There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg is still seemingly the King of Hollywood. Over the course of a nearly five-decade-long career, he has perfected and/or inaugurated any number of cinematic movements and innovations. Coming up as one of the “movie brats” — the generation of filmmakers who transformed American cinema in the ’60s and ’70s — Spielberg also helped kick off Hollywood’s blockbuster culture with Jaws in 1975, and then sent the culture into overdrive with the one-two punch of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. in 1981 and 1982. It was the success of those movies and their imitators that has been identified by many as one of the reasons why American film culture took a nosedive in the 1980s, but his career has always alternated between blockbusters and more serious fare; tackling tough subjects like the Holocaust, WWII, terrorism, and the Civil War and slavery, while also making populist entertainment along the way as always. For all its popularity, his body of work is surprisingly diverse, and one senses from each effort the work is of a director always pushing his audience as well as himself. So, during this hectic time, I’ve decided to look over and rank his entire filmography, as many, I expect, may be watching his work during this stuck-at-home time. So let’s begin!
32. 1941 (1979)
Here’s a weird thing: Steven Spielberg can’t really do broad comedy. That may sound like an absurd thing to say, given the sheer amount of humor in so many of his films. But while Spielberg is great at introducing lightheartedness into more intense or emotional material, he’s totally lost when his offhand levity is traded in for look-at-me cartwheels. This bloated attempt at a zany multi-character WWII comedy, about Los Angeles panicking at news of a Japanese attack, is a film of massive scale and multiple running gags. But when you aim for belly laughs and all you can get is an occasional chuckle, that’s safe to consider it a failure. Spielberg would later joke that the film should have been a musical. And, really, that might not have been the worst idea.
31. Always (1989)
An ill-considered remake of the 1943 Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, Always is a hokey war film in search of a war. Instead of a WWII flyer like Tracy was in his film, Richard Dreyfuss plays a fire-fighter pilot who dies on a mission but is sent by an angel back to earth to inspire a younger pilot. The flight scenes are predictably well helmed but Spielberg just drowns the film in so much schmaltz that its almost embarrassingly sentimental, and never makes the love-story sparks fly, at all.
30. War Horse (2011)
It’s possible to make a PG-13 war film, but if you judge it 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 (and also boasts possibly career-worst work from John Williams).
29. The Terminal (2004)
Starring Tom Hanks as a not really charming and rather bland East European visitor forced to live in the limbo of JFK airport’s international terminal after his country experiences a coup and his visa is rendered invalid, The Terminal isn’t exactly a strong effort from Spielberg. The film’s tonal mishmash of pathos and farce is too much, and yet again, we have an example of Spielberg’s helplessness when trying to do an outright comedy. And it doesn’t exactly help either that the charm is lacking and as a whole it feels like an interesting premise in search of a compelling story.
28. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
With a few expectations, Spielberg should probably just stay away from sequels. The Lost World pales in comparison to the original in just about 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 and brings a lot of faux-environmentalism for its unsympathetic characters. By the time the film ends up in San Diego for a madcap T-Rex romp through the streets, we’ve already lost interest.
27. Hook (1991)
I’m sorry for all those out there that saw Hook as a kid and loved it, because 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. In some ways, Hook was actually ahead of its time, pre-dating Hollywood’s current obsession with rebooting and reimagining already existing properties. Except this one comes with an unbearable, almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime that does contain some solid performances from Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, but the film as a whole gets bogged down in its awful pacing despite its warmhearted central story.
26. Amistad (1997)
While Amistad isn’t a great film, it does have some positives (i.e. its commentary about power and communication). Unfortunately, from a structural perspective, Amistad is a highly repetitive film, as it keeps 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.
25. Ready Player One (2018)
Freely reworking Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel about a future so dark that you have to wear VR goggles to escape it all, Ready Player One is one of Spielberg’s most bleak and loose-limbed sci-fi action films. It’s a movie that delves heavily into fan-service and the empty love of pop culture; a film that has characters give speeches about how its their moral and ethical responsibility to protect an artist’s creations from being exploited by people who won’t stay true to the author’s original intent, but then also has random pieces of IP and IP-centric characters fight each other. It’s that fundamental irony that the film fails to acknowledge or address over and over again that can make the film quite frustrating. It’s overlong and occasionally visually-popping, but the nonstop of characters talking in references rather than through expressed emotions can find the film rather dormant.
24. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Many had dreamed of a fourth Indiana Jones adventure for years — so when Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and Harrison Ford announced they were teaming up for a new installment, it felt like the Movie Gods had smiled on all the fans. And for its first half or so, Crystal Skull delivers some solid work, with numerous set pieces that, while certainly a little ridiculous, show that Spielberg and co. could still craft a visceral thrill ride. Unfortunately, things to start to fall apart as we progress, with the hokiness turning more and more up to a largely bloated finale.
23. The BFG (2016)
One of Spielberg’s rare box office flops, his Roald Dahl adaptation just never quite springs to life — it always feels more like a theoretically entertaining film than an actual enchantment. Part of the problem is that the whimsy and fantasy both feel rather leaden, and the tonal whiplash of the film doesn’t really help either. But maybe the greatest difficulty is that The BFG is one of the rare times in Spielberg’s career when he seems to be desperately trying to convince us that his heart is in the material. There’s some solid elements (Mark Rylance and the dream-chasing scenes), but ultimately The BFG is a mixed effort.
22. The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg’s first drama and some might say his first “serious” movie, The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is exactly the sort of earnest, awkward stab at seriousness you’d expect from a guy who’d made his name directing blockbusters. Spielberg delves pretty deep into the misery of Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg, in her film acting debut), 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. (And with this particular film, there’s no doubt the film goes too far in rounding out the sharp edges and provocations in the book.) As a result, The Color Purple is a movie that feels like it’s flinging wildly between melodrama and inspirational picture, but never fully achieves either tone.
21. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Made in collaboration with Peter Jackson, Spielberg’s re-imagining of Belgian cartoonist Herge’s iconic, cowlicked boy detective is an ideal blend of reality and computer animation: The characters have just enough weight and presence to feel like they’ve finally come to life, while the colorful style still allows them to retain their distinctive features from the original source material. And once it gets going, the film never really stops, with chase scenes piled atop one another. It was admittedly too much for some viewers, but the movie’s sheer energy is something to behold.
20. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
At the time of its release many found that Spielberg took Temple of Doom too far — that his fondness for cartoonish violence and gore had slide into outright sadism. The movie was even pivotal in prompting the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, because it seems weird to be giving PG ratings to movies in which people had their hearts ripped out onscreen. Temple of Doom was also a trendsetter by being a prequel, and through its atmospheric locale and creepy cult storyline, this entry in the franchise feels even more evocative of the vintage serials that inspired this series than the original Raiders of the Lost Ark; at the same time, what seemed innocuous then now seems racially insensitive or misogynistic. (The depictions of Short Round and Willie both seem unfortunate now, to say the least.) But outside of that, this movie can be pretty nonstop, with Spielberg hell-bent on topping his previous stunt sequences.
19. War of the Worlds (2005)
Spielberg’s update of H.G. Wells’ watch-the-skies sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds stars Tom Cruise as a divorced mess struggling to spend quality time with his kids when aliens invade, laying waste to everything in sight. The film delivers an absolutely incredible opening seventy minutes, as Spielberg choreographs the invasion and its aftermath with a mixture of disaster movie spectacle and post-9/11 gravitas; the urgency and the danger never quite let up. That is until Tim Robbins shows up as odd survivalist, and from there the film only fizzles out more and more, all the way through its lousy resolution.
18. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg’s drama about a young wife (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband out of prison so they can retrieve their baby from a foster home and flee to Mexico was his entry into the popular late ’60s/early ’70s lovers-on-the-run movie sweepstakes. And unlike most entries in this subgenre (i.e. Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde), The Sugarland Express is much more of a ride — the glee with which he orchestrates car chases and crashes can be pretty thrilling to watch. It also gives you an early indication that his work won’t be all rainbows and Reese’s Pieces, all the time: As the protagonists’ freewheeling recklessness continues on a collision course with the forces of law and order, we know their adventure can’t end well.
17. The Post (2017)
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 injection 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 his statement. If anything, the biggest weakness of The Post is that it can be too on-the-nose, explaining its subtext and themes rather that just letting the audience appreciate the work and motives of the characters. But overall this feels like a minor quibble when everyone, from Spielberg to his crew to his strong ensemble are all operating at top-notch levels.
16. Minority Report (2002)
Much like the previously mentioned Spielberg-Cruise joint, War of the Worlds, Minority Report starts incredibly strong. Frankly, its a absolutely brilliant film … until the last twenty or-so minutes. It’s until then where we have a movie about fate, responsibility, inevitability, tragedy, and reconciliation. There’s a clear point where this movie should end, and that’s when John Anderton (Tom Cruise) 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. It’s near-perfect sci-fi until it isn’t.
15. Duel (1971)
Duel is a helluva debut feature. Even though it was released as a TV movie (in the U.S., in Europe it was released theatrically) it still feels wholly cinematic. The story follows David Mann (Dennis Weaver), 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 announced Spielberg as a major talent.
14. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Leaning into the evenhanded somberness of the real-life story about the lawyer (Tom Hanks at his most Jimmy Stewart) who was tasked by the U.S. government with negotiating the exchange of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the early ’60s, Spielberg shows that he’s still as sharp as ever. Bridge of Spies showcases his deep humanism while paired with some undeniable talent; seen in the performances, which are great — Rylance is the standout and won a well-deserved Oscar for his surprisingly melancholic turn. But this film also feels spiritually refreshing for the director: Even in his more serious work has often demonstrated a streak of clearly defined notions of good and evil. This might be the one Spielberg film where he seems determined to allow every character their humanity, and to embrace the complexity of the world.
13. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Spielberg’s epic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s WWII memoir didn’t get nearly enough love when it came out, but its reputation has steadily (and rightfully) grown over the years. The story of a young boy (a thirteen-year-old Christian Bale in one of his finest performances) whose opulent life with his expat parents in Shanghai is upended when the Japanese invade and he’s separated from them, finds Spielberg finally hitting his groove on harrowing subject matter combined with an uplifting tale. It’s a stark portrait of shattered illusions; about growing up with privilege and learning its limitations and its faults; about how youthful wonder transforms into terror and paralysis. But what’s maybe most 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.
12. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Catch Me If You Can is tricky little film and it’s all the more beguiling because it’s a sad, intimate family drama wrapped in a lighthearted caper. Yes, it’s another tale of innocence lost and families broken, starring two of the world’s biggest actors (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks) — but it’s incredibly sophisticated stylistically and despite being a hit, remains underrated by some and a highly subversive gem in Spielberg’s filmography. While the film runs a little long, seen most in its final act, it’s overall a film that uses ’00s DiCaprio’s youthful look to perfection and sharply finds ways to take its lead character’s duplicities read like a journey through American culture and the prosperity of mid-century mark.
11. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade found the franchise at higher ground after the fine Temple of Doom. Ripping and roaring from its opening scene and the terrific chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery shining, Last Crusade is a confident adventure film that finds subtle ways for character development and depth to help make it the franchises warmest, funniest entry.
10. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Is Saving Private Ryan more than just its incredible opening sequence on the beaches of Normandy? It’s a question many ask while revisiting the film, and I’d say it is. While the centric squad of soldiers can come off as generic and the unnecessary bookends with the elder Private Ryan can drown out what had preceded it, Saving Private Ryan also contains Tom Hanks’ most underappreciated and restrained performance and some of Spielberg’s most impressively staged sequences.
9. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
It’s the ultimate boy-meets alien tale and one of the director’s most beloved films, and it’s easy to see why: Despite plenty of unforgettable set pieces, iconic images (the moonlight bike ride), the instantly recognizable John Williams score and a host of wonderful child-actor performances, what really makes the movie resonate decades after it achieved pop-culture immortality is its honest depiction of bonding through mutual loneliness. Stranded on Earth, this scared, long-necked creature and this fragile young lad find each other and find a deep connection through a literal mind-meld. So many fell in love with this film as kids, and as well many problem question why it falls this low on the list: I guess it’s just, for me, there’s a couple of moments where the schmaltz gets put on a little too hard. But, in the end, the fact that this film still holds up so well is a testament to Spielberg’s investment in grounding the fantastical and turning the mundane suburbia into a place of endless wonder. And, yes, the climatic goodbye will still make you cry.
8. Munich (2005)
Spielberg’s controversial, frequently misunderstood drama abut violence, righteousness, and revenge, Munich follows the true-life story of Mossad’s covert operation to hunt down the Palestinians responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics lies in its staging as a series of spy-hunter action sequences. But the film’s pulse-pounding excitement is merely an act of deception to suggest how the rush for vengeance — no matter how justified — only brings about more killing, dragging down honorable intentions and leaving blood on everyone’s hands. Yes, Spielberg overdid it with that one sex scene, but Munich is a film of bold condemnation towards both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A film that ends one a note of complexity and historic despair; A film with unsettling and ambiguous ethical questions at its core. What is the line between justice and vengeance? How can human decency survive the fight against fanaticism? These questions have not hardly lost their relevance, and neither has Munich.
7. Lincoln (2012)
At times, Spielberg’s portrait of our nation’s 16th President (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment in the waning days of the Civil War feels like the least Spielbergian of all the director’s filmography. Certainly, it’s insularity, its single-minded focus on process, and it reams of Tony Kushner’s dialogue are a far cry from the epic sweep of his other historical films. But there’s a masterclass going on here. Look at Spielberg’s use of open space — how he portrays the White House as a ghostly mansion haunted by images of war and slavery, slowly becoming suffused with light as Lincoln gets closer to his goal. Look at the way Spielberg finds the contrasts of the President’s personality, perfectly captured by the legend that is Day-Lewis: the chatty leader who also happens to be a ruthless, calculating practitioner of politics. See how Honest Abe, halfway towards becoming a myth, has to use the majesty of his office and position to reach a series of mundane compromises to achieve historic goals. This is one of Spielberg’s most deceptively complex films, and the rare movie that effectively shows history at work.
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
To this day, the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with watching Jurassic Park is still heavily intact. With a thematic core about scientific hubris, Jurassic Park is 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 some great movies, Jurassic Park still stands as his last truly great blockbuster, one that’s undiminished by time. The practical and visual effects, the story itself, the characters, and everything else still holds up remarkably.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
What would it really look like if mankind made contact with aliens? For his part, Spielberg conjures up a busy, messy world where scientists, military men, government officials, and ordinary Americans struggle to come to terms with the moment we make contact. Still one of only two films Spielberg ever wrote — though I still wish Paul Schrader’s script was utilized more than it was — Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the closest he’s come to delivering a pure, unfiltered expression of his artistic voice. His combination of the lyrical and the extraterrestrial remains masterful. The awe-inspiring moments of the fear and beauty of the unknown is likely unmatched by no other film. Many consider Close Encounters to be his masterpiece and it can be hard to argue otherwise.
4. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A.I., Spielberg’s distant-future update of Pinocchio with a robot boy (a terrific Haley Joel Osment) in a distant future trying to win the love his family is an utterly fascinating piece in Spielberg’s filmography. The last screenplay that Spielberg wrote, A.I. started off as a long-gestating Stanley Kubrick project, that him and Spielberg were developing together. But when Kubrick passed away, Spielberg took the incredibly rich material, tweaked it a little bit, and found ways to be bring the chilly, intellectual air of the dead master’s finest works into his own voice. Though many try to argue that Spielberg overreaches with the ending, I’d say the film needs its complete third act with the bittersweet one final day. It’s not a “happy” ending like some try to say it is, but the one this thought-provoking, utterly mesmerizing, sci-fi masterwork deserves.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
What’s left to say about Spielberg’s most acclaimed film and one of Hollywood’s few genuine attempts to confront the Holocaust? It’s a haunting work, to be sure — but also a haunted one, ostensibly a tale of survival regarding the thousand-plus Jews who were effectively saved by the efforts of German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). But it can’t shake the ghosts of those who didn’t survive, and keeps showing us their fates as well. The brief glimpse of Auschwitz, not to mention the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, are some of the most unbearable sequences Spielberg has ever put to film. And other than a few concessions to stylistics (that red coat), the director tempered the usual sensationalism of his usual historic drama aesthetic, (working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for the first time) shooting in black and white and consciously forgoing some of his cherished cinematic techniques. It’s a stark work, and a deeply humanistic one as well.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece is both a homage to classic movie serials and also something totally of its early ’80s moment. It’s a film of beautifully conceived and precisely executed action — each scene more surprising, elaborate, and eye-popping than the last — yet archeologist and man of adventure Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is never just a figure inside a big, special effects machine; the set pieces work because the film is so firmly invested in character. Watch how our hero and his deceitful guide go back and forth in the film’s breathtaking opening sequence; or Indy’s interactions with Marion (Karen Allen) in the Well of Souls; or his weirdly jokey exchanges with the various Nazi soldiers throughout the film’s incredible desert chase sequence. The film’s special effects and technique remain dazzling; it’s a perfect blend of jaw-dropping spectacle and the sort of actor-driven movie moments that are evocative of Golden-Age Hollywood classics; and it’s as perfect a piece of pure, uncut adventure that has ever hit the silver screen.
1. Jaws (1975)
Despite his reputation in the ’80s as a director (and producer) of cuddly, kid-friendly adventures, Spielberg’s first blockbuster was Jaws: a terrifying, often gory adaptation of Peter Benchley’s shark thriller novel. It’s been endlessly imitated, in terms of its influence and as an easy target for parody (think of how many times John Williams’ deceivingly simple, undeniably ominous theme music has been used as a punchline), and has often been accused as the catalyst for the bottom-line-and-blockbuster-obsessed industry that we’re dealing with today. Yet still all of Jaws‘ many imitators sadly missed the great central filmmaking message: Tease, tease, tease, make them wait … and then destroy them. In Spielberg’s hands, the shark becomes not just a great movie monster, but also an existential fact — consuming its victims with little care for who they are. But it’s the mixing of great, time-spending character work and that unhinged, anything-goes quality, enhanced by an almost mathematical deployment of scares, that still keeps us riveted, invested, and shocked, even after multiple viewings. It’s a magic trick in filmmaking that very few others in film history have ever pulled off and why I think it’s Spielberg’s best film.