Steven Spielberg’s Movies, Ranked

8:00 AM 10/16/2015

by John DeFore

With ‘Bridge of Spies’ opening, THR film critic John DeFore assessed the director’s oeuvre, which includes everything from Robin Williams in tights to an old-fashioned adventure that launched a franchise.

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One of the filmmakers who gave us the very concept of the blockbuster in the ‘70s has done many things in his long, hugely influential career, but no Steven Spielberg picture has ever been small. From swashbucklers to slavery to a killer shark, here's how they stand up against each other:

  1. 26
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    ‘Hook’ (1991)

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    A lesson in fairytale revisionism that Joe Wright would have been smart to heed before embarking on Pan.

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    '1941’ (1979)

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    This over-the-top World War II comedy has had a champion or two in the decades since it was torn apart by critics, but not many. Even some of its admirers admitted it wasn't funny. But it gave the Kurosawa-loving filmmaker a chance to work with Seven Samurai icon Toshiro Mifune, so at least there's that.

  3. 24
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    ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1984) and ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ (1997) (tie)

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    A pair of number-two cash grabs that weren't terrible so much as uninspired. Neither killed its franchise, though in the latter case, perhaps it should have.

  4. 23
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    ‘Always’ (1989)

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    A passion project for the director and his star Richard Dreyfuss, this remake of 1944's A Guy Named Joe was heartfelt but struck most as off-key. It's hard to hate a movie in which Audrey Hepburn plays a helpful angel, though (and in her final screen role, no less).

  5. 22
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    ‘The Terminal’ (2004)

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    Oddly literal for a story so full of allegorical potential, Terminal offers Tom Hanks as an Eastern European traveler stuck in an NYC airport for months due to a passport issue. Longtime collaborators John Williams and Janusz Kaminski offered work as dull as airline food in this sappy dud.

  6. 21
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    ‘Amistad’ (1997)

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    The least effective of Spielberg's Important movies, this drama about the aftermath of a rebellion of African prisoners destined for the slave trade has stirring moments. But like Lincoln, it gets bogged down in legal procedure, and here there's no central Day-Lewis-like performance to make it a must-see.

  7. 20
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    ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)

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    In the first film he made for the big screen, Spielberg revisited the asphalt that served him so well in Duel. But this Texas-set crime film traded that picture's white-knuckle minimalism for the kind of fleet-of-highway-patrolmen chase scenes that would soon become a tiresome staple of Hollywood adventures, making the once-fresh caper age badly.

  8. 19
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    'The Adventures of Tintin’ (2011)

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    Did one of cinema's greatest awe-crafters really need to be liberated from the bounds of reality by motion-capture CG animation? Less would have been more in this too-exciting, too-adventurous take on Hergé's beloved cartoon hero. But then, less is rarely what one gets when one teams with producer Peter Jackson.

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    Watch Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson talk about the making of 'The Adventures of Tintin'.

     

  9. 18
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    ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (2008)

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    Good ol' Indy had already dodged everything from rolling boulders to face-melting spirits from another dimension. But surviving a nuclear blast by jumping into an abandoned refrigerator? Even if that didn't place dangerous ideas in kids' heads, it would take this sometimes rollicking film down a notch.

  10. 17
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    ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987)

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    Spielberg plus J.G. Ballard is as odd a pairing as Spielberg and Alice Walker. Combining WWII's horrors and boyish wonder is a counterintuitive match as well. The first of the filmmaker's serious films about a war that is often on his mind had its virtues but was so far surpassed by its siblings as to be almost forgettable.

  11. 16
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    'The Color Purple’ (1985)

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    One of the oddest outings in his career, this Alice Walker adaptation removed much grit and offered more warmth and comedy than one would expect given its bleak setting. A heaven-sent cast, including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their screen debuts, helped the picture transcend its more sentimental moments and move even many viewers with misgivings about the pairing of director and novel.

  12. 15
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    ‘War Horse’ (2011)

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    Those enamored of Nick Stafford's blockbuster puppet-based play must have thought making a live-action film was a crazy idea. But then, that play was based on a novel, and all three incarnations rely on a kind of equestrian sentiment Spielberg exploits masterfully here.

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    Watch THR's Scott Feinberg host a Q&A with the crew of 'War Horse.' Producer Kathleen Kennedy talks about keeping the film as natural as possible and what it was like working with director Steven Spielberg.

     

  13. 14
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    ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)

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    This realization of one of Stanley Kubrick's dream projects may be the best example of a Spielberg film that would be much improved if just a few minutes at the end could be lopped off.

  14. 13
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    ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

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    Without the transfixing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, this look at the struggle to ratify the 13th Amendment would be an eat-your-vegetables film — an exquisitely crafted and undeniably edifying history lesson that, for all its handsomeness, would be better suited to TV miniseries than the big screen.

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    Watch Steven Spielberg talk about meeting the 'Exquisite' Quvenzhane Wallis and how they brought 'Lincoln' to life.

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    ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)

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    Those who complained that it felt as corporate as a branded theme-park ride would quickly see their misgivings justified, and the surfeit of scary monsters here might make one yearn for the single many-toothed beastie of Jaws. But this quantum leap in special effects was the kind of standard-setter for which we rely on Spielberg.

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    ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)

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    Some flinched at "too soon" echoes of 9/11, but this intense, sometimes grim picture made far more sense than sci-fi predecessors treating alien invasions as rah-rah adventures or occasions for the President of the United States to pilot a fighter jet. (Sorry, Independence Day.)

  17. 10
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    ‘Duel’ (1971)

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    A car. A truck. A long road with nowhere to hide. 'Nuff said.

  18. 9
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    ‘Munich’ (2005)

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    Leave it to Seth Rogen in Knocked Up to explain the appeal of a movie in which Jews turned the tables, executing an ass-kicking payback mission after 11 Israeli hostages were murdered in 1972. More completely than any of his other films, Munich shows that the citizen moved by historical events and the showman intent on exciting his audience are the same man.

  19. 8
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    'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

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    Introducing Sean Connery as Indy Jones's professorial old man was just the thing to bring this franchise back from its Temple of Doom nadir, just as the Holy Grail was a trophy worth seeking after the Ark of the Covenant.

  20. 7
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    Catch Me If You Can’ (2002) and ‘Minority Report’ (2002) (tie)

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    In a banner year, a filmmaker who hadn't had much fun in a decade had tons of it with two epic chase films that have nothing but manhunts in common. The vicarious kicks of impersonation in Catch Me, the true story of teenage serial fraudster Frank Abagnale, are given edge by harrowing scenes of his eventual imprisonment. And Tom Cruise is in on-the-lam top form for Report — a Philip K. Dick adaptation that, like the PKD-sourced Blade Runner, offers one of the most persuasive visions of the future in sci-fi movie history.

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    Watch the trailer for Fox's 'Minority Report' TV adaptation.

  21. 6
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    ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)

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    While his buddy George Lucas was wowing kids with Jedis and Wookies, Spielberg expressed a more grown-up awe at the prospect of life in galaxies far, far away. The picture's keen sense of mystery married that of the best '50s sci-fi with '70s paranoia, but the finale was unadulterated everything-is-possible bliss.

  22. 5
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    ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

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    A natural follow-up to Schindler's List, Ryan put us in the shoes of those fighting the Axis, throwing the full weight of moviemaking muscle at us in ways that (appropriately) shocked moviegoers. Giving us an ensemble of characters worth following into that hellish experience, the movie ensured it would be remembered after the firepower of its Omaha Beach opening was surpassed by some more extreme war film.

  23. 4
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    ‘Jaws’ (1975)

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    Given the many trials of its production, this might well have been a disaster. Instead, the excruciatingly suspenseful adaptation of Peter Benchley's bestseller launched a genre, inspiring a legion of man-vs-nature imitators (including a string of tacky Jaws sequels) that almost never matched its elemental drama.

  24. 3
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    ‘Schindler's List’ (1993)

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    In another greatest-hits ranking, this might sit at the top. But Schindler's List was so out-of-nowhere in Spielberg's oeuvre (so unlike the giddy movies that made his reputation; so far above the serious efforts that preceded it) that it can't really be the standard bearer for it. Morally complex and harrowing without diminishing the impact of its acts of bravery, it became one of the essential Holocaust dramas in a very crowded field.

  25. 2
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    ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)

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    Where Raiders paid tribute to a forgotten Hollywood form, E.T. was like nothing before it, an encapsulation of childhood wonder propelled by the kind of adventure we were coming to expect from Spielberg. Here, moments of sentiment connected unerringly, and anybody who didn't love that ugly little alien, frankly, didn't deserve to re-enter a cinema for the rest of the summer.

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    ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

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    While its built-in sympathy for outdated ethnocentric values rankles one's conscience after the credits roll, there is no Spielbergian thrill-ride more fun than this homage to old Hollywood adventure serials — a modernization that far surpasses the yarns that inspired it.

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