So how did this happen? The Godfather is generally known and loved as one of the best movies ever made. Wanting to make a sequel, you take the leftovers you didn't film, some flashbacks, you create a new storyline on top of this, which is a VERY convoluted one and seemingly unrelated. And you assemble the same cast, well... except the most famous member of it, who refuses to return even for a cameo.
Doesn't really sound like a recipe for success, does it?
But The Godfather: Part 2 does the unthinkable and succeeds in every way possible. Knowledge of the first movie is an absolute necessity, you need to know, love, hate, dislike these characters before you start with part 2. But as the main storyline shows the moral downfall of Michael Corleone from bad to evil, the flashbacks show how the family got to be this way. The killer acting of everyone involved is a thing to behold. Add that brilliant ending, with its final shattering flashback, and this movie just delivers an emotional hit with the force of a jackhammer.
It even pulls off the remarkable feat of making the first film even better, by explaining things which didn't need to be explained but enrich it nevertheless. A stunning achievement.
In 1969 there was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It may now be considered to be a classic, and people keep heaping praise on it these days of course, but at the time it was just a low budget black and white little horror flick.
Romero's finest hour would come years later when he made the bigger-budgeted sequel Dawn of the Dead. Spending the money wisely, he created a sequel which needs to be seen to be believed. And in color, especially red!
Yes, this movie is gory. Notoriously so. But where it shines is in its concept and its satire. Humanity is portrayed as being too stupid and territorial to survive. The living are losing from the start on a worldwide basis, which makes for one of the bleakest universes ever shown in a horror movie. The very hopelessness nags at you from start to finish, and you cannot help but get angry as the few survivors waste resources on in-fighting. With all their brains, they fail to survive attacks from an enemy force which might be omnipresent, but is also very slow and very stupid. Romero never overplays his hand, and the moronic behavior of the main characters is uncomfortably believable.
Add some puns at the expense of rampant consumerism and a fantastic soundtrack (whichever version you have) and this is an apocalyptic classic which eclipses its original totally.
Did I just mention an apocalyptic classic? Well, here is another one.
Mad Max was a small-ish action movie which became a bit of a cult success out of its home country Australia. Some nice chase scenes, some remarkable sadism, but generally slow. Its sequel changed gears. A lot of them. In fact, the change in quality is so big, Mad Max 2 was marketed in several countries as a standalone, in no way a sequel.
Now a man-with-no-name story taking place in a post World War 3 outback, director George Miller boldly describes his wasteland setting with a short voice-over and a nice car chase. Followed by a bigger car chase. Followed by an awesome car chase. Followed by some of the best action scenes ever. Need I say it culminates in the car chase to end all car chases? And it made Mel Gibson into an instant God.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is brilliant bloody fun from start to finish. The bus-gate rocks. The gyro rocks. Mohawk-ed maniac rocks. Every single home-made armored vehicle rocks. In fact, whoever did all the designs on this film rocks!
This movie started a genre in itself, which petered out fast with a string of cheap imitations, none of which became particularly well known. People see those and think back to the one that was actually GOOD. More of an original than its original, it would be a crime to keep Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior off of this list.
Next up is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Now some people will consider this cheating, as this film is the number two in a long series instead of a sequel. Well, in 1982 it wasn't yet!
When the first Trek film finally made it into cinemas in 1980, the butchered end result was disappointing. Occasionally beautiful but with a glacial pace, it got nicknamed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture. The whole franchise almost died as a result.
But the sequel turned out to be so good it revived mainstream interest in Star Trek completely, resulting in not just more movies, but also the most successful Trek series of all: The Next Generation.
I do not consider myself to be a Trekkie, in fact these people often scare me a bit. But StarTrek II: The Wrath of Khan conjures only happy memories in me. Still considered to be the best of the movies, it provided the franchise with many of its best moments. It has a great villain in Khan, brilliant fights between capital ships, and a big twist at the end with an emotional impact. Seeing it now and knowing who returns in part 3 spoils it somewhat, but at the time, that end was nothing short of stunning, even for part-time admirers of the original tv-series like me.
What also helped was that it looked gorgeous. Every series has nebulae in the background these days, but when this was used in Khan it was still novel and took my breath away...
Staying with big science-fiction franchises, the other one is... oh, do I even need to explain this one? Just look at this screenshot, it gives me chills to this day!
Truth be told, lots of people consider Star Wars to be superior to The Empire Strikes Back, but even more think otherwise. Star Wars ("A New Hope" for all you bloody revisionists) was pure fun and an awesome movie.
I mention awesome a lot in this article because I saw most of these films when I was twelve. And that's what happens when you're twelve years old: you get awed regularly. But I got awed to an amazing extent by Star Wars' evil brother The Empire Strikes Back. This movie changed the franchise from being just a story, to being a universe. It made sure you got the point that all this fighting between rebels and imperials was just one legend, out of an endless amount of tales happening in it. The unfinished end made our young little minds feverishly start making up the next movie, to the extent that it could never hope to live up to what we had created ourselves.
And it didn't. To this day, The Empire Strikes Back still is Star Wars' finest moment.
I have fond memories of Blade, of which I caught a midnight screening in a full house. One of Marvel's lesser-known heroes, Blade got himself a pretty good adaptation, the success of which opened the doors to more superhero films a bit wider.
In Blade II, director Guillermo Del Toro changed a few things, and while not everything worked, the end result was slick and oozed style. Clever casting, over-the-top action and some pretty hardcore gore made this sequel pretty memorable.
The one thing that made it surpass the first film though, was the monster design of the Reavers. These are super-vampires with extendable jaws, and the first time you see one feed in earnest, it is a jaw-dropping effect in more ways than one. Again I caught this film with a full crowd during a midnight screening, and the collective gasp during the first Reaver attack is my fondest memory of this franchise.
Christopher Nolan revived the Batman movie franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, no mean feat given the foul aftertaste many people had after Batman and Robin. It gave the troubled hero a somewhat more realistic, grittier universe to muck around in, and a great villain in Rha's Al Ghul.
With success comes a sequel, and this time, it gave the troubled hero... trouble. Lots of it. In fact, the Joker in The Dark Knight isn't just strong or evil, he's actually scary. And Heath Ledger's performance as the insane clown terrorist was amazing enough to shove Jack Nicholson's version off its pedestal.
It wasn't just a scary villain though which made The Dark Knight so good. It worked as a pretty decent action-thriller on its own, without a superhero angle. The reasons we root for Batman were questioned, and it made the point that if you want to really scare people, being a hero all the time may not be the ideal path.
Runner up (but not quite there...): Aliens.
When I started to jot down names of good sequels two of my favorite movies of all time popped up immediately, and both happen to be made by the same director. The only reason why they are left out of the final list is that I cannot look in the mirror and tell myself that the original was inferior, even though I'd love to do so.
Seeing Aliens in 1986 was like a baptism of fire for me. As a kid I was scared to death of horror movies. The very concept of these stories were enough to keep me awake at night, which was awkward because at the same time I was very interested in them. When Aliens arrived at our local cinema I had just turned 16, and my special effects addiction forced me to see it. I left the cinema two liters of sweat lighter, and nothing has quite done that to me since. All my fears had been burned out of me in a single afternoon. I haven't had this experience in a cinema ever again, and can only hope to relive it one day.
The critics panned it of course, as it was of two inferior genres at the same time and written/directed by one of the people who wrote the critically vilified Rambo: First Blood Part 2.
But time has been very kind to it. I have seen the very same critics turn round over the years and grudgingly call this a classic. Few movies have been as often imitated and copied as this one, not just in films but lots of video games as well. It almost set a template on how to make action horror movies (which is ironic as it copies lots of thing from other movies itself). For a while it seemed like every trailer used the Aliens soundtrack and editing.
And if Ridley Scott's original Alien would have been even a tiny bit less as good than it was, Aliens would have made my list.
Runner up (but not quite there...): Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Less soul-searching was needed to drop Terminator 2: Judgment Day out of my list. With the first Terminator, director James Cameron creates a very nifty story with a timeline set in stone. And the film features (amongst other things) perfect editing. I'm not kidding here: I must have seen this countless times on TV, and it doesn't matter where I drop in, I tend to watch it till the very end. This movie has an unbelievable flow to it, and I cannot think of another film which bests it in this regard.
Not that Terminator 2 is a slouch, exactly. It features more classic moments than most original movies, and where the first had some shaky (literally) special effects this one was loaded with total jawdroppers. Extrapolating the computer effects used in his The Abyss, any scene involving the morphing T-1000 was just awesome beyond belief.
And the battle-scenes in the prologue made repeat cinema viewings a necessity. But Terminator 2 misses the awesome flow of the original, and I do not like James Cameron's tampering with the timeline. Making it possible to actually change the past opens a can of worms which, in my opinion, unhinges the carefully laid out concept of both movies. Classic as it is, Terminator 2 will never surpass its little older brother as superior cinema.