There have been more sequels this decade than ever before in the history of Hollywood, and while sequels are usually associated with the cynicism of repeating past success, there’s also the off chance that returning to previously established material can develop it in new and exciting ways. For every cycle of generic, by the numbers cash grabs is a truly ambitious sequel in which a great filmmaker is given full reign to complete their vision.
Some of these great sequels have gone deeper into the original source material, questioned the supposed truths of their respective franchises, and delivered upon all the potential that was found in their original premise. It’s inspiring that so many great sequels have been released, and it gives hope to the idea that real filmmakers can provide challenging and provocative films for mainstream audiences. Here are the top ten best movie sequels of the decade.
10. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
The first John Wick film was a mini miracle, a small budget action thriller with hardly any marketing behind it that somehow became a phenomenon. Unlike most modern action films, John Wick was intensely choreographed and shot with almost entirely practical stunt work, and the mix of Eastern gun fu action, an idiosyncratic world of secret assassin societies, and a highly emotional and self-aware performance from Keanu Reeves made this a franchise able to continue growing with each installment. While 2017’s John Wick: Chapter 2 delivered some terrific set pieces, including an incredible chase in the Roman catacombs, the franchise really peaked this year with the release of John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum.
After violating the rules of the Continental, John Wick is on the run as assassins from all over the world seek to fulfill their contracts by killing him. The most relentless of the trilogy, Parabellum never gives Wick the chance to rest, and serves as a commentary on his legacy as Wick watches all his former allies have their lives uprooted as they come to his defense.
Combining motorcycle chases, intense hand to hand combat scenes, and killer dogs trained by Wick’s longtime friend Sofia (Halle Berry), Parabellum culminates in a brilliantly staged castle defense of the Continental with a brutal showdown between Wick and his arch nemesis Zero. The time and craft taken to pull off these scenes suggest that the Reeves and director Chad Stahelski will continue to outdo themselves, and with a fourth film planned for release in 2021 it’s exciting to see what they’ll do next.
9. 22 Jump Street
Most comedy sequels run into the issue of repetition, as comedies intended to be standalone often just repeat the same jokes and situations when they turn into franchises. 21 Jump Street was a curiosity in that the entire premise of the film was built around the fact that it was an unnecessary recreation of an old television show nobody wanted to see rebooted, and 22 Jump Street took this meta-commentary to a new level by being a sequel that satirized the very nature of sequels. The plot, jokes, and entire premise is nearly identical to that of the first film, but the attention to the details within the humor and the self-awareness of its own broken internal logic make 22 Jump Street the ultimate parody of lazy sequels.
What’s also fun about the film is that it switches up everything about the first film’s character arc. The first film mostly focused on Schmidt (Jonah Hill) becoming arrogant and dismissive of his partner Jenko (Channing Tatum), but in the sequel the roles are reversed and the two actors get to play outside of their comfort zones. In fact, the very idea that these two characters, who formed a genuine bond in the first film, would revert to another petty rivalry is yet another comedic masterstroke that parodies the lack of emotional consistency within franchise films. With each film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller took what seemed to be the worst idea ever and turned it into a rewarding, slyly subversive romp.
8. Toy Story 3
The first two films in the Toy Story franchise teased the question as to what toys do when their child grows up, but the long anticipated Toy Story 3 finally confronted the issue head on by showing the impossible lengths that Woody, Buzz, and the gang would do to get back to Andy. In each Toy Story film Woody learns an important lesson about moving on as he watches Andy grow up, and this chapter takes a look at the emotional process of letting go of childhood and letting some memories fade away. The final moments of Toy Story 3 are among the most emotional Pixar has ever produced; Woody and Andy make peace with their separation in their own ways, each embarking on a new and exciting chapter in their lives.
On top of the rich subtext, Toy Story 3 is a surprisingly great prison break movie, as the toys are forced to work together to break out of Sunnyside Daycare, a seemingly loving environment that’s under the regime of the cruel Lotso (Ned Beatty). One of Pixar’s best villains, Lotso poses an insurmountable threat to Woody and Buzz, but is also sympathetic due to his tragic backstory that relates to the themes of neglect and abandonment that have been instrumental throughout the series. While this year’s Toy Story 4 was a nice conclusion to the franchise and was certainly less emotionally traumatic, Toy Story 3 stands as one of the most mature and contemplative films Pixar has ever made.
7. War for the Planet of the Apes
The new series of Planet of the Apes films proved to be the rare prequel saga that actually enriched and enhanced the original text; showing the downfall of humanity from the perspective of the intelligent Apes, these films explore how the denial of mercy and cruelty towards the Apes sparks their revolution and created a messiah like figure in Caesar (Andy Serkis). By the time of War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is fully accepted as the true heir to the Ape rulership, and must rescue his people from The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a sadistic military leader whose obsession with committing genocide forces Caesar to return to the warlike nature that he first held.
At this point, the CGI and motion capture technology is so advanced that the believability of the situation is never questioned, and the devastating enslavement and torture of the Apes is incredibly brutal to watch. The titular “war” isn’t as much a huge battle as it is a consideration of what it’s like to be a survivor, as Caesar and a group of his trusted allies embark on an Exodus journey to free their people. Harrelson is also excellent, and while The Colonel’s cruelty is often shocking, it doesn’t feel like a caricature and his actions feel justified by his worldview. It’s incredible that a trilogy this dark and with such pessimism about human nature was conceived of on this scale, and the series comes to a satisfying conclusion with this gripping final chapter.
6. Paddington 2
There’s not been a lot of great live-action family films in the past decade, and 2014’s Paddington proved to be the rare exception that nixed cliched elements and delivered a genuinely heartfelt, compassionate adventure with a realistic depiction of a modern family whose lives were turned upside down by the appearance of a talking bear from the jungle. Paddington 2 somehow managed to improve even further upon that concept, as Paddington continued to bring his kind-hearted worldview and find the goodness in all those around him. Even when he’s framed for a crime and separated from his family, Paddington’s warm spirit grants him new friends, and his absence begins to throw off the perfect synchronization of his community.
Hugh Grant is excellent as Phoenix Buchanan, an actor turned thief who is the polar opposite of Paddington; he’s egocentric, deceitful, and only uses his interactions with others to further his own self-interests. As Buchanan uses Paddington as a scapegoat in the theft of a rare book, the film puts the Brown family on a race against time to clear their friend’s name and catch the dastardly culprit.
There’s enough compassionate humor in the early scenes between Paddington and the Browns that their separation is all the more crushing, making their reunion even more rewarding. It’s rare to see a children’s film that’s so well directed; Paul King crafts surprisingly exciting action sequences and has a stunning attention to detail with his set designs. Paddington 2 certainly shows that there’s no shame in being optimistic and that the best family films don’t talk down to kids.