In anticipation of Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, we are taking a look back at his remarkable career. He’s not only succeeded in a few select genres, but has somehow been able to make an impressive stamp on almost every form of cinema. One of the ways he does that is making even his darkest stories entertaining. He adds humor, charm and heart into every film he directs, even if they don’t always turn out the way he may hope.
There are few weak spots in his filmography; most of his films have been undeniable masterpieces. He’s had such a major impact on film itself as well as his fellow directors. The way he directs makes it seem so easy, although it’s clearly not that way underneath. His films are known (and beloved) because of their relatability. This allows for anyone and everyone to grasp onto something he creates, whether it be character, story or his beautifully simplistic style.
He’s a figurehead that many hope to resemble, and after decades of filmmaking Spielberg is still at the top of his game. It’s important to clarify this list is not ranked, mostly for the difficulty of actually picking which film is his absolute best. So, if you would like to see more, check out the 13 Best Steven Spielberg Movies.
13. Schindler’s List
This is a big one, but let’s start with a fun fact about the director: this was not the only Spielberg film released in 1993. Jurassic Park also roared into theatres that year. The same director released two of the greatest films of all time within months of one another.
Schindler’s List is by far the best film about the Holocaust. It’s a true story of World War II about an unassuming hero helping Jews flee to safety. Oskar Schindler rescued over one thousand people from the Nazis.
It’s shot in black and white, giving it a timeless quality. Sure, it’s over three hours long, but you never feel it. It features one of Ralph Fiennes’ best performances, and Liam Neeson before he became a big action star. And even though the film can be heartbreaking at times, you just can’t take your eyes off it. How Spielberg crafted this story is stunning. It’s beautifully shot, brilliantly written and has an endless amount of depth and heart.
12. War of the Worlds
This choice may get some criticism at first, but it’s a film that deserves a good bit of appreciation. It’s the second film based off the renowned novel by H.G. Wells, telling the story of aliens invading Earth and attempting to exterminate the human race. It’s a terrifying tale on its own, but Spielberg makes even more so. For a film that’s rated PG-13, this one gets under the skin pretty quickly even without the more graphic content of others in its genre. Not only that, the visuals, and just anything to do with the aliens, are amazing.
How the creatures are designed, the way they erupt out of the ground, and of course their methods of attacks are mesmerizing to see. And luckily, the performances are also pretty strong across the board. Tom Cruise may be at one of his funnier points here, while bringing a lo of depth to his role as a father. The film doesn’t get talked about much these days, but while the script isn’t perfect, there’s plenty more that War of the Worlds has going for it.
11. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this one made it onto the list. Raiders of the Lost Ark (as it should be titled) is the king of the adventure genre. Just Indiana Jones’ name, and of course his iconic hat and outfit, is enough to put this one at the top. Also, the movie’s fun, adventurous and has a fantasy-like mystery to it that manages to feel grounded. Harrison Ford is another major part of the film. He really had an overwhelming amount of natural charisma, whether he was smirking, sulking or yelling – the guy is just a great on-screen presence.
Spielberg’s skill at creating memorable set pieces, such as the runway fight or the melting of the Nazis’ faces, goes almost unmatched in Hollywood. It never feels like he’s overreaching or stepping too far off the edge, he’s just a fun, inspired director who knows how to please an audience. Raiders is one of the best examples of his broad talent.
Featuring probably one of the most dedicated, unbelievably genuine performances by an actor, Lincoln is a strong mark in Spielberg’s career. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal may help this film attain that high level, but that’s not to say Spielberg didn’t have a hand in making this one. It’s shot so, so beautifully, capturing every possible detail of 1860s America. It’s not flashy; Spielberg lets the movie flow very gently, never making a point of making sure people know it’s his film before the end credits. This is possibly one of the greatest biopics ever crafted – chalk up another genre for Spielberg to be the master of.
9. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
A fan favorite, E.T. might be one the easiest films to fall in love with out of Spielberg’s career, if not the entire 1980s. It tells the heartwarming story of a young boy and an adorable extra terrestrial who was left behind when his species visited Earth. Within the first five minutes, you can’t help but cry when you hear the little whimpers of the alien as he watches his people fly away. Spielberg knows how to make the audience care for a character in a split-second, whether it be human, alien, or a wild animal.
The mechanical work to make E.T. move and speak doesn’t hold up perfectly decades later, yet it magically doesn’t affect you loving it any less. He’s a character that speaks so much more than the film itself, and is just a major achievement for the director. Everyone can connect with the film, no matter where they come from; young or old, big or small.
8. Minority Report
Minority Report is an underrated sci-fi gem. It’s another collaboration between Spielberg and Cruise, each of whom bring out the best in each other. The film follows Cruise who is involved with a “pre-crime” police group that is able to literally see crimes before they happen. It’s a fascinating idea, and it’s mixed into a dystopian world that feels weirdly real. But one of the most effective aspects of the plot is Cruise’s quest to find his son who suddenly disappeared not long ago.
The film has both a compelling mystery and an intimate, heartfelt center. It’s one of Spielberg’s best, even if it may not have had the same impact that something like Close Encounters or Raiders had. There may be a few visuals that feel somewhat dated now, however the many futuristic ideas and technologies that are laid out in its world are still very relevant and believable today.
This film will never stop giving audiences chills. The titular shark looks amazing, real enough to make you wonder if a sibling still swims the oceans today. Of course, there’s the fantastic score, but that’s just the tip of its sharp teeth. Roy Schneider’s performance as the lead character, and just the character itself, works so well within the story. He’s an outsider to the island yet he’s still concerned about those who dislike having him there.
As with many of Spielberg’s films, Jaws mixes humor into the script. It also takes an interesting turn halfway through. The first half of the story is mostly horror, and the second is adventurous in tone. Even John Williams’ score changes completely. And it doesn’t feel jarring, whatsoever. Jaws is entertaining even in its grimmest moments. It’s the epitome of a classic film, and it hopefully will maintain that status for years to come.
6. Catch Me If You Can
This is Spielberg at his most stylish. Catch Me If You Can features one of the many collaborations with Tom Hanks, with the then-rising star Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s got fantastic performances, and is endlessly fun and entertaining. It follows the true story of DiCaprio’s character who pulled off con after con, stealing millions. And because of Spielberg’s light-hearted take on the wild story, it’s a delight to watch DiCaprio go about his business.
Hanks is also another major element to the film, but of course, considering it’s Hanks, you know he’s great no matter what. Some of Spielberg’s previous films had used crime and deception before, just not like this. It’s colorful, compelling, and effortlessly smooth in how it plays out.
Definitely one of the more forgotten recent works in Spielberg’s career, Munich tells the true story of the highly trained spies who chased down 11 assassins who were responsible for the killings of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics. It’s a harrowing tale that needed an artist’s touch to pull off. Because this is a well-known event, many already know how things turned out in the end, but Spielberg (as he often does) managed to create suspense. It begins with the assassinations then shows the incredible lengths the men went to in order to take the killers down.
While this may be relatively low in this list, it’s by no means a weak film. It’s got a superb script by Tony Kushner (Lincoln), and a talented cast that includes Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush. By its scale and runtime it should be considered an epic film, and for this one that’s a good thing. It’s paced very well, has shocking yet effective violence, and is always keeping the audience guessing. As mentioned earlier, it’s got humor sprinkled throughout, making it surprisingly watchable for what it is.
4. Jurassic Park
Spielberg basically changed the course of the evolution of CGI with Jurassic Park. Before, special effects were often, but not always, unrealistic. When you see the dinosaurs in this film, even today, they look spectacular. They feel like they are really with the human characters on screen, whether they are practical effects or computer-generated. That’s another reason why this film holds up so well. It blended those two elements, which is something that many films nowadays left behind.
Spielberg created a masterpiece with Jurassic Park, infusing wonder and imagination on the dinosaur island. The sequels may not have been as strong, but the first is no doubt a amazing feat. It makes you want to go back and study the ancient creatures, if not to just go out and make your own version of the film itself. It’s a horror film within an exciting adventure tale.
3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
While Raiders may be the more iconic one of the four-film series, the Last Crusade should not go unappreciated. To start off, once Sean Connery meets up with Harrison Ford, it’s hard to find a better partnership in cinema. Their chemistry shoots through the roof, and there’s no really explaining that; it just works. Other than that, the film has some fantastic set pieces and an intriguing mystery.
Like Connery, Ford is at the top of his game, as always. Even though Spielberg decided to tone down the violence after the reception of Temple of Doom, it doesn’t make the action any weaker. It may not be better than Raiders overall, but Last Crusade is a close second. For Spielberg, it again proves that he can maintain strength through a series rather than just making his stamp on one installment then moving on. He’s got standalones and sequels under his belt, both of which are usually successes.
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Close Encounters is one of the few films that Spielberg both wrote and directed. Seeing as this is probably the strongest of his sci-fi works, it’s too bad he hasn’t written more. It may catch some off-guard at first because it seems as though it should have a thriller aspect to it. It’s a story about the human race realizing they may not be alone in the universe. But that doesn’t mean it has to be like War of the Worlds. The majority of the film is devoted to following a father and his developing relationship with his family.
It’s a great way to tell this story. He seems like he’s getting crazier and crazier to those around him, but he knows something is wrong. The film is also beautiful to look at, particularly the glimpses of the aliens’ spaceship. It makes sci-fi fans love the genre even more, and it makes skeptics want to broaden their minds. Spielberg has such a unique take on this genre, making it feel like it could happen, not just hoping that it might someday.
1. Saving Private Ryan
This is the defining film in war cinema, particularly of World War II. Saving Private Ryan opens with one of the most terrifying scenes of all time. When the American soldiers land on the shores of Omaha Beach, it’s an endless storm of cries, horror and violence. But that’s not necessarily the sole reason this film is a masterpiece. The story of these young men, led by their intelligent leader, going after a man they have never met, is fascinating. You won’t mind more heart in any other war film. You care so deeply about every character, every moment, it’s incredible.
Going back to the action, there’s really no contender on this front either. Its set pieces are thrilling and scary, and it makes you feel like a bullet could zoom past your face at any second. Spielberg crafted a war film that probably will go unmatched for a long, long time. Some may prefer other works as his “greatest,” but this one is the best of its genre by far.
There are many more Spielberg films that are worth talking about even if they don’t make this list. The Adventures of Tintin, Bridge of Spies, Empire of the Sun, The Sugarland Express, and more are all very strong works from the director. Like every filmmaker, he has his weaker efforts but he doesn’t really have a film that’s truly bad.
The only type of film he hasn’t yet done is a fantasy epic, something like Lord of the Rings. If he does that before he retires, there’s no denying his status. But his past films bring joy, fear and inspiration to his audiences, and it doesn’t seem like he’s stopping anytime soon. Everything from his gorgeous visual style to his deeply intimate themes, he’s a landmark in cinema and will go down as a master of the medium.
Are there any others of his that you think should included on this list? Or, are there any on here that shouldn’t be? Let us know in the comments!