The Directors Guild of America has nominated him 11 times, more than any other filmmaker in the history of the movies, and three times honoured him as the year’s Best Director. Seven times he has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director, winning twice, however it is clear there should have been at least five other nominations and an additional two to three wins. The National Society of Film Critics has twice named his work Best Film with an additional Best Director award for him, as have the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, while the New York Film Critics have twice named his work best of the year but chose not to honour him as Best Director. 

It was once said to me that “Spielberg is incapable of making a bad film” which might be true after all. Spielberg’s weakest films (as with Martin Scorsese) are stronger than many of the new films emerging or streaming right now and it has been that way their entire careers. Ranking ‘The Color Purple’ at the lower end will no doubt cause some controversy, but frankly, he took a great, spiky novel and turned it into a colourful “zipadeedoodah” movie which African Americans at the turn of the 20th century did not have it that bad. ‘The Color Purple’ trivialized what happened to African Americans at the turn of the century, and despite an astonishing Whoopi Goldberg performance, is a messy film. He made the film for all the wrong reasons. 

His finest work represents some of the greatest films made, movies that soar into the realm of fantasy or films that plunge us into the startling realism of the modern world. He is today, along with Martin Scorsese, considered one of the greatest directors in film history. 

We’ve attempted to rank his films from the worst to the greatest. The first few are weak, bad films; the rest are all excellent films and the top ten could be in any order, but the two best are as they should be. 

35. HOOK (1991)

I cannot measure the absolute disdain and hatred for this film. Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith and Julia Roberts must hang their head in shame over this. Noisy, and offensive, these Lost Boys deserved to stay lost. How could so many talented people not see the most obvious fix for this film?? Send Toodles back with Peter! He was a Lost Boy, the Lost Boys remember him and have the marbles he lost so long ago, but most importantly he knows Peter Banning (Williams) is Peter Pan! But, nope, nobody thought of this. So the wonderful old actor playing him wanders around talking about losing his marbles, and they all take him literally. Robin Williams postures as Peter, who has forgotten he was ever “the Pan” and Dustin Hoffman hams it up as a foppish, speech-impeded Captain Hook. The magnificent pirate never leaves the dock, not once. More annoying than any film Spielberg has ever made, I hated it then and hate it even more now. The cast and crew referred to Julia Roberts as Tinker Hell, not a lot of love there. That is kind of how I feel about the film. 

34. THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)

OK, before the knives come out, listen up. Spielberg wanted an Oscar for Best Director, believing it would legitimize him within the Hollywood community. So instead of choosing another adventure or fantasy, which had made him among the greatest (whether the Academy thought so or not), he decided to film the adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel about the black experience at the turn of 19th century America. But in doing so, he stripped the film of all the book’s powerful rage, all of that seething anger the blacks harboured towards the whites, all the abuse, the homosexuality, and anything potentially controversial was removed because Spielberg was not yet mature enough to make such a film. The film is so colourful one might swear they are watching an uplifting Disney drama, the score so overpowering and saccharin sweet, it telegraphs all the events and informs the audience what they are to think, and the performances, save Whoopi Goldberg, are predictable. Goldberg brings dignity to her performance and deserved her nomination for Best Actress. The film received 11 nominations but not Best Director. That sent a message.

33. THE LOST WORLD – JURASSIC PARK (1997)

More of the same without the awe and wonder. After a long break from movie making after ‘Schindler’s List’, this gave Spielberg a gentle, easy return. Nothing more. Great effects, and some impressive action sequences, but lacking heart and soul. He said he made the film to get back into the directing groove. The film has some great action sequences—Julianne Moore on an ever-spreading, shattering window, any time the Raptors are on screen but it lacks the (sorry) bite of the first. Effects-heavy, beautifully shot, but empty and lacking heart.

32. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)

I am not sure what I disliked more, Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion in a lead-lined fridge, or Shia LaBeouf as his son, swinging through the trees like Tarzan? It was great to see Ford in the fedora again, a little older, maybe a little wiser, and certainly a little more broken, but the film was just stupid. Bringing the lovely Karen Allen was a great move because she and Ford always had great chemistry, but to give them a son? And for it to be La Beouf? Russians are the bad guys this time with Cate Blanchett in a severe Louise Brooks hair-do as a nasty Russian who seeks an object hidden in the jungles of South America. What should have been fun grew tiresome very quickly and not even the killer ants or inner-dimensional aliens could save it. 

31. 1941 (1979)

With the studios throwing money at the new breed of filmmaker in the 70s, despite failures before this, Spielberg was given more than $40 million to make a comedy about WWII. His friends wondered why he suddenly thought he could direct comedy. Glimpses for sure in his films, but an entire movie? A busy, wildly erratic film emerged in which he appeared to turn some of his actors loose and let them do whatever they pleased. John Belushi was very funny doing his ‘Animal House’ (1978) character as a fighter pilot, buzzing his plane through Hollywood. Dan Ackroyd spouted silly lines throughout. The opening was promising, a spoof of the famous ‘Jaws’ opening but instead of being pulled to her death by a shark, the same young woman has a periscope of a Japanese sub come up between her legs taking her high in the air. Jitterbug contests, huge battles in the streets of LA, and absolute chaos wore down the audiences very quickly. 

30. TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE – ‘Kick The Can’ (1983)

Steven Spielberg’s segment ‘Kick the Can’ from the 1983 anthology film ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ is a heartwarming and nostalgically evocative tale that showcases Spielberg’s signature style and ability to tug at the heartstrings of his audience. The segment follows a group of elderly residents at a nursing home who are given a chance to regain their youth by playing a game of kick the can. The performances by the cast, including Scatman Crothers and James Earl Jones, are excellent, and the special effects used to depict the characters’ transformation into their younger selves are seamless and visually striking. Additionally, Spielberg’s direction is impeccable, as he effectively uses camera angles and music to convey the joy and wonder of the characters’ experiences. While the segment does suffer from a somewhat predictable ending, it is still a delightful and poignant tale that is sure to resonate with viewers of all ages.

29. DUEL (1971)

‘Duel’ is a classic thriller directed by Steven Spielberg in his feature film debut. The film follows a businessman named David Mann, played by Dennis Weaver, who becomes the target of a mysterious, malevolent truck driver while driving through the desert. The film’s greatest strength is its ability to build tension and keep the audience on the edge of their seats throughout its runtime. The cinematography and editing are top-notch, and the score by Billy Goldenberg adds to the film’s overall sense of unease. Additionally, Spielberg’s direction is masterful, as he effectively uses close-ups and long shots to convey the characters’ emotions and the geography of the film’s setting. While the film does have a somewhat predictable ending, it is still a thrilling ride from start to finish. ‘Duel’ is a must-see for fans of suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat cinema and especially fans of Steven Spielberg.

28. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)

Gone was the good nature wink in the eye of the first film, replaced by nastiness: child labour, kidnapping, a madman running a religious cult, and Indiana Jones turning bad guy temporarily. All this gave this film a much darker edge than anyone expected. The violence was shocking, unnecessary really, and challenging the rating system in North America. There is a mean-spirited thinking to the film that bothered me and the portrayal of violence towards children was chilling. Still, it made a fortune. 

27. THE BFG (2016)

Though it flopped in theatres and did not do well with film critics (well some of us), I liked the film very much and found the whole thing enchanting. Like a storybook, lavishly illustrated, the film pops off the screen beautifully thanks to the army of designers, and the performance of Mark Rylance as the giant. The production design is magnificent, sweeping us into a truly magical fairy tale. The audience did not respond, but it worked for me.

26. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974)

The famous critic Pauline Kael called the film “the greatest debut film by any director since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane“. This was heady praise indeed for the young director making the transition to feature films from television. A road film with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, the story hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion, using many of the talents he had with ‘Duel(1974) his monster vehicle movie, the picture is both involving and exciting. Hawn and Atherton are excellent. A box office disappointment, the film nonetheless made clear this Spielberg kid could direct. Universal kept him around after his success on TV, and he delivered an impressive debut.

25. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011)

Spielberg’s first, and thus far, only animated film was this epic bringing to life the Great Britain hero Tintin and his person. Beautifully animated with touches of Lawrence of Arabia merged with the Indiana Jones films, it was exciting. The trouble was no one in North America got, or knew about Tintin. Very British adventure. 

24. READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

This dazzling film looks exactly like a video game. King Kong turns up along with every major piece of 80s pop culture making an appearance in major or minor roles. It has a frantically-paced narrative that is less important than the visuals served up through the picture. Our heroes hurtle from one adventure to another, each more exciting than the one before recalling the Indiana Jones films, though in a future filled with movie references from the 80s and earlier. 

23. ALWAYS (1989)

His favourite film as a kid was ‘A Guy Named Joe’ (1944) a WWII drama starring Spencer Tracy, which he decided to remake, sort of, setting the drama in the blazing US forest fires. Richard Dreyfuss took the Tracey role as a hot-shot firefighter who takes incredible risks and is killed during one of them when his plane catches fire and explodes. Holly Hunter is the girl left behind, torn apart by her grief, and John Goodman is the best buddy who misses his friend but knows he must move on. Hunter portrays grief exactly as it is, Dreyfuss is jolly and arrogant, but clearly misses her and loves her very much, regretting never having told her so in life. There is a magical sequence when Hunter puts on “girl clothes” and she and Dreyfuss dance among the other men. She recreates the dance a year later, not knowing he dances with her from the beyond. It has its moments but just never grabbed the audience. Hunter’s portrayal of grief is among the finest I have seen onscreen, and the forest fire sequences are electrifying. Brad Johnson lacks the charisma to attract Hunter I think, but he certainly has the looks of a movie star. 

22. JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Hearing about Michael Crichton’s book about cloned dinosaurs in the modern world, Spielberg bought the rights just as computer-generated images were being introduced. Showing some footage of dinosaurs on a computer, he turned to his effects men and stated, “You’re extinct, guys“. The dinosaurs in the film are dazzling creations, especially the massive T-Rex and those vicious raptors, both lethal killers of different sizes. Seeing the T-Rex attack and chase the children through the jungle remains one of the most spectacular and intensely visceral sequences on film. The actors are fine, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and especially Jeff Goldblum but they know they do not matter, the stars here are the dinosaurs and they are magnificent. The film won three Academy Awards for its Visual Effects, Sound and Sound Editing. Another iconic score from John Williams, and massive box office receipts. The reveal of the dinosaurs is spectacular and superbly acted by the cast, audiences were left in stunned silence at the majesty of the creations. 

21. WAR HORSE (2011)

‘War Horse’ is a moving and emotionally charged film directed by Steven Spielberg. The film tells the story of a young man named Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who are separated when Joey is sold to the cavalry and sent to fight in World War I. The film’s greatest strength is its ability to convey the deep bond between Albert and Joey, as well as the horrors of war. The cinematography is stunning, and the performances by the cast, including Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, are superb. However, the film does suffer from a somewhat slow pace and a somewhat predictable plot. Overall, it is a poignant and powerful film that is sure to leave a lasting impression on viewers.

20. THE TERMINAL (2004)

Tom Hanks is a distinctly American actor. Maybe the crowds stayed away from this movie because hearing him with a Russian accent was simply too hard to accept. All they did was cheat themselves of a lovely fable with Hanks near Chaplin-esque as Viktor, a man stranded at the airport when a coup in his country renders him homeless, a man without a country. Based on a true story, Viktor proves very resourceful in attaining a job, and a place to sleep, and does so all quietly and without causing too much trouble. His masterful creation of a fountain stuns the workers he is working with, and his goofy little jive dance as he works endears him to anyone watching. The film belongs to Hanks; no one else makes much of an impact. Far better than it was said to be, critics blew this one. One of the year’s best performances and was ignored in every way. 

19. THE POST (2017)

A brilliant and timely film made during the nightmarish Trump years when the President was accusing mainstream media of being “fake news”. The film deals with the Washington Post, before Watergate, stumbling onto a story about the war in Vietnam and the fact America was being accused of atrocities and losing the war. President Nixon tried to have the articles banned, but the Post bravely went ahead and printed them anyway. Tom Hanks is outstanding as Ben Bradlee, while Meryl Streep portrays the owner of the Post. Excellent reviews greeted the film, but very little interest among audiences. Still, it was a Best Picture nominee and Streep was nominated for Best Actress. Oddly, nothing else.

18. WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)

Can a great film be undone in its last two minutes? (SPOILER!) When Robbie walks out of the house in Boston, very much alive, though his father (portrayed by Tom Cruise) thought him dead, the movie’s premise fell apart for me. How did this cocky, arrogant teenager make it there before his father and sister, and how is he still alive? We watch him go over the hill as the aliens decimate the military, but he survives. This startling, visceral film, an allegory about terrorism, is undone by a sappy, impossible ending. Sorry, Steven, we didn’t buy it. The film has an undeniable edge with the stunning effects, genuinely terrifying aliens hell-bent on exterminating all of mankind, great performances from both Cruise and Dakota Fanning, not to mention a purely unhinged performance from Tim Robbins. But it’s all lost by that sentimental ending. An astounding, terrifying allegory about 9/11. When Rachel (Fanning) screams “Is it the terrorists?” as devastation unfolds around her, she brings us right back to that terrible September day in 2001. 

17. BRIDGES OF SPIES (2015)

This Cold War thriller deals with lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is assigned by his government to facilitate the release of imprisoned pilot Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Who do the Soviets want in exchange? The captured spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) captured and being held for trial by the Americans. When Donovan is appointed as the lawyer to Abel, he finds himself torn by the fact the man deserves a committed defence, despite his being a spy for the Soviets. The relationship is further complicated when Donovan grows to like the man, who is intelligent and well-spoken. Beautifully written, and acted with honesty and integrity by its cast, specifically Hanks and Rylance, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, but not Best Director. Rylance won Best Supporting Actor, the second actor to win an Oscar under Spielberg’s guidance. A literate, powerful film. The placement of the film on this list might be higher in years to come.

16. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)

A bouncy, colourful, and frothy biography of professional fraud artist Frank Abagnale, a charismatic young man who defrauded more than two million dollars before being caught by the FBI, and then hired to help detect fraud. It is a wonderfully acted film from top to bottom. Leonardo Di Caprio gave his first performance as an adult here, moving through his teenage years into adulthood on the run from the FBI Agent Hanratty, portrayed beautifully by Tom Hanks as almost fatherly. Damaged by the divorce of his parents, young Frank sets off on his own to help his father, portrayed by Christopher Walken and discovers he is a master of fraud. Posing at various times as an airline pilot, a lawyer (even passing the bar!) and a doctor, he was every bit as good at disguise as he was a fraud. The steady parade of women in his life was a side benefit of his charm, but it was the fraud that made him happiest. There is a wonderful encounter between him and Hanratty in a hotel room in which the kid convinces the Agent he is FBI and he slips right through the Agent’s fingers. The Academy ignored Spielberg in 2002 despite two of the best films of the year, this and ‘Minority Report’. DiCaprio stepped on the path to greatness with this. Just two Oscar nominations for the film—Christopher Walken as Supporting Actor and the bouncy score, but it deserved at least nine. 

15. AMISTAD (1997)

After the debacle that became ‘The Color Purple’ (sorry no apologies), Spielberg again explores the African-American experience, this time the famous story of the Amistad slave ship which, though bound for Spain ended up in America. The slaves, plucked from their homes in Africa, would fight for their freedom, eventually represented by former United States President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) in the Supreme Court. In an extraordinary film debut, former model Djimon Honsou is magnificent as Cinque, the towering African put in an impossible situation and longing for his home. The scenes between him and Hopkins have a near lyrical magic, as we watch each begin to trust the other man. Watch the look of surprise on Cinque’s face when he is given an African violet to smell, and he at once swept home, just a mesmerizing performance. Strong work from Matthew McConaughey lends depth to the cast, though Morgan Freeman is wasted in a near cameo with little to say. Spielberg was a DGA nominee, deserved, but the Academy nominated the film for just four awards. 

14. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)

It starts with the winning combination of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and the great Sean Connery as his father Henry Jones. The two had remarkable chemistry that leapt right off the screen and into the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere. Once again doing battle with Nazis who have taken his father hostage as leverage for their search for the Holy Grail, another holy relic Hitler covets. And thus, the adventure launches, or I suppose continues. In extraordinary chase sequences, the two Joneses prove resourceful about getting in and out of trouble, making their way to the chamber that holds the holy grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper. Wildly entertaining, the second best of the Indiana Jones films and one of Spielberg’s best films for pure entertainment value.

13. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)

Though I mourn this masterful film being outside the top ten of Spielberg’s career, I maintain it was the finest film of 1987 and deserved that Best Director Oscar. Alas, he would have to wait five more years. Based on the true story of writer J. G. Ballard, who was a child when he landed in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, fighting and scamming his way, trying to stay alive. Portrayed, brilliantly by a young Christian Bale in the film, it explores his transition from an entitled, wealthy and spoiled English lad living in Shang Hai to a filthy, feral young teen nearly unrecognizable to his parents. By the time they find him at the end of the film, he is an old soul, having seen and experienced things no child should ever endure. The film contains some of the finest direction in any film from Spielberg, stunning cinematography, a superb production design and a haunting score you will never forget. The director opens and closes the film with startling imagery and fills the screen with the wonderment of a child during a time of war. Though nominated by the DGA, and by the Academy for six Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Director were not among them. This was the best film I saw in 1987, by far. 

12. MINORITY REPORT (2002)

Beautifully made science fiction thriller with Tom Cruise as futuristic cop Anderton in a society where murders can be predicted strangely and uniquely. Cruise delivers one of his finest performances as a damaged cop who lost his son years before and has never gotten over it. The child was abducted in a public place. His father now sees every killer as a possible child killer. When the three seers, the “pre-cogs”, predict Anderton will commit the next murder, he is soon on the run to escape the police. Knowing everything about their methods, he has an advantage. He takes with him Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the seers, who knows something about a killing years before. Colin Farrell is terrific in a supporting role, and Max Von Sydow is insidious as the head of the police department, a truly vile man. The futuristic production design and props look plausible, and the cars, zipping across highways and over buildings, are extraordinary. Roger Ebert named this the best film of the year, and he was not far off. Why the Academy almost completely ignored the film, I do not know. 

11. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

My first impression of this film was that it had more action and thrills crammed into the first 15 minutes than most films have in their entire running time. I was breathless watching Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) jump, run, duck and crack his bullwhip to get himself out of the most impossible situations. After the debacle of ‘1941’, Spielberg went to work for his friend George Lucas and learned a lot about movie making, particularly how to save money on films, because this time the money was not that of the studio but Lucas himself. Using miniatures, stock footage, and inventive visual effects, Spielberg created an absolute knockout adventure film in which Jones goes after the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to find it before Hitler and his Nazis do. Karen Allen was an absolute delight as the love interest Marion, but Ford owns the film, from the first minute we see him through to the final images. It ended up with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Film, with four wins for technical categories.

10. A.I. – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

Stanley Kubrick had been toying with this film for years when he died in 1999. Spielberg, in tribute to his good friend, decided to honour him by making the film and making it the way Kubrick would have. An astonishing film that failed with audiences when it opened in 2001 but has gradually earned a reputation through the years, making it one of the finest science fiction ever made and among Spielberg’s most daring works. It is a dark film, dealing with a little boy abandoned by his mother in the woods and left to make his way in a strange and cruel world. Life is especially hard for boys like him because he is not human—he is a mecha, and mankind has grown to hate the mechas. Portrayed by Haley Joel Osment just after his work in ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999), the performance is a wonder, earning the boy an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This dystopian world is haunting in its neon and false beauty, as we see the underside of the nightmare too, like Nazi Germany in its heyday. Jude Law is superb as Gigolo Joe, a sex mecha created to give human women and men pleasure, and he takes his job very seriously. The ending of the film is often misunderstood, so pay attention. Those are not aliens the boy encounters thousands of years in Earth’s future. Masterful.

9. MUNICH (2005)

Again, this a dark, visceral film that was immediate in its power. In 1972, a group of terrorists made their way into the Olympic Village, killed some of the Israeli athletes in their room, took the rest hostage, and then in a botched escape, murdered the rest of them on the tarmac. “They’re all gone” reported a network sports reporter, his words turning your blood to ice. Nothing was ever the same. In a secret revenge meeting, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered a squad of soldiers to execute the men responsible for the Olympic murders. Eric Bana leads the squad of executioners, all experts in their various murderous ways, as they travel around Europe, finding their prey and terminating them. 

8. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

A dreamscape of a film, a stunner and the one film that dates him as a filmmaker. He claims as a father he would never leave his family behind as Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) does. When mankind is visited by aliens, those who witness are implanted with a vision of a mountain they cannot place. They draw it, sculpt it, and make a mashed potato mountain out of it but cannot figure it out. A musical piece of five notes was implanted in some of them as well. Spielberg’s majestic film follows an electrical plant worker, Roy, and a young mother and her child Barry, as they move towards contact with an alien race. The final 45 minutes make up one of the most extraordinary sequences in the history of cinema as mankind comes face to face with an alien race for the first time. The mountain they see is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and the government and United Nations have built a station on the other side of the mountain awaiting the arrival of the aliens. And do they arrive? A magnificent mother ship rises high above the mountain and contact is made, as the ship responds to the musical notes before the aliens’ exit the ship. Ethereal, haunting, yet oddly familiar, it is an astonishing sequence, beautifully directed by Spielberg. Nominated for eight Academy Awards but incredibly not Best Picture, despite being by far the finest film of the year. Spielberg received his first nod for Best Director after being snubbed for ‘Jaws’ (1975). A breathtaking work of art. 

7. WEST SIDE STORY (2021)

A bold, energetic masterpiece that captures the spirit of the original Broadway play and improves on the film version in every way. It moves, it sings, and the actors are simply astounding, especially Rachel Zegler as a radiant Maria. In a superb supporting performance seething with rage is Mike Faist as Riff with electrifying performance and he steals every moment he is onscreen. Ansel Elgort finally delivers on his promise with a fine performance as Tony, and the superb Ariana DeBose is astounding as Anita. David Alvarez brings depth to Bernardo that I had not seen before. It is such a complete, perfect ensemble of young actors. Spielberg clearly had a vision that his young artists believed in. Working from a reworked screenplay by Tony Kushner, the film is one of the finest work of the director and writer together. It is one of the greatest musicals ever made and far surpasses the original. 

6. JAWS (1975)

This might be the greatest horror film ever made, and the director was just 26 years old when he made it. With an astute understanding of the language of the cinema and a vivid imagination, Spielberg was the perfect choice to direct ‘Jaws’. When an eight-meter great white shark begins feasting on bathers off the Eastern seaboard, three very different men set out to kill it. The trio is made up of Brody (Roy Scheider), the misplaced New York cop afraid of the water, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the wise-cracking rich scientist, an expert on sharks and Quint (Robert Shaw), the shark-hating, Ahab-like man obsessed with getting this shark. Mechanical sharks were built for the film, one sunk to the bottom of the sea, the other malfunctioned and the one that worked was used sparingly. Having to think on the fly, Spielberg decided the less the shark was shown the better—let the imaginations of the audience run wild. It was a brilliant direction. From the terrifying opening when the shark tears a young woman apart in the ocean, to the electrifying scene when Quint is bitten in half by the monster, the director found ingenious ways not to show the shark. He used the barrels meant to bring the shark to the surface, that fin, and the geysers of blood that erupted when a person was attacked. The performances were perfect, especially Shaw, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In all the film was nominated for a measly four Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Musical Score, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. No Best Director, Screenplay Adaptation, Cinematography or Visual Effects. There were howls of protest when Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director, and Universal Pictures lashed back with ads in the trade papers shaming the Academy. ‘Jaws’ won four of its nominations, losing only Best Picture. It remains one of the most terrifying films ever made and still stands up to scrutiny. 

5. LINCOLN (2012)

‘Lincoln’ is the most literate and beautifully-written film Spielberg has ever made. An astonishing study of President Lincoln and his fight to abolish slavery. In the first five minutes of the film, we see two young soldiers speaking to President Lincoln, who we first see from behind. When the camera settles on him, he speaks in an unexpectedly high reedy voice, the result of research from actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who spent more than a year reading everything written about Lincoln. For years in development, Liam Neeson was going to play the role but withdrew after the long wait aged him out of the part. Day-Lewis stepped in and within seconds convinces us we are watching and listening to Abraham Lincoln and not an actor. The film, superbly written by Tony Kushner explores the wheeling and dealing Lincoln did to get the bill abolishing slavery passed. Seems corruption in politics has never really changed, but this was different, this was about humanity and the future of the United States. Bathed in melancholy and sadness, Lincoln is quick with a folksy story, and his intellect is apparent in every shot as Day-Lewis slips under the skin of this great man and inhabits him in every way. Sally Field is equally great as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman of fragile mind but always aware when her husband was being disparaged and who was doing it. She fiercely defended him every chance she got. A masterpiece that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture and Director. Criminally underappreciated by the fickle Academy.

4. THE FABELMANS (2022)

Is Spielberg the greatest director in the history of the cinema? He might be, but there are arguments for John Ford, Charles Chaplin, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Elia Kazan, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. If he is not the greatest he is certainly among the best five. This beautiful film is the beginning of that. ‘The Fabelmans’ takes its place among Spielberg’s very best films and seems destined for many nominations and at this writing is the years best film, the frontrunner for Best Film and Director. It is such an exquisite film, not afraid to show the divorce that tore Spielberg’s family apart or the Anti-Semitism he dealt with as a child and teenager. We see what shaped the man who become the most famous director in movies and with argument for Martin Scorsese, cinema’s greatest filmmaker. The screenplay, by Spielberg and Tony Kushner could have easily become sweet, even reverential towards Spielberg but never does. It feels authentic, and we see through the film elements of his later films and how his early shaped the events he films in Hollywood. 

3. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

Though flawed, there is enough genius to make this the third-best film of Spielberg’s career. No one else brought combat to the screen with such staggering realism and brutality. Visceral and raw, the images are seething with violence and rage. Veterans of the Second World War wept, one said to me the only sense missing was the smell, you could not smell the death, the gunpowder, smoke, and blood. The first battle scene on the beach is a stunning work of craftsmanship and command of the art form. With each cut, Spielberg takes us deeper into the war, showing death, sometimes brutal, other times swift, but dead just the same. Bodies are blown apart, brains are spilled onto the beach and yet waves of men continue to arrive edging up the beach, closer to the German gun nests on the top of the hill. Tom Hanks is superb as Millar, the tortured Captain who takes the death of every man in his squad personally, and when tasked with finding Private Ryan, whose four brothers have been killed, he bravely takes the mission. Moving across the French countryside we encounter his squad, made up of a cross-section of Americans and every war movie cliche in every war movie ever made. Yet then Spielberg slammed us home with a shocking death, or that final combat scene, as realistic and chilling as the opening. The film contains superb performances from Hanks, Matt Damon as Ryan, Jeremy Davies as the terrified coward, Tom Sizemore as Hanks’ number one, Ed Burns as the arrogant New Yorker, and Vin Diesel as the doomed soldier who tries to help a child and pays with his life. Spielberg’s direction displays a magnificent command of all the technical aspects of cinema. He is untouchable in this regard. How does a film nominate for eleven Academy Awards, winning Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Director but lose Best Picture? It should have won, it is a film for the ages, but Harvey Weinstein worked his sinister magic behind the scenes. It lost Best Picture to an inferior movie, we all know that. Exiting the screening I wondered aloud if we had just seen the greatest war movie ever made. Certainly, it is the most realistic. 

2. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

One of the most beautiful, emotional films ever made. I wept openly when I first saw the film in 1982 and have wept every time since. I remember looking around and seeing grown men weeping, tears cascading down their cheeks at the film. My roommate had not yet seen the film by late August so I took him one night after a bad break-up with his girlfriend. I watched him more than the movie, and it was like seeing the film for the first time again as he wept in the same places I did, gasped where I had and was weeping yet smiling at the end of the film. E.T. was a dreamscape of a film, a fantasy. Should something like this ever happen, I hope it unfolds like this. A soaring testament to the human spirit, to the inherent goodness mankind, is capable of, E.T. is an absolute masterpiece and was by far the finest film of the year and the decade.

We see a group of alien botanists gathering plant life when they are discovered. One of them is accidentally left behind, and found by a 10-year-old boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas). “I’m keeping him,” he naively tells his brother and sister, and all of them proceed to protect and hide the little alien. Elliott teaches E.T. to speak and educates the creature in the ways of humans, and the alien sees the world through the honest eyes of children. The government of course knows the aliens have been on earth and believe one has been left behind and is closing in on Elliott. So many stunning images highlight the narrative, the magical flight across the moon and through the forest, E.T. taking Elliott high into the sky on his bicycle, E.T. dying while in the care of the government, but then, Christ-like comes back to life as his people are coming for him. That magical escape by the boys into the forest where the alien ship lands and the kids must say farewell to the little alien they have come to love is unforgettable. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) goes first, then Mike (Robert McNaughton) and finally Elliott. There was not a dry eye in the house. Heartbreaking.

Henry Thomas deserved an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance as Elliott but sadly was snubbed. His remains the greatest performance by a child I have ever seen. And people forget the entire film was built around a special effect! E.T. was a big chunk of latex and rubber, made into an alien with the eyes of Albert Einstein and run by men at the other end of the cables bringing him to life. Thomas gave that exquisite performance in most scenes with a visual effect! With magnificent cinematography, a sweeping musical score, a deep connection between the boy and the alien, and Christ allegories all through the film, this is an American masterpiece, and by far, the greatest film of its year and the 80s. 

1. SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

What else? ‘Schindler’s List’ is forever the masterpiece that made Spielberg a director for the ages. Although his other works were brilliant, this one stepped up the artistry to the level of the masters, including Scorsese. There was an unforgiving film about a man who saved the lives of 1100 Jews for no apparent reason other than he despised what the Nazis and SS were doing. Choosing black and white, with none of his trademark sweeping crane shots, Spielberg shot the film like a documentary, with hand-held cameras to capture the horror of what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler was a war profiteer, hoping to get rich using Jewish investments to do so. He hires Jews to do the factory work, protecting them without at first realizing it, but gradually comes to understand he CAN protect them in his factory. What he sees happening in the Ghetto changes him, alters him in some way and turns him against what the Nazis are doing. Knowing that they will be safe while working in his factory, he deals with a corrupt horror show of a man in Amon Goethe (Ralph Fiennes), a poster boy for Nazism. Shooting them dead from his villa high above the camp, he feels nothing for them.

Liam Neeson is spectacular as Schindler, the man with a little motive to take such risks except that it was the right thing to do. There were some complaints about his final scenes, the breakdown outside the factory, but I think it works. Ben Kingsley was outstanding as his accountant and friend Stern, while Fiennes was extraordinary as the madman Goethe. Using Nazism and the hatred of the Jews as his justification for murder, he is a monster, but icily cool. The film was met with rave reviews from the earliest screenings, and it was clear Spielberg had gone to another level as a filmmaker. The film was grimly realistic, but the killing was not front and centre, making it all the more frightening because it took on matter-of-factness. 

‘Schindler’s List’ began its sweep of the year-end awards with the LA Film Critics Awards, winning Best Film, Director and Best Supporting Actor as well as best Cinematography. On the other side of the country, the New York Film Critics voted the movie Best Picture and honoured Ralph Fiennes as Best Supporting Actor. The National Society of Film Critics mirrored the LA Film Critic Awards, and the Directors Guild of America honoured Spielberg as the year’s Best Director. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, it would win seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score and Best Production Design. The Oscars that year were dominated by Spielberg as his other film, ‘Jurassic Park’ won awards for Sound, Sound Editing and Visual Effects. The impact of ‘Schindler’s List’ has been astonishing, the dirty little secret being it was a towering box office hit. Costing just $25 million, the film made $322 million at the box office. Spielberg used his share to create the Shoah Foundation where thousands of stories were told about the Holocaust and those who survived.

There was criticism about the final scene in ‘Schindler’s List’, where the real-life survivors come with the actors who portrayed them in the film to the grave of Oskar Schindler. Each place a stone on his grave, a Jewish custom. Some said it was Spielberg’s way of finding a happy ending to a Holocaust film. Can there ever be a happy ending to a film about Holocaust? But perhaps, through the horror, the ashes and the stench of death, we can recognize the power of the human spirit, the ability of a man to risk his life to save those around him from certain death. For doing what others should have done. No happy ending, but the recognition that one man did the right thing and saved 1100 people. In his ring from the prisoners was scripted, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” Indeed. Spielberg’s greatest film is also one of the greatest films ever made. 

About The Author: 

John H. Foote is among the best-known film critics in Canada and has been active as a critic for thirty years. His career began as co-host, and co-producer of the popular movie talk and review program Reel to Real. He left the show after ten years for his first love, print criticism, and he longed to write about movies. For two years he wrote for Toronto Life and Fashion Magazine, and his work was quote in the LA and New York Times, as well as major papers across North America. He was offered a position writing for the internet and has since written for incontention.com, thewrap.com, screenrant.com, awardscircuit.com and most recently thecinemaholic.com. In May 2018 he started his own site https://Footeandfriendsonfilm.com, which has enjoyed great success it’s first few months. Foote was also involved in film education teaching film history and film genre at Trebas Institute before leaving to be Dean of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history and continued his work as a critic. Foote has written two books, Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker, and Spielberg: American Film Visionary. His third, American Cinema in the Seventies is due for release in 2020. 

Throughout his career, he has interviewed everyone in the business except Jack Nicholson. 

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