The Films of Steven Spielberg Ranked: #20-#11
Spielberg says this is his favorite of the Indiana Jones movies, and it’s likely because this is his one chance to explore Indy’s sentimental, touchy-feely side. The movie’s action itself feels listless – always a problem for an action movie – so it’s good that the director’s softening ultimately benefits the humor and the characterizations. Last Crusade is the series’ most pointedly wacky installment, unafraid to mire Indy, or Sallah, or even (especially?) Marcus Brody into cruelly funny pratfalls. But the life of the movie, of course, is in Indy’s relationship to his father Henry (cast perfectly with Sean Connery), which drives the movie’s emotional undercurrent quite movingly. This is a gooey, mushy film, but that makes it a different kind of fun.
Master Moment: In one of Spielberg’s best-ever smash-cuts, Indy threateningly taunts the Nazis with Marcus Brody’s worldly skills: “He’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again.” Then we see Marcus out in the world: “Does anybody speak English, or even Ancient Greek?”
Because he’s so well-known for influencing the climate of New Hollywood movie culture, it may seem surprising just how much Spielberg’s true theatrical debut feels like a derivative product of the New Hollywood climate; a Badlands/Bonnie and Clyde salad slathered in twangy Texas podunkery. In Spielberg’s defense, Sugarland ain’t exactly Jaws, but it ain’t exactly a hack-job either. There’s a breezy naturalism to his scene-building that supports the chemistry between the three performers – two married outlaws and their kidnapped cop of a chauffeur – and produces one of Goldie Hawn’s livelier, more underrated performances.
Master Moment: Exhausting a full first day of a low-speed highway chase, Lou Jean and Clovis spend the night together in the RV of a used car lot. The RV gets a lucky view of the nearby Drive-In, so they get to watch some Road Runner cartoons. Spielberg frames a brilliant shot outside the window of the RV, reflecting the movie as the couple watches. As Wile E. Coyote endures the usual self-inflicted violence, Clovis’ smile gradually erodes as the reality of the moment settles in: this can’t possibly end well.
It’s okay to admit this: all the Indiana Jones movies, which derive (undeniable) pleasure from the the pilfering and desecrating of other cultures, are intrinsically a little racist. Yet none is more overt than the shamelessly orientalist Temple of Doom, whose scenes of monkey brains and heart-pluckery exoticize the Other with an exceptional mean-spiritedness. It’s also the most misogynistic installment; Willy Scott is charmlessly histrionic, and we’re encouraged to hate her (the less we read Spielberg and George Lucas’ offscreen marital woes into this, the better). But the other truism of Temple of Doom is that it’s the most visceral thriller of the series: a dark, dangerous, piss-in-your-pants orgy of action and nightmare. It’s a prequel to Raiders, yet you genuinely worry for the safety of Indy and company. This is a true rarity: a hateful movie that is impossible to hate.
Master Moment: Short-Round’s attempt to awaken Indy from the sleep of the Kali, and to save Willy from sacrifice, is a spectacularly complicated and well-executed set-piece. The stakes are incredibly high (each hero’s life is in a very different kind of danger), and a way out is not guaranteed. And in true spirit of the movie’s mean-streak, you kinda, sorta hope Willy bites it in the flames below.
A more basic war movie than you may remember, likely because what truly shines is the way Spielberg’s skill with actors and set-pieces alike can elevate the most threadbare of scripts. And trust me, Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan script is exceptionally threadbare; nothing more than a standard “Men on a Mission” movie with expendable stock characters and agreeably rote patriotic sentiments. But Spielberg won an Oscar for his work here, and it warrants mentioning how much he deserved it; his prowess with storytelling on a massive battlefield outclasses what’s seen today in movies twice this size, and there are plenty of memorable performances featured, from Tom Sizemore to Jeremy Davies, and especially from Tom Hanks.
Master Moment: Everybody praises the Normandy invasion sequence, as well they should. Yet Pvt. James Ryan’s anecdote about his last night with his brothers, a much smaller scene reportedly ad-libbed by Matt Damon, actually helps bring some meaning and weight to the unspeakable carnage being depicted. It’s telling that Ryan’s best-scripted moment technically wasn’t even scripted.
Considering what’s come before it – Munich, Lincoln, Minority Report, it surprises me just how ideologically clean Bridge of Spies comes off. Since there is no real conflict of values for Tom Hanks’ James Donovan as he takes on defending Mark Rylance’s Russian spy (he takes the job surprisingly quickly), Spielberg comes off as far less hand-wringy about the collective soul of a nation than he historically has been. As such, Spies feels substantively lighter than the typical Spielberg melodrama, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is a clear-eyed, Capraesque paean to quintessential American Values and, if it’s a little facile and didactic, it’s still nice to go to the movies every once in a while to feel good about being American.
Master Moment: I don’t think it’s giving too much away (still, SPOILER ALERT!) to say that an exchange of spies takes place on a bridge. How everything will pan out remains somewhat uncertain until the very end and, even though there’s little doubt of a happy ending (this is Spielberg, after all), the scene remains admirably tense throughout. Though you know the ending, you still feel a palpable, gratifying relief once it arrives.
While Spielberg’s breakthrough movie premiered first on television, this glorified car-chase flick makes an exceptionally clear case that its maker was better-suited for the silver screen. Next to Jaws, this could be his most disciplined, least indulgent project. And whether that discipline’s because network restrictions bound him, or he knew precisely what the story needed, is beside the point. Spielberg demonstrated immediately what he could accomplish when working from a script more dependent on conveying information through visuals over dialogue. Watch this with Mad Max Fury Road; it’s the best Spielberg/Miller double-feature since the Twilight Zone Movie.
Master Moment: The scene with David stopping to help a stalled bus, only to find the unseen tanker driver stalking him from afar, juices as much tension as possible from the question of what’ll happen next. It also makes the most of the performance from Dennis Weaver’s, whose primary screen partner for ninety minutes is, essentially, the menacing gaze of a tanker’s grill.
Never underestimate the power of a rewatch. After my first viewing of Empire, I’d dismissed it as mid-tier Spielberg, another technically ambitious stab at middle-brow relevance. While it is indeed still that, It’s also one of the director’s more interesting character studies. He is unafraid to make Christian Bale’s James appear unsympathetic, even as he’d depicted as victimized and naive and resourceful. And let’s not under-praise Spielberg’s technical ambitions either; with Allen Davieau’s polished camerawork, Spielberg impressively refines his “serious film” aesthetic here. It’s a clear step up from Empire‘s immediate predecessor (more on that in a bit), and a step closer to realizing the masterpieces to come.
Master Moment: Following his separation from his parents in the Shanghai streets, James does what any boy would do: he goes home. When he returns to his house being burgled by his nanny – the nanny he’d always antagonized – she walks up to him midsentence and slaps him hard across the face. Her wordless act does more to jerk Jamie into his new reality than even the harrowing loss of his family.
Hook was my first Spielberg, and I’m a little sick of apologizing for the movie. It’s widely considered Spielberg’s biggest boondoggle and, yes, I see how the opinion on the movie’s excesses are on largely generational divides (with my generation favoring it). Yet it has to be more than nostalgia coloring my affection for Hook. I’ve now seen it twice in the past year (first after Robin Williams’ tragic death, when we were all feeling a little nostalgic), and something else has clearly got, well, its hook in me. Corey Atad at Movie Mezzanine all but stole my Happy Thoughts when he defended how Hook “works in the same way my mind worked when I was young.” It’s a movie a Lost Boy would have made, in all its crude, kitchy, bloated glory. It also boasts John Williams’ most underrated musical score; Williams composes a story so complete, it can be understood fully on its own. So no more apologizing, and no more growing up; Hook is aces.
Master Moment: For child and parent alike, the early kidnapping of Jack and Maggie – and Peter, Moira and Wendy’s horrible realization – is the stuff of true nightmares. For all of Hook’s rough edges, the sequence itself is rather elegant, even artful. While Hook’s ability to turn the sky green and blustery, not to mention his ransacking of the Darling House, make little physical sense, they build to a palpably realized fear for the whole family to enjoy.
It’s all in the O-Face. No, not that O-Face; Spielberg’s far too chaste a filmmaker for that (at least, he was until Munich) I mean the O-face of “Oh my God, what the hell am I looking at?” What makes Jurassic Park one of the most successful monster movies ever is it knows we don’t actually want to watch a movie about dinosaurs; we in fact want to watch a movie about humans, watching dinosaurs. Since Spielberg stays true to this – we almost never glimpse the actual beasts until we see the characters glimpsing them first – the sense of wonder, and then horror (and then wonder, and then horror), never gets lost. It helps that so many of the characters are indelible and memorable, from Alan and Ellie, to Lex and Tim, to John Hammond and, finally, to Dr. Ian Malcolm, the sexiest chaotician who ever lived.
Master Moment: With respect to John Williams (my favorite of the Spielberg regulars) and his gloriously hummable Jurassic score, his absence in the big reveal of the T-Rex is key. No music is necessary in this impeccably-crafted reveal, which begins with the rippling of water, continues with a severed goat leg, and climaxes with the reveal of a beast so terrible, so fearsome, no amount of scoring is needed to guide the viewer to the appropriate response.
As Spielberg’s entered this presumptive latter half of his career, my favorite of his civic-minded obsessions is in how the shaping and altering of our collective values happen through the simple actions of an elite few. (As Hillary Clinton recently said, “I don’t believe you change hearts… you change laws.”) This obsession is best reflected in Lincoln, a herky-jerky chronicle of the political process in which justice is achieved not through the prevailing of moral righteousness, but in the shrewd – even cynical – redefinition of “right” in our moral (not to mention legal) constitution. I maintain that Lincoln never was the feel-good biopic the Oscars accused it of being; its subtext is our nation’s murky political fact: that not even true justice can always be achieved justly.
Oh, and how ‘bout that Daniel Day-Lewis?
Master Moment: When Tommy Lee Jones’ notoriously hotheaded congressman Thaddeus Stevens is asked to moderate his well-known abolitionist stances, in hopes of building a coalition to pass the 13th Amendment, he is predictably goaded for his flip-flopping by Democratic leader George Pendelton. How Stevens navigates his newly compromised values is a wonderfully slippery feat of acting and writing. It also epitomizes the whole film in one wildly entertaining scene.