From HitFlix: For the fifth time in his career, director Steven Spielberg has offered up a drama (“War Horse”) and an entertainment (“The Adventures of Tintin”) in the same year. But for the first time ever, he has two films in theaters at the same time. So it seems now is as good a time as any to run through a list of the “best” films of the famed director’s career. Click through to see where your favorites ranked, and feel free to join the discussion at In Contention.
Spielberg came off one sci-fi dazzler in 2001 directly into another in the long-gestating “Minority Report.” The film was a masterful construction, screenwriters Jon Cohen and Scott Frank spinning off of Philip K. Dick’s short story in the most creative of ways. The film has a sheen like no other, a vision of the future absolutely unique with the star power of Tom Cruise front and center. From a craft perspective, it’s an under-praised wonder, the art direction, cinematography, film editing, sound and visual effects all impeccable, with only a Best Sound Editing nomination to show for itself. Go figure. By the way, the other film Spielberg released in 2002, “Catch Me If You Can,” came very close to making the list.
9. “Jurassic Park” (1993)
I was surprised Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” even made the cut, but the more I considered it, the more I watched it (I’ve seen it a number of times over the years and was not, actually, on board from the start), the more it seemed a necessity for the list. It really is Spielberg firing on all entertainment cylinders, blending the brave new world of CGI with models and puppetry to conceive a well-oiled blockbuster machine. Take issue with the storytelling if you must, but I often find those who read the book first are more likely to disavow the film. I never read the book.
I took serious umbrage with “Saving Private Ryan” 13 years ago for overshadowing my beloved “The Thin Red Line.” But while it has a number of flaws (namely a disingenuous framing device that nearly drowns the enterprise alive), I have always thought it to be a compelling collection of vignettes about men at war, what drives them, what scares them, the elemental insanity of it all. It works as that because of an impeccable ensemble, but the craft on display, from jaw-dropping art direction to potentially best-all-time sound editing is hard to just offer up as an after-thought. It’s valid and vital anti-war cinema if I’ve ever seen it.
7. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
My feelings on the Indiana Jones franchise are…complex. My favorite (saying this with a straight face) is “The Temple of Doom.” The perfect blend and representation of the best the franchise had to offer was probably “The Last Crusade.” And “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has, in my view, lived off the fat of the land and become adored and over-praised in its time. Nevertheless, it set the bar, chiseled out a definitive place in cinema history, and that’s hard to ignore. It also just seems wrong to leave it off a list like this (as I came really close to doing). So here it is.
Spielberg’s 1993 Best Picture winner “Schindler’s List” has waned for me a little bit over the years. No question, much of it is absolutely masterful, but the bloat of the film has always kept it out of the highest tier for me and, like many, I feel that the ending is less a service to the narrative than the filmmaker apparently did. Nevertheless, it was Spielberg at a pinnacle, a gargantuan blockbuster (“Jurassic Park”) in theaters and a boatload of Oscars on the way for his magnum opus. And at its center, a trio of finely tuned performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and the diabolical Ralph Fiennes.
5. “Empire of the Sun” (1987)
One of Spielberg’s most underrated endeavors, if not THE most underrated film of his career, is the J.G. Ballard adaptation “Empire of the Sun.” Christian Bale gives one of the finest child actor performances ever in this most powerful of coming-of-age tales. And yet Spielberg couldn’t escape his own signature, as the film offered the first of two deceptively treacly endings that is actually quite disturbing (the other coming in the next film on my list). To this day it’s misread as sentimental. It’s also one of the few films that feels absolutely complete thematically and narratively, even if it suffers from what many Spielberg films suffer from: 150 minute-itis.
The long journey I’ve taken with Spielberg’s torch-bearing production “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” has been documented elsewhere, but over the last decade, this one has bubbled up as one of the director’s most unique and genuinely moving films to date. Of course, plenty is owed to the grand conceiver, Stanley Kubrick, but the finished product — which I had feared would be a bastardization — was a gorgeous blend of two artists’ visions. The finale ultimately represents their fascinating thematic preoccupation: Advanced A.I. seeking the meaning of all things, viewing the human spirit, long evaporated, as the skeleton key — seeking their God.
3. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
Spielberg has mentioned that if he made “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” today, as a result of his having started a family and grown emotionally, he would not have ended it the way he did. Thank God he made it when he did. With “Jaws” in the rear view and the keys to the kingdom (with the disaster of “1941” not yet a stain on his portfolio), Spielberg went dark and introspective in fascinating and deeply meaningful ways. Richard Dreyfuss gives a wonderful performance as a man consumed by something he doesn’t fully understand, but nevertheless desperate to see it to its conclusion, much like many a talented young filmmaker must feel.
2. “Jaws” (1975)
In truth, the top two films on my list should share the #1 spot. But a decision had to be made, and while they are both masterpieces, I settled on the willful masterpiece for the top spot and the accidental one here. “Jaws” was a runaway train that somehow, miraculously, became the sterling piece of cinema it is today. It was the most famous trial by fire in film history and the lessons learned on that set no doubt forged Spielberg into the filmmaking machine he is today. Many artists crank out their best work under the gun and amid chaos. And here, Spielberg delivered the ultimate game changer of all time…
…but “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” is a perfect film, plain and simple. Every single thing is in its right place, and this, the turning point of Spielberg’s career — igniting his desire to start a family, swinging his thematic pendulum in another direction — marks the end of his early era. A simple story about friendship and childhood wonder, the film is not one I grew up with necessarily (I never owned the late-breaking VHS), but every time I have watched it, the experience has proved richer and richer. So much of Spielberg’s creative team was in top form, from Allen Daviau to, of course, John Williams. For me, it’s the best film he’s ever made.