The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This one is a bit of a no-brainer. The grim follow-up to one of the most feel-good blockbusters of all-time is as complex a marvel as its fans have built it up to be over the decades. Set the standard by which all franchise sequels are judged.
Revenge of the Sith (2005)
George Lucas may have earned the ire of fanboys for the prequels, but Episode III is everything and more you would ever want it to be. It's darker than Empire Strikes Back, has more action and huge set pieces than you can shake a stick at, and the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) really hits home. A truly underrated film and a triumph of visual imagination as well.
The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
2003's Return of the King may have taken home all the Oscars, but let's not forget about the first entry, which successfully immersed audiences of newbies into J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Hobbit's and Orcs and Wizards. It also gave longtime fans the thrill of seeing Middle-earth brought to vivid life in a way that respected the books.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis created a brilliant new sci-fi world and then promptly flushed it down the toilet of ill-concieved action and sophomoric term paper dialogue that was its two sequels. If only there was a way to pretend the other two didn't exist...
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
This is a difficult one, as the first film remains a classic of airtight plotting and crackerjack timing. The sequel, though, is remarkable in the way it adds new dimension to the events of the first film by exploring them from an alternate point of view. It also boasts a terrifyingly prophetic glimpse of America's likely future under Tru... er, Tannen.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
With this movie the new cast finally cast off the shackles of prequel-itis that plagued the first two J.J. Abrams films and kicked things into gear with a high-stakes mission for the crew of the Enterprise. Sofia Boutella makes a great new addition to the crew, and the late Anton Yelchin's Chekov makes a final farewell.
This unlikely threequel was thrust into existence only due to the sheer will of its star, Vin Diesel, after the failure of Chronicles of Riddick. It manages to evoke the claustrophobic horror thrills of Pitch Black with just enough of the epic worldbuilding in the second film to create a very fun sci-fi western.
Men in Black (1997)
While the third film was not without its charms, the second film was by all accounts a creative disaster on all fronts. That's why we're gonna go safe and say the original teaming of Will Smith's J and Tommy Lee Jones' K is still the best.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
While the other movies in stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) are full of special effects wonders, this middle film in the trilogy is the only one to actually boast an equally impressive cast! You have the strapping John Phillip Law playing the hero with an actual Arab accent and flair, Doctor Who's Tom Baker as a delicious villain, and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as a most bodacious babe.
X2: X-Men United (2003) / X-Men: First Class (2011) / Logan (2017)
Bryan Singer's second X-Men movie solidified them as movie heroes and progressive symbols. Matthew Vaughn brought fun and verve to the franchise with First Class, while this year's Logan finally gave Hugh Jackman a real character to chew on.
The Dark Knight (2008)
While Batman Begins set the tone for more serious dives into superhero mythology, Christopher Nolan's second film emulated Michael Mann's Heat to give us a crime movie in superhero drag. It also gave us the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal of The Joker, which will stand as one of the all-time great movie villains.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi introduced the workings of a big superhero movie with the first film, and then really cut loose on the second, bringing in Alfred Molina's terrific Doctor Octopus along with some of Raimi's old Evil Dead camera trickery. The less said about the third the better.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
While this one managed to piss off hardcore comics geeks, the rest of us thrilled to Shane Black's subversion of iconic villain The Mandarin by playing him off initially as every fanboy's Osama bin Laden bad guy wet dream and then turning that two-dimensional idea on its ear.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) steps his toes into the politically murky post-WWII world and encounters conspiracy on top of conspiracy in this terrific thriller. This movie also had the guts to point out to audiences something they may not have wanted to realize: S.H.I.E.L.D. is an inherently fascist organization.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Francis Coppola ushered in a new era of filmmaking with his 1972 smash The Godfather, but it was the sequel released two years later that truly pushed the boundaries of storytelling. Serving as both a prequel exploring the life of young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and a sequel following the corruption of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), it's an expansive family saga that is still powerful today.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1967)
Clint Eastwood cemented his stardom as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's first three westerns, and while the first two films are great, it was their third and final collaboration that really clicked. The final showdown between Clint, Eli Wallach's Tuco, and Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes is one for the ages.
Before Midnight (2013)
Richard Linklater's series follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) as their relationship evolves from their first chance meeting in Vienna (Before Sunrise) to their reuniting nine years later (Before Sunset). By the time we get to the third entry nine years after that in Before Midnight, the characters have such a rich history and chemistry that we hang on their every word, especially as things start to take a turn for the worse.
Although not narratively connected, South Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-wook's loose trilogy of revenge and redemption reached its cultural apex with the second part, Oldboy, which centers on a man (Choi Min-sik) inexplicably held prisoner for 15 years without explanation, and released just as mysteriously. Its hallway corridor fight and shocking twist ending have made it justifiably famous. The third part, Lady Vengeance, is almost as good.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
Before A Clockwork Orange, Lindsay Anderson's school satire If.... brought the world Malcolm McDowell. Later the two re-teamed for the experimental narrative O Lucky Man, which blended McDowell's personal background as a coffee salesman with a pseudo-musical structure featuring songs by Alan Price. The trilogy around the character of Mick Travis was concluded strangely (and violently, for Mick!) with Brittania Hospital.
Heaven & Earth (1993)
Although Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Platoon and the subsequent Born on the Fourth of July are much better remembered than this third Vietnam film, it has a much greater significance because it tells the story from the Vietnamese point of view. Specifically, that of Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le), who goes on to marry an American G.I. (Tommy Lee Jones) and experience the culture shock of being in America.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
The teaming of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright held smashing success on both Shaun of the Dead and The World's End, but the middle movie in their "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy is the best. This British spin on the largely American action genre is as if Michael Bay shot an Agatha Christie mystery. Bloody brilliant!
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Ned Beatty's memorable villain Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (who has more than a few shades of Nazi-ism in him!) and the nostalgia felt for seeing Buzz and Woody again is what gives this threequel the magic touch in a very popular Pixar trilogy.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
Mike Myers may have introduced the formula for his "International Man of Mystery" in the first one, but it was the second film where he really got to explore the furthest reaches of making a spy spoof. The character of Fat Bastard is a particular high-point in the franchise.
Whit Stillman's semi-autobiographical preppie trilogy started strong with the low-budget Metropolitan, and ended well enough with The Last Days of Disco. Barcelona, the middle chapter in the trilogy, stands out for the hilarious friction between cousins Ted Boynton (an uptight Taylor Nichols) and Fred Boynton (the sardonic Chris Eigeman).
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
We admit that the first film in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy is a "better" movie, but a bit of a bland one. Ditto for Ocean's Thirteen. Twelve, however, is full of such quirky, oddball choices that you can't help but marvel at the marijuana-fueled madness of it. Best scene: When Vincent Cassel navigates a museum's laser field by break dancing through it.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
While the first Evil Dead was mainly played straight, director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell took things to another level of splatstick horror comedy with the sequel. The third one, Army of Darkness, arguably goes too far into the domain of the silly, but the second film gets the groovy balance.
The Thing (1982)
The first part in John Carpenter's loose "Apocalypse Trilogy" is his classic remake of Howard Hawks' The Thing, which masterfully blends intense paranoia with some of the best practical make-up effects ever conceived, courtesy of Rob Bottin. The other two films, 1987's Prince of Darkness and 1994's In the Mouth of Madness, suffer a bit from being a bit far-fetched, whereas The Thing keeps the Antarctic scares grounded and the tension tight.
Blade II (2002)
Stephen Norrington deftly launched the franchise with the first Blade, and David Goyer gleefully burned it to the ground with the abysmal Blade Trinity. It took Guillermo del Toro (then at a low ebb of his career) to craft a whole new mythology and physiology for vampires with Blade II.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Not counting the barely-connected prequel Hannibal Rising or Michael Mann's earlier version of the "Red Dragon" novel Manhunter, Jonathan Demme's Best Picture winner The Silence of the Lambs is still the best screen version of Anthony Hopkins' cannibalistic Doctor Hannibal Lecter. Where the subsequent Hannibal and Red Dragon went wrong was overusing Hopkins, whereas Demme knew to use him sparingly for maximum effect.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Writer Nigel Kneale's trilogy of British sci-fi horror films centered on Professor Bernard Quatermass had a profound effect on filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. The third film in the Hammer Films series, Quatermass and the Pit, introduced the idea of Martian influence on society, as well as the uncovering of an ancient artifact with terrible powers. Indiana Jones, anyone?