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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.