With Ready Player One headed our way today, 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. You can find week one here, week two here, and week three here.
Well, this is it. Tonight I’m headed to see Ready Player One with my friends and after much painstaking consideration and consternation, I’m ready to present my top ten Spielberg movies. This was much more of a process than I anticipated as choosing between these films became more and more difficult. To me, there are two tiers here: eight through ten could’ve been slotted in any order and one through seven could’ve come out in any order. Just know I thought long and hard about all of my choices and that I will probably regret them all within a week or so. Regardless, through the course of this project, the object of picking the best or my favorite or the top Spielberg movie became less important than just basking in the greatness of the man’s entire resume. By any metric you want to look at (131 total Oscar nominations, 34 Oscar wins, 80% average on Rotten Tomatoes, $9.8 billion at the global box office, countless hours of entertainment), Spielberg has accomplished as much if not more than any of his contemporaries and cemented himself as a film voice of multiple generations. Thanks, Mr. Spielberg, for all your hard work. Enjoy.
10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $135M ($306M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (2)
Last summer, when we did a throwback review of Close Encounters, I was able to see it on the big screen for the first time. In truth, it may have been the very first time I had seen it all the way through, from start to finish, instead of in bits and pieces. I was in awe of the scope of the story, the magic of the effects, and the breathtaking third act when all the parts come together, and you suddenly feel like you yourself are a part of this meeting of races. I’m an easy movie-crier so it should come as no surprise that the experience of watching this movie in that setting for the first time left me a little weepy. And that score! Oh, that score. Close Encounters is a wondrous movie and in hindsight, it gives a hint of what will become Spielberg tropes and themes for the next forty-plus years of filmmaking. If I had a criticism, it would the final few moments when we actually get a reveal on the aliens. Were it up to me (and not the two-time Best Directing Oscar recipient because what does that guy know?), I would’ve left the aliens themselves as a mystery. Even still, that’s a half point deduction off the score of an otherwise perfect film.
9. Minority Report (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $132M ($358M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 1
Minority Report has aged much better than its reputation. It’s become extremely underrated both in terms of overall quality and its impact on the sci-fi genre. Even I, when I went to work on this list, had it slotted a few notches lower than it ultimately landed. But on the rewatch, I was wholly reminded of what an outstanding bit of filmmaking this is and how great Spielberg is at world building. Near-future sci-fi is very difficult to pull off but within five, maybe ten minutes you have a complete sense of the world in which Chief John Anderton operates in and it feels completely authentic. There are a few spots in which the effects and lighting look their age, but I write that off as the tax paid for making a high-concept, visually compelling film during the worst era for computer generated effects. (Compare the worst spots of Minority Report to the worst spots of almost any other sci-fi movie made between 1999 and 2004 and you’ll see what I mean.) Minority Report combines fun with depth exquisitely and Spielberg gets the absolute most of out of Tom Cruise. Also of great interest to me, this is the best instance of Spielberg flipping his patented move, a child dealing with an absent or emotionally distant father, to put the focus on a father attempting to piece his life together in the wake of the loss of a child. That’s significant and the emotional core of Minority Report strikes even harder coming from Spielberg than it might have otherwise.
8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $197M ($474M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 3 (1)
This is the first non-kids movie I can remember seeing in theaters adding to my fondness for an already outstanding, obscenely fun movie. (A few weeks later my dad took me to see Batman in theaters so the Summer of 1989 was pretty bangin’.) Raiders of the Lost Ark (see below) is one of the greatest movies ever made but Last Crusade is, objectively, more fun, perhaps the purest embodiment of what an adventure movie should be. Harrison Ford, in the final days of his first franchise phase, radiates so much charisma and gravitas that even as a six-year-old, I was just instantaneously all in on anything and everything he was doing. Now, having seen these movies dozens of times each, I greatly appreciate the small ways in which Crusade is tied into Raiders but appreciate even more the ways in which it works on its own. You could take show this movie to someone who has never seen an Indiana Jones movie and, in fact, has no concept of who the character is at all, and he/she could enjoy it just as much as a hardcore Indy fan could have in 1989. That’s an awesome quality that a lot of franchise films miss out on these days. Crusade is paced perfectly, Sean Connery is remarkable, and I’m not sure you ask more from a third act than what is delivered here.
7. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $164M ($352M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 2
I have said before and I’m sure I will say again: the older I get, the more I love Catch Me If You Can. Literally, with every single viewing (an annual event in my household, as commanded in the ancient scrolls), its greatness increases in my mind. By the time I’m 50, I’m sure I’ll be trumpeting this as the best movie ever made. Every detail of this movie is impeccable and the DiCaprio-Hanks pairing is probably my favorite relationship displayed within any of Spielberg’s films. That’s just perfect casting, friends; PERFECT. And let’s not forget about the great supporting cast, a beautiful score that matches the protagonist’s mischievous deeds and deep-seeded loneliness, and the way Spielberg fleshed out phenomenal source material. This is the “smallest” of the films left on this list but before we head into “bigger” territory, the stuff that Spielberg made his name on in many cases, let me say just how it is REMARKABLE that the same guy who is capable of making five or six of the biggest blockbusters ever in the history of film could also stop down and make a Catch Me If You Can. That range is Steph Curry on a court with no defenders-esque (sports!).
6. Jaws (1975)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $260M ($470M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 4 (3)
The movie that started it all and remains to this day one of the four or five most influential films of the last half-century or so. Jaws is a miracle, a lightning in a bottle experience wherein even the mistakes and mishaps actually made the movie better. Imagine that movie with the mechanical shark showing up right off the bat instead of two-thirds of the way through. That was the plan until the shark wouldn’t work in salt water and Spielberg had to restructure the shots on the fly. You could call it lucky, and you’d be right, but a young, brash Steven Spielberg was also wise enough to recognize that without the shark, the only to build tension was to keep the shark hidden, to make it a 20-foot boogeyman with horribly-large teeth, as it were. Jaws spawned the rise of the summer blockbuster as well as Shark Week, which is quite the achievement in and of itself. I’ve seen Jaws dozens and dozens of times and still, to this day, I find it utterly terrifying and it’s even worse on a big screen. And yet, it’s a magnificent thrill ride that still looks amazing almost 45 years later. Other directors could’ve done the scary bits of Jaws but I don’t think many people could pace it out nearly as well as Spielberg did nor added in the human parts (Quint and Hooper trading drunken stories in the galley, Brody’s son in the pond, etc.) as effectively as Spielberg did, on what was his first big-budget feature. I must blame him, however, for my abject fear of the water, because one of the taglines for Jaws was, “You’ll Never Go in the Water Again!” and it turns out that is very true for one Brian Gill. THE OCEAN IS NOT OUR HOME.
*NOTE: I have now developed an ulcer over choosing how to rank the final films on this list. I love four of the five dearly and the other is unquestionably GREAT and it seems unfair to have to choose any of them over the others. Whoever made me do this should be ashamed of themselves. Oh right, it was me, I chose to undertake this project and now I hate myself for it. Carry on.*
5. E.T. (1982)
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $435M ($792M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (4)
Both the first Spielberg movie I ever saw and the first I ever loved, having no idea how much of an impact this man would have on my pop-culture consciousness over the next 30 years. There are some people who can’t understand the brilliance, the magic, the beauty of E.T. (perhaps you’re in that boat) and I genuinely feel bad for those people. Like, I’m not even mad, I just feel like there’s a hole in your life that E.T. wants so badly to fix with his illuminated, Julius Erving-like finger, and you just won’t let him. To me, it’s kind of like saying, “I’m not a big fan of golden retrievers.” WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE NOT A FAN OF GOLDEN RETRIEVERS?! What is it you don’t like?! Their loveable-ness? Their unstoppable devotion to human kind?! I know, I digress, but I don’t understand your disdain for golden retrievers, man. Anyway, E.T. is the quintessential Spielberg movie; everything I love about him, his style, his sensibilities, can be found within the runtime of this movie and even if he’s made better movies (he has and perhaps he will again, who knows), I think this will forever remain the most Spielberg movie. Every viewing makes me feel like a kid and fills me with a sense of wonder. That’s a very cliché thing to say about a movie you loved as a child but sometimes clichés are true. E.T. is perfect, Spielberg is perfect, golden retrievers are perfect.
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $96M ($321M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 12 (7)
Without question, this was the hardest movie to slot on this entire list and I wrestled over its placement right up until the last minute.
Here are some things that work in this movie’s favor:
1. It tells an INCREDIBLE story that truly, TRULY matters;
2. It tells that incredible story that truly matters in a stunning, powerful, gut-wrenching manner (Spielberg, I think, understands that it’s not enough to tell a great story, you also have to tell it in a great way or else the meaning gets muddled);
3. It legitimately might be the actual BEST movie of the last 25 years. I’m not necessarily making that argument but as my friend Richard says, if you bring this movie to the table as the best, you’re not getting laughed out of the conversation.
Here are some things that work against this movie:
1. I do not ever want to watch it. This is the only movie in the Spielberg filmography that I didn’t watch or rewatch before writing because I feel like I might have one more viewing left in me in my lifetime and I should probably save it for when my son is old enough to see it so he doesn’t have to watch it alone;
2. It does not feel like a Spielberg movie, really. That’s not a complaint or a criticism, by the way; Schindler’s List very much needs to be set apart, not just from Spielberg’s other movies but from all movies in order to give the viewer a real sense of what took place.
3. Again, I do not ever want to watch it again.
Schindler’s List is an actual masterpiece. It is, I think quite clearly, the best movie Spielberg has ever made and its significance cannot be overstated. When I watched the Spielberg documentary on HBO last fall, the closing sequence of Schindler’s, with the survivors and their family all walking by Schindler’s grave, absolutely wrecked me and reminded me of the sheer power of that film. But feel, rewatchability, and genuine love all have a place in the internal discussion that went into creating this list and for those reasons, I have to keep the next three films ahead of it on my own personal ranking.
*NOTE: I was feeling pretty bad about not putting Schindler’s at the top of this list just based on its objective greatness and meaning. So, on our Patreon page, I asked our VIP’s to list their top three Spielberg movies and literally none of them mentioned Schindler. For some reason, this helped me feel justified in its placement here. I am a sheep. Baaa.*
3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $216M ($481M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 11 (5)
This gets my vote for the greatest war movie ever made and I cannot be dissuaded from my position. Private Ryan is, like the next movie on this list, one of the five most significant, memorable in-theater experiences of my life. I will never forget that opening sequence nor the sense of actually being in a war that came along with it. The entire sequence (something like 17 minutes long) is simultaneously haunting and mesmerizing; I couldn’t look away though I left somewhat scarred by it. Even still, I find this movie to be very rewatchable and I do so every year on or around Memorial Day. I think it works on that level because of the time and craft put into developing the soldiers of 2nd Ranger Battalion as actual characters and not just instruments of war. Private Ryan is an ensemble piece, really, that transpires on the battlefield, and you’re not just invested in the characters because of who or what they represent. Barry Pepper’s Private Jackson is one of my five favorite supporting characters in any movie ever; I’m not sure you get genuine care and concern like that six soldiers down the list in most war movies. So you’ve got these great characters and then you put them in situations that are perfectly staged and shot, but, of course, extremely hazardous to the characters you care so much about…and then you watch them die. And suddenly, you’re in the fight and you’re getting a tiny taste of the horrors of war. Private Ryan is a hard movie to watch and it tears at my heart every time I do so but Spielberg’s understanding of character and human interaction keeps me coming back every year.
2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $402M ($1.02B)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): (3)
Jurassic Park is THE single most memorable theater experience of my life and I doubt that will ever change. I was 10, I had read Michael Cricton’s book, and I was pumped up beyond any reasonable measure to the point that there was no way the movie could possibly live up to my expectations…and somehow, it blew them away. This movie is monument to blockbuster filmmaking, a master class in how to craft a smart-but-not-self-serious crowd pleaser. Truly, 25 years later, Jurassic Park remains the gold standard for blockbusters. You can watch this movie and say, “This is how you do exposition”; “This is how you explain scientific jargon effectively”; “This is how you merge practical effects and CGI.” Every time I rewatch Jurassic Park, I am utterly blown away by how INCREDIBLE the movie still looks. It’s unreal, honestly, given where we were at with computer technology in 1993, not to mention the fact that Spielberg was working on the post-production for this movie while filming Schindler’s List. (Who else could do that, seriously?) It’s the weight and the scale of the dinosaurs that pours through the screen (and the speakers) which sets the movie apart. But it’s also really well-cast, a very underrated feature of the movie in my opinion, Spielberg’s scene-setting is uncanny, and the pace is masterful. This is a movie I cannot wait to watch with my son and I love knowing that it’s going to hold up even when he has a kid of his own.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Domestic Box Office (Total Box Office): $248M ($389M)
Oscar Nominations (Wins): 9 (5)
When I outlined this piece at the outset of my viewings and rewatches, I had Raiders lower on the list. Top ten for sure but definitely not number one. Then I rewatched it again for the first time in a few years and thought, “Oh, right, this movie is all kinds of great.” It wasn’t like a lightbulb moment, just a gentle prompt in the back of my mind reminding me that this was, indeed, the rightful number one. Indiana Jones is, of course, one of the all-time iconic characters in film and while George Lucas deserves some credit for creating him and Harrison Ford deserves even more credit for portraying him, we can’t forget to give Spielberg his due credit for presenting him. In 15 minutes, you feel like you know more about who Indiana Jones is than you know about most of your closest friends and you also know he is the coolest person on the planet. He’s not without his flaws, he’s not a superhero, but that makes him cooler somehow. Raiders is (again) a masterclass in pacing and Spielberg mans the Adventure Movie wheel with remarkable ease, taking you from place to place, situation to situation, with deftness and style, always accompanied by the exquisite score. Karen Allen is absolutely fantastic and proves the perfect counterpart for Ford. Raiders is the greatest adventure movie of all-time (indisputable, I’m sorry), it is iconic in every sense of the word, and, most importantly, it embodies the spirit of what a Spielberg movie is supposed to be, carried through from the very first frame to the very last.