There is a sublime center on the spectrum in between approaching a movie critically and shutting your brain off to enjoy one. Few directors are capable enough to make even just one movie that shines brightly at that center, holding up under scrutiny but also providing a visceral experience. Even fewer have made at least seven such movies. Steven Spielberg is one of them.
I don’t mean this to be a hagiography. There are better directors than Spielberg, directors with a lighter touch, directors that can craft a better shot, directors that fill their frames with more nuance. But there is no director that fills my heart with more wonder, no director that can excite me with just a reaction shot, no director that can make me sadder that his movie is over.
What follows is a ranking of every one of his movies (well, with the exception of 2016’s The BFG– sorry, I can’t watch everything). This needs no occasion, but Spielberg is set to release his 31st movie, Ready Player One, so now seems as good a time as any to celebrate his life’s work.
Tier 9: Nobody’s Perfect
29. 1941 (1979)
28. Always (1989)
27. The Terminal (2004)
Even Steven Spielberg has made bad movies. Of course, being Spielberg, there are a lot of moments that work in these films. 1941 has John Belushi, who made everything he did better. The image of him flying a WWII fighter plane over downtown Los Angeles is indelible, but it was not enough to save this early attempt at comedy from Spielberg, which is a mess from start to finish. In Always, the early romance between Richard Dreyfuss’s and Holly Hunter’s pilots is genuinely charming. The ghost story that follows is less so. And in The Terminal, there is a lot to like about the cast, but the movie is ultimately too slight to deserve much more praise.
There are a couple themes here. When Spielberg doubles down on the comedy or romance genre, the gamble has yet to pay off. Of course, there are elements of both that work in his better movies (see any of the Indiana Jones movies for both comedy and romance). But Spielberg serves those genres better in small portions. The other theme is that when Spielberg makes movies about planes, he falls apart. No more movies about planes, Steven.
Tier 8: Trifles
26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
25. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
I am sure plenty of people would place one or both of these late-career movies in the above tier, but I honestly find them both fun. A lot of the unmet expectations of Crystal Skull are muted in hindsight, so it is a lot easier to enjoy. And Tintin, while clearly more of a technical achievement than anything else, is pure fun. Neither is a good movie, but neither is bad enough to be bad.
Tier 7: Well, He Meant Well
24. Amistad (1997)
23. The Color Purple (1985)
22. War Horse (2011)
The story of Spielberg’s early career is that he made blockbusters a thing but longed to be taken seriously by the film world, specifically the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This seems weird to us now, after years of Spielberg as the Academy’s golden boy and Oscar wins for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But in 1985, Spielberg was Hollywood’s boy wonder, and 1985’s The Color Purple was a brazen attempt at more adult fare.
In retrospect, Spielberg clearly bit off more than he could chew. There were some great performances in Purple (Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, for starters), but the movie as a whole is tonally inconsistent, which is a shame, because it is Spielberg’s most diverse cast, and their yeoman’s work deserved better. Amistad and War Horse are post-Oscar Spielberg leaning too far into earnestness without much depth. Amistad is moving, but it suffers from white-savior syndrome, and its broad canvas does not leave much room for nuance. War Horse has some of the most painterly images of his career, but its best-served character is a horse.
Tier 6: Did Spielberg Really Make This Movie?
21. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg’s first theatrical release is far from a classic, but it has a certain ragamuffin charm. Goldie Hawn is great, and it’s worth seeing if only for considering what Spielberg might have been if he had kept trying to make Coen brother movies.
Tier 5: Even a Master Filmmaker Makes Sequels
20. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Sequels get a bad rap, and neither of these movies changed that. They both have their charms though, specifically in superb, well-crafted action scenes, even if neither gets even close to the heights of their predecessors.
Tier 4: We’ve Come to the Middle of the Road
18. Empire of the Sun (1987)
17. Bridge of Spies (2015)
If an up-and-coming filmmaker made these two movies, we would expect big things from them in the future. They would have proven themselves competent, able to craft a compelling, historical story, and unlikely to ruin a movie. Neither movie is particularly memorable, except for some lovely performances: Christian Bale’s breakout role in the former and Mark Rylance’s Oscar-winning cypher of a performance in the latter.
I am probably going to forget about both of these movies immediately after I finish writing this sentence.
Tier 3: Likely Classics, but Not Quite Great
16. Hook (1991)
15. War of the Worlds (2005)
14. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
None of these movies were critical darlings in the slightest, but I expect all of them to last in the pop cultural consciousness, because all three are infectiously enjoyable. Hook, in particular, was critically reviled upon its release, even though people in my generation grew up loving it. Having recently re-watched it, I think it holds up even past my own nostalgia as an action-packed celebration of growing up. War of the Worlds is action-packed but in a non-stop, intense way. Its plot barely holds up and the characters are taped together only by solid casting, but as a disaster movie, it is breathtaking. And Catch Me If You Can, remembered most by critics now for its deliciously retro opening title sequence, is the most delightful of all, featuring an ascendant Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks just coming off his peak- if he ever did come off of it.
Tier 2: Indisputable Classics
13. The Post (2017)
12. Lincoln (2012)
11. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
9. Munich (2005)
8. Jurassic Park (1993)
Now we are getting to the truly great movies, the movies that will undeniably be remembered as classics, even if they are not universally beloved. I love all of these movies and could have easily put them into Tier 1, except I have enough problems with them that I am not quite prepared to put the “transcendent” label on them.
The Post has the luxury of timeliness, its release coming at a time where the press is about as under attack by the United States government as it ever was. But the story at the heart of The Post isn’t even about journalism, but rather that of a woman staking her claim to her place in the world. Steven Spielberg has always been known for his capacity for wonder, but the thing to wonder at here is Meryl Streep’s masterful performance, and that’s why The Post will last as a classic, even if it was completely overlooked at the Oscars.
Lincoln will mostly be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’s transformative performance, and rightly so. But Lincoln’s screenplay is a fascinating exploration of how the noble act of emancipation came about not through good will but through politicking. It is a little staid and stagnant, but Spielberg navigates the maze of politics delicately, and its overall impact is sealed in the final scene.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a polarizing movie, inspiring adulation and frustration in equal amounts. Spielberg took Stanley Kubrick’s vision for a story of an android who feels as if he is real and turned it into a science fiction epic. The first time I saw it, I was confounded by the ending, but the movie has haunted me ever since.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only example of a successful Spielberg sequel. Maybe it is because the father-son relationship between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Sean Connery’s Henry Jones provided Spielberg the focus his Holy Grail story needed. Or maybe it is because Last Crusade is the funniest movie Spielberg has ever made.
Munich was a critical success, but it seems mostly overlooked in retrospective lists. I suppose this is one of Spielberg’s more generic films stylistically, conforming to the standards of most mid-2000s geopolitical thrillers. But it is at the top of that class of movies, delivering Hitchcockian scenes of suspense and capturing the contradictions inherent in spywork.
Jurassic Park has always been one of my go-to movies to rewatch, but, until recently, its anti-climactic ending brought it down in my mind’s eye. But Jurassic World made me appreciate how deftly Spielberg juggles the ideas behind Michael Crichton’s story of science’s hubris with edge-of-your-seat thrills. It is a landmark film in special effects, but it is also an old-fashioned adventure film of the highest order.
Tier 1: Absolutely Transcendant
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This is where Spielberg as we know him today began. Jaws came first, but this is where the wonder originated. Throughout his career, Spielberg became known for his exploration of the otherworldly and the effects it would produce in us. In Close Encounters, the effect it produces is obsession. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy sees an alien spaceship one night, he becomes fixated with heading to a specific location in the middle of nowhere. The story is kind of tragic- he leaves his wife and children due to his mania. But Spielberg’s reaction shots and commitment to the final scene make it seem…like the right decision? It’s not uncomplicated, but the audience is along for the ride with Roy, and all his decisions not only make sense but seem inevitable.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
In 1993, the narrative around Spielberg was that he had been trying for about eight years to achieve credibility with the Hollywood elite, in between making crowd-pleasers like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook. If that seems like a cynical endeavor, the fact that it produced Schindler’s List makes it a worthy one. But I do not buy the idea that Spielberg made Schindler’s List to improve his reputation; it is too personal, too revealing, too devastating. Featuring two of the best performances in Spielberg’s filmography, the movie is the first time Spielberg fully depicted evil onscreen, in Ralph Fiennes’s Nazi Amon Goeth, and the first time Spielberg fully depicted the complicated goodness of which man is capable, in Liam Neeson’s iconic Oskar Schindler.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan is the less critically-appreciated of Spielberg’s ‘90s masterpieces, probably because it is less nuanced and more earnest. But Ryan is a work of masterful direction, Spielberg brilliantly choreographing the best battle scenes in the history of cinema. The opening D-Day scene is the most remembered, of course, but the whole movie is a testament to the human sacrifice implicit in any war, even a just one. Having already made Schindler’s List, Spielberg had nothing left to prove. As a result, Ryan is the best of Spielberg’s attempts to depict history onscreen, fully balancing his humanist respect with his skill for crafting the most exciting movies.
4. Jaws (1975)
This is the birth of the boy wonder, even if the real wonder came later that decade with Close Encounters. B-movies were popular, but never this popular. The plot of Jaws suggests that the movie should have been relegated at least to cult-movie status rather than great-movie status. But the cast is so completely committed to Spielberg’s vision of a prestige B-movie, and Spielberg’s scene construction is so flawless, that Jaws is justifiably seen as one of the best genre pictures in history. Even in this age of computer-generated effects, Jaws remains chilling and intense, a sure thing if you’re looking for a movie to keep you on the edge of your seat.
3. Minority Report (2002)
One of Spielberg’s underrated qualities is his meticulous attention to detail. While other directors are making action movies of ever-increasing size and scope, the awe in his setpieces has always rested in the little things. No movie displays this better than Minority Report, which gets a knock from critics for its supposedly tacked-on epilogue. But everything about Minority Report is finely tuned, from the thrilling action sequences like Tom Cruise’s character’s first escape to the high-wire tension of the scene where he is being pursued by vindictive spider robots. It’s also quite the science fiction movie, with perhaps the most realistic near-future world in cinema, in the guise of a mystery, with an end result you can see coming but to which you enjoy the ride. I nearly put Minority Report above Raiders, because it’s that perfectly constructed.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
If there’s anything I can thank my parents for (besides, you know, the entirety of my life), it’s that they introduced me to Raiders of the Lost Ark at a relatively early age. That meant that I grew up with an imagination, a concept of good and evil, and a joy for the movies. No movie Spielberg has made is more fun than Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor any more inventive. As a child, watching Raiders meant confronting the idea that evil existed in the world, but also that there was a God who cared enough to do something about it. And this idea was in one of the most imaginative and enjoyable movies of all time! Spielberg is a wizard, man.
1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The predominant force in pop culture today is geek culture. A lot of its power resides in the nostalgia factor: we grew up enjoying these cultural artifacts, so they still mean something to us today. An armchair psychologist might presume that the fanboy lifestyle is a result of being unable to let go of one’s childhood. This presumption may very well be correct, for all we know.
If it is, Spielberg movies are my geek culture. I grew up on them, found my capacity for wonder grown by their phenomena, came of age to their stories of adventure. Like fanboys, I’m fiercely defensive of Spielberg. I came across a video essay a couple of years ago that attempted to discredit Spielberg’s bona fides as a director by criticizing the lack of awards attention that actors in his movies have received, and I was livid. I don’t even know who made that video, but it sticks with me to this day, which is silly.
My love of Spielberg movies is not silly though, and I don’t want it reduced to fanboy-ism. There’s nostalgia in that love, for sure; I can’t see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Tinker Bell’s light in Hook, or Indiana Jones’s hat in Raiders without feeling the joy I felt when those movies were introduced to me as a child. But I grew up, and discovered Jaws, and Minority Report, and Saving Private Ryan, none of which are related to my childhood at all, but which I love as much as or more than the movies I watched as a kid.
E.T. is the exception to all of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw E.T., but its images and story are burned into my DNA in the same way as Jurassic Park or Close Encounters or Raiders. I remember being bewildered by it: why was Elliott’s health connected to E.T.’s? What was going on with that frog scene? And how on earth did Elliott’s mom not know there was a friggin’ alien hanging out with her kids?
But underneath my bewilderment was fascination. Here was a story with a happy ending that didn’t leave me feeling happy. E.T. got to go home, but that meant he and Elliott couldn’t be together anymore. Even as a child, I was conflicted about this. The exhilaration of E.T.’s escape from the feds was caught up in the sadness of saying goodbye. I knew there was something universal about E.T. before I knew what the word “universal” meant.
My parents don’t drink coffee, but my grandparents did. I spent a week with them every year for most of my childhood into my adolescence. They’d take my sister and me off my parents’ hands while they went on a trip together for their anniversary. I tried coffee several times with them, and never liked it, but they had it every morning. I would wake up to the kettle whistling, and I’d know they were getting that gross drink prepared. They’d let me come get in bed with them and read books to them while they drank their smelly coffee. I’m drinking coffee right now while I write this, and I’ve had it every morning since grad school. The day feels wrong without it.
In the same way that coffee means something different to me now as a grown-up, so does E.T. I can see now that the mom didn’t notice there was an alien in her house because she was a single mother, grieving the loss of her marriage and her children’s father. I can see now that Elliott’s connection with E.T. is related to their shared sense of abandonment. I can see now that the one government character we get to know genuinely wants to help E.T., which I think was a little generous of Spielberg. I’m sure E.T. will mean something different to me after I have children.
But I don’t think I will love it any less. E.T. is such a perfectly made movie that understands so many different universal truths about family and growing up and the desire for a more abundant life. It doesn’t talk down to children, and it doesn’t ignore adults. The sense of loss at the end is just a palpable as the joy of the experience of knowing E.T. at all. I’ve experienced loss in my life, including the loss of those grandparents who loved me so well year after year. E.T. is the best Spielberg movie, because it doesn’t pretend loss doesn’t happen. But it doesn’t forget the joy and wonder of living either.