We reassess the entire filmography of Hollywood's flagship director.
by Andrew Osborne
Spielberg. Love him or hate him, you've got to respect his skill. But really, why would you hate him? Sure, he's made some goopy clunkers. And, yes, he and his BFF George Lucas have come to personify the blockbuster era that crushed the Golden Age of auteur-driven '70s cinema. But the sixty-five-year-old boy wonder is also responsible for some of the most undeniable classics and indelible images in the history of filmmaking — and so, with both Tintin and War Horse just out, it seems like the perfect time for America's de facto director-in-chief to get Ranked.
27. Hook (1991)
All of Spielberg's worst traits were on full display in this critically-reviled tale of a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams, of course) learning to reconnect with his inner child — which, in the film's lazy, shallow assessment, means acting like a hyperactive brat and bloviating about "happy thoughts." Maudlin, soulless, and cynical, Hook somehow even managed to make Julia Roberts in a Tinkerbell costume look dumpy.
26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Of all Spielberg's cinematic crimes, his single worst infraction may be forcing Shia LaBeouf down the world's collective throat in the first place, then rubbing salt in the wound by anointing him as the heir apparent to the Indiana Jones legacy. Not that it matters, since this shark-and ridiculous-CGI-monkey-jumping sequel squandered the last remaining goodwill many of us had for the franchise. The only thing keeping this turkey from the very bottom spot on the list is the welcome return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. It's just too bad the film itself wasn't worth coming back for.
25. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In terms of style and sensibility, Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick are such polar opposites that, in retrospect, it's hardly surprising this amalgam wound up as more of an interesting misfire than a cohesive vision. True, there are powerful moments, like Haley Joel Osment's lonely robot child trapped beneath the waves praying eternally for something he can never have. It's a haunting evocation of what it means to be human — until Spielberg tacks on a forced, convoluted "happy" ending where (spoiler alert!) the robot finally becomes a "real boy" and gets his mommy all to himself.
24. 1941 (1979)
Given the melodrama and quasi-mystical pretensions running through most of his work, Spielberg's oeuvre isn't generally a laugh riot — and this chaotic mess of a would-be comedy doesn't do much to challenge that. John Williams' score is pretty great and there's a decent dancehall brawl, but otherwise, 1941 is just a whole lot of characters running around and shouting.
23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
A colossal disappointment — after the smart thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the sequel ditched badass Marion Ravenwood for dippy Willie Scott (future Mrs. Spielberg, Kate Capshaw) and an annoying pint-sized wisecrack machine named Short Round. Even worse, after a lively opening sequence, the tone downshifts from the fun of the original to grim scenes of child slavery and heart-ripping human sacrifice. This prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating, which is pretty much the only thing worth remembering about Temple of Doom.
22. Always (1989)
Relatively understated by Spielbergian standards (i.e., just a few ghosts, forest fires, and aerial heroics), this tearjerker supernatural romance is okay, if you like that kind of thing. If you're unable to resist the raw sex appeal and dreamy good looks of late '80s Richard Dreyfuss, Always might be right up your alley.
21. The Terminal (2004)
Fittingly enough for a film inspired by the true life tale of a man trapped in an airline terminal, this claustrophobic dramedy works best as an in-flight movie. Pleasantly diverting, with a feel-good message about the American melting pot and a cutesy performance by Tom Hanks as an accented traveler from the fictional land of Krakozhia, the whole thing feels more like a Garry or Penny Marshall retread than a Spielberg original.
20. The Sugarland Express (1974)
This populist jailbreak drama (with Goldie Hawn doing her best deep-fried Texas accent) would have been a career highlight for a director like, say, Hal Needham (just below Smokey and the Bandit and a hair above Hooper). But for Spielberg, it was merely a pretty good theatrical-feature debut, which (not insignificantly) cleared the runway for his flight to the stratosphere a year later with Jaws.
19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Pairing Sean Connery with Harrison Ford was a brilliant idea, and sending them after the Holy Grail definitely had potential. Yet, whereas Monty Python used a similar quest as a jumping off point for dozens of unforgettable set pieces, the most memorable aspect of the third Raiders sequel is River Phoenix's opening cameo as the young Indiana Jones.
18. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
"You're ranking an unnecessary Jurassic Park sequel above an unnecessary Indiana Jones sequel? You're placing Jeff Goldblum, Pete Postlethwaite, and Julianne Moore above Ford, Connery, and, uh, Doody?" Yes, and here are three solid reasons why: first, the scene with the trailer hanging off the edge of the cliff as it's attacked by dinosaurs is a textbook example of Spielbergian suspense. Second: the movie ends with a dinosaur rampaging through San Diego. And third, there's this line from Goldblum's chaos theorist as he reluctantly returns to the prehistoric theme park with a fresh group of suckers: "Oh, yeah. Ooh, ahh, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running… and screaming."
17. War Horse (2011)
It'll make you cry: with a World War I setting and a blameless, beautiful animal as the much-abused central character, that's the least you could expect of it. Both War Horse the theater piece (in which the horse was represented by a life-size puppet) and War Horse the children's book used stylization to keep sentimentality at a distance. In contrast, working with a real horse, Spielberg aims straight for the tear ducts… which would probably have been his natural inclination even if the horse had been played by John Cho and Kal Penn, wearing a two-piece costume with a blunt in its mouth. But even if you resent his tugging at your heartstrings, nobody else working today could do it so artfully. — Phil Nugent
16. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Frank Abagnale, Jr. is a teenage con man who pretends to be a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and other things as he swindles his way around the country. Carl Hanratty is the FBI agent who chases him. Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio give interesting performances in the cat and mouse roles, the pace is breezy, the 1960s art direction is groovy, and the point of the whole thing is… what, exactly? Just killing 141 minutes at the movies? Okay, fair enough. Welcome to the middle-ish part of the list.
15. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Spielberg's 3-D adaptation of the comic-strip adventure serials marks a welcome return to the slapstick action set pieces of his early entertainments. It has a freshness and bounce that was missing from the last Indiana Jones movie, and the performance-capture animation — while still about the least welcome cinematic technical breakthrough since Smell-O-Rama — is less off-putting here than it's ever been before. It's a lot of fun, overall, though by the time it passes the ninety-minute mark, you can hear the director's bones creaking as he struggles to maintain the pace once effortlessly set by his younger self. — Phil Nugent
14. War of the Worlds (2005)
Yes, the ending where Tom Cruise discovers the Martian apocalypse somehow left most of his family and their pricey Boston brownstone untouched is kind of lame. But the moment also comes as a sigh of relief after an ordeal more grim and harrowing than most end-of-the-world action films, possibly because all the homeland destruction and collapse of society seemed especially unsettling just a few short years after 9/11.
13. Duel (1971)
Films lower on this list may have bigger stars, better special effects, and more visual panache. But in his feature debut, Spielberg managed to create one of the most memorable TV movies of all time, with just a big scary truck, a long stretch of desert highway, and Dennis Weaver as a salesman trying to survive his road trip through the California desert.
12. The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg's first attempt to be taken seriously resulted in eleven Academy Award nominations, no wins, and a stinging snub in the Best Director race. It also resulted in a feel-good, largely desexualized adaptation of Alice Walker's novel about a young black woman's struggles and triumphs in the early-twentieth-century American South. But that Hallmark quality is somewhat counterbalanced by strong performances from a powerhouse cast, including Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and one of Spielberg's few equals in omnipotent pop-culture dominance — Oprah.
11. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Two years later, Spielberg once again tried (and failed) to win the Academy's respect, this time with a less conventional (but more interesting) tale of life during wartime. The adaptation of J.G. Ballard's World War II novel follows a spoiled British lad (a young Christian Bale) as he journeys from Shanghai to a Japanese internment camp and, eventually, manhood.
10. Amistad (1997)
This starchy historic drama follows an 1839 uprising on the titular slave ship, and the courtroom efforts of a humorously bewigged Anthony Hopkins (as John Quincy Adams) to exonerate Cinqué (Djimon Honsou) and his fellow African rebels. Amistad largely comes across as uneven, high-minded Oscar bait. Yet the depiction of the slave trade's infamous "Middle Passage" is just as gripping (and horrifying) as anything in Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. Speaking of which…
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Hugely acclaimed at the time, Saving Private Ryan is a little creakier in retrospect. The framing device with the old man in the cemetery is hokey, and many of the war-movie tropes are more clichéd then critics admitted in 1998. But the film has some truly powerful moments, like the ground-breaking depiction of the Normandy invasion, and the quieter (but no less harrowing) struggle of Adam Goldberg's Private Mellish to prevent a Nazi from driving a knife through his heart.
8. Minority Report (2002)
Depicting a believably lived-in near future with the same attention to detail afforded his period dramas, Spielberg returned to form after the meandering mess of A.I. with this tight, exciting adaptation of Philip K. Dick's pre-crime thriller. But, like several other films on this list, Minority Report also suffers a case of botched-ending syndrome, in which the director hammers the audience over the head with an unnecessary explanation of what they've just seen — this time in the form of a third-act voiceover basically repeating the answer to a riddle that's already been solved.
7. Jurassic Park (1993)
Classic blockbuster entertainment from one of the masters of the form, Jurassic Park has its share of clunky moments (most of them involving Sir Richard Attenborough as a cuddly tycoon), but you know what else it has? A whole mess of scary velociraptors and other dinosaurs rendered more believably than most CGI creations today. (And if you ever get a chance to watch the thundering T-Rex attack on a giant drive-in screen with the bass cranked in your convertible, I highly recommend it.)
6. Schindler's List (1993)
Do I ever want to see this movie again? Hell no. One viewing of Spielberg's nightmarish depiction of the Holocaust was enough to haunt my thoughts, with its unflinching dramatization of Jewish suffering and the human capacity for evil (personified in Ralph Fiennes' career best performance as a monstrous Nazi officer). Schindler's List also convinced the Academy to finally give the director some respect — and an Oscar — despite another overdone ending.
5. Munich (2005)
Seriously, what is it with Spielberg and terrible endings? In Munich, the director makes the baffling, squirm-inducing choice to end by intercutting the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics with a literally climactic sex scene. Before that, however, this ambitious (and frankly, brave) hot-button meditation on the futility of vengeance is both dramatically and thematically satisfying in its representation of political violence as a kind of self-perpetuating cancer on humanity.
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Are the remaining films on this list as "important" as Spielberg's more serious-minded dramas? Does contemplation of human tragedy lead to better art? I guess it depends who you ask, and when. I was old enough to know I was being manipulated when I first saw E.T., but I choked up anyway when the little critter told tiny Drew Barrymore to be good. And even now, as a cynical aging hipster, I can still remember nearly every sequence in the blockbuster film. So I don't know if the massive pop-culture phenomenon was important, but iconic? Definitely.
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
I can't think of another movie that so viscerally captures the astonishment of an encounter with forces beyond our comprehension. If humankind really does see aliens land someday, it might actually be anticlimactic compared to the moment when that enormous intergalactic chandelier rises over Devil's Tower at the end of Close Encounters. But as great mainstream directors understand, the special effects are only truly special if they're counterpointed by relatable people. In this case, that means Melinda Dillon's desperate mother, and Richard Dreyfuss as a man obsessed with the mysteries of the extraterrestrials, which Spielberg wisely left to our imaginations. (That is, until he tacked on some tacky, deflating "special edition" footage in 1980, thus inaugurating the "overdone ending" curse which plagues him to this day.)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Come on, sing it with me… you've got the Raiders theme stuck in your head now, right? And that's a good thing, because it gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline surging, just like the virtually flawless movie it accompanies. Harrison Ford is an ideal combination of funny and badass (just like his gal Marion), and the movie itself maintains a similar balance of great lines, great sight gags, and breathtaking action, with a few stops in between for exotic locations, sharp character moments, and clever ideas like the Giant Government Warehouse of Doom. For me, the highlight is the whole sequence in Nepal, from the yak-herder booze-off to the kinetic barroom brawl. But I could have easily picked the opening treasure hunt, the big Nazi car chase, the fist-fight by the whirling propeller or… hell, maybe I'll just watch the whole damn movie again.
1. Jaws (1975)
Nowadays, this game-changing blockbuster plays like an art-house film, with the emphasis on character and the absence of special effects for most of the running time. And unlike today's tent-pole studio pictures, even those shock effects (the disembodied head, the final explosion) are used as spice, not the whole meal. Instead, the meat of the film is the relationship between Roy Scheider's landlubber sheriff, the family and Cape Cod resort he's sworn to protect, and the odd couple that help him do it: Robert Shaw's 'gansett-swilling old salt, and the fast-talking marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss. The thrills in this yarn have made generations of viewers think twice about night swimming, while Shaw's monologue about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is just as powerful as anything in Spielberg's more "serious" films. It's a mystery why the Academy waited so long to present the director with his first Oscar, since he was clearly one of Hollywood's best right from the start.