Make The Case: Ranking the 10 Best Godzilla Movies of All Time

There's no place for Godzilla 1998 here, shockingly.

Shin Godzilla
Shin Godzilla

In 2021, God(zilla) willing, we’re going to get Legendary’s Godzilla vs. Kong in some form or fashion. I’m ready for it. I was ready for the movie to come out in 2020. That feeling has only been compounded as COVID-19 disrupted essentially everything.

Allegedly, Godzilla vs. Kong will finally be released to HBO Max and theaters on March 26th. Allegedly. Even as I’m watching the movie, if it does release that day, I still might not believe it.

Now, the film, which promises the definitive Kong vs Godzilla showdown (the second go-round for these kaiju icons) is probably going to appear in theaters and on HBO Max. We’ll see what Legendary works out with Warner Bros, as that situation has proven to be as contemptuous as every movie that was originally scheduled to be a big movie theater experience.

I personally do not care how I see the movie. Would I like to see it on the biggest, scariest IMAX monstrosity imaginable? Yeah. Will I be fairly content to watch it at home on a large TV with the wife, some sushi from our favorite place, and a few strong drinks? Absolutely.

Either of those possibilities are fine with me. Realistically, even if everything out in the world was fine, and Godzilla vs. Kong went exclusively to theaters, I’ve never been able to imagine it would make enough at the box office to justify a universe of future films. That would be awesome, but realistically, Godzilla and King Kong are only but so popular. That popularity doesn’t measure up to superhero epics. It just doesn’t.

It would be nice if everything, including blockbusters, didn’t have to adhere to the Disney structure of making sure all of their properties have a million different shows and spin-offs to keep you going until the end of time.

Godzilla vs Kong
Godzilla vs Kong

Forcing Godzilla, Kong, and the rest of these characters to succeed on terms in which your film is deemed a failure if it doesn’t make a billion dollars terms is unfair to the movies, the characters, and their value in pop culture.

No one seems to think like that. I guess it’s a conversation for another time.

But see, the thing is, I don’t care if these movies are as popular as The Avengers, or yet another trilogy of Star Wars movies. I’m happy another big-budget Godzilla movie is being made at all. Period. I’m not interested in thinking too far ahead.

At the end of the day, I’m just a fan of these movies. Even at 35, when the best Godzilla movies are firing on all cylinders, I essentially in my heart become the 8-year-old who received a boxset of Godzilla films that my uncle had rented and made copies of.

Wherever I am, and however I watch Godzilla vs Kong in 2021, that’s the person I’m going to be. I’ll watch it with the same critical eye I watch anything, but I ultimately just want to watch the big lizard kick the dumb gorilla’s ass.

It is this side of myself that I turned to for my personal list of the 10 best Godzilla films made to date. There are unquestionably some sentimental hits here. However, there are also films in the 60+ year history of this franchise that I believe are as good as anything in cinema itself.

They don’t always possess finesse, or even a worthy budget, but the top Godzilla films in at least my heart represent an essential, fascinating part of movie history.

To me, even the rubber suits are as relevant and captivating as ever, to say nothing of the genuinely impressive strides that have been made with kaiju special effects and storytelling over the years.

BEST GODZILLA MOVIES: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) | Return of Godzilla (1984) | Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) | Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) | Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) | Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) | Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) | Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) | Shin Godzilla (2016) | Godzilla (1954)

10. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

King of the Monsters Godzilla
King of the Monsters

Director: Michael Dougherty

Despite some lackluster storytelling on the human side of the story, Legendary’s 2019 sequel to the surprisingly successful, fairly likable Godzilla went big on ambition. After Kong vs. Godzilla, I strongly doubt we will ever see a Godzilla movie being made with budgets like these again.

For all its spectacle, director/co-writer Michael Dougherty impressively helmed something that captures the spirit of the original Toho classics with considerable skill and passion. For something that has an abundance of CGI, to make a movie that combines the humor, energy, and appeal of the best of this franchise, combined with the expectations for a blockbuster in the 21st century, is a remarkable achievement.


9. Return of Godzilla (1984)

Return of Godzilla (1984)
Return of Godzilla (1984)

Director: Koji Hashimoto

The first Godzilla movie I consciously remember watching — at least one of the reasons for its inclusion here. However, I also do think Return of Godzilla is one of the best entries in the series.

I initially saw it via the American dub, which included a fun performance by Raymond Burr as his character from the American version of the 1954. While the original Japanese version is superior, the American version is not without its charm.

Ultimately, while I’m specifically referring to the original version of this film, either version still offers a strong return of the character to his solo, darker roots. While it may not have as much action as some of the other films, it succeeds beautifully in recapturing the notion of Godzilla as a force of pure, unromantic, and utterly brutal evil.


8. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Director: Masaaki Tezuka

I don’t know. There’s just something inherently amazing and vaguely insane about the Japanese government building a robot Godzilla from the bones of the original.

An entry in the Millennium series of Godzilla movies that stands entirely on its own, save for a bizarre link to the 1954 entry, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is a lot of fun, while also proving Toho could still generate compelling, if not slightly ridiculous, stories.

Not surprisingly, using the bones of the original monster, which has somehow retained a soul through the decades, which tried to destroy everything last time he was up and about, is a decision that goes poorly. What this plot gives us is a different set of stakes from previous releases. Particularly in the context of how Godzilla himself is utilized as the antagonist.

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla also features an exceptional human actor performance from Yumiko Shaku, as well as good stuff from suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa as Godzilla.


7. Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

Director: Ishirō Honda

Directed by Godzilla’s first director and creator, Invasion of Astro-Monster is something very different indeed from where it all began a decade earlier. You can make up your own mind if that’s a bad thing here, as the series fully embraces a complete science fiction approach to storytelling. You’ve got aliens, god-like monsters (the first appearance of King Ghidorah), spaceships, and everything that goes with those concepts.

It all might be a little silly, but there is nonetheless something very pure about the entertainment and even wonder that are still very prevalent in this story of a mind-controlled Godzilla being unleashed on the planet.

And you know what? I like the victory dance. It speaks nicely to the rest of the spirit of this film.


6. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Godzilla Final Wars (2004)
Godzilla Final Wars (2004)

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

By now, it should be pretty apparent that I have a certain affection for some of the more off-the-wall contributions to the franchise.

There are two ways you can look at Toho’s final entry in the Millennium series. Either it is the longest trailer for the history of the Godzilla series up to that point, a crammed festival of familiar monsters, characters, and easter eggs, or as what happens when someone at Toho greenlights literally every possible idea for a Godzilla movie. The film boasts one of the largest human casts ever assembled for a kaiju epic. That doesn’t even cover the monsters, which is basically a who’s who of Toho legends.

There is nothing subtle or even all that clever about Final Wars. However, it closes out the Millennium era with a gleefulness and visual punch that make it impossible for me not to love.


5. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Director: Ishiro Honda

At this point, the success of the series was in full swing. So much so that the movie made its way to U.S. theaters (under the title Godzilla vs. The Thing) the same year it came out in Japan.

The international appeal was evident, enough that Toho put considerable resources (relative to these types of films) into pitting Godzilla against Mothra, who had been quite successful in her own movie three years prior. What we get is one of the best Godzilla movies of the Showa period.

Despite the limitations of a monster that flies and doesn’t really have any useful appendages, the battle scenes between Godzilla (a highlight from suit actor Haruo Nakajima) and Mothra are some of the most enjoyable ever put to film.


4. Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Director: Shusuke Kaneko

Directed by a man who also did some pretty extraordinary things with Gamera, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack boasts a name that promises a lot. It delivers one of the most action-packed, inventive Godzilla films of the modern age.

The movie’s cleverest gambles (Ghidorah reimagined as a good guy is still a little odd to me) pay off. A team of earth guardians (including Mothra and Baragon) taking on one of the best versions of Godzilla as a merciless antagonist is more than enough, in terms of suit acting, special effects, pacing, and overall energy.

It also doesn’t hurt the film that humans like Shiro Sano and Chiharu Niiyama put in some of the best performances of the period.


3. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)

Director: Kazuki Omori

Guess what? Godzilla was a weird dinosaur.

Why the hell not.

Aliens and time travel are just two of the many things that seem to populate the best Godzilla/King Ghidorah showdown of all time. Yet despite some very wacky concepts, this version of Godzilla displays a degree of menace that gives the film one of the most unique blends of successful Godzilla concepts ever created.

However, as phenomenal as the King Ghidorah suit is here, it pales in comparison to the mechanized design that is later created to bring Godzilla down for good. The battle which results from this perfectly reasonable decision is perhaps the best ever committed to film that entirely utilizes suit actors. It is a roaring achievement for everyone involved, but it’s also just a ridiculous amount of fun.


2. Shin Godzilla (2016)

Shin Godzilla (2016)
Shin Godzilla (2016)

Directors: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi

Two things about Shin Godzilla that I really, really like:

1) It is one of the boldest attempts to reinvent a beloved pop culture/film figure I have ever seen. For some, it leans too heavily into its commentary on government, particularly Japanese government bureaucracy, and doesn’t spend enough time with the core elements of a Godzilla film (city smashing and general mayhem). I won’t argue that, but I will argue these things are used so effectively, the result is one of the most unique Godzilla films anyone will ever make. The scenes of government officials dragging their feet give added, singular weight to the moments of Toho’s latest reign of Godzilla-related terror.

2) It achieves something only the 1954 original has ever really pulled off, in that it made Godzilla a truly frightening figure once more. There are some impressive examples of Godzilla being a big jerk throughout, but Shin Godzilla brings the character definitively and powerfully into pure horror territory. The physical transformations of this Godzilla are disconcerting enough. The larger implications of its very existence make H.P. Lovecraft look like Richard Scarry.


1. Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla (1954)

Director: Ishirō Honda

It is almost a cliché to put the first Godzilla film at the top of any list of the best movies of all time. I debated it for a while, trying to see if other contenders deserved the #1 spot for my personal assortment.

Ultimately, none of them quite measure up to the strength, bleakness, and genuine wonder and fear that swim around me whenever I’m watching 1954’s Gojira. This is a story born out of the very real relationship the countries of the world now had to one another through the lens of nuclear devastation. While not drawn from Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Godzilla was nonetheless influenced by the extreme and justifiable anxiety Japan was feeling, in the aftermath of a nuclear accident after World War 2. These shadows speak to you, regardless of how much actual history you may know.

The weight of the fact that this is where it all started, including the most crucial additions to the kaiju concept by special effects icon Eiji Tsuburaya, is not lost on me. However, at the end of the day, when I sit down to watch my favorite Godzilla movies, the historical significance of everything is only but so important or interesting to me. I just want to watch something that will enthrall to one or several degrees.

1954’s Godzilla is a good monster movie from start to finish, with series highlight performances by Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, and Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka as Godzilla himself. It also still has the ability to make me actually fear Godzilla as an idea. There is bottomless chaos and destruction to the first take on the character. That still captures my attention after 30 years as a fan of these movies.

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