If the popular educational program Schoolhouse Rock taught us nothing else, it’s that three is a magic number. Certainly in storytelling, every plot must drive through three different points—the beginning, the middle and the end. And any comedy would be wise to adhere to the “rule of threes.” In this way, the number three becomes a powerful force indeed.
This fascination with three has made the concept of the trilogy a popular trope, particularly in film. But if coming up with a good idea for one follow-up is hard enough, executing a second follow-up at times feels like a fool’s errand.
This month alone, three threequels—ranging from massive blockbusters to an intimate indie film—will make their way into theaters: Iron Man 3, The Hangover Part III and Before Midnight (two of which make this list—we’ll let you guess which two). In celebration of this unique opportunity, this list will shine a light on some of the greatest examples of the movie threequel.
20. Back to the Future Part III
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Bob Gale
After the madcap mania that was Back to the Future Part II, Back to the Future Part III was criticized for restricting itself to a single time period. Or, more accurately, for being an indulgent entry driven purely by its filmmakers’ childhood desire to make a Western. And while most fans of the series will agree that this go-around stands as the weakest of the three, director Robert Zemeckis’ and producer Steven Spielberg’s love for the Western and its various tropes are so ostensibly on display here that it’s hard not to enjoy.
And, come on, what better way to cap off this legendary trilogy than with a flying, time-traveling locomotive?
19. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
Directed by: Chuck Russell
Written by: Wes Craven, Frank Darabont, Chuck Russell, Bruce Wagner
Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street has more than earned its place in the horror movie pantheon. Yet, anyone who has watched beyond that first installment knows that Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors stands as the superior film. As terrifying as the original can be at times, its effect is often blunted by wooden acting and dated special effects. Dream Warriors’s FX effects may not transcend its ‘80s limitations nor are its actors of Shakespearean quality (though we do see future Emmy-winner Patricia Arquette in her debut film performance), however, the film does strike the perfect balance between the franchise’s slasher horror origins and its fantasy/adventure undertones.
Wes Craven and co-screenwriter Bruce Wagner wrote this sequel to be the end of the series and—though the ending strongly hints that boogieman Freddy Krueger is not yet gone—it still manages to capture an epic sense of finality. Production was no doubt helped from re-writes by future The Shawshank Redemption filmmaker Frank Darabont as well as director/co-screenwriter Chuck Russell, who would go on to make the thoroughly entertaining 1988 remake of The Blob as well as 1995’s The Mask. The major problem with the film? Its success led to the development of three more episodes, each one increasingly more unwatchable.
18. Die Hard with a Vengeance
Directed by: John McTiernan
Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh
If pressed to name the flat-out most perfect action film of all time, Die Hard would no doubt be on the tip of many cinema-lovers’ tongues. The Renny Harlin-directed Die Hard 2: Die Harder, on the other hand, often felt like rehash of the original, with an abundance of overly goofy moments (including this one) overshadowing its sporadic moments of glory . Released five years after Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance wrangled back original director John McTiernan and even managed to secure a role for Samuel L. Jackson, whose career had exploded the previous year with his Oscar-nominated performance in Pulp Fiction.
The film actually began life as a spec script called Simon Says. That script reportedly centered on a cop forced to perform various feats in order to prevent the detonation of several hidden bombs. By plugging series hero John McClane into this plotline, the film recaptures the desperate, race-against-time feel that the original displayed in spades. Moreover, whereas the previous two films restricted themselves to single locations (a corporate building and airport, respectively), Vengeance expanded the scope to cover an entire city. What’s more, the filmmakers actually shot the film on location in New York, making the action scenes feel completely tangible and grounded. Though the film loses steam in the latter third portion, it remains the closest to a truly great Die Hard sequel we’re ever going to get.
17. Iron Man 3
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Shane Black, Drew Pearce
A bit premature, I know. And perhaps Iron Man 3’s inclusion on the list stems simply from the irresistible spell that its spectacular action set pieces casts on its viewers. It’s a funny, fun and—yes—occasionally intelligent summer film that understands our primal reasons for wanting to go to the movies. In a world where Hollywood’s tentpole projects can feel calculated within an inch of their life, it’s refreshing to see a multimillion dollar movie that refuses to take itself too seriously and even pokes holes in its own logic. It’s a more-than-worthy follow-up to The Avengers and further cements Marvel as the go-to studio for the thinking man’s blockbusters.
16. Army of Darkness
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Ivan Raimi, Sam Raimi
Watching the original Evil Dead films back-to-back is an interesting experience, to say the least. Experiencing the series evolve from the bloody, campy horror of the original to the slasher-film-meets-Three Stooges vibe of the second to the full-blown tongue-in-check action fest that is Army of Darkness is to witness director Sam Raimi’s sensibilities become more and more unhinged. And, oh, what a delight that is.
The plot finds series hero Ash Williams transported back to medieval times following the events of Evil Dead 2. There, his experiences fighting the Deadites lends him a Messianic status among the natives. From there, Raimi throws in everything but the kitchen sink, from medieval sword-and-sandal imagery to Ash (literally) battling himself to an army of moving skeletons that would make Harryhausen proud.
Hail to the King, baby.
15. Stolen Kisses/Bed and Board
Directed by: François Truffaut
Written by: Claude de Givray, Bernard Revon, François Truffaut
Whether Stolen Kisses or Bed and Board marks the third film in François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical Antoine Doinel series depends entirely on whether your consider the 1962 short film Antoine and Colette, in which Antoine gets routinely friend-zoned by his teenage crush, to be an entry by itself. In either case, both are absolute delights that mine the interior drama and melancholy comedy that made 400 Blows such a masterpiece. 1968’s Stolen Kisses focuses on Antoine’s attempts to readjust to regular life following a discharge from the French military, which—Antoine being Antoine—means pursuing ill-advised relationships with both a beautiful young woman and the wife of his new boss. Released two years later, Bed and Board concerns a married Antoine who finds himself contemplating an affair with a beautiful Japanese woman. Though, I have a more partial leaning towards Kisses, both films are required viewing for any one even remotely familiar with Truffaut’s filmography.
14. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Steve Kloves
Having directed the first two entries in the Harry Potter film series, Home Alone director Chris Columbus often serves as the series’ whipping boy. Frequently, fans and critics alike will point out Columbus’ kid-gloves approach to adapting the source materiel, including slavishly adhering to every period and comma (flaws and all). And while some of this criticism is warranted, one has to credit Columbus with helping to establish a beautifully constructed world that subsequent filmmakers could build upon. And who better to take Columbus’ vision and give it an energizing shot of adulthood than Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón? Surely the fact that the Warner Bros. brass decided to task Cuarón—whose previously film, Y Tu Mamá También, centered on two childhood friend’s sexually explicit road trip with a seductive married woman—to carry on their franchise is proof that there’s still people in the industry with some serious cajones.
Granted, Cuarón doesn’t completely abduct the proceedings. The film remains a fun, studio-produced fantasy film through and through. Yet, Cuarón’s touches are definitely noticeable, with the cinematography boasting a much darker visual spectrum than Columbus’ brightly colored vision and nightmare-inducing creatures like the soul-sucking Dementors pushing the film to the limits of its PG rating. While the Harry Potter series would have great subsequent films, perhaps no other film demonstrated such a rapid a rise in quality than Azkaban.
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn
Confession time—I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the Bond franchise. While I completely understand their appeal, they frequently come across to me as slowly paced, hokey relics of a different era with frighteningly misogynistic overtones. Recent entries Casino Royale and Skyfall, however, have led me to reevaluate my viewpoint. .And while I would still not consider myself a fan, I’ve learned to appreciate several of the more “classical” Bond films (most notably, From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
Yet, back in the day, whenever someone would ask for my favorite Bond movie, in order to avoid having to explain myself, I would instantly spit out Goldfinger. Why? Because I, like countless actual Bond fans, saw the 1964 film as the pinnacle of the Bond series. All of the elements that people love in Bond movies are here—the intrigue, the cool action, a kickass theme song, beautiful women with cringe-worthy puns for names, a memorable villain and Sean Connery being his suave self.
12. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Sequels to documentary films are a rare thing. When a filmmaker decides to revisit a subject, however, it’s because he or she feels there are still new stories and developments that must be documented. Back in 1994, a trio of juvenile delinquents—later collectively known as the West Memphis Three—were tried and convicted for the murder of three eight-year old boys. The boys’ abrupt imprisonment caught the attention of several groups who proceeded to point out the police’s shoddy, unorganized and generally unprofessional investigation.
Among those drawn to the story were documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The two released the first film on the subject in 1996, followed by a sequel in 2000. Besides the drama surrounding the case, the series garnered press for being the first film allowed to use licensed music by Metallica (the duo would later direct the infamous Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster). In 2011, the filmmakers were set to release a third installment, exploring how DNA testing would help to make a major step towards freeing the trio. Then, in a major twist, the boys stumbled upon a plea deal that would allow them to walk free. Thus, Berlinger and Sinofsky had their ending and a long, turbulent black spot in the America court system was one step closer to being rectified.
11. Mission: Impossible III
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Mission: Impossible is that rare (some would say, one-of-a-kind) film franchise where the latter installments improve upon the ones that came before. All the more fascinating is how each film so thoroughly reflects the sensibilities of the filmmaker behind the camera. Brian De Palma’s original is a sleek, labyrinth-like thriller while the (albeit, heavily compromised and re-edited) John Woo-directed sequel boasts the director’s trademark predilection for slow-mo action sequences and inexplicable use of fluttering white doves as a means of conveying dramatic moments.
Today, as De Palma’s film grows more and more dated and Woo’s entry remains a disastrous, studio-concocted mess, it’s J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III that stands as perhaps the most action-packed and intensely emotional of the series. Most noted at the time for his television work, including directing and co-writing the groundbreaking pilots for Alias and Lost, Mission: Impossible III would act as Abrams’ feature film directorial debut. Here, audiences witnessed the birth of one of my America’s finest new filmmakers—a man for whom hitting good character beats and constructing elaborate action set pieces brought about an equal level of fervor.
If you need proof, one need only watch the film’s opening scene, which still stands as one of the most gripping in Abrams’ extensive career.