With the ending of a very strange year, it has altered my usual publishing of the best films of the year list. Movie theatres have been closed or restricted, which has put a damper on things along with everything else. However, I’ve never outgrown my love of ranking things. I know it’s frivolous, and movie rankings don’t matter all that much. What I do like about it is that it gives you a sense of a person’s taste in films and sharing their passions. So I guess that’s why I still like it. It’s been a hard year, and sometimes lists are fun content not to be taken seriously. I’ve fallen back on much of my writing to focus more on academic writing, so this is a bit of a resurgance.
I’ve decided to create a series of ranking director’s films, just for the fun of it. The directors I choose to highlight will be the ones whose filmography I have seen all of, or have at least seen the majority of that is available. There are some older directors whose entire films are either lost or not readily available in any way, so for them, I will use my judgement of ranking.
For the premier entry for this directors series, I decided to choose the rather obvious choice of Steven Spielberg. For many film fans, Spielberg has been a gateway to loving movies at a very young age with his very accessible blockbusters. Yet to call him a one trick pony would be to bemoan his entire intake of a wide variety of films. As I’ve grown older, I have looked at Spielberg’s films with more complexity than before and consider him a very wise and philosophical filmmaker when he is given the opportunity. I also want this list to highlight some of his lesser known (and usually underrated) films. Everyone has their favorite Spielberg film, and this is my chance to show you mine. So get set.
32. Hook (1991)
For some this film is a nostalgia driven 90s favourite, and I admit as a child I watched my VHS copy of this film endlessly. However once I reached my 20s, my love of this film wavored and I now see it as a slog to get through. While the casting of Dustin Hoffman as Hook and Robin Williams as Peter Pan remain inspired, the ernestness of this film and the overlong narrative bogs it down to a screeching halt. That being said, Spielberg is able to muster some magical scenes such as the imaginary feast, and the quiet moment of the little lost boy who finds a smile in the grown up Peter. However these are few far and in between to create a memorable movie. It’s easy to see this as Spielberg’s midlife crisis movie as it comes at a crossroads of his career where he was moving away from childlike innocenence that dominated his 80s success to more serious minded and sobering drama. Basically the message of the film of growing up does not mean losing your childlike wonder is not too deep to say the least.
31. Ready Player One (2018)
There were some who claimed this to be a return to form from Spielberg, and the reactions left me wondering, what exactly do we want from him? Is Spielberg the human embodiment of a film franchise? Are we just expecting him to play the hits for us? Are we more excitied that he’s back in his rollicking set piece, adventure mode, than trying anything new? The source material for Ready Player One is problematic enough with its over reliance on nostalgia in a dystopian world. The film would be the perfect opportunity to touch on this issue of how consumption of our past has hindered our need for a future. Yet the film isn’t wise enough to tackle the issue head on and instead gives us a Goonies level treasure hunt where the joy is supposed to come from seeing 80s IP fill the screen. The one morsel of interest comes from the ounce of regret Spielberg might feel for his own contribution of 80s nostalgia. This idea is embedded in the film’s only interesting character, a video game mogul named James Halliday (played by Spielberg avatar Mark Rylance). Spielberg’s own motivations for making the film may have been short sighted which he said were a way of paying tribute to his friends and mentors. This is probably demonstrated best in the film’s center piece scene, which is a recreation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick. Unforuneatly this film never goes past tribute it’s tribute phase.
30. The Adventures of Tin Tin (2011)
While this film has its defenders, I was too often taken aback by the overall aesthetic of it. Motion capture technology has never worked for me when it comes to animation, and this film is no exception. While it works better than the Zemeckis experimentation of The Polar Express and Beowulf, the overall feel becomes too much like a video game. This was also the problem which arose in the look of Ready Player One as well and I wish this type of technology would simply go away. There is often an over reliance of computer animation and although it works well in capable hands, I have yet to be impressed with the idea of motion capture. That being said, the idea of Spielberg directing an animated film comes with enourmous possibilities, where he is able to excel at his memorable action set pieces like never before. The Tin Tin series is perfect for Spielberg to mine but there hasn’t been much enthusiasm to return to the franchise so we might just see this as a one off.
29. The Color Purple (1985)
This film was praised when first released although with some controversy. The beloved novel which follows a young black woman named Celia who faces harsh adversity throughout her life only to break free of it all seemed like a test run for Spielberg to tackle more mature material. However in hindsight, the film offers mixed results. To this day, it still consists of the very best performance of Whoopi Goldberg’s entire career, making it all the more impressive that this was her first role. She has never been asked to go as deep as she does here. The performances are all stellar across the board, yet the material itself remains shaky. Spielberg tries to capture the Dickensian aspect which was apparent in Alice Walker’s novel, however the broad strokes become too much, and the minor characters come across as stereotypes. This lack of nuance for the world of the film sometimes underlines the serious tone. However there are times when Spielberg’s use of big emotion really shine, none so much than when Celie reconnects with her sister in the film’s climax. It’s moments like these which remind us why Spielberg, at his best can be irresistable.
28. Always (1989)
The problem with Always is how unmemorable it really is. Even though at the heart of it is a rather old fashioned love story based on an obscure Spencer Tracey film called A Guy Named Joe, it fails to make a lasting impression. Richard Dreyfuss is an airplane firefighter who dies and leaves his girlfriend Holly Hunter alone. But he comes back as a guardian angel/mentor to a young pilot who suddenly becomes smitten with Hunter. The film is nice enough, and Hunter is always great, though Dreyfuss might not be my first choice to fill in for Spencer Tracey. It featured the final screen performance by Audrey Hepburn, but other than that it remains a footnote.
27. The BFG (2016)
It’s hard to imagine a Spielberg movie coming out without much notice, yet that’s exactly what happened to The BFG, a small children’s fable which reunited him with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Matheson who died soon after she finished writing it. You would think the combination of director and screenwriter could get people excited about this film, yet it came and went without much notice. Despite that, this is a charming children’s film which is devoid of much action, and focuses instead on the tender relationship between a friendly giant (Mark Rylance) and a little orphan girl named Sophie(Ruby Barnill). While not very memorable, the film remains an anomaly of big budget entertainment by making it a meditation about a generational gap between young and old. Again Mark Rylance is utilized as a late-Spielberg secret weapon, and the CGI motion capture isn’t as distracting as it was in Tin Tin and Ready Player One. No one is going to talk about The BFG in years to come, though Matheson’s work as a screenwriter should be better remembered, and it’s a reminder that Mark Rylance should be considered one of the most important actor collaborations Spielberg has had,
26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Perhaps the biggest evidence of how our perception of a Spielberg adventure has changed in the 21st century, the fourth Indy movie seemed as out of time as the character himself in the wake of a nuclear bomb. Coming out the same summer as the birth of the Marvel cinematic universe with Iron Man, as well as the serious, and politically complicated Christopher Nolan game changer The Dark Knight, the adventures of everyone’s favorite archeologist seemed old fashioned and passe. However despite all of the toxic bile that has laid waste on this film since it was first released, none of the surface level criticisms have dampened my personal enjoyment. The film can be clunky and clumsy particularly in the mid section where poor John Hurt is reduced to spouting crazy nonsense throughout. However the overall Saturday Matinee spirit remains in this series albeit older, and slower, though perhaps a bit wiser. Watching the film again with fresh eyes, it’s easy to argue away the nitpicky criticisms such as the nuke the fridge scene which remains a rather witty rebuke of 50s suburban paranoia. The way Harrison Ford stumbles through phony town homes, with creepy mannequins feels like a cross combination of Adventure Comics and The Twilight Zone. It’s fair to say some of the plot isn’t streamlined as well as the earlier films, yet at the same time Spielberg doesn’t rest on his laurels. He believes in his heroes and happy endings, and the closing of this film is a clear testament to that philosphy.
25. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
A film that seems to exist for the sheer reason because a film franchise demands it. The original Jurassic Park had a lot of wonder in it, and while this one lacks that sense of awe, it makes up for it by reaching for a straight up horror movie. The cast of characters in this film are about as deep as one might find in a Friday the 13th film, which makes them just more entertainingly disposable. Spielberg amps up the death and blood, making this his most comically graphic film since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This also includes two of his best set pieces involving two t-rexes and a trailer hanging off a cliff, as well as a long grassy raptors nest. What else do you need from a Jurassic Park film? This might be Spielberg’s least deep movie, yet it is by far one of his bloodiest, and funniest. It leans in hard on its B-movie spirit, no more so than when a T-rex runs havoc in San Diego. Perhaps best to separate this to the more beloved original film, yet the two are practically equal in what they are trying to be.
24. Catch Me if you Can (2002)
A fun and breezy caper comedy with some sad undercurrents. Spielberg returns to the broken home trope that has served him so well, yet this one might hit closer to home. The story of a young con man Frank Abignail who runs away from home and makes a living impersonating a pilot, doctor, and lawyer feels similar to Spielberg’s own story. As a young prodigy who pretended to be a Universal executive in order to gain studio access, Spielberg mirrors Frank’s own ambitions, and know how where he conned his way to become the most successful filmmaker of all time. The end of the film shows Frank also becoming a success himself. Spielberg effortlessly moves the action around with the camera at such a fast pace, much like Frank it barely slows down. The denoument takes its time to wrap it up because Spielberg often insists on everything being spelled out for us, yet the charm of this movie showcases how at home he could have been in Hollywood’s golden age.
23. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Perhaps a controversial opinion as this film is so often thought of as one of Spielberg’s masterpieces. This film does not hold back on showing us the horrors of war, and it remains a technically impressive film, and the philosophical opinion it takes on one human being worth the sacrifice of many is intriguing. However now more than ever, the film seems to have its cake and eat it too. The technical acheivement and authenticity depicted in the film is a reminder of the hellscape the soldiers endured, though now it seems to be copied so much, the film’s own aesthetic can be used as sort of a celebration of war itself. Saving Private Ryan makes itself out to be the war movie to end all war movies, yet it is now the staple of what everything else must be judged. I find war films to be far more effective when there is less stress on the action, and more on the moral ambiguities the act itself wrestles with. In its quiet moments, this is what Saving Private Ryan does quite well. Truffaut famously said that there is “no such thing as an anti-war film” because he believed that war can’t help but be glorified on film. Truffaut never lived to see Saving Private Ryan yet the audience reaction to its images has made it both horrific yet profitable. I suppose this is still my problem with it along with other war films of its kind. There are many anti-war people who might leave the film thinking it’s a powerful depiction of why it’s so terrible, yet there are probably just as many pro-war people who might see it as a justification.
22. Jurassic Park (1993)
As a child, Jurassic Park was my favorite movie for a very long time. It was the first movie that put me on the edge of my seat literally. Looking at it again, you can see that excitement does not go away. The moments that remain iconic are still great. There is still anticipation to see those great moments. Now if only they filled the film with characters who are equally great. I’m probably in the minority to think that the characters in Jurassic Park are less than stellar. For the most part, they are all playing types, yet Spielberg has always had the talent to cast very good actors to fill these roles. They are almost too good, I mean I love Laura Dern and I wish she was able to do more than gush about a tricaratops, or call out John Hammond on his sexism in survival situations. Sam Neil as Alan Grant has the simple arc of hating kids and then liking them at the end. Jeff Goldblum gets marks for spouting out the film’s themes in an entertaining way, while Samuel L. Jackson and Newman from Seinfeld are more or less dino-platter. The one intriguing character is Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond as sort of a Walt Disney by way of Dr. Frankenstein. Spielberg makes Hammond a complex villain, and perhaps makes him too sympathetic for his own good. He reminded me of Carl Denham in King Kong, the main person who was responsible for all the death King Kong causes yet the filmmakers had too much sympathy for him to get his comuppance. Yet, like King Kong , Jurassic Park is our quinissential monster movie for the ages and any poor ranking by me won’t diminsh that.
21. Duel (1971)
Where it all started. Technically a television movie, yet it was released in Europe theatrically. This was the one that garnered Spielberg fame which began his movie career, and its still a very effective thriller. Written by master genre scribe Richard Matheson, it is a relentless chase/stalking film using vehicles. Dennis Weaver is the titular everyman hero fittingly called David Mann, as he is relentlessly chased down on the highway by a mysterious big rig truck. The brilliance of Duel is through its simplicity, something that often makes for the best Spielberg films. Told mostly visually with very little dialogue, it’s no wonder it became such a fantastic showcase for Spielberg’s talents. He racks up the suspense by keeping the horror so mysterious. We never know why David Mann is being hunted so furiously by the truck, is it by chance, or by fate? In a time where films have the over reliance to explain things so much they begin to make no sense at all, a la J.J. Abrams, Spielberg knows part of the purity of filmmaking is leaving it up to the audience to use their imaginations.
20. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
What was supposed to be the finale of the Indiana Jones films before they decided to go nuclear, this was a fitting adventure in the series. Spielberg has spoken about why this was his favorite, and you can certainly see his own sensibilities making its way into the script. While the set pieces aren’t nearly as thrilling as Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Temple of Doom, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in character growth. This is probably the most focused film on Indy as a character, as we are introduced to his father, played with great joy by Sean Connery. Easily the best part of this film is the father/son dynamic whch Ford and Connery play up to a T. The rest of the film is enjoyable, and the action remains tongue and cheek, yet one gets the occasional feeling that this is merely Raiders of the Lost Ark light.
19. The Sugarland Express (1973)
When one thinks of classic 70s cinema, they usually think of gritty films with a down beat ending. Spielberg is often thought of as the antithesis of that, however before he could be accused of ending maverick 70s filmmaking and ushering in the advent of the blockbuster, it should be noted that he too made his own gritty film with a down beat ending. The Sugarland Express today may feel like a footnote in Spielberg’s career before he made it big, yet this is probably his most underrated film. Co-written by Spielberg, it tells the story of a cross country trip between an outlaw and his wife when they hyjack a police car along with the officer inside in an attempt to get their baby back from a foster home. Spielberg had not reached the ranks of glossy Hollywood filmmaker yet, giving this story some authenticity. There is a preoccupation with common everyday folks in the film who most of the time don’t feel like actors, but people Spielberg just seemed to get off the street. Another aspect Spielberg utilizes is the use of overlapping dialogue of many background performers adding to a cocophony of sound making it feel like a Robert Altman film at times. At the center is Goldie Hawn giving a rare but effective dramatic performance, yet adding some doses of humour here and there. The film itself has a kind of improvisational quality that plays in the moment. There were remnants of this style Spielberg used in Jaws and Close Encounters, yet as his films got more ambitious and commercial, part of it was lost. I do wish some day he returns to this style of filmmaking which he is so good at.
18. War of the Worlds (2005)
There is so much about this film which I think is more often brilliant than when it’s not. As a science fiction filmmaker, Spielberg understands that everything works as an allegory and War of the Worlds has been adapted countless times to fit in with the current state of the world. In this case, this is Spielberg’s science fiction film about the war on on terror, and it’s frightening in ways large blockbusters no longer try to be. The film is filled with uncompromising imagery that evokes, though does not exploit 9/11 such as the floating clothes of the dead, ashes flying in the faces of survivors and displaced people walking in groups like refugees. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from dark images, which makes his tacked on happy ending a harder pill to swallo. It’s a film bent on its characters desperation to survive, and holding it together is a performance by Tom Cruise which wipes away his charisma to give us someone who isn’t so confident and downright scared and selfish. Cruise doesn’t play the action hero as we would expect him to be, rather he is a neurotic dead beat father who is often unsure of himself. It’s the most common man role he’s gotten to do in a long time, and probably hasn’t done since. But the imagery is what stays with you, and it’s as grim and stark as anything Spielberg has accomplished.
17. War Horse (2011)
One of the many Spielberg films people wrote off as Oscar bait, whatever that means. The influence of John Ford has probably never been so prominent than in this film about a boy and his horse. Spielberg feels right at home in the vast landscapes of Europe, finding himself in a somewhat different type of war story than in the morally ambiguous Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg forgos the gritty realism of that film in favor of old fashioned artifice, right down to the final scene which evokes the technicolor epics of a bygone age. An episodic adventure as we follow Joey, an extraordinary horse making his way through WWI in order to get back home to the boy who loves him. This is one of the instances where Spielberg tugs at your heart and it works wonderfully. If anything, Spielberg is truly a filmmaker who wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s tailor made for family stories such as these which may feel too corny for todays audience, yet the craft is on full display and you can’t help but take it all in and wish all movies could be made like this.
16. The Post (2017)
These days, I mostly get excited when Spielberg announces one of his sobering historical dramas rather than a big budget blockbuster, it’s just the kind of nerd I am and they fell like the films Spielberg seems more Invested in. It’s also with these historical dramas, he is allowed to comment on the current times. With The Post, he tackles the story behind the release of the Pentagon Papers which told about what was really going on behind the war in Vietnam. The report told how the war became a winless endeavor and how it was kept a secret from the American people, a decision which probably caused more casualties in the war than was needed. The film shows an importance about the freedom of the press and how the search for truth is an asset which should not be taken lightly. Filmed in only nine months, the film was a quick response to the Trump administration’s attack on the press. It’s easy to see the parallels, particularly when Spielberg uses actual recordings from then President Richard Nixon where he attacks the Washington Post for their actions and tries to silence them. The film also boasts one of Meryl Streep’s best performances as Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post which was inherited to her from her dead husband. The film then becomes a feminist story about her coming into her own as a fierce fighter for the paper in a world dominated by men. The themes of The Post still feel the most timely as we are still living through a world where free press is threatened, and woman are still marginalized.
15. Amistad (1997)
Spielberg’s first historical drama after Schindler’s List was always going to be held up to scrutiny for not being as good or impactful. For sure, Amistad is more grandstanding than Spielberg’s holocaust film, mostly due to it being framed primarily as a courtroom drama. Based on a true story about a group of African slaves who gain control of the ship carrying them to America. This leads to the trial where they fight for their freedom. It’s always fascinating how Spielberg finds these horrific real life stories yet guides us through some sort of silver lining. With Amistad the notion of slavery is put on trial perhaps for the first time in America, where even former President John Quincy Adams (A wonderfully cast Anthony Hopkins) gets involved in the African people’s defense.As in other films of its kind that Spielberg would later make like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, the fascination of the film is how good people work within an evil system where it could easily go the other way. As in films with such harsh subject matter, Spielberg does not shy away from the violence when needed, and it works here well to bring his point home. The poignancy of seeing Africans fall overboard off a ship rather than serve a life of slavery and torture is sobering to say the least. Although the film ends with the slaves set free, the ultimate fate of the film’s protagonist Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) is never answerd, and it leaves a haunting mark on the film not unlike the ending of the better remembered 12 years a Slave. This one should be remembered in the same company.
14. Minority Report (2002)
Taken from a short story by Phillip K. Dick, Minority Report is part of a trifecta of classic science fiction films based on his works, the others of course being Blade Runner and Total Recall. Yet this film is a Spielberg film and is therefore works as the most accessible and crowd pleasing. However that is not to say it can’t be just as weird and strange. Framed as a Hitchcockian man on the run tale, the film is full of odd ball characters one would associate with the best film noirs. Peppered in with some of the Spielberg’s best action sequences outside of the Indiana Jones films, and you have one hell of a blockbuster. Yet the story goes deeper, as it focuses on the philosophical choice of predetermination vs. free will. It takes place in a futuristic world where police can actually predict crimes before they really happen, and the film makes the whole cat and mouse game into an ethical quandry. Tom Cruise is again playing vulnerable as a cop who believes in the current system, yet his motives have more to do with a family tragedy. It’s not so black and white, and Spielberg makes great use of this world as his personal playground to explore these ethical questions.
13. Empire of the Sun (1987)
One of Spielberg’s most underrated films, and still rarely talked about. This is his account of a child who spends the war in a POW camp. We follow young Jim (Christian Bale) who is separated from his wealthy family after trying to leave China, but he is soon taken to a camp where he spends the duration of the war. Spielberg may be the best filmmaker when it comes to the inner lives of children, and here he has the hero Jim fall in love with life at war. He becomes obsessed with fighter planes and forms a bond with a Fagin-like scoundrel (John Malkovich). Yet soon the realities of war seep in and by the time the film ends, Jim is unrecognizable to not only his parents but to us as well. The film plays like a fever dream for the most part, and Spielberg gives us some of his most surreal imagery. For some, the film might not pull off the difficult balance between childhood fantasy during wartime, yet it has always fascinated me and has grown in stature the more I watch it. It’s usually the go-to film for non-Spielberg fans as it’s perhaps his most complex look at childhood. This also has one of John Williams’ most underappreciated scores.
12. Jaws (1975)
Pretty much the film that started it all. Not only was this the beginning of Spielberg’s run as the king of Hollywood, it ushered in a new phase of movie making. It’s easy to point out Jaws as the death of 70s personal filmmaking, if only it wasn’t so well made. Spielberg’s gift has always been knowing what the audience wants, and this film best demonstrates how he acheives his almost flawless filmmaking. The film runs like a well oiled machine making it relatively flawless in structure, design, and execution. The characters of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and especially Robert Shaw are all drawn up miraculously, and Spielberg’s Hitchcockian choice of not showing the shark too early has become the stuff of legend. Objectively speaking, this is top tier Hollywood filmmaking, so you might wonder why it isn’t higher up on the list. The simple reason is there are just 11 more films by Spielberg I prefer and have more meaning for me. I also believe Spielberg is often put into a box, which is that of a brilliant technician of cinema, and Jaws seems to exemplify that more than any other film. Part of this list was to show the many facets of Spielberg and how he shouldn’t be just considered as a megahit director. I’ve always been drawn to his more personal films and for me, Jaws never felt that personal. What it is however is a film which changed the course of his life and filmmaking in general and for that it is probably the most important film he ever made.
11. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
This film acts as an anomoly in Spielberg’s career, for one has to wonder how much of it is him, and how much of it is influenced by Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg can sometimes act like a trickster, giving us easy to swallow blockbusters that we consume, yet he is very rarely credited for the amount of depth his films are capable of. Even his more accessible science fiction films like Jurassic Park or Minority Report offer up cryptic parables about playing God. With A.I. he tackles this problem head on, as it follows the Pinnochioesque journey of a mecha boy named David (Haley Joel Osmet) who becomes separated from his mother, and he tries to find the mythical blue fairy in order to become a real boy. In a rather pervese and darkly twist of irony, David’s wish is granted in the by becoming the last remnant of the human race. His main emotion that he was programmed with was love, and therefore it is what humanity is left with. The ending of this film couldn’t be more contradictory. For years it was misrepresented as a happy ending which Spielberg tacked on to favor his own sensibilities over Kubrick’s. However looking deeper into the implications of the film, it’s a very dark and disturbing ending, though happy in its context. Much like David, A.I. feels like a Frankenstein monster of a film, one that was grown out of two creative though conflicting minds. Spielberg embraces the coldness and calculating world of Kubrick, yet only a director like himself could bring to life the humanity of David, who may be the most complex character in the whole Spielberg Canon. A.I. will only grow in stature as one of the most preeminent science fiction films in history.
10. The Terminal (2004)
The high ranking of this film may be laughed out of the room, as for some, this displays much of what we make fun of Spielberg for. It’s unabashadly sentimental, corny, and romantic. Yet The Terminal gets under your skin the way the best Frank Capra movie does. The Terminal has already become a perennial favorite of mine around the holidays. It’s a film that makes you fall in love with it. The characters are broad such as Stanley Tucci’s dictatorial airport security chief, but there is a charm to it that if you allow yourself can make you fall under its spell. This was after all a post 9/11 film which takes place in an airport. It concerns things such things as immigration policy, and citizenship, something that is still argued about today. It is all measured down to a sweet little fable of a man stuck in limbo wanting to fulfill a promise to his father. There are spectacular moments of humanity worthy of Capra, such as when the janitor Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana) rushes along a runway to delay a flight in order for the film’s hero Viktor (Tom Hanks of course) to get into America. Something about the execution of this scene always chokes me up. Sure it’s filled with big feelings, and manipulative imagery, but that’s part of what Spielberg does so well. The Terminal is another reminder of why we go to the movies, and by using a highly diverse cast, along with a setting which connects us to people from all over the world, we are reminded of the great empathy cinema can afford us.
9. Munich (2005)
In 2005, Spielberg made two different genre movies about the war on terror, the science fiction film War of the Worlds and the suspense thriller Munich. Munich is the far more sobering reflective film, and unlike its companion, it scraps the cookie cutter happy ending with something more hard boiled. To this day Munich remains Spielberg’s most controversial film as it deals with the real life tragedy behind the Munich Olympic team who were killed by terrorists. The film explores the Israeli revenge plot to assassinate the people responsible for Munich. The film becomes an examination on what revenge does to our humanity, and how it can encompass those who choose to seek it. In this way it becomes Spielberg’s most meditative film. The violence in the film hits us swiftly like it does in his other historical films, but unlike Schindler’s List where Nazis are the perpetrators, it is the film’s protagonists who are carrying out the violent acts. We see the ramifications of their actions, and how they must live with their consequences. It becomes even more blurred when we realize the people getting killed might not even be the ones responsible for the Munich massacre. Spielberg faced harshed criticism with the film from the Israeli government due to the questions it raised about such retaliation. Spielberg has always been a humanist, and he realizes the issues in this film aren’t as clear cut as the holocaust, or the D-Day invasion. Good and evil are blurred, and the acts of terror are endless. There is no straight answer how to solve this, but the film’s final image of the twin towers show where it’s headed.
8. Bridge of Spies (2015)
The thing about many Spielberg films is they tend to grow on you if you give them a chance. That was the reaction I felt when I encountered Bridge of Spies. Again this was a film which was labeled as Oscar bait and wasn’t taken very seriously. The craft of Spielberg is often taken for granted and it perhaps is no more apparent than with this film. Here Spielberg tackles the cold war with a real life spy vs. spy story. In what is probably the best performance he has given in a Spielberg movie, Tom Hanks embodies an everyman goodness which is so natural, it’s hard to see him acting. He will often be compared to Jimmy Stewart whether he likes it or not. However here we get Hanks more in a Henry Fonda 12 Angry Men vein, fighting a fight where everyone seems to be against him. Defending a Russian agent (Mark Rylance) all the way up to the supreme court trying to save his life, only to travel through East Berlin in order to exchange him for an captured American and a student. This is the kind of story Spielberg excels at, one that is grounded in real life but exemplifies the triumph of human endurance. Hanks’ hero is a man who is often inconvenienced for his trouble to save the Russian yet he knows it’s the right thing to do. Movies like Bridge of Spies used to be made all the time, yet they have become fewer now more than ever. Watching it a second time, the film had me moved to tears. Rylance and Hanks are perfect foils for eachother, and Spielberg relies heavily on the impeccible production design as well as a witty script to create a very special and highly underrated film.
7. 1941 (1979)
This will probably be where I lose most of you, yet my unabashed love for this goofy, ambitious comedy has never wavered. Along with Jaws, 1941 is the other film which helped crush the 70s auteur-driven cinema, yet it was because of its utter failure along with others like it that studios lost confidence with their filmmakers and demanded more control. These late era 70s atrocities belong in their own singular categories as sometimes self-serving, self-indulgent, big budget films. For all intents and purposes 1941 could never get made today, and that’s a shame. It’s one of the last comedy epics where it reached for heights just as big as Lawrence of Arabia. Today a really great cinematic comedy with great comic actors are fewer to come by. 1941 represents kitchen sink filmmaking with a large bevy of actors each hamming it up for the screen. The sets and set pieces are enormous. It’s loud, bombastic, and in your face like a Mad magazine issue come to life. Spielberg spares no expense on dynamic shots or visual gags. Some land, and some don’t, yet it never lets up. The film itself could be considered a critique on American paranoia showing a group of people who believe the Japanese are coming to invade Hollywood. The concept could easily have been redone to fit in with the cold war, or even today with Fake News driving everyone bonkers. The comedy is insane as are the poeple. There isn’t one sane person in the film which is basically the point. Yet this also shows off the technical aspects of Spielberg on full display. The dance scene is worth the price of admission on its own as the camera zooms, glides, and floats through giant crowds and chaos. An enormous street fight outside a movie theatre showing Dumbo unleashes more carnage. Pretty soon, distaster strikes, buildings fall, planes crash, and ferris wheels roll. The finale plays like a cathartic pie in the face for the whole audience. I know I am in the minority for this film, as I have yet to know anyone who loves it as much as I do. To me it exemplifies the chaos and anarchy that was happening during the 70s. It symbolizes the giant meltdown of an institution, whether that is Hollywood, or America itself. It remains a relevant chaotic comedy.
6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
A sequel that is on par with the original is hard to come by, yet Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom acheives this. Darker, bloodier, and more horrific than the original, this film creates an intense experience for the viewer. Although Jaws remains the more influential blockbuster, Temple of Doom tested the limits of where blockbusters could go. This was no more apparent than when the film was one of a few which helped create a PG-13 rating. Basically the film works as a big budget exploitation picture, which sometimes leans towards cultural misappropriation. Yet the product itself comes right from the book of a Roger Corman movie. Like he did in Raiders, Spielberg surprises us with more action, stunts, and special effects. The world created in the film is a stark contrast from its predesessor, and if it weren’t so extreme hints at what the Indy series could’ve been if it didn’t play it safer. Much like 1941, Spielberg seems to revel in the bombasitic; the more outlandish the better. Many blockbusters play it safe, yet with ths film, Spielberg gives us a freak show, one disguised as a roller coaster ride, which is best exemplified in the Buster Keaton inspired mine car chase, which is perhaps the best sequence in the entire franchise. Temple of Doom will always be an outlier in Spielberg’s career. He would settle down after this and focus on more prestige films, and his blockbusters would become more crowd pleasing. But we’ll always have this to remind us how freaky he can get.
5. Lincoln (2012)
Lincoln benefits a lot from Spielberg’s collaborators, namely screenwriter Tony Kushner who creates such an authentic, yet playful way of speech for the actors. Kushner’s intellectual and philosophical way of writing gels well with the simple cinematic ideas Spielberg conveys. The speech in the film which masterfully spells out the theme indirectly is when Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) talkes about Euclid’s theory. Here Kushner alludes both to the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal as well as Lincoln’s own Gettysburg address. It has become one of my favorite speeches because it works as an epiphany for Lincoln. At this point in the film he has been playing the political game in order to pass the 13th Amendment and he has been struggling to convey his motives. The speech forms the basis of the film’s argument against slavery and the audience, like Lincoln come to the same foregone conclusion that it must be abolished. The nuance of this revelation is eloquent in its execution and its from these small moments we recognize the greatness behind Lincoln the man. There are few films I can think of which concern themselves with the inner workings of government and politics, and this is also one of the few films to show Abraham Lincoln as a human being. Spielberg does this by making him into one of his everymen not unlike Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. However we are reminded of the man’s greatness thanks in part by the embodiment conveyed by Day Lewis who never goes big, but is small and subtle. With this we get a man we can relate to, but one who just happens to be the greatest leader of the free world. This is an astoudning acheivement.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The granddaddy of adventure films, and perhaps the only one that can make me feel like a kid. This film is a stone cold classic of high flying swashbuckling adventure. Spielberg along with co-creator George Lucas effortlessly update the Saturday Matinee serial to give us the greatest Saturday Matinee serial of all time. Everything from the casting of Harrison Ford as the titular hero, along with Karen Allen as his sidekick/love interest make for a good time. The set pieces speak for themselves, they run like clockwork and John Williams score adds to the excitement. In short this is Spielberg reaching his technical peak, something that was made evident with Jaws and solidified with Jurassic Park. Yet I don’t think he has ever done this kind of entertainment better than with this film. It’s everything a popcorn movie should and can be. The best time at the movies or your money back.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
For those who might remember when this movie came out, it felt like a revleation as it didn’t have any markings of a Spielberg film. Even counting The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, nothing could have prepared us for the unflinching horror displayed here. Schindler’s List is a cinematic acheivement in how it dramatized the holocaust like no other film. There were dramatic films such as Diary of Anne Frank and Judgement at Nuremburg, yet those took a relatively docudrama approach. Schindler’s List was unrelenting in its authentic retelling of the events. Though there is still the ethical debate of dramatizing a thing like the holocaust for entertainment value, as in how can artifice make up for the real thing. It doesn’t, yet Spielberg uses cinema as an educational tool, and in a world where there are still people who deny atrocities like this ever happened, perhaps it’s best to show it by any means possible. As for the film itself, the stark black and white evokes an early Italian neo-realist edge. We remember the faces in the film and Spielberg is respectable enough for the actors to say the names of the real people they were depicting. Lists appear all throughout this film as human life has become a commodity, and the trick is trying to find out if you’re essential enough to live. Schindler made it so the jews he saved were essential in the eyes of the Nazis, though that was just a mask behind the film’s intent which is to show no human life should be expendable. The film is many things, but most of all it is a rememberance of what happened to the Jewish people who perished in world war II, but it is also a prayer that we must never forget.
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
If Jaws introduced Spielberg as a major talent, Close Encounters introduced him as a major artist. This was the emergance of an auteur, someone who saw the world and cinema in a unique way. More than any other film he has made, Close Encounters is less about story and more about the experience. Throughout the film we are teased with something big, bright, and beautiful, something we may never have seen before. The finale fulfills all these promises, and everything has been leading up to the introduction to the mother ship. Like a musical movement reaching a creshendo, this is what the film offers us. This is not just a science fiction film, it is a film about cinema, and Spielberg’s own relation towards it. It’s a tool of universal communication, a communal experience meant to be shared. Throughout the 1970s we had filmmakers create new visions and interpretations of cineama. They were the new group of young upstarts who were the first to be influenced by the original masters. They were given room to share their own voice, and this was Spielberg’s voice singing through like the child who opens the door and is sillouetted by the bright lights he sees. The film is a promise that cinema means hope and catharsis for us. Spielberg has been showing us the wonder of cinema ever since.
1. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
E.T. came at a time where Spielberg could do no wrong. He was untouchable and had the midas touch, and so he ends up making one of his most personal statements and touches the world in the process. Along with Close Encounters, E.T. represents best what we think of when we think of Spielberg cinema. It is magical and full of wonder, mystery, and adventure.This is best exemplfied in the film’s images of shadow and light. Spielberg fills the screen with these opposing images, and often we can see them represent both horror and wonder. But E.T. also represents lonliness, and displacement, something that is returned to in films such as The Terminal and Catch me if you Can. E.T. the character carries on the conversation that Close Encounters started. He is the barrier of communication, he makes us feel safe, and he can take us away from our sadness into a world of imagination. In essence E.T. is cinema to Spielberg’s Eliott. A child of divorce himself, Spielberg escaped to create his own movies, and his own worlds where he felt safe and secure. He has been able to invite audiences into his world ever since. But the film is also about empathy, learning about others, and sharing their own experiences. The connection Eliot has with E.T. is not of thoughts but of feelings. They share their pain, as well as their joy. In a time of uncertainty, E.T. brought the whole world together to share a story about love. It’s one of the most pure film experiences ever made, and a dedication to childhood and wonder. It would be difficult for Spielberg ever to top this as it remains his opus.