With Ready Player One headed our way at the end of the month, I went back and watched all of Steven Spielberg’s 31 films and painstakingly ranked them top to bottom (or from bottom to top as the case may be). Each week, I’ll be dropping a section of the list as we inch closer to the big RPO debut on March 29. You can find week 1 here.
This week, we’re looking at films 18-24 in Spielberg’s filmography (by my estimation, of course). For me, this set of films illustrates Spielberg’s greatness in that I think most of these movies crack the personal top 10 list for almost any other director. Here we have some near misses, some odd projects, and a pair of acclaimed, Oscar-nominated dramas that don’t quite live up to the standard set by Spielberg’s best. And, of course, we have lots of aggressive farting as well. Can’t forget about the farting.
24. The BFG (2016)
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $55M ($183M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0
The BFG combines strong source material (Roald Dahl), a solid child actor (Rubie Barnhill), beautiful visuals, and the brilliance of Mark Rylance. On the rewatch, I was awestruck at how well Rylance delivers the often clunky, ridiculous lines he’s given to work with and how much grace and eloquence he conveys through voice alone. So why doesn’t The BFG work? Why isn’t it better? It’s the farting. The farting is 100 percent to blame for The BFG grading out as a B/B- movie instead of an A movie. As I rewatched the movie, I was right in the middle of wondering to myself why I didn’t like The BFG more the first time around when all of sudden all the characters were afflicted with violent and explosive flatulence. “Oh, right. The farting.” On the plus side, this was my son’s favorite scene in the movie, so I guess that’s something.
23. The Terminal (2004)
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $77M ($219M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0
I have a soft spot for The Terminal and have always felt it was unfairly maligned. I get it, it’s soft and light and a little cheesy (perhaps a lot cheesy, depending on your perspective). But it’s been laughed away to an undesirable corner of the movie galaxy because it has the audacity to be…sweet? There’s an earnestness to Hanks’s performance that is perhaps too earnest but give me Earnest Tom Hanks Bumbling Around with a Weird Accent any day. The Terminal is far from a great movie but is it the fourth-worst movie of Spielberg’s career (as rated by Rotten Tomatoes)? Absolutely not. Free Krakozhia!
22. The Adventures of Tintin (2010)
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $77M ($373M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 1
I’ve long held Tintin up as the REAL fourth Indiana Jones movie. If nothing else, it found the spiritual wavelength connected to Indy that Crystal Skull couldn’t grab hold of. Tintin has everything you want from an action-adventure flick. Spielberg pushes the pace so well to keep the action flowing from one big set piece (albeit an animated set piece) to the next and the characters have a weight to them that’s missing from other mo cap animated films like The Polar Express. There’s still a little bit of weirdness to the whole production and the mo cap technology in general; sometimes you forget you’re watching a mo cap movie and then suddenly you’re staring into the eyes of an almost-real character and it’s very disconcerting. To me, that’s the only flaw of the film and what, I think, has led to it being overlooked.
21. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $179M ($333M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): (1)
You know that thing where you watch a scary movie because you like that feeling of being simultaneously terrified and unable to look away? I don’t have that thing. Almost all scary movies to me are either very cheesy or so scary that I can’t sleep for days and I take no enjoyment in that either way. Temple of Doom is the closest I ever got to that scary movie experience, at least as a kid. There was a time when Temple played on TBS or TNT seemingly every weekend and every weekend, I would sit transfixed by the action-adventure portions of the film and unable to look away from the monkey brains and the baby snakes and the “KALI MAAAA!!!” All those viewings and it wasn’t until recently, maybe the last five years, that I realized Temple was a prequel. Maybe I’m dumb or maybe all the scarab eating broke my brain. Anyway, Temple is maybe half a great movie, a quarter good movie, and a quarter terrible movie but somehow those mismatched pieces work for me, probably because Harrison Ford appears to be having the greatest time of his life.
20. The Sugarland Express (1975)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $7.5M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 0
This is the last of the three Spielberg movies I hadn’t seen before starting this project. Going in, I wondered if, this being Spielberg’s big screen debut, the positive buzz surrounding Sugarland was due to what the director became after the movie more so than the movie itself. We do that sometimes; we look at a debut film of a director or actor who became great and we say, “You could see it all the way back in his/her first film”, even though we really didn’t see that, we’re just projecting the belief that we did. Happily, however, I can honestly say you can, in fact, see “it” in Sugarland Express so long as you define “it” as that classic Spielberg feel. This is a really funny movie; it might be Spielberg’s funniest movie, actually. It’s a much more enjoyable, fun movie than it has any right to be, quite frankly. Within the first five minutes, you start to pick up on the Spielberg vibe and that carries through the entirety of the film, including the cinematography and the central theming.
19. Amistad (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $44M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 4
A top-five Spielberg movie in terms of messaging and intention, Amistad is also one of the few spots in this filmography where the emotionality (one of Spielberg’s classic strengths) misses the mark a bit. Amistad is noble, it is well-cast, it includes a couple of stand-out performances, and it tells a story that matters. It’s also overwrought in places and that heavy-handedness, for me, unintentionally softens the impact of the material. This is one of the few times where I wish Spielberg would’ve let the scenes speak for themselves just a bit more. Also, Matthew McConaughey looks very silly in the costumes. This is a small complaint but it needs to be said. There’s a lot to be positive about with Amistad, particularly Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
18. Empire of the Sun (1988)
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $22M
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 6
I have always appreciated Empire of the Sun more than I actually like it. I’ve seen it fewer times than most of the movies on this list and even on the rewatch, I wasn’t enthralled by much of it. I think my lack of connection owes to the fact that the movie doesn’t have much of the patented Spielberg flair. You see it in spots: the casting and performance of young Christian Bale, the cinematography (once again), and two defining scenes (the slap and the reunion between child and parents), but overall, I think it lacks the signature stamps I expect from Spielberg. In essence, almost anyone, or at least anyone with a measure of talent, could’ve directed this movie. Empire of the Sun is, simply, a good movie. Nothing more but also nothing less. In some ways, that’s disappointing, especially as compared to the rest of Spielberg’s filmography. At the same time, however, if you need an indicator of Spielberg’s greatness, you could do worse than, “His 18th best movie garnered six (deserved) Academy Awards and its main issue is that it’s only sorta special, not SUPER special.”