A-List: Top Five Movies by Steven Spielberg
By J. Don Birnam
June 18, 2015

Why did it have to be sharks?

Jurassic World just devoured the box office, ensuring that the Steven Spielberg-originated franchise will live to see another era. The movie itself was not well-received by critics, but critics be damned, audiences responded to the familiar face of the franchise. I myself found it amusing and even entertaining, and I did appreciate the subtle but obvious references to some of the most iconic Spielberg tropes, including the Indiana Jones-like outfit that Chris Pratt donned and the Jaws-like scenes near the fish tank/show.

In any case, the stunning success of the movie will further enshrine in studios the notion that sequels and remakes are much safer investments than new concepts or unknown quantities. The latter movies simply rarely do as well at the box office.

The irony, of course, is that one of the most singularly talented and original directors in the history of American Cinema is arguably one of the key architects responsible for this stick-to-the-old franchises mentality that has taken over the industry. Spielberg himself has lamented in interviews that the advent of the summer blockbuster in the 1970s and 80s (blockbusters that he basically invented) has somehow ended up stifling creativity, adventure, and risk-taking by audiences and producers alike. In a karmic twist worthy of cheesy Jurassic World references, the beast has devoured the man.

That won't stop us, however, from looking back at some of the masterpieces in the illustrious career of the master himself. Today, the criteria is simple: if Steven Spielberg directed the movie, it is eligible to be on this list. By my count, Spielberg has directed 30 theatrically released feature length films (I've seen 23), spanning nearly 50 years at this point-from 1969 through 2012. And he shows no signs of stopping. The Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, due for release later this year, will continue Spielberg's more recent trend into historically relevant episodes. Honestly, all but a handful of his movies could be on this list, so I will essentially direct you to the filmography for the honorable mentions: all of them (except maybe 1941?).

But these five undoubtedly have the strongest bite.

5. The Color Purple (1985)

Spielberg deserves props simply for the level of difficulty of pulling this project off. Based on the well-known novel of the same name, Spielberg brilliantly maneuvered the potential pitfalls that the race and sexuality issues that lie beneath the surface of this movie present. The result is a thoughtful, emotional saga (the only one of Spielberg's major films not to be scored by John Williams) that spans decades and introduced the world to Whoopi Goldberg as a serious actress. The movie also showcases Spielberg's signature directorial touch, one that makes him one of the best of all time in my view: his ability to expertly weave the more technical aspects of film into a compelling and well directed cut.

The Color Purple was also one of the first in which Spielberg ventured out of the science-fiction/adventure genre that had up until then defined him. It was with the Color Purple that he began to express interest in more personal dramas, leading to other brilliant entries in the coming year, such as Empire of the Sun. But The Color Purple is memorable because you can still see the clear directorial touch of Spielberg-every shot is meticulous, every aspect of the set and lighting, every sound is well placed. Emotional saga meets technical mastery, in other words. The movie world really could use more films like that if you ask me.

Oh, and Spielberg's film trajectory cannot be explored (certainly not by a part-time Oscar guru) without mentioning his tortured relationship with that industry group that doesn't seem to care for Spielberg much--the Academy. This movie is tied for the most Oscar nods without a single win at 11, and also somehow did not get a Best Director nod despite those 11 nominations and an outright win at the Director's Guild of America awards (only one of two times in history this has ever happened). No matter, of course, because Spielberg's career would continue true and strong and eventually, they'd have to begrudgingly award him their top prize.

4. E.T. (1982)

But before we go forward in time, we probably should go back. Although I love the more serious (but still somewhat magical) realism of The Color Purple, that's not to say that Spielberg's science-fiction/adventure movies don't deserve recognition. After all, they are what made him most famous. It was a bit hard to pick between the now classic E.T. and the first Indiana Jones movie (which was made around the same time as E.T. and also spanned a multi-decade franchise, even if not as successful as Jurassic Park), but ultimately I remember being more touched as a child by this (also slightly terrifying) poem to the innocence of childhood.

When it was released, E.T. became the highest grossing movie of all time and broke box office records (sound familiar?). It still holds the record for the most (non-consecutive) weekends in the number one box office spot (at 16), one that I can't imagine any movie will ever break in this age of quick DVD release. And, like all of the other movies on this list and a sizeable portion of Spielberg's films, it received a nomination for Best Picture.

But what is really noteworthy about E.T. is the sincere appreciation for imagination and childhood that it depicts. Innocence is a virtue in ways that have now become clichéd in movies - but then children as the heroes was an essentially new concept. The score is, of course, unforgettable, and the phrase “E.T., phone home,” now immortalized as one of the greatest of all time. Of his successful science-fiction entries, E.T. is also blissfully untouched by the Hollywood greed machine, standing alone without unnecessary and destructive sequels. But it is as timeless as any other movie, one that children of all generations and epochs can and will continue to be enamored by. The innocence, dreamy, creativity of Spielberg's genius is probably nowhere as strongly on display as this masterpiece.

3. Lincoln (2012)

My favorite movie of 2012 is also the third entry on today's list. Panned by some as “too talky” or as consisting of speech after speech, leave it to the masterful Spielberg to sell over $250 million worth of tickets for a movie with a lot of speeches about a bunch of legal concepts and battles that occurred a ton of years ago. Although acting has not normally been associated with Spielberg's films, he directed one of the best performances in the history of modern cinema with Daniel Day-Lewis' masterful portrayal of our 16th President. Indeed, several other performances in the film received deserved praise.

But the intimate portrait of the man through just a narrow episode towards the end of his Presidency is what stands out. Biopics of this nature are almost impossible to pull off (the actor or the figure are too well known and audiences reject one or the other instinctively), but Spielberg of course did it. What is more, he injected with his characteristic suspense and sense of dramatic adventure into the passage of a Constitutional Amendment by the lower Chamber in Congress. If that doesn't convince you that this man is a wonderfully gifted storyteller, I don't know what will. For anyone willing to sit down without needing to see explosions or far-away lands, and not in need of instant gratification, Lincoln is a veritable treat and without a doubt one of my favorite Spielberg movies of all time.

2. Schindler's List (1993)

When Schindler's List became the most-well reviewed movie of the year, and the only one to win all the critics groups and Oscar precursor awards (still the only movie to ever do that), it was clear that the Academy would have no choice but to recognize Spielberg at long last. What is it about him, one wonders, that they hate so much? That he achieved such stunning and unparalleled success at such a young age? Perhaps, but, in any event, Schindler's List is likely the most deserving of his films for this type of recognition, so the Academy got at least this right.

The story is beautiful and horrific at the same time. The best part of it is that Spielberg hits all the right emotional tones in this one while avoiding the emotional triteness of some of his other serious movies, like the otherwise masterful Saving Private Ryan (another head-scratching Best Picture loser, even if it netted Spielberg a deserved second Oscar) and even the compelling Munich. The cinematography is spectacular, the editing impeccable, and the scoring (again) superb. Indeed, his frequent collaborators (Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, and John Williams, respectively) each won deserved Oscars and should be recognized here as part of the reason why Spielberg has been able to make such visually and aurally stunning and touching movies throughout his career.

And those talents are all on display with a vengeance in this movie. The stunning use of the color red in key scenes, the haunting crescendo score, the slow and deliberate editing. Of course, the entire finished product - thoughtful, deep, and engaging - is a harrowing and heart-wrenching but somehow uplifting reward.

Spielberg finds a hero in the most improbable situation. Indeed, Spielberg's heroes, particularly like Oskar Schindler, are mostly thrust into the quandaries they face unwittingly. They are brave not necessarily by nature but by the force of their convictions. They do the right thing against all odds and triumph in the most clichéd but also truthful of ways. Perhaps a reflection of the director himself, of his never-ending youthful spirit (displayed in another goodie, Hook), or of his impish view of the world, these heroes are all, after all, simple men, but men we can only aspire to be like.

1. Jaws (1975)

But in the end there can only be one and I have to go all the way back and pick the movie that really put him on the map as my favorite Spielberg film of all time. This one has everything you associate with Spielberg: an unlikely hero, Oscar snubs (but a Best Picture nomination), box office records (Jaws became the highest grossing movie of all-time in 1975), franchises spawned (three sequels and, with the success of Jurassic World, you know the greedy studio execs are thinking about it), and masterful use of moviemaking technological prowess.

This movie, of course, was a cultural phenomenon. Generations upon generations of us are still afraid of the water because of it. The score is a classic, recognizable by almost every person on the planet who has even seen a movie. And the story every bit as compelling as his most serious drama.

What explains the mastery of Jaws, indeed, one of the best movies ever made? If you look closely, you will see it in basically every cut. The way Spielberg tells the story and the different cinematic techniques on display prove it. The opening scene is on its own magnificent. Playful at first, then spooky, and ultimately deadly. You don't really see the monster, of course, just a dark glimpse of him.

As the story unfolds more of the beast is revealed, but so is the human beast: the greedy, misguided town-folk give a stressful crescendo to the plot, as the suspense sequences with the shark become tenser and more frightening. Then, the movie turns into another gear, that of a car chase scene, as the three explorers give chase to Jaws in the open water. There, again, Spielberg shows a mastery of movie styles that is difficult to fathom from someone in his late 20s, as he was when he made Jaws. And then, of course, we have one of the most iconic scenes of the movie, in my mind, when Robert Shaw's character tells the story of his experience aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis. Bone-chilling even to write and think about, the juxtaposition of this serious (and based on a true story) exchange, with all of the science fiction, the suspense, and the adventure of the rest of the film, is breathtaking, exhilarating, and, of course, memorable.

With a loud splash, Spielberg made his appearance on the scene of American film to change it forever. Jaws and countless other Spielberg films spanned summer blockbusters, franchises, sequels, and obsessions with box office. It also spanned hundreds of movies that explore our relationship to the fantastical, our heroic impulses, and our darkest instincts, all within the frame of an adventurous and technically pleasing movie. It was clear that Spielberg was greater than a lot we had seen before.

We're gonna need a bigger movie screen.