Every Steven Spielberg Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
Steven Spielberg is a living legend. One of the reasons I love movies today is because of his films. When I was in third grade, I would do my homework on his biography, wanting to learn more about the person behind E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. As I grew older, I got (wrongly) more jaded about his filmmaking, criticizing him for the sappy endings to some of his dramas and his reliance on making sure audiences always knew what to feel. Today, I see Spielberg for the true master and visionary that he is, and although he’s made his share of flops, that doesn’t detract from his influence or his mastery.
Given his influence on the craft of filmmaking, I’ve gone back through Spielberg’s filmography and ranked all of his feature films including the TV movie Duel. While there are a couple exclusions (he didn’t officially direct Poltergeist and he only directed a segment of The Twilight Zone movie), I believe this is a fairly comprehensive rundown of his work, and I look forward to hearing what you think.
31.) The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Last Crusade to the contrary, Spielberg should probably stay away from sequels. The Lost World pales in comparison to the original in every way. It’s an ill-conceived mess that tries to imitate the excitement of the original even though it lacks the thematic resonance of the dangers of discovery, has a simplistic message (big game hunting is bad), and unsympathetic characters going through overly long set pieces. By the time the film ends up in San Diego for a madcap T-Rex romp through the streets, we’ve already lost interest.
30.) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Yep! It’s a bad movie! I wish I could find something nice to say about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and if I try, I can say that Harrison Ford seems like he’s having a nice time, so there’s that. But on the whole, it feels like Spielberg doing a solid for Ford and Lucas, and it lacks the easy lightness of Raiders and Last Crusade while not having the distinctive darkness of Temple of Doom. What’s odd about Kingdom is that instead of reverence for the serials that inspired Indiana Jones, this film almost feels like it’s mocking Indiana Jones with cartoon gophers, Shia LaBeouf swinging from vines like a monkey, and the infamous nuked fridge.
Munich starts from an interesting place: how do we deal with terrorism? Unfortunately, the film itself is such an unbearable, terribly placed slog that this questions gets drowned out. It’s a film where Avner (Eric Bana) having sex to the memory of dead Olympic athletes plays as unintentionally comic even though the intention of the scene is that the terrorist attack will always haunt him. I will say that I like the ending, which is one of the few times that Spielberg has ended a movie on an ambiguous note rather informing the audience how to feel.
28.) The Terminal
I really don’t like the message of The Terminal, which is that it’s okay to wait and let life pass you by because life is waiting. In concept, I like it as the pre-9/11 film of Spielberg’s 9/11 trilogy (War of the Worlds being 9/11 and Munich being post-9/11), but its charm is lacking, and it feels like an interesting premise in search of a compelling story. Also, while Hanks and Spielberg make a normally reliable duo, here his stardom is distracting and it would have been nice to see a foreign actor in the role of a foreigner rather than one of the most recognizable American screen thespians of all-time.
A little bit of Spielberg schmaltz goes a long way, but he piles it on to Always, a film that doesn’t even get remotely interesting until its main character dies and becomes a spirit. While there’s a sweet sentiment at the heart of Always, it’s buried beneath a veneer that’s always trying to inform you about how sweet and loving the movie is that you’re watching. The movie required a lighter touch to function, but the picture is drowning in sentiment and it rarely has moments to breathe. Additionally, while Richard Dreyfuss is only ten years older than Holly Hunter, he looks old enough to be her father, which further drains the picture of its central romance.
Spielberg likened this film to having your head stuck in a pinball machine and having someone continually hit “tilt”, and he’s not wrong in that it’s not a pleasurable experience. The director tried to go for something madcap and zany, but the result is a mess that’s absolutely exhausting without feeling rewarding. 1941 is proof that comedy is hard, and while Spielberg may be a master director, the humor that comes organically in so many of his movies totally escapes him here. Instead, this movie feels like it’s working overtime to be wacky, and it comes off as phony as a result.
If you saw and loved Hook as a kid, I have some bad news: this movie is not as good as you remember. In fact, once Peter gets to Neverland, it becomes a bit of a slog, and the pacing falls to pieces. It’s an overloaded picture, and while it was probably meant to feel like a feast, it’s just too jam-packed to function. It does have its nice touches likes John Williams’ score (impressive not just for its soaring themes, but for how it parodies crummy little movies in the non-Neverland scenes at the start of the picture), and the lead performances from Robin Williams and a scenery-chewing Dustin Hoffman, but the picture ultimately gets bogged down in its awful pacing despite its warmhearted central story about what growing up really means if you’re a parent.
24.) War Horse
I suppose it’s possible to make a PG-13 war film, but judging by War Horse, I wouldn’t advise it. While the relationship between Arthur (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey is sweet, once the film turns and uses Joey to go through a bunch of war vignettes, it lacks the gravity to deliver the full force of the conflict. It’s surprising that Spielberg would shy away from it considering what he accomplished with Saving Private Ryan, but nevertheless, War Horse comes off as timid and callow.
23.) The Adventures of Tintin
The Adventures of Tintin has the appearance of a high-flying, powerhouse adventure (“Adventure” is right in the title!), but Spielberg and his de-facto co-director Peter Jackson seemed so enamored of the motion capture and 3D tools at their disposal that the picture becomes a CGI cavalcade devoid of interesting characters. The set pieces are still fun, especially a long take that would only have been possible with those digital tools, but it all rings hollow when we’re not invested in the people doing the adventuring.
22.) The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express is an odd film in that it doesn’t have much sympathy for its main characters, and instead empathizes with those characters’ antagonists. While I don’t think Spielberg hates Lou Jean and Clove Poplin, you never get the sense that he’s rooting for them. Instead, there’s far more sympathy for the cops that are on their tail. This is a younger Spielberg and I believe an older family man probably would have had more sympathy for a couple that just wants to be reunited with their son even though they’re going about it in completely the wrong way.
21.) The Color Purple
An alternate title could be, “Abuse! The Movie.” Spielberg delves deep into the misery of Celie Johnson, but he doesn’t pull much insight from that misery. While it’s supposed to be the story of a character that perseveres against all odds thanks to the love she has for her sister, Spielberg hadn’t quite managed the balance between uplift and harrowing that would come in his later dramas. As a result, The Color Purple is a movie that feels like it’s flinging wildly between melodrama and inspirational picture, but never achieves either tone fully.
20.) The BFG
One of Spielberg’s rare box office flops, The BFG is still a delightful little film that pulls off a tricky balancing act. While the plot concerns the friendship between a young orphan girl, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the eponymous “Big Friendly Giant” (Mark Rylance), the tone swerves between borderline-experimental scenes where the BFG and Sophie are catching dreams, and the outright juvenile like a scene where pretty much every character in the room rips a gigantic fart. It can cause a bit of whiplash, but Spielberg, master craftsman that he is, holds it all together. While The BFG is likely destined to fade away in Spielberg’s filmography due to its poor reception at the box office, I think it’s still a solid contribution to his body of work.
19.) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The movie kicks off with a rendition of “Anything Goes” and that’s pretty much the mantra for Temple of Doom, a movie that relishes pushing the audience’s buttons. On the one hand, I applaud Temple of Doom for not trying to be a rehash of Raiders. It’s unmistakably a different picture, but those differences also throw off the picture. Setting aside the mild racism of the “good Indians” being the weak and feeble ones and the “bad Indians” being the ones who have power, Temple is almost aggressive towards its audience, challenging them to be on the adventure rather than inviting them to be along for the ride. Plus, Willie Scott is like a high-pitched screaming, whining noise that comes along for the whole picture.
While Amistad isn’t a great film, it does have some interesting things to say about power and communication. The way Spielberg uses translation and subtitles are masterful, and it subtly conveys the distance between cultures. Unfortunately, from a structural perspective, Amistad is a highly repetitive film as they keep retrying the case and does so in service of a point we already understand. While Spielberg’s depiction of life on a slave ship is chilling, the rest of the film doesn’t hold a candle to this sequence.
17.) Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is a film I can somewhat respect, but never truly like. My big issue with Schindler’s List is that it shows what the Holocaust was, but not what it means. It captures the scope of a human tragedy, but rarely gleams any insight from the horrors depicted. It’s non-stop misery, and while that certainly needs to be shown in a Holocaust film, without compelling characters or resonant themes, it just becomes The Holocaust Movie. I also hate the ending with the “This one ring…” as if Spielberg didn’t trust he had wrung every last ounce of emotional endurance from his audience.
16.) Minority Report
This is an absolutely brilliant film…until the last twenty minutes. I love and hate Minority Report. Up until the last twenty minutes, it’s a movie about fate, responsibility, inevitability, tragedy, and reconciliation. There’s a very clear point where this movie should end, and that’s when John Anderton is being lowered into the ground. On the one hand, he’s lost, but on the other hand, he has found some peace over his son’s death. But because Spielberg can’t let that ambiguity and mixed emotions stand, we’re treated to another twenty minutes where Anderton saves the day and any ambiguity is washed away. Minority Report is perfect sci-fi until it isn’t.
15.) Bridge of Spies
Spielberg’s talents haven’t diminished. He’s still as sharp as ever, and Bridge of Spies showcases his deep humanism while paired with his undeniable talent. The use of doubling in this picture is remarkable, but it never strays from its very human core of its central character standing up for American values even in the face of what’s politically convenient or expedient. It’s another fine pairing of Spielberg and Hanks, but Mark Rylance is the real standout with his quiet, moving performance where even though he’s a Russian spy, he earns our deepest sympathy.
14.) The Post
Although the subject matter feels like Spielberg is eager to be timely about the importance of journalism and women in the workplace, the immediacy of The Post doesn’t diminish the film’s impact. Rather than a rushed op-ed, The Post, which looks at The Washington Post’s fight to publish the Pentagon Papers despite the risk to their stock prices and an injunction by the White House, Spielberg’s movie still has all the love and care we’ve come to expect from the director. He clearly has something he wants to say, but that doesn’t mean he garbles the message.
If anything, the biggest weakness of The Post is that it can be too on the nose, explaining its subtext and themes rather than just letting the audience appreciate the work and motives of the characters. But this feels like a minor quibble when everyone, from Spielberg to his crew to his top-notch cast are all operating at the top of their game.
13.) Close Encounters of the Third Kind
This is an odd film for Spielberg because it’s so cold. There are a few humanizing moments sprinkled throughout like the dinner table scene, but Close Encounters is one of the director’s more cerebral, distant pictures. An older Spielberg probably would have focused more on the family’s dissolution, but the Spielberg who directed this version was consumed with the idea of creation. That’s what Close Encounters is about, and while that idea comes together beautifully, it does so at the expense of feeling emotionally invested in the characters.
Duel is a tremendous debut feature. Even though it was released as a TV movie, it feels completely cinematic, and it almost makes you wish the made-for-TV movie was still a platform for up-and-coming filmmakers to explore and test their craft (of course, few are as preternaturally gifted as Spielberg). The story follows David Mann, a mild-mannered driver who makes the mistake of trying to cut off a big rig driver and ends up playing a cat-and-mouse game across the desert highway. It’s a tense, methodical, riveting piece of low-budget cinema that gets a lot done with a simple premise, and it definitely announced Spielberg as a major talent.
11.) War of the Worlds
This is arguably one of the darkest summer blockbusters ever made. It’s even darker than Minority Report, a film where the protagonist purposely has his eyes ripped out. This is Spielberg’s 9/11 film, and watching Tom Cruise run through obliterated people is absolutely chilling until you get to where he kills a guy in cold blood because his daughter might be in danger. This isn’t to mention that the aliens turn people into BLOOD MULCH. While I still have a problem with the son surviving certain death (actions should have consequences and it turns the son into a survival prize), the film still works overall and remains one of Spielberg’s more impressive achievements.
10.) Saving Private Ryan
It’s an absolutely riveting war movie, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s only good for the first forty minutes. The Omaha Beach sequence is undoubtedly seared into my brain, but so is the slow death Private Mellish or Medic Wade begging for morphine as he bleeds out. While Band of Brothers, which Spielberg produced, is a more complete look at World War II, Saving Private Ryan is still a stellar war film that’s only slightly drowned out by its unnecessary bookends with the elder Private Ryan giving thanks.
9.) A.I. Artificial Intelligence
A.I. is fascinating for a number of reasons. It’s the last screenplay that Spielberg wrote, the film is a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and the material is incredibly rich. Upon my first viewing of A.I., I felt that Spielberg was guilty of over-reaching to get to a happy ending, and that while it may be a bit of a downer, the movie should have ended when David (Haley Joel Osment giving a terrific performance) tries to commit suicide. But upon further reflection, the movie needs its complete third act with the bittersweet one final day with his mother. It’s not a “happy” ending, but it’s the one this thought-provoking sci-fi masterwork deserves.
8.) Catch Me If You Can
This is a tricky little film and it’s all the more beguiling because it’s a sad, intimate family drama wrapped in a lighthearted caper. While the film runs a little long, especially at the end, it’s overall a smart, sharp feature that’s about deception and it deceives its audience with its glossy veneer covering a melancholy center. Unlike other 2000 DiCaprio films where his youthful looks worked against him, his youth works perfectly here, as he’s a kid playing older and trying to cover up the wounded child who mistakenly thinks he can patch his family back together.
7.) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a return to safer ground after Temple of Doom (a film I applaud for the risks that it takes even if it doesn’t always stick the landing). It’s got a rip-roaring opening scene, terrific chemistry between Ford and Connery, and comes off far more in line with Raiders, not just because it brings back Marcus and Sallah, but also because it’s a far more confident adventure movie. It’s a quest of discovery and whereas in Temple something disturbing is around every corner, Last Crusade piles on the humor and warmth.
6.) Empire of the Sun
This is a film that I liked far more upon a repeat viewing. The story of a young boy lost in China during World War II is where Spielberg finally hits his groove on harrowing subject matter combined with an uplifting tale. What’s remarkable about Empire of the Sun is that for a director who loves informing the audience how they should feel at every moment, it’s only one of two movies in his filmography that ends on an ambiguous note. On the one hand, Jamie (Christian Bale in one of the best performances of his career) is reunited with his family at the end, but the innocent boy is gone forever. He’s been a soldier in the war without ever firing a shot.
How can you argue with a classic? The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because I just can’t personally connect with Jaws the same way I can with other Spielberg movies, but it’s an undeniable classic. What makes Jaws so special isn’t the spectacular action or even the shark. It’s the human relationships at the center of the film. This is a film about character, and while “Why don’t you come down here and chum this shit?” is a memorable moment, it’s just as unforgettable as Brody and his son mirroring each other or Quint’s speech about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. This is a film that lives and breathes in its character moments, and the shark is almost secondary.
Rather than try to tackle Lincoln’s whole life, Lincoln wisely attempts to encapsulate the legendary President’s essence through one of his singular achievements. Usually when Spielberg attempts drama, he nails the harsher aspects and then tries to bring the audience out of their deep depression with an uplifting coda (see Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, et al.), but Lincoln fits perfectly into Spielberg’s warm-hearted wheelhouse. It’s brimming with character, not only from Daniel Day-Lewis’ commanding, thoughtful lead performance, but also from an outstanding ensemble where the only weak link is Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln (her performance is dinner theater-level bad). It’s a film that flies by despite its epic length and it absolutely does justice to its title character.
3.) Jurassic Park
I’ll always have a soft spot for Jurassic Park. It’s the first PG-13 movie I ever saw, but it still holds up today. The sense of wonder and discovery is still intact, and it has a strong thematic core about scientific hubris. It’s a Frankenstein story wrapped up in a grand adventure, questioning our need for entertainment and our disrespect for nature. While Spielberg has gone on to keep making great movies, Jurassic Park stands as his last truly great blockbuster, one that’s undiminished by time. The effects, the story, the characters, and everything else still holds up in this masterpiece.
2.) Raiders of the Lost Ark
For me, Raiders of the Lost Ark is synonymous with “adventure”. It’s the perfectly crafted adventure film, thrilling from the word “go” with a timeless protagonist who’s also perfectly timed for the 1930s. Every moment of this movie is indelible, and it’s hard to believe that at only his sixth feature, Spielberg had cranked out his third undeniable classic. This is what action movies today aspire to be, but Spielberg and George Lucas felt the character of Indiana Jones in their bones. While the following Indy films have ranged in quality, only Last Cruasde came even remotely close to the greatness of Raiders.
1.) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Maybe I consider E.T. special because it’s the first Spielberg movie I ever saw, but it’s more than that. Spielberg made a deeply personal film about a child dealing with his parents divorce and wrapped it in a warm-hearted sci-fi fable about an alien just looking to go home. It’s a movie that innately understands childhood dreams and fears, and makes adults the untrustworthy outsiders who can’t quite recognize the beauty and majesty of a being like E.T. It’s a movie that will make you laugh and cry even when you know every beat. It’s the perfect movie for kids because it not only loves that audience, it respects them too. E.T. should scare young ones because it’s a scary movie, but it’s also one that’s deeply moving and it’s Spielberg at his best.