We in rarified cineaste circles are educated enough to search out movies based on things like who wrote it, who lensed it or, in most cases, who is the director. Among the unwashed, choices are made predominately by which movie stars are on the poster or what's playing at the moment they drag their sorry asses from the Wendy's to the multiplex.
Historically, there have been few film directors whose name above the title could get mass quantities of butts in seats. Hitchcock was one; Steven Spielberg is another.
What's so interesting about Spielberg is that his resume is, indeed, diverse. He may be best known for his gripping, family-friendly adventures, but he's made excellent serious dramas, light comedies and thrillers pushed right to the edge of horror. With the imminent release of "Lincoln" (don't see it in the side balcony, whatever you do), now seems the right time to rate Steven Spielberg's films from worst to best.
Note, we're going with theatrical features here – not his "Twilight Zone" segment, TV work or the producer credits he's closely associated with. And, until Tobe Hooper goes before Congress to admit he didn't direct "Poltergeist," we're not counting that either.
We're going to start this list with a handful of bad films, but only one that is a true abomination. Every single enraged Internet fanboy is correct: this movie is a travesty.
It takes something we love – one of the greatest icons in all of fiction – and blanches it of everything that made it worthwhile. The plot is dopey, the side characters are annoying, Shia LaBeouf is Shia LaBeouf. It's just inexcusable.
Luckily, we have a nice scapegoat. This wasn't Steven's idea. This is all George Lucas's fault. Now he's retired, and we'll never have to worry about him bothering us again. "Crystal Skull" happened, we've dealt with it and now it's time to move on.
26. "The Terminal" (2004)
Which way to the bar?
Yeah, yeah, we know there really was some guy who was stuck at a French airport under slightly similar conditions, but when your lead character's big triumph is building a bathroom for Catherine Zeta-Jones? That's a problematic film.
A big stink was made about how cool the set was, that it looked like a real airport. Great, just the place we want to be stuck for two hours.
25. "Hook" (1991)
There was a time, dear reader, when Robin Williams was cool. Not just cool, but underground and edgy. That slowly began to change ... just around 1991.
"Hook" was a revelation. Not everything Spielberg made was good! It seemed like a perfect match: Spielberg does a Disney classic, but modernized and with the top talent (Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts). And lo and behold – it sucked. It looked ... cheap? The set looked like a set. Maybe this was some sort of twisted homage to Fantasyland, but how could a director who was able to sell us on a spaceship hovering over a truck by just dangling a few lights make something that looked like this?
"Hook" still made a billion dollars, but how? The movie makes no sense. Why does Peter Pan have an American accent? And how did he just "forget" his childhood? And Rufio? Don't get us started on Rufio.
24. "War Horse" (2011)
More like snore horse.
Maybe "War Horse" works better on the stage, but it was hard to take scenes like Tom Hiddleston sketching horsies seriously. We get it. They love horses! They're horse crazy in this war! When things are at its lowest, when you're supposed to be crying for War Horse because he's being shoved around and he's carrying guns or whatever, it's so tempting to yell out, "Why the long face!?!"
The scene toward the end, when the opposing soldiers work together to help War Horse, actually has some gravitas, but they should have left this horse on Broadway.
23. "Always" (1989)
Be honest. You kinda forgot about this one.
"Always" is a modernization of a 1943 Spencer Tracy film called "A Guy Named Joe." Spielberg and lead actor Richard Dreyfuss really, really loved that one, and by 1989 movie studios were just chucking cash at Spielberg and telling him to make whatever the hell he wanted. "Always" is a decent enough light romantic drama with a dash of magical realism, something of a "Ghost" meets "Heaven Can Wait" set among firefighting pilots. It's hokey as hell, but the cast (Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Audrey Hepburn, in addition to Dreyfuss) pretty much makes it work. If you are a completionist, you should see it, but bring some wine for its cheese.
22. "The Sugarland Express" (1974)
Somewhere between "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Raising Arizona" lies "The Sugarland Express."
You don't really think of Steven Spielberg being a 1970s provocateur, but this one has all the signifiers of youth culture revolt found in classics like "Badlands" or "Two-Lane Blacktop." William Atherton and Goldie Hawn are outlaws with a hostage riding through Texas, with only their love to keep them sane. The law and the media are hot on their tale. Don't worry, though; this isn't too outside of Spielberg's later family-friendly persona. Hawn busts Atherton out of prison in the hopes of rescuing their baby from mean foster parents. Awwww.
And it's based on a true story.
21. "Duel" (1971)
Imagine "Jaws," but instead of a shark ... it's a truck!
Okay, that's the worst pitch ever, but it's a rather effective and simple grindhouse-y effort from Spielberg, and it's his first TV movie that was later expanded for a theatrical release. A man in the midst of white-collar crisis comes face to face with a brutality he can't explain: namely, a rusty diesel truck determined to kill ... Kill ... KILL! It's as goofy as it sounds, but once you buy into its nightmare terror it works, and the action is shot quite well. "Duel" is based on a Richard Matheson story and no dumber than "Mad Max," which would come out eight years later.
20. "Catch Me If You Can" (2002)
After a string of very heavy films, Spielberg reversed course and gave us the closest thing to a lighthearted romp on his resume.
"Catch Me If You Can" is a fun, juicy and true yarn about a serial con artist living it up during the jet age. It was a perfect vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, and audiences ate it up. (It made, roughly, nine bazillion dollars.) Spielberg's gotta hit those emotional beats, though, so Christopher Walken's unique portrayal as the loving but disappointed father was something of a creative lift for a guy that had been wallowing in indie tough guy walk-ons for a few too many years. This is the only Spielberg film to inspire a Broadway musical, which is a shame because who wouldn't want to see an all-singing, all-dancing "Jaws"?
19. "1941" (1979)
This is erroneously thought of as Spielberg's first flop. It wasn't. It did good business, but it was not quite the capper to the "Jaws/Close Encounters" trifecta that shareholders were hoping for. A broad comedy about wacky Southern California in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, "1941" is oftentimes dismissed as a mess. It is rambunctious to say the least, but its chaos has great charm. Supposedly, Stanley Kubrick said he liked the picture but thought it worked better as a drama.
"1941" is a collection of loud, slapstick-y set pieces that, at times, dabble in poor taste. Some of the jokes are just flat-out racist, and not in a we're-in-on-the-joke "Harold and Kumar" way. It also suffers from some of its association with the "National Lampoon"/Second City players like Belushi, Aykroyd and Candy. It's too bad, because on its own terms the story of American society ripping itself apart with jingoistic paranoia is quite underexplored. If you've been avoiding it, check it out. There's much about it that isn't Spielberg-y and plenty that just isn't funny, but there are some fine guffaws in there as well. Bonus points for Eddie Deezan, too.
18. "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011)
Spielberg managed to avoid the uncanny valley in this gorgeous 3D animated film based on the books by Hergé. In addition to the stunning final sequence, there's simply no shortage of nice, painterly moments throughout the entire movie. It is energetic and funny, and kids love it. Hopefully, we'll see more Tintin in the future.
17. "The Color Purple" (1985)
This was a major step for Spielberg, leaving the safety of popcorn-munching fun and entering the world of Important Drama.
Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's Jim Crow-era novel could not have had more heat on it, coming as it did during the apex of Spielberg's success. It paid off, though, earning close to $150 million on a $15 million budget. By all rights, this was a major success and launched both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey into the national spotlight.
It is important to recognize that African-American women were significantly less visible in mainstream culture as recently as 1985, so "The Color Purple" was a real landmark. It's an emotional film -- we dare you not to get misty-eyed at the end! -- and gorgeously shot. It may go full soap opera now and again, but it makes the most of its sentimentality.
16. "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001)
To a hardcore film lover, it's somewhat impossible to just take this film in on its own terms because of its backstory. "A.I.," of course, was a project long in development by Stanley Kubrick; Spielberg inherited it after Kubrick's death and dedicated the film to him, and there are moments where you can kinda see the Kubrick in there. Then there are moments when it is pure Spielberg. And then there are moments when the movie just drags.
Credit where it's due: it looks great, and it absolutely sticks to its guns. Much like David waiting at the bottom of the sea for centuries to find his programmed happiness, "A.I." has almost a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness to its narrative. Despite its terrific design, it is, alas, a more interesting movie to think and talk about than to actually see.
15. "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997)
Steven Spielberg walked away from "Jaws 2," but for some reason he felt compelled to take a second trip to Jurassic Park.
The result is a fine adventure film, but something of a pointless one. There are great moments, and the "Godzilla"-inspired conclusion in San Diego is tremendous, but it basically feels like a retread.
14. "Minority Report" (2002)
Spielberg stayed with sci-fi after "A.I." but went from wistfully tragic to full dystopia. Taking the kernel of an idea from a Philip K. Dick short story (perhaps the best way to adapt Philip K. Dick?), "Minority Report" is a nice, mind-scrambling way to discuss lofty topics like ethics and predestination, but it also wastes no opportunity to slide groovy computer interfaces all over the screen.
"Minority Report" is by no means the most memorable film in Spielberg's repertoire, but it may be among his most influential in terms of design. No slick television commercial has been the same since Tom Cruise got up and turned a wall into an interactive touch screen.
13. "Empire of the Sun" (1987)
With his "Amazing Stories" cranking away on network television to scratch his broad entertainment itch, Spielberg continued working in historical drama after "The Color Purple." His follow-up, "Empire of the Sun," is the most underrated film on his resume.
Young Christian Bale plays a child of a wealthy British family in China at the outset of the Second World War. He is separated from his parents during a harrowing mad rush sequence (think "Home Alone 2" but on some tainted steroids) and he ends up in hiding. Eventually he is caught and lives in an internment camp. Here he meets an American pilot (John Malkovich) and, y'know, learns a lot of life lessons. You really should check it out.
Bonus points: The film is based on wacked-out sci-fi author J.G. Ballard's autobiography. This is a good piece of bar trivia knowledge if you want to outdo someone talking about "Minority Report" and Philip K. Dick.
12. "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)
By 1998, Spielberg was firmly established as the director of big social issue films. In "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg returned to shootin' Nazis, but this time took it seriously. This salute to the bravery of "The Greatest Generation" was ready-made for the echo chamber of talk shows, a flag-wrapped gift to patriots and grateful citizens. Underneath it all, however, it was an opportunity for Spielberg to rattle audiences with nonstop sequences of pure, cutting-edge cinema. Strip away the sentiment – is the action in "Saving Private Ryan" that different from "War of the Worlds"?
What it has in its favor are a number of great characters (and so many future stars!) all taking classic WWII film roles and tweaking them a little bit. There are soldiers who win the day and some who simply fall to bad luck. Rarely have moments of cowardice as well as bravery been shown in such a sympathetic light. "Saving Private Ryan" is more complex that its poster leads you to believe. It does, however, get a wee bit repetitive upon second viewing.
11. "Amistad" (1997)
After "Schindler's List," Spielberg felt compelled to once again shine a light on one of humanity's great sins. "Amistad" is ostensibly a courtroom drama, but it uses this as a springboard to become one of the great onscreen indictments of slavery.
The flashback sequence of the Middle Passage shows Spielberg using all of his inimitable skills for a nobler purpose. The scenes dazzle but are sickening in their brutality. Similar to "Schindler's List," there is the Righteous Man character (Anthony Hopkins's John Quincy Adams), but the trial hook with Djimon Hounsou's character Cinque gives us an opportunity to see the institution of slavery and the experience of Africans in the New World from the inside out.
"Amistad" did not lose money, but it was Spielberg's least profitable film.
10. "War of the Worlds" (2005)
Spielberg took an old British property and, four years after the fact, made the best film about 9/11. It has no politics, just terror. Using all his powers of audience manipulation, the feeling of dread and confusion is grafted onto something clearly make-believe, allowing us to purge any unspent feelings concerning the still-unbelievable catastrophe.
The story itself is fine enough. Maybe we linger in Tim Robbins's basement too long, maybe H.G. Wells's ending is anticlimactic and, in retrospect, Dakota Fanning is a little like a cleaned-up Honey Boo Boo. For sheer nightmare cinema, though, "War of the Worlds" is almost unmatched.
9. "Jurassic Park" (1993)
We know what redemption looks like: the gaping, jagged mouth of an angry Tyrannosaurus rex.
Hot on the heels of "Hook," Spielberg fired back with what was, essentially, his follow-up to "Jaws." Spielberg takes Michael Crichton's clever and even satirical concepts, winds 'em up and sets 'em loose for a thrill ride that swallowed movie audiences whole.
"Jurassic Park" is great because it is simple (heck, it's not that different from "KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park"), and this purity of essence affords Spielberg ample opportunity to knock out a series of home run action sequences. It's also the movie that pushed the idea of the "Spielberg Face" past the point of subconscious device to near-parody.
8. "Schindler's List" (1993)
If there's any criticism for "Schindler's List," it's that Spielberg somehow manages to take one of mankind's lowest moments and, in the very end, make it just a little bit upbeat. It's a celebration of Oskar Schindler who risked his livelihood and his life to do the ethical thing; it's a true story, it's a good story, but it is very much the exception to the rule. For a filmmaker like Spielberg to just sink his camera into the abyss of the Holocaust and show nothing but despair would simply break audiences. (By the way, you can see that movie: Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" from 2001 is one of the most stirring narrative film about this topic ever made.)
Step back, though, and "Schindler's List" still offers some cinematic riches. The design is astounding, and the lead performances are striking. John Williams's score has been rightly canonized and, while this isn't a gory film, it pulls few punches. Spielberg set out to make the film about how an advanced and noble culture could descent into sickening, calculated, tribal depravity and, by all rights, he got the job done.
7. "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989)
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for this pitch meeting. There's Spielberg and George Lucas on their aircraft carrier-sized yacht, spit-balling ideas for the next Indy film. We should do the Holy Grail. Great! We should meet Indy's father. Super! And he'll be...
Yes, getting Sean Connery as Papa Jones was a casting coup that may be unmatched in cinema. The decision to make him a bit of a dweeb was even better. (But not that dweeby -- there is that awkward moment concerning the very Jonesaphilic Alison Doody.)
It's hard to choose between "The Last Crusade" and "Temple of Doom." The camaraderie of the characters in this film is one of the best things in the franchise, but while many of the set pieces are stellar (the whole ending is astounding), some of the earlier sequences are merely great, not blinding perfection.
6. "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
This one is just a wisp above "Last Crusade" for one key, liquidy reason: eyeball soup!!!!
Just try to imagine being 10 and hearing about the highlights from lucky kids who'd already seen "Temple of Doom." Eyeball soup. A guy rips some other guy's heart out while he's still alive, and then he gets thrown into a pit of fire. A secret room with bugs and a lever you need to pull with scorpions around it. A snake served for dinner that, when you slice it open, there are more snakes inside. And did we mention eyeball soup!?!
It's easy to see "Temple of Doom" for all its ridiculousness now, but the very "bigness" of this idiotic tale is stitched together with such panache that even an adult with no sentimentality will buy it. Plus, "Very funny, Dr. Jones" is a dynamite catch phrase.
5. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982)
What, are we monsters? Why isn't "E.T." ranked higher on the list?
It's just that we're getting to a point where we have a number of nearly flawless movies, all almost tied with one another. We don't do these lists for chumps, we do them for directors who kinda sorta know what they're doing, and what they're doing is making a lot of good films.
"E.T." is most remarkable because it hits so many emotional buttons. It is scary, funny, triumphant and, let's not forget, sad, sad, sad. (If you'll allow me some nostalgia, I was just under eight years old when this movie came out. Saw it in the theaters a number of times. Kids at that age can get pretty ruthless around boys who cry, but everyone recognized that all bets are off when it came to “E.T.” I distinctly remember a rained-out day at summer camp when we all went to see “E.T.” Everyone had, of course, already seen it a number of times, and there was discussion about the parts where you are “supposed to cry.” For 1982, that's pretty progressive. Spielberg was emancipating our emotions at a very young age.)
4. "Munich" (2005)
Hold the phone here. Are we really placing "Munich" this high up? We're in masterpiece territory here.
Indeed, you'd better just accept it. If "Munich" teaches us anything, it's that when someone is intractable, confrontation just leads to escalation.
"Munich" is one of the richest investigations into the nature of human conflict. Half the time it comes across as blatant pamphleteering for pacifism, and then it will switch gears and act as a call to arms. In addition to that, it is exciting! With this many assassinations, it is a real action pressure cooker, loaded with great location photography and period jackets.
"Munich" is a 99% perfect film. The mid-coitus slow-motion flashback with haunting music is just a tad overdone, even with the severity of the topic. When the sweat flies off Eric Bana's forehead ... no. Just no.
3. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)
This movie made a ton of dough at the time, and from a 2012 perspective, that is something of a minor miracle. Its special effects sequences and scenes of high tension are still very much effective, and all of the performances, especially Richard Dreyfuss with his family, really crackle. But when you think about it, this movie is really rather odd.
First of all, if "CE3K" were made today, there's be all sorts of annoying people on the Internet calling it "CE3K." Secondly, audiences would demand to know how the aliens were imprinting the Devil's Tower location on the witnesses. They'd also need to know why they were picked and so on.
What's so interesting about this movie is that you can read it as a total descent into true schizophrenia and how it destroys a family. In the real world, we'd be begging Teri Garr to get her husband committed.
Radical interpretations aside, the scene where the toys all go bananas on the farm is still scary as crap, and the "interstellar language" musical sequence is chilling. Francois Truffaut is in it for no real reason other than as an excuse to have Bob Balaban be our eyes. And Balaban shouting, "They were invited!" over the din of helicopters is probably one of the Spielbergian moments of all.
2. "Jaws" (1975)
We're gonna need a bigger list.
After countless viewings on VHS, Blu-ray, Superstation and in a packed house one summer night at New York's Ziegfeld Theater, "Jaws" just keeps getting better.
Is it the tension? The archetypal characters? The zingers? The camerawork? The music? The answer is yes to all. "Jaws" fits snugly in that uncanny crevice of lending itself to intellectual scrutiny (Don't you see? It's one big Freudian analogy!) as well as popcorn-munching fun (Holy crud! The fish is so big!). Few movies so dependent on thrills from as far back as 1975 still totally work for a young, ADHD-addled audience. When they made this, there was something in the water.
"Jaws" is basically tied for first place. But there can be only one!
1. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the best Spielberg movie because it is also one of the best movies of all time. It is iconic, exhilarating, hilarious, wonderfully shot, scored and edited, and it is just a little bit smarter than it needs to be.
The love child of Spielberg and George Lucas, "Lost Ark" is the result of lives nurtured by the flicker of classic cinema, and yet somehow it is even more than the sum of its parts. "Raiders" is a pure rendition of good vs. evil, but in a genuine American fashion, wherein good is busting with swagger and the exceptionalism to back it up. It is, undeniably, a masterpiece.