The Films of Steven Spielberg Ranked: #30-#21
Most exciting about watching Spielberg’s movies in order is to see how this “enfant terrible” director develops his craft. In this follow-up to his two megahits, we see Spielberg wilt from “Enfant Terrible” to “Li’l Bastard.” There is a “too big for his britches” funk all around 1941, the kind you smell from any director you suspect’s gotten too accustomed to the word “Yes.” Spielberg aims for madcap comedy, yet it’s clear his proficiency with comic language is limited. The movie is simply too big for the comedy he wants to depict. There are too many manic characters, too many elaborate sets, too many tones the director wants to hit. It’s far too generous even to call 1941 an ambitious failure. It is, more accurately, a fiasco.
Master Moment: Spielberg occasionally teases his desire to make a classic, studio era-style musical. If the elaborate jitterbug competition doesn’t prove he was born to make such a movie, nothing else will. This is 1941’s lone moment of cohesion. That is, until said contest devolves into a lavish bar brawl, and the numbing, inane chaos resumes.
That the best of the Jurassic sequels ranks among the worst of Spielberg’s films should at once convey just how good a filmmaker Spielberg is, and how weak the Jurassic franchise has proven. Visually this is a richer movie than its predecessor, largely because it replaces the serviceable D.P. Dean Cudney with the more dynamic Janusz Kaminski (my second-favorite Spielberg collaborator). Beyond that, Lost World is a snooze; Spielberg so overestimates the worth of CGI that he overuses it, thereby losing the first movie’s seamlessness between practical and computer effects. The effects all look terrible. And as great as Jeff Goldblum is as Ian Malcolm, relegating him to the leading role – and therefore, the straight-man for all the crazies – borders on character assassination.
Master Moment: The best dino-sequence is the one where the dinos’ presence is only strongly-implied: when the angry T-Rex parents push the team’s trailer off the cliff. Spielberg smartly keeps the perspective indoors for as long as possible, reminding us he still knows that the scene’s true tension belongs with the humans, not the dinosaurs.
More notably a Spielberg production than a Spielberg film, this 4-segment adaptation of the iconic TV series is the quintessential anthology film: meaning, it’s a mixed bag. Concerning Spielberg’s own segment, a remake of one of the series’ more famous episodes, it is sadly neither the best of the bunch (that would be George Miller’s) nor the second-best (that’d be Joe Dante’s). Much of the story is sappy Spielberg at his least polished, counting too much on maudlin cinematography and an ingratiating Bosley Crowthers performance to do the work for him. This project was clearly a larf for Spielberg, and it feels like one.
Master Moment: The segment’s most affecting moment is a small one, largely because of how it inverts Spielberg’s pet trope of the absent father. The scene where Mr. Bloom asks his own son to stay with his family for the weekend is subdued, and quietly heartbreaking.
Reviewing his filmography, it’s easy to make the case that Indy’s long-gestating fourth outing is the most highly anticipated movie of Spielberg’s career. You’d think he would know just how high the stakes were to make a great movie (or at least a great Indy movie). Yet the outright hate for the final product was a seething disappointment likely not seen since The Phantom Menace. And while I don’t quite hate Crystal Skull myself, it’s staggering just how much of a nothing-movie it is. Spielberg’s work here is uncharacteristically lazy; his is a production riddled with cheap sets, languid editing, mirthless performances, and a plot scarcely even trying to make its own Red-Scare evocations come full-circle. Fans piss and moan about the aliens inter-dimensional beings, but those are the least of this movie’s problems.
Master Moment: The movie does have shining moments, peaking early with its joy-ride opening on the New Mexico highway, with Elvis’ “Hound Dog” playing in the background. If there’s any one person not phoning in to work on Crystal Skull, it’s DP (and Indy newcomer) Janusz Kaminski.
The Mr. Ed theme song, were it stretched to 2.5 hours and composed instead by John Williams. Certainly, Spielberg deserves some credit for making an old-Hollywood tribute this this technically proficient, and this nakedly earnest. It opens the director up to the precise accusations of flagrant sentimentalism that (unfairly) plagues most of his work. It’s a perfectly fine movie, I say with a sigh: stunningly shot, a parade route for some decent performances. But little of the intelligence Spielberg’s earned in his 21st century filmography feels apparent here. War Horse already feels like an anachronism and, depending on your temperament, will be exactly Spielberg’s point, or a disappointing regression for him. Oh, and I still hate that fucking goose.
Master Moment: The sequence starting with a spooked Joey darting across a WWI battlefield and into a garden of barbed wire, and ending with two opposing soldiers teaming up to free him, is the best short film of 2011.
If you take out all that fantastical afterlife business, Always would be a touching, low-key drama about a grieving Holly Hunter’s Dorinda moving on with her life and with love. Of course, that would mean this wouldn’t be a remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe, and thus we’re stuck with Richard Dreyfuss hamming it up as Pete, the unseen ghost sent back to influence the lives of those who survived him. Dreyfuss is as bad here as Hunter and John Goodman are good; his pratfalls and wisecracks derailing not just their performances but the movie around him. Worse, though, is how the fantastical elements obscure the true, internal journey of grief. The faults thus belong equally to Spielberg as Dreyfuss. This is Dorinda’s story, and they erroneously think it’s Pete’s.
Master Moment: Hunter really is terrific in Always, giving one of Spielberg’s more noteworthy female performances. Her best moment comes as she prepares her dinner date for resident hunk-O-bland Brad Johnson. Instead of cooking, she buys grocery store deli food, serves it up as if she made it herself, and purposefully scatters flour and food particles all over the kitchen to sell the illusion of a dinner hard-prepared.
This movie is the Spielberg equivalent of a night of card tricks with P.T. Barnum. The Terminal is the concentrated attempt of an impresario to “go small.” That’s a strangely ambitious move for any impresario, admittedly, and the results here are mixed. Spielberg knows how to collaborate with Tom Hanks better than most directors, and I do love how well the imposed language barrier internalizes his lead performance. But even when Spielberg aims small, he tends to sprawl, and The Terminal suffers from too many moving parts, too many wacky characters, all pasted together with a generic air of sappy geniality. While The Terminal doesn’t quite work for me, I still have affection for its ambitions of modesty.
Master Moment: Hanks’ wordless performance as Viktor is especially moving as he enters the JFK terminal, after a baffling non-conversation with Stanley Tucci, only to finally see on the television his fictional homeland of Krakosia in political shambles. The scene is an uneasy mixture of gratifying realization and horrific implication. It’s the movie’s lone great scene.
Madcap mo-cap. Spielberg’s most recent “fun” movie is so breathlessly paced that it’d be better to call it “relentless.” The distractingly real motion capture is so painstakingly rendered, though, that it’s almost ancillary that the movie never learns how to slow down (unlike its most obvious cinematic progenitors, the Indiana Jones movies). Spielberg’s shortest-ever theatrical feature is best seen as such: a roller-coaster for state-of-the-art animation that you won’t feel has taken up too much time. But I do worry how much he’s acquiesced to the language of modern children’s films, favoring manic energy above all else. Hopefully his next “fun” movie, The BFG, will show the director still has faith in a child’s attention span.
Master Moment: Spielberg’s shots are frequently longer than you might expect, though they tend to be far less flashy in presentation than what we see in the Chase in Bagghar. You can argue that such a long-take in animation is less impressive than live-action long takes like Children of Men or True Detective, but Spielberg does a stellar job of framing and reframing the action. The chase feels more seamless than it has any right to be.
A unique footnote in the extensive history of awards-friendly “White Savior” movies, in that easily the most interesting character of Amistad is the one in need of white-saving. The movie is itself a marginal achievement for Spielberg, a low-key legal drama and a Civics 101-style meditation on American racism, featuring well-calibrated sleepwalks from Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey. Still, Spielberg finds some tension in exploring how legal machinations are used to reshape larger social truths (though that’s better explored in later, better films), and he finds a particularly emotional vessel for righteous anger in Djimon Honsou’s discomfitingly raw performance. It’s refreshing to see the impatience and rage of an oppressed party given this much validation, especially since the “stoic” black character’s become such a tiring – not to mention false – trope in middlebrow cinema.
Master Moment: The cold-open to the Amistad uprising is a strong, well-crafted bit of in media res, jostling the viewer to life before Hopkins even has a chance to come aboard the movie, and monologue them to death.
Spielberg’s most direct post-9/11 allegory (“Is it the terrorists?!”) shows some of the most unnerving images of American devastation and paranoia ever seen in a big-budget movie, yet it still pales in comparison to the eclipsing devastation of Tom Cruise, who rode this movie’s publicity (not to mention Oprah’s couch) like Slim Pickens on an atomic bomb. Now that we’ve been able to parse the picture from the publicity, I’m glad this clever revision of H.G. Wells’ novel is finally earning due respect, even if it’s far more admirable for its political evocations and implications – resembling so many sci-fi works of yesteryear – than for its characters and performances. (Tom Cruise managed to hurt this movie in every way imaginable.)
Master Moment: I seem to wield a lot more patience for the Ogilvy interlude than most, likely thanks to my lingering affection for those same passages in the novel. On its own, though, I think it’s the darkest moment for Ray, forced to snuff out Tim Robbins’ paranoia for his child’s safety. The allegory of Ogilvy’s paranoid reactionism is itself fascinating; it can be read as Spielberg’s icepick-sharp indictment of unilateral violence as a responsorial. Sound familiar?