Not counting the 1998 American remake, there are 28 Godzilla films, traditionally split into three eras: Showa, Heisei and Millennium. That's ton of films to sort through. Luckily within the narrow rule that each film must offer viewers a giant fire-breathing lizard named Godzilla, the series displays a wealth of variety. Picking the best 10 has been no ideal task, but it has been a fun one.
Ranked from strongest to weakest, our picks for the ten best Godzilla films are as follows:
1. Godzilla (1954)
No best of Godzilla list would be worth much without including the original, probably the only one that really stands as its own good film outside of the series. Godzilla is king for a reason.
Released less than a decade after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla's allusions to nuclear destruction have the power to make your skin crawl even today. One can only imagine how terrifying the film must have been upon release in Japan. When you see Godzilla destroy humans with his atomic fire breath, it hurts. This is the only entry in the series you can say that about.
Even more surprising for its age is the supremacy of the effects work here. While certainly crude, the suit looks great in black and white, and director Ishiro Honda does a spectacular job of communicating the scale not just of the monster himself, but his destruction as well. This is easily the meanest iteration of Godzilla we get until well into the Millennium series.
2. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Also known as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a massively strange Godzilla film that defies all explanation. Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno, who basically lost his career over the film's poor reception, Godzilla vs. Hedorah utilizes animation, psychedelic hallucinations, psychic visions and didactic preaching to make its point, and it is all the more beautiful for it.
This movie is seriously incredible. From the ridiculously high body count, to the great Kaiju battles, to the moving story of a family who really sticks together, this is an entry worth seeking out. Banno may go a bit too far with his excessive straying from the established Godzilla look and formula (having Godzilla fly stands as the most egregious example of this), but I'd rather watch this one again than almost all the other entries.
3. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah sets itself apart right from the get-go thanks to a Godzilla who is glowing red and lets off tons of hot steam. Apparently, the giant monster has entered nuclear meltdown, and when he goes the whole planet goes with him. This is almost a cool enough story angle all by itself. Luckily, we also have Destoroyah to look forward to.
The original Kaiju Toho invented for these later films leave a lot to be desired. Some, like Biollante and Space Godzilla, are pretty cool. But guys like Orga and Megaguirus are just randomly mean-looking monsters with lots of spikes all over them. Destoroyah is the best of them all. Starting out as a bunch of angry little crablike jerks with cool mandibles, Destoroyah eventually comes together to form a massive Kaiju who basically looks like a heavy metal album cover. And to make him seem super evil, he annihilates Godzilla's son, who we've known for two films at this point (the Heisei series is really into continuity).
But when it comes down to business, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is all about that glowing red Godzilla suit, perhaps the best-looking iteration of Godzilla in the entire franchise. The action is great. The story isn't boring. And the end really tries to put a respectable cap on the series. This is one of the very best Godzilla movies out there.
4. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla opens with one of the greatest scenes of the Showa era. Godzilla, who for some strange reason has a different roar than normal, battles the spiky quadruped Anguirus. Poor Anguirus gets knocked around pretty hard (that's sort of Anguirus' job in these films) but not before revealing a metal interior under Godzilla's skin. It's an impostor!
That's just one of the cool secrets this film has up its sleeve. Not only does Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla give us two Godzillas fighting each other, but it makes a special point to highlight both the already mentioned Anguirus and the truly bizarre and incredible King Caesar, a sleeping giant who can only be awakened by song. A very long song.
This entry is just great. The Kaiju fights are top notch, and the human story is weird enough to entertain even when Godzilla is offscreen.
5. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
The Millennium series lacks the continuity and superior effects work of the Heisei series (the films may be newer, but their reliance on shifty CG ages them much faster). It also misses out on the campy weirdness that elevated some of the better Showa entries. But when it comes to throwing a bunch monsters together for giant free-for-alls, no era did it better.
Giant Monsters All-Out Attack easily represents the best of the Millennium bunch. For one, you'd think Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah would supply enough monster action for one film, but no. Baragon also makes a really memorable appearance. The plot is all about how the three guardians of the Earth, Baragon, Mothra and the usually villainous King Ghidorah must combine forces to stop Godzilla. And that's just what they do.
It's not easy, though. Godzilla is massive in this film and very violent. The film was directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who also directed the surprisingly bloody but also very good Heisei Gamera trilogy. This is probably the meanest, most hard-hitting Godzilla film to come since the original. It's also a must-see.
6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)
If you're going to be campy, you might as well go all out, and that is Godzilla vs. Monster Zero's great strength. The film focuses on a race of aliens (the Xians from Planet X) who wish to borrow Godzilla and Rodan because they have a monster problem of their own: Ghidorah, who Godzilla and Mothra threw into outer space at the end of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Right off the top, it's hard not to like the idea of an alien race who wants to borrow Godzilla for a little house cleaning.
But then it turns out to all have been a ruse, and the Xians actually plan to use all three monsters to take over our planet. While Godzilla vs. Monster Zero has some great monster action (particularly Godzilla and Rodan's fight with Ghidorah on Planet X) it's the crazy story that keeps you interested, a rarity that marks most of the really great entries in this series. Also: Godzilla's victory dance.
7. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
With its focus on time travel and alternate histories and tons of crazy stuff like that, the plot to Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is hilariously complicated and never boring. That alone makes it worth seeing. But then its incredible Kaiju fight scenes push it into mandatory-viewing territory.
The film opens with the incredible sequence in which a submarine 200 years in the future examines the dead body of Ghidorah. Or most of it: One of his three heads is missing. This acts as kind of a promise that some serious action is going to go down.
And it does. The Heisei series of Godzilla films probably has the very best looking Godzilla suit of all, and really nails its Kaiju fighting scenes. Watching Godzilla take on both regular Ghidorah, and later a kind of Mecha-Ghidorah is great fun, especially when he blows that first Ghidorah's middle head off.
8. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Godzilla Raids Again is such a curious entry. Like a lot of part twos of long-running franchises (A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, for example), it goes in a different direction from the original but also in a very different direction than the films that would follow. It doesn't know how to play by the rules, because they have not yet been invented.
The film uncomfortably straddles both worlds. For instance, Takashi Shimura, star of the original Godzilla reprises his role. Meanwhile, see Godzilla (called "Gigantis" and with a completely different roar) fights another monster (poor, poor Anguirus), something he'd do in all but one upcoming entries.
Everything else, however, feels weird. Godzilla Raids Again is very much its own thing. That in and of itself gives it unique value. Fortunately, its incredible fight scenes also make it stand out. Director Motoyoshi Oda films Godzilla and Anguirus' battles with a slightly higher than natural speed, which makes their grappling look surprisingly ferocious and violent. It's great.
This film doesn't have as many defenders as it deserves. It's a weird entry, but far from a bad one.
9. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Godzilla: Final Wars has a lot of problems. The action focuses too heavily on Matrix inspired people-fighting-people scenes, and the running time exceeds what should be allowable for this type of film. But it is also a very confident and unique entry in the series, both strongly dependent on the long history of Godzilla films to come before it, yet cool enough to stand as its own thing for newbies.
Essentially, Godzilla: Final Wars is an updated version of Destroy All Monsters. But while that film saved most of its good stuff for the very end (a massive monster beat down of Ghidorah), Final Wars keeps the monster action coming throughout most of its running time. It's not quite as well put together as you'd like, but there's still an undeniable thrill watching Godzilla travel the globe, just destroying recognizable Kaiju like a boss. And yes, he totally takes out his wimpy American counterpart.
10. Godzilla's Revenge (1969)
Everyone hates Godzilla's Revenge, and it's not hard to see why. The film is an overly cute story about a sad and lonely boy who takes frequent imaginary trips to Monster Island where he hangs out with Godzilla's son, Minilla, who actually speaks (in a hilariously goofy voice). The film also utilizes a lot of stock footage from previous entries. On top of that, Godzilla Revenge's main Kaiju antagonist Gabara has to be one of the dumbest looking giant monsters ever created.
But if you can get over all that, there's actually a lot to enjoy here. The kid is quite adorable, and Minilla's weird voice is definitely a highlight as is the profoundly silly Gabara. This film is so cheesy that its faults end up setting it apart and even endearing it to viewers who are open to its charm. And though not based around any dramatic, world-ending stakes, the way the boy's lesson of sticking up for himself mirrors the lesson Minilla learns on Monster Island utilizes better than usual storytelling for this sort of film.