Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci came out over Thanksgiving weekend— along with a bevy of new releases both in theaters and on streaming that li’l ole me is having panic attacks trying to catch up. Gucci in particular is yet another notch for the prolific filmmaker, in a year where he also dropped The Last Duel.
Today just so happens to be Ridley Scott’s birthday. My man is 84-years-old and he’s staying BUSY. In honor of his special day, I’m looking back on his oeuvre and ranking my favorites from the man, the myth, and the absolute legend who entertains the masses and knows how to drop a dope soundbite or two.
10. Prometheus / Alien: Covenant
I loved then I hated and then I loved the Alien prequel saga once more. What started out as a spinoff of Alien’s mysterious space jockey blossomed into a biblical poem about how utterly humanity is screwed. Prometheus and Covenant are less Alien prequels and more so the story of David in a duology, the too-human android played by a virtuoso Michael Fassbender. Ridley is way more taken with David than the Xenomorph, and I suppose that’s where the critic/fan division resides. It took some time, but I now firmly believe Ridley’s instincts were in the right place. The Xenomorph can be the baddest creature in space and David can function as the titular villain in the same movie. Whine about the idiotic decisions these characters make just as I did, but these strokes are intentional. Ambition, Ridley seems to say, is our ultimate downfall— whether it’s traveling into the furthest reaches of space, or exploiting technological innovation to serve as round-the-clock labor. The devil comes via android-form. And we created him.
9. Matchstick Men
A blind spot in the director’s filmography for many. Understandable, given Ridley has carved out a reputation for historical dramas and spaceships. Matchstick Men is one slick caper of a con movie. And I do mean CON movie; it’s happening at damn near every level in this bitingly clever and black comedy-laced script. Nicolas Cage goes full Nic Cage in the best way, long before “going Nic Cage” became an idiom for an actor’s performance. This is also Sam Rockwell flexing his versatility as character actor. No small feat given that Cage’s character comes with very particular tics and mannerisms. Matchstick Men arrived on the heels of Ocean’s Eleven. The coolness factor goes to Steven Soderbergh, but the ingeniousness of the caper goes to Ridley Scott.
8. The Last Duel
The Last Duel took me by surprise. I was sure I wasn’t interested. Then I saw the trailer and the film’s Kingdom of Heaven-style aesthetic on display, and suddenly it became one of my most anticipated. The story of France’s last recorded trial by combat, Last Duel takes on a triptych narrative chronicling Jacques Le Gris’ rape and assault on the Lady Marguerite. (A throwdown performance by Jodie Comer.) Marguerite’s not-so-knightly husband Jean de Carrouges (a wonderfully mulletted Matt Damon) kicks off the movie with his perspective, followed by Le Gris the accused (a moustache-twirly Adam Driver) and we see how virtues like nobility and chivalry may not have been so noble nor chivalrous through the ages. This is made painfully clear long before we hear Marguerite’s side, and it’s all the more sobering knowing that the word of man has dictated our perception of history. As Marguerite’s account comes to light, we start to grasp the crucial missing half that just may rewrite whole textbooks. The Last Duel is a brutal screed on power and wealth only serving the powerful and elite, and how one woman’s stand against a kingdom brought glory to her husband’s name, but wasn’t nearly enough to right the injustice done to her. Long may Jodie Comer reign ✊
7. Black Hawk Down
Ridley probably saw Saving Private Ryan and thought, “Oooo I wanna do that!” Not a knock, of course. Every epic filmmaker tries their hand at the definitive war movie, and Black Hawk Down is Ridley Scott’s. Next to Spielberg, Ridley’s movie boasts some of the most gruesome war kills ever committed to film, sparing none of the emotion in such a harrowing journey into the human condition. My ears still ring when Sgt. Pilla goes down as the first casualty, and Shugart and Gordon’s last stand always gets the waterworks going. (That’s Jaime Lannister btw!) This dramatization of the real-life battle in Mogadishu was shot well before the Iraq War yet would serve as a cautionary tale for the U.S. overextending its military might. What happens when you strongarm the fight for peace—and is peace attainable at all when it requires so much fighting and casualties? Ridley answers this brutally, unflinchingly. The movie ends with the battle going on, set in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and released in a time when the country was about to enter another conflict. There is no peace, Scott implies thoroughly. Only quiet.
6. Blade Runner
Blade Runner is one of those movies you end up basing your whole personality on. It’s cool – existentially cool – top to bottom. Neither this nor its sequel Blade Runner 2049 paint a hopeful portrait of our future. But at least we’ll look fresh as hell in raincoats and emotionally rich neon lighting! Blade Runner asked questions that my adolescent brain couldn’t handle. What does it mean to be human? And the kicker: if humanity can be “replicated,” then what are we as a species other than things that can be improved upon with time and technology? (The Tyrell Corp’s slogan, “more human than human.”) Deckard’s character takes on another hue when you see him as less a hardboiled figure and more someone struggling with his own humanity. His job requires him to terminate replicants who are considered inhuman, but try telling that to his conscience. The “tears in rain” monologue will forever be imprinted on my brain; I have never looked at origamis the same way, and Rick Deckard remains the coolest Harrison Ford performance over Han Solo, bar none.
5. American Gangster
A.k.a. Denzel Washington: The Movie. Most people think of Alien and Blade Runner when they think Ridley Scott. Everybody forgets about American Gangster. In their defense, Scott’s film moves along so fucking smoothly that you forget about everything else. Ridley doesn’t do anything fancy with the camera; it’s just there, and it allows us to be there bearing witness to one man’s rise to the top. You could assume Denzel wrote and directed this on top of starring in it, and I wouldn’t blame ya. That just goes to show how commanding he is as Frank Lucas. This movie opens with Denzel lighting a dude on fire then executing him point blank. It only goes harder from there. This two-and-a-half-hour crime saga is a madly efficient rise and fall story with plenty of swagger to spare. I could’ve watched Lucas’ entire stint in jail, or see what became of him in the present day. Ridley’s American Gangster is the slick sibling to Godfather and Goodfellas. Now that’s an American gangster trilogy right there.
4. The Martian
Cast Away in space. Or a perfect double feature with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The Martian is a survival story for the ages with loads of comedic charm in its reserves. This is Ridley at his breeziest, thanks in large part to Drew Goddard’s script. Like American Gangster, you forget it’s a Ridley Scott movie. It’s so authentically told that even though these are A-list movie stars, you feel as if we’re there on Mars or at NASA HQ. And my, what a cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, AND Donald Glover together in a room was something I never knew I needed. The script, too, makes impeccable use of Matt Damon’s everyman charm. The Martian is a 2-hour transmission about getting off your sorry ass no matter how many times you get knocked down; a story about the tremendousness of the human spirit, and it’s message is endlessly reassuring in an age where every day feels like the end of the world: “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re gonna say this is it, this is how I end. You can either accept that, or you can get to work.”
3. Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)
The one I think of when I think “epic Ridley Scott.” This may be a historical drama, but Kingdom of Heaven is also Ridley’s statement on 9/11 and the ensuing war in the Middle East. Spielberg that same year dropped Munich (an excellent double feature btw) and both odysseys through the gauntlet of the past are utterly hopeless fables for the present. Both track the journey of how we got to an entrenched sociopolitical climate, how war instills us with a sense of righteousness, and how that righteousness leads to demagoguery and scapegoating EVERY SINGLE TIME whether it’s in the wake of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics, or Christian knights crusading for the holy land. Kingdom of Heaven pits Orlando Bloom’s Balian with a simple but heady question: what is a good knight? Is it fighting for your kingdom when your king commands? Or is it doing what one believes is right—and why aren’t they the same? This makes no matter in the never-ending battle for Jerusalem where one religion proclaims itself as “the truth” over another. Because it’s not Gods or titans clashing; only men, and centuries of retaliation. Shockingly, this is Orlando Bloom’s best and most understated performance, and – hot take alert – I think Kingdom of Heaven is the better epic over Gladiator. Director’s version, mind you, not whatever that theatrical cut was.
Before Gravity and The Martian, Alien was the movie that made me saying to space travel, FUCK THAT. Now, I know the Alien franchise is hit or miss for many, but you can never go wrong with the first two. The very first Alien is the series at its most horrific, where instead of the gothic castle residing on a dark and stormy hill, it’s shot into the darkness of space. Once the Xenomorph is on board, every room and corridor of the Nostromo feels forbidden. Every pipe and dark corner may as well be the creature lurking above or behind. It can come from anywhere and it will not stop because it’s not concerned with personal relationships or corporate agendas. That’s our hubris. I still wince at the chest-burster scene (40 years later, Alien’s rape allegory is poignant as ever) and I always forget the timing of that jump-scare when Dallas goes into the vents. And the Xenomorph’s creature design still gets under my skin as a gnarly, futuristic gargoyle mined from the abyss. Alien is a perfect specimen of a sci-fi horror movie. That’s the second embryo implanted within Ridley’s spaceship nightmare – the birthing of two genres made whole.
There are 2 Ridley Scotts as we’ve recounted so far – sci-fi Ridley and swords-n-shields Ridley. As much as I love Alien and Blade Runner, the latter is my preference above the rest. And yes, I think Kingdom of Heaven is the better crafted epic, whereas Gladiator is the glorified revenge story. But you know what, there’s nothing wrong with a sweeping revenge tale, and Gladiator is the ULTIMATE one at that. It starts out epic on the battlefield then turns into a lone hero’s journey without sacrificing scope or scale. This 360-degree shot in the colosseum is pulverizing, and the sword-fighting spectacle is thrillingly staged. Roman gladiatorial combat is a bold historical challenge to live up to, and both Ridley and his leading man rise to the occasion. This is easily Russell Crowe’s best performance (which he also won an Oscar for). I don’t know who else can sell the catharsis of the afterlife quite like Crowe’s stunning blue eyes. When Lucilla says “go to them,” I cry every time.
Gladiator is the one movie I will watch no matter what channel it’s on; no matter what point it is in the movie, I have to watch it to the end. It’s my favorite story about a guy who just wanted to get the fuck home. Iconic, endlessly quotable, and – after hearing how harried the production was while making the movie – an all the more astonishing end product 21 years later. How Ridley made a bona fide classic while winging it every damn day on location is the stuff of filmmaking legend.
Love him or hate him, Ridley Scott is the swift and insanely prolific maestro who can churn out two movies in one year at 84 FUCKING YEARS OLD. And some of you are mad because he doesn’t like the same superhero movie as you. Please.