Collider Ranks Steven Spielberg’s Top 10 Films
Steven Spielberg is not only one of our greatest living filmmakers, he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Need proof? Come up with a list of your Top 10 Spielberg films. It’s hard. The guy has made so many incredible films over the course of his career that narrowing it down to a Top 10 is nearly impossible. There aren’t many other filmmakers who can boast about a similar quality ratio—Spielberg not only makes fantastic films, he makes a lot of them. This is a guy who was born to direct. He made a masterpiece at the age of 27 and never looked back.
So with a new Spielberg film just behind us in the form of Bridge of Spies, we decided to put together a list of the director’s Top 10 films. In order to formulate said list, members of the Collider Staff (Adam Chitwood, Haleigh Foutch, Chris Cabin, Perri Nemiroff, Dave Trumbore, and Brian Formo) put together our own personal Top 10 lists, which were then tallied up using a preferential balloting system. Our #1 picks earned 10 points, #2 earned 9 points, etc. The result is a collective Top 10 that speaks to the versatility and sometimes frustrating quantity of Spielberg’s filmography (sorry, Minority Report).
Without further ado, we present to you Collider’s Top 10 Steven Spielberg films.
10. Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale’s run forging checks, impersonating airline pilots and outrunning the authorities is an astonishing and fascinating true story in and of itself, but what makes the big screen rendition such a standout is Spielberg’s impeccable handle on the style, tone and heart of the film. Perhaps Catch Me If You Can is a tad on the long side, but Spielberg establishes a catchy beat right from the start with an unforgettable opening credit sequence and then launches right into something that he’s total a pro at – telling a thoughtful, touching coming of age story.
That’s what makes Catch Me If You Can especially impressionable. Whereas Bridge of Spies takes the “look at what this guy did” approach to telling James B. Donovan’s story, Catch Me If You Can makes you feel like you’re part of Frank’s experience. You’re with him every step of the way from his cozy family home in New Rochelle to when he first discovers how to manipulate routing numbers all the way up to his apprehension in France. What he’s doing is obviously very illegal, but you always understand what motivates him to make these decisions. When you pair that with Leonard DiCaprio’s undeniable charm and the fact that Spielberg never fails to address the importance of Frank’s need to process and deal with the consequences of his actions, it gives the story far more meaning and poignancy than you would expect to get from a movie with such a light, infectious energy. —Perri Nemiroff
9. Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan might just be the quintessential film from Spielberg’s already exemplary filmography. The storytelling dives headlong into the well-trod theater of World War II but finds a new angle from which to approach the plot. Painting Matt Damon‘s title character as a victim of circumstances sought after by a tough but lovable group of soldiers following the orders of a sympathetic American government tugs on all the right heartstrings in just the right ways. The writing credit goes to Robert Rodat, but the execution is classic Spielberg.
Then again, having the right cast goes a long way. Tom Hanks is an American treasure, and Tom Sizemore and Paul Giamatti are proven entities, but who would have expected Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies, and Edward Burns to turn in such memorable performances so early in their careers? So much so, in fact, that you feel a gut punch every time one of the intrepid soldiers is lost during their quest to save Private Ryan, a quest that is ultimately as fruitful as it is bittersweet. Spielberg at his best turns in a hopeful, heart-warming story that the whole family can enjoy; rare films like Saving Private Ryan actually offer a glimpse of just how good the world could be despite the evil that pervades it. —Dave Trumbore
8. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
It’s frankly miraculous that A.I. Artificial Intelligence is as endlessly fascinating as the backstory of its production, the brainchild of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Adapted from Brian Aldiss’ “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, A.I. remains Spielberg’s only truly strange entry, an unwieldy near-masterwork about a robot boy (Haley Joel Osment), a talking teddy bear, and a robo-gigolo (Jude Law), and its also one of Spielberg’s most emotionally complex films. It would be wrong not to give credit to production designer Rick Carter and DP Janusz Kaminski, who help create one of Spielberg’s most immersive and vibrant visual worlds, but its Spielberg’s self-reflexive, morally conflicted script that anchors this wondrous landscape. In probing the emotional divide between man and machine, Spielberg suggests an oddly affecting, bracingly gorgeous act of self-questioning for one of America’s most popular filmmakers, whose films grew increasingly dependent on computers.—Chris Cabin
Lincoln is an undersung masterpiece, and one of the most peculiar entries in the Spielberg cannon. It’s a masterful film that proves he can’t be easily defined. Part of that peculiar flavor derives from Tony Kushner‘s elegant script, which bears some of the flourishes of theatricality you might expect from a Pulitzer-winning playwright, but is essentially contained. That quality is evident in the scope of the film, which doesn’t attempt sweeping biography of the revered president, barely even glancing at the Civil War, but focuses pinpoint on Lincoln’s quest to ratify the 13th Amendment. The whole film shows that restraint, missing many of Spielberg’s showmanship flourishes, but still bears his sense of wonder. This time, the wonder comes not from aliens or monsters, but from a single man, and by pulling back on flashy filmmaking, Spielberg allows the script and performances to carry the film.
And hoo boy, what performances. Daniel Day-Lewis‘ transformation into Abraham Lincoln is alchemy – right on the line of physical and spiritual. Watching Lincoln, it’s almost impossible to believe Day-Lewis could be anybody but who you see on the screen. As a happy result of Kushner’s hint of theatricality, Day-Lewis gets to be funny, a rarity in his career, as Lincoln sits back and spin yarns throughout the movie. It’s delightful just watching him monologue. And he’s surrounded by a exemplary, astonishing ensemble cast down to the smallest parts, all of whom turn out some of the best work in their career. James Spader is a riot as W.N. Bilbo, an absolute joy to watch. Tommy Lee Jones gives perhaps his career-best performance, subtle and pensive as Thaddeus Stevens. Sally Field is unhinged as Mary Todd Lincoln, the much maligned first lady who had such influence over her husband. And so it goes down the call sheet, from person A to person Z; all excellent. Spielberg directs them to perfection, deftly navigating the tonal disparity between the grand performances of Field and Spader and the quiet restraint of Jones and David Strathairn. Spielberg makes it all cohesive.
In a brilliant turn of filmmaking, Spielberg succeeds in making us feel the tension, even though we all know the outcome of the story. As the states call out their votes, you are racked in your seat, because Spielberg managed to take history long-passed, politics long-passed, and not only make them engaging, he makes them riveting.—Haleigh Foutch
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Spielberg slightly bungled his 20 years later revisitation of E.T. with a number of curious choices (including unnecessary additions and subtractions, such as E.T. taking a bath and the police running after the kids with walkie-talkies instead of guns). The original was a film that didn’t need to be suds and scrubbed at all. But we forget that Spielberg actually improved upon his already great film Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it was rereleased in 1980.
Three years after its initial release, Spielberg’s improvements helped the story by providing extra moments with the characters who are acting under a strange, compulsive spell so that we feel closer to them when they all arrive at Devil’s Tower to greet the spacecraft. And he was able to attach a perfect visual ending (the ethereal view that Richard Dreyfuss sees inside the spaceship), for which the proper technology did not exist at the time of the original release.
The original Close Encounters is very good and, re-watching now, is still refreshingly hopeful, since the focus is on aliens who want to communicate with us—and even share music with us—rather than destroy or colonize us. The Devil’s Tower is a perfect place for Dreyfus, Francois Truffaut, and Melinda Dillon to journey to. It’s a natural, beautiful wonder that was given a frightful name by human beings. Most movies see aliens as frightful, but shouldn’t we naturally first think of all life as welcoming? As a humanist, Spielberg is responsible for the kindest cinematic aliens. But unlike his E.T. re-release, the Close Encounters director’s cut is a chandelier that gives the perfect hue to every corner of the room; including areas the older (but still beautiful) chandelier, left completely in the dark.—Brian Formo
5. Schindler's List
While Spielberg had already solidified himself as an iconic filmmaker at the time, there was still considerable doubt that he could pull off something as different and challenging as Schindler’s List. This was the guy who essentially created the summer blockbuster, after all. His prior attempts at drama were a mixed bag (The Color Purple, Always), so could he really make a good film about the Holocaust? And what, exactly, would that look like? It turns out the answer was something unlike anything Spielberg had ever done before, and also an incredible piece of filmmaking.
The director handles this very delicate subject matter with a perfect mixture of tact, reverence, and ambition, chronicling this horrifying event in a way that feels both honest and compelling. The filmmaking in particular here is some of Spielberg’s absolute best, with the stunning Kraków Ghetto sequence spanning a full 15 minutes. What’s also striking about Schindler’s List is how un-Spielberg it feels. He not only shot in black-and-white, but utilized a great deal of handheld photography, opting to approach the film as a documentary as opposed to a piece of epic cinema (it also marks the beginning of his collaboration with DP Janusz Kaminski, who’s shot all of his films since). Schindler’s List is, quite simply, an astonishing achievement, and it proved once and for all that Spielberg’s versatility knows no bounds. – Adam Chitwood
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Introductions are everything, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is certainly one of the best introductions to an iconic character. On paper, Indiana Jones is the combination of two old cinematic character archetypes: the lonesome whiskey-infused private detective and the cocksure treasure hunter (essentially the two sides of Humphrey Bogart, Sam Spade and Charlie Allnut). He’s a smart ass who’s both professor smart and whip-smart.
Indiana can inspire lust in his pupils, impress British dignitaries, and also make the devilish Nazis appear incredibly lazy because they actually can’t outwit him—they just wait for Jones to complete incredible feats so that they can steal the booty on the other side. But for Jones to really work, the audience has to really feel like he’s actually in peril. And that’s where Spielberg and Harrison Ford make Raiders more than just a fun ride—it was kinda dangerous for everyone involved, and the results show it. Ford actually outran the manmade boulder, as opposed to some CGI ball. He was dragged by the jeep and only separated by glass from a venomous cobra. He also knows when he needs to be rescued, and Marion (Karen Allen), his partner, is never a damsel in distress. They are equally distressed. So much so that you feel relief every time Indiana and Marion emerge from some near catastrophe, Covenant in hand. Spielberg then immediately punches you right in the gut by having less-talented archeologists and lazy Nazis waiting with armed reinforcements to steal from them as soon they emerge. It’s a screwball twist to an adventure film where you believe every step of the way that the filmmakers were actually on an adventure themselves.—Brian Formo
3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
It’s easy to forget just how good E.T. is. Obviously it’s one of Spielberg’s classics, and it’s ranked high on this list for a reason, but there’s an inclination to just assume E.T.‘s greatness without considering just how incredible this really movie is—it’s a downright masterpiece. It’s not enough for Spielberg to simply tell a story about an alien. He had done that already with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. No, this is a deeply personal work for the filmmaker, and one that’s just as much the story of a family torn apart by divorce as it is the tale of friendship between a lonely boy and a homesick alien. These plot devices go hand-in-hand, one informing the other, and it’s a testament to Spielberg’s genius that they blend so perfectly together.
This is a movie filled with wonder, imagination, and adventure, but it’s also a considerably dark film that doesn’t shy away from the realities of a broken family. It’s an experience that’s all too relatable, and Spielberg crafts the story in such a way that it feels at once deeply personal to himself and to the audience as a whole. The thematic material and Melissa Mathison’s screenplay are the beating heart of this film, but it is of course also a showcase of Spielberg’s unparalleled skill as a filmmaker. The chase sequence. The dinner scene. The drunk E.T./Elliott. If you somehow need a reminder that Spielberg is one of the best there’s ever been, give E.T. a spin. And bring Kleenex. – Adam Chitwood
2. Jurassic Park
It’s hard not to be effusive about Jurassic Park, because for a generation of moviegoers it was nothing short of a miracle. It’s a phenomenal, timeless film, and it’s utterly Spielbergian in every possible way. Spielberg is a magician of a filmmaker, and with Jurassic Park his marvelous skill set is on full display as he elevates Michael Crichton‘s source material with sheer humanity, and most importantly, wonder.
Jurassic Park is often called a monster movie, but in truth Spielberg loves his monsters too much for that to be entirely accurate. Certainly, the iconic action set-pieces are viscerally thrilling—the velociraptors hunting down Lex and Elliot in the kitchen, the T-Rex chasing down a yellow-green car that must go faster—but that fear factor is always matched by pure wonder. When Grant and Ellie lay eyes on the brachiosaurus for the first time, when that glorious John Williams cue strikes in full force, it’s impossible not to feel the thrill of it and a sense of genuine awe. Of course, Spielberg shares some of this credit with Dinosaur Supervisor (every kid’s dream job title) Phil Tippet and the exceptional effects work from the Stan Winston School, who brought the dinosaurs to life in such breathtaking beauty. But it’s Spielberg’s direction allows the film to maintain that sense of joy and wonder as the years pass and the once state-of-the-art effects take on a dated quality.
Spielberg has always had a gift for evoking that childlike wonder, but he’s never done it better than Jurassic Park. He’s the world’s foremost showman, and with Jurassic Park he utilizes every skill in his magical bag of tricks to strike the pitch-perfect balance between sentiment and set-pieces. The result is the pinnacle of the adventure film, so finely crafted, you can’t help but walk out a believer in the magic of cinema.—Haleigh Foutch
Spielberg’s breakout may have all but invented the idea of the summer blockbuster, but in hindsight, Jaws ended up being one of the director’s most intimate and personal films. It’s not to say that blockbusters can’t be personal or unique, but rarely has one surveyed the details of small-town life with such focused skepticism and good humor. The shark that Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) finds himself hunting, alongside marine biologist Richard Dreyfuss, gobbles up three or four people within the film’s runtime, but that’s not nearly as fascinating and engaging as the way the beast stirs up the financial panic of the local denizens.
The script, by source author Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, cuts out the affair between Dreyfuss’s character and Brody’s wife in the book, but he incorporates a refreshing, thoughtful view of the precarious fiscal stability of summer towns. Brody’s fight against the higher-ups, most prominently represented by Murray Hamilton, is the fight between likability and responsibility, monetary security and bodily safety. It’s ironic, then, that Spielberg has skewed more towards likability than responsible storytelling in the years since, cresting with the inclusion of the girl with red jacket in Schindler’s List. Still, whenever you return to Jaws, you can still see the unmistakable ambition of a young filmmaker riding high on ambition and inventiveness, even as the film itself feels deceptively small and simple.—Chris Cabin