Ranking Steven Spielberg films can be a formidable task. Are you scanning his canon for groundbreaking material or merely the majesty of work?
How does a movie in his wheelhouse compare with the moments in which he truly stretches himself?
And, as always, how do you deal with personal preference?
One can cull a different list of five favourites for each one of these scenarios. I factored in all these components en route to coming up a list of his five best as well as three more that deserve another closer look….
In so many ways, Spielberg broke the mould with this 1975 film. He created the summer blockbuster and kept people from swimming in the ocean for years. But look closer at the heart of the movie, told in two distinct acts. In the first part, our fear is raised to almost unparalleled heights because of what we don’t see — and legend informs us it was just because the mechanical shark wasn’t performing on location for most of the shoot. John Williams’ legendary score raises our hackles long before we ever get a glimpse of the great white. So Spielberg worked around that, with scenes like a pier turning around to chase a hapless soul who fell into the water while trying to collect the shark bounty with a holiday roast. Not to mention the big fright of a victim popping up most unexpectedly during the examination of a deserted boat. Then the second half of the film becomes an adventure featuring the intrepid trio of the police chief (Roy Scheider), the shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and the salty seaman (Robert Shaw) going after the big fish. Shaw’s monologue about the ill-fated USS Indianapolis might be the most visceral monologue ever, and that just marks a few minutes of time. Almost as impressive are the little moments that flesh out the tale – Dreyfuss crushing a paper cup in mock battle with Shaw or Scheider ad-libbing “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Truth be told, this is my favourite. And not just by Spielberg. My favourite film of all time. I don’t use those words lightly, I’m a fan of all genres and time periods. But a fave flick cuts right to your heart. No matter what mood you’re in, you’ll be able to watch it. And that’s what this 1977 movie does for me. Aliens are trying to communicate with humans on Earth, and Close Encounters becomes a race to get to the meeting place – where an unchosen few try to determine who should attend the spectacle and who shouldn’t. Again the story (by Spielberg with a lot of assistance) is told in two parts – Dreyfuss plays a true everyman so obsessed by his implanted vision that he leaves his family behind to find out the truth. Melinda Dillon’s not quite in the same position, she’s trying to recover her “kidnapped” son. Once they realise Devils Tower is the designated landing site, it’s a chore to avoid governmental interference to get there. Luckily, the man in charge of the project – a truly affable Francois Truffaut – is kind of on their side. Close Encounters is a marvel for the time, all its effects were done practically, and when the movie went back into theatres for the 40th anniversary, it more than held its own against all the green-screen concoctions flooding cinema today.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg has often used traditional children’s fare as an element in his films – recurring Pinocchio themes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Bugs Bunny parallels in The Sugarland Express to name two – but in this 1981 film, he perfectly visualised his comic-book adventure sensibility. Indiana Jones is the perfect hero, and translate “perfect” here as decidedly imperfect. The teacher/archaeologist is smart as a whip – one of his trademark accessories – but his enemies tend to get the best of him. Oh yeah, he also really, really, really hates snakes. Jones finds it a little difficult to maintain relationships with women and friends, because his focus is always on pieces of history he’s chasing after. But the director assures he’ll come through when the chips are down, and not by calling the proper authorities for help. He’ll vanquish his enemies in thrilling fashion, or at least let the artefacts handle that for him. Scorching hot off the Star Wars saga, Harrison Ford creates another hero who will stand for all time.
After making his name with adventure stories, Spielberg revealed another niche in war stories. He imbues these tales with heart, wringing every last drop of emotion out of each of them. In doing so, Spielberg truly lets his guard down. His artifices and usual tricks fall away. If a film like The Color Purple showed what Spielberg could do someday, Schindler’s List brought that promise to fruition. The 1993 Best Picture winner doesn’t just tell the story of what happens to Jews in Nazi Germany, it puts you in the middle of it via a black-and-white viewfinder. He only alters from that style for very powerful reasons – first to show a young Jewish girl walking the streets who we’ll later see on an otherwise anonymous pile of corpses, and later when the scene turns to the present, with a long line of the Schindler survivors (and their portrayers) at his grave site honouring the man who saved so many lives and generations of families. And those are just two of the devastating moments that brought Spielberg his first directorial Oscar. He gleaned powerhouse performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and the hypnotic Ralph Fiennes too.
Saving Private Ryan
This more fictionalised 1998 war film gave Spielberg more room to weave his magic. But audiences didn’t exactly fall under some kind of spell, because troops storm the beach at Normandy for about a half an hour to start off the flick. If that kind of assault can unsettle us for 30 minutes, we’re left to wonder what it must have been like for the troops who were there. Kudos to him for deglamourising war. It’s not cool, the cost is extreme and we see that at every turn. Those who survived had to be smart and lucky every single day they were there. In this tale, Tom Hanks leads a group of men trying to find Private Ryan, whose brothers all died in action. The captain and his crew consider their mission FUBAR, so their quest is about more than just finding Matt Damon. Spielberg won his second directorial Oscar, but best picture went to the genial comedy Shakespeare in Love. Which one’s standing the test of time? Saving Private Ryan served as a reminder that every veteran had a story to tell, later further exemplified by the gold standard of all mini-series, 2001’s Band of Brothers — executive produced by Spielberg and Hanks.
…And how about three Spielberg films that deserve another look?
The Sugarland Express – This unpolished 1974 flick fit perfectly into the midway point between the TV movie Duel (1971) that made the burgeoning director’s name in the business and the No. 1 film in this blog. Here he works for the first time with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who’ll win the Oscar for the second-ranked film. Spielberg’s attention to detail is evident in everything from car-wash attendants drying off police cars to children counting cars in a convoy chasing two lawbreakers. We don’t even need to see a Bugs Bunny cartoon to get the Looney Tunes vibe. Consider this one somewhere between Bonnie and Clyde and Smokey and the Bandit. William Atherton gets to play a protagonist – in marked twist to his ‘80s typecasting as an irritating foil – and Goldie Hawn takes a patented ditsy-blonde routine to a whole higher level. Laws get broken left and right, but Spielberg doesn’t allow his film to lose a bit of its humanity. Even then, the director knew how to strike a delicate balance better than most.
Munich – What makes an Oscar-nominated film underrated? This 2005 one seems to get lost in the shuffle when people talk about Spielberg’s best. It only made half its production cost in the United States, but ultimately turned a profit overseas. Is that because it’s so uncompromising and questioning? After members of Israel’s 1972 Olympic team are kidnapped and killed, Prime Minister Golda Meir brings together five disparate men led by Eric Bana – none of whom are prototypical assassins — to avenge the deaths. Where Schindler’s List laid out Nazi atrocities plainly, the characters in Munich flinch and so do viewers, in turn. The director traditionally draws much finer lines between good and evil. But they’re blurred here – particularly after their enemies make coherent points on screen — and that leads to even more questions. Oh, and the second revenge killing might just be the most suspenseful moment in any Spielberg film.
The BFG – Lest we feel like Spielberg has completely abandoned his traditional wide-eyed fascination with the world at large in favour of war stories, dinosaurs and Indiana Jones, this 2016 tale proves faithful to Roald Dahl’s book while hitting the same marks of such Spielberg hallmarks as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. It unfolds with great pacing — young orphan Sophie is initially petrified by the Big Friendly Giant, but as she comes to understand his ways through a series of different vignettes, she learns a lot about the world and her place in it. Pieced together, they seem to create a virtual patchwork quilt of humanity – the good, the bad and the gaseous. All of it is handled with the director’s flair for the material, he’s delivered a family movie that adults probably will understand even better than kids. And thusly, it’s one that seems to be tailor-made for family discussions and life lessons long after the credits have rolled.