Somehow the New Zealand director who began by making some of the most disgustingly entertaining horror-comedies ever conceived, became one of the world’s most successful filmmakers. Peter Jackson owes his international fame to the popularity of his masterfully realized film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. However, those films would never have garnered the critical and commercial attention they did without Jackson’s rich sense of style, most evident in his loopy cinematography, and devotion to state-of-the-art visual effects.
His obsession with new technologies has yielded more misses than hits in recent years, but that doesn’t mean Jackson’s talents should be discounted. With Jackson developing a new project (as writer and producer, not director) based on the book Mortal Engines, now seems like the perfect time to look back on his long directorial career and rank his films from worst to best.
13. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The final installment in Jackson’s misguided Hobbit trilogy has few redeeming qualities, save performances from likable leads, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen. Unfortunately, they’re lost in a movie that’s too busy cramming in ungrounded CG effects (a long way off from the hand-crafted pleasures of Dead Alive or even The Fellowship of the Ring) and trying to justify its own runtime with added conflicts to worry about things like character or a cohesive story.
12. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
And its predecessor wasn’t much better. By this point, Jackson’s favoring of digital over practical effects makes key scenes feel like video game levels. Still others come across as embarrassing fan service that only raise questions — why does Sauron appear in physical form here when he never did in Lord of the Rings? Why is Legolas here? It’s telling that the standout moments of the film are the most intimate, like Bilbo’s adversarial game with Gollum or the opening meeting between Gandalf and Thorin.
11. The Lovely Bones
After King Kong and Lord of the Rings, Jackson made a welcome return to smaller films with The Lovely Bones, but the film was far too mercurial to work as well as its source material. There are definite highlights to the story, which follows a deceased girl observing the aftermath of her own death from purgatory, but the treacly sentimentalism and bizarre shifts in tone keep it from competing with the director’s earlier works.
10. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Battle of the Five Armies is all sound and fury, while An Unexpected Journey is all quiet preparation, making it painfully obvious the film’s source material can hardly support three films. This is essentially a long prologue that isn’t particularly interesting, but is at least involving in its visuals and sense of atmosphere. Thanks to its small scope, it ranks as the best Hobbit film, which still isn’t saying much.
9. Bad Taste
Jackson’s feature debut confidently established the director’s early style, one characterized by a darker-than-dark sense of comedy and absurd amounts of handmade gore. Bad Taste is likely the weakest of his loony horror comedies, but the unending insanity of the plot and home movie-esque quality of the production makes the film a must-see for fans of creative independent horror.
8. King Kong
Jackson’s King Kong remake is a bloated film that works better in pieces than it does as a whole. It wastes a lot of time on scenes about giant bugs and cannibalistic island natives that matter little to the plot but make nonetheless thrilling scenes. The character work is often less compelling, particularly once Kong arrives and dominates the film’s second half. Despite the movie’s many flaws, the digital animation that brings the titular ape to life is convincing and evocative, creating a character more memorable than many of the flesh-and-blood actors with whom he shares the screen.
7. Meet the Feebles
For his second film, Jackson invented a funhouse-mirror version of The Muppets that appealed to his own blood-soaked sensibilities. The result is a film that most viewers will either despise or fall in love with, depending on how closely they align with Jackson’s twisted sense of bad taste. Those who get it will love the film for both its line-crossing visual jokes and vaudevillian showmanship.
6. The Frighteners
Like many of Jackson’s films, The Frighteners is wonderfully entertaining even when it’s not quite sure what kind of film it wants to be. His first foray into larger-budget American filmmaking tells the story of a widower who uses his ability to speak to the dead purely as a con before he’s forced to confront a demonic spirit. The tone is awkwardly split between goofiness and poignancy, though that doesn’t make the jokes and the lead performance from Michael J. Fox any less entertaining.
5. Dead Alive
With Dead Alive, Jackson perfected his early slapstick-horror style. This is a film with the disorienting visuals of a live-action cartoon and the fearless gore of a Sam Raimi horror flick. It manages to keep topping itself in terms of riotous gross-out set-pieces with every new scene. It’s a hallucinatory joy ride that, oddly enough, makes it clear why Jackson was poised to handle a property as ambitious as The Lord of the Rings.
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Every entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a master-class in epic filmmaking that uses rich visuals, expert fight choreography, and clearly-drawn characters and conflicts to make an unwieldy fantasy world that is accessible to viewers around the world. Despite an amazing climax at Helm’s Deep, The Two Towers ranks lowest of the trilogy because of its pacing problems, which become most clear during the draggy scenes of Merry and Pippin being carried by the comically slow Treebeard.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Return of the King is the thrilling conclusion to the trilogy, and it does everything it needs to do with panache. Unfortunately, it has about five too many endings and already sees Jackson relying too heavily on digital effects. Those are only small complaints, however, in a film defined by its enormous successes.
2. Heavenly Creatures
The most unexpected film in Jackson’s long career, Heavenly Creatures is a true-crime tale that could easily have become a bland procedural without Jackson as the director. He adds an extra layer of visual flair and dark humor to the story of two overly-imaginative teenagers who seek revenge on their parents for separating them. The stop-motion scenes strike the perfect balance of whimsy and darkness to make Heavenly Creatures something more, a psychological portrait as entertaining as it is chilling.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The first Lord of the Rings film established a flesh-and-blood version of Tolkien’s rich fantasy world and gave viewers ample reason to return for more. Even more than its followups, Fellowship of the Ring told a fully-realized story enriched by a fantastic score, perfect cast, and some of the most beautiful on-location cinematography ever. It’s a miracle a film so ambitious and well-realized could ever even get made.
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