For the record, Lucasfilm have seemingly ruled both Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985) - which were both released in cinemas in Europe - as non-canon, so I'm going with the nine Star Wars movies theatrically released since 1977.
Released 15 August 2008 • Directed by Dave Filoni • Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy
Over the course of five-and-a-half seasons, The Clone Wars evolved into a fantastic, gripping and fun pulp SF adventure show. However, it took a while to get there. The first few episodes were made on a limited budget with very few CG assets, whilst producer Dave Filoni and his team were still finding their feet with pacing and characterisation. George Lucas was a little bit too impressed by what the guys at Lucasfilm Animation had achieved when he decided it was good enough quality to go on the big screen. Coming in the same year as Wall-E and with a juvenile tone that turned off adult Star Wars fans, The Clone Wars just couldn't cut it.
If some of the later, much better arcs and episodes had been made into an animated film, the results may have been different.
Released 16 May 2002 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas & Jonathan Hales
Well, where to start? The worst live-action Star Wars movie has the most risible performances, dialogue (including the epic "hatred of sand" speech), execrable plotting and confused structural tics out of all of them. It's embarrassing to see actors of the calibre of Natalie Portman and Christopher Lee working with scripts this awful and the hyper-polished CGI sheen over the effects is sterile and uninvolving. Hayden Christensen isn't quite as bad as is often said (given that even Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor are struggling with the material, Christensen doesn't really disgrace himself) but is still an uninteresting protagonist. Even John Williams is feeling uninspired, only rising to the occasion in his score when he revisits themes from previous movies.
Released 19 May 2005 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas
Revenge of the Sith and The Phantom Menace are at a very similar level of quality and you could swap their positions quite easily. Sith, for me, falls short for several reasons. The first is that the utterly pointless CG overload of Attack of the Clones is pursued and doubled down on in Revenge of the Sith, making the film feel even more artificial and sterile. The next is that the dialogue has somehow even gotten worse, along with the performances. Natalie Portman's cringe-inducing "You're breaking my heart!" and Ewan McGregor's completely flummoxed reaction to Anakin murdering children are both awful pieces of acting.
There are some good moments in Sith - the dialogue-less moment where Anakin decides to betray the Republic and the execution of Order 66 - and John Williams remembers to show up with a couple of excellent scoring moments, but the long-awaited Obi-Wan/Anakin lightsabre showdown is awful and the conclusion of the Clone Wars is bitty and unsatisfying. Revenge of the Sith had the potential for greatness and wastes it thanks to George Lucas's ego.
Released 19 May 1999 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas
Enjoying The Phantom Menace is possible, especially if you cheat and watch The Phantom Edit (which cuts out the majority of Jar-Jar scenes and dramatically reduces the "endearing" antics of little Anakin). But even the original edit is fine if you can simply ignore Jar-Jar. The Phantom Menace emerges as (marginally) the best film of the prequel trilogy thanks to its absolutely stellar soundtrack (a never-better John Williams), the grounded, inspiring presence of Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn and the use of real sets and models for many of the effects. It also helps that our main villain Darth Maul almost never speaks, so retains some menace rather than losing it by uttering inanely awful dialogue. Some CG overload is still present, but it's nothing as bad as the latter two prequel movies. There's also a pacier feel to events, with the shifts in location and plot meaning that weaker scenes don't drag on as long as they do in the two other prequels, and the movie may feature the prequel trilogy's best set-piece with the pod racing sequence.
It's still an enormously flawed film with plot holes you can drive a Star Destroyer through, of course, but not quite as awful as its reputation suggests.
Released 16 December 2016 • Directed by Gareth Edwards • Written by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy
The gap in quality between #6 and #5 on this list may be the biggest such gap in the history of gratuitous lists. Rogue One is a fine movie with some fantastic performances, action sequences and individually powerful scenes. CG overload is mostly avoided and the film feels punchy, almost nailing The Dirty Dozen in Space vibe it is shooting for. The movie also, and rather surprisingly, justifies its existence by mostly avoiding continuity problems and fixing a couple of niggling problems in the original Star Wars.
On the negative side of things, characterisation can be a little variable (Jyn's motivations seem to have gotten lost in the edit) and the way the film ends is structurally messy, whilst the score is forgettable. But congratulations to Lucasfilm for having the resolve to end the film in the only manner that makes sense. It's all good from hereon up.
Released 18 December 2015 • Directed by J.J. Abrams • Written by Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams
The Force Awakens is two movies sitting on top of one another. The first is the struggle of the Resistance to avoid the destruction of their hidden base by the First Order's planet-destroying superweapon, which is ludicrously powerful but has a rather-easily-exposed weakness. This plot is less than satisfying, since it's a retread of Star Wars (A New Hope). However, the second is the family drama of Han Solo and Princess Leia having a son strong in the Force who brutally betrays them, murders his way into a position of power in the First Order and embraces the Dark Side, but is constantly tempted by the lure of good. New character Rey has the chance to take his place as the new champion of the Force, but only if she can overcome her own limitations in the process.
This latter story is far more interesting and provides The Force Awakens with its real dramatic meat. Excellent performances by newcomers and old hands alike (Carrie Fisher may have considered a couple of remedial catch-up acting lessons, but she doesn't have too much to do so that's not too much of a problem), excellent effects and John Williams dropping an awesome musical score combine to make a movie that couldn't feel any more Star Wars if it tried. Far from a perfect movie, the main problem with The Force Awakens is that it sometimes tries a little too hard to be Star Wars rather than going with the flow. But as franchise-resurrecting reboots go, this is impressive. Some may even say...most impressive.
Released 25 May 1983 • Directed by Richard Marquand • Written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan
Return of the Jedi always comes last from the original trilogy when these lists are written, which feels a little unfair. It's got the best space battle of the entire saga, it has a fantastic three-way showdown between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, it has awesome music and also some very fine dramatic moments (Luke and Vader's conversation at the docking platform may be the most underrated scene of the saga). Mark Hamill also gives arguably his best performance in this movie (although it's close between this one and Empire).
It's also a bit of a structurally weak film. Spending so much time at Jabba's palace doesn't quite work, since Jabba is a secondary villain not really worth the screentime he eats up. Also, and this is far more prevalent on marathons when you don't have three years between films, Han Solo's entire kidnap storyline feels like a waste of time given how easily it is resolved. Han and Lando's morally dubious sides have also been eroded away with both now straight-up good guys and white hats, which makes them a bit less interesting. And of course, Ewoks (although I've never had that big a problem with them).
But it's still a fine capstone to the first six films in the saga which earns its (mostly) happy ending.
Released 25 May 1977 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz (uncredited) and Willard Huyck (uncredited)
This is where the fun begins. Released in 1977 and made on a modest budget, Star Wars (reluctantly aka A New Hope) utterly transformed cinema in a way not seen before or since. Watching it today, it's clearly the cheapest Star Wars movie but this also means it has to focus more on story, character and dialogue. It's also pacy and energetic, steered by a never-better George Lucas clearly realising he has the chance to reinvent the wheel here. A brilliant space battle, a tremendous musical score and some very effective Tunisian location filming all give the film a sense of scale and scope that goes beyond its meagre resources. Thrown in tremendous performances from Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness and a star-making turn by Harrison Ford, and the original Star Wars is still a brilliantly-conceived piece of entertainment.
Released 21 May 1980 • Directed by Irvin Kershner • Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
The Empire Strikes Back being the best Star Wars movie has been clear for years, but it's still remarkable just how good it is. It goes dark compared to the original movie, but its power comes more from how invested the audience is in the relationships from the first movie and how effectively this sequel messes around with those relationships (Han and Leia hooking up wrong-foots the audience expecting her to get together with Luke). The film also feels more naturalistic, with director Irvin Kershner letting his actors breathe, discussing character motivation and improvise dialogue in manner that George Lucas was incapable of doing. Most importantly, new characters such as Yoda and Lando grab hold of the imagination and are just as strong as the returning characters, which is quite a feat for a sequel.
The film also has arguably the Star Wars saga's greatest effects set piece as the Millennium Falcon swoops balletically through an asteroid field with John Williams' soundtrack framing events perfectly, with the Battle of Hoth not far behind it in quality.
But of course the real reason the film emerges as the best in the saga is down to that climactic confrontation between Luke and Vader which turns what was supposed to be a disposable popcorn series into an epic, generation-spanning family tragedy. This remains the Star Wars bar of quality that needs to be beaten.