Pardon the intro for getting a little unwieldy, but you try capturing the essence of a world-class director in a few hundred words.
For over four decades, Steven Allan Spielberg KBE OMRI has captured the hearts and minds of filmgoers with his imagination, imagery, innovation, and insight. Spielberg’s the total package: the humanist, the whiz kid, the shrewd business entrepreneur, but above all, a ferocious filmmaker. Who doesn’t have a favorite Spielberg movie? Who didn’t grow up on his genre feats? Who hasn’t been moved to tears by his fantastical and sustainably human melodrama?
Spielberg’s a guy that has run the gamut, playing with aliens and dinosaurs, but able to put away his toys in order to tell more serious stories. You know the John Williams, the Ford-like imagery, the daddy issues, the glint and glare in his characters’ eyes, and the deep abiding love for people thrust into amazing stories. Sure, Spielberg practically made being a director like being a star, but he’s a survivor, and it’s a testament to his gifts that we’re still talking about many of his works to this day.
In anticipation of the upcoming HBO documentary on Spielberg’s iconic career, we’re looking back at his entire filmography as a director, ranking the worst to the best. Ground rules: One, we’re not talking about his documentaries, short or otherwise – narrative film works are the game. Two, no TV movies, so deepest apologies to Duel and Amazing Stories, which are both awesome. Three, directorial works only. So like, maybe we’ll make an Amblin or a Dreamworks list another time (after all, there’s always room to make fun of The Flintstones).
Ready for a list that could only be described as “Spielbergian”?
Senior Staff Writer
33. Always (1989)
Runtime: 2 hr. 2 min.
Pitch: In this flighty romantic dramedy, a dead pilot played by Richard Dreyfuss tries to reconnect with his living girlfriend, played by Hollie Hunter, and it’s just mush. Mush everywhere. A loose remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne.
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, and Audrey Hepburn in her last film role
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg douses Always in honey, syrup, and other saccharine love poisons. But few scenes scream “Spielbergian twinkle gone awry” more than when Pete Sandich (a cackling, snarky Dreyfuss) first arrives in Heaven, only to be greeted by Audrey Hepburn against overbearingly Wyeth-like imagery of fields and trees and all things sickly sweet.
Spielberg is nothing if not a sentimentalist, proud to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he does it like a pro. But the deep, metaphysical wonders of life, love, and the great beyond boiled down to a friggin’ haircut scene? With all due respect, this is probably Spielberg’s lamest scene.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams went weepy, almost parodying his own sound by quadrupling the regal horn work and soft-hearted strings. There’s a theme somewhere inside Williams’ score, but it’s pretty hard to hear against the loud plane sounds, romantic grandeur, and nasal vocal range of Richard Dreyfuss.
Always Audrey: This marked Audrey Hepburn’s last onscreen appearance. The icon accepted a million-dollar payday to play Hap, Dreyfuss’ ghost barber of whatever, offering platitudes about “divine breaths” and other new age nonsense while wearing pristine white outfits. Hepburn’s lovely, aloof, and, admittedly, looks a bit bored. But hey, her outfits are classy and clean, and that million went straight to UNICEF. Who knows what Spielberg’s original choice, Sean Connery, might have done with that money? We can only assume more wigs.
One Big, Over-long, Out-in-the-Open Inside Joke: About that A Guy Named Joe connection for a second! On the set of Jaws, Dreyfuss and Spielberg would quote the Spencer Tracy classic to one another non-stop. Film geeks, amirite? But they eventually found the opportunity to just remake the damn thing in 1989, and the rest is baffling history.
Analysis: Always displays Spielberg’s most noticeable tendencies in their weakest and most meaningless forms. The heart, the dazzle, the gee-shucks staring and overt sincerity. It’s all so boring, and frankly, off-putting. Rarely has Spielberg looked like a director without a grasp on the material he’s directing, but Always presented a director struggling to be creative while reinventing old material.
What’s wrong with Always? Let us count the ways: The schmaltzy romance. The dumb notions of the afterlife. The blind homage to old-timey romance a la Richard Powell and Fleming that just doesn’t fly in 1989. The blazingly overdone aerial photography. The poorly cast trio of leads (and Dreyfuss, in particular, is the least romantic lead you’ll ever see).
Spielberg never gets a handle on his tone, from farce to fanciful love affair, which is why Always tailspins the entire way. It’s not just dull, or pandering, but actually quite annoying in the end. We can’t fault Spielberg for trying as he does, but he misses so big here. Chalk it up to smoke in his eyes on this one.
32. “Kick the Can” from The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Runtime: 25 min.
Pitch: A remake of an old George Clayton Johnson episode of Twilight Zone, Scatman Crothers visits retirement homes with his magical can that turns the elderly young. Look, we’re trying not to use the phrase “magical negro.”
Cast: Burgess Meredith, Scatman Crothers, Bill Quinn, Martin Garner, Selma Diamond, and Helen Shaw
Amblin’ Man: Probably the little kid in a turban being all “I have to go back to home planet now,” or his youth, or some heavy-handed concept like that.
Williams’ Wonder: Whoa whoa whoa, who let Jerry Goldsmith in here? It’s worth noting that Spielberg made a rare concession here working with the famed composer on his Twilight Zone segment, and Goldsmith gave a fanciful waltz that could be best described as memorable, but over-bearing. It’s almost funny to imagine Spielberg meeting with Goldsmith at recording sessions and pulling a Brick Tamland: “You’re not John.”
Getting Upstaged: Spielberg produced Twilight Zone: The Movie, while directing one of four segments among other name directors, and curiously enough his entry is part of the stinky first half. The movie starts with “Time Out”, a John Landis anti-racism moral fable that hangs a pall over the rest of the film given the infamous helicopter accident. Then comes Spielberg’s “Kick the Can”, which does just nothing. Old folks feel sad and wanna be young, but they already feel young inside? Guh.
But then, two young studs by the names of Joe Dante and George Miller directed the hell out of their latter half segments, effectively saving the film. Dante brought pre-Gremlins verve and amazing effects to his short, “It’s a Good Life”, a remake of the episode with the same name. And Miller remakes the William Shatner terror in the skies bit, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, with fevered insanity.
Should you come across this film, start at the middle.
What Could Have Been: Spielberg kicked around several ideas before landing on “Kick the Can” for this film. He considered updating “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, a thriller about aliens invading a neighborhood, in addition to one about a bully getting his comeuppance on Halloween. Man, the “What if?” of those ideas.
Analysis: Emotionally manipulative, overly short, and a little insincere, Spielberg accidentally made what feels like the world’s longest insurance commercial. Spielberg described the short as a rumination on the idea that “you’re only as old as you feel,” and structurally, the thing’s built on a bed of tissues. Old people feel youthful delights as they pull a Cinderella, turning into their young selves for one night only, because of fantasy rules. The menschy elders grouse then laugh and play as kids discuss the long-term perks of being young again. On that note, anybody remember Cocoon? Watch that, instead.
31. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 min.
Pitch: Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) returns from the sunset older, grumpier, and with way too many sidekicks (see: Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Karen Allen, and arguably Jim Broadbent). This time around, he’s racing towards a telepathic crystal skull with some nasty(?) Soviets led by Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) on his heels. Somewhere in there is a bunch of CGI gophers, ants, and monkeys that are no match for a couple Wal-Mart snakes. Let’s not forget about the extraterrestrial curmudgeon that materializes out of nowhere, either.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Karen Allen, and Jim Broadbent
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg tends to shine when he keeps the action simple, charismatic, and engaging. Where Crystal Skull fails is in its startling inability to conjure up anything even remotely reasonable. There are a few remarkable sequences — Area-51, Indy vs. Mammoth Soviet — only they’re fumbled by horrendous effects and straight-up bad plotting. But one scene worth revisiting is when Mutt and his disapproving titular father (groan) escape from Marshall College on a motorcycle. It’s very basic, but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s also the only time this film even comes close to the physical comedy of Last Crusade.
Williams’ Wonder: By 2008, the maestro could still score any old drama to perfection, but when it came time to carve out some poppy melodies for action adventures, well, let’s just say the guy checked out. Listen closely and you can almost hear him in the studio, draped over his music stand, screaming: “Goddammit, Steven, enough’s enough!” Needless to say, his work on Crystal Skull, much like the sequel itself, is pretty uninspired and dull. “The Journey to Akator” sounds stripped off an On the Border restaurant playlist, “Irina’s Theme” flies by like a quick transition scene in Harry Potter, and “The Adventures of Mutt”, which won a Grammy for Christ’s sake, belongs in a Disney gift shop. “Call of the Crystal” is okay, though.
“Nuke the Fridge”: Have you heard of this online colloquialism? Probably. A long, long time ago, Spielberg came up with this bonehead idea that would place our favorite archaeologist inside a lead-lined refrigerator in order to successfully evade a nuclear bomb and escape an American testing site. Not only that, but the blast would somehow catapult the fridge, going far enough to kiss the sky and crash miles and miles away. It’s the type of scenario a kid playing with Kenner figures would dream up, and while the legendary director has always sparked the best of our imaginations, nobody was having it back in 2008. Thus, anytime a franchise, film, or story goes batshit crazy, it doesn’t “jump the shark” anymore …. no, it “nukes the fridge.”
Shia LeMutt: Oh, weren’t those the days when Even Stevens was once touted as the second coming? Long before he was hitching rides from randos across the States, LeBeouf was an in-demand star, enough to carry a blockbuster or three. So, it makes sense why Spielberg would want him to follow the box office dollars of his aging, go-to action hero. Besides, nobody could have predicted this:
Or, when he publicly denounced the film in 2010. “I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished,” LaBeouf admitted to The Los Angeles Times, adding: “You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg, who directed]. But the actor’s job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn’t do it. So that’s my fault. Simple.” Ford would later call him a “fucking idiot.”
Analysis: But really, Shia wasn’t wrong. This film is an ugly, forgettable, and lousy artifact that doesn’t belong in a museum. Nothing works in this cash-in of a sequel. Not David Koepp’s messy screenplay. Not Ford and Allen’s cringe-worthy reunion. Not Janusz Kamiński’s ever-distracting cinematography. Not Spielberg’s shambled attempt to carve out a father-son bond. Not even Ford’s much-anticipated return to the fedora. Hell, there are video games that are better Indiana Jones films than this one, and some of them don’t even include the guy (see: Uncharted). Here’s hoping the fifth chapter finds some fortune and glory.
30. 1941 (1979)
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min.
Pitch: 1941. Los Angeles caves in fear after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. Paranoia, madness, guns, nuts, and bullets collide as Americans embrace their xenophobia for the Japanese.
This is a comedy.
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, and Robert Stack
Amblin’ Man: The ham-fisted Jaws reference is so literally Spielbergian. Complete with the actress that played Chrissie. Spielberg the goofball, everyone.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams pulls an almost parodic score together for 1941, with loud, regal marches built on flutes and horns that feel like they belong in Patton or The Great Escape or JFK for that matter. The score works comically, because it sounds like the kind of music that could fit into more serious films about the same subjects of war, with a touch more brass and pomp to help listeners know Williams is being a bit silly.
Awards Before Praise: This sucker has a very deserving 34 on Metacritic. The film’s bombast is too much, and there’s a lot of production excess on display. Excess that netted the Christmas-released comedy three Oscar nominations — specifically for sound, visual effects, and, funnily enough, cinematography by legendary lenser William A. Fraker. Why’s that funny? Because Fraker was fired midway through production over creative differences.
John Wayne Hated It: Spielberg wanted The Duke for the role of Major General Stillwell. Wayne passed, though, citing not only ill health, but pushed back at Spielberg and called the project un-American and anti-patriotic. Wayne told Spielberg to just go ahead and drop the project.
A simple “no” would have sufficed.
Robert Stack took the role and was decidedly nicer about it.
Analysis: Spielberg’s always been a little flimsy with the funnies, and 1941 shows his desire to be silly, but at a great cost: the expense of his viewers’ patience. He barrages every frame with dumb joke after dumb joke, often to no avail. Maybe it’s Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s unwieldy script, or maybe it’s the amount of post-Saturday Night Live talent, or maybe it was Spielberg’s ego in the wake of several enormous hits, but 1941 is a film that makes no attempt to contain itself to anything resembling humor.
There are no punchlines, just goofy occurrences. No real plot, just character moments loosely put together. No filmmaking authority, just cacophonous roaring for weirdly specific nostalgia. Bless Spielberg for stepping outside of himself on this one, but perhaps this was the first sign that if there’s a chink in his armor, it’s humor. To get a sense of 1941’s bloating, enjoy two minutes of Belushi screaming while lost inside an airplane.
Loud, long, and sinfully unfunny, 1941’s a dud.
29. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 9 min.
Pitch: Four years after John Hammond’s great dinosaur experiment went to hell on Isla Nublar, Dr. Ian Malcolm is drawn back to a different island full of dinosaurs, one that InGen used to breed various species for Jurassic Park. When Ian finds out that a corporate team wants to bring even wilder dinosaurs to the mainland, he’s forced to intervene. Also, he’s there to save his girlfriend. And his kid!
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, and Richard Schiff
Amblin’ Man: We’ll get to that ending in just a minute, but you can’t say that the image of a T. Rex wreaking havoc on downtown San Diego isn’t within Spielberg’s grasp. Also, the entire film is predicated on a man trying to save his semi-distant familiars, so there’s your other, more classic connection.
Williams’ Wonder: Credit where credit is due, here. Williams could have easily reprised his iconic themes from Jurassic Park in a different context and probably called it a day, but instead tries to fit the second film’s more action-packed tone. As such, and much like the film it’s in, the score’s appropriately hard-charging without leaving a lasting impression. The only major change is that various bongo and other drum sounds are added in, because islands.
From Humble Beginnings: The Lost World is only famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s second outing with Spielberg, after Schindler’s List. And it’s not exactly among the more memorable work the two have done together over the years. Much of the film is shot in murky blues, blacks, and grays, with more than one key action sequence taking place in the dark. There’s little of the striking natural light or magic-hour aesthetic that’s come to define Kaminski’s work here.
Too Good for Dinosaurs: The Lost World marked the second attempt in a row on Spielberg’s part to cast Juliette Binoche in one of the Jurassic Park films. She was offered Moore’s role, after also turning down Dr. Ellie Sattler in the first film. But eventually the venerated actress would find her way into a film with giant monsters, when she was fridged in the opening minutes of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. You know that old Hollywood adage: They all get killed by lizards in the end.
Analysis: The Lost World was a bona fide event when it debuted on Memorial Day weekend in 1997. It was the sequel to one of the most beloved films of the ‘90s, ended a multi-year production sabbatical for Spielberg, and held the all-time record for opening-weekend box office for over four years until Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone bested it. It was the continuation of what was widely assumed to be the industry’s next monster franchise. It had the Goldblum. It had everything going for it.
And then, it just wasn’t that good.
It’s not that The Lost World is outright awful. Hell, it’s still somehow the second-best installment of the Jurassic series. It’s just a film distinctly of its time, one more given to excessive, trailer-friendly bombast than to Spielberg’s particular brand of the same. It’s loud, it’s full of ultimately disposable side characters, and it more or less peaks with its terrifying “compy” opening; even that last sequence loses some of its heft when it’s revealed that the little girl isn’t actually killed by dinosaurs. After that introduction, which suggests a darker and more menacing film, The Lost World goes on to include a young girl overcoming dinosaur attacks with gymnastics.
Then there’s that ending. For a kid at the time, the image of a T. Rex going wild on San Diego as Goldblum races to avoid flying debris and a 76 ball was the coolest thing in the world. In reality, it’s maybe the silliest thing that’s ever happened in a series that also includes a talking velociraptor on an airplane and the entirety of Jurassic World. It’s the exact point when the series loses the magic of discovery that makes the first installment such a classic, and turns it into a multi-film treatise on the coolness of dinosaurs breaking stuff. And to be fair, dinosaurs breaking stuff is pretty fun. You just expect a little more from Spielberg.
28. Hook (1991)
Runtime: 2 hr. 22 min.
Pitch: In this Spielbergian riff on the classic fairy tale, Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has grown up to become a corporate lawyer with no time for his two children. When the dreaded Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) returns to kidnap young Jack and Maggie, Peter must return to Neverland and, in typical Spielberg fashion, rediscover his childlike sense of wonder.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, and Maggie Smith
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg has always had a flair for the magical moment — the bicycle taking off into the sky, the brontosaurus rearing up on its hind legs, and, of course, Peter Pan rising up into the sky and reclaiming leadership of the Lost Boys. It’s hard not to get butterflies at the sight of the Notorious P.A.N. swooping down over the Boys’ ramshackle village and reclaiming his sword from Rufio. Nah, that’s not a tear in my eye. That’s just some pixie dust.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams worked his typical magic here, delivering yet another memorable score to add to Spielberg’s canon. The score’s crowning moment is the original song “We Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, a bouncy and appropriately youthful tune sung by a children’s choir. It’s a glimpse into what might have been, as Spielberg initially considered making the film a musical (with Williams’ help, of course).
Food Fight!: Hook never really gels as a movie, but some of the individual scenes in the Lost Boys’ village really let Spielberg and his pals at Industrial Light and Magic have some fun. One of the most colorful and visually inventive scenes in the director’s body of work comes during the “imaginary” food fight, which finds Robin Williams at his childlike best.
Crocodile Flop: One thing that really sucks about Hook is the action-sequence choreography, and there’s no more egregious offender than the scene in which Hook is eaten by his stuffed crocodile clock thingy. He has roughly 30 seconds to get out of the way before the thing falls on him, but he just keeps putzing about and tripping over his cape because — oh, yeah, lazy filmmaking.
Analysis: Hook may not rank among Spielberg’s best output, but it still has the look and feel of a classic for the most part. John Williams obviously has a lot to do with this, but Spielberg is playing firmly within his wheelhouse here; turn to the entry for “childlike sense of wonder” in the film dictionary, and you’ll probably see the director’s grinning face. If anything, Hook goes too far with the sap and the sentimentality, and not far enough in terms of taking the Peter Pan story to a more interesting Neverland.
27. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
Runtime: 1 hr. 47 min.
Pitch: Adapted from the iconic French comic strip, The Adventures of Tintin follows the titular reporter and his beloved dog, Snowy, as they solve the mystery of a lost pirate ship, the Unicorn, and help drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) settle a score against the evil Red Rackham. Many Indiana Jones-esque antics ensue.
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Daniel Mays, Mackenzie Crook, Toby Jones, and Gad Elmaleh
Amblin’ Man: If there’s a single shot you should see in Tintin, it has to be the four-minute, uninterrupted tracking shot that follows Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock chasing Red Rackham through the streets of Bagghar after one of the scrolls that leads to the treasure. The whole affair is a masterpiece of action choreography, as Tintin dodges missiles, ziplines down clothing lines, and fights off Rackham’s goons on land, air, and sea – all in a single “take.” It’s the kind of ambitious shot that Spielberg wishes he could pull off in a live-action Indy film.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams’ Tintin theme is a quirky, harpsichord-centric tune that’s a bit of a departure from his more bombastic work. Tintin’s far more mischievous than the Big Damn Hero that is Indiana Jones, so giving him a suitably sneaky melody fits quite nicely.
Thompson and Thompson: Edgar Wright co-wrote the screenplay (along with Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish and Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat), so naturally they found a place to put Wright’s buddies Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. As the identical (but unrelated) detectives Thompson and Thompson, Frost and Pegg dust off their razor-sharp repartee to great effect.
The Serkis Is in Town: Why, it just wouldn’t be a motion-capture film without Andy Serkis playing a part! Luckily, the ubiquitous mo-cap master is wonderful as Captain Haddock, offering a Chaplinesque physicality that allows him to be the butt of the drunken joke without becoming irritating. His Haddock is nowhere near the heights of Caesar or Gollum, but it’s an effective performance nonetheless.
Analysis: Spielberg’s love of the old Tintin comics is a matter of long-standing public record (we wouldn’t have Indy films without them, frankly), so it would stand to reason that he’d want to adapt them to the big screen. While The Adventures of Tintin is no great shakes, there’s still plenty to love about it, from the eye-catching CG to the realistically rendered character models and more.
Watching Tintin is like seeing Spielberg get to direct a fifth Indy movie, but this time with limitless ability to place and move the camera, resulting in an over-the-top adventure that’s just ambitious enough to work. Where Tintin falters is the story and pacing, which follow the comic’s limited vocabulary a bit too much. In the end, it becomes too formulaic to put it above the crackerjack storytelling of these other entries.
26. War of the Worlds (2005)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Pitch: Spielberg! Aliens! Has there ever been a more natural pairing? The E.T.s in this Orson Welles adaptation are out for more than Reese’s Pieces, though. These tripod assholes emerge from underground to wreck havoc on the life of divorced crane operator Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two estranged children. Their only weakness? Ah, come on, no spoilers!
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, and Tim Robbins
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg’s scariest film since Jurassic Park proved once again that he’s a master at making huge, hulking monsters seem like … well, huge, hulking monsters. When the first tripod emerges from underground and starts zapping people, it feels like a real callback to the famous T. Rex scene from a decade earlier. The first deaths we see come via a camcorder that some poor soul has dropped on the ground. This kind of framing trick is vintage Spielberg.
Williams’ Wonder: Not one of Williams’ most memorable scores, but it has a few interesting points. The composer used some weirdly chilling vocal elements — female shrieks and low, throaty male singing — to heighten the scare factor, and it’s probably why War of the Worlds scans more as a traditional “horror” film than Jurassic Park, which favored epic orchestral music.
Echoes of 9/11: Of course, there’s another reason the film might’ve been so scary at the time. Arriving in theaters just a few years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, War of the Worlds doesn’t hold back on imagery that evokes that chaotic day. The fact that it came out on Independence Day weekend only strengthened the connection in viewers’ minds.
Dino Déjà Vu: Not to harp on the Jurassic Park connection too much, but Spielberg definitely reuses a ton of his old tricks here. That basement scene with the probe? Beat by beat, it’s nearly a carbon copy of the scene with the raptors in the kitchen. It does feature crazy Tim Robbins with an axe, though, so points for that.
Analysis: This one’s a bit too derivative to rank as a classic in its own right, and Spielberg doesn’t do anything here that he hadn’t already done better elsewhere. Having just breathed new life into the sci-fi genre with 2002’s fantastic Minority Report, he seems like he’s stuck on auto-pilot, though Spielberg auto-pilot is still better than what most filmmakers bring to the table. War of the Worlds does feature some of the best special effects of any Spielberg film (thanks again, Industrial Light & Magic) and the Doug Chiang-designed tripods are a subtle stroke of genius.
25. War Horse (2011)
Runtime: 2 hr. 26 min.
Pitch: War Horse, adapted from the novel of the same name, follows a young man (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved colt as they endure the horrors of World War I. After the two are separated, the colt is passed from owner to owner, seeing the devastation of modern armed conflict from a plethora of angles, all the while hoping to survive and make it back home.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Niels Arestrup, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, and Peter Mullan
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg’s depiction of the chaos of war in World War II was already the stuff of legend after Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse’s trench warfare feels like the World War I equivalent. Rather than going for the intimacy of hand-held close-ups, however, Spielberg hangs back, capturing the vast scale of these trench battles with huge wides and dolly shots, going big where he once went small. It’s an interesting inversion of the style he made so famous.
Williams’ Wonder: Given the more sweeping, picturesque visuals of War Horse and the essential tranquility of the pastoral farmland that bookends the film, it makes sense that Williams’ work is a bit more adagio at times..
Unbridled Beauty: War Horse’s production took them all over the UK, from the roving hills of Devon to the stone roofs of Wiltshire. As a result, the film teems with a sense of history and authenticity, and the rare beauty of the English landscapes offer an immediate sense of awe.
I’m Ready for My Closeup, Mr. Ed: Joey, the titular war horse, was played by 14 different horses over the course of the film, and he and the other horses had a phalanx of experts on hand to help them throughout. They kept a farrier on set to get horseshoes back on the horses if they got stuck in the mud, and the horses were given a special makeup team to ensure that the colt looked as fine as an equine could be.
Analysis: Yet another of Spielberg’s crowd-pleasing, youth-in-war films, War Horse features some of the most beautiful imagery ever committed to film. It’s clear that Spielberg challenged Kaminski to break out of the plasticky sheen of many of his previous collaborations, creating a daguerreotype look that differed from the dirt and grit of Saving Private Ryan.
Overall, War Horse offers little that we haven’t seen before about the cruelty and randomness of war and the loss of innocence in the face of such devastation. Still, as with most late-period Spielberg works, it’s a good one to take your mom to – its emotional core is uncomplicated but effective.
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Pitch: In 1971, a bombshell study alleging that the United States was well aware of the non-viability and likely casualties of the Vietnam War came into the possession of The New York Times. When the Times was blacklisted by the federal government from making the study public, the then-struggling Washington Post found itself at the center of a cultural firestorm, as its management had to decide whether the truth was worth the overwhelming risks involved.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg finds his customary sense of wonder in the smaller details this time around. You’ve never seen the revving up of a printing press visualized with such awe, or the bustle of an early ‘70s newsroom floor visualized with such starry eyes. It’s a heroic fantasy about banal, everyday journalism, which is every bit as valuable in its own way given the climate in which The Post has been released.
Williams’ Wonder: In keeping with the film’s straightforward subject matter and hardworking cast of characters, Williams delivers something eloquent and yet a bit more subdued this time around. There’s an anxious tremble to most of his compositions, and if it’s still very much a Williams score, he ably captures the constantly escalating panic within the film in a way that elevates furtive closed-room debates over the publication of a piece of writing to the dramatic impact of a triumphant final battle.
It’s Bob and David!: During one early scene, Spielberg frames Odenkirk and Cross shoulder-to-shoulder, which could just be a character moment, but it’s one we choose to interpret as a sly indication that the venerable filmmaker is as big a fan of Mr. Show as we are.
Spielberg’s MVP: The Post marks the fifth collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks, making Hanks the director’s most frequently utilized performer. This somehow feels appropriate, given that it’s hard to think of two names more synonymous with great modern American films.
Analysis: The Post catches Spielberg near his most idealistic, and as far as the director’s “message movies” go, it’s among his most unabashedly hopeful. That Spielberg would happen to release a film of this nature right as the most media-hostile sitting president since Nixon is hardly an accident; if anything, The Post puts too fine a point on the allegorical implications of its story, right around the time when it inadvertently appears to tease some sort of Nixon Extended Universe in its final moments.
Yet what’s most powerful and lasting about the director’s ode to the absolute importance of an unbiased, hard-charging free press is the way in which he busies himself with the tiring-yet-pivotal details of releasing a piece of journalism as pivotal as the Pentagon Papers. Through Meryl Streep (in one of her best recent turns) and Tom Hanks, Spielberg envisions the heroism of the press as a conflicted kind, lingering over the endless debates and fact-checking and legal wrangling of running any kind of good journalism, something that’s been too often swept under the rug in the era of the click economy.
There was a substantial risk in publishing the Pentagon Papers, not only because of the ways in which it implicated the federal government as largely responsible for the staggering death toll in Vietnam on both sides, but because it would prove that not even the most powerful governments in the world can hide their secrets forever. Spielberg understands this every bit as well as he does the importance of their eventual release, and if The Post is blunt in its celebration, it nevertheless speaks to subjects that have become unpleasantly relevant once again in our own time. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
23. The BFG (2016)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Pitch: An orphan named Sophie gets caught out of bed during the witching hour and snatched away to Giant Country by the land’s dream-catching “runt.” Together, they plot to save the world’s children from being gobbled up like sugar lumps by bigger, less-friendly giants.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, and Bill Hader
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg once stated that he wanted people to leave Jurassic Park thinking, Gee, this is the first time I’ve really seen a dinosaur. That’s exactly how audiences will feel about giants as they watch BFG nimbly slink about London in the shadows or pull up a piano and hoist a pitchfork to have breakfast with the Queen of England. As magical as Spielberg tried to make dream catching in far, faraway Dream Country, nothing in that scene touches the humor and wonder of watching a giant visit our own little corner of the world and tuck in. It’s scrumdiddlyumptious!
Williams’ Wonder: They’re at it again! Here, Williams adds equal parts awe and playfulness to Sophie’s dream-catching outing with BFG in Dream Country. As usual, Spielberg and Williams together are a veritable golden phizzwizard!
Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum: In Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Jack is a mythical giant killer who gives the human bean-gobbling giants nightmares. In Spielberg’s adaptation, Jack is BFG’s previous human friend (and coiner of the giant’s name), a boy he loved but couldn’t save from becoming dinner for the child-eating giants. It’s a poignant backstory that explains both why BFG became a dream catcher and why he ultimately summons the courage to help Sophie.
The BF What?: Big Fuzzy Gerbils? No. Blotchy Facial Growth? Nope, give up yet? While die-hard fans of Dahl no doubt know that The BFG stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” those not in the know might have zero idea what the acronym stands for. Lame internet jokes aside, The BFG might have opened better at the BBO (Big Box Office) if more people had known exactly what those letters stood for. Am I right, or am I left?
Analysis: As Allison Shoemaker noted in her review, The BFG occasionally catches Spielberg “straining for sentiment” rather than allowing the tale’s innate wonder, Dahl’s delightfully playful language, and the sheer power of Mark Rylance’s performance to breathe and settle into their own magic. When Spielberg holds back, we get a meeting of worlds that’s both clever and hilarious and a moving story of a little girl and a “tiny” giant, both of whom discover that their small stature doesn’t limit their capacity to love and make the world a bit kinder.
22. Amistad (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 35 min.
Pitch: In 1839, a group of slaves takes over a ship traveling from Cuba to the United States. Led by a Mende tribesman named Cinqué, the group is then captured and embroiled in a courtroom battle with historical consequences.
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey
Amblin’ Man: Amistad conjures up so much artificial sentimentality that it can’t be mistaken for anything other than a Spielberg film from the ‘90s. Though a bit heavily acted by Anthony Hopkins, John Quincy Adams’ extended courtroom speech about inalienable rights and the Declaration of Independence is basically Amistad in a nutshell: sweeping, maudlin, and resembling historical fact only in the details.
Williams’ Wonder: Like Hopkins and pretty much everyone else in the cast, Williams shoots for the moon here and delivers one of his grandest, most emotionally manipulative (not necessarily a bad thing) scores ever. His rousing courtroom theme keeps the drama at peak levels and leaves us hanging on every word.
The Human Element: Though the courtroom scenes tend to focus more on the white men as noble saviors, the rest of Amistad deserves credit for casting a light on the human experience at the heart of the slave trade, and for giving actual faces and identities to those affected by it. The film’s portrayal of the Middle Passage ranks among Spielberg’s most brutal and affecting work, matching or surpassing even Schindler’s List.
Fast and Loose with Fact: Amistad has come under heavy scrutiny for its historical inaccuracies, and the actual Amistad case was not the critical turning point in the abolition movement that Spielberg would have us believe. That’s the price you pay for a good ol’ rousing historical drama, and Spielberg — his focus always on the audience — doesn’t mind paying it one bit.
Analysis: Your opinion of Amistad will likely be determined by how much Spielberg you can stomach, as this historical drama ranks among his most maudlin and self-indulgent turns. It’s almost as if he’s channeling old Hollywood here — reaching back to an era when audiences didn’t second-guess overblown courtroom speeches and questionable historical accuracy. This is a film that hasn’t aged well in our ever-more-cynical culture, but its heart is in the right place, and it still holds value for those who like their history with a spoonful of sugar.
21. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Runtime: 1 hr. 50 min.
Pitch: A husband and wife race across Texas with a police officer held hostage. The plan? There is none. The end game? They just want their kid back.
Cast: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, and Michael Sacks.
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg was not yet Spielberg, and it’s admittedly kind of hard to see his interests in 1974. The snappy imagery and emphasis on humanity against sensationalism could be … wait yeah, it’s the parent and child relationship. Bad parents that wanna be good parents. There’s Spielberg. Right there.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams and Spielberg, together for the first time. Sorry if that sounds a little nerdy and overly ceremonious, but consider the following: Spielberg’s rarely left the composer since the two started working together on this. Yes, Spielberg’s worked with editor Michael Kahn just as many times, but this relationship’s much more famous and easily appreciable.
For their first trip, Williams crafted a heartfelt harmonica theme and slowly built out a mighty score from there. It’s a great evolution of sounds, starting simple and wistful and ending on a hearty orchestral swell that captures the film’s escalating drama. This is a great and under-appreciated beginning for Williams and Spielberg, forgotten by the film’s sidenote status in the director’s career. Although The Towering Inferno landed Williams an Oscar nomination in ’74, The Sugarland Express is, frankly, a much more interesting sound.
Apologies and fair warning, the clip is a little spoilery because YouTube wasn’t exactly crushing it with soundtrack audio.
True Crime: The Sugarland Express was loosely based on the real-life story of Ila Fae Holiday and Robert Dent kidnapping highway patrolman J. Kenneth Crone. How loose? Ila became Goldie Hawn’s Lou Jean Sparrow Poplin while Robert Dent became William Atherton’s Clovis Mitchell. There was no cute prison break in real life like the opening of the film — the real-life chase lasted a few hours, not a few days — but a ton of police cars did chase Dent and Holiday at slow speed throughout Texas in 1969. Dramatic embellishments and name changes aside, The Sugarland Express is like 75% accurate.
Hot Takes: Apparently, Hawn and Atherton’s acting styles didn’t really mesh on set. Hawn was a free-spirit natural and at her best on first takes, and the performance is like a fire cracker. Atherton, on the hand, was a thespian. He liked to evolve and complete his work over many takes. While there’s no reason to believe there was any animosity, what’s more interesting, and telling of Spielberg’s supposed gifts for multi-tasking, is how the director could time shots just right to get what he wanted. Spielberg would wait for Atherton’s best, then manage to get second wind from Hawn.
Analysis: The emotional output’s a little low on fuel at times, and the ending damn near spoils the movie, but The Sugarland Express feels overall like a fancy calling-card debut, a taste of greatness to come. Spielberg basically begged and scratched at David Brown and Richard Zanuck’s door for a chance to direct the film, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. Spielberg was on set, having breakfast with famed DP Vilmos Zsigmond every day, inventing wild shots and new ideas for how to film their chase epic.
The Sugarland Express is a noteworthy debut, arriving at a time in the ‘70s when big-time car films like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry were all the rage. Spielberg opted to strap cameras on cars in nifty new ways, focusing on heart, optimism, and panache over decade-typical moral ambiguity. Spielberg’s races occasionally get sidetracked in search of a happy ending, but it’s still a race nonetheless.
20. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Runtime: 2 hr. 33 min.
Pitch: In a film that combines Spielberg’s sense of childlike wonder with his personal interest in the horrors of World War II, young Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is separated from his wealthy British parents in Shanghai and taken to a Japanese internment camp.
Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers
Amblin’ Man: Even when he’s probing the darkest parts of the human soul, Spielberg can’t help but shine a sentimental spotlight on things every once in awhile. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Jamie witnesses a traditional kamikaze ritual at the POW camp and begins to sing the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gân”. The symbolism is a little heavy-handed here — He’s just an innocent boy! He doesn’t see the difference between a Japanese life and a British life! — but damn if it isn’t effective. Spielberg, you beautiful, manipulative man.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams can’t take credit for the most effective piece of music in the film (see above), but he did snag a Grammy for composing a sweeping orchestral score that uses “Suo Gân” as a reference point.
The Cadillac of Child Actors: Bale’s performance in this film continues to rank among his very best, which is crazy when you consider that he was only a child in his second starring role. Before you get too carried away on the Bale train, however, we should note that he never actually had the pipes of an angelic choirboy. Another British performer, James Rainbird, provided his singing voice.
Class Is in Session: If you were to teach just one of Spielberg’s movies in film school, this would probably be the one. Between the jarring-but-seamless shifts in emotion and the visual metaphors like Jim’s tiny toy plane, Empire of the Sun is an impeccably crafted tale of innocence lost, even if it does succumb to the schmaltz once or twice.
Analysis: Unlike Spielberg’s many other wartime films, Empire of the Sun focuses on the death and devastation from the perspective of a child. In this way, it can almost be viewed as the platonic ideal of a Steven Spielberg movie, as it’s the only entry in his catalog that effectively bridges the gap between the E.T.s and the Saving Private Ryans.
19. The Terminal (2004)
Runtime: 2 hr. 8 min.
Pitch: A traveler from the fictional country of Krakozhia discovers upon landing at JFK International that his home country has broken out in a civil war, leaving his passport invalid and him as a man without a nation to enter or return to. So he makes the best of a bad situation and takes up residence in the terminal in which he landed for most of the next year.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Chi McBride, and Kumar Pallana
Amblin’ Man: The “man without a home” idea is a little more muted here than usual; after all, the film is a dramedy with an emphasis on that first part. But Viktor Navorski is the consummate Spielberg character, a stranger from a far-off land who just wants to belong wherever he is. His unflappable calm and adaptive instinct in the face of Tucci’s cruel customs officer and his being stuck permanently in transit only make him stronger and more human, and isn’t that the key takeaway from any of the director’s work?
Williams’ Wonder: Not one of the composer’s more memorable outings. Given that Viktor’s mission involves his father’s obsession with jazz, there’s a lightness to some of Williams’ work here that’s unfortunately offset by some of his more maudlin, sentimental instincts. It’s a warm enough score for a perfectly innocuous movie, which should tell you a lot about both the score and the film.
A real terminal stay: Though Spielberg chose to only loosely base the film on actual events, and didn’t really cite the film’s unbelievable source material during its promotional push, The Terminal is based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who took up residence inside the De Gaulle Airport in France for 18 years after a legal wrangle left him a refugee without papers to actually enter France or any other country.
Viktor Takes Manhattan: The film’s lovely ending sees Viktor finally get the Benny Golson autograph he waited so long for, but without Amelia, whose gambit to get Viktor a one-day visa involved her returning to a past lover. Spielberg shot two endings, but for once resisted the urge to go with the most sentimental one, which would have seen Amelia accompany him into Manhattan. The one that ends the finished film winds up being the more effective, with Viktor’s quiet persistence resulting in an equally quiet moment of triumph.
Analysis: There’s always a kind of appeal to places of transit and transience that The Terminal ably captures. While the film as a whole sees Spielberg near his most precocious and relies heavily on Tom Hanks’ endearing qualities as an actor, the film understands the magic of even the things we take most for granted, the ones we rush past in a harried quest to make that plane on time. It’s a film composed almost entirely of small, fleeting conversations, chance meetings that end up meaning a lot to Viktor when it counts but are of little consequence to his larger journey in life. It’s a film about the in-between.
It’s also willing to indulge in just a little bit of sap to get there. Okay, maybe more than a little bit. The film verges on treacle at points, particularly in the tentative courtship between Viktor and Amelia, and Tucci’s officious airport heavy is such a cartoonish villain (through no fault of the actor’s) that the film is hard to take seriously at times. To simply call it “charming” and leave it there feels like backhanded praise, but there’s seemingly no better description for a movie that makes for pleasant viewing without ever really pushing forward in any meaningful way. So, yeah. It’s charming.
18. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Runtime: 2 hr. 22 min.
Pitch: A US attorney is secretly selected to represent a soviet spy and broker a deal with Soviet Union in East Berlin during the Cold War. Based on the secret, true story behind the 1960 Francis Gary Powers U-2 incident and the backdoor dealings that got Powers home.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, and Alan Alda
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg went full-blown Ford with this thing. Judgement at Nuremberg-level social/historical/political optimism, and Bridge of Spies was better off for it. But nothing screams “why can’t we all get along” like the mature, confident Spielberg allowing his hero attorney (Tom Hanks) and soft-spoken spy (Mark Rylance) to just talk to one another. Really understand and appreciate one another’s difference. Dang, if only life and politics played out like this quiet scene.
Williams’ Wonder: Ha, sorry, Newman’s notes on this one. Scheduling and health intervened, forcing John Wiliams out as Spielberg’s regular music man, and famed composer Thomas Newman was asked to come in. The score’s lovely. Soft-spoken. Totally deserving of its Oscar nomination. But what’s more compelling is the close connection Newman has to Williams. It’s a story that’s far too complicated and curious to put here, but be sure to read the NPR interview with Newman from last fall. Anyway, Newman netted his 13th (!!!) nomination for Bridge of Spies. Didn’t win, but man the score’s really pleasantly somber. And this Spielberg guy, it’s like he demands great scores or something and consistently gets them.
To the Second Powers: It should come as no surprise that Francis Gary Powers’ story was eyed by Hollywood for some time. The story’s Le Carre light, basically. In 1965, Gregory Peck actually pursued it and got Alec Guiness on board as Rudolf Abel. MGM freaked, because, well, the pitch was presented at the height of Cold War tension. A total “too soon” for the studio.
Eight Is Enough: It’s wild to think Spielberg, a name with reasonably strong box office receipts, has recently lamented his inability to get movies made at big studios. In 2012, the director expressed frustration at how close he was to propping up Lincoln at HBO, sans-theatrical release given distributors’ weariness at the prospect of an Abe Lincoln film without explosions. Or vampire killing. But that got made by several studios and went on to make over $180 million domestic, with Oscars, so, raspberries. But Spielberg still has to hustle to make his films. Of all people. Audiences are almost used to tons of production company logos, but Bridge of Spies is the product of eight, EIGHT, different companies. It’s hard enough to split a bill among friends, let alone the budget of a legal thriller. If there was a CGI character, this wouldn’t be a problem, perhaps.
Analysis: Bridge of Spies looked like the sedate work of a grown man feeling comfortable enough to make a film as mindful forum for political philosophizing. And it was. And that tone, that often very subtle touch from a held-back Spielberg made Bridge of Spies an especially thoughtful and old-fashioned work. Beneath the hushed tensions of historical filigree, there’s room for small foot chases, witty one-liners, clever situations, assertive yet unshowy speechifying, and the overall sense that people are trying to do their best for what feels right in a very complicated time. How Libertarian. Kidding. But still, Bridge of Spies was of a special vintage, morally incorrupt and proud to be old style. Guided by a top-shelf Hanks performance that channeled Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, and an Oscar-winning performance from Mark Rylance as the sensitive spy at the forefront of the film, Bridge of Spies is a wonderful late-period Spielberg effort.