Mad About Spielberg Blog Series (Parts I-IV)

On March 29, Steven Spielberg’s 32nd feature film, Ready Player One, will arrive in theaters. This is a significant debut to me personally for two reasons. One, I love the source material and Spielberg is undoubtedly the perfect choice to flesh out its magic on screen. Two, it’s a return to the kind of blockbuster filmmaking Spielberg made his name on and which we haven’t really seen from him in a decade or so. Anyone who knows me, has ever listened to this podcast, or has just been a stranger within ear reach of me in, like, a Quik Trip, knows I love Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is the definition of “director” to me. His filmography overflows with iconic, genre-defining, timeless films, many of which happen to be personal favorites. I’ve watched and studied Spielberg’s movies dozens and dozens of times to the point that I feel like I’ve graduated from the Steven Spielberg Film School and Professor Spielberg taught me everything I know about film, filmmaking, and film structure, not to mention human emotion.

So, as we prepare for Ready Player One, this felt like the perfect opportunity to go back through Spielberg’s entire filmography and rank his films. Now, listen, this is not a scientific study of Spielberg’s resume (which I would be glad to head up if there is grant money available). In an ideal world, we’d gather scores of Spielberg scholars, debate his films, and come up with the perfect algorithm to determine the proper order. Instead, it’s just me. I’ve watched all 31 films over the last few weeks and wrestled over their order as best I can. I’ll reveal my rankings over the course of this month, with the top ten dropping on the morning of Ready Player One’s debut.

This week, I present films 24-31 in the Spielberg Universe, a group of films that includes Spielberg’s very few actual bad movies, a couple that missed the mark by just a bit, and a couple of movies I just don’t personally care for. It should be noted that even this set of films, by my calculations Spielberg’s “worst”, have garnered 12 Oscar nominations and brought in almost two billion dollars. Not too shabby for the bottom of the barrel, right? Let’s kick this off with the movie I would most like to forget…

31. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $317M ($786M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0

As someone who values the role of criticism in film and generally approves of Rotten Tomatoes’ existence, you could make a fairly compelling case against both just by pointing to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I saw this abomination TWICE in its opening weekend; first because of wild enthusiasm and excitement and second because I had suffered greatly, and I wanted all my friends to suffer as well. (This is what true friendship is all about.) I won’t go into the ideas of bastardizing a childhood favorite or anything of that nature as that line of thinking has grown tiresome. Instead, I’ll point out that even on its own, even without any ties to the original Jones trilogy, even discounting all nostalgia or emotional connection I have to those previous films, Kingdom is a downright wretched film filled with wretched acting and a wretched “plot”, the script for which should’ve been burned in a bonfire long before development ever began on this movie. 

30. 1941 (1977)
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $31M ($92)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 3

This is one of three Spielberg films I hadn’t seen until I began the work on this project. Its reputation precedes it, of course, as even Spielberg himself acknowledges it to be a misstep. 1941 is what we’d call a “heat check” in a basketball game. Spielberg is coming off of the unbelievable successes of Jaws and Close Encounters and he’s headed into the Raiders and E.T. and right there in the middle he thought he could do anything. This is his ill-advised 35-foot jumpshot, a very bad spoof comedy that didn’t play well in 1977 and plays so, SO much worse in 2018. There are just way too many rape-y dudes in 1941 and while I know the intent was to satirize the tropes of both war movies and frat house flicks, satire might be THE thing Spielberg can’t do. As a result, the whole movie just feels kind of gross and completely unnecessary.

29. War Horse (2011)
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $79M ($177M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 6

This is where I’d draw the line between “bad” and “hate”. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 1941 are actual bad movies; War Horse I just hate. I’d say I very hate War Horse if you’ll allow me the use of grammatically incorrect terminology. To be fair, I understand why others like this movie and I accept my place in the minority. (*Insert Tobias Funke, “There are dozens of us! Dozens!” gif*) There are some scenes and sequences within the movie, particularly the famous battlefield scene, that work quite well and I can see what attracted Spielberg to this property. But War Horse has two very big strikes against it in my book. Number one, I dislike horses. Yeah, I said it. If my livelihood depended on horses, I’m sure I’d figure out how to dislike them less. But as it stands, there are many great creatures on God’s green earth and horses aren’t one of them. So, you can see where a movie called War Horse might be a tough sell for me. Number two, and much more importantly, I think Jeremy Irvine is horrible in the lead role. His delivery on lines like, “Look ‘ere, Joey. I got a collar too” makes me cringe. This is, to me, the worst casting decision in any of Spielberg’s films, at least as far as top-billed performers go and it sinks the movie. 

28. The Lost World (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $229M ($618M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 1

The Lost World is, I think, the only real “Paycheck Movie” of Spielberg’s career. Jurassic Park (nearly literally) ruled the world, the audience was salivating for more, Michael Cricton’s book was a huge success, and the money was too much to pass on. I’m sure there was a part of Spielberg that wanted to return to the magic of his previous film but by his own admission, he quickly became disenchanted with the sequel experience and the lack of passion shows in the finished product. It’s a really dumb movie, to be frank, and the characters within it make a lot of really dumb choices. On the plus side, The Lost World still looks great, dinosaurs are always fun, and it’s the sort of dumb that you mostly forget about the second the movie ends. I rewatched Lost World for the first time in a decade in preparation for this writing. Throughout the entire movie, I kept thinking, “This is really, really stupid. Everything happening here is stupid.” And then the movie ended and maybe three minutes later, I thought, “Eh, that wasn’t so bad.” That feels like an achievement on some level or another.

27. Always (1987)
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $43M ($74M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0

Another of the three Spielberg movies I hadn’t seen before this writing. On paper, Always sounds very Spielbergian: The spirit of a deceased pilot reaches from beyond the grave to emotionally connect with his former lover. Insert a John Williams score and bam! You’ve got a Spielberg movie. In execution, however, I think Always feels foreign to the rest of the Spielberg universe. The spiritual force that allows Richard Dreyfuss’ character to connect with Holly Hunter’s character lacks some magic and there’s little charm to the movie as a whole. It doesn’t help that the medium through which the two leads interact, former Marlboro Man Brad Johnson, has all the screen presence of a fichus. Still, the scene settings are excellent, and Spielberg uses both Hunter and a young-ish John Goodman exquisitely.

26. Duel (1973)
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): -
Oscar Nominations (Wins): -

The very first Spielberg movie, Duel was originally a made-for-TV-movie in 1971 that received a (mostly international) theatrical release two years later. Some of the terror of this movie has been mitigated over the last 45 years but the pace with which Spielberg draws out the simple plot works just as well now as it did in 1973. Dennis Weaver does an admirable job of conveying his character’s descent into madness but it’s the camera work that really brings home the true horror of the situation.

25. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $78M ($235M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 2

I hated this movie the first time I saw it. HATED it. Up to that point, I had never, even with Saving Private Ryan, even with Schindler’s List, walked out of a Spielberg movie feeling depressed like I was coming out of A.I. IT’S JUST SO BLOODY BLEAK. I wrote A.I. off as a Kubrick movie that Spielberg brought to screen as-is out of respect for his late friend and essentially pretended it didn’t exist until this writing. On second viewing, I confess I still don’t particularly like the movie but I understand it much more now than I did 17 years ago. I see the hints of Spielberg, even in the segments he himself says are entirely Kubrick’s design, and (*unpopular opinion alert*) I think Spielberg got the best performance out of Haley Joel Osment, even more so than his Oscar-nominated work in Sixth Sense. It’s still not an enjoyable movie and the final 20 minutes is rife with problems but somewhere in there I found myself connected to David in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. That sense of attachment has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it.

This week, we’re looking at films 18-24 in Spielberg’s filmography (by my estimation, of course). For me, this set of films illustrates Spielberg’s greatness in that I think most of these movies crack the personal top 10 list for almost any other director. Here we have some near misses, some odd projects, and a pair of acclaimed, Oscar-nominated dramas that don’t quite live up to the standard set by Spielberg’s best. And, of course, we have lots of aggressive farting as well. Can’t forget about the farting.

24. The BFG (2016)
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $55M ($183M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0

The BFG combines strong source material (Roald Dahl), a solid child actor (Rubie Barnhill), beautiful visuals, and the brilliance of Mark Rylance. On the rewatch, I was awestruck at how well Rylance delivers the often clunky, ridiculous lines he’s given to work with and how much grace and eloquence he conveys through voice alone. So why doesn’t The BFG work? Why isn’t it better? It’s the farting. The farting is 100 percent to blame for The BFG grading out as a B/B- movie instead of an A movie. As I rewatched the movie, I was right in the middle of wondering to myself why I didn’t like The BFG more the first time around when all of sudden all the characters were afflicted with violent and explosive flatulence. “Oh, right. The farting.” On the plus side, this was my son’s favorite scene in the movie, so I guess that’s something.  

23. The Terminal (2004)
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $77M ($219M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0

I have a soft spot for The Terminal and have always felt it was unfairly maligned. I get it, it’s soft and light and a little cheesy (perhaps a lot cheesy, depending on your perspective). But it’s been laughed away to an undesirable corner of the movie galaxy because it has the audacity to be…sweet? There’s an earnestness to Hanks’s performance that is perhaps too earnest but give me Earnest Tom Hanks Bumbling Around with a Weird Accent any day. The Terminal is far from a great movie but is it the fourth-worst movie of Spielberg’s career (as rated by Rotten Tomatoes)? Absolutely not. Free Krakozhia!

22. The Adventures of Tintin (2010)
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $77M ($373M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 1

I’ve long held Tintin up as the REAL fourth Indiana Jones movie. If nothing else, it found the spiritual wavelength connected to Indy that Crystal Skull couldn’t grab hold of. Tintin has everything you want from an action-adventure flick. Spielberg pushes the pace so well to keep the action flowing from one big set piece (albeit an animated set piece) to the next and the characters have a weight to them that’s missing from other mo cap animated films like The Polar Express. There’s still a little bit of weirdness to the whole production and the mo cap technology in general; sometimes you forget you’re watching a mo cap movie and then suddenly you’re staring into the eyes of an almost-real character and it’s very disconcerting. To me, that’s the only flaw of the film and what, I think, has led to it being overlooked. 

21. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $179M ($333M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): (1)

You know that thing where you watch a scary movie because you like that feeling of being simultaneously terrified and unable to look away? I don’t have that thing. Almost all scary movies to me are either very cheesy or so scary that I can’t sleep for days and I take no enjoyment in that either way. Temple of Doom is the closest I ever got to that scary movie experience, at least as a kid. There was a time when Temple played on TBS or TNT seemingly every weekend and every weekend, I would sit transfixed by the action-adventure portions of the film and unable to look away from the monkey brains and the baby snakes and the “KALI MAAAA!!!” All those viewings and it wasn’t until recently, maybe the last five years, that I realized Temple was a prequel. Maybe I’m dumb or maybe all the scarab eating broke my brain. Anyway, Temple is maybe half a great movie, a quarter good movie, and a quarter terrible movie but somehow those mismatched pieces work for me, probably because Harrison Ford appears to be having the greatest time of his life. 

20. The Sugarland Express (1975)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $7.5M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0

This is the last of the three Spielberg movies I hadn’t seen before starting this project. Going in, I wondered if, this being Spielberg’s big screen debut, the positive buzz surrounding Sugarland was due to what the director became after the movie more so than the movie itself. We do that sometimes; we look at a debut film of a director or actor who became great and we say, “You could see it all the way back in his/her first film”, even though we really didn’t see that, we’re just projecting the belief that we did. Happily, however, I can honestly say you can, in fact, see “it” in Sugarland Express so long as you define “it” as that classic Spielberg feel. This is a really funny movie; it might be Spielberg’s funniest movie, actually. It’s a much more enjoyable, fun movie than it has any right to be, quite frankly. Within the first five minutes, you start to pick up on the Spielberg vibe and that carries through the entirety of the film, including the cinematography and the central theming.

19. Amistad (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $44M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 4

A top-five Spielberg movie in terms of messaging and intention, Amistad is also one of the few spots in this filmography where the emotionality (one of Spielberg’s classic strengths) misses the mark a bit. Amistad is noble, it is well-cast, it includes a couple of stand-out performances, and it tells a story that matters. It’s also overwrought in places and that heavy-handedness, for me, unintentionally softens the impact of the material. This is one of the few times where I wish Spielberg would’ve let the scenes speak for themselves just a bit more. Also, Matthew McConaughey looks very silly in the costumes. This is a small complaint but it needs to be said. There’s a lot to be positive about with Amistad, particularly Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

18. Empire of the Sun (1988)
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $22M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 6

I have always appreciated Empire of the Sun more than I actually like it. I’ve seen it fewer times than most of the movies on this list and even on the rewatch, I wasn’t enthralled by much of it. I think my lack of connection owes to the fact that the movie doesn’t have much of the patented Spielberg flair. You see it in spots: the casting and performance of young Christian Bale, the cinematography (once again), and two defining scenes (the slap and the reunion between child and parents), but overall, I think it lacks the signature stamps I expect from Spielberg. In essence, almost anyone, or at least anyone with a measure of talent, could’ve directed this movie. Empire of the Sun is, simply, a good movie. Nothing more but also nothing less. In some ways, that’s disappointing, especially as compared to the rest of Spielberg’s filmography. At the same time, however, if you need an indicator of Spielberg’s greatness, you could do worse than, “His 18th best movie garnered six (deserved) Academy Awards and its main issue is that it’s only sorta special, not SUPER special.”

This week, we’re looking at the Spielberg films that fall just outside of consideration for his best, numbers 11 through 17. Sorting this set of movies out and ranking them was quite difficult, much more so than the previous two sets. We ran out of straight-up bad movies some time ago and have now gotten through the, “average to above average” group as well. These are all good to very good movies (again, by my estimation only) and it’s beginning to come down to personal attachment and the splitting of hairs on tiny flaws. As I wrote this section of my rankings, the bottom of the list and the top stayed the same but I shuffled the five films in between a half-dozen times and I’m still not completely happy with where I ended up. Nevertheless, it’s printing day and I must deliver my battle cry (BANGARANG!) and tarry on.

17. War of the Worlds (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $234M ($591M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 3

If, like me, you exercise selective memory regarding Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you could consider War of the Worlds to be Spielberg’s last big blockbuster movie. 15 years between true live-action popcorn movies is quite a feat for a man who made his name on blockbusters, so much so that his “serious” films had trouble gaining credibility with critics in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Much like Empire of the Sun (and this will be the last time I use this defense, I promise), I feel like War of the Worlds’ relatively low placement on this list is an indicator of how great Spielberg’s filmography really is. All around, this is nothing but an extremely solid, reliable, consistent action flick starring the greatest action star the world has ever seen. (Tom Cruise haters form an orderly queue to the left and I’ll deal with each of you individually right after I finish running shirtless and climbing up a skyscraper for no real reason whatsoever.) I hadn’t seen War of the Worlds in 10 years before beginning this project and on the rewatch, I found it to be EXACTLY as I had remembered it, having neither appreciated or depreciated in value during the gap in viewings. There are some great sequences and maybe the thing that works best of all is the Jaws­-like treatment of the aliens. Spielberg keeps them at a distance, I think, because the CGI wasn’t great and in doing so, he lets the tension boil a bit so that the reveal of a more practical effect (the snake thing in the basement) is an edge-of-your-seat moment.

16. Lincoln (2012)
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $182M ($275M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 12 (2)

Lincoln occupies a strange, perhaps unique, space in the Spielberg Universe in that it is very good, very Spielbergian, and yet I don’t love it. I don’t ever rewatch Lincoln and honestly, I rarely even think about Lincoln. That’s not an indictment of its quality. Lincoln deserves all of the accolades and award nominations it received, and it is a worthy representation of this country’s greatest president. The acting is exquisite, Spielberg structured the movie perfectly, and the back story of his pursuit of Daniel Day Lewis, for me, enriches the dynamic between director and actor that you see on screen. So why don’t I love it? I think it comes down to the fact that Lincoln is, after all, a biopic. A great biopic, perhaps the greatest biopic (no research done here) of the biopic era, but a biopic nonetheless. And biopics bore me, quite frankly. I can accept that my connection to this movie (or lack thereof) is indicative not of the film’s quality but of my own personal taste and preference. As such, Lincoln is one of the few films on this list where the difference between “favorite” and “best” plays a significant role. I’d push it further up the “best” list and further down the “favorite” list and thus, here it sits, somewhere in the happy middle.

15. Hook (1991)
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $119M ($300M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 5

There is no greater disparity between critical consensus and viewer appreciation in the Spielberg Universe than Hook and I am not happy about it. I was nine when Hook debuted, and I loved it for a million reasons. Peter Pan’s super cool sword, Rufio’s general Rufio-ness, Hoffman’s terrifying-yet-charmingly-flamboyant portrayal, my crush on Tinkerbell/Julia Roberts… I loved it then and I love it now. It was many years before I discovered that Old People (who, according to Hook and I agree, are fart factories) banded together and decided Hook was not great and in fact was very bad, I can only assume because they all forgot how to fly. Even now, at 35, when I watched Hook with my son for the first time, I found myself falling in love all over again, this time as an adult who longed to be young again, if only so that my knees would operate correctly. It is, perhaps, impossible for me to look at this movie objectively and without the sense of nostalgic wonder attached to it but I stand by Nine-Year-Old Brian’s assessment: Hook is awesome and I wish the Boo Box upon anyone who disagrees. 

14. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $72M ($165M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 6 (1)

I wasn’t overly impressed by Bride of Spies the first time around. It’s very good, very well-made, but it felt slightly less-inspired than most of Spielberg’s previous ventures into historical drama. Originally, I thought it was impeccable on the performance side but lacking in the story department and as such, I walked away a little disappointed. I think that has something to do with my fascination with The Cold War, and spy craft in general, which led to an unreasonable expectation that wasn’t met. Spielberg! Hanks! The Cold War! Spies! *I turn into a Tommy Boy-esque ball of energy* On the rewatch, however, I was much more in tune with the actual story than I was the first time around and even more impressed with the way Hanks and Rylance brought that story home. This isn’t a le Carre and I was foolish to expect Spielberg to give me a le Carre. Instead, he gave me a touching, honest, heartfelt look at a relationship between two ill-fitting friends that just happens to play out over the course of the Cold War. This is a very good movie that deserved more of my affection than I previously gave it and for that, I apologize. As a side note, the poster for Bridge of Spies is very bad and I don’t think that helped my initial impression as I will DEFINITELY judge a book by its cover without any hesitation.

13. The Post (2017)
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $81M ($162M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 2

There are some quibbles to be had with The Post and its placement this high on the list is bound to draw some heat (assuming that literally anyone reads and cares about my rankings which I highly doubt). For me, however, having considered the film’s flaws at length, I’ve determined that they ultimately take away next to nothing from the overall strength of the film. I think this is a movie we’ll look back on with much more fondness than the cursory glance we gave it in the moment. The Post has a great sense of importance about it (perhaps that’s a flaw in your eyes, which I understand) but, and this is a very significant point in its favor for me, it’s also a great deal of fun to watch. Historical dramas aren’t often “fun” but the way Streep, Hanks, and the superb supporting cast all operate within the film’s general air of significance gives the movie much more life than I expected. On top of that, I genuinely think this is one of Spielberg’s best directorial efforts, maybe top five. It’s a masterclass in camera manipulation, in scene setting, in framing your characters, etc. I almost cried just watching the camera move through the newsroom and the impeccably edited extended sequence in Ben Bradlee’s house is immaculate. For me, The Post is some punched-up dialogue and one or two edits away from a perfect movie and puts all of Spielberg’s virtues on full display.  

12. The Color Purple (1985)
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $98M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 11

I’ve seen The Color Purple only twice: Once in college when I truly started to digest film instead of just watching movies (the most pretentious sentence ever uttered, I apologize) and wanted to catch up on all the films of my favorite directors, and then a second time while working on this project. It’s a powerful film, based on an even more powerful source material, brought to life by an incredible cast and Spielberg’s impeccable understanding of his audience. That’s the key with Spielberg, isn’t it? No one keeps a finger on the pulse of his viewers like Spielberg does and I feel like that’s on full display with The Color Purple. In the hands of another director, this movie becomes unbearably bleak. Like, Precious-levels of bleak; like, Monster’s Ball-levels of bleak; like, “Lock yourself in a closet and sob for days”-levels of bleak. I think Spielberg knows that, in order for the movie to succeed, he has to keep his audience from dipping below the Lars Von Trier Bleakness Point of No Return. What strikes me most about The Color Purple is not the happy ending offered to Celie in the final act but rather this inkling of hope that pervades the entirety of the film. You have no reason to believe that literally anything good is ever going to happen to this poor woman but there’s a hint of it in almost every scene. Without this tiny speck of hope, the happy ending doesn’t really matter because the audience has already given up and locked themselves in their respective closets before it ever plays out on screen.

11. Munich (2005)
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $47M ($130M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 5

Munich is an extremely complicated movie and as a result, it’s difficult to write about. It is supposed to be, in Spielberg’s own words, a “prayer for peace” and yet, for most of its runtime, it plays out like anything but. Vengeance is not a virtue in the Spielberg Universe and in fact, it’s not even present in most of his movies. It’s touched on here and there, most notably Corporal Upham’s redemption of sorts in Saving Private Ryan, but never as a central theme and never glorified. Munich goes off the track in this regard. I don’t think there’s any way around calling Munich an angry film, another emotion that doesn’t typically feature prominently in Spielberg’s filmography. Eric Bana’s character is reluctant in his anger, in his quest for vengeance, but he acts on it nonetheless, often in brutal, unforgiveable ways. One of the things that I love about Spielberg movies is seeing myself, or my emotions, in the characters on screen; he’s a master at putting you in the shoes of the characters. At the risk of speaking for someone whom I will never meet, I think Munich is Spielberg turning this patented dynamic in on himself. It’s a fantastic film that tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, to wade into increasingly choppy waters and its virtues are plentiful. But to me, what makes Munich great, almost transcendent, is the feeling that the film is a personification of Spielberg wrestling with himself, of his attempts to reconcile his anger with his desire for peace.

Well, this is it. Tonight I’m headed to see Ready Player One with my friends and after much painstaking consideration and consternation, I’m ready to present my top ten Spielberg movies. This was much more of a process than I anticipated as choosing between these films became more and more difficult. To me, there are two tiers here: eight through ten could’ve been slotted in any order and one through seven could’ve come out in any order. Just know I thought long and hard about all of my choices and that I will probably regret them all within a week or so. Regardless, through the course of this project, the object of picking the best or my favorite or the top Spielberg movie became less important than just basking in the greatness of the man’s entire resume. By any metric you want to look at (131 total Oscar nominations, 34 Oscar wins, 80% average on Rotten Tomatoes, $9.8 billion at the global box office, countless hours of entertainment), Spielberg has accomplished as much if not more than any of his contemporaries and cemented himself as a film voice of multiple generations. Thanks, Mr. Spielberg, for all your hard work. Enjoy.

10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $135M ($306M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (2)

Last summer, when we did a throwback review of Close Encounters, I was able to see it on the big screen for the first time. In truth, it may have been the very first time I had seen it all the way through, from start to finish, instead of in bits and pieces. I was in awe of the scope of the story, the magic of the effects, and the breathtaking third act when all the parts come together, and you suddenly feel like you yourself are a part of this meeting of races. I’m an easy movie-crier so it should come as no surprise that the experience of watching this movie in that setting for the first time left me a little weepy. And that score! Oh, that score. Close Encounters is a wondrous movie and in hindsight, it gives a hint of what will become Spielberg tropes and themes for the next forty-plus years of filmmaking. If I had a criticism, it would the final few moments when we actually get a reveal on the aliens. Were it up to me (and not the two-time Best Directing Oscar recipient because what does that guy know?), I would’ve left the aliens themselves as a mystery. Even still, that’s a half point deduction off the score of an otherwise perfect film.

9. Minority Report (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $132M ($358M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 1

Minority Report has aged much better than its reputation. It’s become extremely underrated both in terms of overall quality and its impact on the sci-fi genre. Even I, when I went to work on this list, had it slotted a few notches lower than it ultimately landed. But on the rewatch, I was wholly reminded of what an outstanding bit of filmmaking this is and how great Spielberg is at world building. Near-future sci-fi is very difficult to pull off but within five, maybe ten minutes you have a complete sense of the world in which Chief John Anderton operates in and it feels completely authentic. There are a few spots in which the effects and lighting look their age, but I write that off as the tax paid for making a high-concept, visually compelling film during the worst era for computer generated effects. (Compare the worst spots of Minority Report to the worst spots of almost any other sci-fi movie made between 1999 and 2004 and you’ll see what I mean.) Minority Report combines fun with depth exquisitely and Spielberg gets the absolute most of out of Tom Cruise. Also of great interest to me, this is the best instance of Spielberg flipping his patented move, a child dealing with an absent or emotionally distant father, to put the focus on a father attempting to piece his life together in the wake of the loss of a child. That’s significant and the emotional core of Minority Report strikes even harder coming from Spielberg than it might have otherwise. 

8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $197M ($474M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 3 (1)

This is the first non-kids movie I can remember seeing in theaters adding to my fondness for an already outstanding, obscenely fun movie. (A few weeks later my dad took me to see Batman in theaters so the Summer of 1989 was pretty bangin’.) Raiders of the Lost Ark (see below) is one of the greatest movies ever made but Last Crusade is, objectively, more fun, perhaps the purest embodiment of what an adventure movie should be. Harrison Ford, in the final days of his first franchise phase, radiates so much charisma and gravitas that even as a six-year-old, I was just instantaneously all in on anything and everything he was doing. Now, having seen these movies dozens of times each, I greatly appreciate the small ways in which Crusade is tied into Raiders but appreciate even more the ways in which it works on its own. You could take show this movie to someone who has never seen an Indiana Jones movie and, in fact, has no concept of who the character is at all, and he/she could enjoy it just as much as a hardcore Indy fan could have in 1989. That’s an awesome quality that a lot of franchise films miss out on these days. Crusade is paced perfectly, Sean Connery is remarkable, and I’m not sure you ask more from a third act than what is delivered here.

7. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $164M ($352M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 2

I have said before and I’m sure I will say again: the older I get, the more I love Catch Me If You Can. Literally, with every single viewing (an annual event in my household, as commanded in the ancient scrolls), its greatness increases in my mind. By the time I’m 50, I’m sure I’ll be trumpeting this as the best movie ever made. Every detail of this movie is impeccable and the DiCaprio-Hanks pairing is probably my favorite relationship displayed within any of Spielberg’s films. That’s just perfect casting, friends; PERFECT. And let’s not forget about the great supporting cast, a beautiful score that matches the protagonist’s mischievous deeds and deep-seeded loneliness, and the way Spielberg fleshed out phenomenal source material. This is the “smallest” of the films left on this list but before we head into “bigger” territory, the stuff that Spielberg made his name on in many cases, let me say just how it is REMARKABLE that the same guy who is capable of making five or six of the biggest blockbusters ever in the history of film could also stop down and make a Catch Me If You Can. That range is Steph Curry on a court with no defenders-esque (sports!).

6. Jaws (1975)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $260M ($470M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 4 (3)

The movie that started it all and remains to this day one of the four or five most influential films of the last half-century or so. Jaws is a miracle, a lightning in a bottle experience wherein even the mistakes and mishaps actually made the movie better. Imagine that movie with the mechanical shark showing up right off the bat instead of two-thirds of the way through. That was the plan until the shark wouldn’t work in salt water and Spielberg had to restructure the shots on the fly. You could call it lucky, and you’d be right, but a young, brash Steven Spielberg was also wise enough to recognize that without the shark, the only to build tension was to keep the shark hidden, to make it a 20-foot boogeyman with horribly-large teeth, as it were. Jaws spawned the rise of the summer blockbuster as well as Shark Week, which is quite the achievement in and of itself. I’ve seen Jaws dozens and dozens of times and still, to this day, I find it utterly terrifying and it’s even worse on a big screen. And yet, it’s a magnificent thrill ride that still looks amazing almost 45 years later. Other directors could’ve done the scary bits of Jaws but I don’t think many people could pace it out nearly as well as Spielberg did nor added in the human parts (Quint and Hooper trading drunken stories in the galley, Brody’s son in the pond, etc.) as effectively as Spielberg did, on what was his first big-budget feature. I must blame him, however, for my abject fear of the water, because one of the taglines for Jaws was, “You’ll Never Go in the Water Again!” and it turns out that is very true for one Brian Gill. THE OCEAN IS NOT OUR HOME.

*NOTE: I have now developed an ulcer over choosing how to rank the final films on this list. I love four of the five dearly and the other is unquestionably GREAT and it seems unfair to have to choose any of them over the others. Whoever made me do this should be ashamed of themselves. Oh right, it was me, I chose to undertake this project and now I hate myself for it. Carry on.*

5. E.T. (1982)
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $435M ($792M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (4)

Both the first Spielberg movie I ever saw and the first I ever loved, having no idea how much of an impact this man would have on my pop-culture consciousness over the next 30 years. There are some people who can’t understand the brilliance, the magic, the beauty of E.T. (perhaps you’re in that boat) and I genuinely feel bad for those people. Like, I’m not even mad, I just feel like there’s a hole in your life that E.T. wants so badly to fix with his illuminated, Julius Erving-like finger, and you just won’t let him. To me, it’s kind of like saying, “I’m not a big fan of golden retrievers.” WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE NOT A FAN OF GOLDEN RETRIEVERS?! What is it you don’t like?! Their loveable-ness? Their unstoppable devotion to human kind?! I know, I digress, but I don’t understand your disdain for golden retrievers, man. Anyway, E.T. is the quintessential Spielberg movie; everything I love about him, his style, his sensibilities, can be found within the runtime of this movie and even if he’s made better movies (he has and perhaps he will again, who knows), I think this will forever remain the most Spielberg movie. Every viewing makes me feel like a kid and fills me with a sense of wonder. That’s a very cliché thing to say about a movie you loved as a child but sometimes clichés are true. E.T. is perfect, Spielberg is perfect, golden retrievers are perfect.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $96M ($321M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 12 (7)

Without question, this was the hardest movie to slot on this entire list and I wrestled over its placement right up until the last minute.

Here are some things that work in this movie’s favor:

1. It tells an INCREDIBLE story that truly, TRULY matters;

2. It tells that incredible story that truly matters in a stunning, powerful, gut-wrenching manner (Spielberg, I think, understands that it’s not enough to tell a great story, you also have to tell it in a great way or else the meaning gets muddled);

3. It legitimately might be the actual BEST movie of the last 25 years. I’m not necessarily making that argument but as my friend Richard says, if you bring this movie to the table as the best, you’re not getting laughed out of the conversation.

Here are some things that work against this movie:

1. I do not ever want to watch it. This is the only movie in the Spielberg filmography that I didn’t watch or rewatch before writing because I feel like I might have one more viewing left in me in my lifetime and I should probably save it for when my son is old enough to see it so he doesn’t have to watch it alone;

2. It does not feel like a Spielberg movie, really. That’s not a complaint or a criticism, by the way; Schindler’s List very much needs to be set apart, not just from Spielberg’s other movies but from
all movies in order to give the viewer a real sense of what took place.

3. Again, I do not ever want to watch it again.

Schindler’s List is an actual masterpiece. It is, I think quite clearly, the best movie Spielberg has ever made and its significance cannot be overstated. When I watched the Spielberg documentary on HBO last fall, the closing sequence of Schindler’s, with the survivors and their family all walking by Schindler’s grave, absolutely wrecked me and reminded me of the sheer power of that film. But feel, rewatchability, and genuine love all have a place in the internal discussion that went into creating this list and for those reasons, I have to keep the next three films ahead of it on my own personal ranking.

*NOTE: I was feeling pretty bad about not putting Schindler’s at the top of this list just based on its objective greatness and meaning. So, on our Patreon page, I asked our VIP’s to list their top three Spielberg movies and literally none of them mentioned Schindler. For some reason, this helped me feel justified in its placement here. I am a sheep. Baaa.*

3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $216M ($481M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 11 (5)

This gets my vote for the greatest war movie ever made and I cannot be dissuaded from my position. Private Ryan is, like the next movie on this list, one of the five most significant, memorable in-theater experiences of my life. I will never forget that opening sequence nor the sense of actually being in a war that came along with it. The entire sequence (something like 17 minutes long) is simultaneously haunting and mesmerizing; I couldn’t look away though I left somewhat scarred by it. Even still, I find this movie to be very rewatchable and I do so every year on or around Memorial Day. I think it works on that level because of the time and craft put into developing the soldiers of 2nd Ranger Battalion as actual characters and not just instruments of war. Private Ryan is an ensemble piece, really, that transpires on the battlefield, and you’re not just invested in the characters because of who or what they represent. Barry Pepper’s Private Jackson is one of my five favorite supporting characters in any movie ever; I’m not sure you get genuine care and concern like that six soldiers down the list in most war movies. So you’ve got these great characters and then you put them in situations that are perfectly staged and shot, but, of course, extremely hazardous to the characters you care so much about…and then you watch them die. And suddenly, you’re in the fight and you’re getting a tiny taste of the horrors of war. Private Ryan is a hard movie to watch and it tears at my heart every time I do so but Spielberg’s understanding of character and human interaction keeps me coming back every year.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $402M ($1.02B)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): (3)

Jurassic Park is THE single most memorable theater experience of my life and I doubt that will ever change. I was 10, I had read Michael Cricton’s book, and I was pumped up beyond any reasonable measure to the point that there was no way the movie could possibly live up to my expectations…and somehow, it blew them away. This movie is monument to blockbuster filmmaking, a master class in how to craft a smart-but-not-self-serious crowd pleaser. Truly, 25 years later, Jurassic Park remains the gold standard for blockbusters. You can watch this movie and say, “This is how you do exposition”; “This is how you explain scientific jargon effectively”; “This is how you merge practical effects and CGI.” Every time I rewatch Jurassic Park, I am utterly blown away by how INCREDIBLE the movie still looks. It’s unreal, honestly, given where we were at with computer technology in 1993, not to mention the fact that Spielberg was working on the post-production for this movie while filming Schindler’s List. (Who else could do that, seriously?) It’s the weight and the scale of the dinosaurs that pours through the screen (and the speakers) which sets the movie apart. But it’s also really well-cast, a very underrated feature of the movie in my opinion, Spielberg’s scene-setting is uncanny, and the pace is masterful. This is a movie I cannot wait to watch with my son and I love knowing that it’s going to hold up even when he has a kid of his own.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $248M ($389M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (5)

When I outlined this piece at the outset of my viewings and rewatches, I had Raiders lower on the list. Top ten for sure but definitely not number one. Then I rewatched it again for the first time in a few years and thought, “Oh, right, this movie is all kinds of great.” It wasn’t like a lightbulb moment, just a gentle prompt in the back of my mind reminding me that this was, indeed, the rightful number one. Indiana Jones is, of course, one of the all-time iconic characters in film and while George Lucas deserves some credit for creating him and Harrison Ford deserves even more credit for portraying him, we can’t forget to give Spielberg his due credit for presenting him. In 15 minutes, you feel like you know more about who Indiana Jones is than you know about most of your closest friends and you also know he is the coolest person on the planet. He’s not without his flaws, he’s not a superhero, but that makes him cooler somehow. Raiders is (again) a masterclass in pacing and Spielberg mans the Adventure Movie wheel with remarkable ease, taking you from place to place, situation to situation, with deftness and style, always accompanied by the exquisite score. Karen Allen is absolutely fantastic and proves the perfect counterpart for Ford. Raiders is the greatest adventure movie of all-time (indisputable, I’m sorry), it is iconic in every sense of the word, and, most importantly, it embodies the spirit of what a Spielberg movie is supposed to be, carried through from the very first frame to the very last.