Steven Spielberg is obviously one of the best known and most celebrated film makers of the last 40 years. IMDb lists him as the director of 29 theatrically released feature films. 29.25, actually, if you count his segment in The Twilight Zone: The Movie. Of these, I have seen 19.25 of his movies.
(Incidentally, this is #27 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So here are the top 5, in no particular order
Jaws – 1975
As I’ve already commented recently, Jaws is a masterpiece of a film, capturing the horror, dread and thrill associated with an epic life-and-death struggle with a man eating shark. The first half of the film is all about Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) dealing with a series of attacks by a great white shark upon his beach-side community dependent on tourism for its economic survival. This section of the movie does a great job building up the drama of the situation. But then in the second half, the movie turns everything up to 11 by isolating Brody and two other men–fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a fishing boat with nothing but their gear and their wits to defeat the monstrosity that is terrorizing their town. It’s a great piece of film making.
Catch Me If You Can – 2002
This was quite a different film from the Spielberg movies I grew up with, but I really enjoyed Catch Me If You Can and it’s sprawling story of why likeable conman Frank Abagnale jr got into the life that he did, and how he eventually got out of it. Strong performances from both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, plus a good supporting cast, help make this a fun piece of work.
War of the Worlds – 2005
I assume this is the most controversial of all the choices I’ll put on this list, and remember, these are not in order. But War of the Worlds is a movie that admittedly has a lot of problems–it’s got a wandering story and some contrivances that are really hard to swallow. But, it’s also got one brilliant cinematic set-piece after another: the first emergence of the tripod out of the ground; the attack on the ferry; the confrontation between Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in the cellar; the riot surrounding the van; the caging of the humans with the hand grenades… One sequence after another that are all directed with such skill and finesse that they easily make up for whatever lacks there are in the big picture. In a way, it probably simulates what going through a major crisis like this is really like: the common guy never really understands what is going on, but just has to figure out how to survive moment by moment.
Bridge of Spies – 2015
Like Catch Me If You Can, this movie came up earlier in this series when I was talking about my favorite Tom Hanks films. It’s a steadily-paced intelligent espionage thriller built on a number of good performances (Hanks and Mark Rylance in particular) that gives a good sense of its time period and stays honest in the way it develops its story, characters, and sense of tension.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981
The question of my all-time favorite film directed by Steven Spielberg has never been answered definitively, but it’s definitely between Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this movie, Spielberg achieves a near prefect trifecta of collaboration with producer / writer George Lucas and star Harrison Ford, to produce a movie that is so entertaining with imagery that is so enduring that it really changed popular movies for me forever (something only really achieved previously with Star Wars). Iconic moments from the movie include Indy facing off with that huge boulder, Indy and Jock’s exchange about snakes in the airplane (“Show a little backbone!”), Marion drinking that big Nepali guy under the table, Toht with the imprint of the medallion burnt into his hand, and Indy dragging along behind a moving truck. Plus, you know, the Nazi’s having their faces melt off under the power of God.
Runners-Up: I also considered Amistad, which I used to like a lot but have sort of forgotten. Also ET, the Extra-Terrestrial, which I loved as a kid, disdained as a film student, and have grown to appreciate again as an adult. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is good but it’s a been a long time since I watched it. And naturally, one has to consider Schindler’s List which is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time, and which I certainly appreciate but don’t really like.
Considered but Rejected: The Warhorse, The Adventures of Tintin, Minority Report, Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, and his 25% of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Bonus: The worst Spielberg movie ever might be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the trifecta of collaboration mentioned above seemed to fall apart. But if it is the worst, it’s only slightly worse than Hook which people younger than me seemed to really like, but I was really bored by.
Full Disclosure: I have never seen Sugarland Express, 1941, Empire of the Sun, Always, AI, The Terminal, Munich, Lincoln, The BFG, or Saving Private Ryan. I also have never seen Firelight, the largely missing Spielberg film from his youth. Like the rest of the world, I haven’t seen Ready Player One yet but I’m really looking forward to it.