Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential and revolutionary film producers in the world. He changed the face of mainstream American cinema in 1975 with the monster-movie-by-the-sea Jaws. The film saved a long-running Hollywood studio and set into motion the high-concept mantra that would forevermore dominate movie conception with the onus on two key components: profitability and marketability.
The auteur directors that had blossomed in the States during the late 1960s and early 1970s saw this as the detrimental outcome to all their hard work reinvigorating a movie industry that had become stuck in its ways. The likes of Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Hopper, Bogdanovich, all immersed in European art house cinema, authentic on-location storytelling, freeing the camera with handheld motion, demoting the studio’s influence to that of a distributor and nothing more, liberating the artist to do whatever the hell he liked, was but a memory when Spielberg released Jaws. Spielberg, like Lucas (and the Spielberg/Lucas movie brats that followed in their footsteps – Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, Chris Columbus, Joe Johnston, David Fincher, David Cameron, Matthew Robbins), weren’t interested in the French New Wave. They still believed in the essence of spectacle within cinema – the very attributes that made it a carnival show in its earliest form way back in the early 1900s. They believed in the ability of the studio to create worlds and stories that can only be imagined. Stories that reminded of 50s television serials and classical Hollywood narrative. They believed in the power of the special-effect. They also locked the camera back on its tripod, the impersonal eye onto their widely imaginative worlds, no longer an active participant.
If the blockbuster heralded the way to the MTV generation of formulaic storytelling and endless sequels, remakes, and re-imaginings then blame Spielberg. However, if we’re casting conspiratorial blame you could just as easily point a finger at Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Eisner, Jon Peters, Peter Guber, The Monkeys, television and a whole host of other factors, ahead of Spielberg. Thanklessly, the blockbuster paved the way for some of the finest American films of the last thirty years.
Jaws saved a long-running Hollywood studio and set into motion the high-concept mantra that would forevermore dominate movie conception.
Although some of those bitter auteurs have fallen by the wayside it hasn’t stopped Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen or a host of others to remain true to their identities as filmmakers in this big-budget, high-concept world of popular film. Indeed, the likes of Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Friedkin had peaked by the time Star Wars came rolling by the box office. Perhaps their cynicism towards the film industry was sour grapes – their power had waned, their creativity was bankrupt (certainly true of Coppola who had been one of the most powerful people in Hollywood during the 1970s and, admittedly, released some of the decade’s finest films – not just The Godfather, but The Conversation and Apocalypse Now). This is exampled by their decline. Friedkin could never live up to The Exorcist after 1973, and when he was given the mega-budget he wasted it with 1977’s Sorcerer. Coppola, likewise, couldn’t find the right balance between crowd-pleasing science-fiction and character study in the awful Mission To Mars, and his output since Apocalypse Now has been mixed critically and financially unsuccessful. Bogdanovich, perhaps the worst hit by Spielberg’s revolution, withdrew to documenting the history of film rather than participating in it. But who, 35 years after Jaws was released, has continued to blossom despite a few wobbly moments – Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg has been so successful because he has adapted to current trends, embraced new technology, balanced great storytelling with box office potential, revolutionised film marketing and merchandising, and worked with some of Hollywood’s finest writers, cinematographers, composers, and actors. He has also managed to maintain his personal tendencies for better and for worse. For example, what made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial so great (its childhood innocence and melancholic sentimentality), made the over-sugared Hook harsh on the palate. His rigid distinction between good and evil is wonderfully ready-made for Indiana Jones, E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters but over-bearing and a shade distasteful in Schindler’s List. Yet, he’s always managed to capture the audience’s imagination with films that are well-intentioned. They either aim to thrill us with fantastic, otherworldly adventures (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, War of the Worlds) or bring us closer to our own world through the stories of those that have done inspiring things (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal). Spielberg knows how to populate his cinematic stories with every-men and -women – the ordinary Joe in extraordinary situations doing extraordinary things.
He has not only directed some of the finest films of the last 35 years, he has produced or helped bring to fruition the films of countless talented directors and writers during that period.
Spielberg might have made a couple of bad films, a few mediocre ones, and a few that continue to divide opinion. But his influence on film and the industry is unlike any other movie producer or director throughout the medium’s century-long history. He has not only directed some of the finest films of the last 35 years, he has produced or helped bring to fruition the films of countless talented directors and writers during that period. However, if we are to judge his career solely on the films he directed himself, the following Top 10 is proof positive that Steven Spielberg is a filmmaking genius.
10. Minority Report (2002)
“Agatha, just tell me, who killed your mother? Who killed Anne Lively?”
“Minority Report” arrived at a period when Spielberg was feeling the cold but calculated dystopian sensibilities of his late friend Stanley Kubrick. “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” was to be a Kubrick movie until his untimely death left the unfinished project in the hands of Spielberg who adapted it as best he could in order to bring it to the screen. Yet, it has always been felt that Kubrick’s version would have been quite different and a lot of talk has surrounded the ending. The film suffers from being a sentimental homage to Kubrick’s vision with the Manichean template of Spielberg’s inherent story construction.
“Minority Report”, released soon after “A.I.”, benefits from Spielberg still in the mode of attempting to emulate Kubrick’s eye on the human condition. But this time, we know whose film this is. If the creator of the blockbuster lost his individualism somewhat with “A.I.” he regained it with “Minority Report”. Continuing the high-contrast visual aesthetic of his previous film, “Minority Report” is a high-concept rollercoaster ride in the best blockbusting traditions. It’s original, fast-paced, and entertaining. And true to Spielberg at his best it features some terrifically executed action sequences that are sure to be mimicked for years to come.
9. Jurassic Park (1993) – see also our article of the film’s postmodern tendencies here
“We’ve made living biological attractions so astounding that they’ll capture the imagination of the entire planet.”
It’s quite unbelievable that Spielberg had any energy left in 1993. He was in the midst of editing “Jurassic Park” while making “Shindler’s List” and both films would be released in 1993. To say the creative genius had gone through a lull in his career with the unloved “Hook” in 1991, the overly sentimental “Always” in 1989, and an attempt at mature cinema (“Empire of the Sun” and “The Color Purple”) preceding the admittedly brilliant “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. It was somewhat surprising that Spielberg would be about to see his most successful year both commercially and critically. The critics, on the whole, were bowled over by Shindler’s story, while cinemagoers turned up in their blockbusting masses for the summer event of the decade. “Jurassic Park” was the next step in high-concept, commercial cinema – long and expensive advertising campaign, huge merchandising, and finally a self-reflexive attitude that celebrated the whole ethos of popcorn entertainment.
Having not seen the film for many years what struck me most when watching it recently was the postmodernist, self-reflexive attitude of the film, almost parodying the ‘event’ movie that Spielberg had helped create in the first place. The character of Hammond, constantly alluding to the fact no expense was spared could be the mantra of the “Jurassic Park” producers and Spielberg himself. But couple this with the film’s blatant product placement and the idea of a theme park ride (“Jurassic Park” clothing, lunch boxes, t-shirts, etc., were readily available to the public when the film was released; the theme park ride would come a little later), and you discover a rather interesting aside to the film. Spielberg’s left-wing critics would argue he was cashing in on total commercialism through audience manipulation, whilst others might argue he was wryly satirising mainstream, big-budget blockbusters – the phenomenon he’d help create.
Nevertheless, Jurassic Park is a crowd-pleaser that set a benchmark for special-effects in 1993. Still today you feel like those dinosaurs are living, breathing creatures that you either want to go up to for a stroke or run away from in fear. The film’s sense of humour, some excellent set-pieces, and terrific production values, make for a frequently entertaining adventure story.
8. Duel (1971) – see our full review here
“There you are, right back in the jungle again.”
Spielberg said he didn’t want to make “Jaws”. He believed making another monster movie would harm his career. He told “Jaws” producers Brown and Zanuck that he didn’t want to become known as the “shark and truck director”. But they convinced him that making “Jaws” would open the door to any film project he desired. Spielberg relented. The rest is history.
Going back four years before Amity Island, Spielberg made “Duel”, a film for the television market that was so popular it was released in cinemas for its European run. It’s a film all about style, and Spielberg shows early in his career a technical inventiveness with the camera and a passion for suspense and adventure. Taking the ethos of the best horror monsters – the truck which chases terrified motorist Dennis Weaver around the endless roads of the Californian desert has no motive. The truck is an ‘It’, it has no human sensibilities, ‘It’ is seemingly attracted be fear. It’s a terrific example of fast-paced suspenseful cinema. Spielberg cuts out all the baggage. It’s one man, the monster behind him, and the road that never seems to end.
7. Schindler’s List (1993)
“This list… is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
For every ten people that think “Schindler’s List” is a masterpiece (Ebert/Berardinelli) there is one who thinks it is the worst film ever made. Many of those detractors fail to acknowledge that many modern audiences do not have an academic appreciation of World War II or the atrocities that took place under Nazi occupation towards the Jewish and minority communities, and anyone else who posed a perceived threat to the Aryan way of life. Spielberg brought the story of Oskar Schindler to the big screen in the only way he knew how – by depicting a good versus evil story that celebrated the bravery depicted in source novel “Schindler’s Ark” by writer Thomas Keneally and deriding the atrocities taking place in the death camps. That it simplifies a story that ultimately involves a lot more layers (not least Schinder’s vices) is not the fault of a filmmaker wanting to bring this heartbreaking real life story to a mainstream, modern day audience.
That isn’t to say “Schindler’s List” is a piece of entertainment drawn from the harrowing experiences of real life survivors. Spielberg’s film is an important expose on one of the key periods of modern history. What he does well is make it accessible for all audiences. I don’t buy into the idea that “Schindler’s List” is one of the greatest films ever made, but it is one of the most important, if at the very least, it reminds us of the courage and sacrifice so many people made during those years of worldwide war.
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – See Classic Scenes #2 for more
“We all have orders, and we have to follow ’em. That supersedes everything, including your mothers.”
“Saving Private Ryan” is, aesthetically, the greatest World War II movie ever made. That’s one thing a mega-budget and limitless resources allows a filmmaker such as Spielberg to achieve. The opening sequence of American troops storming Omaha beach is a visceral tour-de-force. Spielberg captures the chaos of that day, at that moment, and at that beach as perfectly as you’d think was possible.
What is so crippling to the viewer – through the majestic use of the sound stage and the documentary realism of the handheld camerawork – is how these men were put in a situation they had no control over. Here they were with a single objective to get from their Higgins boats to the sea wall. Most were young men, some in their teens, and many lacked any leadership due to commanding officers being killed on arrival or dropped at the wrong destination. It was a period of sheer terror. Life became more fragile and precious than ever before. As the bullets wiz past the camera we as an audience realise that the situation is nothing more than a lottery. You either got hit by a bullet, a landmine, or a mortar and were killed or severely injured, or you made it to sea wall where you were pinned down and in many cases without a weapon. There was no reason to the objective anymore, it was simply a matter of survival. Spielberg captures this scene as violently and as horrifically affecting to those that experienced it, as is possible through a camera lens. It is quite simply one of the most visually devastating World War II sequences ever made.
But there is a Hollywood film in there too. And Spielberg can’t help but over cook the sentiment with a gooey opening scene that begins with the American flag waving in front of a burning sun. This is followed by a plot that focuses on the heroes on a mission narrative that in many ways negates the realism depicted in the Omaha beach sequence. There is something uneasy about “Saving Private Ryan” becoming an entertaining film for its remaining two hours. From a positive perspective we can enjoy the ride, from a negative point of view we’ve fallen sluggishly from the anti-war sentiments of Normandy to the heroic last-stand at Ramelle.
So “Saving Private Ryan” isn’t a perfect film unlike Spielberg’s best five features. Yet, the one thing it maintains throughout is it’s brilliant depiction of war torn France. From the costumes, weapons, and military vehicles to the broken French townships, the film takes you back to 1944 with uncompromising accuracy. But what really sets it apart are the two major battle sequences. The Omaha beach sequence is 20 minutes of horror, while the final defence of the Remelle bridge clocks in at even longer. If “Saving Private Ryan” glorifies America’s heroes it’s because they were heroes, just as the other allied soldiers were. But war is hell and Spielberg never shies away from showing just why.
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – See Top 10 Part 3s that are better than Part 2s for more
“Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
After the somewhat disappointing first sequel to Indiana Jones, Spielberg returned to the more light-hearted roots of the original. “Last Crusade” isn’t far off eclipsing the original. It’s a fun, Saturday matinee-inspired action-adventure with Harrison Ford reprising his best character and heading off all around the world again to battle Nazis, ancient curses, rats, and women. It’s a wonderful film and along with “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.”, “Jaws”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” makes up Spielberg’s golden quintuplet.
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – See Top 10 Family Films of all time for more
“He’s a man from outer space and we’re taking him to his spaceship.”
“E.T.” was recently voted the greatest family film of all time by reader’s of UK magazine Radio Times. It is easy to see why – fun for everyone, from small children to grandparents, a happy, emotional ending, and a universally appealing story of childhood innocence and friendship. “E.T.” is a great indication of what makes Spielberg tick as a filmmaker and storyteller. Amidst its classic good versus evil narrative, Spielberg’s personal touches can be seen all over the suburban landscape, the fatherless family, the aversion to authority, and a genuine distinction between the innocence and imagination of youth over the untrustworthy and dispassionate adults. You can see why he was a perfect fit for “Hook” – Spielberg was living the Peter Pan story through his most personal of characters – notably, the young boy Elliot in “E.T.”, and Roy Neary in “Close Encounters” who had grown up but hadn’t given up on the child inside of him. “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” are Spielberg’s most affectionate and intimate movies. They both capture that sense of wonder and adventure inherent in youth.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – See also our comic strip from Temple of Doom
“Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.”
So many of Spielberg’s films are those I remember from childhood. They have therefore remained favourites for a very long time. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” makes me think of huge boulders, a fear of snakes, and a brown Fedora hat lying beneath a rapidly closing trap door that is suddenly whisked away by its owner’s hand that appears just seconds before the door closes shut. It’s a film of adventure, heroes and villains, beautiful locations, damsels in distress, high-octane action, guns and explosions, funny moments, idiosyncratic characters – the perfect tonic for any seven year old during long summer holidays.
Harrison Ford was great as Han Solo in Lucas’ “Star Wars” films but he’s never been better than in his incarnation as Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr. aka “Indiana” Jones. “Raiders” has a timeless quality about – much like Spielberg’s best movies – in that its excitement does not diminish after all these years. Its special-effects are the best kind – real – and look as good today as they did all those years ago.
2. Jaws (1975) – See also 10 Reasons Jaws Might Be The Best Film Ever Made
“I’m not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to be a hot lunch.”
Jaws. The debut of the blockbuster. The commercial wonder. Merchandising mayhem. The breaking of the $100 barrier. Summer. Sunshine. Swimming. Teeth. Steven Spielberg’s little b-picture monster movie with a rubber shark that didn’t work properly changed the movie industry forever. The year was 1975.
There are many reasons why “Jaws” is Spielberg’s best film, not least, it’s influence on the movie business. It’s also a top-notch thriller that scared audiences out of their seats like few films before it. Famously, Spielberg decided to add another scare after seeing positive test audience screenings. Turning his friend’s pool into a makeshift film set made to look like the ocean, Spielberg added the film’s defining jump-out-of-your-seat sequence. Here, Spielberg would follow a curious Richard Dreyfuss under the stricken fishing boat of Ben Gardner. In the black water, lit only by the beaming lights from his own no-expense-spared vessel, he would find a shark tooth. A really big shark tooth. But on closer examination of a huge hole in the side of the boat, the beaming light flickering behind his shadow causing the hole to dip in and out of darkness, a disembodied head would appear. Cue an earthquake in the theatre as bums returned to seats after briefly taking flight in sheer shock. What a brilliant, timeless piece of cinema.
In truth, I can’t really split “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. They’re both fantastic movies. “Close Encounters” touches me on a more personal level nowadays though. I love its innocence and it embodies everything that is good about Spielberg’s work.
One of the things that makes “Jaws” so great is that it’s still as good today as it was in 1975. No amount of digital effects or 3D could improve the film. The fact the shark didn’t look realistic, didn’t move well in the water, and could only make limited movements when it did helped the film. Spielberg couldn’t show the shark because the film would lose credibility if he did. Therefore, the film benefits from the idea of less is more. A trait that every horror films director should take on board – especially Rob Zombie! This menace that swam, ate, and made little sharks, was all the more terrifying because it was unseen under the water. When Alex Kintner dies you effectively see lots of flaying arms, an unhealthy amount of ketchup, and some black cardboard moving clumsily in the water. Yet it is one of the most effecting scenes of the movie. Moreover, when Chrissie Watkins meets her maker at the beginning of the film we only hear her screams and watch as she is pulled under the murky depths. It was the intention of the filmmakers to show more of the shark but thanks to the rubber fish’s inability to take direction, they couldn’t, and the film is a masterpiece because of it.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – See also our full review here
“I just want to know that it’s really happening.”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” didn’t have the immediate effect “Jaws” had on me but like Spielberg’s reaction to Lawrence of Arabia [link to Spielberg’s fave film article] it was a film I couldn’t stop thinking about. It inspired a curiosity in me that “Jaws” couldn’t possibly achieve. Where as “Jaws” was about fear, “Close Encounters” was about wonder and imagination and following your dreams. It was the thinking person’s science-fiction movie of 1977. “Star Wars” took us to a galaxy far, far away, “Close Encounters” brought the galaxy right to our door step. This is Spielberg’s “2001”.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is intelligent, moving, and awe-inspiring. It appeals to the child inside all of us and reminds us that our imagination is something to hold sacred.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Discover More on Top10Films:
Top 10 Steven Spielberg Moments
Top 10 Steven Spielberg Characters
Spielberg’s success in a single image
The film that inspired him: Spielberg and Lawrence of Arabia
Debate: Did Spielberg direct Poltergeist?
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