Steven Spielberg is the most popular, successful, and recognizable filmmaker of all time. He has more films in the AFI 100 than any other director. Adjusted for inflation, four films he directed are in the top 25 highest-grossing of all time (five if you give him credit for Jurassic World). His worldwide grosses are almost $3 billion ahead of his closest competitors, including Peter Jackson and James Cameron. That’s even more impressive when you give him credit for the diversity of his oeuvre. Most filmmakers make their bank delivering films in the same series — The Lord Of The Rings films, Transformers, or Star Wars, for example. Spielberg has multiple franchises under his belt, along with an impressive array of stand-alone successes. He hasn’t ever really directed a true flop. And if you start adding in the films he’s produced, the numbers just get stupid successful.And that’s just box office. The caliber of quality you get in a Spielberg move goes above and beyond what you’d normally get from a blockbuster maestro. Spielberg is of an extremely rare breed of filmmaker that can do popcorn spectacle as well as he can sweep the Oscars, sometimes doing both in the same year.
Okay, so, this isn’t exactly news. It’s no surprise that the internet would be all about ranking the Steven Spielberg filmography. The Hollywood Reporter did it. Vulture did it. Rolling Stone did it. Why follow suit? Well, these lists are wrong.
I mean, they’re not that wrong. They get most of the rankings right. But then they get some things wrong, too, so I figured I’d better go ahead and correct them.
Get your Spielberg face on. It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.
This film opens with a Scary Movie-caliber spoof of Spielberg’s own Jaws. And then it goes downhill.
Spielberg clearly loves the iconography and thematic potential of World War II storytelling. This setting also gifts him plenty of military hardware for action sequences, so in a sense, it’s easy to see what drew him to this material — but he’s working way outside his comfort zone. Coming on the heels of two critical and commercial smash hits (and Best Picture nominees), Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, we sense Spielberg trying to stretch his wings and conquer a new genre. It was the wrong choice. Here he attempts to strike a Kubrickian Dr. Strangelove vibe, but 1941 plays more like slapstick than satire, with a cornball script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale that simply isn’t very funny.
If I were being truly fair about this list, I’d give 1941 another viewing, to see if maybe I missed something on my first and only watch. (I was eighteen — and still felt its humor was too juvenile for me.) But if memory serves, 1941 is interminable and punishingly unfunny, so why do that to myself? Wartime and Spielberg would combine to better effect in coming decades — I’m happy to tuck this away at the bottom of this list and forget it ever existed, as Spielberg himself seems to have done.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that 1941 served as an ego check for the wunderkind, sending Spielberg back to the adventure blockbusters he excels at. (Raiders Of The Lost Ark came next.) For good reason, Spielberg never attempted and out-and-out comedy like this again…
31. THE TERMINAL
The only other Spielberg movie that broaches classification as an outright comedy is The Terminal, about a man from a fictional European country whose layover at JFK airport lasts a long time. (A really, really long time.)
Let’s get this out of the way upfront — no Spielberg movie is flat-out bad, with the possible exception of 1941. The Terminal is a trifle, mildly amusing in moments but never hilarious. Though not quite a comedy, it never strives to be taken that seriously as a drama, either. I don’t want to say it’s beneath him, but he’s better when tackling more ambitious material. This story is, perhaps, just too quirky to build a whole movie around, resulting in the rare Spielberg movie that just feels… ordinary.
The Terminal touches on post-9/11 anxieties surrounding immigration and airports, but the conflict is weightless, mostly because Viktor Navorski, Tom Hanks’ stranded protagonist, hails from a fictional country. You can imagine a more nuanced drama exploring this subject, especially if the character were Middle Eastern instead of a fake European. (It’s partially based on a true story of an Iranian man who spent 18 years at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. That becomes an entirely different movie — one with some punch.)
There’s nothing wrong with Hanks’ acting here, but it’s impossible to completely buy into the all-American everyman as a befuddled European. The movie just screams “artificial,” and the airy rom-com touches involving Catherine Zeta-Jones as a flight attendant don’t do much to ground it. (Airport puns wholly intended.) Fortunately, Spielberg had better luck with a movie that spends a lot of time in airports further up this list.
This revival pre-dated more recent “next generation plus original cast” sequels to retro blockbusters like Star Wars and Rocky. Does that mean we can thank Spielberg for The Force Awakens and Creed? Probably not, but at least he got there ahead of the curve.
I more or less enjoyed this movie upon its release, but what sticks out most in my memory are images like Cate Blanchett’s blunt black hairdo and Shia LeBeouf swinging from trees like a monkey, so that probably isn’t a good sign. Plus, it loses points for such an awkward mouthful of a title. (Couldn’t it just have been Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull? Or… something better than that?)
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull gets a few things right, like bringing back Karen Allen as Marion and not letting Shia put Indy’s hat on at the end. There’s also a memorably grotesque sequence involving swarms of ants, which digs up this franchise’s macabre adventure-horror roots. (Hearts ripped out of chests, skin and muscle deteriorating to give way to a skull underneath… there is some seriously nasty stuff in each film in this series, though that often gets forgotten.)
But did we really need aliens in an Indiana Jones movie? Ultimately, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull loses major points for its shark-jumping ending. (Since this is Spielberg, I will clarify that there is no literal shark-jumping, although if there were I may be tempted to bump this higher up the list.) George Lucas’ fingerprints are all over this one, and if the 21st century has proven anything, it’s that Lucas should take a backseat in storytelling.
Mark Rylance was the best thing about Bridge Of Spies, so it’s only natural that Spielberg would reteam with him for two of his next three movies. In this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Rylance delivers a fully committed comedic performance, though it’s difficult to tell where the computer animation ends and Rylance’s acting begins. (I suppose that’s the point, sort of.)
The BFG is a likable enough film aimed pretty squarely at the kids. There’s nothing wrong with it — it’s sure a step up from cruder, more obnoxious family fare. Though on the surface, it bears many hallmarks of Spielberg films — a cute moppet at the center, plenty of action and mayhem, magical special effects — it’s hard to grasp what really drew the maestro to this material. Did this need to be a Spielberg movie?
I don’t want to hate on The BFG, because its heart is in the right place and it is the final script from Melissa Mathison, who wrote E.T. (Apparently, she’s big on acronyms in her Spielberg collaborations.) Ruby Barnhill is also delightful as our orphan heroine, Sophie. But the film doesn’t provide a whole lot of entertainment value for adults, and the over-reliance on visual effects makes it hard to feel that anything’s truly at stake. (This essentially feels like Spielberg’s Avatar in many moments.)
In theory, I like the inherent elements of Tintin. An intrepid boy-journalist! A cute dog named Snowy! (You might think Tintin was the dog’s name, not the boy’s, huh? At least, you might if you watched 1950s TV series about German Shepherds instead of reading Belgian comics. It’s confusing for Americans!)
Some found this computer-animated adventure as breezy and fun as it should have been. I didn’t. The charms of the original Belgian cartoon don’t fully translate to 3D animation. There’s a surplus of imaginative, zany action, but I’m not easily impressed by action in animated movies, and I rarely enjoy 3D — so clearly, I wasn’t the target audience here. The Adventures Of Tintin is basically an attempt to animate an Indiana Jones story, Zemeckis-style, but the fun of those movies is the practical effects and stunt work. I spent most of this one thinking about how much more fun it all could have been in a live action film.
The official title of this film is actually The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn, which sounds promising, but guess how many unicorns with dark pasts are featured here? Zero. The Unicorn is just the name of a ship, and that’s disappointing.
These days, Steven Spielberg almost never chooses a project that makes us go, “Hmm… really, Spielberg?” But back in the 1980s, he used to do it all the time! (Okay, three times.)
Spielberg reunited with his Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss for this 1989 film about an aerial firefighter who dies and comes back as a ghost to help his girlfriend find love with someone else. It’s a weird mix of comedy, drama, romance, action, and the supernatural, the kind of genre mish-mash studios used to get away with in the 80s and 90s. (These kinds of sentimental/silly ghost stories worked then. Now, not so much.)
Always is a remake of the WWII film A Guy Named Joe, one of Spielberg’s favorites, though neither film actually contains a guy named Joe. (“Joe” refers to the main character being a soldier, AKA a “G.I. Joe.”) Spielberg is usually so in command of his material, but this feels more like some of his earlier works, before he had quite mastered his tone. (He’s often — but not always — shaky when his films have strong comedic elements, though this one can’t quite be labeled a comedy with so much else going on.)
Moment by moment, the film is pretty good, though it doesn’t really hang together as a whole. Holly Hunter is winsome as always, John Goodman provides solid comedic relief, and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is used effectively (and ironically, given that these characters are firefighters). Bonus: Audrey Hepburn shows up as a ghost barber! (What!)
Always is a noble effort, but ultimately this is a remake that would probably have best been left alone. The fact that Spielberg made this charming but inconsistent film just four years before Schindler’s List is mind-boggling, considering how “retro Spielberg” it feels.
This was my favorite Indiana Jones film as a child, for some reason. Maybe that should tell you something.
Temple Of Doom is the film responsible for the PG-13 rating, because it was released in 1984, an era when you could show someone’s still-beating heart being ripped out of their chest and still earn a “Parental Guidance” rating. (Nowadays, you’ll rarely find anything but Alvin And The Chipmunks and Kung Fu Panda sequels rated PG.)
Spielberg met current wife Kate Capshaw making this film, so at least he got something out of it. The rest of us? Debatable. This film is much more violent than it needs to be, and also much more racist, and Capshaw’s ridiculous screaming doesn’t help. (It was all downhill after Karen Allen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.) There are child slaves, gross-outs, Asian stereotypes, and a human sacrifice, plus Capshaw eating out of a monkey skull. (Yum!)
Asian culture has generally not been represented well in Hollywood cinema, so you can only blame Spielberg so much. (Can we blame George Lucas instead? Apparently, he originally wanted to include a “lost world” of dinosaurs in China.) Temple Of Doom doesn’t really get the cultures it supposedly depicts right, nor does it nail the proper tone of an Indiana Jones movie. This was meant to be the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, but it’s more like Return Of The Jedi. It has its charms, sure, but they’re outdone by the cringes. Fortunately, there were better things ahead for Dr. Jones.
(And also worse things. Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is obviously the Phantom Menace, though at least we were spared a full third trilogy.)
In 1993, Spielberg pulled a magnificent one-two punch, releasing one of the all-time great blockbusters, Jurassic Park, then sweeping the Oscars with Schindler’s List. In 1997, he tried again, unleashing The Lost World: Jurassic Park that summer, then unveiling Amistad just in time for awards season. But 1997 was no 1993. The Lost World was a hit but predictably no match for the original Jurassic Park, and Amistad was nominated for four Oscars but won zero, missing nods in major categories like Best Director and Best Picture.
The subject matter is vital and affecting (even more relevant now than in 1997). We tend to forget just how brutal those sequences on the slave ship are — perhaps more horrifying than anything we’ve seen on the slave trade since — beating 12 Years A Slave to the punch by 15 years or so. The rest of the film is essentially a courtroom drama, the entire climax essentially comprised of a lengthy monologue delivered by Anthony Hopkins. Performances by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, and especially Djimon Hounsou are all-around solid. (Fun Fact #1: I bet you forgot that a young Anna Paquin plays Queen Isabella of Spain!)
So Amistad has a lot in common with Spielberg’s other Big Serious Dramas, Lincoln in particular, except for one key factor — it’s not as entertaining. And, sure, you could point out that a story about the legal ramifications of a slave uprising shouldn’t be “entertaining,” per se, but that’s the magic of Spielberg. Schindler’s List is no romp, but it’s riveting and very engaging. Amistad, on the other hand, is not a film to revisit often, feeling more like a lecture than a movie at times. (Fun Fact #2: As I write this, Amistad is currently the only Spielberg movie available on Netflix.)
24. BRIDGE OF SPIES
Another Best Picture nominee! There’s a lot of that in this list, since Spielberg has quite a few of these under his belt. (Eleven, to be exact, the second most of any director, after William Wyler.) This one belongs beside War Horse as an enjoyable, well-made film that misses the mark on being truly essential.
As a spy who does at one point need to cross a bridge, Mark Rylance is fantastic in a performance that does justice to the word “understated” by seeming like no performance at all. Rylance stays as still as possible and barely speaks, but he manages to have more screen presence than Tom Hanks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Hanks here, either.)
Hanks is a lawyer who gets caught up in trying to arrange a trade of spies, hoping to free a couple of unlucky Americans. The script flubs the structure a bit, introducing these spies a bit too late in the game for us to get truly invested in, and it totally wastes Amy Ryan as a doting wife. Not surprisingly, there’s an overly rosy finale, too, which undercuts what else the film might have had to say about international relations. It all plays pretty well, but this is never quite as sharp or engaging as you’d hope something co-written by the Coen brothers and directed by the maestro would be. It nearly misses being a near-miss, which is still a recommendation.
23. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS
This is one of the least Steven Spielberg-y of all Steven Spielberg movies, though it’s still plenty Spielberg-y under the hood.
It’s not immediately clear what drew Spielberg to this material, as he doesn’t often tell stories about antiheroes. Then again, this was released in 1974, back when antiheroes were all the rage in cinema. (This was also Spielberg’s first theatrical film, so he didn’t exactly have the clout to make whatever he damn well pleased.) The story centers on a couple of accidental outlaws who go on the run to rescue their son from foster care, eventually taking a highway patrolman hostage. Their hijinks incite a media frenzy, as car chases and hostage situations tend to do. It’s also a nice chance to check out a young Goldie Hawn as one of these hapless outlaws.
Despite its saccharine title, The Sugarland Express has a darker ending than most Spielberg joints, and feels like an entirely different sort of movie than the ones he’d come to be known for. But it does center on a fractured family and has plenty of action, so it’s not a total anomaly. (It might’ve been a more standout film had it paid less attention to the motor vehicles, and more attention to the people in them.)
As with many of the films on this list, the fact that it isn’t ranked higher isn’t a testament to this film’s quality so much as it is to the fact that so many other Spielberg movies are so good — and hey, something has to be left out of the Top 20.
There you are, Peter! At Slot #22, which is arguably higher on this list than you deserve to be, thanks to childhood nostalgia. Bangarang!
Yes, Hook gets a bad rap, and maybe it’s deserved. The film is made for a family audience, meaning that plenty of the humor is juvenile. (Spielberg has said in interviews that he doesn’t even like this movie.) Several Spielberg movies are aimed at young audiences, but no others feel quite so juvenile. (Appropriate, given that it takes place in Neverland.) Hook is quite comedic, and I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this yet — when Spielberg attempts a comedy, the results range from subpar to adequate.
From a conceptual standpoint, Hook is a pretty clever update of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mythos, posing the scenario that Peter actually left Neverland, grew up, got married, had kids, and buried his magical past deep in his subconscious so he could be a boring workaholic.
Oh, and he’s a terrible father. (Every father in every Spielberg movie is at least partially terrible.)
Nearly all family films from this era involved parents who were constantly talking on cell phones, because cell phones were evil in the 1990s. (Probably because that was before we learned how to play Words With Friends on them. Nothing you can play Words With Friends on can be that evil.) In so many ways, Peter Pan is the role Robin Williams was born to play, and though he overdoes some of his shtick here (as he so often does), it mostly works. Dustin Hoffman is an appropriately hammy Captain Hook, and you know what? I like Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, so shut up. (How can you not love a pixie cut on an actual pixie? Someone give this stylist a raise!) Plus, “When You’re Alone” is one of the greatest musical moments of the 90s! (When you’re eight, anyway.)
Hook may not be a total masterpiece, but any movie that spawned so many memorable moments — from “Ru-fi-o!” to “Run Home, Jack!” — can’t be all bad.
21. WAR HORSE
If you make a sentimental movie about a horse, you’re bound to get made fun of a little, especially if the title kind of rhymes, and War Horse is the recent Spielberg film most likely to be mocked by detractors, even though it’s far from bad.
Poor War Horse is a bit of a punchline these days, for no good reason. It’s no Saving Private Ryan, but its depiction of war is emotionally involving, particularly in its most memorable scene, which has a British soldier and a German soldier temporarily joining forces to save the titular war horse. Par for the course with Spielberg, the filmmaking is excellent, and the leading horse performance is seriously on point. The cinematography is pretty but sometimes over the top, especially the John Ford-inspired sunset at the end, but it’s never as bad as something called War Horse could be.
War Horse could have been an extremely silly movie, and somehow managed not to be. (The source material probably helps, though this movie has a whole different feel to it, thanks in part to using a real horse.) As Spielberg movies go, this is in my bottom third, yet it was still nominated for Best Picture, so that should say something about the caliber of the Top 20 Spielberg movies, which has War Horse dragging up the rear.
(Okay, yes. It could also say something about the tastes of Academy voters, since they nominated Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close this same year. But seriously, it’s not a bad movie!)
20. READY PLAYER ONE
Ready Player One stirred up more ire than probably any Spielberg movie has to date. Many moviegoers were outraged that their favorite characters were being so callously mined and cynically repurposed for a blockbuster movie — as if Disney wasn’t doing that regularly with its hollow live action remakes and Star Wars overload.
The very thing many viewers loathed about Ready Player One is exactly what I love. This film is aggressively nostalgic, regurgitating the beloved IP of our youths with indifferent abandon. Freddy Kreuger? The Iron Giant? Buckaroo Banzai? If it’s from the last quarter of the 21st century and you recognize it, why the hell not throw it in there?
It’s great fun to see Steven Spielberg rip himself off for a change, because why not? Everyone else is doing it. Ready Player One is Spielberg’s meta-response to Super 8 and Stranger Things, one part “if you can’t beat ’em, join em!” shrug, the other part middle finger (maybe). Rabid fan culture is part of the text — giving Ready Player One a satiric element some critics may have missed. In the film, Mark Rylance plays James Halladay, a worshipped maestro of imagination (much like Spielberg himself). An evil corporation aims to take control of and exploit Halladay’s creation, just as studios have done to storytellers since day one. In its own sly way, Ready Player One is about the fraught connection between creativity and commerce. It’s not hard to imagine a similar inner battle raging between Spielberg the Visionary and Spielberg the Executive. Perhaps, in a strange way, this is his most personal film.
Ready Player One‘s orgy of IP ends up being the perfect meta-riff on pop culture in the 2010s. Its world-weary, shell-shocked society is so nostalgic for the past, they hide inside a digital “oasis” that serves up an endless stream of safe, controlled satisfaction 24/7 — and prevents them from experiencing anything fresh or new in the process. Sound familiar?
I won’t go so far as to say Ready Player One is underrated — but it is overhated. This may not be the film our Stranger Things-binging generation wanted, but it is certainly the one we deserve.
19. THE POST
Steven Spielberg. Meryl Streep. Tom Hanks. You could hardly ask for more prestige in one movie. And you could hardly ask for a more topical subject, either – rushed through production, The Post was the first major film release to seriously grapple with the you-know-who administration, released at the tail end of 2017 less than one year into his presidency.
The role of the press in refuting our president’s wild lies has only grown more complex and necessary since The Post was released — and, unfortunately for us, it’s a much more twisted story than the publishing of the Pentagon Papers is here. Still, Spielberg immerses us in the hustle and bustle of the 1970s Washington Post newsroom, with a serious nod to All The President’s Men but an eye trained on a pivotal female at the center of this story, publisher Katharine Graham. The role calls for a lot of hemming and hawing and not much action, but Streep can make anything riveting, and that she does.
The Post is a rousing ode to the freedoms America is currently forgetting, a call to action against the warped values of corrupt administrations, and a comforting reminder that we got through this already once before, more or less. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to view it as history, as just another entry in Spielberg’s filmography. For now, it’s still too fresh and immediate not to think of it as a document of the current moment, even if it’s set nearly fifty years ago.
18. EMPIRE OF THE SUN
Aww, look. It’s Baby Batman!
Most notable as the big screen introduction of future Dark Knight Christian Bale, Empire Of The Sun is one of the curiosities in Spielberg’s closet, a strange but mostly enchanting World War II story about a boy separated from his parents in Shanghai after the Pearl Harbor attack, then placed in an internment camp.
Some of the film feels uneven, but certain moments are incredibly evocative and reminiscent of Spielberg’s later work in A.I., which also centered on a child protagonist facing a very dark situation. (This is no E.T.) Bale sees the detonation of the Nagasaki atomic bomb going off and thinks it’s the soul of a departed friend, and a Japanese teenager is also killed in brutal fashion. Empire Of The Sun doesn’t skimp on the horrors of war, though it’s a shade lighter than Saving Private Ryan.
Empire Of The Sun feels most like a warm-up for a lot of Spielberg’s subsequent films on both the darker and lighter side, but it’s also weirdly haunting in its own right. What comes across most is Jamie’s shedding of childhood and loss of innocence, something anyone can relate to despite the specificity of the setting. This isn’t one of the very greatest Spielberg movies overall, but it contains a few of his finer moments. It doesn’t go down as easy as so many of his films do, which makes it a memorable anomaly in his oeuvre.
17. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
Look, let’s just get this out of the way now — I’m not really a huge Indiana Jones person, which will probably get me into trouble later on this list. Don’t hurt me.
Sure, I like Indiana Jones just fine, but if I’m doing Spielberg, it’ll probably be more in the monsters-and-aliens mode, or perhaps I’ll go for a riveting historical drama. That said, the third film in this franchise is the second best, adding Sean Connery to the mix so Spielberg can make sure to explore his requisite daddy issues, which pop up one way or another in just about every one of his films.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is probably the very best example of what an “Indiana Jones movie” should be. Unlike the first, it was made after the character was already extremely popular, so Spielberg and Harrison Ford knew what they were working with. The film kicks off with a rousing opener featuring River Phoenix as young Indy, then teases us with a damsel (Alison Doody) who may or may not be a conniving bitch. (She ranks smack-dab in the middle of Indy gal pals, under Allen but above Capshaw.)
After the uneven Temple Of Doom, The Last Crusade gets the franchise squarely back on track… only to see it derailed again more than a decade later. (But you already heard all about that.) Maybe this really should have been the last crusade….
Catch Me If You Can would’ve been the perfect title for Minority Report, which was released the same year; then again, it would be the perfect title for most Spielberg movies. (If I was clever with Photoshop, I’d redo all of his movie posters with that title. I feel like Jaws would be especially amusing.)
Spielberg isn’t necessarily a maestro at out-and-out comedies, but he is pretty swell at a drama with a light touch. Catch Me If You Can is a bit of an anomaly for Spielberg, in that it’s one of his lighter dramas that actually fully works. (As opposed to Always and The Terminal.) It’s the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a teenager who scammed people into thinking he was a doctor and a pilot, amongst other things. Leonardo DiCaprio was pitch perfect for the part of the handsome young charmer — in an era when Leo sometimes looked too young for the parts he was playing, this role was just right for him.
It’s also Spielberg’s second (and not final) pairing with Tom Hanks, who puts on a Boston accent as the FBI man who is the “catcher” in the titular scenario. Plus we get Christopher Walken as Abagnale’s con artist father and a handful of actresses who would later find further fame, including Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, and Elizabeth Banks. The film drags on a touch too long in the third act, as Spielberg’s films from the 2000s often do, but for most of the ride, it’s a total charmer, and a nice respite from the summer blockbusters and historical dramas we tend to get from Spielberg — even if it doesn’t 100% stick the landing.
This is where it all began.
Catch Me If You Can would’ve been the perfect title for this one, but Duel isn’t bad, either. The guys who face off here aren’t using swords or pistols, though, but 20th century automobiles. Spielberg has become the poster boy for big screen cinema, so it’s somewhat ironic that he got his start on TV. Following a series of episodic television gigs, the man technically directed his first feature for the small screen, though there’s nothing made-for-TV about it. The film is short on dialogue and big on action, primarily a one-man show about a suburban dad who is menaced by an unseen truck driver.
At least, we can only assume there’s a driver in there. Spielberg would later employ the Hitchcockian power of suggestion with the shark in Jaws, but he does it to an even greater degree here by providing zero clues as to what this driver’s motives could be. Duel might as well be a monster movie with so many shots of that sinister big rig in pursuit of poor David Mann in his tiny red Plymouth Valiant. David grows increasingly, justifiably paranoid wondering which of the strangers he encounters in a diner could be the sadistic psycho who holds an inexplicable grudge against him, which works all the better because we never get the answer.
There are few frills here. It’s mainly a lean, mean ride with nonstop suspense, more streamlined than anything Spielberg has made since. The film works just as well today as it did back then, especially now that our TVs are bigger. It’s also a better indication of Spielberg’s talents than his next film, The Sugarland Express, which also had a lot of car-centric action, minus the masterful villain.
It may not quite be “redrum,” but Samantha Morton’s delivery of that singular word is pretty fuckin’ spectacular, and goes a long way in making this, in many ways, the eeriest of Spielberg movies. (Official Spielberg movies, that is… more about that further down this list.)
You could place Spielberg’s movies in neat little piles of films that resemble each other. Monster Movies, WWII Movies, Alien Movies, and Futuristic Movies would be some of the categories, and this is in that final camp, sharing some aesthetics with A.I. but also conveying a look that is all its own. Minority Report‘s vision of the future is pretty nifty, though we probably don’t want to actually live in a world where criminals are punished before they’ve even committed a crime. Cruise plays a cop who uses prescient “Pre-Cogs” who see murders before they happen. This is convenient, until he’s the one accused of a crime he hasn’t committed yet.
The movie has all the ingredients of an A-grade blockbuster — it’s a moody mystery, an exhilarating chase film, a slick sci-fi flick, and it’s intelligent to boot. There’s also a stellar gross-out scene in which Cruise gets his eyes replaced by a doctor with highly questionable ethics (and hygiene) — not for the squeamish. The third act takes Cruise out of commission for a spell, relying on an otherwise little-seen wife character, which is somewhat jarring — yet another finale that Spielberg doesn’t totally nail from this era, though it works better on repeat viewings.
Just as Catch Me If You Can could be the title of most Spielberg films, Minority Report‘s “Everybody Runs” tagline would work for a hell of a lot of his movies, too.
There are people in this world who would like to convince me that The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a bad movie. To these people I ask — does this movie have dinosaurs? Does it feature multiple beloved characters from the first Jurassic Park? Do any of said beloved characters dream that said dinosaurs can talk? If the answer to the first two questions is “yes” and the last is “no,” then you have yourself a perfectly good Jurassic Park movie.
Let’s get a few things out of the way before I start reminding you of all the perfectly wonderful things you’ll find in The Lost World. Yes, Vanessa Lee Chester’s cringe-inducing gymnastics attack on a velociraptor is an ill-conceived moment. (“They cut you from the team?”) Yes, Julianne Moore’s decision to snatch a baby T-Rex and bring it inside the trailer with her is a pretty dense move for a supposedly brilliant scientist — a lame excuse for the awesome action sequence that follows. And yes, it kind of sucks that they felt the need to follow Michael Crichton’s “oops, sequel?” idea of having another dinosaur island, in secret, as backup for when things inevitably go really poorly on that first dinosaur island. (You know, just in case, as you do… at the expense of many millions of dollars.) The fact that Isla Nublar was actually not destroyed at the end of the first movie as it was in the books makes Isla Sorna rather pointless in the cinematic universe, but whatever. More dinosaurs!
Shove those few things aside and get past the ho-hum ramp-up, and you have a string of pretty awesome action scenes. A T-Rex attacking a camp of sleeping dino hunters. Raptors stalking through the brush attacking said dino hunters. Not one, but two T-Rexes going ape shit on a trailer in a pitch perfect sequence of Spielbergian suspense. And, of course, Spielberg’s “fuck you” to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, which was released in the summer of 1998 but heavily touted long beforehand, totally undermined by The Lost World‘s T-Rex stomping through San Diego a full year earlier. From a purely plot-oriented standpoint, the San Diego attack is silly and unnecessary, but it’s also a sensational amount of fun and works better than absolutely anything in Godzilla. It’s Spielberg working at peak Spielberg, and I’d watch that sequence again before most sequences in most movies, including many of Spielberg’s best.
Also, no velociraptors warmly greet anyone, so that’s a plus. This is no Jurassic Park, but it’s absolutely the best Jurassic Park sequel.
When is an alien attack movie not just an alien attack movie? When it’s made by Steven Spielberg.
This is one of three films Spielberg directed in a row that prominently feature airplanes or airports, just after 9/11. The first was 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, which Spielberg took on before 9/11 and doesn’t contain any significant parallels to September 11. (In fact, it’s the rare feel-good airplane movie.) The second is The Terminal, which definitely does explore American anxieties surrounding national security via airports, though in a fairly tame way. And the third is War Of The Worlds, which most directly and explicitly references 9/11 through the allegory of an extra-terrestrial attack.
The original War Of The Worlds was an infamous radio play from Orson Welles that confused some listeners into thinking Earth really was under siege by Martians, so there was no more perfect exploration of our terrorism nightmares than this, which conjures up plenty of 9/11 imagery to make an extra-terrestrial attack feel truly nightmarish (unlike the slicker, popcornier versions of such events, offered by something like Independence Day).
War Of The Worlds is shockingly bleak and gritty for a summer action flick, which is exactly what a film of this nature needed to be in 2005. September 11 changed the way we view scenes of mass hysteria in urban settings, even if it didn’t stop Hollywood from making such films. Released the same year as Munich, which thematically and visually touched on the subject even though it took place two decades before 9/11, War Of The Worlds is only slightly marred by a preposterously upbeat ending, in which a character who should definitely not be alive is, miraculously.
Without this ending, this film likely would’ve cracked my Top 10. (The final five minutes of several Spielberg movies end up weakening them from being total masterpieces, including Minority Report above.) As it stands, this is a truly unsettling blockbuster, something we almost never get. I can’t think of any other mega-budget sci-flick in which the mass deaths are so harrowing. Plus, the neat biological twist at the end is far better — and far more believable — than any climactic showdown. As it is so eloquently put in another Spielberg movie: “Life finds a way.”
Few people can get asses in seats quite like Steven Spielberg, which is how a talky, action-free political drama went on to gross $275 million back in 2012.
I’m still mad about Argo nabbing Best Picture that year amidst the silly torture controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, but it’s also hard to fathom how Argo trumped Lincoln (or how Chris Terrio’s Argo script won over Tony Kushner’s brilliant adaptation). The problem with a prestige picture like Lincoln is that everyone expects it to be good, and then it is — though Daniel Day Lewis’ ethereally uncanny leading performance eclipsed the movie’s many other virtues. Academy voters shrugged off Lincoln as “just Spielberg, being awesome again,” but looking back on it a few years later, Lincoln stands right up there with some of Spielberg’s best dramatic work, as well it should. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most estimable and mythic American hero, so it’s only fitting that the most mythic American filmmaker would bring him to life on the big screen.
Spielberg and Kushner get their depiction just right, eschewing a lot of the tropes that bog down standard biopics. There’s not a lot of fat here — the film focuses almost exclusively on Lincoln’s political maneuvers as he attempts to ratify the amendment that will abolish slavery. There’s not a lot of suspense for us, since we know how this panned out, but the scenes still crackle with immediacy and vitality that are often lacking in “important” historical dramas, and just about anything set in a courtroom.
Day-Lewis is untouchable as Lincoln, deserving every molecule of his Oscar. Sally Field is a hoot as Mary Todd. The film’s one possible false note is its dramatic ending, which takes us through the assassination. A more powerful way to go might have been to cut it off right before, as Lincoln tells a valet that it’s time to go, but he would “rather stay.” It should never be a surprise that a Spielberg movie is a masterpiece, but this one displayed a new, more mature side of the filmmaker. Lincoln shows a lot of restraint in its storytelling, but is all the more sumptuous for it.
10. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Like I said above, I’m not a huge Indiana Jones person. Raiders Of The Lost Ark made #1 on several of the Spielberg ranking lists, and #2 on others. It’s currently at #66 on AFI’s list of the 100 best American movies. It was nominated for Best Picture. Many claim Raiders Of The Lost Ark is Spielberg’s greatest film, earning a place alongside Star Wars as an iconic adventure story, and I’m not saying it’s not. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a ton of fun, with Harrison Ford stepping into the character’s shoes for the first time like he’d been playing him for years. Karen Allen is definitely the best Jones girl, and in terms of iconic scenes, you can’t beat the giant boulder. It’s probably the most iconic scene in any Spielberg movies, and this man knows his iconic moments.
So, yeah, putting Raiders Of The Lost Ark at #10 is blasphemy to many, but hey! It made the Top 10! That’s worth something! This placement means I really like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, even if I’m not attached to it the way I’m attached to some of the films ranked above it.
George Lucas’ original version named him Indiana Smith, by the way, and Spielberg was the one who told him that was a bad idea, which might be the man’s single greatest contribution to cinema. Indiana Smith? That movie would’ve made, like, twenty dollars. I don’t mean to rag on George Lucas, but it seems like the guy was talked out of more bad ideas than he had good ones. We have him to thank for the franchise, but I’ve an inkling it’s Spielberg who made magic out of it. (Two of the four, anyway.)
9 1/2. POLTERGEIST
If you don’t know the behind-the-scenes lore, you might be scratching your head right about now, thinking, “Wait a minute — Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist?”
Well. Depends on who you ask.
Technically, no. Officially, Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. That’s whose name appears in the credits as the film’s director. But the only reason Spielberg didn’t direct Poltergeist was because of a contract that barred him from working on another movie until E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released. So Spielberg wrote and produced Poltergeist, and showed up to set every day, and told the crew what to do, and set up the shots and… yeah, legend has it that he basically directed this movie. So I’m not officially placing it in my ranking of the best Spielberg flicks, just nudging it into an imaginary slot at #9.5 because it would be in my Top 10 if it really were a Spielberg movie.
Watching Poltergeist now, it’s impossible to deny that this is a Steven Spielberg movie in just about every sense. The Freeling family has a lot in common with Elliot’s kin in E.T. — it feels like they could be neighbors. The films were released a week apart in the summer of 1982. Both films feature families dealing with strange happenings in suburbia, and though E.T. is billed as a family adventure while Poltergeist is considered a supernatural horror movie, they both have plenty of levity, action, and underlying menace.
There are few moments in horror as good as little Carol Anne pressed up against the television, talking to ghosts through the static screen. (Our national anthem has rarely been so menacing.) Plus, there’s a killer clown doll — dolls and clowns are both creepy, and when you combine them, it turns out, it’s double-creepy. The film’s climax is more Indiana Jones-style “what next?” goofiness than it is truly terrifying, but that’s not such a problem. Like the best horror films, Poltergeist would tell a compelling story even if the jolts were excised — JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are hippie parents adjusting to life in the humdrum suburbs, and it’s not just the ghostly goings-on that prevents them from fitting in. (You don’t see a lot of suburban parents smoking pot in today’s cinema, do you?)
So good job, Tobe Hooper!
9. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
Steven Spielberg likes to do things definitively. He made the definitive monster movie (twice), the definitive Holocaust movie, and, with Saving Private Ryan, the definitive war movie. I’m not sure he sets out to do it this way, but that’s the way it happens.
Saving Private Ryan is most remembered for its lengthy opening sequence, depicting the chaos and carnage of Omaha Beach. Soldiers drop like flies, bullets whiz to and fro. It’s absolute insanity. You have to wonder how anyone survived that. (I’d be the guy curled up in fetal position crying his eyes out.)
The D-Day sequence is a killer, of course, and you can feel its influence on pretty much every war movie made after Saving Private Ryan. But Saving Private Ryan also boasts some astute character work, differentiating the eight men who are tasked with finding and retrieving one man who happens to have the good (and bad) luck to be the only surviving brother from his family. (The military has decided that three out of four Ryan sons is enough to sacrifice for the good of the country.) Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper — you can’t ask for a roster of talent much better than that, and we also get appearances from the likes of Paul Giamatti, Ted Hanson, Nathan Fillion, and Bryan Cranston.
And let’s not forget a baby-faced Matt Damon, fresh off his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting, and that this was the beginning of Spielberg’s (mostly) fruitful collaboration with American everyman Tom Hanks. (Honestly, it was only a matter of time before the star of Big and Forrest Gump teamed up with the director of E.T. and Hook. What took so long, guys?) Saving Private Ryan gets war frightfully right, but the human interactions between the set pieces are what make it sing. No doubt about it — Saving Private Ryan is a modern masterpiece.
A lot of filmmakers make only the most harrowing of dramas. (Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, for example.) Maybe none of Spielberg’s movies are as grueling as all that, but he makes films all across the spectrum, from Tintin to Amistad.
Munich is like a mashup of both sensibilities. In some sequences, it’s a slick thriller, but the entertainment comes at an expense. First, you have to get through the opening sequence, which depicts Israeli Olympic athletes gruesomely slaughtered by machine guns. From there, Munich occasionally has the crackle of a spy film, but other times asks hefty questions about the nature of revenge. (Like, does it ever do any good? Answer: not really.) It’s fun to see a pre-Bond Daniel Craig in spy mode, though the drama delves deeper than any 007 film. This is basically what Skyfall would be like if James Bond consistently felt shitty about what he was doing.
The script is by Eric Roth and Tony Kushner. The latter is likely responsible for insightful dialogue about the cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Eric Bana plays a Mossad agent tasked with vengeance against the Black September terrorist group, but it’s a hardly black versus white. The whole film unfolds in a moral grey area, asking us to feel bad for every victim of violence we meet, whether or not they “had it coming.” Take, for instance, Bana’s flirtation with a female spy who ends up playing for the other side. Her execution is sad, shocking, and possibly the most “adult” sequence in any Spielberg film.
Munich was released in 2005, just six months after War Of The Worlds, and is, in its own way, just as much grappling with 9/11. One shot gives us a glimpse of the Twin Towers in the distance, a reminder of where all this violence is headed. You could view Munich as both the prequel and sequel to War Of The Worlds. They’re a perfect (and weird) double feature, which is why I put them side by side on this list.
Munich was nominated for Best Picture and Spielberg for Best Director, but it came away from the Academy Awards with zero wins. (It was up against Crash and Brokeback Mountain, which took the top prizes.) The film has aged well, despite the sex scene that some dismiss as ridiculous. (It works for me, though admittedly it is over-the-top.) This isn’t quite at the level of Spielberg’s most masterful historical dramas, but it’s just a hair under, and it’s a stellar thriller to boot.
7. THE COLOR PURPLE
The Color Purple set a record at the Academy Awards — for not winning any. Of the 11 nominations it received, The Color Purple lost many — including Best Picture — to Out Of Africa, which ties it with 1977’s ballerina drama The Turning Point as most nods without a win.
That’s crazy, looking back on it now, because the film is so incredible on every level. There’s a trio of knockout performances, including the film debuts of both Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as the commanding presence of Margaret Avery as seductive Shug Avery. (All three were Oscar nominated.) Given how known Goldberg is now for characters like her kooky psychic in Ghost, it’s easy to forget that she can deliver a performance this understated, but she’s phenomenal as the meek Celie who gradually, over the course of many decades, learns to take a stand for herself. It’s easy to imagine any three of these ladies winning an Oscar for these performances in mot years; in retrospect, it’s a head-scratcher that none of them could. (Goldberg won a Golden Globe, though.) Leave it Hollywood to nominate a beautiful, stirring drama about black people in the American south, and then bestow all the prizes on the movie about white people in Africa. (Africa does make a quirky cameo in The Color Purple.)
While the film (adapted from Alice Walker’s book) is about overcoming the unkindnesses people do unto each other, The Color Purple is a more intimate and narrowly scoped film than most of Spielberg’s. It does span decades, but deals with just a handful of characters. There’s no war, no major historical event to provide an action distraction as there is in most of Spielberg’s other dramas. The film also neglects to define clear-cut heroes and villains — we need only to see a few hints of how black people were treated by whites in early 20th century Georgia to understand that the cruelty black men inflict upon black women is a reflection of the way black people had been treated by white people for a couple hundred years at that point. The Color Purple doesn’t hammer this home, but lets it simmer in the background. It may be Spielberg’s most subtle film.
The Color Purple is a remarkable film in so many ways, not least of which is the fact that it’s a movie entirely about black people. There are precious few white characters, and none of them are terribly sympathetic. This would be a feat in 2015, but in 1985? Pretty striking. The last 30 years have given us precious few big prestige dramas about African Americans, particularly ones that aren’t about a famous figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ray Charles. With #OscarSoWhite dominating the headlines, it’s a good time to remember The Color Purple and, hopefully, make more films like it.
6. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
Dinosaurs, sharks, and aliens. That’s blockbuster Spielberg in a nutshell, and this is the film that first saw him bring extraterrestrials to life on the silver screen. Bum-bum-bum-BUM-BUM! (That five-note melody will forever be etched in our brains.)
Released in 1977, the same year as Star Wars, just two years after Spielberg exploded into the mainstream with Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is kind of a spiritual sequel to Jaws‘ human story. Again, we have a doting father who is caught up in a Moby Dick-like pursuit, and again we have Richard Dreyfuss. The aliens turn out to be friendly, E.T.-type guys (as opposed to those people-pulverizing dickheads from War Of The Worlds), but that doesn’t stop Spielberg from staging their early arrival like a horror movie, as spooky-looking spaceships come down to Earth and frighten a handful of unsuspecting humans, including Dreyfuss and Melina Dillon and her son.
As he did in Jaws, E.T., and Poltergeist, Spielberg displays a knack for depicting everyday domestic life for a typical American family, allowing such scenes to unfold with surprising spontaneity and freshness. (A lot of Spielberg movies feel like an extended 70s/80s juice commercial before the action gets going, and that’s actually not a bad thing.) Dreyfuss obsessively molding his mashed potatoes into the shape of the mountain he’ll later meet the aliens on is one of Spielberg’s most inspired devices, and the final sequence is just magical. Added bonus: French auteur Francois Truffaut has a big role as a scientist. This is thoughtful, soulful sci-fi at its best.
5. A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
If E.T. and A Clockwork Orange fucked, this is the twisted little baby they’d raise together. A handful of years after Hook, Spielberg returns to the realm of fairy tales, except this time he’s brought his friend Stanley Kubrick to play in the sandbox with him. And you know what that means!
Adapted from the story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” A.I. is a self-conscious re imagining of Pinocchio that starts off sweetly enough. David, a cherub-cheeked robot boy, is bestowed upon a couple whose son is unlikely to awaken from a coma. He’s a little creepy as played by Haley Joel Osment, but gradually his new mommy warms to him… until the “real boy” wakes up and decides he doesn’t like his new plastic-and-metal little brother. Eventually, this causes David’s beloved mommy to abandon him, sending the tech tyke into a spiral of mayhem and violence that finds him befriending a robo-pimp wanted for murder, visiting a “Flesh Fair” that threatens to tear him to literal pieces, and ends with this precious creature freezing to “death” at the bottom of the ocean, waiting for his mommy to save him.
And this is Spielberg?
Spielberg deals with dark material all the time, but he isn’t usually quite this cynical and dour. That’s where Kubrick’s influence kicks in, making for this delightfully sadistic concoction — ab absolutely immaculate blend of sweet and sour. Before paranoia about artificial intelligence was so cinematically en vogue as it is now, A.I. raises a lot of difficult questions about where the line between man and machine truly lies, but the neatest trick of all is that we end up feeling more for the A.I. characters than any of the humans.
A.I. contains a doozy of an unexpected ending that I hated upon first viewing, mainly because I didn’t fully understand it. It’s maybe a little drawn out, and can easily be criticized for allowing Spielberg to force a pseudo happy ending on a movie that’s a lot more depressing. Thematically, though, it all checks out upon closer inspection. The cast is pitch perfect, from Jude Law as the eerily alluring Joe to the talking teddy bear who accompanies David on his adventures like the best of trusty sidekicks. A.I. is like a children’s storybook come miraculously to life, but with a personality disorder you weren’t expecting.
4. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
From one of Spielberg’s two-letter titles to the other…
If I had to pick one movie to show extra-terrestrials about what a movie is, it would be this. And not just because it’s about an extra-terrestrial. This is the moviest movie there is. No other movie is more movieish.
Steven Spielberg hasn’t actually made all that many warm-hearted family friendly movies, but it’s still a quality attributed to the maestro, and that’s mostly because of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which is arguably the greatest family film of all time. And like all truly exceptional family films, contains a handful of moments that should rightfully scare the living shit out of children.
I know, because I was one of those children. My parents literally forced me to watch this movie on VHS. I cried and protested and probably shit myself during that first encounter with E.T. in Eliot’s backyard, but then, of course, I loved it.
It’s hard to oversell E.T. as the movie masterpiece that it obviously is. For one, it has one of the most iconic images in all of cinema, which has since become the defining image of his body of work (and his Amblin logo). And that’s saying a lot, given that no one has created more indelible cinematic images than Steven Spielberg. E.T. is also is the 11th highest grossing film of all time — kicked out of the Top 10 this year by the Spielberg-produced Jurassic World. (It would rank as #4 adjusted for inflation.) Its imminently hummable score is outdone only by other John Williams music. But mostly: how cute is little Drew Barrymore?
Spielberg George Lucased E.T. back in 2002, removing guns and replacing some E.T.s with digital creations, and has since thankfully decided never to go back and fuck with a masterpiece again. (Seriously, auteurs — stop doing this.) Fun fact: Harrison Ford had a cameo as Elliot’s principal, but it was cut from the film.
Disturbing fact: Spielberg was at one point developing a sequel called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, which had Elliott and a friend abducted and tortured by sinister extra-terrestrials, trying to phone E.T. for help. It’s hard to imagine the hell dimension alternate universe where that movie actually happened, but I’m glad we don’t live there.
3. SCHINDLER’S LIST
Spielberg has always alternated between popcorn blockbuster fare and serious drama, and 1993 was the year that these twin sensibilities bore two of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. A certain dino-centric film nabbed three technical Academy Awards in the same year that Schindler’s List won seven, including Best Picture and Spielberg’s first win for Best Director. Of all the blockbuster/drama combos Spielberg has released within a single year — The Lost World and Amistad, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, War Of The World and Munich — this is the one that makes you blink a few times and wonder what was in the water in 1993.
Pardon the tasteless pun, but the Holocaust has been done to death in cinema. Schindler’s List still towers above the rest as the definitive film on the subject. Has any other film so expertly grappled with the murkiest horrors of history, while also providing such hope? Spielberg doesn’t shy away from depicting the true horrors in harrowing fashion. Having made Nazis the cartoonish bad guys in some of his films (notably, Raiders Of The Lost Ark), Spielberg now portrays a more human side to this monster, which ultimately makes them come off as all the more evil. Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goth is one of cinema’s greatest villains. He’s downright charming in certain scenes, until he reminds us that he’s a sadistic killer. Let us also take a moment to remember the days when Liam Neeson was a real actor, not an unlikely action cliche. (Perhaps he just knew he’d never top Schindler’s List and gave up.) Neither of these men won the Oscars they were nominated for — those awards went to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia (understandable) and Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive (weird!). Also very good here: Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz.
It’s hard to find fault with a single element of this cinematic triumph. The black-and-white cinematography evokes a classic feel that fits right in with footage from the 1930s and 40s; it’s brought to us, of course, by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, Janusz Kaminiski (whose stellar stylings have elevated so much of Spielberg’s work). Spielberg also limited himself in terms of his toolkit, working without a Steadicam and shooting much of the film hand-held. (It still manages to look beautiful, more beautiful than just about any other movie.) Though it may feel like a bit of a gimmick, the girl in the red coat is also a total masterstroke — one of the most iconic in all of cinema. There’s no color in the world, as if the Nazis have drained the world of life. The number of Jews being murdered every day is staggering; it’s not hard to become desensitized just to cope with the sheer horror of it. And then suddenly one flash of color reminds us that every one of those six million was an individual. There’s no way around it — it’s pure genius.
Schindler’s List has rightly carved out a place for itself alongside the most enduring classics of all time — Casablanca, The Godfather, Citizen Kane. (It’s #8 on AFI’s list, right after Lawrence Of Arabia.) I’d say it is undoubtedly the most artful film Spielberg has made, and all bias aside, “the best.” But it’s not #1, is it? Because as good as Schindler’s List is, when I think “Spielberg,” I mostly want a good time at the movies. Schindler’s List is not the sort of movie you want to watch over and over again… but you know what is?
We’ve now reached the portion of this list that is sponsored entirely by monsters eating human beings.
Spielberg excels at making movies about real but humongous-sized creatures with very sharp teeth, and a good many cineastes would chastise me for daring to put this below a certain other chomping animal movie. I can see their point. If Star Wars is the granddaddy of all modern blockbusters, then Jaws is the grizzled great uncle with a mean streak — cunning and mostly well-intentioned, but you wouldn’t want to cross him.
Jaws remains a fairly terrifying experience, one of the most effective monster movies of all time, if not the most effective. You’d be seriously nuts to go for a swim in the ocean directly after watching this. (A lot of people never went back in the ocean after watching this.) With nudity and ample bloody violence, it’s a curiosity left over from the pre-PG-13 era, when something with this much bite could still a get a PG rating. (Good luck even saying “shit” in a PG movie now, let alone tossing in boobs and dismemberment.)
Spielberg has become so known for historically significant sentiment and whiz-bang wonder, it’s easy to forget that he can be this ruthless. Jaws is brutal. It mostly pre-dates the sense in horror movies that victims are being punished — for sex, for drinking, or just for being hot. The victims of the man-eating Great White Shark feel like real people, and their deaths have real gravity in the small town beach community.
The movie’s main remembered lesson is that “less is more”; using the shark sparingly makes it all the more effective when it does pop up. Still, I wish that wasn’t the only lesson most modern horror filmmakers had taken from Jaws. Its the pathos that really gives Jaws its bite. The deaths of these people matter. The stakes are incredibly real. A mother’s grief and anger over her shark-gobbled son’s passing is truly heartbreaking. How often do 21st century horror films actually let the audience feel sorrow after a gory set piece? Yeah, basically never.
Throw in John William’s almost painfully iconic score and classic moments like young Sean Brody emulating his papa at the dinner table or the three leads’ drunken bonding out on the open ocean, and you have a film that can handily be described as one of the greatest of all time. Yes, I’ve almost talked myself into bumping it to #1. And no, I’m not going to be able to find any flaws with it that justify it not topping this list, except to say that Spielberg has made so many great damn movies. They can’t all be #1.
1. JURASSIC PARK
Hello, have you met me?
Was I a boy child in the 90s?
Did I have a complete set of official JP action figures, including a roaring T-Rex, a mock Visitor’s Center, and both the Jeep and the Explorer?
I have an action figure of a guy named Harpoon Harrison, and I don’t even know who that is, but you better believe that I had it. Why? Because Jurassic motherfuckin’ Park.
Yes, this movie was so cool that toy company Kenner could make up characters who weren’t even in the movie and sell them to children like me. I didn’t care. It was Jurassic Park. So if you thought I would seriously top this list with anything but Jurassic Park, well… you’re just silly.
To be fair, I experimented with putting Jaws at the top of this list. Really, I did — Schindler’s List, too. But every time I tried, the 11-year-old boy inside me screamed bloody murder. (“Turn the light off! Turn the light off!”) There was just no way. Yes, Jaws invented the modern blockbuster, and there’s so much that’s so good about it, and it’s probably the reason Jurassic Park even exists. But Jurassic Park delivered on the ultimate childhood fantasy: dinosaurs, brought back to life!
And then it showed us that if our childhood fantasy actually came true, it would eat us. Which is actually a very important lesson for a child to learn, because all of our dreams devour us in the end.
The most important part of my life story is this: Jurassic Park was released in June, and I saw it in September. Not for lack of trying. This was an adventure 65 million years in the making, and it felt like at least twice that long before my parents allowed me to see it. It was a long, arduous summer, over which I bought all available toys and read Michael Crichton’s book, which graphically describes intestines spilt and other such horrors that weren’t depicted in the movie. (I didn’t know that, imagining all sorts of innards in this film my parents forbade me to see.) When school started in early September, I was the only kid in my class to not have seen The Movie. One of my best friends committed to being a velociraptor 24/7, bobbing his head and squawking his way across the playground. I was so jealous. When my parents finally surprised me with tickets to The Movie — probably because they sensed any 11-year-old boy who hadn’t seen Jurassic Park in his prime would immediately and irreversibly be pronounced a social leper — it was the happiest moment of my life. I found Jurassic Park the way some people find Jesus.
Like Jaws, Jurassic Park plays coy with its monsters, but this time it wasn’t because the dinos were having technical difficulties. It’s because Spielberg knew the value of a suspenseful buildup, and Jurassic Park has a full hour of it before things go haywire. Spielberg knew we wanted dinosaurs, and he knew that we were willing to wait any amount of time for them. (Seriously, at this point in my life I would’ve sat through a 10 hour courtroom drama if I was sure a T-Rex would stomp in at the end.)
We’d be here another 65 million years if I tried to recount everything I like about Jurassic Park, so I’ll try to just hit the highlights. The T-Rex attack is a purely perfect moment of cinema in absolutely every way. The film was meta before “meta” was really a thing, showing Jurassic Park merchandise haunting the background. Michael Crichton’s book deserves a lot of credit for setting the pieces in place, but it was screenwriter David Koepp and Spielberg who found the concept’s true, awesome potential, the most masterful execution. (This movie also has the most superb one-liners.)
Now, there are a lot of Spielberg movies that can fairly duke it out for the top few slots, depending on one’s tastes. But it’s madness to think that Jurassic Park doesn’t belong near the top of this list. Yet somehow, Buzzfeed ranked Jurassic Park at #13, below War Horse. The Hollywood Reporter put it at #12, which is actually #13 because they cheated and used ties. Vulture also put Jurassic Park at #12… below Indiana Jones And The Motherfucking Temple Of Doom. Worst of all, Rolling Stone placed it at #16, trailing behind The Adventures Of Tintin, Amistad, and The Sugarland Express. Apparently, this author was playing with Sugarland Express action figures all through his childhood.
What the hell is the matter with these people?
Okay, I know, childhood fondness is no indicator of great art, but I’ve watched Jurassic Park plenty of times since then. On VHS, on DVD, on BluRay, in 3D, in the theater. It holds up. (You know what else held up? My Harpoon Harrison action figure. I’m pretty sure I still have that somewhere.) There’s a lot of good Spielberg face, but Jurassic Park contains the quintessential Spielberg face moment — that is, of course, Alan Grant grabbing Ellie Sattler’s head and forcing her to notice the brachiosaurus stomping by their Jeep. She pulls her sunglasses off, and no words are needed. Just eyes wide, mouth agape.
That’s the magic of Spielberg — he puts the audience right where the characters are, in awe of what they’re seeing and feeling and experiencing. It’s a very good place to be.