Film trilogies are often the perfect examples of what a filmmaker can achieve because they transcend the superficial limitations of time and continuity while focusing on the fundamental power of the medium. While many trilogies are often just commercial projects to cash in on the success of the original, the great ones focus on pushing the boundaries of cinema.
Most of the discussions around film trilogies on the internet are geared towards popular projects such as the original Star Wars films or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations. Those films definitely had a huge impact on popular culture but the purpose of this list is to draw attention to some sublime trilogies from different parts of the world that haven’t received as much public attention as the Toy Story series or even Back to the Future.
The trilogies mentioned here are some of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema by masterful visionaries. Ranging from relatively popular projects such as Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy to lesser-known, critically acclaimed gems such as the works of Theodoros Angelopoulos, this is a list of trilogies that everyone should watch.
Check out the selection below.
The 10 greatest film trilogies of all time:
10. The Before Trilogy (Richard Linklater, 1995 – 2013)
A career-defining series of films by Richard Linklater, The Before Trilogy is an unprecedented exploration of human relationships. Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Linklater’s project has been cited as one of the greatest postmodern romances ever made.
Dealing with the themes of ageing and the reality of human connections, Linklater explores his obsession with the cinematic depiction of passing time which is evident in some of his other works too. With each passing film, Linklater captures more truths about the human condition.
9. The Road Movie Trilogy (Wim Wenders, 1974 – 1976)
Wim Wenders’ Road Movie Trilogy is simply mesmerising, featuring the fantastic cinematography of Robby Müller. In his road films, the central metaphors are existential as the characters embark on quests to find some semblance of subjectivity.
Wenders commented on the genre: “Frankly, I didn’t know the genre existed. I must have seen some movies, I think I saw Detour (1945), but I didn’t recognise it as a genre. Of course I knew a lot of westerns, if there was any precursor to those movies it was the western. But I didn’t know you could make movies while travelling”.
8. Trilogy of Borders (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1991 – 1998)
One of the greatest filmmakers in the history of Greek cinema, Theodoros Angelopoulos made multiple trilogies and it is difficult to choose among them but this one surpasses the achievements of the others. Influenced by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Andrei Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos’ legacy is endlessly enigmatic.
Consisting of masterpieces such as Eternity and a Day which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Angelopoulos’ investigations are always profound no matter the subject. Now cited as a pioneer of slow cinema, this trilogy might just be the crowning achievement of Angelopoulos’ filmography.
7. The Dollars Trilogy (Sergio Leone, 1964 – 1966)
There are few films that have been as influential as Sergio Leone’s beloved Dollars Trilogy which is now recognised as the project that solidified the frameworks of the spaghetti western genre. Ranked among the greatest westerns ever made, this is also a great starting point for those who aren’t familiar with Leone’s works.
Although Leone hadn’t planned on making an official trilogy, they inevitably became associated under the banner of the iconic ‘Man with No Name’. One of the most accessible and enjoyable trilogies on this list, Leone’s work is truly timeless.
6. The Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959 – 1961)
An adaptation of a novel by Junpei Gomikawa, this trilogy is one of the greatest depictions of war in cinema history. It follows the trials and tribulations of a pacifist during World War II who has to come to terms with the widespread violence, oppression and horror.
The director reflected: “I hate to sound self-aggrandising, but watching my films today, they don’t feel dated. What this means is that I really spent time on the editing, but also spent a lot of time working on the whole sound of the film, including the music. So when I finished a film, it was really complete.”
5. The Faith Trilogy (Ingmar Bergman, 1961 – 1963)
Ingmar Bergman was a prolific filmmaker whose cinematic output was extensive which led to vast variations in quality as well. However, each of the additions to Bergman’s Faith Trilogy is equally masterful and represents some of Bergman’s finest work.
Deviating from the expressionism in some of his earlier projects, Bergman made a series of powerful dramatic investigations which grappled with the subjects of spiritual alienation and religious crises brought on by the unceasing march of modernity.
4. The Noriko Trilogy (Yasujirō Ozu, 1949 – 1953)
Just like some of the other entries on this list, Ozu’s sublime Noriko Trilogy isn’t bound by the continuity of narrative events but by the undeniable bonds of thematic questions that remain embedded in the audience’s mind for days after watching the films.
Named after the character played by Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy provides invaluable insights into the sociopolitical landscape of postwar Japan. It also happens to contain the greatest achievement of Ozu’s celebrated career – Tokyo Story.
3. Three Colours Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993 – 1994)
Among Krzysztof Kieślowski’s most famous works alongside others such as Dekalog, the Three Colours Trilogy is named after the colours of the French flag. While it loosely alludes to the principles that the colours represent, Kieślowski’s interpretations are shrouded with layers of ambiguity.
Deeply psychological in nature, the films deal with common tropes such as tragedy, comedy and romance while bringing something subversive to the table. Linked together by recurring tropes and imagery, Kieślowski’s trilogy can make any filmmaker envious.
2. The Koker Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987- 1994)
Abbas Kiarostami might be known for films such as Close-Up and Taste of Cherry but his Koker Trilogy deserves a spot on any list of the greatest films ever made. It starts with one of the most moving portrayals of friendship ever seen – Where Is the Friend’s House? – and continues to traverse uncharted territory.
Through his subsequent films, Kiarostami explores natural disasters, the nature of human memory and the illusions of the cinematic medium while conducting a metafictional meditation on the earthquake that destroyed the filming location of the first film.
1. The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1955 – 1959)
Regularly named as Indian cinema’s apotheosis, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is undoubtedly the greatest trilogy of all time. Starting with his remarkable debut feature Pather Panchali, Ray’s project would change the course of Indian cinema forever.
Influenced by the sensibilities of neorealist filmmakers, Ray explores the conflicts between cultural traditions and the omnipresent influence of modernity which marks some of his other cinematic explorations as well. This trilogy has influenced some of the greatest directors in history, ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Martin Scorsese.