Because of his enduring mainstream popularity (not to mention the amount of blockbuster filmmakers whose careers he’s inspired), Spielberg doesn’t always receive his due, dismissed in some quarters as merely a “commercial” moviemaker who lacks the soul of a true artist. That’s nonsense. While he’s had his share of duds, the man has continued to challenge himself, tackling different genres and subject matters along the way. Here’s our ranking of all 29 of Spielberg’s feature films, including Bridge of Spies, out this week.
29. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008): After four decades cultivating a distinguished and rewarding career, Spielberg decided to sign up for another Indy sequel despite ending the trilogy with its hero literally riding into the sunset. What was the draw? Four years later, the answer still isn’t clear. Crystal Skull is easily Spielberg’s laziest, sloppiest work — even the action sequences seem phoned-in — and it’s filled with unforgivable howlers: Shia LaBeouf’s limp attempt at being a bad boy, Cate Blanchett’s hammy villain, the goddamn fridge scene. No wonder Spielberg has spent every opportunity since then apologizing.
28. Hook (1991): In some ways, Hook was ahead of its time, pre-dating Hollywood’s current obsession with rebooting and reimagining already existing properties. But that doesn’t make this cringe-worthy film, which tells the story of a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams in wounded-manchild mode) who has forgotten his true identity and become a cold, heartless lawyer, any more tolerable. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Captain Hook comes from the Dick Tracy school of blockbuster overacting, and the film’s unbearably long at almost two-and-a-half hours. We get it, we get it: We need to hold on to our inner child. Leave us alone.
27. 1941 (1979): Spielberg’s comedic instincts tend more towards the visual than the verbal, a fact that is apparent in this misfire. The movie looks great, but it’s shockingly drawn out for a comedy and keeps buckling under its own weight. It’s like Spielberg wanted to make a comedy but was also trying to be an Important Filmmaker and just couldn’t figure out how to balance the two. Spielberg would later joke that the film should have been a musical. All told, that might not have been the worst idea.
26. Always (1989): An ill-considered remake of the 1943 Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, Always is a hokey two-hankie war film in search of a war. Instead of a WWII flyer like Tracy, Richard Dreyfuss plays a fire-fighter pilot who dies on a mission but is sent by an angel back to earth to inspire a younger pilot. The flight scenes are predictably fantastic but Spielberg is too Capra for Capra: He’s dewy-eyed and almost embarrassingly sentimental. You leave this movie with sugar in your eyes.
25. The Sugarland Express (1974): Spielberg’s first theatrical release doesn’t feel like a Spielberg movie at all, sometimes to its credit; at times it almost feels like Madcap Malick, if such a thing is possible. Still, you can sense that the young director isn’t entirely confident yet: The movie’s attempt to satirize a celebrity-obsessed culture feels dated even today, when such a subject writes its own satire. Not terrible, but interesting mostly in the same way that a lot of great directors’ early misfires are interesting.
24. The Adventures of Tintin (2011): With The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s first 3D motion-capture film, the director delivered one of his most purely freewheeling late-career movies. It’s a technical marvel that never lets up on the visual pizzazz. (Even if it’s aggressively showoff-y, the centerpiece chase sequence — all done in one shot — is really fun.) Pity that the characters and the dialogue aren’t nearly as wondrous.
23. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997): It’s obviously a crash-grab by Spielberg, a lot of the faux-environmentalism is lazy and empty, and the plot on the whole doesn’t make a lick of sense … but it’s still a kick to see Spielberg so playful and goofy during the third act “T-Rex attacks San Diego” sequence. Putting neurotic Jeff Goldblum as the “normal” lead might not have been the best idea, but points for casting a young Julianne Moore and a so-skinny Vince Vaughn.
22. The Terminal (2004): A fascinating experiment during Spielberg’s let’s-just-film-it-fast-and-go-go-go period, this whole film is set in a replica of JFK Airport that’s so lovingly put together it’ll make you wish it was the actual terminal. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks’s lead character is a little bland, and the parade of “eccentric airport workers” who befriend him grow awfully thin. Still, it’s good-hearted enough that you go along with it regardless.
21. The Color Purple (1985): Spielberg’s first drama, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is exactly the sort of earnest, awkward stab at seriousness you’d expect from a guy who’d made his name directing action blockbusters. But it’s no failure: He gets good performances out of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. And although he took some criticism for soft-pedaling Walker’s tough tome about a young Southern black woman (Goldberg) struggling toward self-discovery, Spielberg displays a sensitivity toward his female characters that makes The Color Purple a notable anomaly amidst his usually male-dominated films.
20. War Horse (2011): Easily mocked — most notably in a clever Saturday Night Live sketch — this film is hokey and overly earnest yet still pretty much works, thanks to a committed British cast and Spielberg’s dogged mythmaking. There’s a lot of silliness about the horse, but we dare you not to be moved by the scene in which he is caught in barbed wire and the two armies call a time out to help him.
19. Catch Me If You Can (2002): Some will grumble that this film’s best attribute is its opening credit sequence (accompanied by John Williams’s jazzy change-of-pace score). But in telling the story of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Spielberg found a new way to indulge his obsession with absent fathers (Christopher Walken at his most vulnerable and human) and the lengths we’ll go to reinvent ourselves. The movie’s retro-cool sixties settings were a precursor to Mad Men, and DiCaprio’s Abagnale, Jr. foreshadowed his performances in Shutter Island and Inception as a man trapped in his own delusion.
18. Amistad (1997): In retrospect, Amistad can be seen as a first draft for the type of stirring, talky political drama that he would later nail with more finesse and confidence in Lincoln. This 19th century courtroom drama is definitely preachy, and nobody knows what Spielberg was thinking casting Matthew McConaughey as a lawyer defending a group of African slaves fighting for their freedom. Still, it’s a heartfelt film that can be quite moving: For as much as Djimon Hounsou’s “Give us us free” scene was mocked at the time, it still gets us.
17. Empire of the Sun (1987): There’s a segment of Spielberg fans who consider this his best movie. That strikes us as bonkers, but this coming-of-age tale (which is really about growing up with privilege and learning its limitations and its faults) has its moments. And it features a terrific performance from a 13-year-old Christian Bale, who, as it turns out, would be heard from again.
16. Bridge of Spies (2015): The follow-up to Lincoln, this is another Spielberg movie about the fine art of negotiation. Based on the 1960 U2 spy-plane incident, Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks as a ramrod-noble insurance salesman drafted by the U.S. government to defend a captured Russian spy (an excellent Mark Rylance) — but not too strenuously, he’s told, just enough so that it looks like America gave him a fair trial. But what begins as a period courtroom drama meant to reflect our country’s current xenophobic mood soon develops into an old-fashioned Cold War thriller in which words, not bullets, are the primary weapon. A first-rate Eastwood-ian model of stripped-down storytelling led by Hanks in full-on Jimmy Stewart grizzled-decency mode, Bridge of Spies is also quite wry, thanks to a script co-written by the Coen brothers. This is not one of Spielberg’s more overtly action-packed or emotional films, which means it's probably destined to be underrated in his canon.
15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989): In the annals of inspired concepts for eighties sequels, Last Crusade ranks up there with the time travel/humpback whale plot in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This time around, Indy is palling around in fine Odd Couple fashion with his crusty archeologist father (Sean Connery, having a blast) as he once again squares off with some Nazis. By this point, the Indiana Jones franchise was already showing some wear and tear — neither the bad guys nor the action sequences were as terrific as in the first two installments — but it’s easily the warmest, funniest film in the series. That said, it always makes us sad to see River Phoenix in the opening flashback and wonder what kind of career he might have had.
14. Duel (1971): The one TV movie on this list, included because it gave Spielberg his first break and is still compelling and ingenious. The concept is as simple as you can imagine: A man (Dennis Weaver) passes a trucker on the freeway, and the trucker spends the rest of the movie chasing him down and terrorizing him. This is Spielberg at his most pure and sensational, an undiluted cinematic experience that lacks any of his sentimental claptrap and steers clear of his tendency for multiple endings. This is like watching a 13-year-old Mozart: Not quite in total control of his gifts, but so insanely talented that you won’t care.
13. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Probably the most heavily debated film in Spielberg’s canon, A.I. started out as a project dreamed up by Stanley Kubrick (from a short story by Brian Aldiss) before he handed the reins over to Spielberg. Released two years after Kubrick’s death, A.I. is Spielberg’s tribute/homage to his idol: This sci-fi tale has the chilly, intellectual air of the dead master’s finest works. And Haley Joel Osment is just terrific as the android who, like Pinocchio before him, longs to be a real boy. A.I. features some of Spielberg’s darkest moments, and even if the two filmmakers’ aesthetics don’t perfectly mesh, it’s an utterly mesmerizing, albeit uneven effort.
12. Jurassic Park (1993): This became such a global phenomenon that it’s easy to forget how much of the old Spielbergian skill is on display here, from that glass of rippling water to the darkly comic shock of that lawyer being chomped on the toilet. We don’t know about you, but in this age of Michael Bay and Transformers, we’ll take our blockbusters with Spielberg’s hand on the till.
11. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): Otherwise known as The Movie That Invented the PG-13 Rating, Temple of Doom was also a trendsetter by being a prequel, pitting Indy against a bunch of scary cult members who have a fondness for removing their victims’ hearts while they’re still beating. Granted, Jonathan Ke Quan’s Short Round character is almost “Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-level offensive, and, fine, Kate Capshaw is no Karen Allen. But other than that, this movie is nonstop adrenaline, with Spielberg hell-bent on topping Raiders’ stunt sequences.
10. Munich (2005): The brilliance of Spielberg’s true-life drama about Mossad’s covert operation to hunt down the Palestinians responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics lies in its staging as a series of spy-hunter action sequences. But the film’s pulse-pounding excitement is merely a feint to suggest how the rush for vengeance — no matter how justified — only brings about more killing, dragging down honorable intentions and leaving blood on everyone’s hands. Yes, Spielberg overdid it with that one sex scene (which cinematographer Janusz Kaminski tells Vulture about here), but Munich is his Unforgiven, boldly condemning both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for its unending cycle of violence and retribution.
9. Lincoln (2012): The subject might seem almost too perfect a match for Spielberg, but he pulls off something sort of magical here, maintaining a reverence for the 16th president while fully placing him in the context of his time and making him feel alive. He burnishes without white-washing, enobles without sanctifying. Also: It’s possible Spielberg has never worked with a better actor than Daniel Day-Lewis: The two come together to make a Lincoln that is both familiar and breathtakingly new.
8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Still one of the only two films Spielberg ever wrote — the second was A.I., a project with so many cooks it barely counts — this may be the closest he's come to delivering a pure, unfiltered expression of his artistic voice. The dialogue might not always sing today, but his combination of the lyrical and the extraterrestrial — the pop art and the art — remains masterful. Say what you will about Star Wars, but that film feels more dated than this does, and they came out the same year.
7. Minority Report (2002): A year after delivering the bleak sci-fi drama A.I., Spielberg turned around and gave us a perhaps even bleaker sci-fi action film that was so stunningly, thrillingly executed that you barely had a moment to notice how dark a future it presented. Imagining a world in which advertising is everywhere — and geared specifically at each individual — Minority Report is the mother of all Big Brother dystopias, transforming a Philip K. Dick short story into a frightening big-budget noir that may feature the best collection of action sequences in any single Spielberg movie. No longer interested in enchanting us, the filmmaker puts his audience through the wringer, and his kick-ass mentality is well-served by star Tom Cruise, who lives for these sorts of full-throttle roles. Amazingly, they’d make an even more intense film their second time together.
6. War of the Worlds (2005): Sure, the ending is as lousy as any as Spielberg has ever done. But every second leading up to it is as riveting and staggering as any filmmaker should be legally capable of. Spielberg deftly mixes in real-life post-9/11 anxiety to this end-of-the-world story to create something that feels legitimately apocalyptic. Without a question Spielberg’s most underrated film, War of the Worlds is the pure distillation of Spielberg’s kinetic, otherworldly talents.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998): Is this World War II film more than just its incredible opening sequence on the Normandy beach? We say yes: Saving Private Ryan also contains Tom Hanks’ most underappreciated and restrained performance as a hardnosed Army captain leading his troops on a seemingly ridiculous mission to rescue the last of the Ryan clan (Matt Damon) after his other brothers are killed in the war. The non-battle sequences, which at the time seemed dull in comparison to everything else in this film, now feel like mere momentary pauses in which we get to collect ourselves while we learn more about these men. Spielberg, god help him, can’t resist treacly bookends, but the rest of Saving Private Ryan is so gut-churning that it’s impossible not to be affected.
4. Jaws (1975): The original blockbuster is a lot slower than you remember, proof that so few of the films it inspired took heed of its central filmmaking message: Tease, tease, tease, make them wait … and then destroy them. His technique is nearly subconscious at times, seemingly displaying a telekinetic sense of how the human mind works, and how best to scare it. And don’t forget, by the way, the time it spends on its characters too, most memorably Robert Shaw’s Capt. Quint. Jaws was criticized for shepherding Hollywood out of the daring age of the late sixties and early seventies into a more impersonal multiplex age, but that’s not the film’s fault: That’s just a measure of how amazing an achievement Jaws actually was.
3. Schindler’s List (1993): The best of Spielberg’s “serious movies,” this Best Picture winner, ironically, isn’t really a departure from his trademark set-piece style. But instead of being exhilarating, Schindler’s List’s most memorable sequences are harrowing and sobering: Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) picking off Jewish prisoners with a rifle or the remorseless liquidation of the Jewish ghetto captured in all its cold cruelty. If Spielberg allows a little sentimentality to creep into the corners of this harsh black & white film — specifically in the form of a little girl with a red coat — it’s a small price to pay for a drama that doesn’t shy away from a horrible chapter in human history. There is obviously not a happy ending, though we see the smallest glimmer of hope.
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): Adjusted for inflation, it’s still Spielberg’s biggest hit (and the fourth-biggest hit of all time), but it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster: It feels, instead, universal, timeless. For all the moments that Spielberg’s obsession with childhood went awry, this is the one time he got it exactly right. That sense that you’re the only one who understands, yet no adults will listen to you. That palpable, screaming loss of a friend. The “c’mon gang!” community spirit that feels almost painfully yearning today. This is the movie that Spielberg has said he feels the closest to, and it’s no wonder. It’s all the more powerful because there was never a sequel: Nothing could soil the experience. It hasn’t become a recurring classic on cable the way you might have expected it to, but that’s ultimately for the best: Revisiting it again will remind you of what it felt like the first time.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Spielberg has made more “important” films, and ones that are more emotionally involving, than Raiders of the Lost Ark. But he’s never made one this flat-out, top-to-bottom perfect. Dreamed up in Hawaii while on vacation with his buddy George Lucas, this funny, sexy, thrilling film gave the world Indiana Jones — part Sherlock Holmes (smart), part James Bond (suave), part Man With No Name (tough), and, naturally, part Han Solo (lovable rogue). While Harrison Ford will forever be closely associated with his Star Wars character, we understand why he’d prefer to be linked with Indy: In Raiders, he’s the ideal distillation of the smart-ass, everyman action hero. And Spielberg is having a ball. A lot of people blame him for the advent of the blockbuster/event movie. But it’s not his fault that none of his disciples can make ‘em as brilliantly as he did here.
Follow Grierson & Leitch on Twitter at @griersonleitch.
*Note: This post originally ran on November 16, 2012, the week Lincoln was released. It's been updated to include Bridge of Spies.