By Marshall Garvey
Of the hundreds upon thousands who have sat in the director’s chair, few, if any, can claim a filmography as rich and varied as that of Steven Allan Spielberg. While known primarily as the architect of the summer blockbuster, a thorough dive into his body of work shows he’s just as adept at historical drama, thrillers, war movies, animated adventure, literary adaptation, and more.
Given the remarkable diversity and ups and downs in quality these films comprise, it’s a filmography ripe for a worst-to-best ranking, especially with two new movies to include in the past few months. What better way to conclude Spielberg Month than doing just that? From Dennis Weaver’s work commute gone wrong in Duel to the nerd overload of Ready Player One, here’s an up-to-date evaluation of everything Spielberg has directed, from his absolute worst to his very best.
The bottom of the Amblin barrel. Spielberg’s first attempt at a remake, Always is a 1989 rendition of one of his most cherished childhood films, A Guy Named Joe. That 1943 movie starred Spencer Tracy as a hot shot WWII pilot who dies in a crash, thus becoming an angel who’s tasked with the impossible: Helping the love interest he left behind move onto a new romance. Always swaps WWII pilots for aerial firefighters in Montana, with Richard Dreyfuss (also a fanatic for the original film) playing Tracy’s role and Holly Hunter as his fiery love interest.
Unfortunately, 1940s sentimentality doesn’t wash in 1989, and that’s precisely why Always is such a misfire. Rather than update the story in a mature and subtle fashion, Spielberg chose to oversaturate it in a manner so saccharine it’s borderline embarrassing to watch. Dreyfuss and Hunter, in addition to having zero chemistry, spout puke-inducing dialogue that would have sounded ridiculous even in the ’40s. Despite some good aerial sequences, the film is largely rudderless and boring, two words I wouldn’t assign to any other movie of his.
The film’s only saving graces are John Goodman’s comic relief role and the final onscreen appearance of Audrey Hepburn, whose turn as an angel is as graceful and heartwarming as it should be. Otherwise, if it weren’t for Hepburn’s farewell and the Spielberg moniker above its title, Always would have faded into irretrievable obscurity. A fate that would honestly be much deserved.
Rating – * out of *****
31. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The standard choice for his worst. While it easily misses the last spot in my eyes, that in no way lets it off the hook for its crimes against one of the greatest franchises of all-time. Obviously, this can largely be chalked up to everyone’s movie hero-turned-pariah George Lucas, who was so insistent on including those damned aliens that he even shot down a script written by The Shawshank Redemption and The Walking Dead auteur Frank Darabont.
Even though Lucas is to blame for the film’s worst elements, it’s still Spielberg who reluctantly went ahead and realized them. 10 years later, Crystal Skull remans every bit the disaster it was decried as upon release. For starters, the actors all look tired, disinterested, and even downright washed up, most of all Harrison Ford. Karen Allen, whose Marion Ravenwood in Raiders was as badass as Ellen Ripley and Princess Leia, is rendered inert here. Even the late, great John Hurt decided to humiliate himself as well. And I’m not even bothering with Shia LaBeouf.
As for the film’s signature moments of ineptitude, I won’t bother delving into them either. By now we know them by heart: the CGI ants, Shia swinging with monkeys, the desecration of the Lost Ark…and the ludicrous “Nuking the Fridge” scene. It all builds up to a pointless finale featuring aliens that are graphically inferior to the ones from the “Blue Da Ba Dee” music video. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has been subjected to more fanboy vitriol than anything not named the Star Wars prequels. While I do believe its Cold War ’50s schlock aesthetic could have yielded a great movie…it’s earned every last bit of that hatred.
Rating – *1/2 out of *****
30. The BFG
For a director who’s helmed so many movies beloved by audiences of all ages, it could be argued that Spielberg had never truly made a proper “kids’ movie”. One might cite E.T. as a good example otherwise, yet for a film centered around children, it doesn’t feel like it’s made just for younger audiences. Hook, one of his most derided efforts, probably fits that label better. But given it’s centered around an adult lead character, it’s also geared a bit towards older viewers finding their youthful heart.
That, in my view, is the primary reason why 2016’s The BFG falls short. Rather than realize a vision on his own terms, the movie feels like he’s struggling to squeeze inside the Disney box and make nothing more than children’s entertainment. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that – not everything he does has to be Schindler’s List – but BFG lacks the innovation and thematic richness expected of him. It stays within the lanes of conventional crowd-pleasing fare, with little creative flourish.
Which is a shame, because the film’s two lead performances are excellent. Mark Rylance, fresh off his Oscar-winning turn in Bridge of Spies, is charming and affable as the title character who befriends and protects an orphan girl from a flock of hungry giants. In a rare instance of a female protagonist in a Spielberg film, Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie is equally adorable and precocious. There are other requisite ingredients, chiefly sightly cinematography from Janusz Kaminski and an ebullient John Williams score.
Compared to quirkier (and darker) Roald Dahl adaptations like the 1971 Willy Wonka and the animated James and the Giant Peach, however, the film feels pedestrian. Weirdly, there are also moments dedicated to fart jokes and groin shots, which are out of place for Dahl and especially for Spielberg. They’re the kind of thing you’d expect from an industry hack, not the stately dean of popular entertainment himself. Audiences stayed away from BFG in droves in the summer of 2016, making it one of his biggest box office failures. As it turned out, they didn’t miss much.
Rating – ** out of *****
29. War of the Worlds
The summer of 2005 saw Spielberg return to a familiar trope: aliens visiting earth. But unlike the heartwarming spectacles of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, he decided to flip the script and update H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. To hell with five notes and Reese’s Pieces…it was time to blow things up, Michael Bay style.
One of my best friends, Duane, told me he greatly enjoyed the film when he saw it in the theater, but that it might not be as effective seeing it the first time on DVD or video. I have to second this notion, for without the immersion of a movie theater, it’s all the more glaring that War of the Worlds is one of Spielberg’s most soulless outings. It’s his only film that feels like it was made solely to be a blockbuster, without the thematic depth that usually elevates his popcorn flicks to high art.
This isn’t to say it’s all terrible. Since it’s still a Spielberg movie, there’s a decent amount of evocative visuals and expertly crafted disaster action. The most brilliant moment is when the first alien pod arises and starts zapping fleeing civilians. But when people are hit, they don’t get dismembered in a gory way, but evaporate into grey dust. To be clear, using 9/11 imagery is one of my ultimate pet peeves with modern movies…and this is a brilliant touch that doesn’t go overboard with its evocation of 9/11.
But no matter how many exciting scenes are packed into it, War of the Worlds fails because it has basically no setup before the aliens start attacking. And I mean almost none. We get a brief introduction to Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his estranged relationship with his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) who largely can’t stand him. After a couple scenes of that, the aliens start attacking. What happened to the way he developed characters inClose Encounters and E.T. before their interaction with otherworldly beings?
Altogether, it’s just hollow. No real setup, scant character development, and absolutely no payoff in the end. In perhaps the greatest episode of Epic Rap Battles of History, Quentin Tarantino roasts Spielberg with the following line: “Due to War of the Worlds, a failure’s what I label you/It looked like some sellout bullshit Michael Bay would do”. Well said, MC Tarantino. Well said.
Rating – ** out of *****
28. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
First, I have to acknowledge right off the bat that of all of the films on this list, this is the one I actually have to make the most effort in not letting nostalgic attachment override my critical eye. The Lost World was one of my favorite childhood movies, earning many VHS rewinds while I played with my velociraptor action figures in my living room in Truckee.
On its upside, The Lost World boasts a cast that’s almost on par with the first. Jeff Goldblum returns as Dr. Ian Malcolm, with Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Peter Stormare, and Richard Schiff as newcomers. And as is the case with any Spielberg film, it has some singularly great moments, most indelibly the scene where a group of dinosaur hunters are picked off by velociraptors enshrouded in tall grass.
Yet these don’t change the fact that The Lost World is, by any measure, a textbook disappointing sequel. A far cry from the taut intensity of each sequence in the 1993 original, this movie is bogged down by one too many moments that are just plain idiotic. (How does a preteen girl’s gymnastic move take down a velociraptor?) Especially knowing how vindicated he was by his decision to never helm any of the awful Jaws sequels, The Lost World feels like a violation of that integrity.
Truth be told, Jurassic Park was so impeccably realized that it was impossible to recapture it, and TLW doesn’t even come close. It also has the distinction of featuring one of the worst endings of any of his films. There’s just something about a T-Rex stomping around San Diego that rings hollow, and really breaks the first film’s brilliant idea of having the dinosaurs contained on a remote island, enticing the arrogance of humans to come and contain them for profit. All in all, The Lost World isn’t quite a bad movie. But to the chagrin of my eight-year-old self, it’s far from a good one too.
Rating – ** out of *****
Every great filmmaker, no matter how talented, is bound to churn out a disappointment every now and then. After growing in stature with each of his first four films, this World War II comedy was Steven Spielberg’s first true critical and commercial flop. He was clearly trying to emulate two of the greatest comedic masterpieces of all-time, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and John Landis’s Animal House, the latter having been released just the prior year. (Hell, John Belushi and Tim Matheson are playing basically the same characters they did in that film here.)
1941 certainly had potential, drawing upon weird-but-true stories like the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots. And its cast is as good as any assembled in movie history: Belushi, Matheson, Slim Pickens, Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee, John Candy, Ned Beatty, Dan Aykroyd, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Elisha Cook Jr., Eddie Deezen, Murray Hamilton, Patti LuPone, Lorraine Gary, and others. From a technical standpoint, it’s masterful, with lavish cinematography and set design, and a score by John Williams that’s arguably his most underrated.
Stanley Kubrick is alleged to have told Spielberg that 1941 was “great, but not funny.” That is indeed an apt summary of the film: It’s brilliantly made and cast, but ultimately just not as funny as it needed to be. The ferris wheel scene is the only moment that approaches Mad, Mad World levels of epic comic genius. Aside from that and a few other moments, the film devolves into an obnoxious, violent mess in the second half that barely elicits a giggle. No wonder Spielberg has largely steered clear of making comedies since.
Rating – **1/2 out of *****
26. The Sugarland Express
While Duel was officially his first movie (airing on TV before reaching theaters), this 1974 effort was his first movie released straight to theaters. Drawing upon a real incident that occurred in 1969, the story centers around Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), who has lost her infant son to a ruthless foster care system and breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of prison to get him back. The two take a police officer hostage and force him to drive them to Sugarland, Texas, with a convoy of police cars and an attentive public waiting on their every move.
While not the kind of big-scale action piece that he’d become known for, The Sugarland Express was nonetheless an early indication of his talent. Spielberg shows a surprising amount of flourish in handling a gritty, realistic story. The shots of the endless, winding rows of police cars snaking along Texas highways from dusk ’til dawn are especially evocative.
The film does show its age and, as Roger Ebert noted in his review at the time, is short on character development. But as a straightforward Bonnie and Clyde-esque romp, it works rather well. Spielberg keeps things moving at a fairly brisk clip, timing the action scenes just right. In his first of many collaborations with the director, John Williams augments the action with a minimalist, yet memorable, score.
Sugarland mostly distinguishes itself in Spielberg’s vast catalogue thanks to one salient trait: it’s centered around a female lead character. As much as I love him, there’s no denying he’s an exceptionally misogynistic director, as few of his films since have featured female leads. Sugarland succeeds thanks to the budding directorial acumen he’d soon perfect…but the fact that it’s driven by a woman’s story is something he should revisit far more in the remainder of his career.
Rating – *** out of *****
25. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Of all the rankings in this list, I have to confess this might be the hardest to do. Temple of Doom has an admittedly complex legacy, especially compared to how instantly revered its prior and following films were. Initially receiving mixed reviews upon release in 1984, its reputation has grown exponentially since. Yet I didn’t watch it for the first time until taking on this ranking, well after seeing the other three Indiana Jones films. In my view (one I believe is shared by many to varying degrees), it’s the weakest of the the original trilogy.
The primary reason for my muffled enthusiasm is one that’s especially noted in today’s climate: the racism. Now I am far, far from the kind who picks apart “problematic” art in an onanistic manner. I love plenty of movies with awful politics and racially questionable elements. In my view, it’s perfectly acceptable to point out problematic elements in media while still enjoying it. But the depiction of Indian people and Hinduism here is racist in an especially egregious way. (Three words: Chilled monkey brains.)
Beyond that, Temple of Doom just doesn’t have the same perfect balance that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark so nonpareil. While notably darker and more violent than the other films (a change of pace I do admire), it’s also excessively campy, often in tandem with the racist elements. After Karen Allen held her own as Indy’s love interest in the prior film, Kate Capshaw’s Willie is an unfathomably annoying replacement. The main story also feels too conventional, with Indy and company searching for a magical stone that can save a famished Indian town. It’s a heartfelt premise, but not as uniquely resonant as the nihilistic endings that add a clever twist to Raiders and Crusade.
There is a good chance Temple of Doom grows on me as time goes on. It does have plenty of strengths, most eminently the climactic mine cart chase and Jonathan Ke Quan’s debut as Short Round. I also commend it for making an effort to avoid merely repeating the winning formula of Raiders. Yet when compared to its impeccably crafted siblings, it feels a lot more like a classic middle movie stumble.
Rating – *** out of *****
After perfecting his dramatic sensibility with 1993’s Schindler’s List, Spielberg went from the horrific injustice of the Holocaust to that of slavery four years later with Amistad. This 1997 epic delves into the complex trial of the slaves who revolted aboard Le Amistad, a Spanish-owned ship that landed on U.S. shores. The resulting trial marked a turning point in the issue of slavery, involving legal maneuvers by everyone from President Martin Van Buren to Queen Isabella II of Spain. At the heart of it, idealistic yet practical property attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) advocates for the slaves’ right to return to Africa.
While it’s a resoundingly good movie, Amistad doesn’t reach the superlative stature of Schindler’s List. It isn’t for lack of trying, as it’s unflinching in its depiction of the horror of slavery. (The Middle Passage sequence rivals anything from his Best Picture winner in terms of indelibility and being borderline unwatchable.) It’s not even his best film based around black characters, as his 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple found far more resonance with me in how it explored the humanity of Whoopi Goldberg’s character. This isn’t to say this film doesn’t do a great job humanizing the slaves, which it does exceptionally thanks to Djimon Hounsou’s stirring performance as Cinque.
The main reason the movie is more good than great is that it doesn’t really go beyond the structure of a courtroom drama. In that capacity, it works very well, parsing through intricate historical details fluidly and featuring some outstanding monologues (chiefly Anthony Hopkins as former President John Quincy Adams in the Supreme Court climax). Schindler’s List featured suspenseful scenes of Oskar Schindler maneuvering within the system to save his Jewish workers, giving it more dramatic weight. Amistad, save for gripping flashbacks that detail Cinque’s story, doesn’t really have other narrative elements that augment the courtroom proceedings.
Over 20 years after release, Amistad seems to have been lost in the shuffle as he’s churned out many other (admittedly better) historical dramas. This is no way belittles the strength of this movie, and it’s by far one of his most courageous efforts. It’s one everyone should watch for its honesty in capturing what slaves endured at the time, especially in today’s difficult racial climate. Yet it was already eclipsed when it came out, and he’s only improved his eye for historical epics since.
Rating – ***1/2 out of *****
I once read that at Hook’s premiere in 1991, Steven Spielberg got up from his chair, walked into his limo outside, and cried to his wife Kate Capshaw that he had failed to make the movie he wanted. It certainly didn’t help when the film was widely savaged as a big-budget flop, with most critics ripping it mercilessly. Even Spielberg himself has had mostly unkind words for it in retrospect.
But in my view, Hook is a perfect example of a film that gets better with the passage of time. To be fair, I understand why it was so maligned upon its release. I can also see what Spielberg was talking about when he said that while he was confident in how he began and ended the film, he was unsure in how he directed the middle. But from today’s vantage point, it altogether holds up remarkably well. As my cinephile friend Dylan White noted, the millennial generation largely grew up watching it, which has boosted its reputation over time. (Dylan himself despises it.)
First to note are the production values, which received numerous Oscar nominations and were even praised at the time. The sets are lively, the costumes colorful, and the cinematography rich. But the film’s success lies in its execution of its brilliant premise: What if Peter Pan did grow up? Of course, a great premise can be poorly executed, and many felt that was the case here. Yet for me, Hook fulfills that premise very well, thanks chiefly to a consistently funny script, spirited performances, and a sentimental touch that surprisingly never feels too overbearing. (Plus: Detective Phil Collins!)
At the center of the film’s outsized, genuine heart is Robin Williams, who plays grown-up Peter Pan with pure exuberance. Especially after Williams’ shocking death in 2014, it’s hard not to smile, laugh…and cry…seeing how much fun he had in this role.
Rating – ***1/2 out of *****
22. Catch Me If You Can
It’s a societal norm in the U.S. that at some point in your life, preferably in your youth, you decide what you want to do with your life. Going into law or medicine are the most venerable choices. Or maybe you want to seek more personal thrills and adventures as an airline pilot. But what if you could be all three? From 1964 to 1967, Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) pretended be just that thanks to his mastery of check fraud, albeit with an FBI agent (Tom Hanks) ever in pursuit.
Based off the events of Abagnale’s unlikely story, Catch Me If You Can is at its best when it details his often spur-of-the-moment schemes and lies that keep him just one step ahead. DiCaprio, just before his maturation as an actor under Martin Scorsese’s guidance the rest of the decade, nails the role with youthful charm and swagger. No matter how unscrupulous Abagnale’s actions are, you can’t help but cheer him on.
Yet rather than predictably glorify Frank as the classic outlaw the audience roots for, the film wisely gives equal development to his pursuer. As Carl Hanratty’s obsession with catching Abagnale grows (even to the point of working on Christmas), he becomes just as sympathetic as the protagonist. As easy as it is to revel in Carl’s shortcomings as Frank keeps eluding him, the persistence and integrity with which he pursues his target makes him more than the one-dimensional antagonist he easily could have been.
If there’s any real flaw with the film, it’s that it goes on a bit long for a basic cat and mouse story. But it does come to a satisfying conclusion that uniquely employs Spielberg’s go-to theme of fatherhood. Catch Me If You Can is one I would never consider one of his best or most important movies, but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining.
Rating – **** out of *****
21. Bridge of Spies
Following the success of Lincoln, Spielberg furthered his historical and political vision with this 2015 thriller. Co-written by the Coen Brothers, Bridge of Spies deftly chronicles one of the most crucial chapters of the Cold War. Just before the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis ratcheted U.S. and Soviet tensions through the stratosphere, the rival superpowers butted heads over spies who had fallen into enemy hands.
The film kicks off with the first of those spies, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), being apprehended by the FBI. Abel is charged with spying for the Soviet Union, and is assigned an insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), as his attorney. As he’s tried in a legal system that had already put the Rosenbergs to death, Abel is almost sure to be convicted and face the death penalty. But Donovan, despite coercion from the CIA to break client confidentiality, insists on humane treatment for his client.
Abel is sentenced to 30 years in prison, which seems set in stone until 1960. Gary Powers, an elite pilot for the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program, is shot down over the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. Threatened with years of solitary confinement, a deal is soon agreed upon between the rival nations to swap Abel and Powers, with Donovan representing the U.S. But things get complicated when an American graduate student is arrested in Communist East Germany, and Donovan insists he be included in the swap as well. Just like when he represented Abel, Donovan defiantly hopes his faith in justice for all prevails once more.
The best element of the film by far is Mark Rylance’s breakout performance as Abel. He portrays the spy as stoic and collected, maintaining a cool demeanor even as he faces punishment as the most hated man in America. He unsurprisingly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, one of the better choices the Academy has made in recent years. The film is likewise very balanced and gripping in detailing every turn of a complex legal tale, although its best scene is the intense recreation of Powers’ plane going down.
As a historian who focuses primarily on the Cold War era of U.S. history, I had known about the Gary Powers incident, but not as much about its resolution. While not as risky in dealing with overlooked espionage history as Munich, Bridge of Spies lucidly tells that vital story with a strong script, top performances and taut direction. Its message of ensuring the fairness of the rule of law for all, no matter how many instinctively seek to scrap it out of fear, is an especially strong one in the post-9/11 world.
Rating – **** out of *****
20. War Horse
After countless films and shows revolving around World War II, Spielberg finally turned his attention to World War I in this lush 2011 period drama. War Horse was a story that had already gone through a unique evolution, starting as a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo that was adapted into a play in 2007. With its riveting tale of a British farm horse’s survival after being sold into the war, and his young owner’s determination to find him, it was destined for a third iteration on the silver screen.
War Horse succeeds magnificently on the strength of its moving story, but it also attains that success with equal help from its cinematography. Even when stacked up against his most highly rated efforts, this is by far one of his most gorgeously shot. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski fills each frame with the right amount of ambient lighting that strikes the perfect feeling of evocation. The verdant English country scenery of Dartmoor in particular adds greater resonance to many scenes.
To top it off, Spielberg brings the same acumen he honed on his WWII projects to this film’s battle scenes. Truth be told, there haven’t been nearly enough movies about World War I to begin with, and the conflict’s archaic brutality is captured very well here. Add a consummate British ensemble cast sporting David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, and Tom Hiddleston, and the result is an affecting triumph that’s as moving as it is majestic.
Rating – **** out of *****
19. Ready Player One
We live in the defining era of geekdom. From fanboy wars to Comic Con hype trains to the growth of video games as art and profitable entertainment, the nerds don’t need revenge anymore. And it makes sense, for as each passing year seems to grow darker and darker, the need for escape grows ever stronger.
In 2011, Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One envisioned a semi-dystopian future where nerd culture is humanity’s only real escape. In the virtual reality of OASIS, anyone can assume any avatar they like, from Buckaroo Banzai to Master Chief. But when the late creator of the OASIS issues a contest where the winner can control the entire system, it’s up to the young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) to win and keep it from falling into the hands of an evil corporation.
As he had faced several times before in his storied career, Ready Player One marked a crucial comeback for Spielberg. His 2016 family offering The BFG was a monstrous box office flop that led some to wonder if he had lost his touch for blockbusters altogether. He appropriately poured his heart into RP1, even to the point where he claimed it was one of his most arduous shoots. The script was co-written by Cline himself, akin to how the authors of Jaws and Jurassic Park assisted Spielberg’s stellar renderings of both.
That hard work, fortunately, paid off. Ready Player One marks not only another successful comeback, but is also his most skillfully directed effort in quite some time. Large-scale action sequences, a cast anchored by strong youth actors, eye-popping visuals, and an immersive world add up to a high-energy blast. The film also attains a unique impact, for while it gleefully indulges in countless pop culture references, it also cleverly warns against the excesses of escapism. Coming from a man who’s shaped movies, television and video games, it has an especially wise presentation. But it helps that the movie is just terrific fun regardless.
For more, read my full review of the film for LTG from April.
Rating – **** out of *****
18. The Terminal
In a filmography defined by box office smashes and historical epics, this 2004 charmer is one of Spielberg’s more low-key efforts. It’s also one of his rare forays into comedy, his first real attempt at humor since his initial flop, 1941. Yet there are no special effects or slapstick bombast to be found here. The story simply revolves around Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a humble man from the Eastern European nation of Krakozhia.
With a suitcase and a Planter’s peanut jar in hand, he’s arrived at New York’s JFK Airport on an enigmatic personal mission. Except for one problem: His native country has just erupted in a civil war, leading the U.S. to withdraw recognition and thus invalidating his passport. He is now a man without a country, with his homeland in limbo and no legal clearance to set foot in the United States. Customs director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) allows him to take up residence inside an abandoned terminal, under the strict condition he doesn’t step outside the airport exit. As he awaits his fate, he strikes up friendships with the airport’s employees, and even a light romance with a stewardess (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
The Terminal succeeds marvelously because it extracts as much humanity as it does humor from its material. Given its core components (an Eastern European lead character, an obsessive bureaucrat antagonist, an awkward romance, ethnic supporting characters), it could have ended up mean-spirited had it been put in the wrong hands. With a dose of satire of post-9/11 Homeland Security bureaucratic incompetence, it could have also strayed into heavy-handed as well.
Fortunately, Spielberg and his writers (Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervasi) are gentle in how they handle everything. The beauty of The Terminal is how even when you laugh at a certain moment, you concurrently feel empathy. Take the sequence where Viktor learns how to rig the quarter dispensers in order to buy Burger King. It’s a funny gag, yet uplifting to see him gain something as customs restricts his every move. Even Tucci’s character, who could have been a predictable bad guy, is more a professional trying to do his job. Viktor himself is never played up as an ethnic caricature, but as a simple man with a good heart trying to adapt to a sudden and strange predicament.
The movie is also brilliant in how it utilizes its setting. The airport is a place few would consider magical, mostly because it functions as a temporary in-between en route to our destinations. But as it becomes a semi-permanent home for Viktor, the viewer adopts a likewise attitude. You feel like you’re at home there yourself, making friends with the workers and finding joy in the quirks of its everyday proceedings. If anything, it mirrors the film itself: an unexpected stay that you strangely don’t want to end.
Rating – **** out of *****
17. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Spielberg has several titles that divide audiences and critics. Yet none are quite as polarizing as this 2001 sci-fi think piece, if only because of the circumstances behind its creation. Originally starting as a Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”, the film languished in pre-production for years as Kubrick waited for CGI technology to improve. In the ’90s, after Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park brought that technology up to speed, the two directors traded responsibility for who’d be behind the camera until Kubrick died in 1999. Spielberg then took up the project as a tribute to his late friend, even writing the screenplay (with help from previous story treatments).
The story is a Blade Runner-esque exploration of an artificial being’s search for humanity, albeit of a different nature. Set in a future where climate change has destroyed much of the human race, advanced robots called Mechas are introduced. These particular robots are distinguished by their ability to have thoughts and emotions, including that of a child. When two parents (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) are on the verge of losing their son to illness, they “adopt” a child Mecha named David (Haley Joel Osment), but both sides struggle to make the bond work. A near-tragic accident leads to David’s abandonment, setting him on a journey in a dangerous world to find out how he can become a “real boy”.
The predominant criticism from A.I.‘s detractors is that it fails to live up to Kubrick’s vision, and is thus a truncated rendering via Spielberg. I could understand this sentiment upon its release in 2001, only two years after Kubrick’s passing. But from today’s vantage point, A.I. Artificial Intelligence stands as one of the director’s most sophisticated efforts. He clearly did his best to achieve Kubrick’s vision, and in my opinion, he succeeded. A.I. is made with artisanal craft scene for scene, marrying Spielberg’s penchant for heartwarming emotion with Kubrick’s cerebral depth.
The opening scenes in particular are worthy of the late genius. Every moment in which David’s adoptive parents struggle to love and accept him are as mesmerizing as they are poignant. Haley Joel Osment’s David ranks high in the pantheon of child performers; his ability to capture a character who has all the human traits, yet must find true humanity, is all the more remarkable given Kubrick believed no child actor could pull it off. In the end, the “what could have been” of a Kubrick A.I. will always haunt us. But it’s overdue we fully appreciate what Spielberg gave us in the end.
Rating – **** out of *****
16. The Adventures of Tintin
By far one of Spielberg’s most unique efforts. His first film to hit theaters after the nuclear fridge disaster that was Crystal Skull, Tintin was assisted by a nerd dream team, with Peter Jackson producing and Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish penning the script. Eschewing live actors and sets, the film is done in 3D motion capture animation similar to Robert Zemeckis’ then-recent The Polar Express.
In an era that’s become saturated with movies based on comics, Spielberg did in fact make his own in this 2011 offering, but of a different variety. Rather than Marvel or DC, this draws from the old Belgian cartoon Tintin, created in 1929 by Herge (pen name of Georges Remi). With a lovable lineup of characters, expressive art and some 24 volumes of comics, it was ripe for a movie adaptation for a long time. Fortunately, the A-team assembled a stellar product on all fronts.
First, the film flat-out looks fantastic, with vibrant colors and lively animation that jump off the screen. The characters, despite obviously being fictional and animated, look incredibly real. Additionally, all of those characters, from Tintin himself to the clumsy investigators Thompson and Thomson, feel exactly the way they should. And the action is just plain fun, seamlessly careening from one comical action scene to the next as Tintin and Captain Haddock search for a mystery-enshrouded treasure.
Altogether, it’s far from his most heartfelt outing, but it’s a vivaciously entertaining joyride, and one that returned him to his roots of adventure storytelling. In any event, thank heavens he didn’t adapt Tintin in the Congo.
Rating – **** out of *****
After cutting his teeth filming Joan Crawford in Night Gallery and the short movie Amblin’, the up-and-coming Universal Studios prospect set televisions ablaze with this brilliant 1971 thriller. Featuring Dennis Weaver of Gunsmoke and McCloud fame in the lead role, Duel centers around the simple but terrifyingly real story of a man making a simple drive to work, only to be chased relentlessly by a demonic truck intent on murdering him.
A far cry from the eye-popping spectacles he would become known for very quickly, Duel is a triumph of minimalism. The film extracts an incredible amount of visceral tension from scenes as simple as the truck violently bumping into Weaver’s car. Like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, it elicits genuine terror from the viewer because it taps into a fear that everyone has experienced. It all culminates in a white-knuckle finale that showed the young Cincinnati kid’s nascent, but already substantial, knack for indelible action sequences.
Despite being his first film and nearing its 50th anniversary, Duel has fortunately lost none of its punch. While I wouldn’t want to live in a world without his blockbusters, a part of me wishes he had done more movies like this. As it is, there’s nothing else in his filmography like it…which makes it even more special.
Rating – **** out of *****
14. The Post
Continuing in the vein of Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, The Post focuses on another crucial chapter in U.S. history. This one tells the story of The Washington Post’s landmark decision to print the Pentagon Papers in their entirety, laying bare the decades of deception that led to the Vietnam War. The cast is anchored by the dual leads of Tom Hanks as executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Post owner Katharine Graham.
Truth be told, The Post seems like a movie I almost want to dislike. It’s utterly predictable, doesn’t really reveal anything new about its historical subject matter, and is incredibly safe Oscar bait. And to the surprise of no one, it features a none-too-subtle speech in defense of freedom of the press that just might be aimed at a certain someone currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yet none of this changes the fact that it’s still excellent Oscar bait, as it works as an old-fashioned newspaper movie. It’s at its best when it captures the fervent intensity of the newspaper industry, Almost needless to say, Hanks and Streep are dynamic as Bradlee and Graham, the journalistic titans faced with the imperative yet risky decision: Play it safe and placate those in power, or challenge them and risk imprisonment?
The Post obviously invites comparison to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece All the President’s Men, one of the greatest movies ever made. I certainly wouldn’t put it on par with that film, which was stylishly innovative and even more daring to make a mere two years after Nixon’s resignation. But The Post nonetheless has a similar appeal, chiefly how it captures the high stakes of the newspaper business and the sacrifice and risk that make it tick on a daily basis.
Especially in an era where newspapers are dying and finding the unvarnished truth in media seems harder than ever, The Post is an entertaining reminder to print the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s solidly acted, engrossing enough, politically agreeable, and a decent primer on the era for anyone unfamiliar with the real story. It’s nothing new…but then again, you don’t always have to push boundaries to make good films.
Rating – **** out of *****
13. Minority Report
In the summer of 2002, Spielberg reconnected with his action and science fiction inclinations in this Philip K. Dick adaptation. One might assume it’d be in the vein of Blade Runner, but rather than a strictly dystopian future, Minority Report depicts a future whose ethos is very much rooted in the present. Hitting theaters less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, it shows a world where crimes are preemptively stopped, echoing the obsession with preventative security that gripped the U.S. at the time.
In the fictional Washington D.C. of 2054, that kind of preventative justice many embraced after September 11 has been seemingly perfected. The Department of PreCrime has virtually eradicated the act of murder, thanks to the premonitions of three beings known as “PreCogs”. Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) deftly works in the program, which is so successful that the federal government is prepared to adopt it. But things take an unexpected turn when one of the PreCogs foresees Anderton committing a murder in the next 36 hours, sending him on the run to defy his future as his own colleagues pursue him.
Say what you will about Cruise, but few deliver consistently good action flicks like him, and this is his best. Minority Report uses its ingenious premise to its full potential, giving each action and chase sequence a level of urgency uncommon in the average blockbuster. Yet the film is far from just a Cruise vehicle, with a strong supporting cast boasting Max von Sydow, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, and Neal McDonough. The heavily bleached colors of the cinematography give the noir-ish plot and atmosphere a unique presentation.
Receiving widespread praise upon release, Minority Report seems to have become somewhat underrated in the years since. I’ve noticed it’s even had a chorus of detractors, with one of my favorite critics, Confused Matthew, citing it as his most hated film. I, for one, absolutely love it, chiefly for how it merged Spielberg’s science fiction talent and eye for contemporary themes into an electrifying whole.
Rating – ****1/2 out of *****
After the intense controversy stoked by Munich, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s next collaboration was yet another historical drama, albeit one centered around a far less incendiary topic: Abraham Lincoln. Not a biopic as one might expect, Lincoln draws primarily from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed 2005 book Team of Rivals, which chronicled the Kentuckian’s mastery in getting warring political factions to work together during the Civil War.
This film marked the beginning of the director’s detour into relatively safe, albeit well made and highly noble, historical films. As it’s centered around the man considered by most to be the best U.S. President of all-time, as well as the passage of the 13th Amendment, it’s not too audacious or revelatory. All the same, a truly definitive portrait of Lincoln on the silver screen had been strangely overdue for decades.
What elevates it to the status of a truly great film is obvious: Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting masterclass as Honest Abe, for which he won a record third Oscar for Best Actor. Lewis embodies Lincoln not as the untouchable giant he’s frequently regarded as, but a humble, flawed man navigating the factionalism and complexities inherent of American politics in order to achieve his goals. It’s on par with George C. Scott in Patton and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X in the pantheon of historical performances.
The supporting cast is just as crucial, with stellar turns from the likes of Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones. The fact that it chronicles a familiar slice of American history isn’t a mark against it; on the contrary, the way it curates such a rich, focused examination of the era makes it vital. Lincoln is not the greatest Civil War movie ever (Glory is my pick for that honor), but it’s high up there, and a contemporary classic to boot.
Rating – ****1/2 out of *****
11. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The summer of 1989 was packed to the hilt with hit titles, including Tim Burton’s Batman, Ghostbusters II, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Dead Poets Society, Licence to Kill, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Yet even in a time with so many other blockbusters and critical favorites, Spielberg proved he was still king of popular entertainment with the third installment of the Indiana Jones saga. This time, the Nazis are back it, trying to find the Holy Grail from Medieval times. Indiana sets out to stop them, albeit with a twist: he’s accompanied by his father, a Medieval literature professor who’s every bit his son’s equal.
Last Crusade succeeds in all facets one would expect from the franchise, including getting back to basics with beating up Nazis. But it reaches true greatness thanks to two pieces of casting in particular. The first is the opening sequence starring River Phoenix as a young Indiana, which not only provides a concise origin story for the character, but makes him more authentic. (One could say it’s like Solo, but done sufficiently in one scene.)
The second is Sean Connery as Indiana’s father Henry, in turns oafish and authoritative. (The scene where he accidentally shoots out the plane tail never ceases to get a laugh out of me.) Connery and Ford have seamless chemistry, not only in humorous moments but also in creating a wholly relatable father-son bond. After Kate Capshaw’s reviled performance in Temple of Doom, Crusade wisely skips having a love interest, although the decision to bring back Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies from the first film strengthens it tremendously.
If it weren’t for the abomination that is Crystal Skull, The Last Crusade would have the distinction of joining Return of the Jedi and Return of the King as rare trilogy finales that excel rather than fizzle. All the same, it stands on its own as one of the finest pure popcorn flicks ever made.
Rating – ****1/2 out of *****
10. Jurassic Park
Heading into 1993, Spielberg’s reputation as Hollywood’s blockbuster artisan had fallen by the wayside. The critical failure of Hook proved a setback, and just like the period after 1941, it was time for a comeback to push the envelope. Luckily, he had already acquired the rights to Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel about a group of scientists who successfully create dinosaurs on a remote island. Crichton and David Koepp penned the script, and after 25 months of pre-production, it was off to the Hawaiian islands to bring a story (as the tagline put it) millions of years in the making to life.
The result: Summer entertainment perfection. Jurassic Park is a glorious behemoth of a movie, and one that recalled the way Jaws equally entertained and terrified summer audiences. But while Jaws made hearts race with Hitchcock-esque minimalism and building of suspense, Jurassic Park gets the blood pumping by moving from one high-octane sequence to the next. And speaking of suspense, does it get any better than the raptor kitchen scene?
In order to truly bring dinosaurs back to life, Spielberg turned to a special effects dream team of Stan Winston, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett. The results pushed the boundaries for CGI for the rest of the decade, and a quarter century later their impact hasn’t dissipated. Even though the concept of dinosaurs and humans finally interacting is no longer novel, the authenticity with which each dino is recreated is still remarkable. One frequent criticism of the film is that while these effects and action are top shelf, it’s not commensurately strong in developing its characters (save for Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm and the kids).
I do second this notion, especially compared to the character development in Jaws. Yet it doesn’t override how satisfying those scares and thrills are. Also akin to Jaws, my only knock against Jurassic Park is that it has to share its chronological genes with a litany of vastly inferior sequels, with the sure-to-be-awful Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom hitting theaters this month. But they in no way soil the greatness of the original. If anything, they only enhance it.
Rating – ***** out of *****
I may have to recant my earlier statement about A.I. being the most divisive film here. This 2005 thriller, which explores the Mossad’s response to the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics, probably takes the cake. While receiving many great reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Munich drew ire from people all across the political spectrum. Palestinian liberation supporters saw it as a crude defense of Israel’s counterterrorism policies; hardline Israel backers saw it as sympathetic to terrorists; pro-Bush conservatives saw it as a soft critique of the War on Terror. (This was, after all, the mid-2000’s.)
Since I saw it in theaters in early 2006, my opinion about Munich has been unequivocal and impassioned: It’s a masterpiece. Plain and simple. Starting with a chilling recreation of the hostage situation in Germany, Munich then shifts gears into a fictional chronicle of how Israeli agents carried out retribution against the individuals who planned the attack. Yet as the body count rises, the squad’s leader, Avner (Eric Bana), begins to question the efficacy of revenge.
In my view, the fact that Munich angered people across the political spectrum is proof positive that it succeeds. Contrary to the view some held that it tried too hard to answer the dilemma of terrorism, the fact that it doesn’t is far more effective and realistic. It’s a film that’s not trying to solve the issues of terrorism, but rather accurately depict how it may be an issue beyond solving. Driving the film’s ambitious handling of Middle Eastern politics and moral quandaries is a thriller aesthetic that’s relentlessly white knuckle. Spielberg weaves together one sequence after another worthy of John Frankenheimer…check your pulse after the famous “phone bombing” attempt in particular.
Politics aside, some lambast the film as far too heavy handed. The climax, which intercuts Avner having sex with his wife with the tragic killing of the hostages at an airport, is indeed ludicrous. But the rest of the film is deft and endlessly engrossing. It impacted me so to such an extent that I even reached out by email to one of the few athletes who managed to survive the hostage ordeal, Shaul Ladany. A very personal and specific impact, granted, but nonetheless an apt measure of its rare courage.
Rating – ***** out of *****
8. Empire of the Sun
A strong contender for the most underrated movie in his entire catalogue, this 1987 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel is quite unlike anything else he’s made. I like to describe it as David Lean by way of Spielberg. Not to say that it’s on par with Lean’s defining masterworks, but it manages to fuse his authentic grandiosity with Spielberg’s wondrous vision.
It also stands out within his vast body of work regarding World War II. Quite unlike the vague jingoism of his later efforts, Empire doesn’t romanticize a crucial yet overlooked theater of the war. Taking place in early 1940’s China, the story follows Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a spoiled and privileged British child who lives in the English settlement in Shanghai. Dreaming of one day becoming a pilot, his life of comfort is forever disrupted when the Japanese Empire brutally invades Shanghai, separating him from his parents as civilians flee the invasion.
From there, his story throughout the course of the war becomes one of tribulation, heartbreak and survival. When he runs out of canned food at his now abandoned settlement neighborhood, he turns himself into the Japanese army, landing him in a brutal prison camp. All throughout, he holds onto his love of airplanes, the last bit of innocence he has even as he endures years of imprisonment. (The scene where Bale hollers “P-51! The Cadillac of the Skies!” over and over as American pilots indiscriminately bomb the prison is classic romantic Spielberg.)
At the heart of this ethereal epic is Christian Bale in a child actor performance for the ages. The emotional complexity of Jamie’s character arc, of a child growing up too fast in harsh circumstances, is one that requires an intense level of depth for such a young actor. Barely double digits in age, Bale mastered it with grace and power. In my view, it’s the opposite of Henry Thomas’s Elliott in E.T., a story of maintaining childhood innocence in a way that gives life. Empire of the Sun, on the other hand, is about loss of innocence, of things dying.
Especially given how it launched Bale into a career that includes Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and an Oscar for The Fighter, it’s high time Empire of the Sun got its full due. It’s opulent, haunting, magnificent, meditative, thematically layered, gripping…and one of Spielberg’s finest.
Rating – ***** out of *****
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
With his reputation restored – and elevated – by the rugged grandeur of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg shifted gears the next year with perhaps his most cherished film of all-time. Akin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. draws upon his youth experiences of suburbia and coping with divorced parents in a tale of interactions with a friendly alien. With a brilliant script by the late Melissa Mathison, it’s one of the purest expressions of Steven Spielberg’s creative heart.
For all of its two hours, E.T. weaves a story that’s simple yet profound. Elliott (Henry Thomas), a suburban California kid dealing with the pain of his parents’ separation, befriends an alien on the lam from government scientists. We all know the rest, from Reese’s Pieces to lighting hearts to a passionate John Williams score that might be his best. The “ride across the moon” scene is one of the signature cinema moments that, no matter how many times it’s referenced and parodied, always elicits a pure feeling of joy. Given it’s the logo for Spielberg’s renowned Amblin Entertainment company, it may be the scene he considers his defining moment.
It’s hard to think of anything in the film that hasn’t been praised sufficiently. I would emphasize that in the era of Stranger Things, the child actor ensemble that anchors E.T. deserves even greater recognition. This of course isn’t to say there weren’t great child performances before this movie. But E.T. took it to new levels by having the main characters be children, with the adults as supporting players. Spielberg has procured many superlative child performances since, including Christian Bale, Haley Joel Osment and Ruby Barnhill. But Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and company remain the industry standard for how children’s stories can drive a film.
Truth be told, critiquing E.T. three-and-a-half decades after the fact feels somewhat pointless. It’s one of those movies, like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, that’s more a fact of life than something you watch for mere entertainment. It defines us. Whether or not it’s Spielberg’s best (and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who awards it that distinction), it’s the movie where all of his familiar ingredients are at the height of their powers.
Rating – ***** out of *****
6. Saving Private Ryan
By now, Steven Spielberg’s affinity for World War II is almost something of a cliche. But it’s at least one born out of stellar projects, especially this 1998 masterpiece that took the entire war movie genre to unprecedented heights. It’s also one of his efforts that hit a specific zeitgeist, as 1998 was the year Americans heaped praise upon the “Greatest Generation” that survived the Great Depression and served in World War II.
Anchored by a pitch-perfect cast with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns and others, Saving Private Ryan draws upon a true story for its own. Eight soldiers, led by Captain Miller (Hanks), are sent on a mission to rescue Private James Ryan (Damon) in Normandy, France. It seems inconsequential – some members of the squad question the mission’s importance – except for the fact that all three of Ryan’s brothers have been killed in combat. The U.S. military wisely decides his mother doesn’t need a fourth letter of condolence, even if it means having to find one man in the midst of WWII’s apogee.
Just as Close Encounters and Jurassic Park advanced special effects, Saving Private Ryan forever changed the way sound can drive a movie. This is the kind of title you get a state-of-the-art surround sound system installed for. Just listen to those bullets whizz right by…there had been dozens of war movies made over decades, and none ever made audiences feel the reality of combat like this one. The opening D-Day sequence is peerless in the annals of film history for its realistic gore and depiction of shellshock.
Both a box office and critical smash hit, SPR nonetheless has its share of detractors who claim that while the D-Day opening is superb, the rest of the film isn’t quite as up to par. The only way one could believe that is if their VHS, DVD or Blu Ray of the movie malfunctioned beyond repair the moment that sequence ends. For all of its nearly three hours of running time, the film serves up a plethora of captivating turns, with a heart-stopping climax as tragic as it is honorable. It’s been 20 years since Hanks and company stormed the beaches, and nothing (not even Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirk) has topped it.
Rating – ***** out of *****
5. The Color Purple
Ambitious is a word one can frequently employ to describe Steven Spielberg. At each turn of his career, he’s made one movie after another that takes him into new territory. In almost 50 years of filmmaking and producing, there might not be a more ambitious project he undertook than this 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s timeless novel. Sure, Schindler’s List delved into a traumatic subject matter on a bigger scale, but given Spielberg’s Jewish heritage, he was ultimately the best fit for it.
The Color Purple, on the other hand, seemed way out of his range. A novel about black women that dealt with rape, incest and homosexuality that was written by a black woman…now being directed by a white Jewish male? (With the screenplay written by a white Dutch man, Menno Meyjes, to boot.) Furthermore, all of his movies up to that point had been gritty thrillers, sentimental and exhilarating blockbusters, and a failed comedy.
But in the end, Spielberg proved all doubters wrong with this sterling realization of Walker’s literary masterpiece. He treats the story with the sophistication it deserves, thanks primarily to Whoopi Goldberg’s debut performance as Celie Harris-Johnson. Through the early decades of the 20th century, Celie’s struggle to overcome steep tribulation and affirm her love and humanity is one the viewer feels deeply. Goldberg is a revelation, and one of my favorite film performances ever, but the supporting cast (Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery and others) is just as superb. It’s all cradled gently by Quincy Jones’ lush musical score, three years after he and Michael Jackson conquered the pop charts with Thriller.
The film drew (and still receives) a good amount of criticism. Many felt Spielberg imbued it with too much sentimentality, a marked departure from the darker structure of the novel. Several crucial moments from the book, like when Celie looks at her vagina in a mirror, are omitted. Others felt it stereotyped black men and women, a ridiculous claim given (as Winfrey pointed out) it’s only one woman’s story.
As if to validate those onanistic criticisms, it didn’t receive a single Oscar despite 11 nominations. Oliver Stone provided a vigorous defense of the film at the time, noting how Spielberg was willing to bring the book to life when no one else would. (Many black women also came to its defense, saying it mirrored their experience.) My sentiment echoes Stone’s, for while I acknowledge evident flaws with the film (and the book is indeed better), people seem to take for granted that Spielberg was willing to tell a black woman’s story in the racially retrograde ’80s in the first place.
Given how much Black Panther has opened doors for black-centered cinema in 2018 (following other breakthroughs like Moonlight and Get Out), Spielberg deserves far more credit for expertly handling a nuanced black story three decades before.The Color Purple is one of the greatest, and most underrated, films ever made, and one made with a level of love and care that’s uncommon. It’s high time audiences showed it unconditional love as well.
Rating – ***** out of *****
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Five years before E.T. lit up our hearts, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was his first sojourn into the realm of alien contact. Yet much unlike the personal bond of that film (or the action adventure of Star Wars, which also came out in 1977), Close Encounters is a much different beast. It’s a movie that touches on something bigger than us, a rumination on the basic idea of what aliens coming to earth would be like. (The title references ufologist J. Allen Hynek’s classification of extraterrestrial contact.)
CEO3K is where Spielberg made the leap to large-scale blockbuster mastery. Jaws was perfect, but it succeeded thanks to its necessitated lack of special effects. This film succeeds largely because of its groundbreaking effects, overseen by Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. Aided by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, the effects work in congruence with the story’s escalation until its epic climax.
This is one of the few films that I consider basically perfect, in a manner that’s virtually unrivaled in my eyes. The resplendent cinematography, the jaw-dropping visuals, the realistic characters, the grandiose musical score…every component is authentic. It’s also one that goes against Spielberg’s own grain early in his career. Most of his films revolve around the importance of family and fatherhood; here, it’s utterly upended. Best of all is the pacing, the way it moves from one eye-popping, mystery-building sequence to the next. Like its lead character Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), the viewer is consumed by curiosity of what’s unfolding as one strange incident after another occurs.
And boy does it pay off, building up to a stunning finale at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming that’s as transcendent as anything this side of 2001. Over 40 years after its release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is as pure, magical, and downright edifying as a feature film could hope to be. Not to mention, with so much recent news about potential contact with aliens and new solar systems being discovered, it just might be more relevant than ever.
Rating – ***** out of *****
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
After the critical and box office failure of 1941, Steven Spielberg was in the hitherto uncharted waters of needing to bounce back from a failed project. To be fair, he wasn’t the only New Hollywood wunderkind to helm a major flop, as Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, Robert Altman’s Popeye, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart all failed around the same time.
Given how some of those directors fared after those films, however, Spielberg certainly needed to make a comeback fast. His first instinct was to direct the next James Bond movie. Old friend George Lucas, riding high on the success of the first two Star Wars films, told him he had a much better idea. The two congregated on a beach in Hawaii, and as Spielberg built a sand castle, Lucas pitched his idea of a rugged archaeologist with a knack for adventure.
And so Indiana Jones was born. As much as I’d love to live in a world where Spielberg directed Bond…thank god Lucas persuaded him otherwise. Raiders of the Lost Ark is just perfect. What else can I say? This is one of the ultimate movies, one where every element perfectly adds up. Beating the piss out of Nazis, a galvanic score, a fiery romance, globetrotting adventure, practical effects that still look great almost four decades on, etc. Not to mention a clever story, in which Indiana’s quest to stop Nazis from obtaining the mysterious Ark of the Covenant ends with a clever twist. Just like Star Wars, it reached back for bits of old serials and classic adventures and melded them into something that was familiar, yet incredibly new.
While I do agree with those who say Spielberg is largely misogynistic in overlooking women in his movies, he (and Lucas) deserve credit for creating one kickass heroine in Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood. Rather than plod through the film as arm candy for the main hero, Marion holds her own. Aside from advocating for her relatively underrated character, I think the rest speaks for itself. Much like E.T., this isn’t one I need to expound on much further. What are you even doing reading this when you could just watch it again?
Rating – ***** out of *****
After Duel and The Sugarland Express established Steven Spielberg as a promising up-and-comer in the New Hollywood scene, this 1975 thriller elevated him to the top instantly. It also birthed the summer blockbuster as we know it, while keeping millions of Americans the hell away from beaches. Kicking off with a young skinny dipper’s brutal dismemberment, a great white shark proceeds to feast on the helpless swimmers of Amity, MA. Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), initially stymied by the town’s greedy mayor, sets out to sea with hippie marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled Captain Ahab named Quint (Robert Shaw) in hopes of killing the beast once and for all.
Much like Duel, Jaws pulsates with raw intensity at each moment. Also like that film, it draws upon realistic fears to immerse the viewer. The first two thirds wisely don’t show the shark (a move necessitated by how broken the mechanical puppet was), a “less is more” principle the film’s hollow imitators have never bothered to emulate. Things gets even better when it shifts to the final act, where Hooper, Quint and Brody board a rickety old boat and sail out to sea to kill the shark. Their divergent personalities lead to hilarious clashes, as well as ragged camaraderie (best embodied in the wound-sharing scene) that makes you care deeply for them.
I’ve seen Jaws so many times I could probably visualize all of Verna Fields’ exact edits in my head as I quote each scene. Yet every time I rewatch it, I manage to notice something new. There’s an abundance of themes, of little elements that make it more than just a summer blockbuster. It’s also the film that establishes one of those themes for the rest of his movies: family. Sheriff Brody’s struggle to protect the town from the shark is intertwined with that of being a father and protecting his family. Observe the dinner prayer scene in particular, a charming moment that’s easy to forget, yet adds so much heart.
Of course, some film buffs revile Jaws as the beginning of the death of New Hollywood, the flashpoint where sophisticated, ambitious cinema would be pushed aside by studios in favor of packing audiences into theaters to watch processed summer entertainment. But even if studios immediately used Jaws as a blueprint for financially milking audiences, you can’t blame Spielberg for making the perfect smash hit in the first place.
Rating – ***** out of *****
1. Schindler’s List
One could say this is a painfully obvious choice for #1. But really, what else could I possible go with? Schindler’s List is a movie whose stature far exceeds anything I can describe in a few paragraphs. It is one of cinema’s landmark achievements. Yet it’s something you don’t really consume for enjoyment, but rather for historical (and personal) clarity. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a gregarious Nazi German businessman who finds a heart and attempts to use his factories to save over 1,000 Jews as the Holocaust intensifies.
Given the seriousness of the topic, it was imperative Spielberg bring a wholly mature approach. Rather than simply employ his gift for crowd-pleasing, he answered the call. Much of the film is shot “documentary style”, capturing the grueling reality of the Holocaust without compromise. Many scenes are shot at eye-level, with no gimmicks. The ghetto liquidation and concentration camp sequences spare no graphic detail. There are moments devoid of musical cues and satisfying payoffs, which one might expect of the director. When it does reach its uplifting ending, it carries an even greater impact as a result.
Likewise, everyone involved in the production turned in peak efforts. In his first collaboration with Spielberg, Janusz Kaminski’s black-and-white cinematography transports the viewer to the time period, in parts stark and poetic. John Williams’ score haunts with every note, the main theme being one of the few pieces of music that I can’t help but tear up while hearing. The cast is brilliant, anchored by Neeson’s breakthrough role and also featuring Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes at the height of their talents.
For Steven Spielberg, it was a project of many deep implications. As a Jew (which often made him a target of ridicule in his youth), it was one he avoided making for years. (When he did, the process was so painful he frequently called Robin Williams on set to cheer him up.) As a director criticized by some for being immature and wedded to conventional entertainment, it then became a chance to prove his directorial bonafides once and for all. And he succeeded; almost a full decade after the shameful 0-for-11 shutout of The Color Purple, Schindler’s List finally got Spielberg the elusive Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
The only thing approaching a drawback for Schindler’s List is that it’s one of those great films that’s hard to rewatch. It’s in my personal top five, and as of this writing, I’ve only seen it once. Even all these years later, there are many scenes that still stick in the mind for their brutal candor. I will rewatch it eventually, and love it as much as ever. I can understand why some haven’t seen it the first time for similar reasons. But for the sake of the story it tells, the history it documents, and the good it stirs in the soul…it should be seen by every human being.
Rating – ***** out of *****