The films of Spielberg
There’s no debating the fact that Steven Spielberg is Hollywood’s most successful living director. But over the course of his nearly-50-year career, he’s also time and again reminded us that he’s arguably its greatest one, too. No one toggles between unabashed popcorn entertainment and more challenging adult fare with the same seamless dexterity: Killer sharks and the Holocaust, space aliens and slavery, rampaging raptors and crusading reporters. With his latest film, the spot-that-reference sci-fi fantasia Ready Player One, now in theaters, it seems as good a time as any to try to put the maestro’s massive body of work into some sort of order. So without further ado, our totally subjective ranking of Spielberg’s films from worst to best….
34. 1941 (1979)
Fresh off of the one-two blockbuster punch of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it must have seemed like there was nothing Tinseltown’s new 32-year-old Midas couldn’t do. But there was one thing: Comedy. This extravagant, cartoonish, and shockingly unfunny folly about the hysteria surrounding a Japanese invasion of California shows a boy-wonder director testing his limits — and overstepping them.
33. The BFG (2016)
On paper, this seemed to be right in Spielberg’s wheelhouse: A wonder-filled adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl book about a benevolent jug-eared giant told from the point of view of an orphan girl. But that sense of wonder somehow never made the leap from the page to the screen. It’s a CG magic trick without the magic.
32. Hook (1991)
In which Hollywood’s resident Peter Pan takes on the tale of the now-grown actual Peter Pan (Robin Williams), who returns to Neverland to battle Captain Hook and rediscover his innocence. It’s meta, it’s chockablock with theme-park sets….and it’s so busy and saccharine it’s likely to give you a migraine.
31. The Terminal (2004)
Spielberg’s third collaboration with Tom Hanks (following Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if You Can), about a foreigner who arrives at JFK Airport to discover he’s a man without a country, has the set-up of a bittersweet fish-out-of-water fable. But it’s lifeless and toothless. It taxis on the runway for two hours and never takes off.
30. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
I know that this one has its admirers, I’m not one of them. It’s eye-candy without the sugar rush.
29. Twilight Zone: The Movie - 'Kick the Can' (1983)
Okay, a bit of a cheat here. Spielberg only directed one segment of this omnibus film, but his chapter fits perfectly into both his resume and his obsessions. Sort of a Cocoon wannabe, “Kick the Can” grants a group of senior citizens their wish to be young again. It’s sweet, but so slight it seems to dissolve before it’s even over.
28. Always (1989)
A loose remake of the 1943 Spencer Tracy movie A Guy Named Joe, about a pilot who dies and becomes a saintly guardian angel from the Great Beyond, Always isn’t half bad. But 1990’s Ghost, which is barely half good, pulls this sort of New Age hooey better.
27. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
One word: Mutt.
26. War Horse (2011)
Okay, so this is officially the place in the Spielberg rank-o-meter where things brighten up and the tide starts to turn from bad to good.
25. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
I think I’m one of the few people who will happily go to the mat making a case for Jurassic Park III. As for Part II, I think The Lost World gets a lot of grief just because it’s not Jurassic Park — well, that and Vince Vaughn. And that regrettable San Diego business. And…you get the idea. But come on, this is a perfectly entertaining, Goobers-scarfing sequel even if it’s missing some of that T-rex shock of the new.
24. Amistad (1997)
Is it long? Is it noble? Check and check. But also a pretty gripping piece of history stirringly told. A warm-up of sorts for the far-better Lincoln.
23. Ready Player One (2018)
It feels hair-triggerish and impulsive to have to rank this one so quickly. A year from now, after another viewing or two, it might move up a couple slots or down a couple. But this feels right right now.
22. War of the Worlds (2005)
Or, what if aliens don’t come in peace? Spielberg’s darker take on visitors from beyond has aged better than I’d expected. Its post-9/11 vision of the apocalypse is still full of sensational shock and awe. Plus, Cruise is good in it. Seriously.
21. Duel (1971)
Spielberg’s made-for-TV movie debut is the man-vs.-truck rehearsal for the man-vs.-shark masterpiece shortly to come. A lean, mean cat-and-mouse thriller that shows that even at 25, the young filmmaker was already a master of suspense.
20. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Of the original Indy trilogy, this is the lightest – and slightest: A rollicking soufflé with a sexy fraulein, zeppelins, the Holy Grail, and of course, Sean Connery as Indy’s bookish, undermining father. If it came on TV right now I wouldn’t be able to turn it off.
19. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Come for Leo and Hanks. Stay for Walken. The closest Spielberg will ever come to making Charade or To Catch a Thief.
18. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
I’d still rather see Kubrick’s version of this story, but this is pretty good. I hated it when it first came out, but its sadness and weirdness has grown on me. If you think this is ranked too high, go back and watch it again, too.
17. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Christian Bale is sooo good in this.
16. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
No, I haven’t lost my mind. I know that Spielberg himself slags on this film. And, you know what, he’s wrong. He’s apologizing for its darkness because he thinks that’s what people want him to do. And maybe they do. But it’s leaps and bounds better than Last Crusade and the opening set piece is like a Raymond Chandler noir directed by Busby Berkeley. Now if there was just some way to go back and re-edit a supercut without Kate Capshaw’s squealing and shrieking.
15. The Sugarland Express (1974)
This is the moment when Spielberg looked around at his New Hollywood pals like Scorsese, DePalma, and Schrader, and decided that he should make a New Hollywood film, too. It’s actually a pretty good one. And Goldie Hawn’s great in it. But I’m glad he followed his gut and went towards the light instead of the dark afterwards. Crowdpleasers are nothing to be ashamed of.
14. Poltergeist (1982)
I know, I know, Tobe Hooper is the official director on this one. But people have been debating for years whether Spielberg really was the one calling the shots on the set. I love Tobe Hooper. But this just feels like a Spielberg auteur film to me. Twelve-year-old me didn’t care either way, though. All that kid knew was it scared the crap out of him.
13. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Here’s the movie that brought together all of Spielberg’s biggest themes and alchemized them: Suburbia, broken families, loneliness, friendship, wonder, universes beyond our own, and most of all heart. This is a movie for 12-year-olds made by someone who was deep down still a 12-year-old.
12. The Color Purple (1985)
To quote Roger Ebert’s review: “It is a great, warm, hard, unforgiving, triumphant movie, and there is not a scene that does not shine with the love of the people who made it.” Sorry, I can’t do better than that.
11. Bridge of Spies (2015)
I’m a sucker for spy thrillers and the Cold War and anything Le Carre adjacent. Go back and rewatch how meticulously and artfully Spielberg introduces Mark Rylance’s character at the beginning of the film. It’s a master class in table setting.
10. The Post (2017)
Past is prologue in this rousing tribute to the importance of speaking truth to power when that power is corrupt. Set in 1971, about 2017.
9. Minority Report (2002)
Here’s a list within a list: Minority Report is the third best Philip K. Dick adaptation, after Blade Runner and Total Recall (yes, Total Recall). That’s good company.
8. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
In the 50-plus years between the end of WWII and Spielberg’s intimate drama painted on the widest of big-screen canvases, no one has captured D-Day with the same harrowing, relentless intensity. No one has in the 20 years since either. Some dismiss Ryan’s talkier stretches as Greatest Generation veneration. Baloney. This is, hands down, the best WWII movie ever made.
7. Lincoln (2012)
Daniel Day-Lewis brings to life one of the most pivotal moments in the 16th president’s time in the White House. It’s a performance that goes beyond acting into a sort of conjuring act. Tony Kushner’s screenplay turns the thickets of policymaking into a righteous sort of poetry. And Spielberg cements his reputation on the back-nine of his career as Hollywood’s most compelling historian.
6. Munich (2005)
Spielberg and Kushner again. This time in a revenge thriller about Israel’s covert response to the murder of 11 athletes from the Jewish state at the 1972 Olympics. Even-handed, compassionate, and as suffocatingly tense as a hangman’s noose, Munich is Spielberg’s most underrated film.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This is the moment during the opening stretch of Spielberg’s career when he briefly put kids’ things aside and delivered an epic vision of wonder from a grown-up’s point of view.
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
Literally a blockbuster as theme-park ride, Jurassic Park mixes smarts (Hey, Mr. DNA!), Hitchcockian suspense (the raptors in the kitchen scene), jack-in-the-box horror (the water rippling in a cup as the T-rex approaches), and, of course, wonder and awe. The next time people slag on the big-budget FX-festooned tentpoles of the ‘90s, this is the exception to fire back at them. Back in 1993, I stood in line overnight in midtown Manhattan to get tickets for the first show (yes, people used to do this). Bleary-eyed and funky, I was not disappointed. For me, this was as close to a religious experience as pop culture can deliver.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The gauntlet of booby traps culminating in the giant boulder that kick off Raiders is my single favorite opening sequence in a movie ever. The rest ain’t bad either. What made Raiders so great —well, one of the many things that made it so great — is that it was the first movie that took what we think of as the “good parts” from most movies and just strung them together, making it a movie that’s all good parts.
2. Schindler's List (1993)
Spielberg’s most personal film (and ironically the one that looks and feels the least like a Spielberg film), Schindler’s List marked the moment when the kid with a camera grew up. This is a story devoid of childlike wonder, just the horrific evil men are capable of and the small acts of grace found in unspeakable circumstances. Spielberg’s most essential, mature, and important film.
1. Jaws (1975)
Where to begin? The moonlight skinnydip that sets the Great White smorgasbord in motion? The Kintner boy turned into chum and his mother searching in vain for her son as his chewed-up raft washes in with the surf? The zoom-in/dolly-out shot of Roy Scheider’s Brody as he sits on the beach staring out at the lethal ocean? “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”? Quint and Hooper’s scar competition? Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis speech? “He can’t go down with the three barrels…not with this three barrels, he can’t”? “Smile, you son of a…”. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, that’s what makes lists like this fun. But to me, this was, is, and always shall be the greatest, most perfect movie ever made.