A-List: Top Five Movies by Steven Spielberg

By J. Don Birnam

June 18, 2015

Why did it have to be sharks?

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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.

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