for his “sophisticated approach to the material,” while other critics called the movie as a whole “smart, muscular entertainment” that places itself “head and shoulders above the sort of lightheaded epics Hollywood typically offers during the summer season.” And Russell Crowe’s performance in the title role was praised. Apart from his distracting accent, which flits between English, Scottish, and Irish, Crowe was commended by critics for having “a presence and authority” that will make viewers “forget all about Kevin Costner.”
13. American Gangster
Pretty much any Denzel Washington movie is worth watching, purely because he’s one of the best actors working today and you’ll enjoy anything he’s in, just based on his performance. The movie Flight, for example, wouldn’t have been quite as worth the watch if Denzel hadn’t given his face, voice, and talent to the lead role of Whip Whitaker. But if you watch just one Denzel Washington movie, make it American Gangster, because almost any Ridley Scott movie is worth watching, too. And the story of true life drug lord Frank Lucas is too great to miss out on. Combine all of those things and you’ve got Scott on point directing Washington in one of his finest performances as Lucas, one of the most successful drug dealers who ever lived. The resulting movie is nothing short of a masterpiece. Greater gangster movies have been made, like Goodfellas and The Godfather and Casino, but still, American Gangster is not to be missed.
12. Body of Lies
You can never go wrong with an action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Even without Sir Ridley’s talents behind the camera, this would’ve been pretty watchable. But with Sir Ridley in the director’s chair, intricately considering every detail, it’s a deep and complex espionage thriller. Some critics noted that the script sticks too closely to the conventions of the spy genre, but Scott does everything he can with that. He brings through themes of bureaucracy in Washington in his cinematography choices and explores the clash of cultures between the Arab and Western civilizations in the film. Body of Lies is a wonderfully modern throwback to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Back then, we were scared of Watergate. Now, we’re scared of Islamic State terrorism.
The movie title Legend probably reminds you these days of Tom Hardy playing the role of both Kray twins, but long before that, it was one of Ridley Scott’s earliest films. Legend is a dark fairy tale that harks back to the earliest days of storytelling, when fables were passed on by word of mouth and not by reading and writing. Inspired by the tale of the Brothers Grimm, Legend stars Tom Cruise and Tim Curry, and in the years since its failure at the box office, the film has become a cult classic. Curry, as he does with most movies, makes this one by playing the iconic role of the Lord of Darkness. It’s the same thing he did with Clue, It, Annie, and of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
10. Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott made Black Hawk Down at a time when most war movies seemed to be harking back to World War II and the Vietnam War, but he saw the conflicts that are happening today in the Middle East and he saw their striking cinematic potential. So, he made this gritty, violent, shocking masterpiece to show a world that had been lied to by George Bush and Tony Blair exactly what was going on in the Middle East (and still is). Unlike a lot of directors, Sir Ridley neither glamorizes war nor does he water down the conflict taking place in this harrowing forerunner to films like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead that would later do the same thing. Black Hawk Down didn’t do so well at the box office, but that’s because people are scared of the truth. They’re happy with their superheroes and their talking dogs. They don’t want a big stack of truth pancakes. But be that as it may, to people who aren’t afraid of the truth, Black Hawk Down remains a fantastic film.
Making a sequel to the great masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs couldn’t have been an easy task to take on, but Ridley Scott did it. Anthony Hopkins, playing the titular cannibalistic serial killer, was one of the only members of the original Silence of the Lambs creative team to return for the sequel, which was set a decade later. But Scott managed to take the next Thomas Harris novel about Hannibal the Cannibal and weave a gory thriller that wasn’t all about the gore – and that’s not easy to do. Time magazine actually considered this sequel to be even better than its classic predecessor, writing in their review, “A banquet of creepy, gory or grotesque incidents is on display in Hannibal. But this superior sequel has romance in its dark heart.”
8. Black Rain
Black Rain is a hell of an action thriller. It stars Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as a pair of New York cops who are tasked with escorting a yakuza gangster back to Japan. When they get there, the gangster escapes, and the cops are drawn deeper into the seedy criminal underworld of East Asia. Critics were divided by the film, although they did mostly praise it as “beautiful,” “rarely less than engaging,” “dark and haunting,” and said that “it’s tough to knock Ridley Scott’s style and Michael Douglas with a gun.” Black Rain has also been compared to the classic Year of the Dragon, although critics have also noted that it’s “a strong film in its own right.” This is Scott’s take on the genre of slick, stylish R-rated action thriller, and it’s bloody glorious.
7. Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut
The initial theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven was not great. It skimmed over the entire plot and its characters without going into any depth or giving us any insight. If it had done that, it could’ve been Scott’s next Gladiator. But then it all transpired that the studio, 20th Century Fox, who had sunk $130 million into the film, demanded that Scott cut 45 minutes from the movie to make it more likely to succeed at the box office. Scott conceded, and the result was a not so great movie. However, when Scott went back to piece together his director’s cut, it was met with much more critical acclaim. Empire magazine’s review said that the new material completed the film: “The added 45 minutes in the director’s cut are like pieces missing from a beautiful but incomplete puzzle.” Scott himself reflected, “This is the one that should have gone out.”
6. Thelma and Louise
You wouldn’t think that a male director could empower women quite so well as Ridley Scott, but he basically takes the job of stepping behind the camera and letting women be awesome. In Alien, he let Sigourney Weaver be awesome in the role of Ellen Ripley and it worked out wonderfully. In Thelma and Louise, he told the story of two women who are sick of being in crappy relationships and decide to hit the road and be free, and all he did was follow a great script and let Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon be awesome, and that also worked out wonderfully. That old “I don’t need no man” adage is adapted to a feature length film here, and it’s glorious to watch. It’s a great feminist film, with the ending representing these women finally breaking free of the oppressive patriarchy.
5. The Martian
This adaptation of the Andy Weir novel of the same name could’ve easily failed. Almost every other movie that’s had anything to do with Mars – Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, The Last Days of Mars, John Carter – has been a catastrophic critical and financial failure. It was thought that no Mars movie could ever succeed. But then Ridley Scott came along and refused to accept that. He told this “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” story with an interesting angle: a hopefulness. This is not a bleak, depressing, harrowing story of survival. Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney jokes around and never loses his hope. The movie is a testament to the human spirit. It’s brilliant. It’s just the kind of movie we need – a big budget science fiction spectacle that, when you boil it down, is really just a story about people.
4. All the Money in the World
With All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott did the impossible. As the Weinstein effect was sweeping Hollywood and every other actor, producer, and director was being outed as a pervert, studios were shelving projects that had anything at all to do with any of the people named by Time magazine’s Person of the Year, the silence breakers. All of those movies were seen as poisoned and they’ll probably never see the light of day. But Sir Ridley wasn’t going down that easy. His star Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sexual predator just weeks before the release of their movie All the Money in the World, and it seemed like the movie was doomed. But Scott cared to deeply about the true story of the J. Paul Getty III kidnapping to go down without a fight. Cue a few intense days where he reshot every single Spacey scene with Christopher Plummer – his original choice – in the role, some rigorous editing, and a completely changed film. The premiere was only delayed by three days! And that didn’t even hurt the movie. It’s turned out to be one of Scott’s best movies. And Christopher Plummer is the best part of the whole movie! What a feat.
Ridley Scott almost didn’t direct Gladiator, but it’s a damn good thing he did, because he gave the world an action-packed, emotionally charged, historically-set masterpiece about life in the ring in the Ancient Roman coliseums. He was convinced to do the movie after seeing an oil painting of a gladiatorial conflict. Every director can learn from that. That’s one of the first things they teach you in film school: draw inspiration from sources other than movies. Read books, go to art galleries, stuff like that. It led to Gladiator being made, so they can’t be wrong. Scott also made Gladiator with a deep respect for the religious beliefs that Romans had in those days. Everything that the characters say or do reflects the historical setting. And also, it’s a movie with some great action sequences, some shocking moments, some beautiful drama – it’s not hard, Hollywood, but you do make it seem hard with the amount of crap you bring out. Every movie should not necessarily be exactly like Gladiator, but if a lot of them were, it would go a long way.
2. Blade Runner
Nobody but Ridley Scott could take the premise of “a cop hunts down robots” and use it to create a cinematic masterpiece, an entire genre of fiction, and a cult following that has lasted for over three decades. This adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? went through many script drafts, miles of footage, and a bunch of different cuts (rumor has it that Scott’s original cut was over four hours long and he continues to bring out new director’s cuts every couple of years to this day), but in the end, what we were left with was a brilliant movie, the neo noir genre, and a hotly debated mystery over whether or not Deckard is a replicant. Initially, back in 1982, Blade Runner was overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial at the box office, with the latter becoming the highest grossing movie ever made and the former becoming a box office bomb. But still, Blade Runner has permeated throughout the cinephilic community for decades and it remains a timeless classic of science fiction, film noir, and of cinema in general.
This movie is yet another example of Ridley Scott taking a simple premise that any other director would waste no time turning into a cash-in blockbuster and turning it into a revolutionary masterpiece with cinematic value in spades. The premise of Alien was essentially transplanting the haunted house genre into a science fiction setting. A bunch of astronauts on a ship unwittingly invite in an extraterrestrial element that picks them off one by one. There’s a million movies like that. What sets Alien aside as one of the greatest movies ever made is a few simple factors. For starters, Sir Ridley didn’t rush into the frights. He makes you wait. The alien doesn’t show up for like an hour. By making you wait, he builds up tension. He’s not too eager to get it all out in one go. This way, we get a build-up of suspense, and it’s far more effective than anything Hollywood rent boys like Michael Bay and Rob Zombie churn out. And plus, the jump scares actually mean something. The alien doesn’t just jump out of the mist and scare you by doing that. What’s scary is that it’s grown to like fifty times its original size in about an hour. They’re dealing with a serious threat here. Plus, the character of Ellen Ripley remains one of the most empowering female characters in all of film to this day. She isn’t just the final girl – she’s the final girl who kicked the villain’s ass!