The Great Spielberg Countdown

Steven Spielberg has directed 28 feature films in his career. In honor of the 29th, Bridge of Spies, we rank them all.

Where do you even start? The Beard has no competition as the most famous film director on the planet. Few have ever bridged the critical and popular divide like Spielberg, and he’s responsible for some of the most indelible images cinema has ever given us. He’s a chameleon, capable of working in almost any genre between “monster thriller” and “courtroom drama,” with a deft feel for pacing and tone. A Spielberg Film is a potent mix of wonder, fear, inspiration, excitement, and truly all that is good about movies. And he doesn’t stop working — in 1993, the man released Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park back-to-back, which is like a baseball player hitting a grand slam twice in one game. No one else could have done that.

So what didn’t make this list? In a career as long and varied as Spielberg’s, there are occasional duds. The less said about The Lost World or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. He hasn’t been very successful in comedy, with 1941 and The Terminal among his more maligned efforts (though both have their supporters). From there, it’s films that only just missed the cut for the Top 20, that got at least one vote from the four writers: War of the Worlds, perhaps Spielberg’s most psychologically terrifying film; The Adventures of Tintin, his rambunctious first foray into animation; the obscure Always, his only real “Romance”; and Duel, a made-for-TV movie that not all of us were sure counted, but deserved at least a mention. Those are not bad films, by our reckoning. Just not as good as these. The countdown begins now.

hook_120. Hook (1991)

Spielberg’s modern riff on Peter Pan isn’t exactly remembered as one of his finest hours. The film is considered by many to be a wonky, over-produced, gargantuan eyesore that sees Spielberg falling  back on his worst traits. But for an entire generation (namely the writers of this site), Hook is a childhood treasure filled with that signature Spielberg magic. Sure, the notion of an adult Peter Pan with children is slightly off-putting, the design looks like a tacky theme park, and the tone of the film is all over the place — BUT, Dustin Hoffman gives a wily humorous performance as Captain James Hook, Robin Williams is the perfect choice for Peter, and John Williams’s score is enchanting. (The less said about Julia Roberts, the better.)  –Sean

The Sugarland Express19. The Sugarland Expresss (1974)

Because this film is listed in the nineteenth place should be no indication of its merit. Spielberg’s theatrical feature debut is a slick and timeless piece of noir melodrama about a couple running from the law. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton give strong performances that leave you questioning what you know about the South; the audience never feels like these down-on-their-luck characters are ones at which to laugh. Forty years ago, Spielberg showed us of what he was capable, and we have never looked back. It was obvious in nearly every dusty frame of Express that The Great Beard-O had arrived. — Rachel

temple_of_doom_bridge_scene18. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

I’m not sure this deserves to be this low, to be honest. There’s a strong case to be made that Temple is superior to Last Crusade, and not just because it’s a darker, riskier, and more evocative film. The cinematography from Douglas Slocombe is the most gorgeous of the trilogy — full of bright colors, countering its haunting imagery. Sure, it’s driven by the bitterness of its recently-divorced director (and co-writer, George Lucas), single-handedly creating the PG-13 rating and millions of childhood nightmares, but Harrison Ford is having a blast, the minecart sequence is an all-timer, and if you don’t like Short Round, maybe we can’t be friends. (I’ll agree with you about Kate Capshaw, though.)  –David

Alice Walker The Color Purple Muses17. The Color Purple (1985)

I still have nightmares about this film; Danny Glover is chasing me with a straight razor, and there is something wrong with Oprah’s eye! Based on the novel by Alice Walker, this is one of those movies you can argue might just be better than the fine book on which it is based; Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes find the best of the material to work from. Winfrey, Glover, and a young Whoopi Goldberg headline an ensemble cast in a tale about oppression, feminism, and the bonds we form in the face of profound evil. In the hands of anyone less capable, its sentimentality would play as a soap opera. However, Spielberg takes the time to let the harsher moments breathe, and rely on profound silences. — Rachel

slavery_la_amistad_1997_matthew_mcconaughey16. Amistad (1997)

Though more entertaining (primarily due to better pacing) than Lincoln (in my humble opinion), Amistad finds itself among the lesser-referenced of Spielberg’s resume — possibly due to a lack of Daniel Day-Lewis, or more likely because while it’s a good and important film, it’s just not a remarkable one by his standards. That’s a shame, because the pre-household-name versions of Matthew McConaughey and Djimon Honsou give us pretty stellar performances. Unfortunately, the film’s climax is a powerful speech delivered by neither of these actors; it is however a gorgeously acted scene by Sir Anthony Hopkins, and that’s not a half-bad way to go if you’re going to leave your protagonists out. –Nathan

WAR HORSE15. War Horse (2011)

The beauty of War Horse is that it isn’t one Spielberg movie — it’s several Spielberg movies. It’s a “boy and his horse” story that reminds us of our beautiful connection to animals; it’s a gritty war movie that reminds us of the horrors and futility of war; it’s a tale of humanity and common decency in the midst of abject awfulness. It’s both saccharine and sour, heart-warming and tear-inducing, a testament to the best and the worst in man, and a finely-produced series of vignettes by a master craftsman. Unfortunately, probably because the story’s uniting protagonist is a horse, War Horse is never really any greater than the sum of its parts, but its parts are, at their best moments, among Spielberg’s finest works. — Nathan

MinorityReportTomCruise-114. Minority Report (2002)

Adapting Philip K. Dick has always been a dicey undertaking, and while nothing will ever have the impact that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner had, in Minority Report Spielberg managed to take the generally high-concept (and prophetic!) work of Dick and turn it into an accessible blockbuster. The story, a novel sci-fi take on the “wrongly accused cop” trope, wasn’t as interesting as the core concept of solving crimes before they occur, but unique visuals and some very engaging action sequences have kept this film iconic and referenceable long after everyone forgot what the story was actually about. — Nathan

7513. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Underrated during its initial release, Spielberg’s takeover of the late Stanley Kubrick’s dark sci-fi vision has only grown in appreciation over time. A.I. fuses Spielberg’s whimsy with Kubrick’s cynicism and the results are surprisingly emotional. Liberally tying itself to the Pinocchio fable, A.I.‘s story tackles the complex moral fabric of what makes us human in uncomfortable and challenging ways. And that much-maligned ending that was once seen as pure saccharine now feels like a bitter punch to the gut. I guarantee if you asked us in another ten years to remake this list, A.I. would rank even higher.  —Sean

catch-me-if-you-can12. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This breezy biopic has grown in esteem since its release, because only now do we realize that what Spielberg made look easy was anything but. Leonardo DiCaprio puts his boyish charms to good use as Frank Abagnale, who impersonated lawyers, doctors, and airplane pilots for years, all the while creating and cashing fraudulent checks. Tom Hanks is the FBI agent hot on his tail, and in Spielbergian fashion, their relationship slowly becomes more father and son than cat and mouse. The ending is unexpectedly moving, but it’s the little details that really elevate Catch: John Williams’s jazzy score, the clever opening credits, and the period touches that make the film a throwback, but not a throwaway. –David

tied-up11. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Sure, it isn’t as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it has one thing that sets it apart from any other Jones film: Sean Freakin’ Connery as our hero’s scene-stealing, Scottish father. The film is a fitting end (yes, end, because Crystal Skull never happened…) to the trilogy, one that takes us into the history of Indy, gives him a personal journey, a reunion with his father (and we all know how good Spielberg is with father issues), and an emotional resolution for our fedora-wearing protagonist beyond just “saving the day.” Some **cough, David, cough** argue that Temple of Doom is greater, but all arguments in that vein are invalid, because Crusade maintains the advantage that it has one more Sean Connery than Temple does. –Nathan

Film Title: Munich.10. Munich (2005)

Underrated in most circles, Munich is a thematic sequel to Spielberg’s seminal Schindler’s List, wading into the Gordian knot of the Middle East with maturity and grace to demonstrate the ultimate futility of “an eye for an eye.” Eric Bana leads a team of Israeli agents seeking retribution for the 1972 Palestinian terror attack, but they are ultimately left wondering if their actions are only making the cycle of violence worse. Between philosophical discussions, Spielberg stages some incredibly tense, clockwork sequences, all presented in moody browns and grays. The supporting cast, including Daniel Craig and the great Ciaran Hinds, is aces. I still maintain it was the best film of 2005.  –David

Lincoln-movie-shot9. Lincoln (2012)

Nine? NINE??? Nathan, this is your fault. Lincoln is not just a window into one of the most iconic symbols of American History — it’s a character study nearly unmatched in modern cinema. Boasting a profoundly career-defining (for any other actor) performance by Daniel Day-Lewis among an ensemble cast that reads like a veritable Who’s Who in Hollywood, it was the finest film of 2012 (Argo F-yourself). Yet another film that breathes, Spielberg shows you how silence can be a character; each frame looks as though it could hang in a gallery: dark shadows and nearly tangible ashes of war bleed into every scene. I mean, come on! Spielberg makes parliamentary procedure exciting! — Rachel

maxresdefault8. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Christian Bale has been a star since he was a wee tyke, and he makes this film — my second-favorite, ever — in every viewing. Based on the novel by J. G. Ballard about a spoiled British boy separated from his parents in occupied Shanghai following the attacks on Pearl Harbor (that’s a whole history lesson, by the way), Sun presents the world of war through the eyes of a child, and for my money it’s the best to do so. The varying use of wide-angles and close-ups represent the hopelessness of space and the fear of being abandoned. No, Empire is not as flashy as some of Spielberg’s films, and chances are you have never even heard of it, but I would call it his finest. A true masterpiece of war, childhood, and character. — Rachel

tumblr_m8vy8uNxey1re4uqoo1_12807. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Spielberg had carte blanche after the monster success of Jaws. What he chose to make was a surprisingly tender and hopeful original film about what mankind’s first contact with extra-terrestrials could be like. Following decades of violent alien invasion pictures, Close Encounters was a breath of fresh air, and led by an unhinged and charismatic Richard Dreyfuss (whom this writer desperately wishes would do another Spielberg film), CE represents the best of Spielberg’s directorial tendencies. The film also features the single best shot in his canon: a little boy fearlessly opening a door bathed in otherworldly light that personifies all of the awe, wonder, and emotion that Spielberg is rightfully lauded for.  –Sean

MCDJUPA EC0386. Jurassic Park (1993)

Spielberg’s first and greatest prehistoric epic was a cornerstone of my dino-loving childhood. I owned Sam Neill’s hat. I had the whole movie memorized, and I still remember most of it. Little phrases like “clever girl” and “hold onto your butts” are still part of our everyday vernacular, and that’s for a script that wasn’t even that great! Jurassic Park‘s real power is in its awesome sequences of mayhem, some of Spielberg’s most tightly-controlled work that also brings us into the brave new world of computer effects: the Rex attack on the road is a masterclass in monster terror, copied by many, but never equalled. And don’t get me started on John Williams’s score. Rexes and raptors and Goldblum’s abs, oh my! –David

ET_3147094b5. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. is many things — a film about divorce, friendship, childhood loneliness and longing, and unbridled imagination. It serves as a natural companion piece to 1977’s Close Encounters in both its tone and optimism. But E.T. is Spielberg’s greatest film (the top 7 listed here could easily be interchanged on any given day) because every element (the best of which is John Williams’s rousing score) is so focused, polished, honest and magical that it elicits the kind of overwhelming emotion that would become his calling card, and later an object of scorn for small-minded viewers. However, E.T. is pure in its intentions and every tear is earned. Spielberg’s craft has never been so evocatively displayed before or since. –Sean

lead_9604. Jaws (1975)

If you do not know this scene, you are not living life right. The ultimate Summer Blockbuster, Jaws is iconic not only for its soundtrack – dun dun! dun dun! dun dun! (you’re welcome) – but for its sophisticated performances, unrelenting horror, and beautiful representation of a beach town in peril. Only his second theatrical film, Spielberg had to rely on his gut to battle the studio, ailing and warring stars, and a ballooning budget to bring one of his most successful films to date to the big screen. When Jaws debuted and no one wanted to go back into the water, it was a watershed moment for cinema. Coupled with a dynamite marketing campaign, Jaws made Spielberg a star, and are we not the better for it! — Rachel

raidersofthelostark3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The perfect adventure film. Nothing else comes close. In recreating those WWII-era serials, Spielberg, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan ended up surpassing them: the perfect actor as the perfect wiseass hero, instantly recognizable by his silhouette; an iconic musical score; a story that organically propels us from setpiece to setpiece (featuring some of the greatest stuntwork of all time). Raiders swings between winking humor and white-knuckle action as easily as Indy travels to exotic locales via handy red lines. Spielberg famously said it was “the first movie I shot without thinking,” and if that’s true, he’s even more of a genius than we thought. Pure, unfiltered entertainment. #3 is too low for me.  –David

Saving-Private-Ryan-e14205580966872. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Ryan’s rawly emotional narrative may not be the most bulletproof of Spielberg’s career, but this film features strong characters, equally strong performances from some of the best actors of the day, and a look and feel that has been and will continue to be copied by war films for the next century. Most importantly, for twenty-one incredible, terrifying minutes, Saving Private Ryan’s opening plunges us into the bitter chaos and bloodshed of the Normandy landings, an incredible spectacle that stands as possibly the greatest recreation of war in the history of cinema. By the end, you’ll forgive that Matt Damon called a P-51 Mustang a “tankbuster,” because you’ll likely still be thinking of that first unforgettable sequence. –Nathan

Schindler's List1. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler’s List is the film that finally won Spielberg his first directing Oscar and proved to his critics and fans alike that he could make serious non-blockbuster fare. It’s a brutal examination of the Holocaust that is unflinching in its depiction of mankind’s cruelty. It’s also a film without easy answers, treating Oskar Schindler as the enigma he was, but it is filled with faith and redemption. List still features the best performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley’s careers. Aided by the documentary-style black and white cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, the stark cuts of editor Michael Kahn, and the haunting violin score by John Williams, it’s an unforgettable and historically important viewing experience. –Sean

UPDATE: After some discussion, we think we would slot Bridge of Spies at #12. Click here for Sean’s review, and let us know your own rankings in the comments.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *