By Darren Franich
August 12, 2011 at 03:49 PM EDT
Andrew Cooper

In order to be successful in modern Hollywood, actors tend to follow the “one for them, one for me” policy. If you’re a talented young actor, you’ll find yourself taking a role in a big Hollywood movie — a superhero film, say, or perhaps a Mission: Impossible sequel — but only so you can turn around and take a minimum-wage role in an arty indie film, or get the studio to finance your dream project about the life of your favorite boxer. Some actors get a bit lost on the “one for them” side (see: Nicolas Cage), and some actors’ dabbling with franchises have a disinterested, let-them-eat-cake indifference (See: Tom Hanks in the Dan Brown duet.)

But the policy applies to directors, too… and no director in Hollywood has a better track record of shifting between registers than Steven Spielberg. On no less than four occasions, Spielberg has delivered two radically different movies in the same calendar year. On each occasion, one film has been a fantastical digital-effects adventure, while the second film has been an Oscar-bait historical tale. In 1993, the director — coming off the disappointment of Hook and the forgettable Always — initiated the glittery second act of his career by crafting the global sensation Jurassic Park and the somber, Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. It’s almost uncanny to consider just how radically different the two films are.

Spielberg had less success with his double play in 1997. The second Jurassic Park film grossed millions but disappointed everyone, and Amistad was a well-meaning failure whose existence was practically forgotten after Spielberg crafted a new national monument in the form of Saving Private Ryan in 1998. In 2002, the director delivered a pair of films about men on the run in very different circumstances: the futuristic noir Minority Report and the true-life tale of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., in Catch Me If You Can.

Andrew Cooper

But that was just a warm-up for 2005, when the director delivered a pair of films that explored post-9/11 paranoia in very different ways. War of the Worlds and Munich might look like different films, and they had very different shelf lives — Worlds was a summer blockbuster, Munich was a low-grossing controversy magnet that nevertheless earned a Best Picture nomination —  but taken together, they form a uniquely accurate, thrilling psycho-portrait of mid-aughts America.

This December, Spielberg is at it again, with two new films coming into theaters. And, intriguingly, both films feel like big gambles: The Adventures of Tintin is an expensive film based on a Belgian comic strip beloved everywhere except for America, utilizing the always-debatable motion-capture animation technology; War Horse is the decidedly unsexy World War I tale about a boy searching for his horse. Even more intriguingly, this will be the first time that Spielberg isn’t opening his films months away from each other: Tintin bows on December 23, and War Horse hits theaters a mere five days later.

Readers, which film are you most excited to see? Do you think Spielberg has another Schindler’s/Jurassic-style double play on his hands?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:

25 Fall Movies We Can’t wait to See

‘The Adventures of Tintin’ trailer

‘War Horse’ trailer