Continuing on from the other 22 films currently released in his filmography, here are my picks for the ten very best! You can learn a lot from seeing an auteur like Spielberg operating at his very best, as shown with each of the ten films listed below.
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The Last Crusade was at one point Indiana Jones' swan song, rounding out an all-timer trilogy. Given the wider reception of the character's return in almost two decades later in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, most people probably prefer to remember it as the high the series went out on. While previously, Spielberg took the series in a more serial and unexpectedly nasty direction with 1984's Temple of Doom, this feels like a more concrete sequel which builds upon the character of Indiana Jones.
Continuing the tradition of elite opening sequences, we have a flashback to young Indy, played by River Phoenix in a expert casting choice. Having a young Indy navigate a circus train while being chased is one of those super inventive and pitch perfect Spielbergian blockbuster action sequences. Though flashing forward the film does feel a bit familiar as it imports the first act blueprint from the original Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
However, the film finds new life with the introduction of Sean Connery as Dr. Henry Jones Sr., Indiana Jones's father, which is another instance of impeccable casting. Sparks of a potential redundant romance are swept aside for a buddy adventure film starring father and son. Lots of excellent action and Ford & Connery really work wonderfully off of eachother. For the ending they loop back onto the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark's opening, but with higher stakes. It's a smart ending in which the emotional punch ends up more soaring than a big action set-piece would've been.
Finishing up with the characters riding into the sunset, it's an ideal close to a trilogy. Powered by such a strong central character dynamic and featuring the unstoppable Spielberg action sequences, it's no doubt an absolute blockbuster joy.
Average ranking: 5/33 (4/5)
My ranking: 10/33 (4/5)
9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sees Steven Spielberg at his most unhinged. Infamous for pushing the PG rating so far they created a middle ground between PG and R ratings, the PG-13 rating. It's a surprisingly crazy film, but one where the tone is so well struck. Switching between borderline evil amounts of peril and Looney Tunes esque slapstick works incredibly well here, somehow. It's also just a riot of a time, one of the most pure, over the top adventure films you'll find, featuring the jungle, a minecart chase, palaces, lava, evil natives, a massive rope bridge with crocodiles underneath... It's quite the journey.
Following up the classic boulder chase sequence that opened up Raiders of the Lost Ark is always going to be a tough task but the lengths that Spielberg goes to ensure that this film's opening does hold a candle to one of the greatest intros of all-time is nothing short of extraordinary. It's a massive sequence set in Shanghai that's a production marvel, a fantastic set-piece and an introduction to the new cast members. Not to mention it just keeps going and going, reaching about twenty minutes. It's no doubt one of the most spectacular sequences Spielberg has ever directed.
Generally, from a perspective of action-adventure filmmaking this is absolute top shelf stuff. With a a propulsive pace and a simple, yet entertaining dynamic between the three leads. There's not too much from a character perspective this time, the romance feels like an obligation, though the fish out of water comedy featuring Willie is often funny. This needs to have the amount of levity that it has due to its weirdly mean-spirited moments and the fact Indy get beaten the fuck up in this. Even though it's chronologically a prequel, you're left thinking if Indy will make it out due to the amount of shit he has to take this time.
It's definitely worth noting that this has been dated a bit in terms of sexist and racist forms of humour. Hilariously Spielberg and George Lucas attribute the newfound nastiness that the film to break-ups and divorce which each of them were going through at the time. I'm not sure that excuses the sexism, and especially not the racism! In fact Spielberg doesn't look back on this film too fondly, its intensity means it doesn't work as well as a family film as the other Indiana Jones adventures. But for me, the darkness adds a unique flavour among Spielberg's blockbuster films and its spectacle is not to be underestimated. If you can stomach the change in tone, it's one of his most fun films, easily.
Average ranking: 16/33 (3.6/5)
My ranking: 9/33 (4/5)
8. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan's 30 minute long opening D-Day landing sequence remains one of most impressive, if not THE most impressive individual sequence that Steven Spielberg has directed. This absolutely changed the game, it's so visceral and has numerous smart technique to pull you closer to the conflict and into the character's shoes.
A lot of stuff we take for granted like the shaky handheld camera movement, the fact water splashes against the camera and bloodshed stains the lens still looks and feels so good here. Other things like POV shots of people shooting weapons, the vivid desaturated look of the film, blown out audio when a explosive goes off in the vicinity of the lead character. It's all stuff that's visceral and hugely influential on both popular cinema and also video games (there's no Call of Duty without Saving Private Ryan - for better or worse).
Some of this film plays out viciously and has 'shock' violence, where very gruesome punchlines are pulled off - like a soldier being saved by his helmet, only to take it off in amazed disbelief, only to then get his brains blown out anyway. While Spielberg's trademark sentimentality is ever-present, this does feel like one of his more mean-spirited movies, but in a good way. A lot of the WWII combat is shown as absolutely despairing, even if the value of individual heroism is played up. Its harrowing portrayal of violence allows the swing to a typical big sentimental sting for the ending easy to buy into.
I think the film is ambiguous enough about the war that it doesn't become overly jingoistic, though, and I know this sounds absolutely contrary to what I just wrote but, ending on a fade out of the American flag flying is lame as hell. It's a '90s boomer movie, like Forrest Gump that I think is well intentioned but isn't quite ambiguous enough to not come across as pro-war. But outstanding filmmaking ensures this is a classic and continues Spielberg's winning streak, still creating such essential cinema in his third decade of work.
Average ranking: 3/33 (4.2/5)
My ranking: 8/33 (4/5)
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
"It's like Halloween for adults" - this quote from early in the film stuck with me as something that described the sense of wonder and fear achieved for this film. It's a quietly surreal take on alien encounters, reminds me of being a kid and looking up at the starry sky, staying up late and being out in the wilderness or when a power cut hits your street. Stuff that's mostly benign until you let your imagination fill in the blanks, and this film does a wonderful job of letting you fill in the blanks.
Close Encounters looks wonderful, there's more than several shots that really stick with you. Amazing lighting and effects work is in play as well as a fantastic John Williams score that really nails that ominous, fascinating area between wonder and terror. Colours really pop in this film, stuff with the UFO's is so strong visually.
I'm not all that into some of the subplots, though the stuff with the translator having to act as an interim between the French scientist and the military personnel is a clever way of signalling how out of depth everybody is in regards to making first contact with aliens. If language is still such a barrier between us, what chance do we have with beings that have UFO's? I feel like maybe that part of the movie is left up to interpretation though, which is cool. Is humanity ready? I don't think they're quite there, but it's ambiguous enough to go either way and it makes the finale one that is bound to stick with you.
On the whole it's the ideal sci-fi slow burner that looks amazing and often catches an amazing dreamy feeling of wonderment, with a creeping, uneasy tension hiding in its core beneath.
Average ranking: 10/33 (3.8/5)
My ranking: 7/33 (4/5)
6. Schindler's List (1993)
I think Schindler’s List is primarily worth its universal acclaim through the benefits of having a digestible cinematic representation of the holocaust. There's an immense power in that. Obviously, this is still a very hard film to watch but it's not hard to follow or understand and adheres mostly to traditional movie structure enough that audiences are likely to watch all three hours of it and come away profoundly affected.
Another one of Spielberg's best directed sequences appears in this film, though obviously occupying a much different tone compared to the boundless adventure of Indiana Jones or the viscerality of Saving Private Ryan. The 'liquidation of Kraków' scene is harrowing. I think this is the film's best scene, it's one where Spielberg really best makes use of his documentary-esque filming style and just lays bear the unspeakable actions committed. No need for an overbearing score or any fancy filming techniques, it's a harrowing sequence. It's more terrifying than any horror movie and more affecting than any of Spielberg's trademark sentimentality stingers.
I think there's always going to be a discomfort with the fact that you have to glaze a story with accessibility in order for it to reach people properly, but the good that is achieved by Schindler's List far outweighs its arguably unnecessary "Hollywood" elements. It's a great film, Spielberg making the biggest movie ever and immediately following with one of the most important movies ever, both in 1993 cements him a legend forever.
Average ranking: 1/33 (4.4/5)
My ranking: 6/33 (4/5)
5. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. was released to universal acclaim and went on to be a box-office smash. Though it absolutely was not just a flash in the pan, still holding up as an essential coming-of-age feature whose influence can still be felt strongly in so much media released today.
Suburban kids on an adventure combined with strong thematic reference to divorce and alienation. It's a fully heart on sleeve take on a relatively simple story, though it's so rich in character and sophisticated in its direction that you hardly notice and are drawn into the tale. Spielberg really captures a vivid lens on childhood, so much so that the 'kids on bikes' suburban setting is pretty much trademarked by this film.
So much of the film succeeds with non-verbal bonding between Elliot and E.T., who feels convincing through stellar puppetry and animatronics. I feel like nowadays the design of E.T. would be way different than the distinctly alien design here. He's not designed to sell plush toys.
It's also just hugely sincere, Spielberg sentimality is out in full force, but it just works so well here, never feeling sappy or unearned. It's a real joy and one of the ultimate family films ever made.
Average ranking: 8/33 (3.8/5)
My ranking: 5/33 (4.5/5)
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
Spielberg invented the blockbuster in 1975 with Jaws but the impact of Jurassic Park almost 20 years later made it feel like he invented it again, with just as much, if not more impact. Some movies are just undeniable, and Jurassic Park is one of those movies. Spielberg delivered an amazing sci-fi blockbuster that builds off of his previous milestone event movies to set the bar for popular film for many years to come.
Here action sequences are pitch perfect and it's admirable how much foresight there was in applying the CGI to allow the film to still look incredible to this very day. T-rex escape and the Velociraptor hunting session both are some peak Spielberg moments. Lots of great imagery as well as per usual with Spielberg, there's a big "wow" factor to this film that has aged like wine, better than the large majority of 'big' movies.
Jurassic Park's spectacle is so immense start to finish, it's that which makes this film so undeniably great. This still absolutely grips me front to back. It's tense, funny and has that Spielbergian wonderment. It's still a big T-rex sized treat of a movie to this very day.
Average ranking: 4/33 (4.1/5)
My ranking: 4/33 (4.5/5)
3. Jaws (1975)
Jaws remains a juggernaut even all these years later. It's the original blockbuster, Spielberg's second theatrical film is where it became apparent that he would be generational. While the idea of a lone killer shark might seem quaint compared to the massive scaled thrillers we get regularly now, there's no denying the craft in making this a white knuckle ride.
Filled with wit and charming performances, Jaws becomes sensational in its second half. Not only is it a production wonder, being filmed out at sea with an animatronic shark on a real boat, but it's filled with character, even if the cast is reduced to just the three leads as they hunt the shark. You feel like you're right there alongside them on their ill-advised quest and it features one of the ultimate jump-scares (if you can call it that) as the shark finally shows himself to the camera in an unforgettable moment.
Prior to this, you could argue that Psycho was the proto-blockbuster which laid the groundwork for a film featuring so much suspense and bloodshed to be a hit. It remains a real top-tier thriller to this day, emulating a lot of what eventually slasher films would come to strive for. But this has so much character and charm beyond the shark hunt, it's wonderful!
Average ranking: 7/33 (4/5)
My ranking: 3/33 (5/5)
2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
My sole oddball pick for this top ten has to be A.I. which I think is low-key one of Spielberg's very best films. Originally this was developed by another legendary director, Stanley Kubrick, who believed that Spielberg was the man for the job in directing such a film. Though Spielberg originally believed that Kubrick was better suited for a film which has such a tragic core, after Kubrick's death in 1999 Spielberg embarked on making the film a reality and dedicated the final product to Kubrick.
What we have here is Spielberg's most philosophical and contemplative film, a sci-fi film with a blockbuster style production value but a rich and complex story to tell. I love the eerie vibe, existential conundrums and the underlying terrors of a dystopian far future that are sometimes forefront and sometimes cleverly implied via details not brought to the forefront.
There's a distinct three acts to this film, the first being an outstanding acting showcase for Haley Joel Osment, surely one of the best child performances of all-time. Along with Jude Law, who joins in the second act, their physical acting to appear robotic is very well pulled off. It's even more impressive that Osment is so good given his character isn't costumed to appear robotic.
I love the second act of this film so much. "The Flesh Fair" having Ministry performing industrial rock, neon biker gangs and all the uncanny looking older generation robots getting scrapped in cruel fashion. Then they travel to Rogue City which has this crazy neon bliss, but kinda dirty Blade Runner crossed with Y2K aesthetic, kind of like PS1 Final Fantasy pre-renders come to life. It almost feels like a tease that we don't get to fully explore what feels like such a rich location.
A lot of the lighting is amazing, really making the neon lights colourful and there's a lot of clever cinematography tricks throughout. The mix of CGI with practical effects makes it a film that's aged incredibly well. Some of the scenery of the flooded Manhattan looks so good.
Such a amazing film, I think the ending sentimental bittersweet sting is one of the most affecting fictional works that Spielberg has directed. It's deceptively a very sad film on the whole, but one that's exciting as well as affecting.
Average ranking: 20/33 (3.5/5)
My ranking: 2/33 (5/5)
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
No film captures the true essence of adventure quite like the original Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark. This collaboration with George Lucas, who was at his creative peak developing the original trilogy of Star Wars films. More directly calling back to the adventure serials that Lucas and Spielberg would watch on TV growing up.
But this is hardly a pastiche, it elevates above its influences to set the bar for adventure films. Starting with the most iconic introduction of all-time, it's almost a detriment to the rest of the film how perfect this opening is. Not only is it a great set-piece that builds and builds, but it also introduces the character of Indiana Jones as a talented, yet flawed adventurer who is resourceful and charming, and also he hates snakes.
From there though it keeps the energy and becomes a globe trotting adventure for the ages. Indiana Jones is effortlessly cool, but grounded and relateable despite his vast array of skills. He's not unstoppable or a superhero, which is smart to keep him engaging. So many protagonists owe it all to Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford's lead performance.
It's iconic and watching today raises no questions on why it is still so enduring in popular culture so many years later. Taking a genre and perfecting it. Raiders of the Lost Ark is not just the bar for adventure films, but the bar for blockbusters in general, and it should be no surprise that the man behind the original blockbuster would go on to perfect the idea of a crowd-pleasing film like this.
Verdict: Essential! (and the very best)
Average ranking: 2/33 (4.2/5)
My ranking: 1/33 (5/5)