Ranked: Steven Spielberg Films from Worst to Best

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.

Commentarium (67 Comments)

Jan 10 12 - 1:15am
cs

My first thought upon seeing this was, "I like Hook." Lo and behold... (hey, it came out when I was a kid. It might just be the nostalgia factor.)

Jan 10 12 - 3:50pm
Yeah

Me too. And heck, call the script clunky all you want, but Julia Roberts was cute. :)

Jan 16 12 - 1:55pm
ChefDad

And one of my all time favorite movie lines cam when Peter explained to an older Wendy that he is a venture capitalist a la Mitt Roney: "Peter, you're pirate."

Jan 16 12 - 1:58pm
ChefDad

Oops. With proofreading: And one of my all time favorite movie lines came when Peter explained to an older Wendy that he is a venture capitalist a la Mitt Romney: "Peter, you're a pirate."

Jul 23 12 - 11:32pm
Jamie

This list sucks. 'Hook' deserves to be in the top 10. Worst ever eh? I watched hook the other day and it's still as magical as when I was a child. Millions of others feel the same way. Don't feel bad about liking it cs, be proud.

Jan 10 12 - 1:40am
rjd1138

Melinda Dillon was in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, not Dee Wallace.

Jan 10 12 - 11:14am
PeterSmith

Whoops. Fixed--thanks.

Jan 10 12 - 1:41am
mp

man, i forgot how terrible spielberg is.

Jan 10 12 - 1:49am
Wess

Hook was better than AI and Crystal Skull. It wasn't a cinematic masterpiece, but it wasn't bad either. AI was bad.

Jan 13 12 - 9:54pm
pollypurebred

Injest, I am totally with you on this one...AI was devastating (and brilliant).

Jan 10 12 - 2:05am
Injest

I haven't even finished reading, I just want to say that anyone who ranks A.I. out of the Top 10 Spielberg films is extremely wrong. It's something close to a masterpiece, possibly even Top 5 material. There's a huge amount of critical analysis out there on it, go look around and read up. It's a staggeringly intelligent and groundbreaking film, and not just because of Kubrick's contributions. It's a turning point for Spielberg himself too, the beginning of his 'mature period.'

Jan 10 12 - 2:08am
Injest

And if you think that ending was happy I don't even think you should be watching movies. It's devastatingly tragic, one of the finest sequences in Spielberg's entire filmography.

Jan 10 12 - 10:06am
Johnny Utah

Agreed on both posts.

Jan 10 12 - 11:07am
Jon

I really hope that's a joke. AI was terrible and the ending was beyond awful.

Jan 10 12 - 12:30pm
Ahem

Injest, well said. Seen AI maybe 9 times...love it.

Jan 10 12 - 1:34pm
AB

AI would have been brilliant if the ending had been cut off at the undersea helicopter - kubrick or spielberg, whoever put that ending on ruined a lovely movie.

Jan 10 12 - 6:58pm
nope

While I didn't particularly like the ending -- less because it was "happy" than because it covered a lot of emotional ground that the movie had already done, and because ALIENS! But it isn't even close to a good enough reason to make AI one of the five worst. So much of that movie was staggeringly original, well done and not nearly as cheesy as it should have been. (As in Jaws, Spielberg has a knack for effects that age well.)

Jan 12 12 - 9:44pm
S

As a point of interest, there's a theory that they weren't aliens, but super evolved humans or some other earthling. I like that better than ALIENS!

Jan 15 12 - 8:28pm
t

actually, i always took the "aliens" to be the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Jan 10 12 - 2:27am
Injest

More thoughts:

What is Amistad even doing that high up? That's so weird. Same with The Color Purple, which you're really letting off the hook despite coming down hard on some much worthier films. It's well-meaning enough, but neutered to hell and back.

Schindler's List is average at best, possibly not even. No I'm not being an edgy little contrarian. Just think about it: Spielberg made a horror movie out of the Holocaust. The goddamn Holocaust. You could make a movie lasting days long and it still wouldn't adequately capture the horror of systematic genocide. Spielberg didn't even try that (that would be Claude Lanzmann!). Instead he made a well-made but entirely inadequate tearjerker. Now I understand the historical significance of it and honestly I'm surprised it came out as well as it did, but let's face the facts. It's two decades later and now that the fever pitch has died down, Schindler's List has nothing to say about the Holocaust. Funny you should cite the ending as the worst part, as it's actually the best part of the entire damn film (unless you mean Liam Neeson's meltdown, in which case you would be entirely correct). The sight of innumerable families remembering this historical behemoth and what it personally meant to them was the best choice Spielberg made with that film. It conveys, without shock, awe, or even words, what the Holocaust REALLY meant for these people. Putting dramatic facsimiles of human beings through a three-hour cinematic ringer just doesn't come close. The Holocaust can not, SHOULD not, be drama.

Munich is about where it belongs, but you don't seem to understand why. In fact your reasoning for its placement seems to peg it as being middle-tier Spielberg. Munich is a big leap forward dramatically for Spielberg (though perhaps we can credit Kushner for that). It's one of his most cerebral and thematically coherent films, despite a few glaring flaws (forget the damn sex scene already, how about him milking the possibility of a cute little girl being blown to pieces? Shameless. Just shameless). Very high-quality stuff.

This whole list seems to lead up to a 'my cherished memory is better than your cherished memory' showdown. Nevermind that Munich and A.I. are just as good as the top four picks, not to mention leagues more ambitious. I mean yeah, Spielberg kinda singlehandedly reshaped pop culture, but try not to let that cloud your judgment. Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn't even that good, outside of the admittedly outstanding ending. The rest? Sure, fine, but how about some assessment of quality rather than "This scene was AWESOME! And so was THIS ONE! And THAT ONE! Go Spielberg!!"

Jan 10 12 - 2:48am
Weary

You seem to have a lot of gripes

Jan 10 12 - 9:10am
Injest

I always do. Film criticism is dying, as can be plainly ascertained from a list that ranks A.I. as Spielberg's third worst movie. Someone has to beat the drum.

Jan 10 12 - 7:30pm
Weary

Go beat your drum elsewhere. Or contribute something more meaningful next time, instead of the self-styled art critic facade.

Jan 11 12 - 9:02am
Injest

You're right, I should have just posted "I love them all! Great list!" Much more meaningful.

Jan 13 12 - 12:25pm
Phil

Though these criticisms were on point, especially with Munich. Hey Weary, I you don't consider Injest's contributions meaningful, I would love to hear what would in your opinion.

Jan 13 12 - 2:45pm
Luigi

You are way off on Schindler's List. A horror movie? Please. Horror movies have protagonists, antagonists, characters, and set pieces. Schindler's List has none of that. We're just watching the unstoppable, inevitable, implaccable death and destruction of all of these Jews, none of whom we know. The gas-chamber scene, for example, is not about terror or horror or the possiblity of escape; its a camera just sitting there, watching it unfold. The whole movie is saying: this happened, and we can't turn away from it.

Jan 10 12 - 2:55am
julian.

Um. Something is clearly wrong here. Why is Hook last? Sorry, I just fucking love that movie.

Jan 10 12 - 4:08am
Mikhail

I generally like your rankings quite a lot, with one HUGE exception: you are so wrong about A.I., both objectively and subjectively.

Factually, the 15-or-so-minute "2000 years later" sequence that ends the film came from the mind of Stanley Kubrick, not Spielberg. Does that change your opinion of it? (It shouldn't, of course, but let's get the facts straight.)

And as "Injest" said above, said ending was anything but happy. I couldn't have put it any better than "devastatingly tragic." I'd dare say it's the most nihilist and depressing in Spielberg's oeuvre, but then again, it was Kubrick's idea.

As Injest said, A.I. is "something close to a masterpiece," and easily one of Spielberg's strongest films, aside greats like Munich and Raiders. Plenty of people have argued quite passionately for it if you care to look deeper. It's past one in the morning, so I'll leave it at that.

Jan 10 12 - 8:59am
Injest

Thanks for the support. And for the rest of you, here's a critical analysis that really helped me gather my thoughts on A.I.:

http://www.reverseshot.com/legacy/aprilmay03/connective.html

Careful though, lots of big words and abstract thinking! You might need to rely on more than your gut reaction to Haley Joel Osment to properly judge the movie!

Jun 07 12 - 6:04am
Hiltrud Hartmann

You're so right in everything you said above! I support that. Although I could never be a critic as I identify too much and go just on my feeling, A.I. is one of my favourite movies and I can't understand why it was classified so low on the rank! Keep up your good work!

Jan 10 12 - 7:09am
Amy

" unflinching dramatization of Jewish suffering?" Dramatization? Really?

Jan 10 12 - 8:55am
Injest

Actually yes, that's exactly what it is, with all the good and bad it implies.

Jan 10 12 - 11:17am
tmp

What would you call it, Amy?

Jan 10 12 - 11:24am
TylerDurden

I've never understood the appeal to E.T. It was the first movie I ever saw in a theater and despite it being aimed square at my age bracket at the time I hated it then....just as I hate it now. It's lame and cloying and obnoxious. I'll take a rewatch of The Lost Crusade over E.T. any day. I just find most Spielberg movies disappointing in general.

Jan 11 12 - 6:45pm
Brandon

I agree that his films are disappointing, but I think it's because he's not a storyteller. Sometimes he can get away with it, as with "Jurassic Park." What do his movies depict? The Holocaust. Dinosaurs. World War II. A shark. But what are they about? Even "Schindler's List," for all its acclaim and Importance, really has no story. It might as well be called "Hope in a Nazi Concentration Camp."

Jan 13 12 - 2:02am
Unstabler

May have just been a visceral reaction to watching a leathery extra-terrestrial ballsack caper about on screen for two hours. I was eight years old when that came out and actually barfed when the thing got all sickly towards the end and starting weirding the eff out in its diseased pallor.

It flashed on cable the other day...and I couldn't flip past it fast enough.

Jan 10 12 - 12:23pm
My favorite

I would have made Minority Report number one.

Jan 10 12 - 5:43pm
...

Girl, you need Jesus.

Jan 10 12 - 12:41pm
M

I take issue with Hook being ranked lowest too. I will accept that it is not his master piece, but as far as kids movies go - it's AWESOME. Mermaids, pirates, RU-FI-OOOOOOOOOOO! (My first ever crush) What's not to like?

Jan 10 12 - 1:19pm
Heathrow

Hook is an amazing movie...having it ranked last is a disgrace!

Jan 10 12 - 1:53pm
Hal Needham, Jr

Did you just say that Sugarland Express was better than Hooper? Because I think that's what you just said and I just want to make sure. Because that's like totally wrong.

Jan 10 12 - 3:48pm
Andrew

Nerve regrets the error. Hooper does indeed kick major ass.

Jan 10 12 - 3:30pm
anonymouse

I was going to read this list but then hook was last. So. No.

Jan 10 12 - 4:33pm
John Tyler

Hook was critically reviled? Is that because it's awesome? Critics hate that.

Jan 10 12 - 10:30pm
Michael T

This is such a crappy list that I don't know where to begin. I can completely respect a writer for defying convention and reassessing movies with a slightly different perspective. But really this writer tries too hard to reenvision this list -- and it comes across like that. Such hostility towards some movies for the sheer shock factor of ranking them low and attempting to rip them apart. Decent writing but it's all distracted by the shock loss of credibility that comes from it.

Jan 10 12 - 11:01pm
beatgeneration1

very nice choice of 'Jaws' for the number 1 slot. its definitely one of my favorite movies of all time :)

Jan 11 12 - 6:25pm
Brandon

I can see why "Hook" would be ranked last. I watched it a few weeks ago and yes, it's shallow, with terrible dialogue and senseless plotting, but I think it's important to keep it in perspective. It's a kids' movie. I loved it as a kid. (Likewise, I don't understand all the hate for "The Last Airbender." If I was watching it as a ten-year-old, I would've loved it. That, and "Hook," has all the stuff a kid would want in a movie.)

I agree with you about "Saving Private Ryan." It's a good movie, despite its corniness (I can't believe a Joint Chief would send soldiers to look for one soldier because his brothers were killed). Then they actually find Ryan, and everything goes downhill. And you're right, it's creaky nowadays. (Do Spielberg's films ever age well?) "The Thin Red Line" was released the same year, and it's a far superior movie. I think "Saving Private Ryan" displays all of Spielberg's strengths and weaknesses. Great visuals, great action, a few memorable scenes, even a good performance here and there. But I think all of this compensates for his biggest weakness: Spielberg cannot tell a story.

Jan 11 12 - 10:00pm
dude

"The Last Airbender" was based on one of the best television shows of the last ten years, and ruined literally everything about it. Decontextualized from the source material, yeah, the anger probably wouldn't make sense, but holy shit that movie was infuriating.

Jan 11 12 - 8:09pm
mp1701a

Out of curiosity, where would Twilight Zone: The Movie and Poltergeist fit? I use the fact that Spielberg was a producer and director of 1 segment for Twilight Zone. I use the rumors of Spielberg shooting segments or re-shooting segments, or whatever the exact rumors where, to include Poltergeist, a film that history seems to give Steven more credit then listed director Tobe Hooper.

Jan 11 12 - 8:57pm
oh man

I LOVE HOOK! perfect it is not, but i just love it. i'm 22, and i still watch it sometimes.

Jan 12 12 - 3:41pm
keb

Ranking Hook last? BAD FORM!

Jan 12 12 - 7:27pm
Dr. Jones

LAST CRUSADE at 19?!?! COME ONNNNN

Jan 12 12 - 9:38pm
Adam

It must be Spielberg appreciation month. DISHOnline.com is spotlighting some of Stevens moves including some of those listed here. My favorites would be Catch Me If You Can, 1941 and The Blues Brothers which I couldn’t find on this list. Personally I would swap out The Blues Brothers for Hook any day. Also available are Amistad, Poltergeist among others. I’ll be working the late shift here at DISH. When things slow down later tonight I will 1941 again. I love that movie!

Jan 12 12 - 10:53pm
Xolodnyj

That is because the Blues Brother wasn't Spielberg's movie. He was in it, but he didn't direct it. Blues Brother is a John Landis film.

Jan 12 12 - 10:50pm
Xolodnyj

Wow.. I didn't expect so much criticism of Spielberg's work. Astonish actually. I am no fan boy, but some of the criticisms are just simply personal and not objective. I think they want to dispel Spielberg's myth and contribution to the film industry. Spielberg is one of those directors whose films can be ranked by importance or by entertainment. Schindler's List floored me when I first saw it. It moved me. I would rank it higher, emotionally.
E.T.... saw it when I as a kid and it made me want to be a film director. I thought Saving Private Ryan would be ranked higher, but over all, this is a good list. The list is life ... sorry, channeling there. Umm, Yeah, it would be Jaws first and Schindler's List second in my book.
I also disagree with one person's comment. I think Spielberg is an excellent story teller. I think that is why his movies work.

Jan 14 12 - 3:26pm
screw_this_list

You are a fucking idiot for putting the Lost World over the Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade. There is no conceivable justification for that. I refuse to finish this article or visit this site for the rest of my life. Please contact HIV you moron.

Jan 14 12 - 9:30pm
john Mood

Schindler's List may not be a favorite of yours, but it's one of the best films ever made. I'm not Jewish either.

E.T. and Raiders above Pvt. Ryan also ridiculous. It might be somewhat hokey, but there are amazing scenes. ET and Raiders completely suck.

Jan 16 12 - 1:27am
dave11

Raiders sucks??

You are wrong

Jan 16 12 - 5:59pm
Renaldo

Read this and then read your Scorsese list. Spielberg has made maybe a couple of great films and some decent entertainment. Scorsese has probably 10 masterpieces and 5 good movies out of his 20.

Jan 17 12 - 8:42am
jazdir

Finally somebody agrees with me in thinking the 4th in the Indiana series is as pointless as A.I. But the 2nd ain't that bad as to be next to those two....!

Jan 17 12 - 11:40am
dantynan

sorry, but your ranking is incredibly lame. Saving Private Ryan and Schindlers List belong in the top five. war of the worlds belongs somewhere near Hook. Duel also deserves a higher rank. are we watching the same movies?

Apr 28 12 - 3:21am
budman2008

Jesus, people sure are cynical about Schindler's List. I don't understand what's so bad about a movie that chronicles one man's incredible good deed (one that started out of selfishness but left him transformed) in the midst of one of the most horrific war crimes in human history.

Jun 08 12 - 4:46pm
Paulo

By ranking Temple of Doom & Last Crusade so low, you have completly invalidated any and every movie arguement you will ever make in your lifetime.

Jun 18 12 - 8:45pm
Dano

Oh deary dear, poor film knowledge article writer, I've watched an interview where Spielberg actually says that every plot point INCLUDING the ending was Kubrick's vision, so Spielberg did not tack on that ending at all.

Jun 30 12 - 2:40am
Ryan Downs

I Love these lists, so I don't want to seem like a douche, but I resent the idea that Spielberg's has some happy approach to film-making that ruined the nihilist darkness of Kubrick's design. The ending was in Kubrick's movie! It was in the script when he began production! I don't know how people forget that! Spielberg didn't change anything. A.O Scott said it best when he wrote how the ending is actually very dark in its vision of the death of humanity as we know it, with only sad constructs of what they use to be to serve as a reminder. The film ends with the kid having one last day with the person he loves, and then he dies. Everything is dead, its very dark, but happy in a twisted but poetic way. I don't think its a perfect movie, but anyone who thinks Spielberg is averse to dark material hasn't seen War of the Worlds or Schindler's List.

Jul 28 12 - 8:36am
JER

I am so happy that you didn't put saving private ryan in the top 5. This movie is probably the most overrated war film ever made. but I would've put Schindler's List first. I don't care what people are thinking about it, I think it's his masterpiece.

Sep 04 12 - 7:45pm
timmy

Temple Of Doom is WAY to low. In some ways, it's the best Indiana Jones movie. I like that it's dark. It's good versus evil.