Ever since the slacker heroes of Shaun of the Dead first introduced audiences to the satirical genius and hyperkinetic editing style of director Edgar Wright in 2004, the English artist has maintained a spot in the pantheon of beloved film geek auteurs. Wright’s signature visual flair imbues his films with a verve and constant sense of restless motion that is easy to admire, if not perfectly quantify for the average viewer—an audience member looks at a Wright film and can appreciate its fast-paced, slam-bang action even if they don’t fully understand the editing bay wizardry that makes his films unique. Suffice it to say, no one has ever shot scenes of paperwork processing and turned them into frenetic montages, set to punk rock, quite like Edgar Wright.
This week sees the release of Wright’s latest feature, the Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie-starring Last Night in Soho, which looks to be a substantial diversion from the director’s tried-and-true formula—significantly less comedic and action-oriented, with more of a psychological horror focus as it tells the story of a young woman propelled back into 1960s London, where she interacts with a doomed starlet and sees the edges of her reality begin to blur. Although it will no doubt contain some of Wright’s signature visual stylings, Last Night in Soho looks like a conscious diversion into new thematic ground, a film that makes an earnest attempt at modernizing classic genres such as Italian giallo rather than satirizing those genres.
We saw Last Night in Soho for ourselves and looked into how it measures up to the rest of Wright’s filmography, which means that this is the perfect time to assess the director’s back catalog. Which is Wright’s strongest film to date? Which “Cornetto” film is the most deserving of reassessment? Read on, and find out.
Here is every Edgar Wright feature, ranked from “worst” to best, although every film he’s ever directed has more than its fair share of merits.
Produced immediately following his college graduation, A Fistful of Fingers was Wright’s first low budget, feature-length film, an embryonic Western spoof that shows flashes of the style that would eventually become associated with the director, but absolutely feels like a student effort all the same. Clearly filmed in whatever quarries, wooded areas and gravel pits the crew had free access to at the time, it contains all the loosely structured running around in vacant fields you would no doubt expect, but is salvaged by the simple pleasures of its broad and sophomoric sense of humor. With an outlook that feels heavily inspired by the slapstick and absurdist comedies of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, A Fistful of Fingers isn’t particularly easy to track down in 2021, but it’s genuinely worth a watch for film geeks who are curious about Wright’s earliest inspirations.
In terms of structure, A Fistful of Fingers primarily borrows the aesthetic of the Italian-style spaghetti western, with a gruff “no name” hero seeking a dangerous bounty across the “West” of the rural U.K. Wright demonstrates a clear understanding of film editing and professional cinematography, but despite some competent work and a few creative angles, the film’s visuals unsurprisingly lack the more dynamic style he would develop by the time of Shaun of the Dead, although there is some intriguing animation sprinkled throughout.
What does often work is the absurdist humor of the film, whether it’s the comic ultraviolence and use of bloody squibs during the shootouts, or the silly musical number about how the protagonist loved his dead horse, or the sequence in which the hero and the villain get into a heated argument about the meaning of the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The tone is zany and upbeat, and the film’s seeming immunity to embarrassment at its own cheapness ultimately helps to carry the day and make it watchable, despite the non-professional performances. All in all, one may be surprised to find how funny A Fistful of Fingers actually is, especially given the obvious lack of resources at its disposal.
Baby Driver was heavily marketed on the strength of its soundtrack and its promise to integrate that soundtrack into the film’s visuals and action in a way that would go beyond the standard for modern action cinema. This it does admirably well, synchronizing so many of its engine revs, footfalls and gunshots to a groovy R&B and soul-driven soundtrack that at times the film feels more like a music video than a narrative feature. This is ultimately both the strength and weakness of Baby Driver—it illustrates Wright’s interest in fusing film and music nicely, but at the cost of character and emotional nuance in its narrative.
Granted, the chase sequences of Baby Driver are pretty much all you could hope for, whether they’re occurring behind the wheel or on foot. In these frenetic, pulse-pounding moments, everything on screen gels into a smooth, seamless flow in a way that Wright excels at capturing, with expert editing techniques that clearly communicate what is happening to the audience. This is one thing that Wright can pretty much always be relied upon to deliver, rather than the choppy, shaky cam action that has unfortunately become the norm in Hollywood blockbusters in the entire era since The Bourne Identity. Few directors present the visual geography of an action scene so cleanly, which makes for satisfying and fluid motion.
On the other hand, though, Baby Driver arguably contains Wright’s least compelling protagonists, as Debora (Lily James) lacks much characterization of her own, and Baby himself (Ansel Elgort) is something of a cipher as well, like a human conduit for the film’s soundtrack and action. Elgort in particular doesn’t feel quite up to the task of Wright’s more serious script, which lacks the humor of his other action films such as Hot Fuzz, leading to an increasingly dire tone in the third act in which the audience hasn’t invested quite as much in Baby’s story as we’re likely meant to. It’s ultimately these human elements that hold Baby Driver back from a higher placement in the ranking.
The Sparks Brothers is a thorough and charming assessment and appreciation of an idiosyncratic band, and the highest praise you could give it is that it shares a sensibility with its inimitable musicians.
Not an easy task when it comes to Ron and Russell Mael. The Californian brothers have been running Sparks since the late ‘60s (yeah, the ‘60s), blistering through genres as quickly as their lyrics make and discard jokes. Glam rock, disco, electronic pioneering—and even when they dip into the most experimental and orchestral corners of their musical interests, they maintain a steady power-pop genius bolstered by Russell’s fluty pipes and Ron’s catchy keys. It’s here, in Sparks’ incredible range yet solidified personality, that you quickly start to understand that The Sparks Brothers is the marriage of two perfect subjects that share a mission. Experts in one art form that are interested in each others’, Ron and Russell bond with Wright over a wry desire to have their fun-poking and make it art too. One made a trilogy of parodies that stands atop its individual genres (zombie, cop, sci-fi movies). The others made subversive songs like “Music That You Can Dance To” that manage to match (and often overtake) the very bops they razz.
Their powers combined, The Sparks Brothers becomes a music doc that’s self-aware and deeply earnest. Slapstick, with a wide range of old film clips delivering the punches and pratfalls, and visual gags take the piss out of its impressive talking heads whenever they drop a groaner music doc cliché. “Pushing the envelope?” Expect to see a postal tug-of-war between the Maels. This sense of humor, appreciating the dumbest low-hanging fruit and the highest brow reference, comes from the brothers’ admiration of seriously unserious French filmmakers like Jacques Tati (with whom Sparks almost made a film; remember, they love movies) and of a particularly formative affinity for British music. It’s no wonder that Sparks found greater success during their stays and tours abroad because, as Lance Robertson notes, “Sparks are a lot of things that Americans don’t seem to care for.” —Jacob Oller
Ever since his career took off two decades ago, Edgar Wright has remained one of the only directors to completely master the art of making movies fun. Indeed, each of his feature films deliver pure, uproarious enjoyment. And in his newest film, Last Night in Soho, he leans into the magnetic quality that reminds us that this is an Edgar Wright film. From the laugh-out-loud zombie hijinks in Shaun of the Dead that makes it impossible to look away, to the flashy videogame effects that make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a stimulating, immersive experience, Last Night in Soho combines all the components that make his previous films click to create a uniquely engrossing viewing experience. Last Night in Soho follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who moves to 2010s London from the English countryside to study fashion. While there, she begins having vivid nighttime visions that transport her back to her neighborhood in the 1960s. Eloise appears in her visions as Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a glamorous aspiring singer who lived in the same apartment as Eloise in the ‘60s. But what starts as a flashy ode to the dazzling nightlife of old Soho quickly spirals into a riveting, pulse-raising murder-mystery. While all of his films have a distinct visual style—rapid editing, whip-pans, and dolly zooms—Last Night in Soho does something a little different, and pulls from the Italian giallo horror subgenre’s extreme, bright colors and theatrical sets, which gives the films a dreamlike quality. Wright pays homage to the king of giallo himself, Dario Argento, borrowing bold visual elements from his films like Deep Red and Suspiria (the use of knives as mirrors, a fixation on the color red). But he isn’t interested in only riffing on one genre: He also pays tribute to noirs, notably Roman Polanski’s psycho-thriller Repulsion, which also follows a woman who experiences frightening hallucinations rooted in a fear of men. Given the connection Wright makes both with older films and with his audience, when things get scary for Eloise and her dreams start to turn into blood-soaked nightmares, the moments of horror are that much more effective. Wright makes sure that even when we’re watching people get hacked to death, or faceless men chase our protagonist, we’re having fun while doing it. One notable sequence, for example, sees Eloise racing through the streets of London trying to dodge the zombies chasing her—with ‘60s pop music blaring in the background, because why not? Last Night in Soho culminates as a chic and dynamic expression of Edgar Wright at the height of his powers. Even in the moments of the film that don’t quite work, it’s impossible to forget who the filmmaker is, through his signature humor, seductive framing and camerawork, and agile editing. That singularity makes for an experience I don’t think anyone is immune to.—Aurora Amidon
Even among the three films in the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz is especially beloved by many of Wright’s biggest fans, so its placement in anything but the top tier of this ranking is likely to cause some consternation among them. Make no mistake, the action of Hot Fuzz is absolutely spectacular, and its performances from frequent Wright collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are as good as ever. The only thing holding back Hot Fuzz from a higher placement is the specificity and ultimate shallowness of the parody it’s providing—this is a film that is nailing its intention, albeit without the ambition to get at many deeper themes.
This “shallowness,” as I put it, likely sounds like a detraction, but it’s just a statement of fact—the characters being played by Pegg and Frost in this installment are simply less complicated and intriguingly human than the ones they inhabit in either Shaun of the Dead or The World’s End, and this is entirely intentional. Hot Fuzz takes aim at Michael Bay-style buddy action films with mismatched leading men, as it informs the audience many times, and characters like Pegg’s Nicholas Angel fit that kind of mold in their simplicity and archetypal presentation. Angel’s humorless and robotic nature is a source of plentiful comedy, but he doesn’t really read as a nuanced human being, nor does he possess many character traits beyond an obsessive dedication to his job. Pegg’s portrayal of the character is frequently hilarious, but that character’s journey is limited in its scope, to the point that you can simplify it easily enough as “he loosens up and learns to enjoy life.”
Hot Fuzz remains deliriously entertaining, though, on the strength of its supporting performances (Timothy Dalton chews some excellent scenery) and its eventual transition into the all-out action bonanza the audience is so desperately craving. None of Wright’s other extended action scenes can quite match up with the sheer gusto of Pegg and Frost reducing this English hamlet to rubble, making the last 20 minutes or so of Hot Fuzz into an extremely satisfying eruption of cinematic endorphins. In this way, Hot Fuzz both parodies popcorn entertainment and masterfully delivers it.
The World’s End is Edgar Wright’s most underrated feature film, and it’s the hill I’m going to die on for this particular ranking—if I can convince you of one thing in reading this, let it be to watch The World’s End again with a greater appreciation for the characterization brought to the table by Wright, Frost and especially Simon Pegg, who is as good here as he’s ever been in anything. This film brings action to the table that is close to on par with what we see in Hot Fuzz, but that action is bolstered immensely by the far more nuanced characters, who are skillfully inserted into a story that eventually takes a hilariously bombastic sci-fi turn.
In its first half, though, the most remarkable thing about The World’s End is how grounded and subtle it is in its setup. Each member of Gary King’s (Pegg) high school posse feels like a real person, with a warm camaraderie for each other but a buried resentment for their collective lost era of youthful rebellion and exuberance—an era before they knew the heartache and loss that pervades adult life. Where this wistfulness is a minor note among the members of his crew, however, it’s the defining note for poor Gary, a man hopelessly mired in his determination to hold onto his “glory days” like grim death. Pegg does some truly remarkable work here, in turns making Gary King a figure of loathing, comedy, pity and defiance, forcing you to root for him almost against your own will as he clings to the faded, pointless dream of completing a pub crawl he began as a teenager. Gary King as a character rings true to everyone who has ever reconnected with an old high school friend who has held onto those memories a bit too fondly, polishing them into an idyllic time they never truly were. The depths of duplicity, meanwhile, that Gary is willing to resort to in order to get his old friends back together make you question his mental state, even as the narrative is switching into overdrive as it launches into the story of an alien infiltration of the boys’ childhood town.
That’s the beautiful trick that The World’s End ultimately accomplishes—it brings you fully on board with the more mundane dramedy of Gary King’s existence before it then pulls the rug out from under the audience in its alien plot, culminating in a bathroom battle royale that delivers an intentional tonal swing so violent that it’s meant to shock the audience into consternated laughter. You can’t help but guffaw at the sheer audacity of how wildly The World’s End changes tones, but Gary remains the audience’s lifeline throughout as he ultimately discovers a streak of self respect and personal accountability he’s been missing for more than two decades. It’s the most profound evolution of a single character within an Edgar Wright movie, and it’s truly the heart of The World’s End, a film that deserves reevaluation by many of the director’s fans.
Edgar Wright is a director associated with visual iconoclasm, although these aspects of his personal style often manifest in aforementioned sequences such as Hot Fuzz’s exaggerated paperwork processing, which may not necessarily be noted by the rank and file cinemagoer. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, on the other hand, is dripping with the sort of effortlessly unique visual styling that is impossible for anyone to miss, ultimately making it the most visually dynamic movie in Wright’s entire filmography, which is saying something. Incredibly self-assured and consistent in its adaptation of the graphic novel series of the same name, this film immediately establishes a videogame-inspired aesthetic that numerous other films have since tried to evoke without even an ounce of the same charm or humor. Wright’s film simply makes the creation of this visual lexicon look easy.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World likewise benefits from its extremely strong casting, which is now a buffet of “before they were big” stars like Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans and Kieran Culkin, joined by hilarious turns from the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong and even Bill Hader—yes, Hader!—as the film’s narrator. It’s an all-time comedy ensemble cast, forming the perfect backdrop for the story of one 22-year-old slacker’s journey toward kinda-sorta maturity. Every character manages to be engaging in their own way with whatever screen time they have—even Michael Cera’s petulant Scott, who many viewers still don’t seem to realize is not meant to be a likable (or dateable) personality even now, more than a decade later. Scott is the worst, but his quest to become a little bit less awful (emphasis on “a little bit”) is a joyous, endlessly quotable romp.
In terms of pure satisfaction, it’s Wright’s stand-out film, and it’s also the one that most clearly illustrates what makes the director unique as a visual artist. But it’s not quite the seminal Edgar Wright movie.
It’s been 17 years since Wright burst onto the international scene with Shaun of the Dead, and that’s more than enough time to acknowledge that this remains the director’s most timeless and perfect film. It’s not as ambitious a project as the likes of Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End or Baby Driver, but it’s a perfectly crafted script, a biting satire and a tremendous star vehicle for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who were both properly introduced to American audiences via this film.
Like The World’s End, Shaun of the Dead stands out for the strength of characterization in its central duo, a pair of archetypal slackers coasting through life, living for nothing more than tonight’s ceremonial trip to the pub. These are hardly unique archetypes, and Shaun on his own isn’t as memorably strange or pathetic a man as say, Gary King, but Shaun is struck with a modern brand of malaise that will always be completely timeless to the viewer. There’s absolutely nothing in Shaun of the Dead that stands out as dated, in fact—it revolves around the same kind of immaturity that has always afflicted depressed men of a certain age, and always will. It’s a portrait of early middle-aged ennui, as we reach the point in our lives when it’s no longer charming to be a couch-surfing sponge on society.
So too is Shaun of the Dead an excellent zombie film on its own merit, one that manages to take its ghouls seriously while simultaneously making a sharp, satirical point on the drudgery of life without purpose. Wright has perhaps never directed a scene finer than Shaun’s opening moments that establish the zombified nature of life as so many of us already live it, which pays off beautifully when the zombies actually arrive and Shaun fails to even notice it’s happened. Few horror comedies have actually combined the elements of humor and serious horror the way this one does in certain scenes—just go back and watch the bit where David is dragged through the window of The Winchester by zombies and literally torn to pieces. It’s a film that works on so many levels, and manages to be uproariously funny while still being quite faithful to the fidelity of Romero-style zombies. Much in the same way as Zombieland (a definite spiritual successor), it shows that whether the zombies are “scary” is ultimately a matter of how everyone reacts to them. Shaun of the Dead was so momentous that it’s next to impossible to make a zombie comedy at this point without being accused of ripping it off—and when you’ve had that kind of influence on an entire genre, you know you’ve succeeded as a filmmaker.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.