Classically trained artist, commercial director, filmmaker, legend. That's the literal career trajectory of one of filmdom's most vaunted visual stylists, Ridley Scott, especially considering he actually made a movie called "Legend."
The cigar chomping Englishman has made a fair number of stinkers over his 20+ filmography, including the woeful Christopher Columbus biopic "1492: Conquest of Paradise," middling action pic "Black Rain," and despised wine country comedy "A Good Year." We're not here to talk about those, though, we're here to celebrate a "no guts, no glory" visionary whose new film "The Counselor" will no doubt alienate and dazzle in equal measure, like all the below movies.
10. 'Prometheus' (2012)
By the time Scott took up the sci-fi mantle again after a three-decade time out, his iconic creature from "Alien" had been strip-mined of all impact thanks to endless sequels, comics, action figures and even a cameo on a Disney theme park ride. So in revisiting that world for this pseudo-prequel the director took a different approach of provoking awe as opposed to fright… that is, until that third act robotic C-section scene. Besides that showstopping set piece there are a literal buffet of stunning visuals generated on old Hollywood-style soudstages, the kind of craftsmanship sorely missing from sci-fi at this scale. Some of the Christian subtext and laughable childlike behavior by a team of experts on a trillion-dollar space mission is regrettable, but once you get past that you can feel the 75-year-old director using one of his earliest films as a vehicle to explore some rather cold truths about his own mortality. Ellen Ripley's desperate dash for life has been replaced by Noomi Rapace's scientist Elizabeth Shaw grappling with the futility of it all.
9. 'American Gangster' (2007)
After making approximately 500 movies with baby bro Tony Scott, Denzel Washington at last got a chance to work with the über Scott. Originally slated to reunite the actor with his "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua, this black gangster saga allowed Ridley to do his soul-infused version of "The Godfather" while providing a showcase for some of the greatest black actors of the last two generations: Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, even The RZA because why not? The true tale of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas's empire building years and the last honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) efforts to take him down. There's some mixed messages about African American entrepreneurship and integrity mixed in with the fact that Lucas helped pinpoint hundreds of corrupt DEA and NYPD officers, but that's okay. Scott's stately take on the material helps this rise above the "New Jack City"/"Scarface" clichés to hold its own as a crime classic.
8. 'The Duelists' (1977)
Scott's auspicious debut has no shortage of lush, painterly composition straight out of the "Barry Lyndon" playbook. Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine play officers during the Napoleonic era whose petty squabble is transmuted into a full-fledged vendetta that spans decades from the turn of the 19th century through the defeat at Waterloo. The two eccentric leads were both at the peak of their powers yet those anachronistic New York accents can be distracting to say the least. "You have insulted me!" shouts Keitel like he's still in "Mean Streets." "I have strained my patience in order not to do so," says Carradine like he's in a middle school play. Still, the central metaphor on the neverending cycle of vengeance-seeking in the name of honor is powerful stuff, a glimpse at the historical accuracy the filmmaker would make his name with later in his career.
7. 'Kingdom of Heaven' (director's cut)(2005)
It seemed like a gimme that Ridley Scott would one day turn his obsessive eye for historical detail and conflicted heroism towards the Crusades. One of the most equally horrifying and romanticized periods of the middle ages, the 12th century wars between Christian and Muslim factions fighting for control of Jerusalem had never been given a truly realistic portrayal beyond creaky spectacles like "El Cid." Scott and screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed") gave it their best shot for the theatrical version, but the transition of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) from simple village blacksmith to master military strategist was never really explained until the far superior Director's Cut released on DVD. As with the tacked on happy ending/narration of "Blade Runner" and replacing Jerry Goldsmith's classical score on "Legend," Scott tends to bend over backwards to cater to studio executive commercial concerns, always giving us the real deal years later. Flaws and all, Ghassan Massoud gives a charismatic performance as the much-respected Muslim general Saladin, and Edward Norton is chilling as a masked leper King Baldwin of Jerusalem.
6. 'Legend' (1985)
A flawed piece to be sure, this delving into the world of fantasy is nevertheless a signature vision within the genre. Drawing elements from Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies and Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," Scott was trying to reinvent the fable in the same manner he blew open sci-fi, but was unfortunately cut at the knees by a fire at Pinewood Studios that destroyed the lavish forest panorama his team had assembled. What remains in the film is gorgeous to behold, telling a mythically simple story of an innocent young princess (Mia Sara) taken by the devil incarnate (Tim Curry) and the strapping young lad (Tom Cruise) who comes to her rescue. Oh, and there's a lot of phallic imagery involving unicorns. The real star of the film is genius Rob Bottin's incredible make-up artistry in conjuring Darkness, building the mild-mannered Curry into a red, muscular, bull-horned frightmare.
5. 'Gladiator' (2000)
In a lot of ways Ridley Scott has spent a good portion of his career trying to ape Stanley Kubrick's. Notice the similarity:
"Matchstick Men"/"Lolita" (unhealthy father/daughter combo)
"Alien"/"2001: A Space Odyssey" (slow-burn first contact terror)
"The Duelists"/"Barry Lyndon" (18th/19th century wartime dueling)
"Blade Runner"/"A Clockwork Orange" (sci-fi exploration of emotional violence)
You could even argue that "G.I. Jane" is aping the first part of "Full Metal Jacket" while "Black Hawk Down" bites the gritty combat portion, and Roman arena epic "Gladiator" finally allowed him his stab at "Spartacus." Arguably Scott's biggest mainstream success, it came at a low period where the man literally hadn't had a hit in a decade. Somehow he took hold of this swords and sandals material and gave it the slick modern sheen it needed. Scoring both Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars, the film kicked off a late-career renaissance for Scott as well as a fruitful working marriage with Russell Crowe that would yield four more outings to-date. Are you not entertained?
4. 'Matchstick Men' (2003)
Like "Thelma & Louise" this con man caper gave Scott some room to breathe between war epics, showing off his rarely seen comic touch in a small scale story about an OCD flimflam man named Roy (Nicolas Cage) whose partner in deception Frank (Sam Rockwell) talks him into pulling a long con on a rich dude around the same time a daughter he didn't know he had shows up looking for some fatherly attention. It's a might predictable, yet Cage gets to unleash his crazypants antics via a strain twitches and tics that may or may not exist in the DSM. Alison Lohman is sweet and pixie-ish as his mercurial "daughter," making you wonder why she still isn't the huge star she deserves to be.
3. 'Thelma & Louise' (1991)
Ahh, the great "female empowerment through carnage" movie of our time. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are the title duo whose friendship bonds them through attempted rape, convenience store robbery, and blowing up trucks. There's a little more to it than that, as Scott translates Callie Khouri's Academy Award-winning screenplay through a heretofore unseen gift with character comedy and whimsy. These newly empowered ladies attempt to make the trek across country from Oklahoma to Mexico (bypassing Texas completely, as anyone would), but get screwed over by men at every turn, making you root for their small moments of triumph. Brad Pitt gave a starmaking supporting turn as drifter hunk J.D., finally returning the favor by starring in this week's "The Counselor" for his old mentor.
2. 'Alien' (1979)
For awhile there was a race to see who could make the next "2001: A Space Odyssey," but since the end of the '70s sci-fi films have drawn from either "Star Wars" or "Alien." That is to say, they're either super-fast and explodey, or super dark and gothic. Drawing from a pool of talented underground illustrators including Moebius, Ron Cobb and, of course, that Swiss ghoul H.R. Giger, Scott took the "Heavy Metal" comics aesthetic and translated it to a large scale cinematic canvas to prove that space horror could be as gorgeous as it is terrifying. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley became a survivor icon and arguably the strongest "final girl" in all of moviedom, retaining a certain femininity while holding her own with blue collar lugs like Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. As for the xenomorph himself, Giger's phallic star beast has still never been topped in terms of sheer Freudian dread.
1. 'Blade Runner' (1982)
What hasn't already been said about this rain-soaked, neo-noir milestone? Not much, but here goes: "Blade Runner" belongs to The Millennials. Baby Boomers and even Gen-X had their little dalliances with it, and even made some movies that look a lot like it, but it's those born at the beginning of the '80s onward that truly embrace Scott and Philip K. Dick's prophetic tone poem to societal decay. Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard is the borderline Aspergian robot bounty hunter who may be a Replicant himself, and the elliptical arc where he slowly realizes he is the villain of the piece and Rutger Hauer's soulful Roy Batty in fact the hero is emotionally devastating.
The twenty and thirty somethings who caught this film on video in the early '90s were the first audience with the capacity to soak in the full sensory assault of Scott's 77-layer visual cake. Ahead of its time doesn't even begin to cover it, as the influential tremors in the world of film, art, music and architecture are still being felt. What sort of post-"Matrix" work this will produce now that Gen-Y is getting its hands dirty in the film world remains to be seen, but the groundwork was laid by Scott brick-for-brick.