The only thing harder than ranking Steven Spielberg’s 12 greatest films, is choosing 12 of his 30-plus feature films (his list keeps growing), and boldly stating they’re better than the other 18-plus. But, that’s the whole point of the internet, isn’t it? Identifying things to debate? Creating subjective lists with as much objectivity as one can muster? Taking one on the jaw in the comments section if Jaws isn’t on this thing—but don’t worry, of course it is! Without further ado, let us honor the master filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, and his 12 greatest films.
12. Duel (1971)
It’s never good when you have to start off a list with a disclaimer, but in this case, it’s warranted. Duel is not a better film than several other of Steven Spielberg’s films that are not listed. In fact, it may be 27 or 28 on the overall list of “that was awesome.” However… Duel was such an achievement in filmmaking for a young, budding, soon-to-be master, that it can never be excluded from any list about Spielberg. Duel was gloriously 1970s, and made for TV. There were an enormous amount of vehicular stunts, and the film was rooted in visual storytelling. It didn’t rely on words. It relied on the fight or flight response from the audience, and that’s exactly what it achieves. For a first time feature filmmaker, it’s mind boggling that Spielberg pulled this off as well as he did, and with a $450,000 budget.
11. Schindler’s List (1993)
For aspiring filmmakers, there are a few films you can point to that ooze with exceptional tonality. At a film’s essence, it’s a consistent, bold, yet often understated tone that holds everything together and allows an audience member to slip into the world and begin to empathize with the characters. Schindler’s List was an epic, emotional beat down… in the best of ways. Everything about it was precisely crafted, from performances to cinematography, to the pace of the storytelling and the subsequent editing. It lured the audience into a hushed, fearful state. Add to it another unforgettable John Williams score and you’ve got a true cinematic experience. The film was deeply personal to Spielberg, having grown up hearing stories of what his fellow Jews dealt with in WWII Europe, and he put that piece of himself on display in this film that still suggests hope always exists in darkest moments of despair.
10. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
What a ride: Christopher Walken, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Martin Sheen… the list goes on and on. And with Steven Spielberg at the helm, how could you go wrong? Catch Me If You Can caught a lot of people off guard, opening near Christmas of 2002, and coming just after Spielberg’s earlier 2002 effort, Minority Report. The film pretty much offers another master class in filmmaking, remaining true to the non-fiction source material, yet taking artistic liberties to up the stakes from time to time. The look of this film may be one of Spielberg’s finest achievements. It captured an era so well it triggered a renewed interest in mid-century modern… everything. A lot of people would point to Mad Men for the reason things look like they do in 2016, but make no mistake, the seed was planted a few years earlier.
9. Empire of the Sun (1987)
When it comes to unsung Spielberg films there are only a select few, and Empire of the Sun is certainly one of them. Fans of Christian Bale will know this as his very first job in a major motion picture. And for anyone who doubts Christian Bale as a force in the entertainment world, give this one a look-see. It’s not surprising that few people have seen this film that centers around the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, but it is a film that will resonate long after a viewing. Spielberg has a panache for delivering incredible WWII epics. This particular film comes from a very different perspective, and it’s quite refreshing. The performance he captured from Christian Bale is nothing less than spectacular. And, it’s worth noting, Empire of the Sun also features a young Ben Stiller in a character role he’ll never be lucky enough to play again, because… he’s Ben Stiller.
8. Lincoln (2012)
The world of cinema needed Lincoln. There have been many attempts at capturing the former president as part of a motion picture, but none have really done the man, or the time period, justice. Lincoln may not have been perfect, but it was pretty close. Critics might argue against it as revisionist history, but there were only a few things that strayed from recorded and accepted historical documentation. Fans of the former president, and Steve Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, likely watched this one with bated breath and shaky hands. Spielberg’s attention to detail was spot on yet again. It helps to have the budgets he works with, but who else deserves as much trust with a big budget? Regardless of the period, even if it’s in the future, Spielberg picks up the challenge, and slams it down!
7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
After years and years of making fantastic movies, Steven Spielberg was finally awarded an Oscar for his direction on Saving Private Ryan. Deservedly so. Saving Private Ryan broke new ground in the portrayal of war on film, and presented a new angle on the horrors of war. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opted to manipulate the eyes of the audience by tweaking the shutter angle to 45 degrees. This offered an in-camera effect that was akin to stock war footage from the 1940s. It was incredibly effective in the battle scenes, and presented something that no one had ever seen before in a motion picture of this magnitude. Of course, the film also gave birth to the super stardom of actors Vin Diesel and Matt Damon (who shot Saving Private Ryan before the success of Good Will Hunting).
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Let’s all hum it together, shall we? Those five tones that you can never get out of your head once you have seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This film offers such a lasting effect that many pre-internet fans would trek to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to see what was really behind it. The answer: Nature. A whole lotta nature. Still, what a perfect, fictional explanation for this incredible, natural phenomenon. Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss were magnetic in this film. They were absolutely fearless. And Spielberg offered such a wonderful take on government conspiracy and cover ups in order to fool the knowing public into believe lies for their “own betterment.” This film made a few bold social statements. It also inspired a little homage in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. Considering the special effects available to the crew at the time, this 1977 science-fantasy flick was a monumental achievement.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Hollywood lore goes a little like this: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have a habit of betting on the success of their movies. It started in 1976 when both were gunning for 1977 releases of their films Star Wars: A New Hope and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lucas was so determined that Close Encounters would outperform Star Wars that he offered 2.5% percent from his film in exchange for 2.5% of Spielberg’s. This behavior continued on Raiders of the Lost Ark when the two disagreed on how successful the film would be at the box office. Spielberg lost, and it resulted in a donation to USC Film School so large that the sound scoring stage was named after him. Although Raiders of the Lost Ark may have lost the best, what’s not to love about this incredible film? It was the birth of a franchise and an iconic character, who has served as more Halloween costumes than one can shake a stick at.
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
If only one film from the Indiana Jones franchise existed, most fans would probably go with this one. It’s tough to say it beats the original, but if you consider Raiders of the Lost Ark as a stand alone… eh, it’s moot. In terms of sequels, this film did what few films have done: presented a third installment that was as strong as, or better than the first. The addition of Sean Connery to the cast, and the Jones boys engaging the evil Axis powers was magical. The underlying story was familiar to audiences going in, so the hook was immediate. Everyone was game to go on this journey to find the Holy Grail. And talk about upping the stakes! Not many directors have had the brass to toss Adolf Hitler into their historical fiction for comedic effect. And lest we forget River Phoenix. RIP.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
How influential was Jurassic Park? So influential that die hard fans have had the theme played at their weddings…on bagpipes! Steven Spielberg changed the game yet again with Jurassic Park. Like so many times in the past, he employed a seamless transition of practical and special/video effects—VFX, if you please—to create a fun, terrifying, adventurous romp through a modern day dinosaur park. And come on, the fact that the bloodsucking, money-hungry attorney was eaten by a T-Rex!? In terms of digging deep for story, Jurassic Park doesn’t compare to some of Spielberg’s unlisted films such as Amistad or Munich, but overall there are few films that compare to Jurassic Park. Just ask people who grew up as Land of the Lost fans (the TV show, not the terrible Will Ferrell movie). Jurassic Park was everything they dreamed could exist on a movie screen.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg was the hottest man on the planet in the mid-late 1970s and the early 1980s. In the realm of filmmaking, he couldn’t be touched. To draw comparison, those from the millennial generation might consider J.J. Abrams as a talent comparable to that of Spielberg. A guy who always makes great movies, yet is never really awarded for them or considered in those conversations, Abarams’ films are rarely disappointing. But Abrams may have a tougher row to hoe in that regard, because people were far less cynical 30 years ago than they are now. Enough digression… that has obviously changed for Spielberg. When he made E.T., he hooked a legion of young filmgoers who would never give up on the magic of the silver screen, no matter how hard TV tried to lure them away. E.T. was a beautiful film that got audiences laughing, then left them weeping over their laughter.
1. Jaws (1975)
Given how incredibly successful we all know Jaws to be, what few people realize is that it almost killed Spielberg’s career before it really began. The ambitious nature of Jaws was frowned upon by studio execs, but they saw the immense potential in the film if it could be pulled off. Spielberg nearly found himself in an early grave trying to make it happen. Shooting on the open water was something that had never been done before on that scale. Shooting with the ridiculously intimidating mechanical shark…another first. The production fell behind schedule, and pushed over budget, and at one point Spielberg got a set visit that nearly made him wave the white flag. Somehow, it all came together while shooting a scene on the boat and the production found its rhythm. Jaws became a film that genuinely made people afraid to go into the ocean. It gave birth to the summer blockbuster.