Ranked: Steven Spielberg


29. 1941

A rare total misstep in Spielberg’s resume, 1941 takes place a week after the events of Pearl Harbor with a quivering paranoid California overreacting to every little thing. It is a Looney Tunes inspired farce with plenty of slapstick and funny voices that make it a pretty good way to burn 2 hours, but it never really lands a good joke. Surprising, given the pedigree. It stars Dan Ackroyd, Tim Matheson, Ned Beatty, John Candy, Slim Pickens, and, most impressive of all, John Belushi, as a lone pilot who is one half Yosemite Sam and one half Tasmanian Devil. I’m honestly not sure if Spielberg was actually attempting to satirize anything, but, ultimately, all he accomplished is throwing a cream pie in the face of war movies.
28. Twilight Zone The Movie Segment 2

I haven’t seen all of “The Twilight Zone” series, just the occasional episode during a New Year’s Day marathon. I love that it isn’t just horror stories though. Much of their payoffs are either using ironic or karmic justice, including some good stuff happening, not just comeuppance. Spielberg chooses one of those stories for his quarter of The Twilight Zone movie. It is called “Kick the Can,” and the elderly residents of a retirement home get a second chance at youth from a seemingly benevolent trickster, played by Scatman Crothers. It’s cute. And charming. And nice. But for a cinema version of The Twilight Zone. I was just expecting something more thrilling, something more climatic. This kind of story would make a better Pixar short film to play before the big movie.

27. The Color Purple

Spielberg didn’t originally want to make this movie. He thought it should be made by a black director who can relate to the struggles depicted in the film, but famed music producer, Quincy Jones, wasn’t hearing any of that. He wanted Spielberg to direct the movie regardless. I’m not entirely sure it was a good choice. Spielberg definitely painted an interesting depiction of the South that included a certain level of whimsy and folksiness as well as the very dour but ultimately uplifting race drama that was taking place there. Unfortunately, and I doubt that this part is in the original novel, the movie is brimming over with Three Stooges level slapstick. They were some serious tension killing that worked to undo all the great work that Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover were doing.

war horse
26. War Horse

I like the premise of this movie. It essentially follows the exploits of a horse, unfit to work, who is taught to work anyway by a nice farming family before being sold to the military at the beginning of World War I. He bounces from adventure to adventure before finally being reunited with his original owner. I am always impressed the way that filmmakers make animals seem like they are emoting, and if you didn’t already know it, Spielberg constructs one hell of a battle scene. They are thrilling and frightening. This movie just rests on some overly-sentimental drama and some poorly delivered and overwrought dialog.

indy 4
25. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Writing for a site called House of Geekery means I can already hear the moaning and groaning for this pale entry in the Indiana Jones series. And I get it. There is some overly silly action set pieces, even for Indy, and plenty of bad, uncharacteristic CGI. Plus Shia Labeouf, showing up as Indy’s new sidekick, had already started burning enough bridges to not do this movie any favors. At the end of the day, Harrison Ford is still playing Indiana Jones, and sort of killing it as a very specific, older version of Indy.

hook 24. Hook

Spielberg tried his hand at reinventing the Peter Pan mythos. After sending Wendy Darling home, Peter would periodically visit, Wendy getting older all the time. When he sees that Wendy is now elderly, Peter falls in love with Wendy’s granddaughter and decides not to miss another opportunity. He eventually grows up to be a corporate slimeball named Peter Banning, who doesn’t remember his time spent in Neverland anymore. That is, until Captain Hook, played by a particularly hammy Dustin Hoffman, kidnaps Peter’s kids to draw him out of hiding. It is a kooky adventure, full of crazy pirates, crazier lost boys, and one hell of a pushy fairy, played by Julia Roberts. For the most part, Robin Williams is the least kooky thing about it, until he can finally cut loose as the flying rooster-squawking swashbuckler.

23. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. started out as a vehicle for Stanley Kubrick in the 70s. He continued to develop it on and off for years, like so many other projects he didn’t finish, but he never got a chance before his death to get it on film. Spielberg eventually took over to mixed results. I’m sure many were hoping for a “you got your peanut butter in my chocolate” kind of moment with the styles of two of the most prolific filmmakers Hollywood has ever had. I think that sometimes Spielberg is too slavish to Kubrick’s vision when he should have been increasing the childlike perspective he used to make ET so indelible. Spielberg just has a hard time keying into that trademark Kubrick long-windedness that Kubrick always made seem mesmerizing, but it has earned itself a following that is beyond cult-like, so I think I am just missing something.

22. Always

Always has something in common with The Color Purple, that fact that it has some weird Looney Tunes inspired slapstick during what otherwise would be an incredibly sincere drama. With Always it almost works mostly because it is a more appropriate venue for such a thing. It is an adventure movie following a group of daredevil pilots who fight forest fires. When they aren’t putting out fires, they are busting each other’s chops mercilessly. Sadly, one of these pilots, played by Richard Dreyfuss, dies and spends the rest of the movie trying to bring some happiness to his old friends as a ghost before he is called to the great beyond. It is a hopeful and charismatic movie that totally lands, it just needs a little more oomph to make a dent.

21. War of the Worlds

There’s too kinds of Spielberg movies: the warm, engaging adventure and the blue-tinted thriller. While remaking the classic War of the Worlds, Spielberg tries to do both. He was essentially trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice with Minority Report, even got Tom Cruise to play the lead. For the most part, it can be very thrilling with some incredibly visual destruction, but it doesn’t quite know how to tie up loose ends. It leaves the movie feeling a bit episodic. Some of those episodes are good, some of those episodes aren’t. It stars Tom Cruise, though, and I am always down to see him tear up a sci-fi premise.

20. Lincoln

This Presidential character study opens up with a Civil War version of Normandy beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan. It is almost equally striking, disgusting, and violent. It then turns to Lincoln speaking to a few of the troops. It is a mostly sappy and melodramatic scene, but the way Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with a loud humility and a quiet sense of pride in these soldiers makes it worthwhile. Those 2 characteristics remain constant throughout the whole movie. He almost comes off as a simpleton, but then he proves he knows more than we think he does. He just wants you to think he is a simpleton. The way he works a crowd. There’s no gusto. No emphasis. People just kind of get drawn into his quiet demeanor.Day-Lewis proves his reputation does not precede him. He completely lives up to the awesomeness that everyone credits him with, and he drags whatever schmaltziness kicking and screaming to the finish line.

19. The Terminal

I am always going back and forth on whether or not I actually like this movie. It is hard to gauge. Tom Hanks plays the resident of a fictional Eastern European country that experiences a military coup while he was in the air on his way to America. This new political situation makes him a citizen of nowhere, and he can’t be allowed to leave the airport. So, he sleeps in the terminal, making friends (and one enemy), learning English, and becoming one of the most root-able Spielberg protagonists ever. That’s also what makes it overly sentimental, but when you are in the right mood, it totally satisfies.

18. Bridge of Spies

Spielberg’s newest teams him up with Tom Hanks for the third time. Hanks plays a lawyer chosen to work with the Russians during the Cold War to exchange spies. The image of spies passing by each other on a bridge have become indelible, absorbed through cultural osmosis, and this story is about the first one. Should have been great, but it ended up just being good. It felt like a “greatest hits” of Spielberg’s resume, blue-tinted historical drama, a “legal-fu” master with anachronistic empathy, and an epic playing field for some thrilling action set-pieces. But like most greatest hits, the albums are always better than the obligatory list of singles.

17. The Sugarland Express

It’s always fun watching the first movies of big-time directors. It’s like watching the first creature walk out of the ooze. It’s familiar but unsophisticated. The great ones always make something that can still be appreciated despite how rough around the edges it is. Sugarland Express is definitely that kind of movie. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton (who will become famous for playing assholes in the ’80s) play a married couple of crooks who lose their kids to the state. They hit the road in very classic road movie counterculture way, but it is balanced by what will one day be classic Spielberg crowd-pleasing.

16. The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Nowadays, you can’t make a movie like Jurassic Park, and not have actors signed up for multiple films or have hint at where sequels will go in the future. Pretty much everything Jurassic World was built on. The Lost World for all intents and purposes was still a bit of a surprise. Maybe the last obligatory sequel to a blockbuster that was. At the time, I was a kid and was like “hell yeah, more dinosaurs.” Now when I watch, I think “This is an okay action flick.” Seriously, some people talk about how awful it is, but it’s not that bad.

15. The Adventures of Tintin

I’m not sure how acquainted with the character of Tintin Americans, like myself are. He is much popular in other countries, but I remember the Saturday morning cartoon show fondly. From what I can remember, I am pretty sure that Spielberg captured it pretty damn well. So well, I almost retroactively hate the fourth Indiana Jones even more. Spielberg clearly still has it in him to orchestrate the hell out of a sun-drenched adventure. This time it seems a little weird because he uses the doll-like Zemekis-esque mo-cap. Luckily, mo-cap veteran, Andy Serkis, can’t be contained, especially as Haddock.

14. Munich

This isn’t the first time (and won’t be the last time) that this kind of movie shows up on Spielberg’s resume. He has a great knack for picking a point in history, in this case the massacre of Israeli athletes during the ’72 Munich Olympics and the Israeli government’s secret retaliation, and painting a picture of the tension and emotional roller coaster of the moment. On the surface, it is a dramatic spy thriller (and it ultimately fumbles some of the more showy emotional moments), but Munich excels in these great quiet moments of tension and regret.

13. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Temple of Doom, the second in the Indiana Jones series, used to get a lot of flack for not being Raiders of the Lost Ark, but over the last few years, its fans have really been standing up for it. Harrison Ford is never not flawless in the role, surprisingly offering a little more nuance during this adventure. It technically takes place before Raiders, and Ford and Spielberg sort of show how Indy earns his heroic backbone rather than the fortune and glory seeking “grave robber” he starts this movie as. It also includes some of the most intense thrills in the whole franchise. It actually helped inspire the PG-13 rating.

12. Amistad

Amistad is a slave ship that was overtaken in 1838 by the would-be slaves imprisoned on board. They would eventually land in Connecticut where the non-English speaking Africans would be put on trial for what essentially amounted to self-defense. A freed slave played by Morgan Freeman and a lawyer played by Matthew McConaughey team up to exonerate them. The non-English speaking part is the most important part because the Africans (aided by subtitles) and Americans struggle through a number of conversations trying to communicate, and it is a strange chess match to watching them try to communicate that ends up being really compelling and fascinating.

11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

1 of 2 pre-War of the Worlds alien movies on this list that play with Cold War paranoia with a sense of awe and optimism. It stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman who had seen a UFO one night while on a job. He becomes obsessed with finding the truth at a great personal loss. Even though that “truth” in this circumstance isn’t the revelation of a greater threat, it still causes that kind of stir in emotion, and then it hits you with something to truly be amazed of.

10. Empire of the Sun

In order to write this list, I had to go watch some of the Spielberg flicks that I hadn’t yet seen. This was one of them, and maybe my favorite of the ones that I had never seen. It stars a young Christian Bale, who started his career as an already great actor, as Jamie Graham, a boy from an upper class family who live in an international settlement in Shanghai. This is around the time that Japan invaded, and Jamie ended up a Japanese prisoner of war separated from his parents for years. Bale jumps back and forth between Dennis the Menace level antics and cleverness and a nuanced sense of maturity way beyond his years. Spielberg rightfully considers it one of his most profound takes on the loss of innocence.

9. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

This is the other lien movie that sort of subverts Cold War paranoia, although I may be reaching. Anyway, this movie is about a young alien who is accidentally stranded on Earth by his family and befriends a local boy. The two create a psychic bond that galvanizes their friendship as they get chased around by creepy government agents. The scene where the scientists in radiation suits storm the boys home still scares me to this day. It doesn’t start off as such a sharp thriller, though. It is a coming of age tale with a few oddball comedy moments that slowly evolves into a perfect sci-fi thriller.

8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

For his third adventure, Spielberg teams rugged Indiana Jones with his morally high-horse book-worm father played against type by Sean Connery. Connery is excellent as papa Jones, incredibly funny but with deep conviction, he makes for a great foil against Ford’s worn-out silver-tongued cowboy. It was a great find considering Indiana Jones was Spielberg’s attempt at making an American James Bond since he didn’t think they would give him the chance to direct one of those. If the cowboy imagery and rebellious attitude wasn’t enough, Indy gets steeped in even more Americana, which always values the compelling character arc of trying to live up to our fathers (and by extension every ancestor that came before us). This extends to his race after the Holy Grail, an ancestral artifact (Indy was raised by a Christian father), before it falls in to the wrong hands, the wrongest hands in human history, Adolf Hitler.

7. Catch Me If You Can

Maybe the biggest loss of innocence in Spielberg’s resume, this flick features Leonardo DiCaprio as a young kid, Frank Abagnale Jr., running from his parents messy divorce by using fraudulent checks. He eventually graduates to being a con artist and is chased by a group of FBI agents led by a crappy accented Tom Hanks (Hint: a Boston accent and a Kennedy impression are 2 different things). It is a surprisingly sweet and often entertaining trip to infamy that gets as close to romanticizing a life of crime as it can without actually doing it. Spielberg, great at simple dichotomy, makes it just as lonely of a road as it is an exciting one.

6. Minority Report 

In my description of War of the Worlds above, I mentioned that Minority Report marries both of Spielberg’s types of movies: the warm engaging adventure and the blue-tinted thriller. It stars Tom Cruise as a police detective of the future who uses 3 precognitive teens to solve murders before they happen. When he ends up the new suspect, he kidnaps one of those “precogs” and goes on the run trying to figure who he would kill and why. It is an incredibly entertaining action movie that Spielberg pads with some really fantastic emotion. Samantha Morton excels as the inhuman precog experiencing the outside world for the first time and being overwhelmed by it. It seems like a challenge, but she carries it with ease. Meanwhile, Cruise does some of his best work, which may be hard to believe since we aren’t used to seeing great performances in action movies, but Cruise’s ability to depict anger and sadness has rarely been better than here.

5. Jurassic Park

How is it that Hollywood just hit a ceiling on special effects? I have such hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that the dinosaurs here look better than practically every creature in every movie since then. I wonder if it is a placebo thing, because Spielberg instills in this movie a feeling of real awe, something that has been missing in blockbusters nowadays. He also questions morals in a classic (albeit vague) sci-fi way, with characters you can root for. He also uses that trademark childlike perspective that makes everything bigger and the terror something you can’t look away from. The kind that draws you in, not one that pushes you away with disgust. But, really, those dinosaurs look awesome.

4. Schindler’s List

Spielberg, being a man of Jewish faith, has mentioned a sort of religious awakening while developing Schindler’s List for the big screen, and I can imagine why. This movie puts the Holocaust into horrifying perspective. It rips the events I only learned from dry textbooks and made it into a deeply compelling picture of human depravity and terror. It painstakingly walks through the inhumane acts perpetrated during this time. It is incredibly hard to watch. Cast in the role of Oskar Schindler is Liam Neeson. Schindler was a business owner who took advantage of procuring Jews from the concentration camps as cheap labor. Overtime, it gradually occurs to Schindler the importance of what he was doing. He was saving these people, and SPOILER SPOILER in the end, he comes to the realization that if only he had acted sooner he could have saved more. Schindler may as well be a stand in for the whole world.

3. Saving Private Ryan

The premise of Saving Private Ryan seems too ludicrous to even pitch. A group of soldiers are tasked with retrieving and safeguarding a single soldier because all of his brothers have died, and the US military doesn’t want to leave his mother completely childless. It seems overly sentimental and maybe even satirical, but Spielberg treats it with dead serious commitment. It pays off in the end with Tom Hanks leading an ensemble of underrated actors (Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, and Barry Pepper to name a few) all of whom break tension with a cynical sense of humor that builds the chemistry of the group. Spielberg’s war-torn Europe is devastating, and his war battles are intricate and thrilling. Veterans of the war spoke about the accuracy during the storming of Normandy beach, and that alone has made this movie required viewing. It is an Indiana Jones like adventure set during a fairly accurate history lesson that doesn’t intend to necessarily teach you facts but rather the feeling of what it was like to be there.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Although a lot has been said about how bad Indiana Jones is at his job in a million “clever” blog posts, there is nothing more fun than watching Indiana Jones fail his way through a rip-roaring old-fashioned pulp adventure. Archaeology teacher by day, artifact retrieving adventurer by night, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is like an old baseball mit. He is worn in and worked over, and it is that experience that lets him stay flexible while hot on the trail of important and powerful pieces of history before the Nazis get a hold of them.

1. Jaws

Jaws isn’t just Spielberg’s best, it is one of the best movies of all time. It is about a small coastal New England town that is tormented by an enormous Great White picking off beach goers. The local sheriff who’s afraid of the water (played by Roy Scheider) teams up with 2 shark experts (Richard Dreyfus as the geeky scholar and Robert Shaw as the grizzled seafarer) to take it out. It is as interesting a meditation on masculinity as it is a fear-inducing adventure on the high seas. You would be hard-pressed to find another cinematic experience as complete as this one.