Watch 'Dementia 13', Francis Ford Coppola's first ever film
(Credit: Zoetrope)

Francis Ford Coppola’s 15 best films ranked in order of greatness

I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.
– Francis Ford Coppola

American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is celebrated around the world for his masterpieces such as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather series. He is the recipient of numerous accolades including five Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or, making Coppola one of only eight filmmakers to have won that award twice. Coppola also received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for a body of work which reflects “a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

In an interview, Coppola said, “Film is an illusion. The audience just sees a lot of shadows on the screen. The emotion is in the audience. The trick is giving them something that unleashes that and suddenly they endow the images with their emotion. My theory is, when people say a movie is beautiful, I don’t think it can be unless there is beauty in the audience.”

He added, “I want to make a film about the future. You know the Alfred, Lord Tennyson quote? ‘For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be…’ That’s the movie I want to make. It would be called Megalopolis. I’m 81 so I hope I have enough years to make it. I want to give the children of the world a vision of the future that is beautiful. That is positive. That is a heaven on Earth, because I really think we can have that.”

We take a look at Francis Ford Coppola’s amazing filmography as a tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 15 best movies ranked:

15. The Godfather, Part III (1990)

A few days ago, the revised version of Coppola’s final addition to The Godfather was released and there are several reasons why. Fans of the series were dissatisfied with the film when it was released, criticising Sofia Coppola’s acting and the complicated plot. It builds on the legacy of its glorious predecessors but never manages to replicate the power of their respective artistic statements.

The filmmaker, recalled, “Some people liked them and some people didn’t. At that time, I didn’t know where to turn. I’d been through so many adventures and finally [former Paramount Studios boss] Frank Mancuso came to me and said ‘Would you make The Godfather Part III?’

“I thought about it and realised I could make a deal that would get us going again. I really started to feel that I owed it to my wife to make some money and put it away for her and to preserve her home and I chose to do it.”

14. One From The Heart (1982)

Set in Las Vegas, this 1982 musical is Coppola’s flawed attempt at interpreting cinematic romance. Even though the primary narrative falls apart, One From The Heart still holds up because of Vittorio Storaro’s and Ronald Víctor García’s visually stunning cinematography. It performed extremely poorly at the Box Office, with a total gross of $636,796, against a $26 million budget.

Coppola revealed, “One From the Heart left me with an enormous financial hole and I was able to retire that debt, rather than losing my home and all of my property, by making one film every year and paying off an enormous annual repayment to the bank. But even when I was in that mode, I always tried to find something to fall in love with.”

13. The Rain People (1969)

Coppola’s early road film is a fascinating story about a woman (Shirley Knight) who takes a break from her marriage by meandering through the country. The Rain People has been compared to Dennis Hopper’s seminal work Easy Rider because of their similar epistemological pursuits, asking questions about American identity and individual responsibility.

“I tried to shoot in sequential order, though if there was an opportunity to save money to shoot slightly out of it, I would,” Coppola said. “I had a complete screenplay, but was prepared to make any changes if we encountered something interesting along the way.”

12. The Cotton Club (1984)

Set in the 1930s and centred on a Harlem jazz club, Coppola’s 1984 crime drama takes a synchronous look at multiple intersecting lives. A re-cut of the classic was released in 2017 because Coppola was unsatisfied with the prior version he had been forced to make under pressure from the producers. It picked up Golden Globe nominations for Best Director and Best Picture as well as Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.

The filmmaker recalled, “The Cotton Club was sort of made on the battlefield between the various people who put up the money and the producer (Robert Evans). At the time, they looked at it and said, ‘Oh, there’s too many black people in it. Can we cut out some of the tap dancing and put the emphasis less on the black people in the story?’”

11. You’re a Big Boy Now (1966)

Based on David Benedictus’ 1963 novel of the same name, Coppola’s 1966 comedy is about 19-year-old Bernard (Peter Kastner) who can’t wait to get away from his overbearing parents. He moves to a boarding house and finds himself drawn to two women, former classmate Amy Partlett (Karen Black) and go-go dancer Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman).

Coppola earned his degree at UCLA with this film as his thesis project, with a budget close to $1 million. It was presented at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival as the only American entry and caught the eye of Warner Bros which facilitated Coppola’s successful studio career.

10. The Rainmaker (1997)

Coppola’s 1997 legal drama is based on a John Grisham novel and stars Matt Damon as Rudy, an earnest but inexperienced law graduate who fights for a a boy suffering from leukaemia when the insurance company refuses to take care of him. Although the film made more than its budget of $40 million, it was still considered as a disappointment when compared to other successful John Grisham adaptations like The Firm (1993).

Coppola said, “Someday, I really dream to make a movie that’s `Francis Coppola’s.’ But I can only do that if I write it from scratch. With those other films, my job is to make their work come alive, as I tried to do with Mario or John Grisham. I really believe that I should not put in my own two cents other than as an interpretive artist.”

9. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

This 1988 biopic recalls the story of American entrepreneur Preston Tucker (played by Jeff Bridges) who tries to produce and market his dream car, the 1948 Tucker Sedan. However, the big three automobile companies do not take kindly to Tucker’s innovations and push back. The film earned three Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win for co-star Martin Landau.

Anahid Nazarian, Coppola’s librarian, spoke of the historical inaccuracies. “Preston Tucker didn’t really have an assembly line; there’s one in the film. He actually had five kids; there are only four in the film. Our story takes place in one year; the real story took place over four years. People who know the story will find a lot of what they call errors. I’m sure I’ll be deluged with letters.”

She added, “We knew the facts but to fit the spirit of the story in a film that is exciting and has characters you love and characters you hate – that made us change a lot of things. Things like the president of the Tucker Company was a good guy really, but we needed a villain, so we made him a villain.”

8. The Outsiders (1983)

The first of two 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptations directed by Coppola, The Outsiders features a cast comprised of Hollywood’s up-and-coming stars, including Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and more. Coppola nails the cinematic portrayal of teenage angst in this moving story about gang rivalry and violence.

“It was chaos incorporated time at Zoetrope, like fighting a war,” Coppola said in a 1983 New York Times interview. “I used to be a great camp counsellor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counsellor again. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.”

7. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Often regarded as Coppola’s most popular comedy, Kathleen Turner stars as a woman on the verge of a divorce from her unfaithful husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage). She finds herself transported back to her high school years when she attends her 25th high school reunion in order to forget about her problems. The film turned out to be the first commercial success for Coppola since The Outsiders.

Cage said he “must have said no five or six times” and asked Coppola, “‘Uncle, why do you want to make this movie at all?’…He said, ‘Just come to rehearsal.’” Cage finally agreed to the role provided he could “go really far out with the character” and “talk like Pokey from The Gumby Show.”

6. Rumble Fish (1983)

Coppola’s second S.E. Hinton adaptation and the superior of the two, Rumble Fish featured innovative filmmaking techniques and much of the same cast and crew from The Outsiders. Coppola makes a story about youth gangs feel like an avant-garde experiment with allusions to German expressionism and the French New Wave.

“The film has a real feeling of heat. I can’t remember what the actual weather was like, but we made a conscious effort to make it appear hot, spraying the actors and wetting their underarms,” Coppola said.
“I decided to shoot in black and white because I wanted to make an art film for young people, and black and white gives a quality of poetic realism.

“I didn’t just leave it to the script to tell the story – I also used camera angles, lighting and soundtrack to stimulate a young audience into loving the form as much as I did. I was disappointed when they didn’t rush to see it. But it’s pleasing its appeal has endured. It was the film I really wanted to make.”

5. Bram Stroker’s Dracula (1992)

Coppola’s 1992 gothic horror film conducts a stunning cinematic translation of the mythical legend of Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as Count Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. It deviates from the investigations far from the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic and other similar adaptations, focusing on the inner life of the vampire anti-hero. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won three for Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Makeup.

According to Winona Ryder: “I never really thought he would read it. He was so consumed with Godfather III. As I was leaving, I said, ‘If you have a chance, read this script.’ He glanced down at it politely, but when he saw the word Dracula, his eyes lit up. It was one of his favourite stories from camp.”

4. The Conversation (1974)

Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, this 1974 thriller explores the moral dilemma of a surveillance expert who finds evidence of potential murder in his recordings. The film premiered just months after the resignation of President Richard Nixon amid his wire-tapping, making audiences draw connections between the Watergate Scandal and The Conversation. It won the Grand Prix at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.

Coppola recalled, “It started as a premise. I said, ‘I think I want to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy, and I want to make it about the guy who does it rather than about the people it’s being done to.’

“Then somewhere along the line I got the idea of using repetition, of exposing new levels of information not through exposition but by repetition. And not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time—let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context.”

3. The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Coppola’s original film was a masterpiece of such quality that it was hard to imagine a sequel which would live up to those expectations. However, the director pulled it off by following the Best Picture-winning film with another. Coppola dismantled the myth that sequels can never live up to the original, showcasing the story of Michael Corleone and his quest to expand the criminal empire.

It also features Robert De Niro as a young Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando in the original). Instead of following in his footsteps, De Niro made the legendary character his own and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. For the film, Coppola won his first Oscar for the production, his first Academy Award as Best Director and his third Oscar for writing.

“Initially, the idea of a sequel seemed horrible to me,” Coppola revealed. “It sounded like a tacky spin-off, and I used to joke that the only way I’d do it was if they’d let me film Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather—that would have been fun.

“Then I entertained some Russian film executives who were visiting San Francisco and they asked me if I was going to make The Godfather Part II. That was the first time I heard the phrase used; I guess you could say I stole the title from the Russians.”

2. The Godfather (1972)

Based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 novel of the same name, people dismissed the film as just another mafia flick when they first heard about it but everything changed when audiences witnessed Coppola’s epic about American crime and the complicated issues it explored. Since then, it has become the definitive work of the genre and the yardstick against which every other crime film is measured (often unfavourably).

The film revolves around the Corleone crime family, headed by the patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and shows how one of his sons (Al Pacino) rises to the occasion and becomes a ruthless Mafia boss himself. The film won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Puzo and Coppola) and is correctly regarded as one of the most influential films of all time.

Coppola said, “The Mafia was romanticised in the book. And I was filming that book. To do a film about my real opinion of the Mafia would be another thing altogether. But it’s a mistake to think I was making a film about the Mafia. Godfather Part I is a romance about a king with three sons.

“It is a film about power. It could have been the Kennedys. The whole idea of a family living in a compound—that was all based on Hyannisport. Remember, it wasn’t a documentary about Mafia chief Vito Genovese. It was Marlon Brando with Kleenex in his mouth.”

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s famous 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now is arguably the most ambitious project in his extensive filmmaking career. It is a retelling of the problematic source text in the context of the Vietnam War which allegorically deconstructs the evils of American interference, colonialism and the human capacity for unabashed hatred.

“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content