Steven Spielberg is the perfect gateway director for young movie lovers: both accessible enough to capture the boundless imagination expected of most blockbuster directors, and artful enough to allow subtext and thematic issues to resonate beneath surface-level narrative. It’s how a grade schooler ends up watching the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long slapstick comedy The Money Pit, a movie about the hardships of maintaining home ownership: Spielberg was credited as the executive producer. Spielberg’s, too, is the kind of name recognition that leads to cult classics like Gremlins and Back to the Future. (Personally, Tobe Hooper’s directing credit on the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist led me to check out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at an alarmingly young age, kick-starting my love for horror.) Through Spielberg’s affection for giants such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, a young cinephile’s knowledge grows. And even though Spielberg was the inception of such adoration, he’s never stopped being an endlessly fascinating and captivating storyteller.
Which is why the task of ranking his features—31 counting this year’s Oscar-nominated The Post—can be such a personal ordeal. But first, some requisite ground rules: TV episodes or short films he directed are not on this list, so neither is that one Columbo hour he helmed or his short-length remake of the iconic Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can.” On the other hand, his made-for-TV movie Duel counts, as it was later released theatrically. Even though rumor has it that Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper is still credited, so don’t look for that one either. Finally, his first feature, Firelight, is not ranked, mostly because it’s pretty much unavailable.
Regardless, here are all Spielberg-directed films, ranked from the worst—at least as “worst” as a Spielberg joint can be—to the very best.
Did anyone really think this overhyped and ill-advised fourth entry in the adventures of the world’s most interesting archeologist wouldn’t be at the bottom of the list? Judging by the interviews he gave during production, Spielberg wasn’t as personally invested in bringing Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) back as George Lucas was, and that’s probably how we got an unintentionally goofy, CG-ridden, Star Wars-prequels-level gaudy Last Crusade sequel for which fans spent years clamoring, only to then spend an equal amount of time trying to forget it existed in the first place. In true Spielberg fashion, there are still sparks of playful ingenuity and energy in the midst of Shia LeBoeuf swinging from one PlayStation cutscene to another, and grumpy aliens hiding inside the set of Legends of the Hidden Temple, like the kinetic car/motorcycle chase sequence in the film’s first act. But such bright spots are few and far between.
Placing a title referencing the 1925 stop-motion dinosaur adventure over the instantly recognizable name of the 1993 box-office juggernaut immediately communicates Spielberg’s intent to move the franchise from thoughtful musings about the dangerous reaches of modern science to a breezier B-movie throwback—that, and the fact that Spielberg, busy with starting Dreamworks, wasn’t all that enthusiastic about directing the film anyway. In retrospect, the underrated and much shorter Jurassic Park III pulled off the B-movie approach much better, but Spielberg’s instinct to construct a more self-serious action/thriller goes against the sequel’s straight adventurous spirit. Just like Crystal Skull, the film features a few high points, like its third act going full Godzilla with a city-wide T-Rex attack, but on the whole The Lost World is too bloated. Let’s not even get into that infamously silly gymnastics scene.
Hook is one of the Spielberg films that’s aged the worst. Its overall tone is too schmaltzy, too off-base, for its loftier themes, and its screenplay—penned by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo—doesn’t really do much with the premise of a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams, in mushiness overdrive mode) learning what it means to go back to his roots, other than basically retreading yet another generic Peter Pan story. Still, Dustin Hoffman hamming it up as a toddler-like, temper-tantrum-prone Captain Hook is a delight to watch.
If The Terminal was directed by a run off the mill gun-for-hire known for basic studio rom-coms, it would have been a halfway impressive lark, but this fairly forgettable romantic comedy about an Eastern European immigrant (Tom Hanks with a laughably thick accent) getting stuck in JFK airport but still finding a way to hook up with the depthless representation of old Hollywood male fantasies (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a bit beneath Spielberg’s pedigree. As if he was merely trying to fill some time before moving onto a project he really cared about, Spielberg breezes through The Terminal, delivering on the basest level expectations from the director (visual coherence? genre exercise?) and nothing more.
When it comes to depicting aliens, Spielberg has mostly been on the side of benign creatures coming down from the skies to help our species. With this H.G. Wells adaptation, he tries his hand at the evil, world-destroying alien cliché and predictably ends up with a visually strong but tonally messy product. The film’s more PG-13-oriented approach constantly clashes with the brutality of violence brought on by the alien invaders (some of which forms direct comparisons with 9/11). Picking Tom Cruise, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, as an everyman working-class schlub is one of the most myopic casting decisions of the last decade; the overlong section of the second act taking place in a basement is a pacing killer; and keeping the anti-climactic ending of the novel wears out all goodwill. Of course, none of that stops War of the Worlds from sporting a a few significant, eye-candy action set-pieces.
The ultimate forgotten Spielberg flick. Between Bridge of Spies and The Post is this charming and earnest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book about a plucky orphan (Ruby Barnhill) befriending a gentle giant (a Spielberg regular, at least for two films, Mark Rylance) trying to protect her from his meanie giant friends. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who tragically passed away before The BFG was released, once again proves her innate ability to translate a child’s sense of wonder through the prism of fantasy and science-fiction, the way she did with her screenplay for E.T. The BFG’s whimsy can’t keep up the film’s dragging, bifurcated pace, and its ending is too anticlimactic for it audience, but its heartfelt imagination makes this unfortunate box-office bomb some worthwhile children’s entertainment.
From one misguided, old-fashioned throwback to another: War Horse, based on the popular play, represents Spielberg’s desire to pay tribute to early 20th century war films, seen through a John Ford-esque lens of wide auburn vistas and rah-rah heroism. The story of an ambitious horse determined to reunite with his BFF, a fresh-faced World War I soldier (Jeremy Irvine), suffers from an episodic structure in which we follow the horse from one adoptive individual/family/war machine to the next. Spielberg appears to be trying to recapture the glory of the martial films on which he grew up, obscuring graphic violence as those movies did, defanging the film’s possible visceral power in the process. What we end up with is a considerable amount of exciting set-pieces and some gorgeous bits of cinematography, which still makes it better than many Oscar-bait prestige projects of its caliber.
There’s really not that much to say about Spielberg’s first official studio feature, other than that it’s a satisfactory crime drama about a couple (Goldie Hawn and William “dickless” Atherton) on the lam after to reuniting with their son by kidnapping him. There’s a reason why even some of the most ardent Spielberg fans forget that The Sugarland Express even exists: It’s a well-executed but unremarkable genre piece that doesn’t hold any surprises or unique sign of Spielberg’s talent, other than that it achieves its meager narrative goals without any obvious blemishes. Today, it’s mainly known as Spielberg’s stepping stone into mainstream studio acceptance.
I doubt that anyone other than Spielberg was interested in a remake of the Spencer Tracy romance/fantasy A Guy Named Joe, one of his favorite films growing up in a family of divorce in Arizona. His obvious personal connection to the source material makes Always one of the most openly warmhearted and melancholic works in the director’s filmography. Its unfiltered sincerity, despite the nonsensical rules it sets up about how the afterlife operates, is infectious. The core relationship between a dead pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) sticking around as a ghost to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on represents the emotional core of the story, thanks to strong performances by the two leads. If only this plot wasn’t sidetracked by an unnecessary romance between two dull characters played by Brad Johnson and Marg Helgenberger.
Though here we step into some icky racial territory, it’s hard not to give Spielberg and George Lucas credit for taking the first sequel to the Indiana Jones saga into darker and tonally different territory, instead of rethreading Raiders of the Lost Ark beat-by-beat. The film’s relentlessly grim and violent tone, inspired by the personally unpleasant times Spielberg and Lucas were going through at the time, might have been scarring for kids, but is thrillingly unique to those with decades of distance between now and its release. Also, with its action-packed pacing, Temple of Doom is the one Indiana Jones entry that truly represents the series’ old-timey, serial roots. Still, the stereotypical depiction of Indian culture in the film, replete with monkey brains and eyeball soup, is downright ugly, and will only get uglier as time goes on, which makes Temple of Doom perhaps Spielberg’s most cringeworthy work.
Spielberg’s much maligned first flop is actually a rollicking good time if you approach it as nothing but the non-stop, late-’70s, coke-fueled, mega-budget, slapstick insanity that it was upon release. On the 1995 DVD making-of doc, Spielberg admits that his goal was nothing more than to pump a heavy dose of adrenaline into the audience, and compares the experience to playing Doom II for two hours. Star-studded, giant-scale physical comedies like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World aren’t the most common of spectacles, so dismissing one by the most dependable director of all time isn’t exactly a given. In many ways, 1941 fits right into our current tone of blockbusters, which really stretch the line between action and all-out comedy. At a time when hits like Thor: Ragnarok can be a self-aware comedy, a film with 1941’s unbridled excess fits pretty well into today’s tastes. Though, if you rent it, only watch the theatrical version, and not the extended cut—the theatrical cut is exhausting enough.
As a group of slaves, led by the strong-willed Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), fight back against their captors with fully warranted violence, the opening sequence to Amistad becomes a testament to Spielberg’s full command of his unique visual language. The torrential rain represents a force of blind revenge, the pitch black surface of the slave ship lit only with sparks of thunder: Once again, the director makes sure what we can’t see is just as effective as what we can. After this terrific hook, Amistad settles into a patient and emotionally potent courtroom drama wherein a group of white men decide whether or not a group of black men have any claim to being considered human beings. In the ’90s, Spielberg still couldn’t deny his nature, to pull heartstrings by any means necessary, so we get some moments of unearned sentimentalism (the “Give us free” scene). Nevertheless, it’s one of the director’s most striking dramas—beginning with that harrowing opening sequence, which may’ve been a dress rehearsal for the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, released less than eight months later.
What better source to cleanse the bitterness of the fourth Indy movie than a series of beloved comics about an Dr. Jones-like adventurer and his eccentric sidekicks jumping from one exotic location to the other in search of magical historical artifacts? In his first fully animated film, Spielberg constructs a big, breezy, family-friendly adventure that works perfectly well as yet another throwback to the serials he loved growing up—all while expertly avoiding Tintin creator Herge’s flirtations with fascism and white supremacy. The motion capture performances are solid all around, but Andy Serkis steals the show as the boisterous alcoholic Captain Haddock.
In 2012, the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as the legendary POTUS and a prestige name like Spielberg in the director’s chair could understandably bring upon the expectation that we were in for a pretty standard biopic. Thankfully that’s not what we get with Tony Kushner’s meticulously crafted screenplay. After a wholly unnecessary Civil War battle scene opening, Lincoln moves entirely to the president’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, becoming a finely dry procedural that finds a graceful balance between the emotional heft of the subject matter and the practical political dealings of the time. Kushner started off as a playwright, and Lincoln mostly feels like an exceptionally well-acted and -executed stage production put to film, intimately focused. Just ignore the film’s last-ditch attempt at turning into a traditional biopic during the final ten minutes.
After A.I. (oh, we’ll get there; have your vitriolic comments at the ready) comes another tightly wound sci-fi mystery, fueled by one of Philip K. Dick’s most respected and complex short stories, and committed to coloring inside the expected boundaries of its neo-noir influences. Screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen turn Dick’s political ouroboros into a predictable murder mystery, but Spielberg’s ability to give every show-stopping action sequence its own short film turns Minority Report into one hell of a ride. Its parts may be much more interesting than its whole, but those parts shine—from the exhilarating top-down single shot of robot spiders looking for Tom Cruise’s wrongfully accused John Anderton through dank apartment space, to the creative ways Anderton’s sidekick with precognitive abilities (Samantha Morton) saves his bacon by predicting split-second decisions made by his trackers, every individual piece of Minority Report works as intended.
The Post begins as a restrained procedural, sticking only to the facts surrounding The Washington Post obtaining, in 1972, top secret Pentagon Papers showing (without a doubt) that the American resolve for winning the war in Vietnam was severely diminished—the exact opposite mood the U.S. administration was claiming at the time. This strictly matter-of-fact approach would have made directors like Costa-Gavras and, yes, Alan J. Pakula proud. Of course, this being a Steven Spielberg joint, The Post can’t help but gradually bring heavy emotional tension to the film’s forefront, easing us moment by moment into a fairly manipulative yet exhilarating finale. None of that should come as a surprise: “Manipulative but exhilarating” might as well be the director’s calling card. The fact that The Post doesn’t stick to its apparent predecessors’ (All The President’s Men, Spotlight) dogged dedication to never clearly extracting strong emotional responses out of its audience might come across as a clear criticism of this otherwise airtight, tautly-paced drama with some of the best acting of 2017. However, we are not living in subtle times. With the rise of authoritarianism here in the U.S. severely pushing back on the first amendment, explicitly declaring the free and open press an enemy of the people, the people need a populist piece of art with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. That’s why, in 2017, Spielberg is the perfect director to handle this story. Who better to rouse us, give us the passion and motivation we need to not only keep up the fight against such tyranny, but to hold out some hope for salvation as well?
After an unfortunately racist turn into dark and gloomy territory with the franchise’s previous installment, Spielberg and Lucas decide to play it safe by going back to the Nazi-punching, ancient-Christian-magic-excavating roots of the original Indiana Jones adventure. There aren’t many surprises this time around, but Spielberg takes full advantage of the success previous films afforded him. Of course the biggest addition is Sean Connery as Indy’s absentee father; the frail relationships between protagonists and their fathers is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s films, and the natural chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery provides the organic support such a relationship needed. Since the Indiana Jones series apparently began with Spielberg’s desire to direct a James Bond movie, the casting of Connery brings the franchise full circle.
The raw and potentially traumatizing first twenty-something minutes of Saving Private Ryan, a shockingly straightforward take on the human toll of warfare, is still one of the most striking opening sequences in film history, thanks to Spielberg’s immersive direction, expert use of handheld camera and spectacularly detailed sound design. What follows this sequence is a sobering study of the futility and sacrifice of war, in which our characters conduct a mission that will allow them to leave this living nightmare and go home. Screenwriter Robert Rodat takes a sudden tonal shift halfway through, into a cynical exploitation of patriotic fervor, unceremoniously transforming his war-fatigued characters into selfless heroes ready to sacrifice their lives for their country, no matter how strategically pointless the mission at hand might be. From that point on, Saving Private Ryan gets lost in a moral puddle, technically impressive even as it never makes a clear statement about American war.
Bridge of Spies is the quiet, patient adult procedural a seasoned master filmmaker directs as he’s about to enter his septuagenarian years. There’s nothing really outright sensational about a two-and-a-half hour story of a middle-aged lawyer (Tom Hanks) negotiating the exchange between a soft-hearted Russian spy (Mark Rylance in his deservedly Oscar-winning performance) and a couple of American prisoners during the height of the Cold War, but man does Spielberg take full advantage of even the tiniest bureaucratic detail, of the tension in something as simple as a group of people waiting silently on a bridge at night, and turns it into palpable cinematic gold.
For lovers of tongue-in-cheek and smooth-as-silk ’60s crime dramedies like Stanley Donen’s wonderfully twisty Charade, Catch Me If You Can is an big fat slice of cinematic comfort food. From the minimalist and pastel animated credits sequence, accentuated wistfully by John Williams’ jazzy score, to the breezy but non-condescending adventures of charmin-as-hell conman Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in a role tailor-made for him), this is a genre throwback that crackles throughout. In only his second role with the director (after Saving Private Ryan), Spielberg regular Tom Hanks, as an anal FBI agent on Abagnale’s tail, is the straight-laced foil to DiCaprio’s wild and loose youngling, but the real MVP here is Christopher Walken as Abagnale’s strong-willed yet tragically self-destructive working class father.
What better feature to prove yourself as a young hotshot director with vision than helming Richard Matheson’s stripped-bare screenplay? Matheson’s refreshingly simple thriller, about an innocent commuter (Dennis Weaver) trying to survive a mysterious, maniac truck driver who’s determined to kill him, doesn’t contain any exposition or character arcs that could get in the way of its core narrative focus. We don’t even get to know the identity or the motivation of the truck driver. This opportunity provides Spielberg with the visual sandbox he needs to keep this plain but potent premise fresh for 90 minutes—and he knocks it out of the park, partly thanks to his command of rising tension and claustrophobia as the commuter’s situation worsens. Duel has aged well, a laser-focused ’70s genre piece.
Empire of the Sun once again captures Spielberg’s unique ability to see life through the prism of childhood and communicate that perspective in an immediately relatable and intimately empathetic way. As opposed to classics like E.T. , where the film’s point-of-view is wrapped around a comfortable coating of science-fiction wonderment, in Empire of the Sun, Spielberg doesn’t pull any punches as he dives headfirst into the horrid ways war can destroy and warp a child’s precious innocence while never losing sight of their resilience, able to find some form of hope in the most desolate of conditions. One of Spielberg’s many remarkable qualities as a director is in the way he seems to extract astoundingly natural performances from child actors. In this case, he here discovers a great actor in the making—a young Christian Bale—as the central kid left to fend for himself in WWII China.
By far the most politically daring work in Spielberg’s filmography, Munich must not have been an easy story to tell for the devout member of the Jewish faith and a defender of Israel’s right to exist. It tells of the crack team of Israeli assassins who took blind revenge for the Palestinian act of terrorism during the 1972 Munich Olympics, how they gradually lost their humanity and plunged both sides into an uncomfortable moral grey area. It’s one of the rare Spielberg films that ends on a clearly bleak tone, without a glimmer of the silver lining the die-hard optimist usually inserts into the finales of even his toughest stories, a believer in humanity’s eventual appeal to their better nature, but Spielberg also recognizes that optimism must come with an understanding that cycles of violence only, eventually lead to destruction. Of course the simple application of a brave moral standing doesn’t automatically make for a great movie, but it’s also hard to deny how pulse-poundingly effective Munich is as an old-school political thriller. For proof, look to the tense sequence wherein the team tries to abort a bombing mission at the last second.
Jurassic Park’s standing as a technical milestone in cinematic storytelling isn’t only dependent on its then-revolutionary use of computer generated imagery: The special effects look as groundbreaking and seamless today as they did 25 years ago. The magic behind the film’s ability to bring dinosaurs to life could be in Spielberg’s expertise in approaching special effects on a shot-by-shot basis, merging each sequence with reliable miniature and animatronic work, making the connective tissue between these tricks as unnoticeable as possible. More than an achievement, Jurassic Park is also an infinitely fun action adventure that also manages to insert some prescient themes into the mix—like whether or not humanity should interfere with nature’s choices—affording a moral angle that the sequels have pretty much abandoned or bungled so far.
Today, Spielberg is respected as a dramatic director as much as a maestro of crowd-pleasing blockbusters, but when he decided to bring Alice Walker’s emotional gut-punch of a novel to the big screen, he was taking quite a career risk. Not only did he not have any straight dramatic work in his portfolio up until that point, but the thought of a white male filmmaker known for making movies about aliens and whip-cracking archeologists tackling a beloved female-centric African-American story didn’t help anything. Yet Spielberg took great advantage from some spectacular performances, The Color Purple’s success relying heavily on Spielberg’s intrinsically empathetic and humanist nature, as well as the perspectives of his stars. In Celie, portrayed with heartbreaking naturalism by Whoopi Goldberg, we can relate to powerlessness and feeling worthless, as she does at the hands of her abusive husband (Danny Glover). Granted, Spielberg omitted some of the more intimate parts of the novel, such as the relationship between Celie and a singer (Margaret Avery), which represents Celie’s first step towards empowerment (an omission the director admitted he regretted after the fact), but the film’s lasting power is still undeniable.
The unfairly maligned A.I. may be Spielberg’s misunderstood masterpiece, evidenced by the many critics who’ve pointed out its supposed flaws only to come around to a new understanding of its greatness—chief among them Roger Ebert, who eventually included it as one of his Great Movies ten years after giving it a lukewarm first review. A.I. represents the perfect melding of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s sensibilities—as Kubrick supposedly worked on the story with Spielberg, and Spielberg felt obliged to finish after Kubrick’s death—which allows the film to keep each of their worst instincts in check. It’s not as cold or distant as Kubrick’s films tend to be, but not as maudlin and manipulative as Spielberg’s films can become—and before the ending is brought out as proof of Spielberg’s failure, it should be noted that the film’s dark coda was actually Kubrick’s idea, adamant that the ending not be meddled with moreso than any other scene. A closer inspection of the film’s themes reveal a much bleaker conclusion—and, no, those aren’t “aliens.”
Close Encounters was the personal project Spielberg wanted to pull off when he was able to establish himself as a Hollywood power player. The massive success of Jaws gave him the opportunity to realize his character-based, big budget, special-effects-driven science-fiction tale about humanity’s place in the galaxy, a rare optimistic and benign chronicle of first contact. The story of a father (Spielberg alter-ego Richard Dreyfuss) abandoning his family through obsession allowed Spielberg to deal with the inner demons related to his career, his own family and his upbringing by looking outward, boundlessly exploring the cosmos with outsized awe.
Schindler’s List’s may be a humorless Academy Awards punchline at this point, but rewatch Spielberg’s epic historical drama on its own merits, and witness its greatness on par with some of the best works by Spielberg’s heroes, like David Lean. Spielberg seemingly gives his all to the story of a selfish businessman (Liam Neeson kicks surprisingly little Nazi ass here) gradually coming to terms with the inhuman atrocities of the Holocaust, putting his life on the line to save as many Jews as he can. Spielberg’s frequent DP, Janusz Kaminski (see also: Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The BFG, Minority Report, Munich, A.I., Tintin, Amistad, War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull, Lost World, The Post, and, of course, Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One) finds untold depth in black and white, working with Spielberg for the first time, from elegant shots borrowed from Hollywood’s Golden Age, to modern handheld camera work that captures the immediacy of the tragedy.
One vital component of Spielberg’s work is his career-wide collaboration with composer John Williams, and nowhere is Williams’ talent in extracting emotional pathos out of his rousing scores more obvious than in his spectacular compositions for E.T. , an iconic, influential childhood classic. Spielberg turning the fantastical premise of an alien stranded on earth into an allegory for a child’s need to be loved and appreciated becomes perhaps the most concrete representation of the director’s unique talent for seeking out accessibility and universality in his emotional stakes while also never losing sight of the eye-candy-heavy imagination he inspires.
The ultimate action/adventure/fantasy/throw-any-other-crowd-pleasing kind of flick in there: The film that rewrote the rules of what to expect from our action heroes while giddily staying faithful to the over-the-top adventure serials on which Spielberg and George Lucas grew up. It’s the classic that confirmed Harrison Ford as such a household concept of the charismatic, badass movie star that no one bats an eye at the thought of him revisiting the character as he’s pushing 80, the pop-culture required viewing, the timeless genre staple that has gone pretty much unequaled for over 35 years.
Then of course there’s Jaws, the film that practically invented the term “blockbuster.” The effectiveness of Jaws, why it’s still a timeless masterpiece—and why it’s the quintessential Spielberg movie—is in how much sheer visceral excitement he managed pull from the simplest tricks of visual storytelling. We all know the stories about the mechanical shark barely working during production, forcing Spielberg to come up with more creative ways of scaring the audience, but that still doesn’t take away from the sublimity of his execution. Look to the iconic scene wherein Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) witnesses the killer shark devour a little boy: All that’s really used is a spray of blood, the rest entirely dependent on Spielberg’s swift and spare editing. Star Wars might have elevated the idea of the popcorn phenomenon to the status of mainstream cinema’s dominating force, but Jaws was the megahit that changed the face of filmmaking forever.