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Top 10 Greatest Steven Spielberg Films

Of all the filmmakers in all the world, Steven Spielberg might be the most well-known. He’s been in the right place at the right time on several occasions, and many of his career highlights mark major shifts in the film industry. He birthed the first summer blockbuster with his first big hitJaws (1975). His adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park included animated dinosaurs like the world has never seen before.  From Schindler’s List (1993) and The Color Purple (1985) to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), his films evoke emotion, thought, and wonderment from audiences of all ages, races, and walks of life. He is the highest grossing filmmaker of all time, and (arguably) the most celebrated.

Steven Spielberg’s 50-year film career highlights include his direction of over thirty films and a hand in the creation of many others via production and writing. Despite his vast filmography and climbing age, he has given no indication of his plans to slow down. His newest film, Ready Player One, is scheduled for release this month, and he is expected to direct another Indiana Jones film in 2020.

Out of his stunning body of work, there are many stand-out pictures that deserve praise. This list shall cover ten of my personal favorites, and I have included a list of honorable mentions here at the top. Feel free to agree or disagree and start a conversation in the comments below!

Honorable Mentions

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Minority Report (2002)

Hook (1991)

#10: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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image via Amazon

The film stars Harrison Ford as archaeologist Indiana Jones, who is commissioned by the US government to find the Ark of the Covenant. Believing it to hold the key to human existence, the Nazis are also on the hunt for the Ark. Through a series of near-death experiences and narrow escapes, Jones and his former lover, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), work together to recover the artifact and save the world from certain destruction.

When George Lucas approached Steven Spielberg about directing Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg was coping with the underwhelming success of his film 1941. The idea of a James-Bond-like explorer character appealed to Spielberg, and he signed on to make the film with a budget of $20 million. The financial constrictions forced him to be resourceful and keep pace with his shooting schedule, unlike his previous films.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a massive hit and grossed more than any other movie released in 1981. The film spawned several sequels and has become the model for the modern adventure film.

#9: The Post (2017)

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image via Variety

Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, The Post is about the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970’s. The story centers around how the Post came by the papers, their role in relation to the New York Times, and the impact the decision to publish had on the relationship between the press and the office of the President.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated The Post for two Oscars, and the film enjoyed numerous other accolade nominations in the film world.

Critics praised Spielberg’s straightforward storytelling and pacing in this film. As he has matured, Spielberg has moved to directing pictures that are culturally significant, and The Post is a great example of that shift. He worked on this film as he simultaneously edited Ready Player One.

#8: Empire of the Sun (1987)

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image via YouTube

Empire of the Sun stars a young Christian Bale as a boy who gets separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in WWII. As a result of the invasion, Jamie Graham (Bale) ends up in a Japanese internment camp and must adapt to his new surroundings, or perish. The film is a coming-of-age story with many themes relating to loss of innocence.

Spielberg has always had a fascination with how children see the world, and many of his protagonists are youths. A child of divorce, Spielberg has stated that many of his movies deal with the separation of children and their parents as a result of his own childhood experiences.

Critics hailed the cinematography of the film but questioned the overall plot of the story. Empire of the Sun opened to modest box office success and critical assessment but is now considered by many to be a classic. This film also launched Christian Bale’s illustrious film career.

#7: Munich (2005)

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image via Plugged In

Many critics and fans of Spielberg believe Munich to be among his greatest films.  This superbly casted film starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Geoffery Rush depicts the aftermath of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics and the subsequent revenge plot executed by Mossad special forces.

The gripping pace of this film coupled with its exploration of what constitutes a justifiable response to terrorism sparked both intrigue and controversy among audiences in the post-9/11 United States. Never one to miss an opportunity for social commentary, Spielberg poses questions about whether or not there is anything gained from retribution.

#6: Lincoln (2012)

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image via NPR

To make a big-budget film about one of the most beloved political figures in the history of the United States is a bold move. Spielberg’s Lincoln tells the story of Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in order to officially (and legally) abolish slavery in the United States.

The Academy of Motion Arts and Science bestowed 12 Oscar nominations on Lincoln, including Best Actor for Day-Lewis, which he ultimately won. Day-Lewis’s win marked the first time an actor won an Academy Award for a part in a Spielberg film. Apparently, Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the role of Abraham Lincoln the first time Spielberg offered because he doubted he could live up to the image of Lincoln. Lucky for us, Spielberg convinced Day-Lewis to take the role, and it has become one of the most iconic portrayals of the 16th President of the United States ever to appear on film.

The cultural impact of Lincoln reached far and wide; in response to the film, the state of Mississippi officially ratified the 13th amendment after it was discovered that a paperwork mishap left the amendment in political purgatory.

#5: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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image via Amazon

Out of all the films on this list, I think E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial tells us the most about who Steven Spielberg is as a person. Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was young, and he has repeatedly discussed how the experience altered his childhood and shaped him as an adult. This film explores many themes including loss of a parent, loneliness, friendship, and love. It manages an age-appropriate balancing act by lacing mature themes and storylines into the film in a soft way that makes it appealing to both children and adults.

Like many of his other films, E.T. broke records at the box office upon its release. It received numerous award nominations, and many people consider it to be among the finest science fiction films ever made.

#4: The Color Purple (1985)

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image via Moviefone

Steven Spielberg’s decision to direct the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple altered the course of his career. Spielberg dramatically departed from his usual genre of action/adventure/science fiction (i.e. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc.). Many critics felt he wasn’t qualified to direct such a culturally significant work like The Color Purple, and their negative feelings were exacerbated by Spielberg’s decision to water down some of the racier storylines, such as Celie’s intimate relationship with Shug Avery.

Despite a few initial negative critical reactions to the film, people have grown to consider it a landmark production for Spielberg and the diverse cast of actors and actresses. Both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey made their film debuts in The Color Purple, and have gone on to have magnificent careers in film and entertainment. This film also helped Spielberg establish himself as a serious director who could deal with intense subject matter.

#3: Jaws (1975)

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image via Amazon

Steven Spielberg’s big break came from the release of Jaws in 1975. Though he had already established himself as a talented up-and-comer in Hollywood with movies like Duel, and The Sugarland ExpressJaws proved to everyone that Spielberg possessed commercial prowess.

Issues plagued Spielberg’s set on Martha’s Vineyard; because of mechanical failures, budgetary overages, and schedule mishaps, people expected Jaws to be an enormous flop. Fortunately, the joke turned out to be on the naysayers; Jaws became the first official summer blockbuster and the highest grossing film ever at the time of its release.

#2: Jurassic Park (1993)

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image via Hollywood Reporter

Spielberg’s film adaptation of the famous Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park is a great representation of his innovative approach to filmmaking. The live-action dinosaurs wowed audiences, and the methods Spielberg and his team used for this film changed the way future directors approached digital enhancement.

When I watch it now I am just as thrilled as I was the very first time; this is one of the few films I could watch every day and not tire of it. Jurassic Park is indicative of Spielberg’s natural talent for creating films that do not age aesthetically over the years, and instead remain as enthralling and engaging as they were when first released.

#1: Schindler’s List (1993)

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image via Variety

Last but certainly not least, Spielberg’s finest achievement in cinema: Schindler’s List. It should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that this film landed in the number one spot. This work portrays with dreary realism the atrocities the Nazi’s inflicted upon the Jewish population of Europe during WWII. Spielberg’s eery use of color symbolism combined with John Williams’ despair-soaked film score leaves a lasting impression on audiences. Some critics consider this film to be one of the best ever made, period.

Spielberg held on to the film’s source material, the novel Schindler’s Ark, for almost a decade before he actually felt mature enough to make the film. Whatever his motivations, the waiting period paid off in a big way.  Spielberg filmed on location in Krakow, Poland and in areas surrounding the sites of real concentration camps, such as Auschwitz. Spielberg conveys the story with a simplistic and straightforward cinematographic style that lets the content speak for itself. Schindler’s List will live on to tell the story of the Holocaust for many years to come with a timelessness and grace that few other films have ever achieved.

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14 Responses

  1. Alex Wiggan says:

    I constantly forget about The Color Purple being a Spielberg movie. Such a good movie.

  2. Elky says:

    Jurassic World has always been my favorite, for such a long time now. But a great list! Still have to check the Post.

  3. a l anzalone says:

    I loved A.I. and Empire of the Sun. Poignant films both. (It’s too hard to make a list to please everyone!)

  4. What, no ‘The Adventures of Tintin’? I’m disappointed, lol!

  5. Miriam's Art says:

    My favorite is Raiders of the Lost Ark…I think that this is a classic series. Unforgettable!

  6. I feel like maybe Duel and Catch Me If You Can belong on this list rather than Empire of the Sun and The Post.

  7. Good list!

  8. Nick Kush says:

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