The Films of Steven Spielberg Ranked: #10-#1
Stephanie Zachareck recently criticized usage of the hackneyed phrase “all style, and no substance” because, when it comes to critiquing movies, “style is the substance!” If Zachareck is right about style – and right she is – then Catch Me if You Can would be Spielberg’s most substantial movie since Close Encounters. He gets swept up in the deceptive charm of Frank Abagnale, lovingly depicting the lead-ups and the repercussions of the boy’s cons, until their true hollowness take that inevitable, exhausting, dispiriting toll. Catch Me, an escapist fantasy at its most Spielbergian, itself exposes the hollowness of the escapist fantasy, and challenges the notion that the world’s misgivings can ever truly be elided. The movie’s sunny, but sobering.
Master Moment: I’ll cheat here, and choose two. I love the duality in Frank and Carl Hanratty’s first interactions with each other, first in the hotel room and then during that Christmas Eve phone call. Each scene shows just how one adversary has the upper-hand over the other. They also show just why Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performances here rank among their best.
Something Spielberg never gets enough credit for is his willingness to stretch himself. While this Adaptation of Alice Walker’s masterpiece of a novel sports the pit-stains of a guy seriously outside his comfort zone, it’s hard not to be completely moved by the ambition of an artist who shoots for something completely different, and ultimately succeeds. Visually and tonally, The Color Purple is messy and inconsistent, but it possesses an absolute affection for its key characters. The performances rank among Spielberg’s very best, with Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey giving sensitively joyful and sad interpretations of Shug and Sofia. But of course, the true revelation is Whoopi Goldberg, in perhaps the all-time great film debut. I like to pretend that this is the movie that won her an Oscar. (I also like to pretend that Ghost doesn’t exist, but I digress.)
Master Moment: Are many other scenes in the movies more gratifying than Celie finally standing up to “Mister” Albert? It’s a showcase for some capital-A “Acting,” certainly, but Spielberg and Goldberg earn the moment through their sympathetic interpretation of a deeply sad, yet hopeful and resilient, Celie. “I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.”
My favorite of all the Phillip K. Dick adaptations – yes, including Blade Runner – and Spielberg’s last great blockbuster, Minority Report is a smartly plotted piece of genre fiction; packed with Hitchcockian intrigue and superbly-rounded performances. This may also be my favorite of Tom Cruise’s leading turns. Following a classical whodunit template (or should I say “who-guna-dunit”) that thickens the plot as more information emerges, the movie indulges a deeply-rooted desire to hear told a ripping-good-yarn. It’s also one of Spielberg’s smartest, most overtly paranoid sci-fi fables, not least because what it has to say about how technology compels our acquiescences – as citizens and as consumers – is proving freakishly prescient.
Master Moment: Since it follows the action/sci-fi template so well, it’s easy to forget the potency of the movie’s emotional undercurrent. The most poignant scene comes just before the climax, when the Pre-Cog Agatha compels John and Lara for help, giving them a vision of what their dead son might have been. You say “Starships on fire off the shoulder of Orion;” I say “There’s so much love in this house.”
Spielberg’s movies get constantly accused of living in moral binaries. That’s not entirely unjustified, though I might instead paint Spielberg, more charitably, as the unjaded naif; a dyed-in-the-wool idealist hopelessly confounded with the ugly realities outside him. (No wonder I identify with him so much.) In his unlikely pairing with the considerably-more-jaded Tony Kushner, Spielberg uses Israel’s bloody response to the 1974 Munich Olympics attacks to look inwardly at his own values as a Jew and as a liberal-minded citizen, and he remains honest about the ugly truths he confronts. Spielberg’s skill with genre gorgeously serves the political thriller template, but once the enemy’s humanity seeps in, the righteousness of revenge completely frays. Munich is a humanist masterpiece: a provocative, persistent, uncertain work from a frustrated idealist. Some would call that cynicism. I call it ambivalence.
Master Moment: The team’s murder of the Dutch assassin, fueled by a vengeance far more personal than the mission proper, is a perfect microcosm of what Spielberg and Kushner convey about revenge. It’s also beautifully executed: raw, drained, and writhing in sadness. Seldom has so much meaning been wrought from what to allow a bathrobe to cover. How the assassin’s cat is used is among my favorite Spielberg “small touches.”
This movie’s most indelible image is one of childlike wonderment: a young boy opening his front door, thus rendered awash in a thrilling orange light from some heavenly thing. Yet in my third viewing of Close Encounters, it was all I could do not to read it as a brutal midlife crisis movie, a fantastical, Bergmanesque family drama. To see Roy drawn to those otherworldly beings as his own world disintegrates, it to see what happens to a person whose life mightn’t have borne the fruits once-promised in youth. Then again, maybe Close Encounters is indeed all about childlike wonderment, about its simultaneous fading and insolubility as our bodies and our lives drag us into adulthood. Spielberg was only 31 when he made this, and it may be the young director’s most complete feature, speaking both technically and thematically.
Master Moment: While I can’t not mention the smash-cut opening to the howling desert wind (my favorite of Spielberg’s opening shots), few movie moments top the “mashed potatoes” scene. It’s so iconic, and so widely parodied, that it’s easy to forget how terrifying the moment is, when absolutely nobody at the dinner table – Roy included – quite knows what they are seeing.
Pauline Kael said of Jaws that it “may be the most cheerily perverse scary movie ever made,” somehow hyperbolizing and understating the movie’s true importance. It’s not simply that the first modern blockbuster hit an untapped well, or affected how an entire industry operates today, for better and for worse. It’s that it did so with such completely, utterly impeccable filmmaking. Accessible as it is, there’s is not an iota of cynicism to Jaws; it plays with a visual trickery and strength of characterization entirely devoted to the pleasure of telling (and hearing) a gripping story. It’s not Spielberg’s fault that Jaws changed everything, any more than it’s Spielberg’s fault that no movie since could surpass it.
Master Moment: John Williams gets (due) credit for his musical contribution to Jaws, but Verna Fields’ cuts are just as essential. Her best use of rhythmic editing comes in the moments just before young Alex Kintner’s death, with a vigilant Chief Brody scanning the shoreline.A beach-goer walks in front of Brody, and the camera cuts closer. Another passer-by, another shot closer. And closer. It’s the most effective act, this side of Hitchcock, of using editing to fray the viewer’s nerves.
No doubt Spielberg’s first film of the new century, a much-storied collaboration between him and the legendary Stanley Kubrick, is his most divisive. The story, told almost exclusively from the perspective of a not-unambiguously-sentient being, shuffles messily through tones and affections for characters you’re not even sure the storyteller quite understands. Yet that storyteller is not being craven; he grapples fully with that uncertainty. This is why A.I. might be the greatest adult fairy tale of our time, not to mention the best science fiction work of this last quarter-century. It is a glorious, hellish, beautiful marriage of authorial sensibilities, fraught with implications of how we perceive love – and by extension, humanity – and what we do to modulate it. It’s the artwork for which America’s most popular filmmaker clearly anguished most, and all it took was America’s most lauded filmmaker to push him.
As for those who’d contend A.I. is more Kubrick’s film than Spielberg’s, or that the parts that work are more Kubrickian than Spielbergian in nature, I say to you, simply, this: Knock it off.
Master Moment: That fateful separation (or rather, abandonment) of David from his mother is a profoundly confused piece of scene-building, a willful blurring of unconditional love, of earned love, and of manufactured love. Her final words to David, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world,” are at once silly and dread-inducing.
As a studio executive, the most correct move Spielberg ever made was to use this movie’s most iconic image – a boy and his alien on a flying bicycle, silhouetted by moonlight – as the logo for his production company Amblin Entertainment. E.T. is the director’s purest vision, as perfect an alchemy of wonderment and sentimentality, of soulfulness and commercialism, as has ever rolled out of the studio assembly line. You see the buttons Spielberg is pushing, yet because those buttons access emotions so pure, and so linked to uncomplicated human joys and sadnesses, it never, ever matters. E.T. is the work that best epitomizes Spielberg’s powers; it’s the film to study when understanding just how he’ll be remembered.
Master Moment: Four words: “I’ll Be Right Here.” Since we’re well past the point where I begin doling out superlatives, I might as well go full-throttle: backed by John Williams’ incredible fanfare, the ending is the point the whole movie had been working to. It is irrefutably the greatest good-bye in the history of cinema, and the best ending from a director not known for ending movies very well. It is the brown noise for the tear ducts.
What makes Indiana Jones the greatest movie hero of them all? I think it’s his sweat. The man gleans sweat when he’s running for his life, or duking it out with Nazis, or trying to match wits with an old flame. Indy sweats and he bleeds. He makes rash decisions and he kisses the girl when he gets the chance. He’s an academic, but he’s sexy. He’s a grave-robber, but curiosity drives him. He’s great with a whip, and greater without a shirt. Better yet, he has a lean, sinewy movie to match him every step of the way. Nobody can top Indy: not Jason Bourne, not Katniss Everdeen, not even James Bond himself. Spielberg’s collaboration with George Lucas and Harrison Ford is the quintessential Hollywood machine, in the best imaginable sense. It is a polished blitzkrieg of adventure, romance, music, special effects, and iconic performances. For everybody involved in front of and behind the camera, including Spielberg, this represents the apex of their skills. Lightning seldom strikes like Raiders strikes, a fact you need only look to its three successors – and countless imitators – to appreciate.
Master Moment: The breathless chase for the Ark, where Indy jumps from horse to cargo truck to cabin to hood to grill to underneath the truck, all ‘round back to the cabin, is as perfectly edited and scored as any action sequence ever staged. Basically, it’s this movie and Stagecoach at the top.
It may seem like the boring, anti-hip choice to call Spielberg’s most acclaimed film his best film. I hear that. But let me tell you why it’s not.
The Oscars awarded Schindler’s List for its subject matter; for being the most singular depiction of the Holocaust in the history of fiction filmmaking. But the true reason for this movie’s greatness is that Spielberg’s cinema shines through despite the subject matter. Schindler’s List is a culmination of Spielberg’s decades-long mastery of filmmaking, of refining his Old-Hollywood aesthetic and of mastering the language of the elaborate set-piece. It is a story presented through these aesthetics, and told through this language. It’s often praised for its documentary-style realism, yet I don’t believe the movie’s any more “realistic” than his most fantastical action flicks. (Purely in terms of construction, the Ghetto liquidation sequence is really no different than the truck chase in Raiders; it’s only difference of meaning that’s conveyed.) Yet that artifice doesn’t dilute the authenticity of Schindler’s List; rather it legitimizes it.
Schindler’s List is a movie that believes in the versatile, transgressive power of the cinema, in a power to induce fear, to induce sadness, to induce hope, to induce even laughter. To tell an epic story with dozens of players – both victim and victimizer – and to give each of them a voice of some kind. To employ a “white savior” narrative, true, but to craft a genuinely interesting character study behind it. Oskar Schindler, as interpreted through Liam Neeson’s (bafflingly under-discussed) performance, is the hero of this story. Yet he is more a hero in the T.E. Lawrence sense than in the Atticus Finch or Leigh Anne Tuohy sense. He is flawed and complicated, his precise motives only ever marginally visible.
To show classic movie villains like Amon Goethe, and to show heroes of a more resourceful, ingenious nature like Itzhak Stern (Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are as iconic as Neeson).
Schindler’s List is labeled a Holocaust movie, but we too often forget the “movie” part of that label. Spielberg doesn’t, because he understands and appreciates just how fully a movie can vivify our relationships to the world. And as a movie, I don’t think Spielberg’s made anything this assured, this audacious, this well-suited to the way his camera and editing scissors work. This is why I’ve watched this 200-minute “one-timer” movie over twenty times, why I’ve studied it over twenty times, why it’s moved me over twenty times. Schindler’s List is a masterpiece in every sense: as a character study, as a historical drama, as a tribute to human capacities and, most crucially, as a movie.
Master Moment: I’ve already written extensively about my favorite scene in the movie, so I’ll speak to something rarely considered: at times, Schindler’s List can be really damn funny. Some of the humor is horrifyingly dark (like the boy with the chicken), but I am most amused by the sequence where Schindler interviews prospective secretaries. He tests their typewriting skills and, with Williams’ light score and Michael Kahn’s rhythmic editing, we learn everything we need to know about Schindler’s horn-dog womanizing. It’s terrifically funny, and it uses cinema to progress the story.