Next month, Steven Spielberg’s 34th film, The Fabelmans, will be up for seven Academy Awards. This is hardly extraordinary news. You won’t find a safer bet in show business than “Will a new Steven Spielberg film earn multiple Oscar nominations?”
But The Fabelmans isn’t just another Spielberg picture. After several decades as the world’s most famous and successful film director, Spielberg has followed through on a promise he made to talk show host Dick Cavett — with tongue lodged somewhat in cheek — back in 1981 when he was promoting Raiders Of The Lost Ark: He’s made a talky art film. Only it’s not a run-of-the-mill talky art film — it’s the story of his childhood, and his parents’ divorce, and his origin as a natural-born cinematic showman.
This reflective turn in his career has put me in my own reflective mood about the impact that Steven Spielberg’s films have had on my life and the rest of America during his nearly 50-year run at the top of the Hollywood food chain. Join me as I go through the man’s filmography. There are a lot of great movies to get reacquainted with! And also some bad ones!
Trust me: You’re going to need a bigger boat (and by boat I mean “block of time for reading this column”).
34. The BFG (2016)
There are a lot of Steven Spielberg lists on the internet, and they always have the same half-dozen movies at the bottom. What changes is the film that goes dead last. It might be Hook. It might be 1941. It might be Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. But I would rather watch any of those than The BFG. Hook is bad but at least it has that committed Dustin Hoffman performance. 1941 is stupidly loud and loudly stupid but it also exudes an intoxicating 1970s cocaine buzz. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was a major disappointment upon release but now it feels like a fascinating misfire, as nearly all films co-starring Shia LaBeouf are destined to become.
But The BFG? It has the grodiest curb appeal of any entry in the Spielberg canon. More than that, it seems to barely exist. Is there a single person on planet Earth who rides for this movie? Who wanted it in the first place? Did Spielberg, even? The BFG is the kind of project that only a workaholic genius who needs to fill an empty space in his crammed schedule decides to make. And so he did. And here that film lands.
The BFG was released one year after Bridge Of Spies and one year before The Post, two late-period “adult” features in which our hero ruminated on one of the central themes of his 21st-century work — the value of institutional power as a stabilizing influence on American culture, and how that influence appears to be waning in comparison to historical turning points from the previous century. Spielberg, of course, is also an institution, and what he embodies is an old, centrist, crowd-pleasing Hollywood that is also on the wane. With The BFG, he took a break from reflecting on beleaguered institutions; instead, he inadvertently produced a snapshot of one.
A slow-paced adaptation of a Roald Dahl story made with charmlessly cutting-edge and visually unattractive computer animation, The BFG somehow also feels old-fashioned in the worst possible sense. It’s a film uniquely designed to bore the shit out of adults and children alike. It typifies what has been rudely classified as Spielberg’s “flop era,” which refers to the run of movies dating back to the mid-aughts that haven’t captured the public’s imagination in the manner expected of a Steven Spielberg film.
Now, it should be noted that this run does include some certifiable blockbusters, including the aforementioned Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull ($790 million), 2012’s Lincoln ($275 million) and 2018’s Ready Player One ($583 million), along with solid performers like Bridge Of Spies ($165 million) and The Post ($179 million). But “flop era” is more of a state of mind than a literal classification of box-office success. His “flop era” films are said to be missing a certain joie de vivre that typifies his golden era. “What has been lacking in Spielberg’s career for a considerable time is a sense of wonder and awe,” wrote one critic. In light of the commercial failures of 2021’s West Side Story and The Fabelmans, he’s been charged with the very un-Spielbergian accusation of being “a filmmaker for critics and the elite, rather than ‘ordinary’ people.”
The “flop era” piece set off a mini-firestorm among online cinephiles who were gobsmacked that Steven Spielberg of all people is now too arty for the MCU-loving hoi polloi. As a blunt instrument to strike against a movie as heartfelt and moving as The Fabelmans, “flop era” is reductive and blinkered, a numbers-driven dismissal of an artist who long ago proved his box-office bonafides beyond any doubt. But if we’re talking about The BFG, the idea that Spielberg might not have his heart in kiddie-friendly entertainment as he approaches 80 isn’t entirely off the mark.
33. Hook (1991)
Let me say for the record that I am a Spielberg defender, as many of us born in the ’70s and ’80s are hardwired to be. This guy was the auteur of at least two decades of American cinematic popular culture, from Jaws in the mid-’70s to Jurassic Park in the early ’90s. If you grew up in the post-Watergate era, there is very little daylight between your actual childhood memories and the images implanted in your brain, practically by government fiat, from films directed, produced, and/or inspired by Steven Spielberg. He wasn’t just a filmmaker; he was a surrogate father figure who also grew up with you. The kids who cried to E.T. took their first dates to Jurassic Park, and then they went to college and semi-ironically watched James Van Der Beek play the Spielberg-worshipping protagonist of Dawson’s Creek. And now we force our own kids watch re-heated tributes to those memories in shows like Stranger Things, which has created a feedback loop of allusions and homages and flat-out rip-offs ensuring that the fingerprints of Spielberg’s imagination will remain on the next several generations.
So, as a Spielberg defender who knows his filmography like the multitude of faces from my ancient high school yearbooks, I will point out that he has had other flop eras. And these flop eras typically occur at the pivot point between decades, starting with 1941 at the end of the ’70s and then again as the ’80s morphed into the ’90s. Though, again, when it comes to Hook, we’re not talking about a literal flop — it cost $70 million and grossed $300 million, which can only be considered a literal flop by the lofty standards of prime era Spielberg. What Hook has, no matter the protestations of nostalgic millennials, is that flop state of the mind.
A charitable reading of Hook is that it’s Spielberg’s farewell to the man-child image that formed the crux of his artistic persona pre-Schindler’s List. Never again would he so explicitly celebrate the supposed virtue of childishness for the pleasure of ossified grown-ups. (Spielberg’s segment of 1983’s ill-fated anthology The Twilight Zone: The Movie, “Kick The Can,” hits similar notes.) But more than 30 years on, Hook feels aggressively phony. One of the best aspects of The Fabelmans is how cinema’s great man-child reveals that his own childhood was not, in reality, an idealized wonderland of wild imagination, but rather the same hellacious trial-by-fire the rest of us experienced.
32. Always (1989)
Spielberg famously dislikes Hook. “I’m a little less proud of the Neverland sequences,” he said in 2011, “because I’m uncomfortable with that highly stylized world that today, of course, I would probably have done with live-action character work inside a completely digital set. But we didn’t have the technology to do it then, and my imagination only went as far as building physical sets and trying to paint trees blue and red.”
He didn’t put it in these terms, exactly, but the problem with Hook is that it looks the kind of film that Spielberg’s generation of filmmakers — the so-called “Movie Brats” of Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, and so on — put out of business in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those garish, top-heavy, and absurdly pricey musicals and prestige pictures outfitted with phony-looking sets and sleepwalking movie stars. The ridiculous studio-made disasters that nobody wanted to see once they had the option of buying a ticket for The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars.
The movie before Hook is also like that. A remake of Frank Capra’s A Guy Named Joe, Always came out at the last possible moment when referencing Frank Capra in a mainstream movie seemed remotely relevant. It is also the final and least distinguished entry in Spielberg’s “Dreyfuss trilogy,” in which Richard Dreyfuss once again plays a character accurately described at one point as a “dickhead.”
31. War Horse (2011)
In 2015, I wrote a column likening the “Movie Brats” directors to classic rock bands, an exercise inspired by the most formative cinema book of my teen years, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This account of 1970s “New Hollywood” forever informed my love of that era, in part, by focusing on the most “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” aspects of the scene. Even though I’m old enough to know better now, the caricatures from that book still shape my most basic impressions of those directors.
Therefore, I compared Francis Ford Coppola to Bob Dylan, because “his early work was visionary and established a beachhead for those that followed, though by the early ’80s he seemed to have lost his mind.” George Lucas was Pink Floyd, because he started “out as an experimental filmmaker on the fringes” and “then reinvented himself as the epitome of mass-appeal space-themed entertainment.” Brian De Palma was Led Zeppelin, because “he’s bombastic and derivative, but such a gifted stylist and technician that it scarcely matters.”
Spielberg, naturally, was The Beatles, for reasons so obvious they don’t require elucidating. I also likened Martin Scorsese to the Velvet Underground, but that seems less sharp now. Nobody would have predicted this 30 years ago, but at this stage is it possible that Scorsese is at least as commercially minded as Spielberg? Since the turn of the century, Scorsese rarely makes a film without a movie star (and that movie star is normally Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably the most prominent “traditional” leading man of modern times). Spielberg, meanwhile – along with forging long-running partnerships with Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise — has made several films with Mark Rylance, a brilliant actor and singularly weird on-screen presence. The comparison isn’t totally fair, but the gap between DiCaprio and Rylance does illustrate two surprisingly divergent paths for these great cinematic maestros.
And Rylance isn’t even the least conventional star that Spielberg has worked with! That would be the horse from War Horse, the beta Saving Private Ryan, which I saw with my father in 2011 and have not thought about again until I wrote about it here.
30. The Terminal (2004)
Here’s some trivia that might seem shocking initially, and then will make sense if you account for the careers of other aging filmmakers: The last Spielberg film set in the “present” was 2005’s War Of The Worlds. Since then, he’s either made period pieces or futuristic sci-fi pictures. This is noteworthy because for the first 20 years of his career, his specialty was injecting the extraordinary into ordinary modern life. That’s Jaws, that’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, that’s E.T., that’s Jurassic Park. Those films resonate because Spielberg put as much care into the family-based comedic dramas occurring in the background of those films as he did the special effects in the foreground. Watch those movies enough and the background stuff takes on greater importance. If you’re looking for depictions of America’s “divorce” era— in which latch-key kids inhibit a world of TV and BMX bikes away from their harried, barely-keeping-it-together parents — you can’t do much better than those Spielberg classics.
Spielberg’s movies now comment on our world, but they aren’t of contemporary society. War Of The Worlds has that “injecting the extraordinary into the ordinary” quality as Hollywood’s most terrifying post-9/11 movie. Whereas the film preceding War Of The Worlds — one of the corniest in Spielberg’s oeuvre — harkens to a more innocent pre-9/11 time, in which casting Tom Hanks to do a proto-Borat accent while romancing Catherine Zeta-Jones still seems like a swell idea.
29. The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)
His second-best journalism film! Some critics favorably compared this to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, presumably because it’s a chase movie with a cast of colorful bad guys. I guess you could also compare Mad Max: Fury Road to Herbie: Fully Loaded, because they both involve eccentric auto machinery. But that would be a terrible idea, because one film is cool as shit and the other is dorky as hell.
28. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)
Am I being too nice to this movie? There’s a quasi-consensus that it’s the worst Spielberg film ever made, though that strikes me as an overreaction from the sorts of people who claim with a straight face that a movie like The Last Jedi is responsible for “ruining” their childhoods. Crystal Skull similarly drew ire for allegedly tarnishing the legacy of Indiana Jones, which is bunk. If this movie honestly makes you like Raiders Of The Lost Ark less, I’m sorry, but that’s insane.
Here’s the thing: I have seen this movie most recently than you probably have. And it’s totally watchable! Is it the weakest Indiana Jones film? No question. Is Harrison Ford too old for the part? He is, which is alarming given that it came out 15 (!) years before the forthcoming Indy film. Is Shia LaBeouf’s Marlon Brando posturing embarrassing? Kind of, though I prefer to think of it as Spielberg’s preemptive revenge for Shia’s subsequent trashing of the film.
Is Crystal Skull just plain stupid? Sure it is, but remember that the original intent of Raiders Of The Lost Ark was to make a throwaway B-movie, which Raiders decidedly is not and Crystal Skull unquestionably is.
27. Ready Player One (2018)
The most interesting aspect of Crystal Skull is the subtext. The same year that Spielberg went back to his most storied franchise to make an homage to the silly “alien creature” genre pictures of his youth, Iron Man ushered in a new era of blockbusters based on the one fantasy subgenre — the superhero movie — that has never interested him. (The point of Indiana Jones is that he is not a superhero.) Iron Man didn’t put Spielberg out of commission, exactly, but it did put him outside the center of mass escapist entertainment for the first time in nearly 40 years. But, contrary to the “flop era” critics, it’s worth noting that it’s the world that changed, not Spielberg. Is it his fault that Close Encounters Of The Third Kind now looks like an art film rather than a popcorn flick? No, it is not.
With Ready Player One, the temptation is to read it as a satire of how the monoculture that Spielberg engineered has been twisted into a spiritually bankrupt facade obscuring a venal and bottom-feeding society. But that instinct is complicated by how muddled the execution is — are we critiquing this junk or celebrating it? — as well as Spielberg’s own words while promoting the film. “I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia,” he gushed in one interview. “I’m livin’ that way, most of my life.” OK then.
I still think there’s some satire in Ready Player One, and it mostly comes courtesy of Ben Mendelsohn’s deliciously oily tech-bro villain. (Rylance, however, is too old to play the nerdy Zuckerberg-cum-messiah figure.) And then there’s the inherent distance that Spielberg, life-long preservationist of film history, has from the worlds of video games and the internet, which lends his depictions of those milieus inevitable traces of cynicism and foreboding. Overall, however, this still feels like a recycled film rather than a film about recycling, which makes Spielberg’s decision to direct it all the more confounding. It’s like if George Lucas had signed on to make Spaceballs.
26. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The biggest time gap between films in Spielberg’s filmography is the four years that separate this film from Schindler’s List. This speaks to the man’s incredible work ethic, which has only increased as he’s gotten older to a near-impulsive degree. As we have already established, his weaker movies feel like inessential side effects of his constant need to be productive.
In the case of The Lost World, the common assumption is that he was merely doing a cash grab, though in a 2020 interview he said that he considered The Lost World a vacation after the life-changing ordeal of making Schindler’s List. So it’s not so much a cash grab as a cash coast as he eased back into filmmaking. But even if he was coasting, The Lost World is still superior to any Jurassic Park film not directed by Steven Spielberg.
25. 1941 (1979)
The best “bad” Spielberg film. It’s the master at his least disciplined, which is why critics who don’t like his other movies tend to perversely vouch for 1941. If you view Spielberg as a cheap manipulator who uses impeccable craftsmanship to make audiences blubber at sentimental drivel, well, here’s a film that is not well crafted at all! How refreshing!
Watch 1941 and you will come away with a new appreciation for the things that Spielberg normally does better than anybody: snappy story rhythms, cleanly laying out action scenes in a logical manner, applying light comic touches that humanize sprawling special effects set pieces. In this movie, he doesn’t do any of that stuff. Do you remember that scene from A.I. Artificial Intelligence where Haley Joel Osment is gorging on vegetables and ends up breaking down his inner robot boy mechanisms? 1941 is like that, only Spielberg is binging on scenes where Slim Pickens attempts to have a bowel movement in front of Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee.
24. West Side Story (2021)
To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, Steven Spielberg was so preoccupied with whether or not he could remake one of the most iconic musicals of all time that he didn’t stop to think if he should. Look, there’s no question that Spielberg brings his best pizzazz to this update of the classic “Romeo And Juliet in Manhattan” romantic tragedy. And I give Janusz Kaminski his props for his crazy lens-flare game. But, like Spielberg’s recently announced semi-remake of Bullitt with Bradley Cooper, the question of “why?” hangs over this picture like Officer Krupke looms over the Jets and the Sharks. It’s not a BFG-sized “why?” but it’s still considerable. No matter how handsomely made this West Side Story is, we simply did not need to see Ansel Elgort sing “Tonight”
23. Amistad (1997)
The single greatest year of Spielberg’s career — and possibly any director’s career — is 1993, when he released one of his biggest blockbusters (Jurassic Park) and his most prestigious prestige film (Schindler’s List). Among “flop era” truthers, this is also the year that broke him. Or, at least, it broke his career into two segments, “Before 1993” and “After 1993.” I don’t believe that he was washed after those twin triumphs, but he did falter somewhat in the immediate aftermath. In 1997, the double shot of this film and The Lost World couldn’t help but pale in comparison, though Amistad is a better picture than its critical reputation or box office performance (it’s his second lowest-grossing film of the 20th century) suggests.
Tonally, it veers between stark brutality and unintentional silliness. One moment, we see a horrifying flashback where Africans are cruelly dumped off the side of a slave ship like unwanted cargo. The next, it’s the sight of Matthew McConaughey adopting the de rigueur “period piece” quasi-British accent. The obvious companion in Spielberg’s canon is Lincoln, another film in which the director places his faith in principled men who use the American justice system to achieve racial equity. But whereas the older Spielberg has the confidence to let the material engage the viewer without much prodding, too much of Amistad is larded with obvious “Oscar clip” emotional cues. Let’s just say that if you take a shot every time he puts a solemn choir on the soundtrack, you will be long past sober by the time of that infamous “Give us free!” scene.
22. The Color Purple (1985)
The most interesting critique of Amistad came from Spike Lee, who contrasted the film unfavorably with Schindler’s List, a “great movie” in which Spielberg said (in Lee’s words), “I don’t care if this film just makes a nickel. I want to be truthful.” But with Amistad, “all of a sudden, Spielberg’s commercial hat is on. That’s why we got Matthew McConaughey in the movie.” That criticism isn’t exactly fair, nor is it completely accurate. (The film did bomb, after all.) But it does underline some of the problems with the first “serious” Spielberg movie.
On one hand, The Color Purple is practically as harrowing as Schindler’s List — the unrelenting abuse administered against the female protagonists make the 153-minute running time especially grueling. (If all you know about Whoopi Goldberg is from The View, her incredible performance here will be doubly devastating.) On the other hand, Spielberg’s compositions are frequently gorgeous in an old-school, John Ford kind of way. Which softens the impact of the material in ways that feel simultaneously like a welcome relief and an unwarranted betrayal.
By the way: If you think Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple is a choice that was unremarkable in 1985 and only controversial in socially conscious 2023, you would be wrong. His film was nominated for 12 Oscars and won none of them, which seems like a more severe rebuke than not being nominated at all.
21. The Post (2017)
Good movie. Great cast. Should be remembered as one of the better examples of #resistance era art. But he used a CCR song to score a Vietnam War scene, and the tune in question (“Green River”) came out three years after the scene takes place. Therefore, as a penalty, I must place The Post in the lower half of the filmography.
20. Duel (1971)
It took a while for critics to accept that the most successful filmmaker on Earth could also make the sorts of movies that win awards and inspire think pieces. The irony is that the people most likely to hate on his films in 2023 regard that transition as a mistake.
The polarity between “elite” and “popular” pictures in Spielberg’s work is a false one. In truth, his best movies satisfy both constituencies. But there is something to be said about how Spielberg early on had an uncanny ability to connect with the public’s lizard brains. The part of us that reacts to primal stimuli long before the intellectual section of our skulls has a clue what’s going on.
This is most true of his “killing machine” pictures. Jaws, Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds — they are all about seemingly unstoppable forces that will hunt you down and murder you and everyone you love unless you can somehow murder it first. Spielberg’s first theatrically released film (which originated as a TV movie of the week) is also a “killing machine” picture. It’s the most stripped-down of these movies, and the most plausible — killer sharks, dinosaurs, and aliens likely won’t penetrate your life, but the Duel scenario is as relatable as road rage.
19. Bridge Of Spies (2015)
No matter what genre he works in, Spielberg remains a die-hard centrist. He subscribes to a viewpoint that values even-handed rationality which, in theory, can convert anyone so long as they are willing to listen in good faith. Wouldn’t you feel the same if you made films that pretty much everybody has seen and, in many cases, loved? Aren’t you obligated to feel that way if your life’s work functions as a metaphor for American populism?
With Bridge Of Spies, Spielberg teamed up with fellow cinematic embodiment of centrism Tom Hanks to produce yet another film in which American institutions are shown to be capable of delivering fair outcomes so long as everyone plays by the rules. In 2015, that put Spielberg at a departure point from the rest of America — Donald Trump had announced his presidential campaign just four months before this film was released. If Bridge Of Spies feels like an old man movie, it’s because Spielberg’s optimism was finally out of sync with the world around him. His competence as a filmmaker remained strong; it was America that was entering its “flop era.”
18. Empire Of The Sun (1987)
Among the general public, it’s underrated. Among Spielberg connoisseurs, it’s probably a little overrated. So, let’s split the difference and put it in the middle of the pack.
Empire Of The Sun is usually lumped in with The Color Purple as one of his pre-Schindler’s List “I’m trying to win an Oscar” movies. But it actually plays better if you consider it the middle (and weakest) entry in his “Lost Boy” trilogy, with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. In all three films, you have a young man — I’m calling E.T. a “young man” — who must navigate the fraught path from innocence to experience in a hostile, foreign world. But while the other two films feel like fairy tales, Empire Of The Sun is more or less a straightforward coming-of-age story, a junior Stalag 17 in which a prison camp acts as a stand-in for the rigors of adolescence.
17. The Fabelmans (2022)
The BFG is a film without an audience; The Fabelmans is a film made without caring if there’s an audience. That’s an important difference, for those eager to lump this in with the “flop era” films. After all this time as our most faithful crowd-pleaser, you might think that Steven Spielberg has earned the right to be a little self-indulgent. Then again, when he made A.I., maybe he could see a bit of himself in the robot boy. He loves us so much, but there’s no guarantee that we will love him back if he’s no longer useful.
The rawness of this movie is what hits you. Seth Rogen has said it wasn’t unusual to see his director openly weeping between set-ups, which you might expect from a guy staging re-enactments of the most traumatic moments in his life featuring his now-dead parents. You feel that intensity on screen. If you watched Marriage Story and wondered what it would be like if Steven Spielberg had directed it, now you know.
My one (minor) criticism: As a child of divorce myself, Spielberg’s indirect films about broken families — particularly E.T. — hit harder than the more literal article. E.T. is universal; The Fabelmans is as specific as movies of this scale get.
16. Minority Report (2002)
After 9/11, people implored Bruce Springsteen to make an album about the tragedy, and he responded with The Rising. I don’t know if Steven Spielberg faced the same demand, but he nonetheless made three films in the first half of the aughts — Minority Report, War Of The Worlds, and Munich — that addressed different aspects of how the terrorist attack changed American life.
With Minority Report, he took on the surveillance state in the guise of a breakneck thriller, and wound up making maybe his weirdest blockbuster. Did this movie need to carve out several minutes for Peter Stormare to do his menacing Peter Stormare thing while operating on Tom Cruise’s eyeballs? Probably not, but I’m glad Spielberg did it. While I personally like it less than his other 9/11 movies, Minority Report stands as one of the better examples of Spielberg’s smuggling cultural commentary into a summer tentpole flick without sacrificing philosophical insight or entertainment value.
15. War Of The Worlds (2005)
Invented for Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, the PG-13 rating can be viewed, in one sense, as recognition that teenagers are able to tolerate slightly higher levels of graphic violence, vulgar language, and sexual innuendo than pre-teens. But that is the less essential takeaway. What really matters is the recognition by the film industry that when Steven Spielberg decides go blue it must not be allowed to affect the overall bottom line. Therefore there is the R rating, and then there is the “Steven Spielberg R rating,” a.k.a. the gentleman’s R, a.k.a. PG-13.
Nearly 20 years after Temple Of Doom, he once again pushed PG-13 to the brink with this bleak-as-hell H.G. Wells adaptation. I am confident that if anyone else had directed War Of The Worlds, it would have received an R. Not that another director would have been permitted to evoke the horrors of the 9/11 attacks so vividly and disturbingly in a summer sci-fi spectacular.
You get the feeling while watching War Of The Worlds that Spielberg is fully aware of this, and he’s ready to flex about it. You don’t think that I can show Tom Cruise killing Tim Robbins, in cold blood, with his bare hands? I’m Steven goddamn Spielberg, man! I will literally spray the American countryside with the blood of 300 million people! Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds!
14. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Upon this movie’s release, Pauline Kael called it “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.” So why do Spielberg retrospectives tend to put it in the bottom third of his canon? It’s true that The Sugarland Express seems less quintessentially Spielbergian than the films that immediately follow. If you didn’t know who made it, you could mistake The Sugarland Express for a prime-era Altman, Malick or Ashby film. But that’s why I love it. If Jaws is the film responsible for ending the auteur-friendly golden age of ’70s Hollywood, then this film should be viewed as Spielberg working in that vein right before he changed cinema forever.
13. Lincoln (2012)
For what it’s worth, Steven Spielberg didn’t set out to become the Steven Spielberg anyway. “I wanted to be Antonioni, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Marty Scorsese. I wanted to be everybody but myself,” he told Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But by the time he made Jaws, he viewed himself as a filmmaker who did not have a style. As he observed in 1977, “Jaws is all content, experiment. Jaws is almost like I’m directing the audience with an electric cattle prod.”
I think I know what he means — Spielberg films are less outwardly stylized than the work of contemporaries like Scorsese and De Palma. But I don’t agree that he doesn’t have a style. He does have one, and it’s purely reflective. His movies tap into an element of the American character from the time they were released. In the ’70s, for instance, there was a strain of anti-authoritarianism — against the cops in The Sugarland Express, against local politicians in Jaws, against the federal bureaucracy in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and 1941.
Forty years later, during the Obama era, he flipped sides. Lincoln is his ultimate “trust in authority” movie, a valentine from one unifier of disparate American constituencies to another. The critical scene in Lincoln is when staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) makes the pragmatic decision on the floor of the House Of Representatives to frame the abolishment of slavery purely as a legal matter and not as a declaration that black Americans are equal to white Americans. In the film, this is viewed as a necessary evil on the way to achieving the greater good of getting the 13th Amendment passed.
“Greater good” thinking was central to Barack Obama, and it is central to the artistic (and presumably political) perspective of Steven Spielberg. In 2012, this might have registered as “no style,” because it was practically regarded as common sense. In the polarized America of 2023, however, Lincoln feels like a time capsule.
12. Munich (2005)
You know what you don’t see a lot of in Spielberg movies? Sex scenes! He didn’t put one in a film until The Color Purple, which surely must be counted among the least sexy movies ever made. (Save for the lesbian love scene that he subsequently admitted he was too squeamish to depict in the same graphic detail as Alice Walker’s book.)
This movie includes one of the most absurd sex scenes from any movie in the last 20 years. That sex scene is one of the main things people remember about Munich, which is a shame, as it stands with Minority Report and War Of The Worlds as an example of Spielberg working his “showman” and “commentator” sides with equal skill. This is an expertly made and exciting political thriller in the mode of Day Of The Jackal, Z, and The Battle Of Algiers, and it’s also an appropriately ambiguous take on the utility of revenge as a response to terrorism. Seriously, it’s fucking mind-blowing — if any of us get laid tonight it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.
11. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Spielberg movie (other than Jaws), because of course it is. Generally speaking, however, the bad vibes of Indiana Jones Part 2 have hurt the film’s reputation. Human sacrifice, child slavery, casual racism — there’s a lot here that scans as potentially offensive. I love the story about how George Lucas decided to go with a darker Indiana Jones story for the Raiders sequel because he was going through a divorce at the time. Temple Of Doom is his Blood On The Tracks! Only in this film, a guy literally gets his heart ripped out.
I saw it for the first time when I was 6 and ran screaming out of the theater during the “guy literally gets his heart ripped out” scene. That PG-13 rating couldn’t save me. But whenever I revisit Temple Of Doom as an adult, I always end up cackling with delight. If you can set aside some — okay, a lot — of the broadly sketched ethnic caricatures, and you have a high tolerance for the sound of Kate Capshaw screaming her head off, this movie flat-out rocks. The opening 20 minutes nearly match the opening of Raiders for wit and non-stop action, and the climatic scene on the rope bridge is one of his greatest set pieces. If this movie came out today, it would be overpraised as one of the best blockbusters ever and take the Top Gun: Maverick spot among Best Picture nominees.
10. Schindler’s List (1993)
I understand the rules — you don’t make out during this movie, and you don’t place it at “only” no. 10 on your Spielberg list. Alas, here we are.
Here’s my rationale: This is a great film. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. But from here on out, I’m putting a premium on rewatchability. And, as great as Schindler’s List is, it is not a film I ever feel like watching, even though I own it. I own it out of respect, and I own it because I am a completist. And someday I will actually watch it again when I am in the mood to confront the base brutality of mankind and the moral responsibility we all have to mitigate that violence by any means necessary. Until then, however, I am more likely to watch the next nine films.
9. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Hanks! DiCaprio! The ‘6os! Lots and lots of awesome lying and conning! This delectable cupcake of a film appeared a bit slight in the early aughts when Spielberg was making the darkest and most violent movies of his career. But it has endured as one of the most reliably entertaining basic-cable films of the 21st century. The sad thing is that a movie like Catch Me If You Can — which is funny and sad and largely devoid of special effects and basically just focuses on the relationship between two troubled men — would probably originate on television today.
8. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
Along with rewatchability playing a main role in my top Spielberg selections, I must cop that nostalgia, inevitably, also comes into play. Which would be a liability if we were talking about any other filmmaker. But among Spielberg’s many gifts is the ability to make films that already feel like memories the first time you see them. It’s that weird telepathy he has to create images that exist deep inside our collective imaginations that we didn’t know were there.
This is one of the Spielberg films that’s so embedded in my memory that I probably don’t need to actually rewatch it. It’s the first Indiana Jones movie that I saw in a theater when I was old enough to enjoy it. In the immediate aftermath, it was my favorite of the series, though I eventually downgraded it to second once I grew up a little and learned that the “correct” opinion is that Raiders is the best. And it is the best, though Last Crusade might be closer to my heart.
The make-or-break element in how you respond to this movie is Sean Connery — he’s either a welcome addition or an unnecessary distraction. I, of course, vote for the former, and I suspect that Spielberg felt the same, given that this was his first film where he resolved his daddy issues with a positive outcome. If I may make another Springsteen allusion: Last Crusade is his “Independence Day.”
7. Jurassic Park (1993)
All of my very favorite Spielberg movies are linked with powerful experiences in movie theaters. No wonder the man has been so critical of streaming platforms — his work demands the largest possible canvas, particularly the films that set out to awe the audience.
I saw this on opening night when I was 16. I think it was also the last day of school, though that could be an instance of my memory slightly altering reality for the sake of mythology. Either way, the first sight of CGI dinosaurs was predictably incredible, but more than that it was Sam Neill and Laura Dern doing their “awe-inspired in a Spielberg movie” faces that made the most profound impression.
The “awe-inspired in a Spielberg movie” face only works because he delivers imagery that warrants the face. Am I referring to peak-oily Jeff Goldbum lounging with his shirt open? I can neither confirm nor deny.
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saw this twice in a theater the summer before I turned 21. Based on those two screenings, I’m putting it here. On the big screen, it ranks with the most emotionally overpowering cinematic experiences I have ever had. At home, it hasn’t played as well for all the reasons you have heard before, i.e. the plot is kind of stock, the characters are kind of stock, and the rest of the movie drags a bit compared with the Normandy invasion sequence. But when I’m on my deathbed, and I think about great cinema — a topic I expect my dying thoughts to dwell on, for real — I won’t remember those home viewings. What I will remember is crying my eyes out in 1998 when Tom Hanks says, “Earn this.”
5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
The most Kubrickian thing about Spielberg’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick’s ghost is how misunderstood it was upon release. I remember liking it but not loving it, and subscribing to the conventional wisdom that the coda set 2,000 years in the future was a mistake committed by Sentimental Steven. That take is dead wrong, and not only because the coda was actually Stanley’s idea. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is about man finally meeting God, then A.I. is about how man — I apologize for quoting James Hetfield here — is the God that failed. All we leave behind are the robot boys we discarded rather than loved. The coda isn’t sentimental, it’s tragic.
I’m sorry, I’m blubbering — this movie really levels me. Each time I rewatch it, A.I. hits that much harder. I suspect that becoming a parent made me see A.I. with different eyes. As it is, I am not allowed to operate heavy machinery within 24 hours of watching the scene where Haley Joel Osment is abandoned in the woods.
4. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Speaking of man finally meeting God, we have the middle film of Spielberg’s Dreyfuss trilogy! I understand that the Dreyfuss archetype hasn’t aged well. As we have established, the man has strong dickhead energy in Spielberg movies. In Close Encounters, he plays with his mashed potatoes, tears the dirt out of his yard, disrespects the eternally beautiful Teri Garr, fails to appreciate the eternally beautiful Melinda Dillion, acts with indifference toward the great Francois Truffaut, and abandons his family and the rest of humankind to travel space with aliens. Nevertheless, Dreyfuss is my favorite of all of Spielberg’s leading men. I can’t get enough of his smug, sunburned face! Dreyfuss is a manifestation of our director’s benevolence — in his universe, even a charmingly selfish weasel is worthy of redemption.
3. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg famously had a miserable time making this movie. Anytime Jaws comes up in interviews, he comes up with yet another anecdote about how impossible the shoot was. My favorite story is about how he killed time between setting up shots on the water at Martha’s Vineyard by listening to ABBA’s “Waterloo,” which was in regular rotation at the local Top 40 station. He thought the song portended personal disaster, but in reality he was just a consummate pop craftsman vibing on the work of other consummate pop craftsmen and craftswomen.
Jaws really is his version of an ABBA hit — a perfectly made piece of commercial art designed to be enjoyed effortlessly by the masses, over and over again, in the summertime for all eternity. Forgive me for overusing the word “perfect,” but this is everything you could possibly want from a big summer movie. It’s his ultimate “killing machine” film, which means it’s the ultimate killing machine film made by anybody. Even the parts that don’t seem to move the story forward — like the scene on the boat where the guys compare scars — are essential.
2. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
As you have probably realized by now, my top Spielberg movies come from his 1975-82 epoch, when he was busy inventing the modern blockbuster. With Raiders, he mastered the form. You can take away the dialogue, switch the visuals from color to black and white, and put music from The Social Network over it (as Steven Soderbergh did), and the movie still plays like gangbusters. I saw this movie last week with my 10-year-old son and he loved it. I thought he might be scared by the melting faces at the end but he thought it was awesome. I hope to watch it with his kids someday.
A fun fact about this movie is that no studio wanted to make it at first. And that was because Steven Spielberg had a bad reputation for going over budget and over schedule. That wasn’t a problem when Jaws and Close Encounters became smash hits, but it was a liability with 1941. So he had something to prove with this movie. And he proved it.
1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I don’t know that I can write effectively about this movie. It doesn’t speak to me on an analytical level. I know people who roll their eyes at it, consider it tear-jerky fluff, and dismiss it as less ambitious or profound than movies that cover similar territory like Close Encounters and A.I. Maybe they’re right. All I know is that no other movie — not just Spielberg movie, but any movie — is as primal for me.
I hate myself for using this phrase but: It taps directly into my “inner child” who is still lonely and confused about not having a father in my life. E.T. captures that “lonely kid” feeling and gives it to the viewer in pure, uncut form. And if you have a certain metabolism, this movie will rewire your brain, eradicate your defenses, and turn you into an open wound for two hours.
I don’t mean that it panders to my childhood memories. I mean this movie logs into my heart like a computer virus, locates the emotional damage with extreme efficiency, and engages with it, in a way that no person in my life ever has. This movie is Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting saying, over and over, “It’s not your fault.”
Wait, am I typing this or just thinking it? Forget everything I just said.
There are six parts of this movie that make me cry — not cry, weep — uncontrollably: 1) The first time E.T. and Elliott fly; 2) When E.T. dies; 3) When E.T. comes back to life; 4) When E.T. makes the kids on the bikes fly a second time; 5) “I’ll be right here.” I don’t even need to watch the whole movie to weep during these scenes. Cue any one of them up on YouTube and I’m dead meat. Play the incredible John Williams score and I’m a puddle. I feel like I’m about to cry just thinking about it.
At its best, popular entertainment makes lonely people feel less alone, because ultimately — no matter who you are — you probably didn’t get hugged enough at a critical junction in your past. That’s life, and you get over it and you move on. But hurt is something that all humans share, and perhaps the only way to process that in a healthy way is to get together in a theater with a movie made by a man who was born to evoke emotion on a mass scale with the skilled application of light and sound, and cry it the hell out.
That’s Steven Spielberg. Thank you, sir, for making me feel terrible in order to eventually make me feel much better, so many times, whenever I need it.