All 27 Ridley Scott Films Ranked!
A director best known for science fiction like Alien and Blade Runner and period epics such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott has a variety of unique projects and career-defining films already under his belt. From humble beginnings working on a variety of TV programs, Scott’s knack for filmmaking has provided some of the greatest films of all time. With the recent release of House of Gucci (his second release of 2021 and 27th theatrical release in his career), it only felt right to go through his filmography and see how it has held up over time even as one of the hardest working directors continues to line up more projects to tackle.
27. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Misguided casting and a revolution it doesn’t seem to actually care about, Exodus: Gods and Kings is bad at almost every turn. While some of the acting is tolerable if you can get past the whitewashing, it’s the bland lead performance of Christian Bale as Moses and the film’s decision to try to be Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven that plagues the entirety of it. Ridley Scott can make a movie of this scale with no problem, but when the narrative is unsure of what is most important to it, it ends up simply moving forward in a battle of attrition with almost no heart to it. Eventually, we’ll get to Moses parting the sea, but first we need to see him accept God, fracture a relationship with his brother, and also be a really good revolutionary. Oh and find love along the way but immediately leave them.
Beginning with a prophecy that states “a leader will be saved and his saviour will become a leader”, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) feels his claim to the throne of Egypt is threatened when Moses (Bale) saves him from death on the battlefield. From this point on, Exodus: Gods and Kings lets words and thoughts eat away at Ramses and prophecies quietly bolster Moses after he is tossed from Ramses’s side. It makes for a good fable, but the screenplay looks into too many directions as it aims to make this relatively simple plot have the same potency as Kingdom of Heaven before it.
Where Exodus: Gods and Kings manages to achieve anything substantial is in its imagery, aided by the incorporation of biblical plagues throughout Egypt. It’s striking and lends itself well to creating this epic feeling throughout. But it doesn’t matter if nothing in the film feels like it has any heart to it. Helping nothing is the whitewashed cast that can be entertaining at times, but often look like they’re just playing expensive dress-up and fail to do anything with the self-serious screenplay. It’s a mess that even a master at historical epics like Scott can’t salvage.
26. 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
This might be the film in Ridley Scott’s filmography that has aged the worst. Centered around Christopher Columbus’s (portrayed by Gérard Depardieu) voyage to the New World and the subsequent colonization of the Americas, 1492: Conquest of Paradise plays out like a fluff piece on Columbus. Which is fitting because the film was released as part of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, and while Scott may have had interest in doing a Columbus biopic, it never comes off as interesting.
The biggest complaints that can be levied against the film is that Depardieu seems miscast as the Italian explorer (though capable of handling the bulk of the film’s emotional weight and introspection), and despite the film’s exquisite production design, costumes, and art direction, there’s no real gravitas to it all. Even in the movie’s climax when it fully realizes the atrocities committed by the Spaniards with a large-scale massacre, it lacks dramatic weight outside of the literal pain and suffering shown on screen. Vangelis’s score mirrors the misery Columbus feels for letting this happen, than it does a reflection of the larger pain being inflicted.
This ends up being an occasional problem with Scott’s films as he sometimes asks audiences to empathize with someone who doesn’t quite deserve it. There’s no real conversation about Columbus’s role in how things turned out, which gives Scott’s film a toothlessness. Even in its depiction of the brutality performed on Indigineous tribes, Scott’s film lacks anything meaningful to say about it. Instead it just shows it and asks us to forgive Columbus for what he did not intend.
Predictably, 1492: Conquest of Paradise gets by on its visual elements and Scott manages to milk every penny out of his ability to create scale. It’s most notable because this is Scott’s first attempt at a huge “epic” that he would later become known for just as much as he is for his science fiction films. Again, it’s not an engaging epic, but an admirable attempt to do something massive while still trying to keep it focused on a single individual. To that extent, 1492: Conquest of Paradise slightly succeeds, even if it is a mostly misguided venture.
25. Robin Hood (2010)
There’s no denying that Ridley Scott’s filmography proves that if anyone is going to tackle an honor-bound character that threatens to undo a systemic problem with government and institutions capitalizing on those they deem lesser, Scott is the man for the job. Robin Hood is a natural fit for the director, but it’s also emblematic of him sometimes being the right man for the job but the job being ill-advised from the beginning. A prequel movie that doesn’t offer much merriment or robbing the rich, it’s clear that the focus is entirely on a slightly immoral man proven to be more moral than he believes.
As the fifth and final collaboration between Russell Crowe and Scott within the span of a decade, there’s barely a revelry to him that embodies the character. Instead, Robin Hood is the auspicious gritty reboot that nobody asked for but every studio needed to attempt with each property after the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Scott’s interpretation is void of any entertaining moments with the exception of actors like Alan Doyle, Mark Addy, and the kids in the forest playing soldiers – all hinting at something slightly more enthralling.
It’s a terribly boring movie, and one where Scott’s ability to make any action scene exciting is trumped by the dour world around him and the terribly rote screenplay. It twists and contorts itself until the conclusion, trying to thrust Robin Hood into a narrative where he doesn’t belong while planting the seeds for a narrative that will never exist (the film’s poor box office resulted in a planned sequel being cancelled). One of Scott’s low points, of which he saw many in the 2010s – either in terms of box office or critical reception.
24. A Good Year (2006)
Reuniting with Russell Crowe for the first time since Gladiator, A Good Year is not the kind of film you’d expect from Ridley Scott. A dramedy with a tinge of romance and the closest thing to an action beat being Marion Cotillard falling off a bike because Crowe’s character is too busy reading a map while driving and almost hits her. It’s also handled in the exact way Scott would handle something like this: poking at the romanticism of its setting and watching as a chauvinist slowly gives into his memories. I’d hardly call A Good Year sweet or even romantic, but it does show that even with some of the most saccharine material at his fingertips, Scott still knows how to leave a light personal touch to it.
That being said, it’s not a very good movie. Max (Crowe) inherits a vineyard and estate when his uncle (Albert Finney) passes, and throughout the entire film Max is determined to sell the place and make a quick buck. Much like his uncle, he’s a ladies man and can never settle down with just one woman until the equally stubborn and independent Fanny (Cotillard) appears in his life. The problem is that even at the end of A Good Year, there hasn’t been much character change and no stakes have ever really been introduced. An investment banker who has an obscene amount of money, the finale of the film just has a rich person deciding to spend their days operating their uncle’s vineyard. It’s a step down, but it’s hardly a difficult decision to make when the whole film shows how much more laid back the lifestyle could be.
Largely where A Good Year works is in the little details or lack thereof. The lack of change in Max is somewhat refreshing, even if the film tries to sell it as more of a change than it really is. Crowe’s performance is subtle with the frequent cutting to flashbacks of Max’s childhood (where Max is played by Freddie Highmore) providing the only overt reflection on his part. No matter how many small details there are though, it’s still a bit of a slog to get through and only die hard Crowe fans are probably going to get much out of the film. Even as someone who adores Scott’s work, there’s little here to admire other than when it embraces a lack of charming qualities.
23. Body of Lies (2008)
By 2008, Ridley Scott had already worked with Russell Crowe three times and with Body of Lies being their fourth collaboration, it’s clear that Crowe is not the muse that his frequent involvement might suggest. Body of Lies brings Leonardo DiCaprio into the fold as Roger Ferris – a CIA agent in Jordan trying to hunt down a terrorist known as Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). Scott’s “war on terror” film lacks the impact of a lot of his other films, despite it being much more blunt about its themes and circling back onto some similar ideas that have permeated throughout his filmography.
For starters, Body of Lies touches on the recurring notion that people are failed by systems more than they are individual people. The personal versus impersonal approach of Roger and Ed Hoffman (Crowe) shows a fundamental difference in ideology that causes a schism within government. This is evidenced best by Jordanian Intelligence helping someone in order to call on a favor later as opposed to the CIA’s frequent insistence on taking over everything and refusing assistance unless it benefits them immediately. This idea of a systemic problem in an organization or group manifests itself in many of Crowe’s works, but Body of Lies, 2007’s American Gangster and 2021’s The Last Duel are arguably the most blunt about individuals being ground up by the systems they operate within.
Despite interesting ideas, it’s the execution of Body of Lies that feels rickety at best. There’s a relationship haphazardly thrown in the mix, a bunch of quick editing that is likely intended to make the action more exciting but instead feels disorienting, and an okay performance from DiCaprio that cannot accentuate any of the importance the film is trying to convey. It’s just a messy execution that muddles a lot of interesting concepts and can’t seem to flesh them out without just blurting them out. Not the worst Scott film, but certainly one of the least compelling.
22. Hannibal (2001)
Increasing the amount of screentime for Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) from Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs for this sequel seemed like a guaranteed recipe for success. Afterall, Hannibal Lecter became one of the greatest cinematic villains from Hopkins’ portrayal. Ridley Scott even has some background doing looser variations on a cat-and-mouse plot such as in Someone to Watch Over Me and Alien. However, Hannibal struggles to get to its central relationship between Lecter and Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore instead of Jodie Foster).
Failing to recognize the appeal of Demme’s interpretation, Scott’s film plays out like a tired thriller as Clarice is put back on the case of finding Lecter, only to be a tool used by everyone else around her. Even with Lecter’s admiration of her, she feels less empowered than ever here right down to the ending. Instead, it’s clear that Scott cares more about Lecter and his relationship with Clarice than the other way around. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it then spends much of its time reiterating how intelligent Lecter is and why he is such an iconic character.
Hopkins is great though, and Moore does a serviceable enough job stepping into the big shoes left behind by Foster’s absence. Gary Oldman and Ray Liotta end up having a lot of fun here as well, with the former covered in so much prosthetic make-up that it’s only seeing his name in the end credits that you’d recognize him. Liotta gets an extremely memorable Lecter moment that is both disgusting and hilarious at the same time thanks to his performance. There’s stuff to admire in the second half of the film, but it just takes way too long to get there and its reflection on our curiosity with monsters is hardly fleshed out enough throughout to sustain its runtime.
21. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
A lesser film in Ridley Scott’s filmography, Someone to Watch Over Me is also his first feature film to be set in modern day. Following a New York City cop (Tom Berenger) tasked with looking over a socialite (Mimi Rogers) who witnessed a murder, his home life becomes upended when he starts falling for the woman he’s hired to protect. The romance angle isn’t what works in Someone to Watch Over Me. It’s the unromantic side of it that offers something interesting: the pressure put on Mike’s (Berenger) wife, Ellie (Lorraine Bracco), to endure the late nights with no one at home and the constant danger that her husband may never come home again.
Unfortunately, Howard Franklin’s screenplay is fairly pedestrian because of all the things it has to do and time it can’t spend elsewhere if it wants to be entertaining. Someone to Watch Over Me is a standard thriller that can’t juggle both the romance and the unrelenting threat to a witness’s safety. That it all bleeds into Mike’s personal life is by virtue of the fact that the film needs to justify bringing together both women. The real problem is that Mike isn’t a very engaging character and the film places equal emphasis on his romantic struggles just as much as the physical threat to those around him.
Bracco is where Someone to Watch Over Me gets its enjoyment. She’s funny, attractive, and her character feels equal in every way to Mike’s new romantic interest, Claire (Rogers). The two characters exist in different worlds but both feel natural within them. It’s Mike who is the unstable component, unable to determine where he should stand. Had Scott framed the film more around Bracco’s character than Mike and Claire’s relationship, there would be much more to dissect. Where it stands, the film is a satisfying enough thriller that has perhaps rightfully been forgotten in the pantheon of Scott’s work.
20. White Squall (1996)
Up there with Someone to Watch Over Me as a lesser-discussed title in Scott’s filmography, White Squall isn’t particularly engaging due to its conventional storytelling and milquetoast lead performance from Scott Wolf, but the titular squall is a fantastic set piece. Based on a tragic accident where a ship allegedly sank due to a white squall, Jeff Bridges captains the ill-fated Albatross in a coming-of-age story that feels like it is desperately chasing the audience that flocked to Dead Poets Society.
Admittedly, it’s not a bad one of those, but the story is largely centered around a bunch of privileged kids that all have their own issues that prevent them from getting traditional schooling or push them towards following an alternative path to adulthood. Instead, they get to spend their summer on a boat, learning the same classes but also learning the importance of responsibility. It’s an extremely dated-feeling film, but somewhat of a comfort watch as well. With the exception of the white squall climax, it’s a predictable quaint film of boys learning to be men.
The real reason to watch White Squall nowadays is for Jeff Bridges who gives a great performance, and maybe to catch a glimpse at some actors early in their careers such as Ryan Phillippe, Ethan Embry, and Jeremy Sisto. Otherwise, the white squall itself is extremely tense and holds up well against some of Scott’s other films and their magnificent set pieces. It’s just a shame that the movie ends with a scene so clearly ripped from Dead Poets Society that you could close your eyes and imagine the teenagers standing on their desks.
19. Legend (1986)
In the 1980s, it felt like every director tried their hand at doing a fantasy film. By the time Ridley Scott’s Legend released stateside, movies like Excalibur, Ladyhawke, Conan the Barbarian, Krull, The Dark Crystal, and The Beastmaster, were only a handful of titles released in the 5 years prior. Starring Tom Cruise at the early stages of his career (Top Gun would release later in the same year), Legend is Ridley Scott flexing his ability to move between genres and really emphasizing craft over almost everything else.
From the future of Blade Runner and Alien to the past, Legend marks the only time Scott takes a stab at the fantasy genre and it’s a feverish attempt to capture something dark underneath all the pixies and unicorns. Unfortunately, outside of Tim Curry’s delectable performance as Darkness, the acting in this is mostly put on Cruise’s shoulders who just does not seem to know what to do in this kind of film. It’s a poorly written screenplay all around, but anchoring it in the idea of a human ruining the world for everyone else is inspired. There’s a great moment stemming from this where Mia Sara’s character is seen before meeting Darkness and after ruining the world that is just filled with regret, pain and fear.
Ultimately the reason Legend has somewhat endured over the years is because it’s one of the best looking worlds in a Scott film, and one that bests most of the fantasy films coming out of that era. With production design and costumes that are still mesmerizing, Legend always stuns in its depictions of both the hellish frozen landscape ready to consume the world and the beautiful, serene world that is being overrun by impending doom. After impressing in the same department with Alien and Blade Runner, Legend feels like a logical continuation and shows just how much range Scott has as a visual director, able to convey a dark mood and atmosphere even in the brightest of settings.
18. Black Rain (1989)
Black Rain feels like Ridley Scott dipping back into the Blade Runner well, at least in terms of its aesthetic design. While Blade Runner was heavily inspired by Japanese culture and architecture, Scott’s 1989 film transplants two American men directly into Japan. Capitalizing on the star power of Michael Douglas, Black Rain hasn’t exactly aged well but it still maintains a sturdiness to its direction and solid momentum due to its brutish dirty cop protagonist.
While the fish-out-of-water story isn’t all that engaging, Black Rain’s clash of cultures adds a little more nuance when Nick Conklin (Douglas) and Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia) find themselves forced to catch a member of the Yakuza that has escaped their custody while being brought to Japanese authorities in Tokyo. Woefully ill-equipped to maneuver through the city, Nick’s character becomes a fascinating, problematic variable in the film. He brute forces his way through everything, insensitive to procedure and differing cultures. Before he finally agrees to work with Detective Masahiro (Ken Takakura), he spews off racist remarks and just acts as typically American as you’d expect. It’s the source of most of the film’s problematic elements, but seems fitting to the character driving the ship.
Black Rain will stand out to fans of Japanese cinema because it utilizes an incredible Japanese cast, and it also isn’t afraid to leave American audiences just as confused as its American protagonist. It’s an extremely visual film that wants audiences to feel transported elsewhere. Little handholding is done by Scott, instead asking the audience and Nick to work with the film as opposed to letting the film do all the work. While by no means is it an exceptional effort from Scott, there’s far more interesting character work done here as evident by the eventual acceptance of foreign help by Nick’s character.
17. House of Gucci (2021)
Excess and glamor fills the screen in Ridley Scott’s true crime biopic of the fall of the Gucci family within their own company. The name is synonymous with class and legacy, but Scott’s latest film tears through both to show a group of unlikable people being devoured by their own egos. Led by a truly remarkable performance from Lady Gaga, House of Gucci is an admirable effort to convey the lengths someone will go to for fame and fortune, but ultimately results in being a soap opera that claws its way to an overlong runtime it cannot sustain.
Gaga’s performance as Patrizia feels one-of-a-kind and of such a different era. Frequently, Gaga is channeling classic Hollywood, giving off Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard vibes each time Patrizia manipulates and reaches beyond her grasp. Like a vortex that sucks in character traits and slowly starts spitting them out as if they’ve been there the whole time, Gaga transforms every beat into a tragedy that only concerns her. Even when House of Gucci doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say beyond “rich people are bad”, it has Gaga’s character to fall back on as a nuanced example of how wealth corrupts.
Even with its uneven tone, House of Gucci ends as an entertaining exercise in excess. Gaga’s performance swallows up every scene, making it wholly about her every time she appears. It’s not until the movie starts prying at the wealth of its titular family that it feels like any other character gets to even be acknowledged in the same room as Patrizia. Gaga embodies her to the point where it’s absurd that the movie even tries to have scenes without her. For that reason alone, House of Gucci justifies its existence because otherwise it never really feels like it has anything new to say. Enjoyable enough as it is, it just spins the same old yarn a different way.
16. G.I. Jane (1997)
Ridley Scott’s first American military-centric film, which he would later perfect with Black Hawk Down, exemplifies how Scott can’t just do military action for the sake of making an entertaining military film. Centered around Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore), this fictionalized account of the first woman to be run through special operations training for the U.S. Navy is hardly subtle. Whenever it dives into politics, it is as blunt as a hammer. That being said, it goes hand-in-hand with the over-the-top explosions and gritty training sequences that somehow manage to make the special operations training always have this illusion of being a real-life combat scenario.
Where G.I. Jane still holds up is in Moore’s dedicated performance and where the film decides to apply subtlety. Even when O’Neil is surrounded by men and still able to hang with the best of them, the beginning of the film maintains an underlying sense that the expectations are lower. Once confronted, the film shifts into full-on misogyny and explores how men handle threats to their masculinity while also focusing on the optics of the military being proven wrong about a long-standing belief about women. By the time O’Neil is fully into the training, G.I. Jane refuses to hold any punches.
Unfortunately, that refusal to relent is also where G.I. Jane feels extremely dated. The action is fantastic, especially the final sequence where O’Neil and the rest of the trainees get real-life experience, but it all follows an extended sequence of Viggo Mortensen’s character beating and almost raping O’Neil in the name of “training”. It’s tasteless and the entire simulated torture scene goes on so long that if you didn’t understand that a woman was a perceived threat to the manliness of the military before the event, you were already a lost cause. Again, the film’s lack of subtlety is both its strength and its undoing.
15. All The Money in the World (2017)
Ridley Scott’s most scathing critique of the wealthy elite can be found in All The Money in the World. Mired in behind-the-scenes controversy that had Christopher Plummer suddenly replacing Kevin Spacey as John Paul Getty a month and some before the film’s release, it’s an otherwise standard crime thriller elevated by its depiction of Getty during the 1973 kidnapping of his grandson, J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer). Amplifying the coldness that Getty demonstrates throughout the kidnapping is Dariusz Wolski’s equally cold cinematography that frequently fills the screen with a miserable tone despite the lavish sets and obvious opulence of Getty.
Where Scott has fun breaking down the rich in 2013’s The Counselor and 2021’s House of Gucci, All the Money in the World rarely has a moment of reprieve from the depressing atmosphere. Michelle Williams plays Gail Harris, J. Paul Getty III’s mother, who has to fight tooth-and-nail with the wealthiest man in the world to try to rescue her son from kidnappers that only want money. Williams is terrific in the role, which is a relief because she is playing opposite Mark Wahlberg who occasionally feels out of place. When he’s trying to be down-to-earth is when he feels the most wooden, but it’s an otherwise solid performance.
Everything really is in the shadow of Plummer and Getty’s stranglehold on Gail’s world. Plummer’s ability to portray Getty as a cold, greedy man with a knack for getting what he wants is powerful. The screenplay gives him plenty of calculated moments of evil where even in moments of reprieve there’s an overwhelming sense that nothing will go right. The final scene is a great bit of tension with every risk proven unnecessary before it even begins, demonstrating Scott’s ability to capture needless pain in an evocative, cinematic way. It’s hardly a fun watch, but it’s riveting throughout.
14. Prometheus (2012)
Returning to the Alien universe after 33 years, Ridley Scott does what few prequels dare to do: ignore all the main selling points of the franchise. It’s clear that with Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay that the xenomorph is hardly the focus, and references to the Alien universe pretty much starts and stops with the inclusion of Weyland-Yutani Corporation. No, instead, Prometheus is more enamored with the origins of mankind and philosophizing about mortality and what it means to be human that including a xenomorph at the end of the film just feels tacked on to appease the fans of the series that expected more of a direct prequel than what Prometheus actually delivers.
That’s not to say Prometheus is bad, but reception at the time of its release was much more lukewarm. The sticking points largely still hold up from baffling decisions by characters to plot holes, but the scope and scale of the film is tremendous. There is nothing in the Alien universe that compares but it’s because both humanity and xenomorphs are cogs in a machine, not Gods in their own right. By reducing humanity to a speck in the galaxy and even worse, a creation no longer wanted, Prometheus expands the franchise with boundless possibilities. It’s the ending when Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David (Michael Fassbender) decide not to go home but instead find out who created the Engineers that solidifies how little the xenomorphs matter in the pursuit of research.
However, if philosophy isn’t interesting enough, Prometheus also contains some visceral body horror and great action sequences. The tension from the first moment a foreign threat is found only exponentially grows and Scott punctuates it with an incredible C-section moment (which still makes my skin crawl), action beats on and off the ship, and a doom that lingers throughout. At the center of it all is David and his own complex that gives the film its unique DNA.
13. American Gangster (2007)
It is somewhat of a surprise that it took until 2007 for Ridley Scott to make a movie with one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood: Denzel Washington. Even more shocking is that American Gangster is the only time Scott worked with Washington, despite the film itself being exhilarating and utilizing Washington’s charisma to perfection. The execution of the film is just engaging enough to maintain a steady momentum as Newark detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in his third collaboration with Scott) attempts to build a case against the major drug suppliers in the New York area.
At its core, American Gangster is just a really well-oiled film about the war on drugs that says more through its characters than it does in its plotting. The narrative beats are well-worn, though slightly less so by 2007’s standards (HBO’s The Wire was still on the air at this point and explores a lot of what American Gangster tries to cover and in far greater detail due to the difference in medium). Corrupt cops aplenty and the futility of the drug war, the more interesting component is how Steven Zaillian’s screenplay positions two figures on opposite sides of the law and draws similarities between them.
There’s the way Frank Lucas (Washington) gets propped up in the film due to how he carries himself in his profession versus the way Richie is dragged down in his for being a seemingly honest cop. But it’s where moral lines are drawn that makes American Gangster have a far richer texture than its standard narrative suggests. That Richie is a cop but he’ll do anything immoral other than accept a bribe, whereas Frank is a gangster refusing to play by other people’s rules highlights systemic problems within both their fields. It’s a smart, nuanced screenplay that Scott gives just enough kick.
12. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Besides the seven different versions of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott occasionally ends up with movies where most people have not seen the preferred version. Kingdom of Heaven is such an example as the director has disowned the theatrical cut and most cinephiles swear by the 194-minute Director’s Cut. It’s much longer, but gives Scott’s film the more intimate details that let the scope of the film not be the only thing mentioned. Despite Orlando Bloom being a mediocre protagonist, the world around him is fascinating as he explores right and wrong during the Crusades of the 12th-century.
Where Gladiator has its tremendous contained combat, Kingdom of Heaven is the large-scale warfare that Scott has become known for. Quick edits, tons of blood, dirt flying across the screen as men meet in the open fields and horses trample those around them, all craft a sensory experience that Scott rarely attempts again until some of the fights in The Last Duel. The combat sequences are a sight to behold and manage to illustrate an environment where bloodshed is deemed necessary in the eyes of God.
From that point, Kingdom of Heaven cuts its teeth on poking holes at systemic problems and the hypocrisy of a Holy War. By centering itself on an honest man, the conversation frequently points to how much power good actually has over evil when what is considered evil is the only way to craft a “good” future. It’s a surprisingly dense film given how straightforward its message actually is. Unfortunately, it’s also Scott’s longest film if you watch the Director’s Cut and as good as the final product is, it’s hampered by a fairly bland protagonist. Bloom’s frequently unassuming presence does not help to electrify audiences in the same way that Russell Crowe’s similarly honest man in Gladiator manages to captivate everyone watching.
11. The Duellists (1978)
Ridley Scott made his feature-length debut at Cannes in 1977 before opening in North America the following year, with a movie that sets the tone for a lot of Scott’s later works. The Duellists centers around two military men – played by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel – who become consumed by their hatred of one another and compete in duels whenever they run into each other. Set in the 1800s during the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte, Scott’s film begins with a disagreement between Armand d’Hubert (Carradine) and Gabriel Feraud (Keitel) and escalates with each encounter between the two until the reasons for why they duel are beyond forgotten.
There’s a masculinity that Scott channels through this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Duel” that permeates throughout most of his work. Even as everyone around them looks at their rivalry as childish, the two men act as if even suggesting they do not duel would be a sin against God himself. Instead, the two feel more like specters forced to haunt the other until the end of days. Keitel’s hot-headed, brutish performance as Feraud against Carrdine’s soft-spoken, well-mannered d’Hubert provides endless intrigue on who will survive, making every chance encounter filled with both dread and tension.
The Duellists is also the first of many films in Scott’s filmography that looks gorgeous. Shot by Frank Tidy who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on the film, there are so many frames that look like paintings from the era the film is set. It’s a breathtaking looking film that gives the rivalry a timeless feeling: two men competing against one another, waging their pride, honor, and lives on the line in a game of sport.
10. Alien: Covenant (2017)
Where Prometheus seemed to refuse to have Xenomorphs and more direct allusions to Alien, Alien: Covenant bridges the gap between the two films effortlessly. It solidifies the expansive lore that Scott focuses so heavily on in Prometheus while also firmly establishing the Xenomorph’s origins and deadliness. Narratively it more seamlessly ties David’s (Michael Fassbender) philosophical musings with the thrills of a Xenomorph hunting down a random collection of humans.
Alien: Covenant is also just far more aggressive than any other film in the franchise. Opening with a colony ship losing its captain and then that captain’s successor deciding to do a recon mission on a planet that is eerily similar to their target planet for colonization, it’s a movie where humans are not liked. The planet is seductive but inhospitable. It’s also home to David’s scientific experiment as he attempts to play God and create his own perfect specimen, much like his creator did him.
But it’s also so much more violent than Prometheus and moves at a breakneck pace with the exception of the tension that is created with David’s scenes as a mad scientist playing with his new playthings. The Xenomorph looks amazing as it tears through all of the new humans in this film and the final scene is chilling in what it means for the future of humanity.
My contention with the Alien sequels has always been that they mistakenly put Ripley and the Xenomorph on equal footing. In actuality, the Xenomorph is king. An unrelenting force that is built to kill, the only survival method against it is just that: survive. Scott understands that fully here and when he’s not focused on why an android would build such a specimen, he’s fleshing out the Xenomorph’s knack for killing.
9. The Martian (2015)
The Martian is perhaps one of the best examples of a visual director taking a wordy screenplay and making it fun. If there’s one thing that is true about Ridley Scott in the 2010’s, it’s that he has entered his flexing phase. He has become a director who is clearly having a lot of fun with the projects he’s taking, getting incredible ensembles, and then putting all his experience on the screen. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but there’s almost no denying the craft and passion involved in the films. The Martian is Scott in Blockbuster mode, finally going to space for something other than the Alien series and making a film about survival and perseverance in the face of impossible odds.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, an astronaut with a background in botany that is presumed dead when an accident occurs on Mars forcing his entire team to evacuate without him. They soon discover that he is alive and is now trying to survive until the next manned mission from NASA arrives on the planet – four years later. Whereas a lot of films take the premise of a single person being stranded and push for complete isolation, The Martian covers both Watney’s attempts to survive and NASA’s attempts to help him survive.
The biggest complaint upon repeated viewings for me has always been Damon’s performance. It doesn’t always feel like someone who is faced with insurmountable odds, with the screenplay always pushing for Watney to talk through every problem and not show that there’s a problem. But The Martian isn’t about Watney, it’s about human ingenuity – and equally, human error. Every problem is met with a solution and this is where Scott finds the most interesting elements to focus on. The Martian always feels as if nothing will go wrong but everything can go wrong, and it’s that optimism to a pervasive darkness that makes this one of Scott’s most hopeful films.
8. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis absolutely steal this delightful and sincere film about trauma and the decisions (or lack thereof) that lead us down our path in life. Written by Callie Khouri (who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this film), it’s a seminal feminist film that pulls no punches and yet feels joyous throughout – except for the inciting rape and murder that causes the transformation of Thelma (Davis) and Louise (Sarandon).
Perhaps the oddest part of Thelma & Louise is that once it gets past the extremely dark material, it manages to feel so much lighter despite its two characters now having that as part of their DNA. Thelma’s transformation from docile housewife to free spirited bank robber is the obvious character change, but it’s Louise who fits snugly within Scott’s filmography. When we first meet her, she’s fun and determined, but after murdering a man and being reminded of her past traumas, it’s clear that Louise is actually hardened from life. What helps her open up is her relationship to Thelma and watching her take that trauma and own it, whereas Louise buried it deep within.
Thelma & Louise features a great cast, some incredible editing, and what might be one of the best endings in Scott’s career. It captures the life these two women have managed to tap into despite the darkness that has enveloped their lives and also leaves the viewer riding the same high as its protagonists. Thelma & Louise is funny and sincere without losing the bluntness of its subject matter. It’d be higher on this list if it was a bit tighter, but it’s a constant joy to be on the run with these two characters.
7. The Counselor (2013)
Pairing the fatalist, deterministic writing of Cormac McCarthy with Ridley Scott – a director whose films tend to trade in a modicum of darkness – sounds like a miserable time. For audiences and critics at the time of release, it understandably failed to impress. However, what didn’t work for most is the film’s wordy screenplay as the film’s star-studded cast meet to have lengthy conversations about sex, fate, and morality. A lawyer known only as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) ends up in a drug deal-gone-wrong that radically alters the course of his life. That’s the beginning and end of the film, and McCarthy’s screenplay refuses to let the facts be less than that.
This is where The Counselor finds its footing eventually as the film untangles the lives of criminals who avoid the filth and blood required in their profession. That irreversible decisions were made long ago in their lives and that despite warnings, they still willingly put themselves on a path that ends in certain death. The first half of the film is merely characters having conversations that only further reveal their perceived distance from the grime. It’s when the film fully commits to its fatalism that The Counselor turns the screw.
Meanwhile, Scott utilizes his superb ability as a visual director to craft excess and lavishness at every turn. A sterile environment and characters who have yet to feel pain, eventually finding themselves in the thick of it with no way out. The downside is that most of the film hinges on Cameron Diaz’s character, but she delivers every line with the same coldness that makes her appear less like a character and more of an omen. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt are having a blast, chewing up each scene they’re in with Fassbender being the shaky moral center that is more than ready to falter. It’s an often silly movie until it’s suddenly not and fully realizes the hopelessness.
6. Black Hawk Down (2001)
The argument could be made that Black Hawk Down is one of the most influential movies on video games, ever. Adapted from the book of the same name, Ridley Scott’s day-in-the-life war film set during the 1993 U.S. military raid in Mogadishu is a singular influence on games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare which went on to become a massive influence in and of itself. It’s the tactical, boots-on-the-ground, modern conflict that provided Scott with a film that brought his eye for action to a seminal military film. Its jingoism has remained a source of contention, but even then, Black Hawk Down excels in every technical aspect with a stacked cast and incredible precision that it’s easier to overlook its politics for what amounts to a meaty, propulsive action film.
Though you can only overlook those politics so much and the film loves to flaunt them in your face. It doesn’t flinch away from showing the atrocities of war, but only to a certain extent. It doesn’t particularly engage with both sides of the conflict due to its American-centric perspective. Black Hawk Down also gets so immersed in its jargon and tactical presentation that it rarely finds time to have meaningful conversations since the film is so focused on watching a single operation go south and the subsequent attempts to salvage itself.
Where Black Hawk Down excels is in that level of immersion though. The big action beats are exciting enough with incredible editing and sound design as bullets whizz past soldiers’ heads and explosives deafen. It’s the little moments in between like hot bullet shells falling from the roof above onto Josh Hartnett’s character as he tries to reorient himself in the heat of combat; the vignettes stitched together like Tom Hardy and Ewen Bremner separated from their team purely by lack of communication; and the tiny character moments between soldiers that all amount to an experience that lets you feel for the characters and truly feel immersed in combat. It’s maybe the most movie that Scott has made, but it is still the gold standard for modern military media.
5. Gladiator (2000)
By the time Ridley Scott enters the 2000s, he’s working on another level and Gladiator is the start of it all. An epic tale of betrayal, vengeance, and politics, it’s no wonder why the film is held up with such high regard. For starters, it’s Scott’s first big historical epic since 1492: Conquest of Paradise and it’s him determined to create something truly awesome. Centered on General Maximus (Russell Crowe) as he attempts to avenge his family after they are murdered by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the new King of Rome, Gladiator won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Lead Actor for Crowe, beginning a very strong relationship between Crowe and Scott.
However, it’s also a visual feast (again, also winning Oscars for Costume Design and Visual Effects) with some of the most iconic visuals that have since been appropriated ad nauseum. Influenced itself by films like Spartacus and Ben-Hur, Gladiator ends up feeling like the real beginning of Scott’s epics that would later continue with Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and The Last Duel – huge blockbusters that always have brutal battles and provide criticisms against the political and religious machinations that their protagonists are forced to observe.
For many, Gladiator serves as the prime example of Scott’s often male-centered films and one of his perceived downfalls as a director. Though true that he rarely makes a film with a female protagonist, he also doesn’t shy away from critiquing the men in his films which is largely what makes Gladiator still a fascinating watch, especially with Phoenix’s performance as the fragile, power-hungry, and jealous Commodus. Though Crowe won the Oscar that year for lead performance, Phoenix’s nomination should be held in just as high of a regard due to how well he embodies that character and transforms from a man desperate for love to a King desperate for power.
4. Matchstick Men (2003)
Containing one of Nicolas Cage’s most memorable moments as he freaks out in a pharmacy when cutting in line, Ridley Scott wields Cage with precision and subtlety that other directors have failed to control. It’s a balancing act throughout Matchstick Men as the film is technically about a con artist with a laundry list of phobias (Cage) and his overzealous partner (Sam Rockwell) taking on a safe, big-paying job. In actuality, it’s a nuanced look at a man’s life given purpose when he finds the daughter he always suspected exists (Alison Lohman) and the glimpse at being a father that he might have thrown away.
It’s a rumination on guilt and regret, as Nicholas and Ted Griffin’s screenplay seamlessly shifts from a father-daughter relationship to becoming completely engulfed in the con. Yes, it’s a funny movie and surprisingly sweet throughout, but it’s the darkness that Scott always lets bubble to the surface that really pushes Matchstick Men into the upper echelon of his filmography. Specifically, the way the movie’s score from Hans Zimmer reflects the stress and anxiety of Cage’s character and gives the film an energy that contrasts greatly with the dimly lit interiors that Cage frequently relegates himself to throughout.
As an acting showcase, Matchstick Men has a fun Rockwell performance that keeps you on your toes, but the real pulse is Lohman’s varied performance and Cage’s balancing act of the emotional rollercoaster his character faces. Matchstick Men is rarely talked about as one of Scott’s best movies but there’s a subtle darkness to it that creeps below the relationship at its center that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself upon first viewing. The screenplay is deliciously intricate but surprisingly not about the con itself – until the film gives way and finds itself absorbed by the machinations of the con.
3. The Last Duel (2021)
It might be too early to start calling this one of Ridley Scott’s most underappreciated films due to the fact that it came out the year this list is being written, but it’s one of his best films and one that already feels like it is being buried. Armed with a screenplay from Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck that is structured similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, The Last Duel shows three different perspectives that all lead to the same event. In this case, they all lead to a woman being raped (played by Jodie Comer) and the subsequent duel between two men that decides whether she is telling the truth or not.
However, Scott’s film doesn’t leave any grey area or doubt in whether she is telling the truth. It just watches as men behave like children under the guise of honor and chivalry. From how the men tell their stories to prop themselves up, disregarding Marguerite’s (Comer) plight almost entirely, to the way in which each perspective’s differences accentuate similarities of all the men in the film, The Last Duel is not fooling around. It’s a difficult watch due to its subject matter, but does an impeccable job maneuvering through different tones and wading into conversations about sex, consent, and misogyny while Comer contorts her performance to fit into how each man perceives her character.
Comer is truly the standout here, surrounded by actors who have already become household names like Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck. Her performance is astounding to say the least. But it’s also the way the film plays with genre, each perspective feeling wholly different from the other while still maintaining the same dirty and dark aesthetic. It’s a showcase of what Scott can do when firing on all cylinders. He brings the testosterone to the film through its battles and the titular duel, but it’s also imbued with a dread once the film starts unravelling itself until all of the machismo is a shell housing nothing but vanity. This feels like a culmination of Scott’s work – one that looks and feels like a Scott film, but lands with an impact that few of his movies have ever managed to reach.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
A film that notoriously didn’t set the world on fire upon release, Blade Runner has since become a classic science fiction film and one of Ridley Scott’s greatest achievements. Similarly to Alien before it, Scott creates an atmosphere and mood with Blade Runner that he hasn’t really seemed interested in chasing again. One of Harrison Ford’s most iconic roles against what is arguably Rutger Hauer’s greatest performance, adapted from a stellar Philip K. Dick novel, and featuring some of the best production design and world building ever, it is no wonder why Blade Runner has endured and amassed such a dedicated fanbase.
Its influence is perhaps the most notable element as one of the early instances of cyberpunk in cinema, blending futuristic technology with a dystopian metropolis. Every moment in Blade Runner feels dilapidated despite advancements in technology that have pushed humanity into an automated future. A seedy underworld draped over every corner of the screen, Scott’s film blends science fiction and noir elements together to create one of the most incredibly nuanced canvases to paint an exploration of identity and memory.
There are few films that even approach the level of style that Blade Runner oozes on screen, and even its sequel lacks some of the original’s grime. Accompanied by a score from Vangelis, it’s all mood with only the loosest narrative running throughout. What’s more interesting isn’t whether Deckard (Ford) manages to catch the escaped replicants; its the questions of identity and purpose in a life built to expire that leave a lasting impression even after the final shot. It’s also one of the most famous examples of a Scott film having multiple cuts, but few would argue against The Final Cut being the one to watch every time.
1. Alien (1979)
As far as sophomore films go, they don’t get much better than Alien. From a pure directorial standpoint, Ridley Scott proved himself capable of working wonders with economical, visual storytelling. Utilizing the incredible designs of H.R. Giger, the film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (though many will still make jokes about the Xenomorph suit) and set the groundwork for what would become an entire franchise unto itself. With blue-collar workers at the core of the film, Alien has stood the test of time as an insightful critique against parasitic corporations literally using their employees to breed a better species. Oh, it’s also a damn scary film too.
So much can be said about why Alien is widely considered Ridley Scott’s best film. The pacing moves from slow and methodical to terrifying once the threat becomes known. Even in its slowest moments, tension drips until there’s barely a moment to breathe. The tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” is perhaps one of the best elevator pitches for a film because it perfectly encapsulates the overwhelming odds and desperation to survive, felt by both the crew and the Xenomorph. It’s a movie where no matter who wins, we all lose because there’s an acceptance that humanity’s pursuit of knowledge will always trump humanity itself.
Perhaps most importantly though, Alien has a fascinating collection of characters who all come into the film feeling fully realized and not just a group of disposable people. Their chemistry is enough to make empathizing with the crew as members are killed off just as heartbreaking as if you were on the ship with them. Selling it all is Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, who the franchise has ended up putting through the wringer in all the sequels before Scott came and explored the origins of the Alien universe with Prometheus. One of the best characters in cinematic history, it’s truly the fight to survive between both Ripley and the Xenomorph that makes Alien an all-time classic horror film.