Steven Spielberg is the most prolific filmmaker of all time. You might like someone else’s movies more, or you might think someone else is more talented, but when it comes to the pantheon of filmmakers, he’d be at the top of my list – and I believe most lists. Let’s take a look back at the best films from his illustrious career.
This list is going to be in alphabetical order because there’s no way I’d be able to sort them in terms of quality. They’re all so good.
Bridge of Spies
2015’s Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg direct Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in a Cold War spy movie. The film follows James Donovan, played by Hanks. He’s a lawyer who is asked to defend an accused Soviet spy. This is just to give the illusion of a fair trial—but Donovan is a righteous man who is going to do his best for his client, even though his client may or may not be actively trying to destroy his home country.
Bridge of Spies shouldn’t be good. It’s a Cold War movie without action, without world-ending tension, only has one big star, and he’s so perfect that he feels like he might not be able to exist in real life. But the film crackles. It’s sharp, intelligent, surprisingly funny, incredibly well-acted, and actually gets you to care both about Donovan but the accused spy, too.
Catch Me If You Can
Based on the life of real-life person Frank Abagnale, 2002’s Catch Me If You Can put Leonardo DiCaprio at center stage. Before the age of 19, Abagnale made millions of dollars through various con jobs. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks’ FBI agent spends the movie trying to catch him.
Criminals in movies are often fascinating. There’s an inherent rush to watching people break the law, knowing that any slight slip-up could end their lives—if not literally, then figuratively. Catch Me If You Can is such a lively, energetic work, one that works as pure entertainment and as an interesting way to learn about someone’s life.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
For almost anyone else, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be “the” alien movie of their career. For Spielberg, it’s top 3. Top 2 in quality, for sure, but in terms of notoriety, it might be third. The film sees a UFO touch down in Indiana, and follows Richard Dreyfuss and the various other characters as they try to figure out what to do about that fact.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind might not have been the very first movie to not depict aliens as immediately hostile, but it’s the most prolific movie at the time to do so. It suggests the importance of communication, perhaps even to the point of idealism. But that’s what’s great about the movies. You can have idealism and make it work—even if it’s not necessarily practical or how things would play out in reality.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Of course, “the” alien movie of Steven Spielberg’s career is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982, just a few year’s after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film follows a young boy who befriends an alien stranded on Earth. The boy then tries to help the alien get back home.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen E.T. If you haven’t seen E.T.… what are you waiting for? It’s one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, arguably one of the best movies overall of all time, and it’s just so wonderful, you guys. It’s exciting, it’s sweet, and it’s very entertaining.
Indiana Jones (Franchise)
The Indiana Jones franchise is fantastic. The first three movies represented one of the best trilogies of all time—before the series became a quartet, of course. But even with the fourth movie, which got a mixed reception, Indiana Jones remains an iconic character and the movies are still incredibly entertaining.
For those unaware, Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor played by Harrison Ford who constantly finds himself going on adventures that have far bigger ramifications than initially anticipated. With his iconic whip and fedora, eh fights bad guys and doesn’t afraid of anything. Too old a reference? Ah, you’ll get over it.
My favorite, for the record? The Last Crusade.
Just by reading the word “Jaws,” you can probably hear its iconic theme in your head. Jaws provided the prototype for a summer blockbuster, it made suggestibility more appealing than being overt in order to generate thrills, and it has provided us with so many memorable and quotable moments. Jaws is one of the best thriller/adventure/horror movies you’ll ever see.
Just don’t watch the sequels.
Jurassic Park has such a killer premise. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel, the 1993 movie is about a zoo but for dinosaurs—and then the dinosaurs escape. What’s incredible about Jurassic Park is how well it holds up. It’s an effects-heavy film—after all, you can’t use real dinosaurs—but because so much of it was done practically instead of with computers, it hasn’t aged poorly. Compare Jurassic Park to Jurassic World and the former, at times, looks better than the latter.
Of course, the movie isn’t just about its effects. It’s got great characters, solid action, ideas and themes, and is a thrill ride from start to finish. You should see all of the movies on this list, but if you haven’t seen Jurassic Park, what are you waiting for?
Minority Report is thought more as a Tom Cruise sci-fi movie than a Steven Spielberg film, I’m guessing. After all, Cruise has such a presence that overwhelms all, especially those who don’t appear on the screen. But Spielberg’s vision to create this futuristic world is fantastic, and the movie he makes based on Philip K. Dick’s short story is nothing short of great.
It’s a mystery-thriller based around the idea that we will have the technology available to predict crimes. But since they haven’t happened yet, are the people who haven’t committed them guilty? It’s a free will vs. determinism discussion packed into an entertaining mystery in a dense sci-fi world. It’s great.
Saving Private Ryan
1998’s Saving Private Ryan is perhaps best remembered for its opening half hour, which depicts the Omaha Beach assault during the Normandy landings. It’s graphic, violent, unflinching, and really immerses you in the situation. And then you’ve still got nearly two and a half hours of story to go.
The film is relentless, powerful, captivating, and never once dull. If it’s not “the” World War II movie, it’s very close. It might just be “the” war movie, period. It feels so authentic, has such depth, and does such a good job of making us feel like we’re there.
1993’s Schindler’s List (yes, it and Jurassic Park came out in the same year; how incredible is that?) tells the story of Oskar Schindler, portrayed in the film by Liam Neeson, for which he was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars. Who was Schindler? An opportunist who was both a Nazi and someone who employed (and effectively saved the lives of) more than a thousand Jewish refugees during World War II.
Film in black and white and approached more like a documentary than anything else, Schindler’s List isn’t an enjoyable watch. Spielberg’s greatest aspect, typically, is being a warm, entertaining filmmaker. Schindler’s List is not this. I don’t know if watching it more than once is necessary—but watching it once is. You owe it to yourself.