In Which I Rank The Films of Steven Spielberg


Today is the birthday of one of Hollywood’s great contemporary film directors, Steven Spielberg. And what better way to celebrate someone’s birthday than by coldly scrutinizing them and subjecting them to our judgment?

Relax! I happen to think Spielberg is a genius when he puts his mind to it, although he’s only truly scored a bull’s eye (artistically) a few times. To someone of my generation, he looms really large. On the basis of a handful of really seminal films, he really is at the top of Olympus. And I’m sure I have seen Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters and Jurassic Park each more than a dozen times. Any time one of these is on, I’ll watch it again. Compelled to.

Personally, I think he a is a great formalist, whose forte is suspense, and humor in the midst of suspense (like Hitchcock) and…horror involving monsters (also like Hitchcock, at least in The Birds). But he seldom goes there. He wants to be taken “seriously”. Unfortunately,  the closer he gets to sentiment or “thought” the worse his movies are . The sentiment he seems to do best is patriotism (the uniquely American kind, the idealistic kind, as opposed to do the “kill your enemies” kind), and his films in that vein have been getting better.

So get ready! I’m bracing for brick bats. This ranking contains many a heresy! (Also please note I left out tv work, anthology work, and everything before Sugarland Express, which leaves out Duel). Reading from top to bottom: 

Jaws (1975)

Masterpiece. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with it.  It’s like every line, every scene, every cut, every choice just came out right. I can almost re-create this movie in my head from memory, moment by moment, and I know I’m not the only one. That’s a good movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Same! Although as I get older I increasingly disapprove of the “gibbering Arabs in the marketplace”, which is one 30s throwback element he might have at least tempered or deconstructed. I am certain to blog about this movie some more in the future. Spielberg always gets historical mise en scene right. Such a good job at creating the WORLD in this picture. (And evoking the B movies and serials of the 1930s, just as his partner here George Lucas had recently drawn from those serials for Star Wars.) Bound to write about it some more.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Part of me wants to put this at the very top. I have the closest personal connection to this one. It was a really important movie for me as kid. It’s the first one of Spielberg’s movies I ever saw. (No way I could see Jaws in the cinema as a ten year old). I went to see Close Encounters twice at the cinema (which I never did for any other film at the time), bought the sound track album (and played it til the grooves wore out), hang the poster on my wall, and bought the paperback novelization. I’d been a UFO buff as a younger kid, but that was only part of it. In time I’ve grown to appreciate it as a sophisticated synthesization of the Hitchcockian double chase, 70s conspiracy films, and 50s drive-in movies. The only thing keeping this one from the top…is the perfection of the other two movies. More here. 

Jurassic Park (1993)

There is so much I love about this movie, including its quotation of every dinosaur movie which had come before, the incredible chemistry of the cast, and Spielberg’s impeccable, heart-stopping instincts in building suspense. I’m less crazy about the interpersonal stuff with the kids, which feels inorganic, forced and false, and that’s a general note of mine throughout his films — which is why you’ll find his movies that privilege kids towards the bottom of this list. I know he’s reputed to be good at it. I don’t think he is.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Like most, I love it for the pathbreaking realism (enhanced by the cinematography and editing) in the first and last acts….and like only some, I guess, I appreciate the tribute to the WWII buddy picture that constitutes the middle. It’s a little jarring, I guess. The artificiality of the bulk of the picture, clashing with all the death and destruction that frames it. But the middle works for me as a bit of sleight of hand. It’s an aesthetic device for taking us back to all that we (being younger) know of the time. A type of translation. But I can see that taking you out of it.

Lincoln (2012)

Read my blogpost about it here. 

Schindler’s List (1993)

It’s crazy that this would be a “courageous” film to make, given that the events of the film were a half century earlier, and that the holocaust was and is so universally regarded as reprehensible. Still…where is the precedent for it in a Hollywood movie? So it is. It’s dark, but for God’s sake, I don’t know how anyone could deem it as “controversial” unless there’s someone taking the side of the Nazis? So…I think it is praiseworthy, if flawed. It’s ugly in spots but still uglier would have been braver. There is something a shade profane about aesthetic fastidiousness in this case.

War of the Worlds (2005)

This one was almost an incredible movie, by virtue of the special effects ride. But having Tom Cruise EVER at the center of your movie is a bad, bad choice. The whole movie depends in some measure on an emotional connection to the hero, and it’s very hard to make a connection with a guy who strikes you as a soulless psycho. I mean, you look in his eyes and there’s nothing in there. How does a guy as savvy as Spielberg not see that? He worked with him more than once! Further, we’re supposed to buy Tom Cruise as a stevedore, moving shipping containers on the Bayonne waterfront? I hardly think so. With a real actor at the center (a la Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters) this one would have moved several notches up).

Bridge of Spies (2015)

This one may eventually sink on the list – – at the minute I’m still working off the glow of having just seen it, and I rather enjoyed it. I felt sort of a Third Man vibe coming off it; Tom Hanks was quite good; and it’s a chapter of history which Americans haven’t really made movies about since the era in which they occurred.  It was a little too Hollywood for my tastes, but I really liked that this story was getting told, and it was an entirely worthy follow-up to Lincoln. It makes me feel like Spielberg’s getting better at “substance”.

1941 (1979) 

Haha, yeah, take that, suckers! Entertainment is a big factor for me, and so is nostalgia, and I have happy memories of this big old bomb, as flawed as it is. It’s a head rush, and it’s a seventies head rush, and that’s quite a rush indeed. Read my post about it here.

Sugarland Express (1974)

Spielberg was groping towards his voice here and is only halfway there at this point, which makes it very interesting to me. It is SO “seventies” with its anarchistic, lawless heroine (Goldie Hawn) and the harmonica music on the soundtrack. But at the center is a chase — and Spielberg is one of the few directors who can make me interested in a chase.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

What can I say? There’s a kind of Medieval magic to this one, though it’s a little flawed. There are a couple of shots (one of a docking zeppelin, one of an enormous Nazi rally) that took my breath away when I first saw it in the cinema.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

I totally enjoyed this one when it came out and couldn’t understand the trouble everyone had with it. In time I understood. It really is just a theme park ride — there’s not a loft of heft to it. But I like the places it takes you to.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) 

Terrible in many ways. A terrible, unbelievable script, characters, situation etc. And as a director Spielberg just kind of lazily trots out his greatest hits. But it has dinosaurs, which is more than some movies I could talk about.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) 

As we all know, this movie has no reason to exist other than to generate paychecks for the people who made it. Still, I was entertained. Furthermore, it has Cate Blanchett, whom I would watch in a dog food commercial.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

This one disappointed me, less because I am a Spielberg fan than because I am a Tintin fan. Read my review here. 

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This one has grown on me somewhat with repeated viewings. Of course a story about a con man will appeal to me. And it’s one of Spielberg’s better scribblings about his own divorce issues. But Tom Hanks’ Boston accent is a tough pill to swallow.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) 

Part of me wants to put this movie higher. It is of course Kubrick’s vision, and Spielberg is to be commended for doing what he could to bring it before audiences. But for some reason, I found it really, really, really disturbing. Cold and creepy and soulless and heartless, and just a peek into a really horrible place. I can never go back there.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) 

Yep! Way down here! Eat that! Many or most of you will find it inconceivable, but hear me out! Consider my deep, deep love for Close Encounters, expressed above. My expectations for a film called E.T. The Extra Terrestrial were through the roof. AS A U.F.O. MOVIE. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out essentially to be a heartwarming story about “a boy and his dog”, essentially some kind of riff on Old Yeller. Further imagine my disappointment when you realize that I was 17 years old or pretty close to it. And I have only grown older since. I never had the opportunity to watch this movie as a child, as many of the people who cherish this movie did. ALSO: sorry! I don’t buy the kids. I don’t buy how they’re written, directed, or acted. Looks like phony baloney to me.

Amistad (1997)

Most commendable, most commendable.

The Color Purple (1985)

A worthy subject. Many worthies in the cast. Wrong director. Too much Hollywood. Why him for this? Why did it speak to him? It remains bewildering. This was his first “serious” thing and its such a giant leap. One key I think is his liking for John Ford’s idealistic pictorialism and that it feels aesthetically linked the misty Americana of his Amazing Stories tv show, right down to the “magical Negro” stereotypes. Obviously that’s not what Walker’s book was like, but that’s the tone he sets here. Just kind of patronizing and toothless, though it did make big stars out of the cast and that’s not to be regretted.

Empire of the Sun (1987) 

I can’t tell you how bewildered I was when this movie came out. I was like, “What the-? Why?” Spielberg really seemed to be going downhill here, or stretching himself too thin. Producing a tv show (Amazing Stories), producing movies directed by others. I guess this story has its merits, but frankly I can’t remember what they may be between viewings. I may have watched this movie as many as four times and can never remember a damn thing about it. It makes more sense now that I’ve learned that he took direction over from David Lean, and that he admires David Lean, so it’s him doing David Lean. But you shouldn’t need to require the backstory for a movie to be effective.

War Horse (2011)

Another forgettable disappointment. Read my review here.

The Terminal (2004)

This one is somewhere down around “Ron Howard-esque”. Why precisely would someone make this movie? I guess it could be a cool LOW-BUDGET movie, done with considerable more edge and deadpan in a real airport by the likes of Jim Jarmusch or the Coen Brothers. Why someone would make a big-budget Hollywood movie of this, and build a whole airport for it, strikes me as somewhat Jerry Lewis.

Munich (2005)

Striving for seriousness here, but “sympathy for the terrorists” is a message I am still not ready to hear. “Sympathy for the Palestinians” — ok. In fact that might be worthwhile penance for some of the excesses in Raiders, just as Private Ryan is penance for 1941. But sympathy for the murderers of the Israeli athletes? I have none. I had even less four years after September 11. Would Due Process be a better retribution than assassination? Without a doubt. But we’re talking about emotions here. Also, this will sound shallow, but the absence of stars makes it feel like the Spielberg equivalent of Topaz, although it’s a far better film than that.

Minority Report (2002)

I find the kidnapping of the child in this movie so upsetting and the hero’s culpability with regard to same, that I find the whole movie unwatchable. Add to that the fact that the hero is played by Tom Cruise, and I am never watching this movie again.

Hook (1991)

Boy, talk about a bad instinct. Telling the story of Peter Pan, but sort of taking all the magic out and making it all about a middle aged man’s problems? As the Marchioness often says, “Who is this movie for?” I’m sure the creators thought “both kids and grown-ups” but the REAL answer is “NEITHER kids nor grown-ups.” Add to that the fact that the hero is the simpering, dog-like Robin Williams (sorry if that’s too soon), and the villain is the floundering method actor Dustin Hoffman (how much better it would have been if the actors had traded roles!) and all the rest of the bad casting. Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell? This is, like, a bunch of agents and producers cutting deals or something. You can’t just throw a bunch of elements into a pot and expect the magic to happen.

Always (1989) 

We’re in agreement, yah? Spielberg’s worst movie? Worst movie ever, or close to it? But it least it has Audrey Hepburn

ADDED BONUS: My friend Bryan Enk writes for SyfyWire, the Syfy Network’s blog: Check out his ranking of 20 Spielberg genre films here. 

One comment

  1. I remember liking The Terminal, but I saw it as in-flight entertainment on a plane from Singapore to Chicago. Also I thought showing a movie about never getting out of an airport terminal to people on a long-haul flight which would, someday in the future, dump them off into the hands of United States Customs was a bit of a sick joke.

    Liked by 1 person

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