Ranking: Steven Spielberg
For those who listen to the InSession Film Podcast, you’ll know we recently concluded our Steven Spielberg Movie Series. For those who didn’t listen, for context, the series was mostly focused on the “lesser talked” movies in his filmography. However, we did end it with Jurassic Park and E.T. given the release of Jurassic World: Dominion and E.T. celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. So, we felt it would be okay to lump them in the series even if they’ve been talked about to death over the years. It was an incredible journey. We all know and love his “bigger” films, but he has some great gems in his canon that aren’t necessarily on the same pedestal as the Jaws and Indiana Jones.
With that said, we watched all of Spielberg’s feature films over the last few months and I’ll be ranking them. Prepare your comments now. Whether you agree or disagree, we all have specific thoughts on his filmography and I’m certain you’ll have something to say as we go. So, without further ado, here is my ranking of Steven Spielberg as it stands right now.
1941 is arguably the only film in Spielberg’s canon that has no redeeming qualities (okay that’s not necessarily true, the camerawork is very good in places and John Williams’s score isn’t bad). We love Spielberg, but there almost seems to be no direction to the movie. It meanders without any sense of purpose and to say that it’s a tonal mess is putting it mildly. It tries way too hard to be funny, but it seems to have no comedic bone in its body. Which is really unfortunate given the extensive, yet phenomenal cast that it has. I mean, it has Toshirō Mifune for crying out loud. Sadly though, 1941 is just a poorly conceived, terribly written, and exhausting effort that leaves everything to be desired.
33. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by far the worst of the Indiana Jones movies. Its absurdity makes its predecessors seem like documentaries by comparison. These are heightened adventure movies, I get it, but in this case it goes a couple of degrees too far. There’s no chemistry between Harrison Ford and Shia Labeouf, sadly. As great as they are individually outside of this film. Which is, obviously, not ideal given the nature of their relationship. On the whole, this film lacks the same vigor and fun as the previous installments. Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade have their faults as well, but they still maintain the spirit of what makes that original trilogy thrilling. Some of the action scenes are well staged though and John Williams comes to play. It’s not the disaster that is 1941, but it’s still far from good.
32. The BFG
The BFG is one of Spielberg’s lesser movies, but it has its heart in the right place. There’s a heartwarming center to it that is infectious. I’m not familiar with the source material, but felt as if Spielberg and the late-great Melissa Mathison struggled to find a cohesive vision for the narrative. Their previous work together (oh just wait, we’ll get to it) was nothing short of masterful, so it’s unfortunate that The BFG struggled to find any footing. There’s certainly an imaginative undercurrent to the film that’s compelling, and its ideas on acceptance and open-mindedness are affable, however, it’s too uneven and unengaging for there to be any meaningful impact.
31. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
There’s an argument to be made that this should sit lower on this list, but there are components too, and scenes in, The Lost World: Jurassic Park that I do really like quite a bit. For one, the film aims to examine further the idea of playing god, and while it doesn’t always work, there are parts of it that I find complimentary to its predecessor. It’s also hard for me to ignore Spielberg’s craftsmanship and how he renders terror. There’s still a visceral suspense at times that I do find effective, even if those moments arrive at the hands of a weak and plot-holey script. Also, Jeff Goldblum is great. Love him in these movies.
We talked about this quite a bit on the podcast during our review of it for the series, but Amistad is a film that feels as if Spielberg was just a director for hire. Which makes sense since Debbie Allen was really the driving force behind it coming to fruition. The story itself is captivating and worth telling on screen, I’m just not convinced Spielberg was the guy to do it. But when he does flex here, it’s quite good. The opening sequence is masterful. The moment where Cinqué stands up in the middle of courtroom proceedings is phenomenal. There are some good things here. But mostly it’s a courtroom drama that doesn’t take advantage of Spielberg’s strengths as a filmmaker, and narratively it becomes more concerned with its investigative elements than it does the Mende people. I will say, though, despite the film being made almost 25 years ago, there is a lot about it that still resonates in 2022. Specifically, as it relates to how race and politics are intrinsically interwoven despite the clear moral implications. So in some ways, it’s aged very well, sadly, even if on the whole the film is a mixed bag.
29. The Terminal
The Terminal would easily fall apart if it was in the hands of a lesser filmmaker and lead actor. The entire film takes place within a single location, specifically an airport, so there was potential for mundanity to set in quickly. But I don’t think it’s mundane at all. There’s a tender charm to this story that keeps it together and the results are very endearing in execution. Perhaps at times it’s one of Spielberg’s most schmaltzy movies, but I still like its heart. And Tom Hanks is great.
28. The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express is arguably Spielberg’s least talked about movie, and on the whole, it’s understandable. The narrative, for one, gets too bogged down in being a “chase” movie that it gets redundant and slightly banal at times. There are also missed opportunities to give further perspective into why these characters do what they do, especially from the police side of things. However, the film does a great job of eliciting this fascinating juxtaposition between reality and desperation in our central couple. They constantly teeter on that line and it renders complicated characters that are always alluring, even when the plot stifled momentum. Spielberg’s filmmaking is quite wonderful as well. The cinematography and editing in particular are noteworthy. I can’t forget these great performances or John Williams’ score either. People may forget about The Sugarland Express, but if you’re interested in the history of Spielberg, I do urge people to check it out. Between this and Duel, you 1000% see the seeds of who Spielberg would become.
I find it difficult to actively dislike Always given its affable nature, but like The Sugarland Express, you do see its missed opportunities. The film still features a few of those mind-blowing images and moments that have come to define Spielberg, such as that opening shot or the final few sequences of the movie. The cast is very good. And there are some compelling things here about grief and closure, which is good (even if derivative) when it’s focused on Pete, Dorinda and Al. However, the competitive spirit and muddled inclusion of Ted comes off as shoehorned and uninspired. Again, it’s the duality of Spielberg’s direction and the script he’s working with here. There’s no denying the visual allure and cinematic flourishes of the film. But the script leaves something to be desired at times, despite its endearing and lovable spirit. Despite that, the good outweighs the bad in the end.
26. The Adventures of Tintin
The Adventures of Tintin is a weird concoction of Spielberg’s eye and vision for great action and fun, but it also comes with a script full of contrivances and derivative plotting. The amount of well-timed conveniences is kind of staggering. Given the nature of this film, there’s of course going to be some of that (which is fine), but there’s no characterization or emotion to balance out those glaring flaws. So they become a little tedious by the end. That aside though, there’s plenty to love here regarding the way Spielberg moves the camera and how he crafts the action sequences. The flashback scene of the pirates fighting each other is truly wonderful. On the whole, it’s middle-tier Spielberg, but there is much to appreciate.
25. The Color Purple
It’s been well documented that Spielberg was initially hesitant to make The Color Purple when Quincy Jones approached him to direct it, and I do think those reservations come through in the final product. The film is often sanitized and cloy, with a sprinkle of schmaltz as a cherry on top. Not to mention some of the tonal extremes here regarding the abuse we see in some scenes and the slapstick comedy it becomes in others. I’m not sure if Spielberg was trepidatious while making the film, but there is an aura of prudency that heavily cloaks this experience. However, at the same time, there’s a palpable compassion toward these characters that’s sincere and endlessly endearing. If this was a conventional slave movie I think Spielberg’s concerns would have been even more warranted, but instead The Color Purple is more about abuse and gender politics, and the deep effect that has on individuals over time. And that gives way to Spielberg’s strengths as a filmmaker as he can home in on those broader emotions and how these women (especially Celie) find strength in their affection for each other when the men around them incessantly tear them down. The hope and redemption these characters find is exactly the kind of thing Spielberg is known for, so despite his reservations, I get why Jones would do what he did.
24. Ready Player One
I’m honestly curious how people will respond to this film being where it is on my list. It’s not super high, but my instinct is that I’m higher on it than many others. Perhaps context is part it, as Ready Player One is the most fun I’ve had with Spielberg since at least Catch Me If You Can. As mentioned above, he tried to capture the same magic with The BFG and Tintin, but for me it wasn’t quite there with those movies. Ready Player One isn’t working on any level other than pure adrenaline and vigor. Its goals are simple and concise. It doesn’t have the depth of a Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark (although to be fair, how many films can say they do?), but I do think there’s a lot of fun to be had.
23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Similarly to Ready Player One, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has a lot of problems but damn if it isn’t one hell of a good time. The action and choreography are technically immaculate. The camera moves in this film are absolutely wild at times. The art direction is staggering. And I just love the crazy places it’s willing to go with its set pieces and banter, even though admittedly some of it is problematic by 2022 standards. But we experience everything from secret passages to cults to volcanic activity, to voodoo and bodies with the hearts ripped out and everything else in between. And no I’m not just saying this because of the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, I’ve always been fond of Short Round and his dynamic with Indiana. There’s an innocence to Short Round that I admire and Ke Huy Quan is charming as all get out.
Okay, so, I know a lot of people do not like this movie. In fact, for awhile I was one of those people. I first saw Hook when I was a kid back in the mid 90s and there was something about it that didn’t connect with me. After revisiting the film for our series, you come to realize that it’s probably because it’s a movie that’s mostly aimed at adults. Peter is an absent father who forgot why he left Neverland, and not only does he attempt to regain his childhood, the epiphany of why he did leave is something that kids will not relate to. There’s also the great irony regarding the lore of Peter Pan/Neverland in how it’s marketed as a “children’s story,” yet as kids we’re often too eager to grow up. The idea of staying a child forever stems from adults who realize that growing older is overrated and mostly what we do is yearn for is our childhoods again. Perhaps that’s just my theory, but there’s something about the idea of cherishing our childhoods forever because of its innocence and playfulness that I find quite profound. Which is to say, there’s not much about Hook that appealed to me as a six-year-old outside of the sword fighting and Lost Boys food fight. But now, I’m a father myself. One who is drawn toward the idea of Neverland and childhood imagination. So yeah, I think this is one of those movies that becomes better with age (and maybe more so if you’re lucky enough to become a parent). The storytelling is still choppy and uneven, but Spielberg’s sincerity makes a big difference. The film’s notions on fatherhood are derivative, however that doesn’t make the lesson less meaningful. Especially in a world with social media and incessant distractions around us all the time. Perhaps it’s just Robin Williams, who gives a very moving performance, but he brings those emotions out in Peter very well. Contrived as it may be because of the messy narrative, those emotions in Peter I do feel.
21. Empire of the Sun
Empire of the Sun is a film that continues to resonate with me the more and more as I grapple with it. There are tonal shifts that are jarring, and I’m not convinced they all work, but Spielberg seems to be very intentionally tip toeing this line of harrow and whimsy. And that makes sense given that the film is from a child’s perspective. So despite it being a little uneven, there’s something about Jim’s youthful innocence blending with the horror around him that’s fascinating. It’s especially notable when coupled with the great art direction and cinematography of the film. Additionally, there are some compelling ideas here on identity, jingoism, and how Jim demonstrates honor without aligning with nationality. He’s British, obviously, but has never set foot on British soil. He currently lives in China, but he reveres Japanese pilots more than anything else. Eventually, they become his captors and yet, that never dissipates. The scene in which he honors Kamikaze pilots by singing the Japanese National Anthem is really telling about how he views bravery and the Japanese Zero. Which is captivating when immediately after a group of P-51 Mustangs show up and destroy the camp, only for Jim’s allegiance to swing completely the other way. He becomes enamored by their elite prowess and airmanship. There’s not a single moment where Jim’s identity co-exists with jingoism. To him, war is one singular experience and he simply reveres these spectacular war machines that are dogfighter aircraft. Not that national pride is a bad thing (although it certainly can be), but it’s interesting to me how Jim’s ignorance of it, because of his adolescent point of view, renders his identity a bit murky. John Williams’ music is quite good and the sound design to Empire is noteworthy, as well. There is a lot to really like about the film even if it’s a little jumbled in places.
20. Minority Report
This is where I’m going to lose many of you. Minority Report is top-tier Spielberg to a lot of people. So let me be clear that I do really like the film on the whole. There’s no denying Spielberg’s craft and storytelling. Tom Cruise’s performance is excellent. The action is riveting and inventive. I want to love Minority Report, but I’m just not overly fond of its script. It’s a little disjointed for me, and a missed opportunity. Its premise is compelling, but the film doesn’t really wrestle with the moralities it presents until it’s too late. And even then, it’s pretty one-sided. Perhaps part of my frustration is that Minority Report could have been Arrival before Arrival. Coming off the heels of A.I., it would have been interesting to see Minority Report as the reversal, depicting father seeking the love of a lost child in a futuristic hellscape. When the film focuses on that specifically, it’s blistering. But there’s only two scenes dedicated to it before the pivotal scene John has in the apartment as it relates to his grief and choice. Ultimately it’s effective because of Cruise’s stellar performance, but it’s not as fully realized as it could’ve been. Minority Report is sill a good movie. I do like it, just not as much as the films listed below.
19. The Post
This is just a gut feeling, but I wonder if The Post is maybe a little underrated? The discourse around it suggests that it may be. There isn’t anything flashy about this film, but it aptly and potently reflects the times we live in today (and especially in 2017 when it was released). The questions it evokes around journalistic integrity, and why it’s important to maintain that integrity despite the consequences, is striking. Especially given the Kay character and how she must overcome her own timidity. Meryl Streep has been nominated for a million Oscars, and some of them as of late are simply because of her legacy, but her nominated performance here is well earned. Admittedly, it’s a little conventional in terms of narrative structure, yet thanks to its gripping plot mechanics and Spielberg’s incisive direction, it’s still riveting. I love that the film doesn’t spend time on the hustle and bustle of everyday journalism. Instead, it focuses more on creating an atmosphere that allows for the weight of what’s at stake to be felt and there is a big payoff to that in the end.
18. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is arguably Spielberg’s funniest film to date. This is a romp of a movie. Spielberg’s direction is great as always, but there’s something about the dynamic of these characters that makes it singular. Especially when coupled with the adventure and story here, which is more James Bond-esque than its brethren (obviously that makes sense given the casting). It’s also interesting to me as well because it goes out of its way to demonstrate that Indy is indeed human. He has weaknesses, he contradicts himself. His evolution here is not only different for Indiana Jones, but it’s perfect in the context of a father-son relationship. And it’s what makes Harrison Ford forever synonymous with the character. The way he taps into Indy’s vulnerabilities while also carrying that same bravado is incredible. Especially when coupled with his remarkable chemistry with Sean Connery. No doubt that Raiders is the better movie, but I don’t think Crusade is too far behind honestly.
17. War of the Worlds
Okay, before you start yelling at me, allow me to explain myself. Trust me, I understand that having War of the Worlds higher than Minority Report will provoke some to get their pitch forks, but I…kinda love it. It’s not without its flaws, however I’m endlessly compelled by Spielberg’s use of the camera, the film’s grimy aesthetics, the special effects (which are incredible), the great performances by this cast and John Williams’ haunting score. The 9/11 allegory is obvious, but Spielberg does a great job of not overtly emphasizing it and mostly letting the premise sit in the backdrop. At its core, War of the Worlds is primarily a family drama. It’s a distant father coming to terms with his own arrogance and wrestling with his selfishness in unexpected ways. One of the best scenes is when Ray’s son openly discusses what we all know to be true, that he’s taking them to Boston, but not for safety reasons. Ray’s taking them to their mom so he doesn’t have to be responsible for them anymore. It’s the apocalypse and yet, Ray’s concerns are still for himself. Eventually he has to confront that within himself and he does come to care for Rachel genuinely. Yet, at the end of the film, it’s not as if he’s a functioning part of this family. We don’t really know and it’s possible Ray is still very much on the outside looking in, and I love that Spielberg is willing to let us wallow in that ambiguity. Beyond that, Dakota Fanning is excellent. The scene in which she asks Ray to sing her a lullaby is one of my favorite Spielberg moments given the context at play and the performances there.
16. Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies is another underrated film in Spielberg’s canon. Like The Post, there’s a simplicity to its narrative structure that may seem modest on the surface, but I think that’s mostly because Spielberg makes everything look effortless. It’s almost as if he’s showing off in how he can tell the simplest story and still make it feel bigger than what it really is and it’s fascinating to watch. Bridge of Spies is methodically paced, but it’s never dull. Perhaps that’s because the cinematography here is ridiculous for a political thriller. To me, that is the difference between this and The Post and why it’s slightly higher on my list. The camerawork in this film is truly fantastic. Tom Hanks is very good, but Mark Rylance is the stand out and deserving of his Oscar (even if he wasn’t my personal pick). His comedic timing and delivery is brilliant. There’s a tinge of sentimentality to his performance that’s moving, as well.
It’s really interesting how doing a movie series can change your perspective on films sometimes. Sometimes your thoughts on certain films doesn’t change, but as noted in some of the films above, this exercise did sway me on some of them. In the case of Minority Report, I came down slightly, but in the case of Munich, it was the antithesis. I revisited Munich for the first time since its release a few years ago for our 2005 retrospective, and that time there was something about its final act that rubbed me the wrong way. However, in the context of our series, Spielberg’s cynicism was more potent and thus the shoe never dropped for me like it did before. Additionally, I love how the script is chock full of terminology and political tension that’s never explained. Perhaps on a first viewing it is overwhelming, however, on further re-watches you come to see incredible detail within the dialogue and Spielberg’s direction that makes sense of everything regarding who the players are and why they’re involved. Of course, it becomes even more nuanced as you unpack it as a post 9-11 examination on revenge and the hollow cycle created by incessant violence. The psychological and emotional texture inside that idea in this film is pretty powerful. The duality of death and life around Avner hovers in every scene and it culminates in a (maybe excessive, but unforgettable) moment of intimacy at the end of the film. As always with Spielberg, the cinematography and period aesthetics are excellent. The 70s lenses are appropriate and there’s a murkiness to the imagery that compliments the film’s moral ambiguity really well. Eric Bana’s best performance? Certainly in that conversation.
14. West Side Story
There’s a very good chance that West Side Story climbs higher on this list in time. It’s easily Spielberg’s best film since Lincoln and arguably better than its Oscar-winning predecessor. The cinematography, its evocative aesthetic, its energy and dazzle, the art direction, everything Spielberg touches here is incredible. He really is the star of the show in how he reinvigorates this material. We all know the story, we understand its themes and intent, and Spielberg doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel narratively or thematically, but what he does do is breathe new life into it. Don’t get me wrong, the performances (Ansel Elgort aside) are really great and I love the music as well. The addition of Valentina is really compelling and adds a texture that wasn’t here before. But on the whole, it’s Spielberg doing what Spielberg does best, and again, he makes it seem so effortless. In particular, it’s interesting how so much of the film is full of color and vibrancy, only for that to devolve as the story unfolds and it becomes more stark. The level of detail in Spielberg’s direction is spellbinding, but we wouldn’t expect anything less from one of the GOATs.
It’s just not fair how talented and mature Steven Spielberg was at age 25. In a few of the above paragraphs, I’ve talked about the narrative simplicity that Spielberg sometimes works with, and where he balances that out with visual allure and an attention to detail within his filmmaking. Well, that all started with Duel. The story here had potential for redundancy as its just a guy driving down the road in his car, and yet it’s one of the more riveting monster movies you’ll ever see. The design of the truck elicits menace and it gives credence to David’s constant anxiety throughout the film. Something that is heightened further by the editing and camerawork. The way Spielberg uses mirrors to capture tension is just astonishing for this little movie. It’s also interesting how progressive its ideas are on masculinity as David is forced to wrestle with his integrity as the truck driver goads him into responding with some sort of machismo, contradicting his natural sensibilities. And that ending…*chef’s kiss.* No explosion. No fancy effect. Just a truck doing what a truck would, and capturing the aftermath.
12. War Horse
Before doing our series, I’d say this was the biggest outlier on my list compared to the discourse, but some of the responses I’ve seen to our review of War Horse seems to suggest that’s not necessarily true. Maybe people like this film more than I thought? Or perhaps it’s just a few people agreeing with me. Which is to say, I’m curious as to how our lovely readers will respond to War Horse being this high, but I love it. As I noted on the podcast, my working theory is that its reputation was a result of the awards season discourse and the aim people have taken at its Best Picture nomination. However, if people are reconsidering the film as we have, maybe that reputation is changing. And it should because it’s one of Spielberg’s bleakest movies. Do not let the bookends of it fool you. There is a sentimentality to the film’s opening and closing sequences, but everything in between is harrowing and uncompromising. In each sequence, Joey and his friend Topthorn offer up some sort of hope and promise, only for that to be stripped away in exchange for brutality and heartache. Starting with Albert and the bond he forms with Joey, only for that to be taken away as Joey is sold to the army and leaving him heartbroken. Then to Loki and Doctor Strange, who see these horses as comrades who will carry them to glorious victory…nope that’s undermined in one moment of myopic warfare (gotta love the conviction of Spielberg as cuts to the wide shot of the carnage and horses all over the field) . Next Joey and Topthorn give hope to Gunther and Michael, two brothers hoping to escape the horrors of war, and…nope, that’s once again stripped away for another moment of sever ramifications. Next is Emilie, who has been orphaned as a result of the war, and heightening the hope she feels when she finds Joey and Topthorn. The end of her segment? A German soldier steals them and brazenly tells her that these horses will be worked to death, and to just accept that fact. Private Henglemann does his damnest to care for the horses, but it’s a losing effort (in some of the film’s most devastating sequences). And if that wasn’t bleak enough, there’s Joey getting trapped in No Man’s Land – a place known for its death and hellish existence.
Say what you will about War Horse and its vignette-style storytelling, but there is a thematic throughline that is utterly heartbreaking at every turn. The ending to the film wants to posit this idea of honoring Joey and the brave horses used in war, but as affable as that is, it’s simultaneously a red herring. While gloomy, I think Spielberg is just as interested in the apathy of men and our relationship to these majestic animals. Horses are smart, courageous, loving, hard working animals, and the tragic irony is that humanity has mostly used them as cannon fodder. For all of the honor that the film evokes, it also wonders where our empathy has been. And those questions here are profoundly stirring. Which is why I think the bookends of the film, and that Spielberg sentimentality, is kind of a ruse. War Horse is one of his most cynical movies and it’s not an easy watch at all.
11. Catch Me If You Can
Catch Me If You Can is a fascinating film because it’s not afraid to lean into the lore surrounding its story. It’s based on “true events,” but to what extent? How much of it is exaggerated? It’s likely that most of it, if not all of it, was embellished, but that ambiguity is something Spielberg utilizes to his advantage. As a result, what we see is a wild journey full of uncompromising twists that feel as if they’re from a fairy tale. We may not be convinced of Frank’s tales, but it sure is fun to watch. And there is a lot of fun to be had, but the film isn’t without nuance or characterization. Some of the best moments are more sobering as Frank realizes that his father, who he idolizes, isn’t behind his exploits. Additionally, his relationship to xxx becomes corrupted as his entanglements become more compilated. Spielberg’s playfulness in Catch Me If You Can is among his most diverting work, but he never forgoes the humanity underneath and that’s ultimately what makes it one of his best.
10. Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is certainly among Spielberg’s most personal films, and it comes through palpably in the final product. Shot in black and white, its gloomy aesthetic dissolves with the film’s tonally impeccability and renders one of the best visual payoffs we’ve ever seen in cinema. A red coat cloaked around a young child amidst the worst horrors of the 20th century is quintessentially Spielbergian. With all of the devastation and inhumanity at the center of that film, it’s stunning how one image offers something so profound. This is why I admire Spielberg’s willingness to to be bleak. He doesn’t shy away from the harrowing reality of that time. And of course, it’s done with great diligence and remarkable craft. The cinematography and editing is among Spielberg’s best work. John Williams’ score is magnificent. And the performances are very good. For those who have this higher on their list, I don’t blame you.
Lincoln is simply one of Spielberg’s best movies of the last twenty years. Partially because it’s a film that narratively is just about getting votes in congress. That’s not exactly an enticing premise, and yet everything about it is riveting. Somehow Spielberg (and Tony Kushner) transforms politics and turning votes into a mesmerizing experience that keeps you on edge. And there’s something about the verbal sparring here between politicians that’s not only exquisite, but it needs to be a thing in today’s landscape. I want someone on Capitol Hill to look across the aisle and call someone a “fatuous nincompoop.” Lincoln also thrives because it’s not concerned with being a traditional biopic. It’s more of a movie about the 13th amendment than it is about the man himself, but the title is still appropriate because we learn so much about him. We learn that he desperately wants to end the war. He believes wholeheartedly in this amendment and that it will cure the country from slavery. In fact, he’s so deeply involved that he overlooks his older son whom he hasn’t seen in over a year. We learn that because of his work he never got a chance to grieve the death of his son, which has created a hefty strain on his relationship with Mary Todd. We learn of a great irony that even though he believes in ending slavery, he actually has an ignorance toward the black community. And, of course, we learn of his great storytelling abilities and how likable he is as a result. The plot may revolve around getting votes, but Abe the man; the flawed, but affable human being is just as vital to the film’s success. And what can you say about Daniel Day-Lewis. Dude is a legend for a reason.
8. Saving Private Ryan
One trend in modern criticism that I don’t subscribe to is coming down on popular movies just because it’s “cool” or whatever. Perhaps that’s my own cynicism coming through, but it does seem as if that’s the case sometimes, and unfortunately Saving Private Ryan has come into those crosshairs over the last few years. I’m not exactly sure how or why either. The opening sequence is harrowing, and without question one of the most visceral war sequences ever put to film, but it’s not the movies be all end all. Saving Private Ryan‘s greatness tethers more to what happens beyond those first 20 minutes as a film about reflection. One example is how these characters reflect back on their lives away from war as a coping mechanism, such as the scene of Captain Miller talking about his home life with Private Ryan (easily one of the best scenes of the film). Or more broadly speaking, the film’s narrative structure is Ryan reflecting on the courage of those who risked their lives to find him. The action is thrilling, and Spielberg’s direction is immersive, but it’s the characters and themes inside the film’s war setting that’s much more impactful. The undermining of that within the discourse is something I’ll never comprehend.
7. The Fablemans
Spielberg’s latest is without question one of his most personal films he’s ever made. His experiences as a child not only shaped who he became, but it’s infected his art in deep ways that even he wasn’t aware of when making some of his films. His moment with James Lipton regarding Close Encounters of the Third Kind is noteworthy. The way he invokes his parents in Close Encounters may have been subtle, but as we all know, The Fabelmans is a much more direct, and even deeper, look at what happened with his parents and his family. The result is beautiful, melancholic and complicated. Spielberg does not hold back in how he felt about that time of his life, and how filmmaking ended up being his savior. It’s a gorgeous, yet poignant, examination of the unexpected hurdles that life throws at us and how coping through art is necessary when you don’t completely understand why you’re facing the obstacles that you are. What’s really important here, though, is tone because The Fabelman’s is anything but classic Spielberg sentimentality. It’s really more in line with Close Encounters and A.I. then, let’s say, E.T. (which, as you’ll see below, I absolutely love so that’s not a bad thing). The film is sincere and textured in the drama that it poses, and it’s striking to see how it all unfolds.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Some will claim that I have Raiders too low, and that’s fair, but either way its legacy is without question. The art direction and storytelling is immaculate. The nuanced cinematography and sharp editing is astounding. John Williams’ legendary score is among his best work. Harrison Ford was the perfect choice for Indiana. Everything about Raiders is excellent. It’s Spielberg merging his sophisticated craftsmanship with his fun, playful sensibilities and the results are that we get melting Nazi faces. There’s nothing more I can say here that you don’t know already or haven’t heard before, so I’ll just reiterate that Raiders of the Lost Ark will always be the quintessential adventure film.
5. Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park is phenomenal for many reasons, but perhaps most astonishingly is how well the visual effects hold up. Despite how advanced CGI has become over the last thirty years, the visuals here are arguably better than its sequels and many other modern blockbusters. Spielberg smartly combines practical effects with said CGI to make the experience all the more immersive, which was very effective for the 90s, but again, it’s still effective now. And even when the CGI looks slightly outdated, it’s masked by remarkable storytelling, tension, and pure majesty. “Welcome to Jurassic Park” is still a moment of breathtaking awe, heightened by one of John Williams’ best musical cues. Yet, for all of its spectacle, what makes Jurassic Park unique is that it’s Spielberg’s horror film. And boy, is it thrilling. Whether it’s the introduction of the T-Rex (an iconic moment), the velociraptors in the kitchen, or Laura Dern finding Samuel L. Jackson’s arm (one of the best jump scares in cinema), the gripping tension of the film is visceral. Especially if you’re on the toilet. It’s well composed and those horror elements come through wonderfully. But it’s also the characters and the crisp storytelling. Jeff Goldblum is especially great. However, the whole cast is wonderful and have great chemistry. Everything about it works and it makes for a mesmerizing experience.
Most you probably know that Jaws is a miracle. The production was littered with adversity that Spielberg and his team had to constantly overcome, but my god, did that render some of the best magic we’ve ever seen in cinema. In fact, it directly led to what could arguably be the best score of all-time because John Williams’ cue for the shark is an actual character, and a menacing one at that. It’s so vital to the film’s success despite it being a rather simple sequence of notes, and yet its impact is transcendent. The cinematography is iconic in its own right, as well. There are, obviously, many shots from this film that injected itself heavily in the zeitgeist. The performances are great. The way Spielberg builds stakes and tension is once again effortless. Jaws is also fascinating in the context of our movie series because you can absolutely see the seeds of who he would become in those first few films. In some ways it works as an ocean/shark remake of Duel. Spielberg likely set out to showcase the shark more, but because of its production issues, he ended up going back to the same technique he used for the truck in Duel in how he’s able to capture tension and fear without actually showing us the “real” character. At any rate, it’s a masterpiece of a film and it says a lot about Spielberg that it’s at #4 on my list.
3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
No doubt this will be controversial for some, but A.I. Artificial Intelligence is absolutely top tier Steven Spielberg. It’s a truly devastating, but beautiful film about humanity and longing for love. There’s been a lot of conversation of whose vision this film is, and how much Kubrick’s thumbprint is here, but I’d argue that both Spielberg and Kubrick’s DNA is all over it. It’s very thoughtful and analytical like Kubrick and it’s immensely poignant, which we all know is a major strength of Spielberg. Yet, ironically, it was Spielberg who introduced many of the film’s bleaker elements while Kubrick’s vision was more sentimental (including the last 20 minutes and the Teddy character). The beautiful thing though is that regardless of whose vision is in each scene, the film does a masterful job of sifting through the bleakness and finding deep, profound truths about humanity. Death and love are symbiotic in A.I., and what we get as a result is an absolutely devastating, but rewarding work of art that touches on our desires for love and to be loved, no matter the cost.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. is arguably Spielberg’s best directed movie. Melissa Mathison’s writing is captivating on every level, but boy does Spielberg come to play with his direction. Its visual effects, sound editing, sound design, original score, cinematography, and editing were all nominated for Oscars, along with Spielberg himself. In fact, it’s kind of wild to me that he lost. Bot to mention the art direction, puppeteering, and performances, which are all excellent as well. In fact, I would argue that Henry Thomas’ performance is among the best child performances of all-time. The emotional conviction he gives Elliot is very moving, especially in that final scene, but let’s not forget the playfulness of Thomas either. There’s a lot about E.T. that’s very funny and the credit should go to Thomas for how he’s able to amplify the film’s humor as well as its pathos. E.T. is an interesting film too because of how personal it is to Spielberg, given his own childhood. As a kid who had to grapple with his parents’ divorce, it’s amazing how arresting this film is as an allegory on coping with divorce or a missing parent (regardless of circumstance). The parallels of Elliot and E.T. as characters who are lost and finding healing through each other, symbolically and also literally, is incredible to me. For as entertaining and magical as E.T. is as a work of cinema, you can simply watch it as a thematic exercise and it works immaculately in that regard, too. Simply, it’s one of the best movies ever made.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
There are many films to love on this list, but for me, the king of them all is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a movie about wonder and awe. It’s about obsession and yearning for something beyond ourselves. It’s a film whose central character is equal parts endearing and mysterious, but also selfish and flawed. Roy’s impulses render this craving for something he doesn’t understand. But he’s compelled by the unknown and is willing to embrace the mystery, regardless of the consequences. In fact, his zombie-like nature almost suggests he’s unaware of them. Yes, he does abandon his family and that makes him a complicated character, but that’s a strength of the movie. It says something about him that he’s willing to forgo our natural world in pursuit of the cosmos. His choice raises some fascinating questions for us to wrestle with as it relates to our own ambitions and pursuits. It’s heartbreaking, but Roy’s desires to understand something beyond him is innate in all of us. Or, at least I think that’s what film is getting at fundamentally. And to me that defines what cinema is all about. We watch movies because we want to experience something magical and other-worldly. Then there’s Spielberg’s craftsmanhip, which is among his very best work. Everything from the cinematography, to its stunning aesthetics, to its visual effects, to its sound design and once again how he uses John Williams’ remarkable score as a function of the narrative is masterful. Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t a “feel-good” movie where we’re all happy at the end. And that complexity make it the best for me.
Well that’s it. That’s my ranking. I know many of you disagree, so let me know what you think. Hit us up on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s all have fun with Dune (Part 1) this weekend!