Before you embark upon this latest Shortlist, I must answer to the fact that you won’t find The Godfather: Part II (1974) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980) anywhere. This is because, respectively, they improve only ever-so-slightly on a masterpiece, or very little on a film I don’t think holds up to its reputation. The eight films you’ll find on this list are sequels I think improve upon their predecessors in every single way, and therefore are more worthy. Oh, and they’re in no particular order.
Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) [Main Picture]
Raimi’s first entry into Spidey’s universe is great, but it has many flaws – most notably the tedious exposition and Goblin’s silly party costume (what were they thinking?), not to mention some now ropey CGI. Yet the stunning effects in Spider-Man 2 – including that thrilling train set-piece – haven’t aged a day, and the mix of practical effects is also really nice. The characters aren’t bogged down in explaining their origins so the relationships are also much more developed; they have higher stakes and dramatic complexity. There’s humour, romance and some thrilling action, not least Dr. Octopus’ (Alfred Molina) monstrous attack in the operating theatre, with the sound design and editing rhythm recalling The Evil Dead (1981). It improves upon the original in every single way, and remains perfect blockbuster entertainment.
Alien³ (David Fincher, 1992)
And where would Shortlist be without a controversy or two? I don’t like Alien (1979), a blue-collar exercise in undercooked tedium, nor do I like the crude, trigger happy Aliens (1986), which is the definition of style over substance. The relationships don’t engage me, I don’t find them tense, scary or exciting, and now I’ve pretty much rattled off everything people love about those films. But with *SPOILER ALERT* the death of Newt, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) gains genuine emotional baggage here, and the feminist subtext is taken to fascinating places with the introduction of an all-male, post-apocalyptic Christian sect. For the first half Ripley’s struggles take place under noir-like shadows, with Fincher taking time to build atmosphere and explore psychology. But when it explodes into action nothing is lost – Fincher’s eye for detail transposes perfectly to set-piece choreography.
Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
For me there’s no question about it: this is Tim Burton’s best film. The spindly, gothic and expressionist-inflected design of this comic book masterpiece is heightened further by some incredible performances, notably from Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin. It’s a much more confident film than Batman (1989) and one in which Burton lets his tendency for the extravagant play out in interesting ways; his later work is repetitive and self-important, but here he has flavours of kooky macabre and brooding camp (both oxymorons, I know, but it’s that type of flick) all bubbling in a visually stunning broth, replete with exciting set-pieces and a silver-haired Christopher Walken. Also, it has thematic substance and an underground penguin army. What more do you people want?
Police Story 2 (Jackie Chan, 1988)
Fast, furious and barrels full of fun, Police Story 2 has more action in its opening five minutes than all of its predecessor manages to pack into 100. Actually, that’s a lie. It has an equal amount, because the opening minutes of Police Story 2 are a frenzied and pulse-pounding recap of Chan’s 1985 original, condensing all of its major set-pieces into one head-spinning blur of ass-kicking and high-wire stunts. And then the film actually moves into its own gear, presenting all new (and vastly more impressive) action choreography, more character and funnier jokes. There’s zero chance of boredom as we flit from slapstick to set-piece second after second, with Chan at his physical peak performing daredevil stunts with nail-biting suspense. One of the best cop kung fu movies ever made – and there’s more than you’d think!
A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987)
The original is by no means a bad film – in fact, it’s quite brilliant. But Dream Warriors, set within a psychiatric hospital and starring Patricia Arquette in her screen debut, expands on the NOES mythology in fascinating ways, and has some of the most grotesque and entertaining deaths. Its idea of going within dreams predates Inception (2010) by 23 years, and it does so with genuine intelligence, exploring the nature of subconscious fear. It has some of the best set-pieces – a stop-motion Freddie, puppet-on-a-string flesh ripping and a nightmarish TV (“Welcome to Primetime, bitch!”). Series original Heather Langenkamp also returns as Nancy, now a staff member at the hospital, which gives the relationships greater depth. With some unforgettable imagery, this smart and exciting horror sequel can rank among the best horror films of the 80’s – and that’s a crowded arena!
Dawn Of The Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
And speaking of horror, who could deny the genius of George A. Romero’s flesh-ripping sequel, an ahead-of-its-time consumerist satire and one of the first mainstream horror films with an African American lead. The location of a shopping mall (which would go on to inspire the fantastic videogame series Dead Rising) is perfect for two reasons. 1) it allows for subtextual substance and some tongue-in-cheek humour, and 2) because it creates a claustrophobic air of unease, amped up by the groaning sounds of the rambling undead. Like its zombies, Dawn Of The Dead isn’t in a rush to get anywhere and the atmosphere is tangible. Bigger, smarter and gorier than the original, this horror classic is endlessly re-watchable; and given its constant updating and repackaging (the film is now on 3-Disc Blu-Ray) the consumerist message is perhaps more important than ever.
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi, 1987)
Okay, so we’re not moving too far away from the horror trend developing on this Shortlist, but Evil Dead II is an exceptional case. I could ramble on about its technical achievements – the dazzlingly inventive shot structure, the pitch-perfect sound design, terrifying score, grotesque makeup, awesome stop-motion effects and proficient editing – but at the end of the day analysing Raimi’s masterwork reaches a level of fun second to only one thing: just watching it. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable films ever made, balancing loopy mayhem with genuine blood-curdling scares, but never losing its sense of humour and managing to work in some genuinely hilarious dark gags. With a bigger budget and the freedom to let his imagination run wild Raimi created an instant and iconic classic. We need a Blu-Ray.
Back To The Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990)
I once had a Film Studies teacher who said “No ‘Back To The Future III’, no ‘Unforgiven'” and to an extent he’s right. Maybe he was joking, maybe he wasn’t, but either way this rollicking steampunk yarn has genuine reverence for the Old West, and made popular again a genre which was dying on its knees. Spirited and packed with in-jokes, Part III has all the smarts, humour and excitement of the first, the complexity (but not messiness) of the second, and ties up every possible plot strand in a satisfying way. Past and future iconography mix to stunning effect, and the film is actually due some serious analysis – but like Evil Dead II, it’s probably best watched with the surround sound up and the popcorn fresh from the microwave. Barrels of fun, this one revitalized the Western, and the final train set-piece is one of the finest action sequences the genre has ever seen