As you are sure to notice from this list, I have a much greater love for Spielberg’s earlier work than his more recent ones. In fact seven of my top ten are films made prior to 1983. One could argue that the director’s more recent output is perhaps technically superior to the earlier work but one could also argue that in a way, these later films have less of a soul than the earlier films. Splitting Spielberg’s career between pre and post Schindler’s List, I vote for his earlier work almost every time.
And speaking of Schindler’s List, I might as well go ahead and let you know right away that the 7-time Oscar winner is not on this list. Go ahead, bring on the complaints. Actually I find the film a technical and visual marvel (Spielberg does know how to paint a pretty picture, even out of such despairing imagery) but I just cannot get past its rather tired and unambitious screenplay and the way everything is shown in the most superficial manner – a criticism that is made even more sad by how much potential the subject matter itself has for such deeply and tragically probing emotion. Anyway, whenever you are done getting over the fact that the oft-beloved Schindler’s List does not make the list, go ahead and check out what does.
Special Mention: The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan
Granted, the rest of Spielberg’s war story is full of stereotypes and cliches so much so that one could write a book on how not to make a war movie using Private Ryan as the basis (which is why the film as a whole does not make the list), but those first twenty minutes or so – the D-Day invasion – is one of the most realistic yet still completely artistic battle sequences ever put on film (which incidentally makes it even a sadder fact when considering how pedestrian the rest of the film is). Jim Hoberman of the Village Voice went so far as to name the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan one of the ten best films of 1998.
10. Minority Report
I do love me a dystopian future story. Perhaps this one isn’t up to the pinnacle of a film such as Blade Runner, but it is still a surprisingly strong film – even if that annoying Scientologist happens to be in it. Seriously though, Minority Report is a fun movie to watch and Spielberg keeps the requisite action going while all the while keeping a sense of dread over all the characters heads (not to mention theories of what is socially right and wrong) as if dangling from his own cinematic Sword of Damocles. Hell, even Cruise is tolerable here, and really, how often does that happen.
First made as a Movie of the Week for ABC-TV in 1971 and subsequently expanded for theatrical release, this Spielberg debut is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat kind of thing that the director would one day become famous for. The story of a traveling salesman being terrorized on the desert highways of California by a menacing truck and his never-seen driver, Spielberg pays homage to his idol Hitchcock while at the same time creating a work that would become the very epitome of the kind of cinema that the so-called rebels of the then New Hollywood would come to reinvent.
Taking some of the theoretical ideas first pondered in the undercurrents of Schindler’s List, Spielberg takes a look at the aftermath of the religio-political killings at the 72 Munich Olympics. Getting flack from both sides of the political spectrum (Spielberg was accused of both pro and anti-Israeli rhetoric!!??) the film is an intensely powerful tale of revenge and the effects it has on those involved in such activities. In sum, probably Spielberg’s most psychologically complex work of art which is in itself proven by such the heated debate it received upon its initial release.
7. Jurassic Park
As pure popcorn art, Jurassic Park fulfills every ideal of just what you want your fun summer entertainment to be: Intriguing premise, fast pacing, fun characters (both to root for and against), blazing awe-inspiring action sequences, kick-ass monsters of all shapes and sizes, and just general giddy fun for all. Out the same year as Schindler’s List, this is really the last of Spielberg’s giant summer popcorn movies (unless one wants to count the ridiculously awful fourth Indiana Jones film – and why would one want to) and it is a shame because the one thing Steven Spielberg does better than just about anyone out there these days (the noted exception of Spielberg protege J.J. Abrams and his up-and-coming directorial career) is make a fun summer blockbuster.
6. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
Can you say heartwarming? Usually such an affectation would turn me off of a film but being the sentimentalist that I am at heart, Spielberg’s paean to lost youth still manages to warm the cockles of this bitter and jaded old critic’s heart. Set up as an adventure story for kids of all ages as they say, E.T. is a bundle of fun. Somehow simple and carefree while also rooting around in that ole Pandora’s Box, Spielberg has fashioned together a legitimately heartwarming work of cinema without falling prey (much) to the cloying hand of over-sentimentalism usually inherent in such an endeavor. In other words, the now classic summer blockbuster from my so-called innocent days of adolescence (I was fourteen on opening day) is that tender blend of big budget wizardry and genuine heartfelt filmmaking.
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