Three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers in history and the father of the modern blockbuster. Anyone who’s ever been to film school is or knows someone who was inspired by a handful of Spielberg’s classics, from “Jaws” (1975) to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Entire generations of current famous filmmakers were raised on his work. With 37 films under his belt, showing no signs of slowing down, and with his latest film, “The Fabelmans” (2022), releasing in theaters, I proudly present my complete ranking of all 37 films in Steven Spielberg’s filmography.
37. SAVAGE (1973)Spielberg’s third made-for-TV film follows a television reporter (Martin Landau) leading an investigation of a recently-deceased Supreme Court nominee. To be honest, I’ve had to double-check what the title of this 73-minute “thriller” is a hundred times, and every time it escapes me. It’s clear at this point that Young Steven is growing as a filmmaker, utilizing more tricks and tackling more serious yet pulpy subject matter, but good lord, is it obvious this was written to be a pilot to a mediocre detective show? An incredibly dull and lifeless mystery that thrives on being as short as it is because it is like being dragged across concrete to get through.
36. SOMETHING EVIL (1972)If you’re one of the many who suspect Spielberg ghost-directed Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (1982), you could use this scrappy made-for-TV spook show as evidence. “Something Evil” features Darren McGavin as a television producer, along with his wife (Sandy Dennis) and young kids, encountering ghosts and demons on their newly purchased farm. It’s as much a director-for-hire gig as you can get, and the script is as bad as you’d expect, but there are flourishes of future- magic here of a filmmaker desperate for a bigger budget.
35. ALWAYS (1989)Smoke didn’t get in my eyes; I was rubbing them because I was tired. This mid-career Spielberg sap-fest stars Richard Dreyfuss as firefighter pilot Peter Sandich, who is suddenly killed on a mission and now, as a ghost, mentors a young pilot (Brad Johnson), who falls in love with Sandwich’s former girlfriend (Holly Hunter). A remake of 1943’s “A Man Called Joe;” this is Spielberg’s first attempt at a Capra-esque romance that falls short due to a dull script that hits every beat you’d expect in the least interesting way possible. Points for including the luminous Audrey Hepburn in her final onscreen role, but this remains Spielberg’s worst theatrical release.
34. AMISTAD (1997)This placement may be abominable to some, but I consider 1997’s “Amistad” one of the biggest cinematic missed opportunities. it attempts to cover the story of a group of Mende captives and their tribal leader Cinque (Djimon Honsou), who are captured from a Spanish ship off the Long Island coast and must be put through a rigorous legal battle to determine whether or not they shall be considered free. However, the focus shifts away from Cinque after the first third, and the film becomes just an absurdly-long drag about old white men discussing whether or not racism is terrible. That isn’t to simplify the importance of the story, but Spielberg does very little to make this exciting (and will eventually make a far better version of this type of story in 2012). Everything feels so safe and standard, almost like Spielberg directed it in his sleep. It’s the type of film your history teacher throws on while you wriggle around in your desk chair, struggling to stay attentive.
33. 1941 (1979)I actually don’t mind the film many consider to be the biggest disaster of Steven Spielberg’s career. Sure, this spoof of old-Hollywood war pictures is loud, obnoxious, and a depressing waste of talented comedians like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. But the amount of technical genius thrown into this opera of madcap insanity is enough to show that Spielberg knew exactly the movie he was aiming to make. Many of the jokes don’t land, but some do, much due to its ensemble’s performances and the expertly assembled visual gags. His ACME brain was still forming at the time of this release, years before he would better employ his sense of humor with producing projects like “Gremlins” (1984) and “Animaniacs” (1993).
32. TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983)Okay, so this one is and isn’t a cheat. Sure, Spielberg only directed a portion of it (with John Landis, George Miller, and Joe Dante also at the helm), but the film as a collective whole is a mildly fun mixed bag. Much of the heavy lifting to make this a pleasurable project is due to Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000” Feet and Dante’s “It’s a Good Life,” but that’s still half the film. What I’ll say about Spielberg’s “Kick The Can” is this: it is not good. There’s nothing he could do to elevate that story, and one wonders why it was even included in the first place, considering its tone, but there’s no excusing it. However, it’s pretty impressive that Spielberg directed the worst segment when Landis committed one of the worst real-world cinematic atrocities in history, but we don’t need to get into that here (Google is your friend if you aren’t aware).
31. THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)It’s unimaginable to think this was the film Steven used to debut Dreamworks with, but alas. “Jurassic Park” (1993) should have been a relatively easy film to turn into a franchise, yet almost no Jurassic sequel could ever come up with a substantial enough story to justify our time. Instead of a script, Spielberg uses set pieces and scraps of a story to build this continuation. Two decent things remain: Jeff Goldblum as our lead, Dr. Ian Malcolm, and those aforementioned set pieces, particularly the double-T-Rex attack. Janusz Kaminski returns as cinematographer after his work on “Schindler’s List” (1993) taking over for the original film’s Dean Cundey, and captures some stellar imagery (Julianne Moore against a breaking window being one of the most stellar shots in his resume). But the story feels lifeless, more like a “Jurassic Park” game for N64 than a film with a purpose. Both this and “Amistad” (1997) cap off perhaps the worst year of his career, ironic given that his previous two-films-in-one-year combo was his best offering to date.
30. WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)I’m going to start by saying that the opening to this film is both brilliant cinema and the ultimate time capsule for blockbusters made in the mid-2000s. Spielberg making a remake of “War of the Worlds” in a post-9/11 era was a genius move, made all the more noteworthy that he actually squeezed this into his “Munich” (2005) production schedule just because Tom Cruise was too eager to work with Spielberg again after “Minority Report” (2002). But the further this story progresses, the more aimless it becomes. It’s well-crafted throughout, with some terrifying sound design to boot, but the script was clearly rushed into production, with some character writing that ranges from questionable to infuriating. Cruise is still a dependable lead, as he always is, despite this film being at the center of his most embarrassing career period. Dakota Fanning unsurprisingly wipes the floor with everyone involved.
29. THE BFG (2016)There was no film I fiercely defended more in 2016 than “The BFG.” A total bummer of a box office disappointment; if the film had been left untouched and sent back in time, it would have been a monstrous hit with 90’s kids; I felt that good ol’ Spielberg magic in the theatre. However, as time has passed, I have begun to realize the film’s faults. In its defense, it is one of the most harmless, inoffensive, good-natured family films to be released in the last decade. Still, like many family films based on short children’s books, it stretches its narrative so ungodly thin at times. Much of the effects work has also lost its magic compared to now. In 2022, it looked more rubbery and CG-infested than I had remembered. It is still a fine film for well-behaved kids. Mark Rylance delivers a warm and charming performance as our titular giant, and John Williams blesses us with a highly memorable, enchanting score that never got its due during awards season. But one wonders if Spielberg hadn’t stuck so close to the late Melissa Matheson’s script and worked on the story for this one just a little harder.
28. THE TERMINAL (2004)Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks making a Capra-style romantic comedy set in an airport should have been a slam-dunk win, and yet somehow, it’s just okay. I feel like “The Terminal’s” reputation over time has soured a lot with people, with many pointing out the problematic caricatures and stereotypes of race and immigration as well as the romance between Tom Hanks’ Viktor Navorski and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Amelia Warren. But this fuzzy quality to the film still makes it easy to throw on when it’s playing on TBS over Christmas time. It’s a flawed execution, there’s no doubt about it, but Hanks is committed to making Navorski a genuinely sweet character that doesn’t feel like a joke. And for the love of god, they built an entire airport to make this film. Where was the production design Oscar nomination?!
27. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)I’m sure some of you are thinking: about time! Why isn’t this lower? That’s because this is still a suitably enjoyable movie. A fair film sprinkled with bad moments, sure, but over time, the sting of this fourth entry has grown far more tolerable. At its worst, Spielberg and Lucas don’t ever fully have a grasp on this story, and both needed to be more enamored with the technology at their disposal (much of which hasn’t aged well in the last 14 years). At its best, it’s still a rip-roaringly fun adventure film. The first half is pretty good, with the motorbike chase sequence between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams (a silly name, but it is the 50s) being a shining standout. I go back and forth with this one. Sometimes it doesn’t do it for me; other times, it’s exactly what I’m in the mood to watch. I think everyone’s intentions here were to have a delightful time, and that does shine through (A tip for anyone that doesn’t enjoy Kaminski’s glossy, digital cinematography: the 4K Bluray mostly scrubs a lot of it out and allows the film to look just a shade more consistent with the more tactile look of the originals).
26. WAR HORSE (2011)The thing with Spielberg, and with most filmmakers of his caliber who experiment in different genres, it’s important to understand what kind of film he’s trying to make and if he does it correctly. With “War Horse,” Spielberg was directly inspired by the pastiche of old-fashioned war epics made by Disney in the 1950s. The types that would go on to play on the Wonderful World of Disney on a Sunday night for the whole family. The types of films that he likely took to as a young boy. In that sense, “War Horse” is precisely that with a 2010’s budget. It’s a bit squeaky clean, but it’s also the kind of film they don’t make any more; a war film that is both historical, reasonably educational, and acceptable for the whole family. John Williams and Janusz Kaminski’s impeccable work do much of the heavy lifting, and maybe Spielberg can’t help going full-blown saccharine by the end, but it’s all a matter of how much you can tolerate.
25. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974)His first theatrical feature (if you don’t count “Duel” (1971), which had an international release) shows how much he cared about blocking and shot compositions. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, and perhaps he’s visibly still not quite at the level that he’ll surely be, but “The Sugarland Express” is still a pretty damn good time. Aided by wonderfully demented work by Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, a woman who helps her husband (William Atherton) escape prison in the attempt to retrieve their child, who is about to be removed from her care, in the process becoming outlaws on the run. While it’s a minor and often-forgotten piece of a monumental legacy to follow, it’s nonetheless a terrifically entertaining time.
24. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)I’m sure in 1987, hearing that Steven Spielberg was about to release a war epic called “Empire of the Sun” must’ve sounded like a masterpiece of a film was about to drop on Hollywood. But in reality, the movie was just okay, with some moments of brilliance. An underperformer both with audiences and at the Oscars, “Empire of the Sun” fits right at home with the types of historical cinematic spectacles of the 1980s and yet is still so underseen. Its lack of excellence primarily stems from a narrative that seems to need more momentum after a terrific first half. Christian Bale gives one of the best child performances of all time, no doubt about that, as a lost child in a war-torn Japanese-occupied China in World War II. He keeps the film engaging from the initial terrifying raid sequence in the opening act until its devastating final moments. However, the film struggles to keep its steam in the second half. You were this close to greatness, Steve! This close!!
23. HOOK (1991)Okay, okay, okay. Now listen, I will not be one of those rabid nostalgia-based “Hook” defenders. I know where the film has problems. It’s way too long, sections of the plot fall flat, and much of the Neverland chaos can be a little bit of a headache. It’s also an undeniable attempt for Spielberg to work out his usual “daddy issues” narrative in a way that can feel a bit forced and obvious. However, I do think the Neverland chaos, in all its bombastic lunacy, is relatively amusing, brought to life by the superb production design and John Williams’ adventurous score. Dustin Hoffman is also delightful in a Golden Globe-nominated performance as Captain Hook himself, causing Robin Williams to appear less charismatic just by comparison (which is no easy feat). I wish Steven had just adapted the original Peter Pan tale (and maybe P.J. Hogan’s imaginative 2003 effort would have had a run for its money as the definitive live-action version).
22. READY PLAYER ONE (2018)Alright, so I double-checked the list, and this has got to be the last time I defend a divisive Spielberg feature (Until we still have a certain Indiana Jones sequel next year, I suppose). Nevertheless, 2018’s nostalgia bomb “Ready Player One” makes it near the top of the bottom half of my ranking. There are references plenty here, and there are some eye-rolling story decisions, but any other director probably would have gotten lost in them (e.g., “Space Jam 2“). Spielberg keeps the camera focused on the action and primary characters. This does feel a bit like a “director for hire” job, but after so many serious adult dramas, it does feel like he’s shaking himself loose here and finally having fun again since “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011). The 1980s/1990s vibes are all there. The CG environment sequences can get exhausting, and it is a relief when the film does cut to the “real” on-camera stuff, but this single-handedly should have swept the Visual Effects honors in 2018. The combination of live-action/CGI/digital background environments/recreations, it’s a smorgasbord of digital wizardry on par with something like “Avatar” (2009). Also one of Alan Silvestri’s better scores in years. It’s also a significant improvement on the book, so there’s that.
21. THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)I was much more critical of this movie back in the day. Something about it just always felt too overwrought, too cloying, and a watered-down version of a subject Spielberg felt out of his element in telling. Spielberg’s direction can be too over the top (even cartoonish at points where it feels wrong, with people flying across rooms when they get punched and extras reacting to moments of panic like they’re plucked right out of an Indiana Jones set piece). Even its abusive portrayal of Black men is firmly up for debate, considering there’s rarely a role model male character in the entire film. But my GOD! Whoopi Goldberg is simply divine, Oprah is a force of nature, and Danny Glover is magnetic. These performances sell even the corniest moments. Spielberg may not have been the right choice to direct this, but there are some fairly riveting sequences (especially the attempted razor kill juxtaposed with the African ritual). Quincy Jones’ team of musicians craft a variety of winning compositions. And the ending. My first time watching, I remember thinking, “ugh, this is just too sappy,” and yet now I can’t get through it without a lump in my throat, wiping the fountain of tears cascading down my dumb face. In the end, it’s hard not to see why this was such a cultural landmark of black cinema when it was released in 1985. It feels triumphant and overwhelming, whereas any other version of this would feel misguided and manipulative. It’s also the first time Steve made something mature and serious outside his modern blockbuster sphere, which was a sign of more extraordinary things ahead. Seriously though: How did Whoopi lose the Oscar for Best Actress?!
20. MUNICH (2005)Excessively long but expertly crafted, this is a taut, cold thriller that, while historically questionable, provides enough nuanced conversations about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and keeps the tension viscerally high for much of its run time. Ciaran Hinds and Daniel Craig really stand out. Kaminski’s highly contrasted photography is sunnier than usual, with vivid compositions that highlight the 70s period detail. Kahn’s editing is some of his most refined ever, with the phone booth/apartment bomb sequence being a standout. The famous sex scene in the film’s climax is definitely a bit too ridiculous. It’s a strong effort in Spielberg’s filmography and shows him branching out into a grittier, more procedural style, though I wouldn’t rank it among the top of his work. It was certainly more worthy of Oscar wins and nominations than the Best Picture winner that year.
19. THE POST (2017)Carrie Coon! Michael Stuhlbarg! Jesse Plemons! Bob Odenkirk! David Cross! Allison Brie! Tracy Letts! Zach Woods! Bradley Whitford! Give the casting director a raise and double it for nailing a blackout on terrific character actor bingo. The geography of every building is so wonderfully captured as the camera zooms from room to room. You feel like you’re always running around with these characters and caught up in their anxiety. It’s a remarkably dizzying experience and just A-plus tension by Spielberg, Janusz, and Liz Hannah’s script. It does feel a bit light on character outside of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep is doing fantastic, subtle work here), and the ending scene is unnecessary. But once again, really underrated work by Spielberg. “The Post” is one that gets better and better on rewatch. I’ll even forgive it for its maddening use of Creedence Clearwater Revival music (the only way any film scene can truly inform you that it’s set in the Vietnam War).
18. DUEL (1971)“Duel” is undoubtedly one of the best directorial debuts ever, and it wasn’t even made for theatres. This CBS made-for-television movie introduced the world to one of cinema’s most prominent and recognizable names with sweat-inducing tension and catch-your-breath thrills. For a film that has as simple a concept as “Duel” does (which later would inspire copycats such as “Joy Ride” (2001)), one would expect that you could only take this premise so far. A nameless, faceless semi-truck driver stalking and preying upon an unsuspecting driver (Dennis Weaver) might bring adequate suspense, but it’s a lot to stretch into a feature-length film. But at a mere 74 minutes (90 minutes for the international version), Spielberg keeps things lean and mean, never once letting the audience breathe and wisely never revealing its villain’s identity or motive. A tool he would perfect a few years down the road with a certain shark.
17. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)Okay, now we can get to the last divisive film on the list. However, is it that divisive anymore? It indeed was criticized for its dark tone and shrill love interest. Still, over the decades (and after the fourth film especially), “Temple of Doom” has been widely accepted as a classic adventure film and a core addition to the original “Indiana Jones” trilogy. Sure, get rid of Willie (Kate Capshaw), and you’ll have a better movie. But despite what Spielberg may say about it now, what’s onscreen is a wildly engaging display of a director having a joyful time constructing roller-coaster set pieces (literally) and pure escapism. While it may prioritize its action over a more concrete story, much like “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) years later, the action is the foundation of the story with its symphony of set pieces moving the pieces along from one scene to the next. Also, an adorable star turn by Ke Huy Quan gives the film its beating heart. Oh, why did they never bring Short Round back!!
16. THE FABELMANS (2022)Steven Spielberg’s latest film is his most personal to date as he explores his upbringing across multiple states, in a Jewish home, to two parents whose marriage slowly dissolves over time and how that influenced the stories we’ve watched him create throughout his career. With first-rate, across-the-board performances from Michelle Williams (as Sammy’s mom), Paul Dano (as his father), Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch (in a single scene-stealing turn), and newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Spielberg himself, “The Fabelmans” is tackling many themes from family, to influence and antisemitism and all of it is done in Spielberg’s typical mastery with infused heart and care for the characters and tiny details. While the movies rarely tips into the fantastical when it comes to Spielberg’s journey of self-discovery as a filmmaker, he and co-writer Tony Kushner keep the story grounded and the audience emotionally invested for two and a half hours. With this latest film, it not only re-affirms that Spielberg is one of the all-time greats who can continually shift from genre to genre, but he can also strip a story down to its bare essentials and explore the humanity in it, providing additional context to his life and work and providing a path of inspiration for future filmmakers to come.
15. MINORITY REPORT (2002)A marvelous sci-fi noir thriller with a tight, complex script and dazzling visuals, “Minority Report” is a magnificent film successor to “Blade Runner” (1982) with its similar setting and core mystery (obviously both adapted from Phillip K. Dick), with its only major fault is that the villain reveal is too easy to figure out (to the point that most audiences could guess correctly within the first forty minutes, while the characters in the film don’t get there until the 2-hour mark). It doesn’t hinder the storytelling much, though, as much of it stays thrilling all the way through. It’s amazing to see in this version of the future, the television show “COPS” is still on the air. I also love seeing Tom Cruise share brief screentime with his cousin William Mapother, if not just for the novelty. Colin Farrell makes a great foil for Cruise, both involved in the film’s best chase scene, although he is unfortunately missed in the film’s final act. Lois Smith is also terrific in her one scene. Also: HOW DID THIS MISS A VISUAL EFFECTS NOMINATION? If any year needed five nominees, it was 2002.
14. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)Is there a better way to spend a weekend afternoon than with the “Indiana Jones” films? It makes sense for any of these three to be your favorite of the original trilogy. It’s just as much fun as the previous two and has just as many memorable moments while having its own identity to keep itself fresh. For all of Spielberg’s films related to kids and their dads that deal with dad abandonment/dad death/bad dads before this film and the many films Steve made after (and there are plenty!), this one feels like the most therapeutic and cathartic dad movie (as well as straight up being a classic “dad movie”). And it’s that father-son relationship that emphasizes the generational quality of these films. How many of us were introduced to these movies through our dads, and how much do we look forward to passing these movies onto our kids the same way Henry Sr. passes on his archeological interests to Junior? Excuse me, where are the tissues??
13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)Francois Truffaut said, “sure, Steven, I’ll be your little spaceship movie.” It’s not always one I hold close to my heart like many other Spielberg films. This story, about a father (Richard Dreyfuss) breaking away from his family due to an extra-terrestrial obsession, is a far more ambitious step up from “Jaws” (1975). Still, it does lack the warmness of its characters and efficient pacing. The main theme is memorable, but it can be a painful earworm. Yet despite that, what it manages to achieve on its own is worthy enough, particularly the depiction of a family deteriorating because of a parent’s “mental illness.” It works wonders as a familial drama, with Dreyfuss finding so much fragility in what is, on paper, a cold and complicated lead character. The film as a whole is admirable for quite a while, but then we get that classic abduction scene that catapults this movie into the league of genre classics. The rest of the film is particularly spellbinding and reminds us all yet again why Spielberg is the master he is. Even if it takes half the runtime for me to get emotionally invested, I’m not going to sit here and tell you this isn’t one of the best of its genre.
12. LINCOLN (2012)“Amistad” (1997) was the trial warm-up for Steve making a movie about a building full of white dudes deciding the fates of people of color through a court of law, and “Lincoln” is the home run. What that film strongly lacked was the electricity this film has. This should be a snoozefest of a movie, it’s 150 minutes of trying to get a bill passed, yet it’s both riveting and soulful. Built around a massive ensemble cast and MTV Movie Award nominee Daniel Day-Lewis’ god-tier gentle ASMR vocals, this is a film that I never thought I was in the mood for, but as soon as it’s done, I just wanted to start it over again. I can’t explain it, but that combo of Steven Spielberg, IGN Summer Movie Awards nominee Daniel Day-Lewis, and writer Tony Kushner is just magic. Its only fundamental mistake is the tacked-on ending, but it’s easily forgiven. Once again, I cannot emphasize the raw cinematic combo of Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg and JoBlo’s Golden Shmoes winner Daniel Day-Lewis (currently retired) and how sad it is that this is the only time we’ll ever get these legends together again.
11. THE AVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (2011)That’s right. I put this above “Lincoln.” In fact, it just barely misses the top ten. “The Aventures of Tintin” is an adrenaline rush of enjoyment and escapism. Spielberg always wanted to make an animated film because you can do anything (and I mean anything) with the camera, and it shows here. From its wonderfully distinctive scene transitions to a falcon chase that rivals most live-action films, you would think Spielberg was delivering a movie for the ages. Unfortunately, it never received its due here in the United States, and whatever happened to those planned sequels? Andy Serkis does tremendous vocal work as Captain Haddock, and Jamie Bell injects just the right about of vigor and optimism as our titular detective here. The CGI is only dodgy regarding the faithful character designs, but the attention to detail is still fascinating, especially Tintin himself. The whole picture is awe-inspiringly constructed with energetic enthusiasm from everyone involved. This is a true gem in his filmography, more Indiana Jones than his last “Indiana Jones” film, and one of the best-animated films of the previous fifteen years. Also, a big shout-out to Snowy, who is the goodest boy.
10. BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)If any of his films continue to age more and more gracefully by the day, it’s this one. So under-appreciated in its year, even by me, as just mid-tier Spielberg, when in fact, it’s one of his better films, period. This is a true testament to his unique eye for blocking, graphic matching, coverage, and period detail, aided dramatically by Michael Kahn’s flawless cutting. Janusz is doing outstanding work here with expertly crafted shots from Mark Rylance’s face against a self-portrait and a mirror and the final sequence of the two groups parting on the bridge. Hanks is so underrated here. An actor so locked in and taking us under his wing as his character does for Rylance’s Abel. Thomas Newman’s music is lovely, although I wish Williams hadn’t been so locked up with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), as the film misses his grandiose orchestrations. “Bridge Of Spies” is such a precise work that gets better and better through the years. All hail the Standing Man!
9. WEST SIDE STORY (2021)It’ll be a long time before we get a year like 2021 that was so jam-packed with lavish musicals. Yet, despite the friendly competition, none were enough to match the supremacy of Steven Spielberg making his version of one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Despite how enticing that should have sounded to cinema lovers, the original 1961 film (despite its problematic casting) is still highly regarded to this day and an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Spielberg hadn’t cranked out a classic in some time, and many took issue with the choice of Ansel Elgort to play Tony. Yet, by the time the lights went up in the theatre, and the credits rolled, I had already been wiping my face full of tears for nearly two and a half hours straight. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had delivered a cinematic knock-out, a love letter to classic romance musicals, while injecting it with current-day urgency and an electric sense of beauty. “West Side Story” fixes the original’s issues while fleshing out the story even more. Sure, it’s odd to have “I Feel Pretty” sung after a traumatizing death scene, and Elgort does struggle to keep up with the rest of the cast, especially when face-to-face with the magnetic Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist, but once that “America” number hits and Academy Award Winner Ariana de Bose is dashing down the street with a jubilant crowd of background dancers behind her, it’s clear that this version will stand on its own as an all-timer audiences will return to time and time again, perhaps even as the definitive “West Side Story.”
8. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)For a man who made audiences afraid to go into the water, the most frightening film in Spielberg’s filmography might be “Saving Private Ryan.” Sometimes you know what you’re in for with a war movie, particularly a World War II movie. Lots of guns blasting, lots of soldiers covered in mud, the camaraderie between men, and a sense of patriotism. Those elements are certainly a part of this tale of a group of soldiers searching for a young private to return home from the war after his brothers are killed in active duty. But Spielberg wasn’t here to make a by-the-books film. He wanted to show the horrors of war in the most up-close way possible and pay specific tribute to all the brave men who put their lives on the line to protect their country and fellow soldiers. Is their life-threatening journey worth the risk of finding one soldier? Ranger Captain John Miller, played by America’s Dad Tom Hanks, illuminates trust and security, even through the most dangerous battlefields, and always makes sure the film has a steady beating heart as he begins to peel back his own layers in front of his fellow men. When this massive cast isn’t savoring their quiet moments of humanity, they are thrust into a hellscape of gunfire and dread. Filmed with such immersiveness and with deafening sound design, Spielberg intensely puts you into the shoes of this troop, and the result is one of the most ferociously brutal war epics ever made. From the first epic D-Day sequence to the moment Hanks grabs Matt Damon and begs him to “earn this,” there is barely a moment where your heart isn’t racing.
7. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)This is “How to Make a Great Movie 101”. A defined written hero with an immaculately written love interest fighting Nazis across the globe with set pieces galore. How do you make a movie like this and with every shot filmed not think, “this is going to be burned into every cinemagoers brain until the end of time”? Many adventure epics have been made post-“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (including a few starring Indiana Jones), and yet they’ve always been compared to it. In another universe, perhaps where Tom Sellick got the gig instead of Harrison Ford, this film might have been just another escapist, globe-trotting action movie. Yet, at soon as Ford walks into the frame with his signature hat, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a world in which Indiana Jones didn’t exist. There’s never a moment in this film that isn’t engaging, even in the scenes where Dr. Henry Jones himself is just giving a historical lecture to his class of love-struck teens. George Lucas changed how we interpreted “excitement at the movies” with “Star Wars” (1977), and he was able to do it again with Spielberg on this. Both a genre-elevating and genre-defining spectacle that can’t help but be rewatched over and over again.
6. JAWS (1975)A good chunk of Spielberg’s career is made up of historically significant films that everybody has seen and loves, but “Jaws” was the first to do it. After a solid debut with “Duel” (1971) and some forgettable for-hire works on television, Steven was given the keys to a rusty old station wagon, and he turned it into a Lamborghini. Somehow, this creature feature about a massive shark terrorizing a small Massachusetts beach didn’t end up like all the bottom-of-the-barrel trash fests of the time, and instead shocked an entire generation, becoming the first true summer blockbuster, and landing a Best Picture nomination in the process. To this day, it’s still one of Spielberg’s crowning achievements, filled with memorable performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and the chilling Robert Shaw. For me, the most traumatizing scene in film history was being a child and staring wide-eyed at the television screen as old Bruce the Shark chomped into that poor Alex Kitner boy, shark fins rotating above the bloody water. But despite Jaws having some of the most gripping scenes of movie horror, “Jaws” finds its special sauce in the quiet moments between characters. When anybody asks, “why is Steven Spielberg such a good director?” show them “Jaws.” But don’t show them the scenes with the shark. Show them the scenes where Roy Scheider spends time with his family. Whether it’s a moment between him and his son making faces at each other at the kitchen table or asking his wife if she wants to get drunk and fool around, Scheider’s softness is just magnetic. “Jaws” is an irresistible film to come back to every summer, whether or not you plan on swimming afterward.
5. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)We are in that batch of Spielberg movies where I feel like, “what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is an easy candidate for the most treasured family movie of all time. The tale of a young boy finding a lost alien in the woods and forging a bond that transcends space and time has never grown outdated, has never grown stale and is always that right burst of movie magic every time you put it on. It lives on as a piece of spectacle that continues to inspire generations of kids and leave them looking up at the stars at night, hoping they can have their own E.T. Despite being just a puppeteered sack of rubber, in reality, the motions and emotions performed to bring this alien to life are astounding. When he moves his eyes or reaches out with his glowing finger, there’s not a moment you question whether or not he has a soul. The other half of that boy-and-his-dog relationship is the boy himself, played by Henry Thomas. He delivers what might be the best child performance in history, with emotions so full it’s hard not to be a blubbering mess during some of the film’s most tender moments. E.T. has some of the most gut-wrenching scenes in a family movie, although they are balanced with the right amount of joy and wonder. And then, of course, there’s John Williams, who delivers his magnum opus of film scores. There are few moments in cinema as spirit-lifting as Elliot and a crew of boys, chased by authorities hunting E.T., suddenly are lifted into the air and ride through the sky. Most of that is due to William’s triumphant orchestrations. It’s only appropriate that the film closes with E.T. promising, “I’ll be right here,” a reminder that this film will, indeed, be with us forever.
4. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)There are movies you love, and then there are comfort movies you love. Ones that will be with you on a sick day or when you’re feeling down. Ones that you put on, and for a couple of hours, you are just lost in the moment and feeling fabulous. It’s tough to compare “Catch Me If You Can” amongst Spielberg’s more obvious classics, especially when so many of them are cultural landmarks of film, but when I think about myself and what film of his I can never get enough of, it doesn’t have anything to do with sharks, aliens, archeologists, or US presidents. What brings me joy is the slightly fabricated but always fascinating story of a teenager in the 1960s who lied his way to becoming a lawyer, a doctor, and an airline pilot. Bolstered by the ravishing charm of Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, Jr. and a gargantuan cast that includes Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Garner, James Brolin, and co-lead by the ever-reliable Tom Hanks, Spielberg crafted the most delightful film of his career. A film that works as both a joyous tour through the 60s and 70s and as a cautionary tale of chasing success by way of impersonation, moving with the quickness of a heartbeat and a soundtrack of nostalgic record-player hits, there’s not a dull beat in this entire 141-minute runtime. “Catch Me If You Can” is a film 99% of people agree is excellent, sure, but I can’t fully explain why I find it to be one of Spielberg’s most splendid works. It’s just one of those films I put on and never want it to end. This isn’t a happy story, yet Spielberg and Nathanson find a way to make this infectiously cheerful. It’s endlessly quotable (Tom Hanks’ famous “Knock knock…” joke has endured over time), features a jazzy score by Williams that is favorited by many, and it’s the cinematic equivalent to a perfect cup of hot cocoa on a cold day.
3. JURASSIC PARK (1993)Of Spielberg’s standard classic blockbusters, this is my personal favorite. Perhaps it was the era that I grew up in, although, surprisingly, I didn’t see this movie in full until I was starting high school. Yet, when I finally got around to it, it felt like a film that had retroactively been with me my entire life. With “Jurassic Park,” Steve set out to make his Roger Corman creature feature and blew the doors off of every blockbuster that came before (and everyone that came after). It’s tough to accept we’ll never get a movie quite like this, so technologically majestic, scary, exhilarating, and universally appealing and rewatchable. Still, at least we’ll always have this movie, and it continues to age gracefully. How so many pieces, from the casting to the score, came together to create such a grand cinematic package…it’s just sheer perfection. It’s got just the right amount of character beats during all the chaos to allow us to understand who everybody is and why they matter without needing extended time away from all the terror and spectacle. It moves at such a terrific pace, faultlessly constructed by its David Koepp script and Michael Kahn editing, that every piece feels integral to the next. It’s the rare air-tight blockbuster you never see anymore. And, of course, I can’t forget to mention its ground-breaking technical mastery. To have imagined any film before this achieving this level of wonder with its massive animatronics and state-of-the-art computer imagery would be insane. “Jurassic Park” set a new bar for how exemplary films can look, and few films today can measure up to it.
2. SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)I mean, come on. I know this is only #2 on my personal list, but “Schindler’s List” really is Spielberg’s best film to date. It’s easy to say that a Holocaust movie would be the most important film of a director’s career, but to have directed maybe the greatest film ever made about this moment in history needs to be commended. It’s a monumental feat of editing and writing to encompass so many honest and emotionally grueling story arcs into a downright compelling three-and-a-half-hour runtime. But Spielberg also directs this in a way that, at the time, you’d never expect from him. He doesn’t shy away from the horror. He puts you right up close to it in detail with raw authenticity. And yet, the film still manages to shine a light on the kindness of humanity. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is not portrayed as a saint; he’s heavily flawed. He is a bystander letting the atrocities occur around him because he knows there isn’t much he can do about it anyway. The thoughtful casting of Neeson, who towers over everyone with his height and whose character initially shows no empathy for what is happening around him outside of how it’s impacting his business, is how his eyes are so humane despite it all. As well as this did at the Oscars in 1993, Kingsley and Davidtz were robbed of nominations for their exquisite work. Ralph Fiennes portrays a fascinatingly layered villain, the dual side of Schindler. An example of cowardice in opposition to Schindler’s courage. The character work in this is exceptionally great, and Spielberg here makes the story just as much about the survivors as he does the titular Oskar. It’s not a film easy to rewatch, of course. It knocks you on your ass. It takes a while to recover once it’s done, but it unquestionably should be revisited repeatedly to remind us of a time we should never revert back to. “Schindler’s List” is an extraordinary work of art representing cinema at its finest.
1. A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)One of the great misunderstood films of all time, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is a devastating and emotionally-cleansing masterpiece and one of the most fascinating collaborations between two genius cinematic brains. Do I think this is his best film? No. But on a personal level, ever since I was home alone at eight years old with the cable television to myself and had casually put on this film because I recognized Haley Joel Osment and Steven Spielberg’s names (I was a weird kid), I was both transfixed and gutted, facing challenging emotions and ideas that my tiny brain wasn’t ready for. And it just lingered on for the rest of my life. The emotional heft this movie leaves you with by the end is insurmountable. Have you ever just not been able to get over how a movie makes you feel? This Pinocchio-like fable of a robot boy abandoned by his human family on a quest to grant a wish to become a real boy is the ideal blend of Stanley Kubrick’s swan song as a storyteller and Spielberg’s pristine cinematic vision. From its beautiful beginning developments with Monica (Frances O’Connor) learning to love David (Osment) early on to the absurdist inventiveness of Rouge City to the haunting final sequence of our world 2000 years later, everything about this magnum opus pushes the boundaries of emotion through cinema. Haley Joel Osment is astounding throughout, delivering his most impressive performance. Jude Law is intoxicating. It may have been a complicated film when it was released, but the technical genius of this film is indisputable. Maddening, this was snubbed for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography. Can we talk about the CGI effects work, how well they’ve held up the last 20 years, and how they’re even better than “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)? Williams’ music is magical, soothing, angelic, and tragic. It’s mythic and spellbinding. God, I want to see this in a theatre and ball my eyes out. And to sum it up in the corniest way possible, it emphasizes one of Spielberg’s most potent themes, presenting a character whose primary goal in life is the relationship between a child and their parent. Knowing Spielberg’s background and his relationship with his own parents and how that influenced nearly every film he’s ever made, this feels, at its core, the most heartfelt examination of that feeling. A child is begging for a connection, acceptance, and an understanding of the world around him. Forget going to the ends of the earth to find that love; David goes to the end of time itself, sitting frozen under the sea for two thousand years as all humanity ends above him. Audiences have debated the ending moments that come after this extremely divisive story decision for decades, and what I’ll say is I’ve never not cried. Some may argue Spielberg goes overboard with manipulation, but in my heart, he earns every second of that finale. One of the most heartbreaking yet cathartic endings I’ve ever seen, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” may be one of those films that isn’t for everybody, but it will always exist as one of the most daring and bold films in any filmmaker’s career and one of my favorite movies of all time. “I am! I was!”
What do you think of my list? What is your favorite Steven Spielberg film? Have you seen “The Fabelmans” yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.