Before "The Force Awakens" upends the franchise forever, I figured it was time to get my rankings in order for the existing six films. No, I'm not counting the "Clone Wars" animated movie or the Ewoks movies. The rest are ranked below from best to worst. Sorry prequel fans, but I never much liked Episodes I-III. They do have their good points, though, which I'll expand on below. Spoilers below.
"The Empire Strikes Back" - I originally watched "Empire" and "Jedi" via edited television broadcasts in 1992, and I don't think I knew about the famous reveal beforehand. I remember that the ending definitely made a strong impression, that suddenly this dazzling space adventure story I'd been enjoying had deeper, darker, more personal stakes than I'd anticipated. After more viewings, I'd come to appreciate all the scenes with Yoda, the Hoth battle, and the increasingly dicey situation with Lando Calrissian on Cloud City. What I think really makes this film for me, however, is Darth Vader, who becomes more and more powerful and threatening with each appearance. After years of jokes and parodies, people forget how effective he was as a villain - and it still irks me that he was so badly undercut in the prequels.
"The Return of the Jedi" - This is the "Star Wars" movie I watched the most often as a kid, to the point where I had good chunks of the dialogue memorized. I never really minded the Ewoks, and "Jedi" had the Jabba the Hutt sequence and the confrontations with Darth Vader and the Emperor, which are some of my favorite parts of the whole series. I've heard some criticism over the years that there was too much reliance on action sequences, and that the series essentially backslid to being a kids' movie after "Empire" struck out in more adult directions. I always thought of "Star Wars" as being a kid-friendly franchise first and foremost, though. I especially appreciate the effects work in this installment, which significantly improved on similar scenes from the earlier movies. When I think of the attack on the Death Star, it's usually this one.
"Star Wars" - I actually saw "Star Wars" after the first two movies, so all the innovation and the originality of its concepts were completely lost on me. I was initially a little disappointed, even, because the characters were fairly flat, and some of the effects didn't hold up so well (until the 1997 Special Edition anyway). However, I thought it was still a great time, especially the middle section on the Death Star where the humor comes out, and there's that great scene with the trash compacter. The Death Star getting blown up is always fun too. The older I get, the more I appreciate Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness's performances, which help to ground the space fantasy elements considerably. And then there's John Williams' score, which is as vital to these movies as the special effects.
"The Phantom Menace" - It could be the nostalgia talking, but I really do think that "Phantom Menace" was the best of the prequels. It had Liam Neeson, Darth Maul, the best score, and some absolutely stunning art direction. Yes, it also had Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd, but if I keep in mind that I'm watching a kid's film, I don't find them intolerable. The tin ear dialogue is pretty bad, but I like several of the fight sequences, particularly the final two-on-one lightsaber duel. After fifteen years, it's become obvious that the heavy reliance on green screen effects really hurt the film, but some of those effects still look pretty impressive. Most of all, I think that the way it's structured as a prelude to a bigger story helps to cover a lot of the flaws, which is why I was able to enjoy what I could.
"The Revenge of the Sith" - I really, really loathe Hayden Christensen's performance as Anakin Skywalker. While I admit I enjoyed watching a good deal of his downfall, that awful final transformation scene just killed it for me. And I still can't believe that Darth Vader's tragic backstory amounted to some dumb, reckless kid trusting the wrong people and jumping to idiotic conclusions about his closest friends. "Revenge of the Sith" may have tackled more adult subject matter than the other two prequel films, but it's executed so ham-handedly, it never feels like Lucas is really taking his characters seriously. The only thing keeping this one from the bottom of the list is that I do get the sense that the filmmakers were trying. Sadly, it wasn't enough.
"Attack of the Clones" - Good grief, where do I start? The leaden romance between Anakin and Padme? The arena fight where all the lightsabers look like glowsticks? The ridiculous Yoda and Dooku duel? This was the film where it finally sunk in that the franchise had seriously gone off the rails. I've only watched "Attack of the Clones" once, but I'm going with my gut on this one. I walked out of the theater hating this movie, and it's been my worst experience with "Star Wars" to date. So as far as I'm concerned, it's definitely earned last place.