ridley scott movies
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

The 14 Best Ridley Scott Movies, Ranked

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Littered with the bodies of dreamy-eyed androids, sweat-drenched warriors, and the occasional chest-bursting space oddity, the movies of Ridley Scott are filled with carnage. Humans battle aliens, robots, and, most frequently, each other in pursuit of power, honor, and glory. Unembarrassed by visual excess and capital-T themes, Scott shoots all these conflicts, whether they play out in a cheering colosseum or in the dark of space, in his maximalist style, capturing every field of wheat and neon-drenched street in all its shiny, light-strewn splendor. He makes the bloody and the brutal look downright pretty.

It's an approach that's served him well; his movies have hauled in more than a billion dollars at the box office and netted him three Oscar nominations for Best Director. (His only Best Picture winner, Gladiator, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.) After studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Scott began his career as a director of television and commercials in England, helming decadent perfume ads and dystopian computer spots. Along with his late brother Tony Scott, the director of high-octane thrill-rides like Top Gun and Crimson Tide, he founded Ridley Scott Associates, an advertising firm, and Scott Free Productions, a film and television production company. Never abandoning that focus on craftsmanship or his gift for locating the most potent image while delivering a barrage of information and exposition, he's gone on to become one of Hollywood's favorite prestige blockbuster helmers, a director who can glide between genres and manage the egos of a steady stream of A-list stars.

Clearly, the man loves to work. In 2021 he released two films in quick succession: The Last Duel, a medieval epic starring and co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and the instantly meme-able House of Gucci, featuring Lady Gaga. That prolific tendency means he's made some stinkers, but we're here to focus on the good stuff. Scott can be difficult to pin-down and his films are often accused of lacking a personal touch, but you'll find common threads connecting all of the stories below. In attempting to put together a top 10 list, we ended up with 14 movies. Since the guy loves an expanded director's cut, we figure Ridley Scott would understand.

american gangster
Universal Pictures

14. American Gangster (2007)

With his focus on blood-letting spectacle, heart-pounding tension, and eye-popping atmosphere, Scott rarely gets celebrated for his work with actors. But American Gangster — which features a typically locked-in performance from Denzel Washington as Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, a pleasingly grumpy turn from frequent Scott collaborator Russell Crowe as the detective tasked with pursuing Lucas, and a number of often under-utilized stars in supporting roles — is the rare Scott film where the stacked cast doesn't get lost in the smoke and mirrors. Scenes of struggle and betrayal play out across strained faces, blustery outbursts, and subtle gestures; the streets of Harlem in the '70s, bustling with music and violence, become a backdrop for yet another study of power, ambition, and greed. Like with many late-period Scott projects, there's a self-importance to the presentation, a tendency to underscore ideas that a more fleet-footed filmmaker would simply let stand on their own. (Look at the title!) Still, Scott and Washington understand the appeal of the classic rise-and-fall crime narrative, and they don't let the high-gloss packaging ruin their product. — Dan Jackson

alien covenant
20th Century Fox

13. Alien: Covenant (2017)

Either out of a financially lucrative desire to keep making big-budget projects in a franchise-obsessed era or out of a genuine fascination with the material, the Alien series has become an object of obsession for Scott in his later years. After floating away from the series for decades, allowing filmmakers like James Cameron and David Fincher to play in the sandbox he built, Scott returned to it with 2012's unapologetically chin-stroking Prometheus and the more viscerally throat-grabbing Alien: Covenant. In the latter, Scott's handful of ultra-tense (and, yes, a little dumb) sequences gets his work as close as he's ever gotten to making a slasher movie, turning the xenomorph into a glistening, chest-ripping horror movie killing machine. With two androids played by Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from Prometheus, getting all the most compelling scenes and the best lines, this feels like Scott's most outwardly misanthropic movie. By embracing schlock, this myth-making prequel regains the element of surprise. — DJ

the martian
20th Century Fox

12. The Martian (2015)

It was honestly surprising for a director like Ridley Scott, whose science fiction films traditionally depict the horror and hopelessness of outer space and the future, to take on The Martian, a story that's remarkable for its determined faith in the power of human ingenuity. It would be easy for a movie about the wonders of "sciencing the shit out of" things to be corny, and The Martian does wield more earnestness than you'll find in most Scott films, but the director boosts the extra-nerdy source material with a few shots of adrenaline to keep its two-and-a-half-hour running time moving at a steady clip. And the all-star cast doesn't hurt: Matt Damon completely owns his role as a space-faring botanist who figures out an innovative way to plant potatoes on an alien planet when he's left behind by his crew, led by a compelling Jessica Chastain who chooses to go against the wishes of NASA (headed by — who else? — Jeff Daniels) and double back around to save her comrade. A bizarre mix of 2015 A-listers and up-and-comers get spots to shine, such as Kristen Wiig as NASA's head of PR, Mackenzie Davis as a Martian satellite technician, and Donald Glover as a brilliant JPL astrodynamicist who figures out a daring rescue plan. Sean Bean even shows up for a few scenes, including a Lord of the Rings reference. Andy Weir's book became a bestseller because of his cunning skill in turning esoteric mathematical principles into compelling fiction, and Scott's adaptation brings it to vibrant life -- complete with a soundtrack headed by ABBA and David Bowie. — Emma Stefansky

the duelists
Paramount Pictures

11. The Duellists (1977)

Released when he was nearly 40 years old and wrestling with the lofty themes that would go on to define his career, Scott's debut film rarely feels like the work of a first-time director. In adapting Joseph Conrad's short story "The Duel," he tells an often absurd tale of two French officers in Napoleon's army, somewhat bafflingly played by American actors Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, who battle with each other across the years out of a misplaced sense of honor. Drawing on the meticulous work of Stanley Kubrick, particularly the simultaneously lush and wry sensibility of Barry Lyndon, the movie has all the visual grace notes one associates with Scott's historical epics. The clouds of mist, the rays of sunlight, and the kinetic bursts of bloodshed are all there. Luckily, The Duellists possesses a nimble pace and a knowing archness that often escapes Scott's more plodding tales of wartime rivalry. — DJ

the counselor
20th Century Fox

10. The Counselor (2013)

"You see a thing like that, it changes you." Those words are spoken by Javier Bardem's spiky-haired drug dealer Reiner in The Counselor, and in the context of the scene, he's talking about an intimate performance put on by Cameron Diaz's leopard-print-dress-sporting, cage-rattling femme fatale, one involing simulating sex with the windshield of a Ferrari. But they're also an accurate description of the destabilizing effect this odd, divisive movie can have on an audience. Working from a verbose, monologue-packed original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, Scott's border-crossing drug thriller is an inscrutable work of genre storytelling that combines bleak humor, dense philosophy, and a gruesome decapitation device powerful enough to kill a major movie star. Often unfavorably compared to No Country for Old Men, which told a similarly violent tale in a desert setting, The Counselor is its own strange beast, a hungry cheetah wandering the desolate landscape of Scott's filmography and a fittingly lurid tribute to his late brother Tony's more expressive style. — DJ

adam driver in the last duel
20th Century Studios

9.The Last Duel (2021)

The headline of The Last Duel before its release was that it featured Matt Damon and Ben Affleck writing together for the first time since Good Will Hunting. And while the screenplay, written in conjunction with Nicole Holofcener is immensely savvy, as well as often very funny, it's Scott's sure hand that made the film one of the biggest surprises of his career. This strange, long horror comedy detailing how women in the 14th century were at the mercy of dudes who were vain, petty, and cruel, only concerned with their own status even when someone's life is at stake. For a two-and-half-hour movie centered around a rape and a violent battle, it's awfully funny, but that humor only serves its point: It makes the men who think they are the heroes of this tale seem puny and vile, just as they are. Told in three chapters, each from a differing perspective, The Last Duel describes the incidents that led to a fight to the death between Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the man who assaulted his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The structure only serves to fuel Scott's ultimate point, not about the subjectivity of human experience, but the brutality of the circumstances. Anchored by great performance all around, it's Affleck who steals the show as a louche, drunken count. The box office was bad, but it's destined to become a highlight of Scott's career. — Esther Zuckerman

matchstick men movie
Warner Brothers Pictures

8. Matchstick Men (2003)

It almost feels like Scott's 2003 con-man movie Matchstick Men is lost to time. It also feels perfectly of its time: a quirky crime flick with a mental-illness hook that also features a shocking twist. The underrated caper movie is anchored by sly performances from Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Lohman, and like Cage’s protagonist, Roy Waller, it comes with a lot of tics. Each frame is oversaturated -- the movie feels like it’s bathed in pool water -- but all the stylistic flourishes make for a nervy watch. While the treatment of OCD feels slightly outdated, Cage perfectly utilizes his mania as Roy, whose life is uprooted when he learns he has a teenage daughter (Lohman). She comes to live with him, and he softens, but then the whirring plot kicks into gear and the question of who is conning who comes into play. Lohman’s sneaky work makes you wish she hadn’t essentially retired from acting after Drag Me to Hell a decade ago. — EZ

kingdom of heaven
20th Century Fox

7. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Given his tendency to tinker with his own creations and release cuts with even longer runtimes, Ridley Scott can make it challenging to properly rank and evaluate some of his own films. (Few director's reputations benefited as much from the special features packed DVD era of the '00s.) When we put Kingdom of Heaven, a sword-swinging historical epic set during the Crusades in the 12th century, on this list, are we referring to the truncated 144-minute cut that was released in theaters or the more studiously paced 194-minute director's cut? Both versions have their flaws — no matter the runtime, Orlando Bloom struggles to hold such a huge production on his slender shoulders — but the director's cut is the far superior work, achieving the sweeping scope and ruminative texture that William Monahan's multi-layered script is clearly aiming for. Initially received as an ill-fated attempt to recapture Gladiator's propulsive action-movie swagger, Kingdom of Heaven, in its completed form, stands on its own as a downbeat chronicle of military strategizing and political maneuvering. — DJ

prometheus movie
20th Century Fox

6. Prometheus (2012)

As both a prequel to Alien and a film existing in its own Alien-adjacent universe, Prometheus has a lot of ground to cover. We're still in the future, but going back in time a few decades in the Alien-verse, to when the milk-androids were only just discovering how to act convincingly human and a creepy corporation sends a team of astronauts to investigate what may or may not be humanity's five-head origins. (Thanks, Engineer.) The droning meditations on the nature of consciousness and free will turned off some viewers who were expecting more of an action-packed thriller — the Xenomorph doesn't even appear until the final act of the movie, and only after Noomi Rapace's truly upsetting self-surgery scene — but it's since gained something of a cult following for its overwhelming balls-to-the-wall weirdness. The promotion for the movie also featured an expertly crafted marketing campaign with actors in character giving background to the setup that drew immediate rabid interest and reminded us all of Scott's ad-man roots. Big things have small beginnings. — ES

black hawk down
Photo by Revolution Studios/Getty Images)

5. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Many combat movies flirt with incoherence, using confusion and misdirection to recreate the hell of war on screen, but few embrace chaos with the same rigor as Black Hawk Down. Even the early sections of the film, which portray modern life in the American military as an exercise in tedium and bureaucracy, don't make room for the conventional character beats and personal details one typically finds in movies like this. Despite assembling a cast of fresh-faced young performers, the film rarely positions them as carefully drawn individuals on a hero's journey. Instead, Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan, working from journalist Mark Bowden's tick-tock account of a 1993 battle in Mogadishu, render actors like Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, and Tom Hardy as largely indistinguishable grunts, the flesh and bones of a war machine gone haywire. Prizing pulse-pounding immediacy over political nuance or big picture analysis, Black Hawk Down exists as a monument to its own disorienting showmanship. — DJ

gladiator movie
DreamWorks Pictures

4. Gladiator (2000)

We have the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme to thank for Ridley Scott's swords-and-sandals masterpiece. If a couple of the producers hadn't shown Scott his 1872 painting Pollice Verso, depicting a crowd of Romans gesturing to a gladiator to kill his opponent, the director might not have signed on to this future Best Picture winner. Gladiator, which stars Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, an enslaved Hispano-Roman general who garners fame and adoration in the arena for his fighting skills and hatches a plot to kill the evil emperor (played by a masterfully snivelling Joaquin Phoenix), reignited Hollywood's interest in historical plots centering around Greek and Roman culture and gave us all a rousing cry to shout whenever we'd like to know whether or not someone is entertained. Its soundtrack, composed by the great Hans Zimmer, was pretty much an instant classic. This movie is 20 years old, yet the fights still hold up, the extensive visual effects still look groundbreaking, and not one thing influenced by this movie, from Game of Thrones to 300, has come close to replicating its fabulously dramatic script (doctored by, among others, Crowe himself) or its sense of epic scale. — ES

thelma and louise
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

3. Thelma & Louise (1991)

Looking broadly at Ridley Scott's filmography, he doesn't read like a particularly feminist director, but it's saying something that two of our top three picks center on era-defining female characters. You'll read about Ripley in a second, but for now, let's focus on Thelma & Louise. The success of this film, which feels as defiant and bold now as it did upon release, has a lot to do with Callie Khouri's screenplay. Khouri was reportedly skeptical that Scott was the right person for the job, but the bombast he applies to the rest of his work matches Khouri's storytelling about two women who go on the lam after killing a would-be rapist. The famed final shot of Thelma and Louise's Thunderbird soaring over the Grand Canyon would be enough to place the film on any top ten list, but the whole trip is still enervating, brimming with anger and fearsome performances. — EZ

blade runner
Photo by Warner Bros./Archive Photos/Getty Images

2. Blade Runner (1982)

If Blade Runner isn't Scott's most beloved film — and it might be — it's certainly up there with Alien as his most influential. Seeds of Blade Runner's dystopia are in countless fictional future cities that followed it: From the chatty billboards of Minority Report to the neon streets of Detective Pikachu's Ryme City. (Yes, even Pokemon was shaped by Blade Runner.) Adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and under-appreciated both critically and financially upon its release, Blade Runner quickly gained the cult classic status it still holds. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, who prowls around 2019 Los Angeles, with all its Japanese-inspired design, in search of replicants he's been ordered to kill. It's an alternately romantic and violent journey all in the key of noir. How Blade Runner actually ends depends on which of the various versions you prefer — for us, it's The Final Cut, released in 2007 — but in all its incarnations, Blade Runner is a masterpiece of mood that's been oft imitated but never topped, even by its visually stunning sequel Blade Runner: 2049. — EZ

alien movie
20th Century Fox

1. Alien (1979)

Alien's influence and cultural import cannot be overstated. From its status as one of the best science fiction films of all time that kicked off a nearly five decade-spanning franchise down to its smaller details, like Sigourney Weaver's kingmaking moment screaming "You bitch!" at the Nostromo's A.I. known as "Mother" in the tense third act, the movie doesn't waste a minute of its relatively compact (for Ridley Scott, anyway) 117-minute runtime. In 1979, two years after Star Wars, the sci-fi genre was only just being recognized as a legitimate money-making venture for large studios, and a "kickass" female heroine in these types of movies — at least one that wasn't sexualized on first contact — hadn't been fully realized. In the far reaches of the galaxy, Ripley forged her own path. Under Scott's direction, Alien is no action-adventure space opera. Instead, it's a workplace drama that transforms into a home-invasion thriller set on a tight-quartered spaceship where the unknown enemy lurking in the shadows parasitically hugs human faces and bursts anew out of the chest of its human host. (Alien's industrial darkness is both crucial to its mood and its outlook.) Introducing the world to the horrifying Xenomorphs, drawn up by Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, Weaver's now-iconic Ripley character, and her four-legged orange sidekick, Jones the cat, Scott established himself, in just his second film, as a visionary capable of telling big, stylish stories with surprising wit, stomach-churning suspense, and an endearing human touch. And like many genre-defining progenitors, it delivers one major lesson for subsequent movies to crib and go equally unheeded: Never follow the unidentified alien ping into the abandoned trenches of deep space. — Leanne Butkovic

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