In honor of “Ready Player One” opening this week, I took on the impossibly herculean task of trying to list my top five favorite Steven Spielberg films. Keep in mind Spielberg is my favorite director and I will argue till the end of days (as I have been since 1977), that he is hands down the greatest director of all time. But he certainly doesn’t need me to make the case. His body of work speaks for itself.
A couple of points to keep in mind. “Schindler’s List” (1993), the film that finally got Spielberg the Oscar he was robbed of for “E.T”, “The Color Purple”, and “Empire of the Sun”, is not on this list. It is a staggering cinematic and historic achievement on so many levels, I consider it to be in a separate category, almost a docudrama. Plus this is a favorite film list, and so matter how gorgeous Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is and how achingly beautiful the John William’s music is, “Schindler’s List” is tough going and often difficult viewing—as it should be.
Anyway, so here it is—my five favorite Spielberg films, and a brief mention of some of my runner-ups.
1. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
If you were there on June 11, 1982, sitting in the hallowed hall of a darkened theater when this emotionally gut-wrenching, bittersweet, character-driven masterpiece first opened…then you know exactly what I’m taking about.
For most of the film-buffs and science fiction fans of my generation, “Star Wars” was the movie that changed everything. For others it happened five years later with “Blade Runner”. But for me, it was that other science fiction film of 1977, Steven Spielberg’s epic, breath-taking masterpiece “Close Encounters of the Kind”. Here is a review I did of the film upon its 2017 re-release on the big screen.
3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
This is a dark, complex, sentimental, and haunting film that polarized critics and turned off audiences who were expecting a feel good movie in the spirit of "E.T.". It is also a brilliant, deeply affecting film with an emotionally devastating final fifteen minutes. “A.I” is tragically underrated and hopefully will be rediscovered one day in a way that the next film on my list has been.
4. Empire of the Sun (1987)
I remember seeing "Empire of the Sun" at a 10PM showing on the Friday night it opened. I literally staggered from the theater breathless from the haunting dreamlike imagery and the soul stirring score by John Williams.
Today, Spielberg films routinely get lots of nominations and rave reviews. This was not the case back in the mid to late 80s as Spielberg’s epic and multiple successes created a massive wave of bitter backlash. Spielberg resentment overtook Hollywood. poisoning the industry, especially the Academy voters. Thankfully, “Empire of the Sun” is now at least close to being recognized as the masterwork that it is.
5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
It was the original torture porn movie that outraged critics, freaked out parent groups, infuriated the moral police, and created the PG-13 rating. Drawing inspiration from the “Weird Menace” pulps of the 1930s and the Men’s Adventure magazines of the 1960s, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” set off a firestorm of controversy when it opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1984.
Simply put, this movie is blast—a rip-roaring wildly entertaining thrill ride. It is also one of Spielberg’s best films strictly from the standpoint of craft. It is just brilliantly directed.
How about all of the remaining 32 films, plus his two episodes of “Amazing Stories”—“Ghost Train” and “The Mission”. But if I had to choose five more to round out an official top ten list…
6. “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
So light on its feet and yet deeply touching, with absolutely endearing performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, and Amy Adams.
7. The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg was infamously snubbed a Best Director nomination, despite the fact the film received eleven Academy nods, including three for actors who never acted before! That’s like saying “yeah we know you made a great film and did an amazing job with these first time actors, but we are going to fuck you anyway because E.T. made so much money.”
8. Jaws (1975)
Sure, it could be higher on this list, but the competition is fierce.
9. Jurassic Park (1993)
It still blows my mind that Spielberg made this and “Schindler’s List” in the same year.
10. 1941 (1979)
Call it a guilty pleasure if you wish. but there is so much for me to love in this film. The impeccable miniature work, the breathtaking cinematography, the knockout John Williams score, a very sexy Nancy Allen, and most of all, the scene with Robert Stack watching “Dumbo”.