Steven Spielberg’s name is synonymous with movies for generations of filmgoers. His first feature-length film was Duel (1971), released 50 years ago this year, meaning Spielberg’s career has been going half-a-century and shows no sign of stopping. His latest offering, a new version of classic musical West Side Story, is already garnering acclaim in critical circles and seems primed to sweep next year’s Academy Awards.
There are periods to Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker, ranging from his more populist work in the late-1970s and 1980s, through to him being taken more “seriously” once holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993) earned him a ‘Best Director’ Oscar. His 21st-century offerings have been less celebrated, as he’s bounced between the crowd-pleasing spectacles that made his name (Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Ready Player One) and the awards-worthy fare that earned him greater respect from his peers. (Munich, Lincoln, The Post).
But even if Steven Spielberg’s work hasn’t been as consistently genre-defining as his incredible run in the 1980s, isn’t that to be expected after five decades? It’s not many filmmakers who change cinema forever—as Spielberg created “the blockbuster” with Jaws (1975) and led the charge into the digital age with Jurassic Park (1993) and its CGI dinosaurs. And in-between those highlights he helped create a major franchise with the Indiana Jones saga (which is still the benchmark for action-adventure films today), redefined the war movie with Saving Private Ryan (1998), and by all accounts may have just rejuvenated the old-fashioned musical with West Side Story.
To celebrate the half-centenary of one of the 20th-century’s greatest directors, staff at Frame Rated voted for their favourite of Spielberg’s many movies. The votes were compiled, a resulting Top 10 ‘ranked’ by everyone, and the final result can be read below…
10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
by Jack Thomas. This sequel tends to divide Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) fans, between those for whom it’s their secret favourite of the franchise, and those who are baffled by its myriad excesses. Though I count myself in the former camp, I certainly can’t argue it’s a better film than Raiders of the Lost Ark.
If Raiders represents all the good bits about the pulp novels and film serials its creators grew up with, however, then it needs to be said that The Temple of Doom represents many of the worst. From its cringeworthy racial stereotypes (intended partly as parody but coming across as just racist), bizarre narrative choices (we begin with the death of a character we’ve never seen before but is apparently a longtime friend of Indy), the shrieking misogynist caricature that is Kate Capshaw’s role as love interest, to the inexplicably grim tone and violence so intense that it helped usher in the PG-13 rating (meaning pre-teens couldn’t go in unaccompanied), Temple is a mess. And yet it’s also a goofy sort of masterpiece.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
by Dan Owen. There’s more to Saving Private Ryan than its bravura opening sequence, but it’s understandable that Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the D-Day landings on Omaha beach is now seared into the public consciousness. For many, those scenes are what they think of whenever they try to imagine the events of 6 June 1944, when the Allied Forces mounted the largest amphibious invasion in world history to defeat Nazi Germany. Veterans of the real-life event were struck by its raw power back in 1998, as most war films before Saving Private Ryan portrayed the Normandy Invasion as fairly sterile sequences of men running up empty beaches and climbing cliffs with a lot of gunfire sound effects and the odd explosion in the sand. Spielberg transformed the genre with this nightmarish update, throwing every trick in the book at audiences, who came out of the opening scene with a degree of cinematic shell-shock. A few decades later, most films covering similar territory, or period of time, owe a debt to Saving Private Ryan’s bleached-out aesthetic and determination to put filmgoers into the boots of these heroes.
8. Minority Report (2002)
by Logan Butts. Steven Spielberg is known for many things (creating the summer blockbuster season, his partnership with John Williams, the ‘Spielberg Face’…) One could go on and on. But two of my favorite Spielberg-isms are the propulsiveness of his movies and his affinity for releasing two great movies in a single year.
Minority Report finds itself at the intersection of these two ideas. It’s his most propulsive movie, even more so than whirring plot machines like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Once John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is accused of Precrime—that is, a crime that has yet to happen, of killing someone he’s not yet met—the film takes off and never slows down, evolving into a feature-length chase that owes a debt to the Mad Max franchise.
Minority Report came out in 2002 alongside another great Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can. Both were released to box office success and critical fanfare, but only the latter was recognised during awards season. Minority Report‘s mixture of deep ideas (it was based on a Philip K. Dick short story, who was always ahead of his time), tech noir style, and blockbuster thrills should have earned it more industry accolades.
7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
by Remy Dean. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was freewheeling with the momentum of Raiders of the Lost Ark and didn’t do a lot extra, except up the horror. So where to go next in the Indiana Jones franchise? Basically, Spielberg pulled a triple whammy with a very worthy sequel. Spielberg returned with another Biblical macguffin, the Holy Grail, an object of quest narratives since medieval times and a better-known artefact than the Ark of the Covenant, bringing with it all its magical, mystery, sword and chivalry connotations.
We also got to meet Indy’s father, the somewhat condescending, judgmental, and aloof Dr Henry Jones (Sean Connery). Not only was this additional star-power at the box office, Connery was someone audiences had grown up in awe of as James Bond! We could instantly empathise with how Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) might feel being reunited with his estranged father, who’s ironically hyper-critical of Junior’s thirst for adventure and willingness to resort to violence.
Thirdly, we get an Indiana Jones origin story! The insert of young Indy (River Phoenix) as a boy scout not only fills in the biographical backdrop, it also evokes the ‘Boys Own Stories’ Saturday matinee vibe that inspired the original film. It’s almost its own short movie and, of course, the idea did spin-off into the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade turned out better than it needed to be simply to cash-in and with another rousing reprise of that score by John Williams, beautiful cinematography by the great Douglas Slocombe, well-choreographed action, a terrific cast peppered with British thespians, plus more Nazi adversaries.
6. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
by Tom Trott. For me, Catch Me if You Can is the last great Spielberg film. The only one of his 21st-century period that can stand tall amongst his classic era. And why is that? It’s because for all the things that typify the late period of a director’s career: fetishistic nostalgia, being too long, etc. This is Spielberg in playful mode again: that use of the Bond theme, the giddiness of the “Come Fly With Me” sequence, and the lightness of the material allows him to flex his virtuoso muscles (that dollar bill fluttering and dancing in front of Tom Hanks face).
It’s also one of those productions where everyone is on their A game: Jeff Nathanson hasn’t written a screenplay nearly as good. Leonardo DiCaprio and Hanks spar wonderfully together, while Amy Adams and Martin Sheen are predictably great and Christopher Walken gives one of his best, most naturalistic, and touching performances—without losing his innate Walken-ness. Also, John Williams’ score is inspired. Oh, and that title sequence is sublime. And beneath it all lies the melancholy of a Christmas looked in on from outside, of a lonely boy trying to reforge the happy family that dissolved in front of him. In many ways, classic Spielberg stuff.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
by Barney Page. If Jaws was to some extent Duel with a larger budget, Close Encounters of the Third Kind saw Steven Spielberg step into what we now think of as characteristically ‘Spielbergian’ territory. Family and children are to the fore, the humour is thoroughly warm-hearted, and perhaps most importantly, the tone is positive and full of wonder—from the opening discovery of mysterious aircraft in the desert to the rhapsodic climax.
Benign extraterrestrials weren’t absolutely guaranteed by the marketing or the first act, but it was fairly obvious they weren’t going to be world-destroying beasts. And it’s their appearance (much enhanced by the beaming presence of François Truffaut in his only performance for another director) that really sticks in the mind about Close Encounters, however fond we may be of the mashed-potato mountain and the zooming bright lights.
Long before Independence Day (1996), the sheer scale of the mothership was awe-inspiring, and the idea of aliens who communicated via music was an original and brilliant one—consummately handled by composer John Williams, who’s probably done more than anyone to help Spielberg’s movies standout.
4. E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
by Joseph Shapiro. Once you start writing film criticism, it becomes hard to curb the tendency to nitpick every last flaw in every movie you watch. Thankfully, it’s impossible for me to think critically about E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. My brain shuts off when I try to think of any flaws. I’m sure they exist, but I have no interest in finding out what they are. It’s one of the purest examples of childlike filmmaking, a familiar story told with so much warmth and heart that it feels new every time you watch it. It’s a movie about being a child that, by some miracle of movie magic, makes you feel like one again.
The uncynical childishness of it comes as no surprise when you take into account that E.T himself is based on a childhood imaginary friend of Spielberg’s he created after his parents’ divorce; a friend “who could be the brother he never had and the father he didn’t feel he had anymore.” I couldn’t express it better myself; this pudgy alien feels like your friend while you’re watching. How could anyone not crack a huge grin at the sight of E.T waddling down the street dressed like a ghost? Or when he’s incognito in full drag, blonde wig and all? It’s a movie driven by nothing but child-like wonder and unapologetic sentimentality, and it’s hard to argue it’s anything but one of the greatest blockbuster films ever made..
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
by Jono Simpson. Spielberg delivered an unforgettable masterpiece of the imagination and a cinematic landmark with Jurassic Park. Regarded as one of his greatest achievements, its groundbreaking use of VFX still offers an unforgettable cinematic experience. While The Lost World (1925) and The Land That Time Forgot (1975) appeased generations of older audiences, they couldn’t compete with the increasing expectations of contemporary cinema. Spielberg realised the childhood dreams of countless moviegoers by bringing dinosaurs back to life, thanks to Stan Winton’s remarkable animatronics and ILM’s early foray into CGI.
Although Jeff Goldblum’s performance as the overconfident Dr Malcom steals every scene, it’s the subtleties of the human performances that are just as interesting as the dinosaurs. Similarly to Jaws, Spielberg forcipes on the character’s expression and marvellous visuals to suspend his audience’s wonder. In a particular sequence, a jeep of sceptical scientists drives along the grassy knolls of the theme park. The director focuses on the spellbound face of Dr Grant (Sam Neill), filling the audience with anticipation for what evokes his reaction… and as Grant removes his glasses to reveal his bewildered eyes, he reaches back to turn Dr Sattler’s (Laura Dern) head. Along with John Williams’ iconic score, we’re then introduced to a herd of Brachiosaurus grazing the treetops. Had the flesh-and-blood actor’s performance not been so convincing, the CGI dinosaurs and Jurassic Park itself wouldn’t have been as effective.
2. Jaws (1975)
by Alexander Boucher. Spielberg’s second foray into B Movie territory after Duel had all the makings of a film destined to run for a few weeks before sinking peacefully to the briny depths, like so many other nautical creature features of its era. It’s hard to fathom just how unlikely it was for Jaws to not only be a hit but to invent the modern blockbuster. Spielberg was a long way from becoming a household name back in 1975, the source material was a junky pulp novel, and the cast was filled with mostly ageing character actors. But Jaws was undeniable: a cocksure thriller of immense craft and detail, filled with genuine shocks to appease bloodthirsty fans and enough sea-faring adventure for a family audience.
With a perfectly menacing and unstoppable killer shark at its centre, three excellent human performances and John Williams’ score—which is matched only by Bernard Hermann’s stabbing Psycho (1960) strings in terms of shared cultural knowledge—it now seems unimaginable that Jaws would be anything other than a hit. The Spielberg we know now only makes hits, and it’s a miracle just how effortless Jaws feels in his hands. Virtually his entire career lay ahead of him in the mid-1970s, which would take him to higher brow ventures and even bigger successes. But I have a deep love for his purer genre pictures, the ones in which we see a virtuoso showing off his craft. I revisit Jaws perhaps once a year, finding new things to love each time, whether it’s in the Altman-esque overlapping dialogue or in the economy and tightness of its action. With Jaws, Spielberg seemingly tamed nature, forged a timeless classic, and successfully demonstrated that the most transcendent of cinema can be about a murderous shark named ‘Bruce’.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
by Andrew Winter. Raiders of the Lost Ark became not only 1981’s highest-grossing movie, but was also nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning five of them, including ‘Best Art Direction’ and ‘Best Visual Effects’. 40 years on, its relentless pace, superbly choreographed action scenes, and compelling cast of characters continues to leave most modern blockbusters in the shade. Raiders riffs on pulp novels, Saturday morning movie-house serials, and classic films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Stagecoach (1939). From its bravura opening sequence—in which all-action archaeology professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is chased by a giant boulder through the entrance of a cobwebbed tomb—the film offers pedal-to-the-metal thrills on a grand, breathless scale.
As good as Ford is, Raiders would be considerably less of a treat without hard-drinking adventuress Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), with whom Jones shares a storied history and sparky chemistry. Similarly essential are the malefic villains: French arch-enemy René Belloq (Paul Freeman), and Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), a sinister Gestapo commander. Elsewhere, John Williams’ rousing, triumphant score has lost none of its spine-tingling power and Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography remains as stunning as ever. The climax, in which the Nazi’s open the Ark of the Covenant with horrific, face-melting consequences, is perhaps Raiders’ most celebrated scene, but my own favourite is the breakneck truck chase which sees Jones emerge victorious only after he’s been shot, thrown through a windscreen, and then dragged along the ground! If Steven Spielberg has directed a better action set-piece, I’m yet to see it.