There are filmmakers, and then there are people who change the film industry forever. Unless you’ve been living in an alternate dimension, or perhaps visiting from some outlying celestial plane, then you should already know the name of Steven Spielberg. Ever since he burst onto the scene in the mid 70’s with Duel, and more successfully with Jaws, audiences have flocked to see his films in droves. Whether it’s the popcorn munching thrills of the latest Indiana Jones adventure, the shocking and saddening wartime bravura of Schindler’s List, or the thunderous bass levels of Jurassic Park, it’s an undeniable fact that for over thirty years Mr Spielberg has been giving film fans the movies they’ve wanted to see. Of course, every director has his darker moments, such as the critically acclaimed but commercially lacklustre Munich, and the tribute film to Stanley Kubrick AI: Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg isn’t one to be tagged as a specialist director – he’s capable of making all manner of films, much to our eternal delight. In later years he began to take on various producer roles, involved in more production areas of film-making than just directing, and has industry-birthed many a Hollywood director along the way (Joe Dante, Joe Johnson, to name two).
With the gargantuan task of trying to choose the ten best films directed by Steve Spielberg, as opposed to a ten best films he’s been involved in in any way, I sat down with some DVD copies of his films and tried to determine exactly what makes a “good” Spielberg film. Is it financial success? Critical acclaim and Oscar glory? What about those films with an enduring legacy, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Raiders Of The Lost Ark? The variety the man has given us through the years makes determining the best ten films a hard choice indeed. But then, that’s why we’re here – to try and provide some clarity and closure on these types of questions.
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10. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I start the list of the Top 10 Spielberg films with one of his most famous, probably THE most famous of all Spielberg films. Family friendly, almost saccharine in places, ET remains an iconic, character driven science fiction opus that still touches the heartstrings to this day. When an alien creature is left behind on Earth by mistake, he befriends a young human lad, Elliot (Henry Thomas) and hides out in wait for the Mother Ship to return. Elliot, together with his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, prior to her drug and alcoholic spiral that makes LiLo look like a fairy princess!) and elder brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) must keep ET (as they call him) safe from both their parents and the prowling authorities. The great thing about ET is that the young cast perform so far above their age that it’s scary. Barrymore, as well as Thomas, are superb as the young siblings looking out for ET, in such a way it’s almost heartbreaking to watch their innocence sullied by Governmental forces at play. Indeed, the finale of this film borders on the nightmarish for younger viewers (I know it scared the hell out of me as a kid!) but the resolution is indeed a happy one. Often criticised by film fans for its overly sentimental mushiness towards ET, both in his relationships with the humans and with his discoveries on Earth, ET is a damn fine family oriented film that even today stands proudly as one of science fiction’s greatest achievements.
9. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
After the death of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg took on the job of “completing” the great man’s last project, a film version of Brian Aldiss’s story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”. In what would become one of Spielberg’s most ambitious films, to take an idea by Kubrick and turn it into a film, essentially in homage to him, AI: Artificial Intelligence remains one of Spielberg’s darkest films to date. Filmed in a very Kubrick-ian manner, with long steady-cam shots and a sense of framing and style in keeping with the late director’s trademark elements, a lot of critics at the time felt the film to be more Kubrick than Kubrick, and unlike anything Spielberg had ever achieved before. Overt sentimentality from child-star Haley Joel Osment’s key performance as the titular “super toy”, a robotic child who imprints on a set of adoptive parents when their own child is comatose, and a healthy sense of wonder using the ideas of Pinocchio (including the Blue Fairy); some might feel this film straddles dark drama and sugary light in a way that’s hard to swallow. But I believe this film to be among the most emotional of any Spielberg has directed: it’s interesting to note that since AI was released, Spielberg hasn’t directed any films with children as central characters. Perhaps he exorcised his “childhood drama” demons making this film. Alternately dark and wonderful, filled with imagery and allegory you could discuss until the cows come home, AI: Artificial Intelligence may just be Spielberg’s most intelligent film.
8. Jurassic Park (1993)
Box office blockbuster is the perfect recipe of a Hollywood thrill-ride, and the kind of film Spielberg could direct with one eye closed. Unlike the inferior sequel, the original Jurassic Park was a great balance of audience thrills and deft use of revolutionary CGI effects. When Terminator 2 burst onto the scene the previous year, Spielberg had obviously recognised in James Cameron’s blockbuster the ability for computers to not only add to the film-making toolbelt, but to completely revolutionise the things that could be done on-screen. The decision to use computer effects, rather than the old-school stop-motion stuff Ray Harryhausen had created (and Stan Winston had perfected for the original Terminator), proved to be the catalyst for the success of Jurassic Park, and the dawn of a new Hollywood era. While nowadays computer effects are present in almost everything we see on screen (including TV commercials), when Jurassic Park burst onto the screen, it took audiences into a place we’d never seen before: photo realistic creatures on screen. Spielberg only ended up using a few minutes of full CGI effects for Jurassic Park, but by utilising every trick in the handbook on film-making, he made it seem like a lot more. Animatronics, puppets, heck, even shadows on a wall, whatever he could get away with to scare the living heck out of viewers, he used. While Jaws may have defined the term “blockbuster”, and Star Wars redefined the modern example of “spectacle”, Jurassic Park combined both in equal measure, and became one of the highest grossing films in history off the back of it.
7. Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989)
While many hold the original Indiana Jones flick, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in high regard, by far the most fun entry into the franchise was the third film of the series, introducing Sean Connery as Indy’s father, and giving us the starlight starbright acting ability of one Alison Doody. Okay, so Doody was a doo-doo, at least from an acting perspective, but Last Crusade has something going for it that no other Indy film has: a rollicking sense of fun. After the lacklustre Temple Of Doom, Spielberg needed to refresh the franchise to keep the audience, and he did so. Indy’s father, by far the film’s most sparkling element, is Henry Jones, a man Indy describes as more interested in people who’ve been dead for a thousand years in another country than his own son. This family discontent is the driving force behind much of the comedy in Crusade, as Indy and Henry trade verbal blows and escape by the skin of their teeth from the clutches of a resurgent Nazi force. After Henry is kidnapped while searching for the Holy Grail, supposedly the cup Christ used during the Last Supper, Indy is seconded by a wealthy philanthropist (Julian Glover, in fine form) to continue the search. Along the way, Indy uncovers a plot by the Nazi’s to capture the Grail for themselves in their quest for world domination. Crusade also features an appearance by the late River Phoenix, as Young Indy, where we take much delight in seeing the formation of the scar on Harrison Ford’s chin, Indy’s fear of snakes, and the moment he got that hat. Some elements of the film may undo the careful characterisations formed in the previous films, such as turning Marcus Brody into a dithering clown, but on the whole, the pulp feel and rapid paced sensibility of Raiders is achieved again with this, the brilliant second sequel to an movie classic.
6. Minority Report (2002)
The first cinematic teaming of crazy Tom Cruise and Mr Spielberg, Minority Report is a damn fine piece of filmmaking. Based on the Philip K Dick story of the same name, Minority Report shows a world in the near-future that has become almost crime free, due to the future-seeing Pre Crime unit. Using a link to three mutant humans known as “precogs”, who have the ability to view future events of significant violence (like murders, robberies and such), the Pre Crime unit is responsible for arresting those who are about to commit these acts. The validity of Pre Crime as a concept is constantly questioned, regardless of success rate, due to the drop in crime. However, when leading Pre Crime agent John Anderton (Cruise) discovers that he himself is about to commit a crime, he naturally runs like hell to either stop the event from happening, or escape entirely. Mind-bending special effects and a first rate story, told with exquisite skills by Spielberg and performed by a first rate cast, Minority Report is one of the truly great science fiction films to come out of the last twenty years. Intelligent, breathless and a genuine thrill-ride, Minority Report shows Spielberg at the very top of his game.
5. War Of The Worlds (2005)
Pure, unadulterated Spielberg popcorn piece, this remake of the 50’s sci-fi classic featured Tom Cruise in his second outing with Spielberg, after Minority Report, and while in real life Cruise had to contend with jumping on couches and a credibility factor approaching the level of anger directed at George W Bush, his performance in the film is both galvanising and altogether human. When mysterious alien craft rise from the ground and start obliterating everything around them, humanity is thrown into chaos. Herded like sheep, the pack mentality begins to form as society crumbles, both literally and figuratively. Man becomes beast, a survival of the fittest gene overriding common decency when push comes to shove, and all the while the somewhat selfish Ray Ferrier (Cruise) tries to survive the onslaught with his children in tow, he is forced to make decisions that will forever alter him as a man. Key performances from Dakota Fanning, and to a lesser extent Justin Chatwin, elevate this beyond a simple “When Monsters Attack” sideshow: this is a family on the precipice both with each other, but with their surroundings. Spielberg seems able to direct films like this in his sleep; big budget, scary, and featuring some iconic scenes, all filmed with the slick assured hand of somebody who knows how, and when, to use every trick in the film-making handbook to get the story told.
4. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
Poetic, delightful, almost serendipitous film from the master, Catch Me If You Can features a brilliant performance from star Leonardo DiCaprio, as serial fraudster Frank Abignale Jr, who conned his way through thousands of dollars and numerous “careers” before being caught by pursuing officer Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Lighter than normal Spielberg fare, Catch Me was a box office and critical success, and remains one of the most accessible DiCaprio films of the last decade. It’s a film for the sake of it, there’s no pretension or cinematic in-joke at the viewers expense; a great story (a jaw dropping story!) with good characterisation and a wonderful soundtrack from John Williams. The most heartbreaking part of the film, however, is the always-excellent Christopher Walken as Abignale Snr, who tries to keep his son from being caught, with the good intent of a loyal father. Walken will bring a tear to your eye in this film, especially for those of you who’ve had a father like him, or are a parent yourself. Spielberg seems to have a certain joy in this film, with what seems like a fairy-tale sheen of good-old-boy “will he get away with it?” layered thickly over proceedings.
3. Saving Private Ryan (1997)
Of all the films in this list, indeed in all of Spielberg’s oeuvre, Saving Private Ryan is the one which has had the biggest impact on me, and caused me to write the most words about it. Harrowing, bereft of Hollywood cliché and redefining the War Film genre in a single, 20 minute opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan was a bloodthirsty double-take of historical relevance unseen perhaps since Oliver Stone took on Vietnam in Platoon and Born Of The Fourth Of July. Led by the always great Tom Hanks, accompanied by a veritable stable of A-list talent (among them Ed Burns, Vin Deisel, Giovanni Ribisi and even Matt Damon), as well as several underplayed cameo’s, somehow Spielberg manages to make the film look matter-of fact, almost documentary-esque. Undeniably powerful, perhaps accorded a somewhat ambivalent legacy in the intervening years due to the prevalence of other directors to over-use Janusz Kaminski’s rapid-shutter cinematography (Ridley Scott, I look at you, man) to dilute the effect, Saving Private Ryan is a master-class in taut, tense, often shocking storytelling. While perhaps not as personal a story as, say, Schindler’s List, what it does do is reinforce the sacrifices the brave men of the Allied forces in WWII made, and that in itself is worth noting.
2. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
How can this film not be number 1, you ask. Go ahead, ask. Raiders, otherwise known as the first Indiana Jones movie, remains one of those unassailable classics a la Casablanca and Gone With The Wind. Film that everybody knows (or should know) and films that have become iconic touchstones for a generation of film-goers. Harrison Ford’s sardonic, pitch perfect portrayal of the vagabond archaeologist who seeks the famed Ark of the Covenant (supposedly the last resting place of the actual Ten Commandments), pursued by vile Nazi villains and a French competitor, became a world-wide smash upon initial release. The years have been kind to Raiders, the poster-child for pulp adventure films ever since its release. Brendan Fraser has carved a career out of trying to get involved in a film like Raiders, for example. Spielberg himself revisited the franchise (perhaps unwisely) in recent times, unable to recapture the sheer exuberance and fun of the original. Violent, mythical, hilarious and thrilling, Raiders remains perhaps the definitive action/adventure movie of all time.
1. Jaws (1975)
While he may have drawn some acclaim previous to Jaws with films such as Duel and The Sugarland Express, it wasn’t until the film about a shark killing swimmers in a New England island community arrived that Spielberg himself came to prominence. Known by many as the progenitor of what Hollywood terms the modern “Blockbuster” event film, Jaws captured the public imagination in a way film hadn’t done so previously. It terrified, it thrilled, and above all it entertained. Featuring some of cinema’s greatest shocks, and one of Hollywood’s most immortal monologues by the late, great Robert Shaw, Jaws remains the single greatest example of a film preying on a primordial dread of ours to date. You can keep your Blair Witches, your Paranormal Activities and the like, because if there’s one film guaranteed to scare the living bejeezus out of every single person who watches, it’s Jaws. The legacy of this film has dulled in later years due to the increasingly stupid sequels (although Jaws 2 wasn’t a total write off), if you pause for a moment and revisit the original, you’ll find yourself once more too scared to go into the water. And for a film 35+ years old, that’s no mean feat.
Authors Note: Okay, so where was Schindler’s List, you ask? And Close Encounters? Surely this list is some sort of forgery, a bogus list intended to illicit cries of “you idiot” across the interweb. I assure you, that is not my intent. There are, after all, only ten spots available in this list. Had there been an eleventh and twelfth spot, those two films would have parked themselves neatly down there. Schindler’s may have won Spielberg his first Oscar, and it’s a great film in its own right, but sadly, after mulling over the merits and failures of all Spielberg’s films, Schindler’s couldn’t quite make it into the top ten. I look forward to the retribution that will no doubt follow me onto the comments pages, but isn’t that the true beauty of film: to be able to make lists like these and not be agreed upon by everyone?
Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree. Rodney is a writer and filmmaker based in Australia. He runs the film production company Fernby Films with his brother Warwick. See his Top 10 Film Sequels of All Time HERE.
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