1. The Empire Strikes Back
Deciding between number one and number two is incredibly difficult. A friend in college used to always say that Star Wars (I will NOT refer to it as A New Hope) was the only one of the three films to be its own complete, self-contained story, and hence the best. There are a lot of reasons I am putting Empire first, however, but the biggest ones are totally subjective and personal. This was the first Star Wars film I saw, and one of the first films period that I saw in the theater. It completely blew me away like no other film has since. I spent the next three years of my life occupying its mental universe through toys and make-believe games with my friends, with coloring books and drawings. It I was three years older, I guess Star Wars might well be number one for me.
Besides my personal attachment, Empire has many uniquely great elements. The battle on Hoth with the AT-ATs is spectacular, Yoda is introduced, Luke and Vader's lightsaber duel is the best of them all, etc. Beyond the spectacle, there is a much greater emotional pull with this film than with the others. The romance between Han and Leia is affecting, Luke's struggles to learn the Force are fascinating, and Vader's revelation to him after cutting off his hand is probably the most visceral moment in any family-oriented blockbuster film ever made. A great deal of this is down to the fact that while Lucas produced the film, he let others do the things he was not good at. Irwin Kershner directed, and had a better talent for coaxing the actors than the infamously detached Lucas. The dialogue was handled by Lawrence Kasdan, who could take the romantic elements and make them work. (Contrast this with the dialogue in the prequels.) Even much of the production was handled by Gary Kurtz. Even though the film ends on a cliffhanger and isn't a full story, it's still my favorite.
2. Star Wars
Star Wars is a very, very close second place. For better or for worse, it will go down in history as one of the most influential films ever made. I've been watching a lot of the sci-fi movies of the 70s that preceded it, and so I can't imagine how audiences reacted when they saw the first shots of the giant Star Destroyer coming across the screen. Nothing like it had ever come before. When I watch it now, after years of immersing myself in cinema, I am amazed at its editing and pacing. It moves extremely quickly without feeling rushed in any way. The film is just over two hours long, but you barely notice it. As the Star Wars Minute hosts pointed out, the end attack on the Death Star is so suspenseful that even after having seen it innumerable times, I still wonder if Luke can pull it off. I watched the de-specialized version of the film awhile back, and was amazed at how rooted in the 1970s it looked. Something about it seems less timeless than Empire.
3. Return of the Jedi
For awhile I tried to tell myself that Revenge of the Sith was better, then I recently rewatched Jedi and realized I was being crazy. The Ewoks are actually in it a lot less than you would think, and three-sided ending (Endor battle, assault on Death Star, and Luke matching wits with the Emperor) is masterfully done. Essentially, the beginning with Jabba's palace is great, and the ending inspiring, but a lot of what is in-between doesn't work as well. It's telling that Gary Kurtz is not involved, since he had wanted to push this into the darker emotional territory of the preceding film. Instead of Luke walking into the sunset while Leia tries to sort out the political aftermath, we get singing Ewoks, smiling Force ghosts, and Lando clapping off-beat. Because of Lucas' spat with the Director's Guild, he was not able to hire Stephen Spielberg (holy shit that would have been amazing) but British TV director Richard Marquand instead. The director was evidently a bit of a yes man, meaning that unlike with Empire, no one was there to put Lucas in check. That said, the film is still a delight, and I still can't bear to watch when the Emperor is shooting force lightning at a pleading Luke, and I still get emotional when Vader takes his mask off.
4. Revenge of the Sith
This is by far the best of the prequels, which is like saying that Coors is the best of the big three domestic brewers. It's better than the competition, but it's still Coors. I still remember seeing this in the theater, and during the last third I felt a feeling I had not felt years, something I'll call that Old Star Wars Magic. I was briefly transported to being a child in the old downtown movie house seeing the originals for the first time. There is real, actual emotion in places, especially in the duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, and in Vader's grotesque fate. That said, other elements are just crap. Anakin's transformation into Vader seems too abrupt. Amidala's death by "broken heart" is silly. What could have been an amazing adventure by Obi-Wan and Bail Organa to protect the Skywalker children lasts about one minute. These were all moments I had been waiting to see on film since I was a child, and while they were done maladroitly, they were done well enough for me to get that special twinge again.
5. The Phantom Menace
Deciding the worst of the six films is just as hard as deciding the best. Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are both just bad movies, the only two in the bunch. Again, my own personal sentiments sway things. Seeing Menace in the theater in 1999 was a such a wonderfully collective experience, and even though the film wasn't that good, it felt great to see new Star Wars on the big screen again. The pod race scene and the duel with Darth Maul were also exciting and well-executed. Much of the rest is just crap, from the opaque plot to the clunky dialogue to riseable stuff like midochlorians and Jar Jar Binks. The movie ends with Anakin Skywalker still as a kid, and at the time I scratched my head about that. If this film did not exist it would not make a whit of difference in terms of establishing the story of Anakin or moving it forward.
6. Attack of the Clones
I was willing to forgive the first film being a light, clunky bit of empty entertainment, but I had high expectations for Attack of the Clones. Boy was I disappointed. The first time I saw it in the theater I went with my dad, and getting to do that was such a happy thing that I was less distressed by the film's low quality. The second time I went with a good friend and Star Wars head, and we were so let down by it that we spent hours afterward mocking it in Yoda reverse speak. ("Lucas a script writer he needs.") I had a lot more fun doing that than seeing the film. It is hopelessly jumbled, with laughably bad romance thrown in. Even the presence of the great Christopher Lee and a lightsaber-wielding Yoda can't save it. Whether it's the dialogue or acting, I came away from it just not giving a shit about Anakin's character, which is an absolute failure on the film's part.