Ranking Steve McQueen films is a bit like ranking the Seven Wonders of the World: For all that the pyramids of Giza might be more impressive than Machu Picchu, that’s not to say that you are wasting your time hiking the Inca Trail.
McQueen grew up in West London and became an acclaimed artist in the UK before going on to become an internationally renowned director. In 1999 he won the Turner prize, the UK’s biggest art award, and to this day creates celebrated artwork and installations between feature films. He is the first Black filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and was knighted for his services to art and film in 2020. Not a man to rest on his laurels, his output is not only exemplary and varied, but produced at an impressive pace, with nine films in the past 12 years—including five as an Amazon Prime anthology collection Small Axe, released all in 2020. His work has been so exceptional that even his worst movies are still, in part, fascinating and hypnotically beautiful.
That being said, after many hours of joyful rewatching and agonizing deliberation, here they are ranked worst to best:
McQueen’s second feature and second collaboration with Michael Fassbender is an elegant and raw look at sex addiction that shows off all of McQueen’s style but none of his substance. Fassbender plays a high-functioning sex addict whose life and appearance have a Patrick Bateman-esque sheen of perfection. His sister (a miscast Carey Mulligan) is a melancholy hot mess, dealing with their oft-alluded troubled childhood in a different but equally destructive fashion. For all the moody visuals and dispassionate but stylish nudity, Shame seems disengaged from its subject matter—and aside from an admiration of Fassbender’s, ahem, talents, it’s unclear what any of it is trying to say.
Alex Wheatle is a coming of age story based on the early life of the eponymous award-winning YA author and is the penultimate film of McQueen’s Small Axe collection. Set in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, we follow Alex from his childhood in an orphanage of Dickensian cruelty to his Brixton youth, where he connects with his Blackness, to his being nurtured by a paternalistic Rastafarian cellmate in prison. Alex Wheatle is accomplished and devastating, with dynamic cinematography, a phenomenal soundtrack and a heartbreaking central debut performance from Sheyi Cole. In many ways, it feels like a melding of the other four Small Axe films: The systemic racism of Mangrove, the musical escapism of Lover’s Rock, the daddy issues of Red, White & Blue and the childhood cruelty of Education. But in its thematic overlapping, Alex Wheatle undermines its own significance. It doesn’t have the distinct identity of the other films and, while it’s always a pleasure to watch filmmaking at McQueen’s level, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression.
This may be a controversially low ranking, as 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s best-known film, received virtually every accolade it qualified for (including the Academy Award for Best Picture) and set records by appearing on 100 critics’ end of year top-ten lists—taking the top spot in 25 of them. A film of historical significance, 12 Years a Slave is centered around a phenomenal performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. His tears gently patting down on his daughter’s shoulder belie McQueen’s peerless ability to find rapturous power in moments of silence. But though 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s most celebrated work, it is also his most conventional. Even the most ardent McQueen fan would fail to spot much of the director’s distinct creative perspective. With the hindsight of his future work, 12 Years feels a little brazen, ticking many of the boxes ascribed to “Oscar Bait.” Most uncomfortable are the accolades that Lupita Nyong’o received for this work; for all the pathos she brings to her feature film debut, it speaks volumes to Hollywood’s love of Black pain that this performance of relentless anguish, brutalization and rape is her best rewarded.
What Red, White & Blue has going for it are two extraordinary performances from John Boyega and Steve Toussaint. Boyega is charming as the fiery and conflicted Leroy Logan, a Black scientist who—following on a racist police attack on his father—decides to join the force to reform it from the inside. His father is played with equally compelling ferocity and dignity by Toussaint. There is so much to love in this film, as McQueen leans into his skill at suspense—ratcheting up the tension with incomparable style—and brings out performances that are able to convey so much without saying a word. However, the script doesn’t match the rest of the film, with clunky exposition and uncharacteristic sentimentality weighing down the actors. At its core, Red, White & Blue is not about police reform. In fact almost all of Logan’s fascinating career accomplishments take place long after the film’s credits roll. Rather, Red, White & Blue is focused on a complicated father/son relationship. Viewed through that lens (and likely through the lens of your own specific paternal hang ups) it soars.
Widows has all the mechanics of a basic heist thriller, but in the hands of McQueen it is elevated to so much more. Adapted from an ‘80s ITV drama, McQueen’s film is at times devastating, sexy, thoughtful and enormous fun. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry all leap off the screen in performances that suggest the actors are having the time of their lives (this also applies to Olivia, the West Highland Terrier who outshines Michelle Rodriguez). McQueen manages to somehow layer Widows with nuance about power, femininity, race, politics and gentrification without ever slowing down the pace. There is an abundance of McQueen’s signature flares throughout, with mirror shots, a conversation in a car and the heist itself being electrifying examples of what he is capable of.
Education is McQueen’s most personal and tender work, focused on the education of Black children in the 1970s. McQueen, now broadly recognized as a creative genius, was repeatedly told as a child by his teachers that he would never be capable of doing more than basic manual labor. In Education, he reopens those old wounds through Kingsley, a bright young boy who dreams of being an astronaut. Thanks to institutional racism and undiagnosed dyslexia, Kingsley is sent to a “special school” where he is placed alongside white children with intense and apparent learning disorders and other Black children who have no discernible reason for being there. Of all the films he has made, this one is scrubbed clean of most of McQueen’s stylistic signatures: The whole thing resembles a film actually made in the 1970s rather than a modern film in a ‘70s setting. By making a film rooted in his own memories, McQueen entirely transports us there. The film’s heroines are based on the real-life Black activists who fought for West Indian children’s futures and created the Saturday schools that nurtured McQueen. Education serves both as a beautiful tribute to their achievements across the community and in recognizing the talents of one of Britain’s most gifted artistic visionaries.
To call Hunger McQueen’s debut is not entirely accurate, as he had been making acclaimed films as a visual artist since 1993. However, his first feature film launched at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, telling the story Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Hunger is a masterful and harrowing film filled with images of raw and exquisite beauty. A never-better Michael Fassbender centers this story and entirely disappears into his portrayal of Sands, being at once haunted and dynamic with an almost violently intense physicality. The images of starvation and martyrdom in Hunger are among some of McQueen’s most memorable. McQueen, in his precision and restraint, imbues the visuals with profound brutality and strikes the perfect balance between artistic flourishes and the grim reality of Ireland’s brutal recent history.
In Lovers Rock, McQueen untethers himself from a conventional narrative and leans into style, movement and feeling set over the course of a single house party in Notting Hill—an area of London that (in 1980) was largely populated by the West Indian community, but has since become one of the most expensive neighborhoods on the planet. This film is based generally on the parties the Black community held for themselves, as they were not welcome in London’s bars and nightclubs at the time. At the center of this film are Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a middle-class British Christian with Jamaican roots and the dreamy code-switching mechanic Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Released in a time of quarantines and social distances, the film had a rapturous reception, bringing a warmth into our homes and a longing to return to an evening of such possibilities. A single scene where the dance floor sings along to “Silly Games” by Janet Kay is McQueen at his greatest and most joyful, transporting the audience into a giddy hypnotic ecstasy. In many ways Lovers Rock is McQueen’s smallest film, but may end up being his most beloved.
Mangrove is McQueen’s greatest film not only because it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, but because it shows off virtually every one of McQueen’s strengths. The first half looks at the state-sponsored terrorizing of the Mangrove restaurant, a Notting Hill restaurant opened by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in 1968 that became a hub for the West Indian community and British Black Panthers. After a demonstration protesting the Mangrove’s treatment is swarmed by the racist police force, nine of the participants (including Crichlow himself) are framed for inciting a riot. The second half of the film follows their trial and the toll it takes on them. From start to finish, McQueen fires on all cylinders, shining a light on a largely forgotten piece of history and drawing exceptional performances out of the entire cast (but in particular Parkes and Malachi Kirby). Many of Mangrove’s most beautiful moments, including its climax, hold tight on Parkes’ face and let us experience intense pain, rage, fear, joy and relief through the bottomless wells of his soulful brown eyes. And it is thrilling: The earlier scenes of police, skulking down streets like apex predators, both disturb and terrify. But McQueen is able to accomplish seamless tonal shifts, with those same police officers’ interrogation in a later courtroom scene proving absurd and hilarious. Particular praise must also be given to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. The use of camera in this film is as unpredictable as it is beautiful, making every moment visceral and riveting. McQueen picks out unusual shots and angles to give every scene the thoughtful composition of a Vermeer. There is a pure poetry to Mangrove, and an implicit footnote: The bravery of these activists will eventually be captured by a Black filmmaker and turned not only into his greatest work (so far), but perhaps the best British film of the decade.
Leila Latif is an Anglo-Sudanese journalist & film critic based in London. She specializes in reviewing films, restaurants and television and still cannot believe this is an actual job. She is hilarious on Twitter @Leila_Latif but her Instagram is a total snooze and TikTok seems like a lot of work.