Steven Spielberg phones home during the making of 1975′s ‘Jaws’ (All photos: Everett Collection)
This story is being featured as part of our “Yahoo Best Stories of 2015” series. It was originally published in September 2015.
When Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated Bridge of Spies premieres next month at the New York Film Festival, it will mark the latest feature film in the director’s illustrious four-decade-and-counting career (and his fourth collaboration with star Tom Hanks). More than any other filmmaker of the past half-century, Spielberg’s body of work has been endlessly scrutinized, blatantly copied, and obsessively debated for decades.
Spielberg’s latest — about a lawyer tasked with securing the release of a captured American spy in Russia during the Cold War — should likewise inspire similar heated discussion. Whether working in drama, science fiction, fantasy, romance, or horror, Spielberg has exhibited an unparalleled ability to thrill, move, enlighten, and inspire. Moreover, one of the joys of his filmography is arguing about how his films compare to each other.
With attitudes always changing about how his works hold up, and with anticipation for his latest at a fever pitch, we set out to rank his entire big-screen oeuvre — including his contribution to The Twilight Zone anthology but excluding his TV-only movies and episodic small-screen work — from misbegotten misfires to enduring masterpieces. Let the debate begin.
29. Hook (1991)
The one true misfire of Spielberg’s career — one in which the director tipped over into outright self-parody — Hook may be beloved by kids of a certain age, but even nostalgia can’t blind one to the overwrought melodrama and heavy-handed schmaltziness dished out by this continuation of the Peter Pan legend.
Spielberg’s favorite theme is that of absentee fathers — a fixation born from his own experiences living through his parents’ unpleasant divorce — and here, as his umpteenth take on the topic, it’s treated with a gooeyness that makes the entire endeavor seem like an unintentionally comical spoof. Similarly, Robin Williams lays his sentimental earnestness shtick on too thick, playing an adult Peter who’s grown up in the real world to become a stuffy corporate lawyer and who returns to Neverland to save his kidnapped son from Captain Hook — and, in the process, to reconnect with his former, childlike self.
Replete with groan-worthy one-liners and needless plot twists, this saga is endlessly busy, most notably when Peter finally becomes “Pan” and, in celebration, joyously flies about, plays some basketball, and hoots and hollers alongside singing and dancing children. As Tinker Bell, Julia Roberts isn’t completely intolerable, and Dustin Hoffman is periodically spot-on as the dastardly surrogate daddy Hook. No matter — with its tiresome visual gags, cutesy performances, and sludgy sentimentality, it’s the corniest, and most insufferable, father-son story Spielberg ever made.
28. War Horse (2011)
The primary appeal of the original 2007 London stage production of War Horse was its use of a life-sized puppet to present its titular steed. Take that inventive aesthetic gimmick away, however, and you’re left with a cornball affair (based on a 1982 children’s novel) about the constantly intertwining paths of a young boy and his beloved horse in and around World War I — material whose mushiness is amplified by Spielberg’s overly melodramatic visuals and staging.
Headlined by the thoroughly nondescript Jeremy Irvine as the horse’s original owner — one of many humans with whom it comingles, including Tom Hiddleston’s army commander and Benedict Cumberbatch’s major — the film never misses an opportunity to go gaga celebrating the gallant nobility of its four-legged protagonist. Despite Spielberg’s often beautiful imagery, much of it rendered on an impressively grand scale, the horse remains little more than a personality-free center of attention, and this creakily old-fashioned fable remains perpetually mired in a morass of gooey, eye-roll-inducing sentimentality.
27. Always (1989)
Spielberg’s first stab at unabashed romance is a noble failure that saw him embracing his more mawkish instincts. A remake of 1943’s A Guy Named Joe, Always concerns an aerial firefighter who dies during a mission and is then tasked, as a ghost, with setting up his girlfriend with a new pilot. If that sounds both ridiculous and sappy, it plays that way too, with Richard Dreyfuss’s protagonist proving an aw-shucks bore who returns from the dead to invisibly help his former flame (Holly Hunter) get over his death and move on with a young hunk.
The director gets decent starring turns from Dreyfuss and Hunter and an amusing supporting performance from John Goodman. But whether it’s Dreyfuss’s afterlife scenes with his guardian angel/boss (Audrey Hepburn) or any of the innumerable moments coated in golden sunshine or heavenly rays of light pouring in through windows, Always works so hard to be moving that it becomes off-putting. After this and Hook, it’s no wonder Spielberg saw fit to temper his treacly instincts, at least for a time, and tackle more substantial and weighty dramatic and action-oriented material in the years to come.
26. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
As maudlin as Always, but mercifully shorter, Spielberg’s contribution to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie anthology film is an illustration of the director unwisely indulging his sappiest instincts. Spielberg’s segment is a remake of the TV show’s 1962 episode “Kick the Can,” about a dreary retirement home whose elderly residents are given a jolt of fresh life when a new tenant (Scatman Crothers) appears on their doorstep. Faced with all these sad sacks, Crothers’s visitor has the residents play a game of “kick the can,” during which they’re magically transformed into their younger, and ostensibly happier, selves.
Crothers’s perpetually grinning magic-man performance comes uncomfortably close to resembling old, ugly African-American stereotypes, and the short’s message about staying young at heart is so trite that it elicits mostly groans. Spielberg’s helming is so insistently poignant — his pillowy aesthetics work overtime to garner an inspirational emotional response — that the effect is off-putting. Lacking any measure of restraint, it exhibits Spielberg’s penchant for sometimes belligerently pulling on viewers’ heartstrings rather than allowing his stories’ pathos to emerge on its own.
25. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
What once was fresh comes off as musty and strained in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth vehicle for Harrison Ford’s daring archaeologist Indiana Jones. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade, Ford seems to have lost almost all of the suave, rogue-ish charm that defined his characterization; here, he’s mostly brusque, cranky, and ostensibly annoyed that he has to again perform heroic deeds with his trusty whip.
Skull’s homages to sci-fi B-movies are sporadically stylish and clever, but whatever thrill Spielberg once felt for this franchise has disappeared, along with Ford’s smile, as the centerpiece chases and fights range from the serviceable (Indy’s face-off with a horde of giant ants) to the laughable (Shia LaBeouf swinging through the forest alongside monkeys) to the outright preposterous (the infamous surviving-a-nuke-in-a-refrigerator opening gag). At least Cate Blanchett has a campy blast as a Russian agent intent on finding a mythical, telepathic crystal alien skull; the rest of those involved come across as driven less by inspiration or joy than by a duty to revisit these characters for the benefit of fans.
24. The Terminal (2004)
Loosely inspired by a real-life incident — even though it resonates as counterfeit for most of its runtime — The Terminal affords Spielberg the opportunity to work in a quirkier mode than usual, albeit to largely aggravating ends. Affecting a made-up Eastern European-ish foreign accent that’s in keeping with the film’s general air of phoniness, Hanks plays a foreign traveler who gets stuck at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after his homeland’s civil war causes his passport to be canceled. Stranded and with nowhere else to go, he sets up temporary residence at the airport, where he’s soon befriending lots of wannabe-colorful regulars, playing matchmaker for an unbearably cutesy duo (Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana), and initiating a preposterous relationship with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Despite a meticulously crafted airport set and some occasionally witty direction from Spielberg, there’s a dearth of authenticity to these comic shenanigans, as well as a general lack of verve. Hanks’s lead performance has a few brief moments of wry humor, but like the rest of the action, he mostly comes across as a manipulative construct designed to elicit lame laughs and even lamer, squishier uplift.
23. Amistad (1997)
Well-intentioned but dramatically inert thanks to an abundance of oratory preachiness, Spielberg’s Amistad wants to be for slavery what Schindler’s List was for the Holocaust. But the director’s material isn’t nearly up to that task, playing out as an awkward amalgam of mystery, courtroom drama, and rah-rah political drama.
The story’s jumping-off point is a mutiny aboard a slave ship by a collection of imprisoned Africans (led by Djimon Hounsou) who, after seizing control of the vessel, wind up being captured by Americans, brought to U.S. shores, and then incarcerated (in advance of execution) as runaways slaves. Luckily, Matthew McConaughey’s plucky lawyer, with the aid of Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård’s abolitionists, are around to come to their rescue, at which point the film devolves into a hoary courtroom battle between the forces of good and evil. Aside from the introductory mutiny sequence, Spielberg’s stewardship is lackluster and lethargic, though worse still, the wealth of noble sermons and one-dimensional types renders it a stolid awards-bait project. (It was nominated for four Oscars but won none.)
22. 1941 (1979)
Spielberg’s solitary attempt at raucous multicharacter comedy, 1941 has all the elements in place for success, including a script co-written by Robert Zemeckis and an all-star cast populated by the likes of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Robert Stack, and the illustrious Toshiro Mifune (star of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, among many other classics). Unfortunately, something doesn’t quite click in this zany story about the insanity that engulfs Los Angeles in the months after 1941’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
In detailing the panic that ensues after a submarine appears off the California coast, Spielberg throws just about everything at the screen, and in great, messy gobs too, as if simply going for more, more, more at every turn will somehow raise the action’s comedic energy to near dizzying levels. Instead, it mainly leaves the film feeling overstuffed and all over the place, its slapstick so slapdash that even its funniest moments — such as Ned Beatty nailing a wreath to a front door as the rest of the house slides off a cliff — are undermined by their sheer excess.
21. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Spielberg went back to the prehistoric well for this hotly anticipated 1997 effort, and the results are a decidedly mixed bag. On the plus side is Jeff Goldblum, whose sarcastic scientist Ian Malcolm not only makes plain the stupidity of continuing to frolic with dinosaurs, but whose skeptical view of the entire mission — which concerns a trip to a remote island where the park’s dinosaurs are now roaming free — takes center stage.
Goldblum’s starring turn is matched by a few moments imbued with Spielberg’s unparalleled action direction, the best being a scene in which the heroes are trapped in a trailer being accosted by not one, but two T. rexes. Unfortunately, aside from those intermittent highs, concluding with a T. rex rampage through the streets of San Diego, The Lost World mostly comes across as an obligatory work-for-hire gig. Having already fully captured the majestic awe of his ancient beasts in the original film, Spielberg is content to merely serve up the requisite screamy, slam-bang goods and little else, so that it operates as both an admirable showcase for his technical artistry as well as an example of been-here, done-that sequelitis.
20. The Color Purple (1985)
An adaptation of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel about a black family’s tumultuous 40-year history, The Color Purple was Spielberg’s first attempt at “adult” filmmaking — a transition that proves not altogether smooth. For too much of its runtime, the film takes place in a fantasyland vision of the South that’s substantially removed from the harsh realities of Walker’s book — despite the fact that it doesn’t shy away from the horrific abuse and heartrending circumstances of its heroine Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), who’s twice impregnated by her father before being forced into a nightmarish marriage with a man who demands to be called “Mister” (Danny Glover).
Spielberg’s ability to tug at the heartstrings does pay regular dividends, in part thanks to a commanding lead performance from Goldberg and equally riveting supporting turns from Glover and Oprah Winfrey. However, there’s a sense that the director’s sensibilities are a bad fit for his material, and at times, the preponderance of syrupy melodrama is almost suffocating.
19. Munich (2005)
An examination of Israeli-Palestinian relations that’s bogged down by incessant speechifying, Spielberg’s Munich is the less successful of his historical collaborations with Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (the other being Lincoln). A semifictionalized account of the Israeli government’s response to the murder of 11 of the country’s 1972 Olympians by Palestinian gunmen, which involved hunting down and killing those responsible, this action-packed drama focuses on a Mossad assassination squad led by Eric Bana’s conflicted leader, who finds himself wracked by parental abandonment issues (per Spielberg tradition) as well as torn between his loyalty to family and nation.
Spielberg’s staging of Bana and his men’s executions is razor sharp, none better than an amazingly taut sequence involving a bomb, a telephone, and a young girl. Such centerpieces evoke the material’s ambivalence about the efficacy of murderous retaliation far better than the script’s “very important” conversations, which leadenly lay out ideas about government-sponsored eye-for-an-eye justice, and a democratic country’s responsibility to protect itself by whatever means necessary. Making a plea for peace even as it argues that fighting one’s enemies is often necessary, the film winds up uneasily straddling its own political divide.
18. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg’s first proper theatrical effort is this Badlands-ish tale of a 25-year-old woman (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of jail so the two can reclaim their foster home-assigned child. To do this, they kidnap a state trooper (Michael Sacks), hijack his car, and set out on a rambling odyssey through Texas that attracts the attention of a cop (Ben Johnson) and his innumerable deputies, as well as media coverage that turns the couple’s misadventure into a tabloid sensation.
With its sociocultural commentary making it a kindred spirit to Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic, Ace in the Hole, Spielberg’s film is a ramshackle affair, veering wildly in tone and often placing too much emphasis on tire-screeching action instead of on character development. Still, at the age of 28, his virtuoso directorial skills are on considerable display even at this early stage, with his camera spinning, lurching, and careening about with a high-wire vitality that amplifies his caustic, goofy satire about the fractured American family and the country’s cult of celebrity.
17. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg won his second (and, to date, last) Best Director Oscar for his World War II drama about a U.S. Army Rangers squad — led by Hanks’s captain — searching for a paratrooper (Matt Damon) in 1944 Europe. Much of the film’s acclaim, and enduring reputation, stems from its depiction of the chaos and madness of the Omaha Beach invasion, which Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoot in a frenzied, disorienting style that’s been routinely aped ever since. (See Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, etc.)
The concussive impact of that opening salvo is so great, however, that it obscures the uneven melodrama that follows as Hanks and his ragtag band of men (Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, and a terrible Edward Burns) traverse the countryside, talking about life back home and the awfulness of war when not engaging in occasional skirmishes with enemy forces. Aided by a lead Hanks performance that fails to succumb to the slushier inclinations of Robert Rodat’s script, but undermined by bookending present-day, cemetery-set scenes that are about as subtle as a rocket launcher — as well as the thoroughly clunky climactic encounter between Hanks and Damon’s titular private — Ryan is an uneven epic that’s sometimes harrowing and other times creaky to the point of falling apart.
16. War of the Worlds (2005)
Spielberg’s take on H.G. Wells’s classic tale is, for the most part, a fantastic alien invasion blockbuster, and unsurprisingly stands as the sixth-biggest box-office earner of his hit-laden career. Focused on Tom Cruise’s divorced New Jersey dock worker, who must protect his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) after angry extraterrestrials emerge from the ground to wreak havoc on civilization, this sci-fi film is bolstered by sterling Spielberg set pieces, from the initial appearance of the tripod-looking aliens to a later, cabin-set encounter between Cruise, Fanning, and Tim Robbins’s less-than-completely-sane survivor.
War’s scenes of widespread destruction purposely evoke the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and it’s a fearsome, far-less-hopeful vision of intergalactic visitors than those proffered by E.T. and Close Encounters. With Spielberg returning to his favorite theme (father-son separation and reconciliation) and Cruise holding his own amid the director’s skillfully staged pandemonium, War of the Worlds manages to consistently keep you on the edge of your seat — at least until its conclusion cheats so egregiously in order to end things on a happy note that it almost makes you wish the aliens ultimately won.
15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
As if responding to complaints that Temple of Doom was too bleak and nasty, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is an archaeology adventure cast in a far sunnier, more Raiders-ish mold. From Indy’s search for another mythical artifact (the Holy Grail) to his clashes with villainous Nazis, this third go-round deliberately tries to align itself with the franchise’s initial installment — a fact that occasionally leaves it feeling like a wan rehash. Nonetheless, if it never achieves its predecessors’ highs, it has its fair share of superb Spielberg-orchestrated moments, most notably a sequence in which Indy tracks down a convoy protected by a panzer tank while on horseback.
Moreover, Last Crusade benefits from the participation of Sean Connery as Indy’s father, a Holy Grail expert who’s kidnapped by the Nazis and whose repartee with Ford’s spelunking hero is marked by endless bickering and the elder Jones’s habit of condescendingly referring to his son as “Junior.” Even when the film feels like it’s going through familiar motions (replete with John Rhys-Davies’s and Denholm Elliott’s return to the series), Ford and Connery’s witty back-and-forths enliven this sturdy actioner. More than any of his other overt efforts, Last Crusade is Spielberg’s most successful comedy.
14. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Though one of Spielberg’s least commercially successful efforts, Empire of the Sun is one of his most evocative and affecting. Originally a project intended for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago auteur David Lean — whose style Spielberg evokes in his juxtapositions of small-scale humanity and large-scale conflict and chaos — this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel (written by famed playwright Tom Stoppard) charts the ordeal of a young British boy living in Shanghai who is separated from his parents after the Japanese invade following their attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and must struggle to survive the war on his own.
Eventually befriending an American ship steward (John Malkovich) who’s now a prisoner of war, Spielberg’s young protagonist, Jim (Christian Bale), turns out to be a figure of adolescent resilience and courage throughout Spielberg’s sweeping drama, which exhibits an intimate compassion for, and understanding of, its main character’s physical suffering and — more moving still — emotional turmoil. Pinpointing the cost of war through the prism of one boy’s unbelievable journey, Empire is a film that presages Schindler’s List and Munich, all while featuring a debut big-screen performance from a 12-year-old Bale that foreshadows his own superstardom to come.
13. Duel (1971)
Initially made for TV and then expanded for a theatrical release, Duel remains both a rip-roaring genre film and a canny warm-up for Jaws. Spielberg’s stripped-to-the-bone feature “debut” has a simple plot: In his car, a California businessman (Dennis Weaver) passes a big-rig truck, and for that oh-so-minor offense, he’s subsequently terrorized to the breaking point by the monolithic vehicle. That the driver of the villainous truck is never seen merely amplifies the sense that Weaver’s everyman is being pursued by some unspeakable, primal evil, and Spielberg gets great mileage out of a bevy of set pieces in which his protagonist narrowly avoids a grisly roadside fate.
While Duel’s characters are thin to the point of one-dimensionality, the director’s vision of a desolate desert American West — all dusty roads, empty gas stations, and scorching sun beating down on cars’ hoods — is as haunting as his high-octane action is nerve-wracking.
12. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
It may not have sparked the 3D motion-capture animation revolution it seemed intent on pioneering in 2011, but The Adventures of Tintin — made in collaboration with The Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson, whose rumored sequel has yet to materialize — is a visual marvel that functions as a globetrotting for-younger-kids companion piece to his Indiana Jones series. With Jamie Bell supplying the voice and mo-capped body for the famous French journalist-cum-sleuth Tintin, the film charts its hero’s quest to uncover the truth about a famed sunken ship and the mysterious treasure it supposedly held — a rollicking mission that leads him from Brussels to the Moroccan desert to points beyond.
Buoyed by a superb cast that includes Andy Serkis as the drunken Captain Haddock and co-screenwriter Edgar Wright’s favorite duo, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as bumbling cops Thomson and Thompson, it’s a family-friendly blast from start to finish, replete with a continuous-take chase sequence through a bustling port city that — regardless of the fact that it was created with a computer, and not a physical camera — is one of the most visually imaginative and impressive moments in the entire Spielberg canon.
11. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Cat-and-mouse thrillers don’t come much more lively — or surprisingly moving — than this undervalued 2002 gem about the real-life story of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the ‘60s posed as a Pan Am pilot (and a doctor, and a prosecutor) in order to carry out a check-forging scam that netted him millions. Hot on Abagnale’s trail is Hanks’s FBI agent Carl Hanratty, whose hunt for the wily criminal is energized by fleet, fluid direction by Spielberg, who treats his material as equal parts thriller, comedy, and character study.
With regard to that last point, Catch Me If You Can returns Spielberg to one of his enduring themes, strained father-son relationships, via Frank and his dad (a magnificent Christopher Walken), who loses his wife and wealth after being caught committing tax evasion. Their dynamic, which has echoes of Spielberg’s own experiences growing up in a broken home, proves to be the emotional centerpiece of this otherwise lighthearted romp that exudes period style (never better than during its Saul Bass-echoing Kuntzel+Deygas title sequence) and a delightfully modern sense of whip-smart humor.
10. Jurassic Park (1993)
Following the disappointing commercial/critical performance of Hook, Spielberg roared back to the top of the cinematic mountain with this monster mash, whose offspring (i.e., this past summer’s Jurassic World) continue to rule the box-office landscape. A return to the creature-feature terrain of 1975’s Jaws, Jurassic Park delivers adrenalized thrills while also doubling as a cautionary tale about the folly of man’s science-enabled ambition. Working from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, Spielberg’s film revolutionized CG special effects, especially with its speedy velociraptors and rampaging T. rex, which receives an unforgettable introduction via a cup of water trembling from his mighty footsteps.
Far more than its cutting-edge computerized wizardry, however, Jurassic Park thrives courtesy of Spielberg’s expert storytelling, his adventure paced with pinpoint precision for maximum excitement, and his main characters — played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough — crafted in nuanced three dimensions. While its predecessors may up the ante in terms of dino-spectacle, none can match the anticipation generated by its opening scenes of the protagonists entering the park’s immense gates, the terror of the T. rex’s rearview mirror-spied pursuit of a fleeing Jeep, or the goose bumpy wonder of Spielberg’s first vista of the park’s plains overrun with all manner of long-extinct beasts.
9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
For the follow-up to 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg and producer George Lucas went dark — so dark, in fact, that (along with the Spielberg-produced Gremlins from that same year), they drove the Motion Picture Association of America to create the PG-13 rating. While its level of violence and bloodshed initially struck some as off-putting, Temple of Doom finds Spielberg tapping into a grim, ugly vein in a way that he never had before (or has since). From scenes of child abuse to the infamous heart-ripped-out-of-a-living-human-sacrifice centerpiece, the film thrusts Indy into a hellscape of cultish madness. There’s a rugged electricity to the way Spielberg orchestrates his fedora-wearing hero’s pain and anguish, which begins early with a sterling Shanghai nightclub opening and carries through to Indy’s climactic showdown against a horde of angry villains on a rope bridge suspended high above a rocky river.
To be sure, some of Temple of Doom’s characterizations don’t quite pass PC muster, and Kate Capshaw’s performance as Indy’s argumentative love interest is shrill. But rooted in twisted torment and the ever-present threat of death, it’s the Indiana Jones outing that feels most unique and dementedly alive.
8. Minority Report (2002)
The superior of Spielberg and Cruise’s two team-ups is this forward-thinking sci-fi actioner based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, in which Cruise is part of a futuristic Washington, D.C., “Precrime” police unit that, working on the premonitions of three psychics, apprehends and convicts people before they’ve committed their crimes. Once Cruise’s cop is targeted for arrest, he goes on the lam in order to clear his name, and Spielberg proves at the top of his game orchestrating a series of chase sequences through high-tech locales.
While the film somewhat falls apart at the end thanks to one too many twists, its preceding vision of the future (created, in part, with the input of a team of futurists) is both striking and, as every passing year shows, prescient — from its holographic, touch-screen technology to its self-driving cars to its personalized shopping mall advertisements that specifically target consumers. Minority Report offers an eerily believable glimpse at what our world may soon look like and also boasts out-there set pieces — a pursuit that requires Cruise to leap between automated moving vehicles and a beautifully orchestrated sequence involving a blind, post-surgery Cruise hiding from creeping spider robots — augmented by Spielberg’s superlative style.
7. Lincoln (2012)
Led by a titanic Daniel Day-Lewis performance as the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln is that rare period epic — one that’s almost exclusively dominated by conversation, reflection, and debate. More stunning still is the near-constant dramatic electricity it generates from that talk, all of it surrounding President Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 work to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, in the House of Representatives.
Based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kushner’s screenplay dives deep into the office politics and backroom wheeling and dealing entailed by Lincoln’s mission, and as the president endeavors to secure the necessary votes required to ratify the measure, Spielberg uses his camera to subtly express, through static compositions and unassuming camera movements around his bevy of interior locales, the various push-pull dynamics driving, and complicating, this momentous moment in the nation’s history. Spielberg’s direction has rarely been more scrupulously composed and assured, and though the film often threatens to lionize its subject to an excessive degree, its focus on Lincoln’s loneliness and self-doubt helps keep this portrait fixated on the man more than the myth.
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
For his first venture into science fiction, Spielberg fashioned this remarkable study of human curiosity and obsession. As an Indiana husband and father who, after an encounter with a UFO, becomes increasingly gripped by visions of a towering mountain, Dreyfuss is a paternal figure who represents Spielberg’s familiar hang-ups about his own MIA father, as well as a proxy for the single-minded, big-dreaming Spielberg himself.
More than almost any of Spielberg’s other works, the film captures the awe-inspiring wonder, optimism, and terror of discovering that there’s something else — something larger, something mysterious — out there, and when Dreyfuss’s character carves a model of his coveted mountain (Wyoming’s Devils Tower) out of mashed potatoes, it also locates the way such feelings can prove crazily overwhelming. Culminating with a human-extraterrestrial encounter that involves director Francois Truffaut and a five-tone musical phrase that remains one of the most iconic in cinema history, it’s a film about the extraordinary that, like the best science fiction, is really about our own everyday relationships, emotions, and lives.
5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a marriage of sorts between the director and the late Stanley Kubrick, who had long worked on adapting its source material (Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long) before handing the project over to Spielberg ahead of his 1999 death. Hewing closely to Kubrick’s ideas but imbued with Spielberg’s own thematic preoccupations, A.I. has a title that recalls E.T. but, in other ways, proves a far darker fable about the perils of childhood and the way in which kids’ identities are shaped by their relationships with their parents.
Drenched in luminous light by regular Spielberg cinematographer Kaminski, this futuristic story about an abandoned robot boy (Haley Joel Osment) on an odyssey to discover who he is and where he comes from — and, in a nod to Pinocchio, to perhaps become “real” — blends fairy-tale wonder and sci-fi nightmarishness to hypnotic effect. Traversing an otherworldly landscape populated by all manner of potentially untrustworthy souls, not to mention Jude Law’s wanted-for-murder pleasure-bot Gigolo Joe, it’s a film whose expectations were so high upon initial release (Spielberg and Kubrick!) that it was probably destined to underwhelm audiences. Fourteen years later, however, it resounds as one of Spielberg’s very best.
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Winner of seven Academy Awards, including the first (long-delayed, but justly deserved) Best Director prize for Spielberg himself, Schindler’s List was a turning point in the auteur’s career, insofar as it definitively proved that he was a master dramatist as well as pop-blockbuster storyteller. Incisively adapted by Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally’s nonfiction book and shot in gorgeously stark black and white by Kaminski, Spielberg’s Holocaust drama charts the heroic, clandestine efforts of German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson, in a towering performance) and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (a phenomenal Ben Kingsley) to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis’ gas chambers.
Gripping and horrifying, uplifting and devastating in equal measure, it’s a film that refuses to shy away from the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich and yet manages, against all obstacles, to locate a sliver of hope amid consuming tragedy. Difficult to endure but nonetheless must-see viewing, and featuring the breakthrough big-screen performance of Ralph Fiennes as monstrous SS guard Amon Goeth, it’s Spielberg’s most epic, and perhaps also his most singularly important, work to date.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg’s reputation as the reigning king of American movies was cemented with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which, upon its 1982 release, became the biggest box-office hit in history — a title it took from Star Wars and was taken from it by the director’s own 1993 smash Jurassic Park. Revisiting the topic of alien-human contact that he’d first explored with Close Encounters — except here from a far more childlike perspective — Spielberg’s film charts the loving bond formed between a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and a stranded interstellar visitor with a taste for Reese’s Pieces and a soul-deep yearning to reunite with his family.
Conveying an evocative sense of the California suburbs circa the early ‘80s and setting up many of the familial and individual-versus-authority dynamics that would repeatedly manifest themselves in later Spielberg works, E.T. is an overwhelmingly touching portrait of friendship — and the sacrifices it often necessitates — that also taps into a universal sense of adolescent fear, loneliness, anxiety, and astonishment. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, controlling your tears when Elliott and E.T. take flight on his bicycle or finally say farewell to each other is an exercise in futility.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first collaboration between Spielberg and friend/Star Wars mastermind Lucas was an ode to the swashbuckling serialized stories of their youth, and the results were nothing short of extraordinary. Raiders of the Lost Ark (its title later changed to include “Indiana Jones and” for franchise-unifying purposes) is the ideal action-adventure film, full of nonstop humor, romance, suspense, and jaw-dropping set pieces, all revolving around an irresistibly charming rogue.
From the classic opening boulder sequence and the supernatural finale of awesome, old-school face-melting effects to his incessant, contentious banter with Karen Allen’s feisty Marion Ravenwood, Ford’s archaeologist is a peerlessly noble, wisecracking hero. Cutting a daring figure in his trademark fedora and matching leather jacket, his trusty bullwhip always at the ready, Indy is Spielberg’s most memorable protagonist, a man compelled by both a sense of obligation to history and an arrogant refusal to let others (much less villainous Nazis) best him at his own trade. While Indy’s exploits continued in a series of sturdy sequels, his maiden 1981 quest — in which he races the Nazis to acquire the fabled Ark of the Covenant — stands the test of time as a near-perfect piece of exhilarating entertainment, as well as an exemplary example of Spielberg channeling childhood cinematic loves into something at once reverent and innovative.
1. Jaws (1975)
The film that truly created the summer movie season as we know it, and in the process set the template for the modern mainstream blockbuster, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel — about the appearance of a great white off the coast of fictional New England vacation town Amity — is not only his greatest achievement, but also one of the great American films of the last half-century.
A terrifying tale that continues to dissuade people from dipping their toes in the ocean, it’s a classic not only because of its capacity to scare, but also because it features a trio of iconic performances (from Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and the incomparable Robert Shaw) that allow it to resonate first and foremost as a character-study-cum-man-versus-beast-battle. In particular, Shaw’s ominous monologue about his experience aboard World War II’s doomed USS Indianapolis is arguably the finest scene of Spielberg’s career, eliciting almost unbearable terror from its sustained focus on its three characters’ faces. Toss in the now-legendary fact that Spielberg inadvertently benefited from his mechanical shark’s malfunctions — they forced him to keep his aquatic villain offscreen as much as possible, thereby further amplifying tension — and you have a masterpiece that, 40 years later, has lost none of its pulse-pounding power.