What are the best Steven Spielberg movies? It might be the most basic opinion in the crowded market of banal movie opinions, but Steven Spielberg is probably the greatest director in the history of cinema. Over the course of a 50-year career, the famously bearded filmmaker has made just about everything, including effects-laden blockbusters, prestige awards contenders and family-friendly animated adventures. And he has excelled in all of those arenas.
Spielberg is one of the few directors with bona fide name recognition outside of cinephile circles, and that counts for a lot. Audiences will line up outside the multiplex to see a movie with his name on the poster, given the deep connection almost all of us have to at least one Spielberg outing from our childhood. He’s baked into all of our cinematic educations from the moment we first start watching movies.
Here are the best examples of Spielberg’s oeuvre, with plenty of his muse Tom Hanks, a smattering of marauding deadly dinosaurs, and, of course, a particularly aggressive and gargantuan shark.
What are the best Steven Spielberg movies?
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- Jurassic Park
- Schindler’s List
- Saving Private Ryan
- Catch Me If You Can
- Minority Report
- Bridge of Spies
Let’s start with some hyperbole. Jaws is the best movie ever made. In the early 1970s, a relatively unproven director flew up to the island of Martha’s Vineyard – off the coast of Massachusetts – and wrangled three incredible actors and a temperamental, animatronic shark into a truly special film. Widely credited as being one of Hollywood’s first true blockbusters, it comfortably made back its gargantuan budget to become an all-out success.
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For anyone unfortunate enough not to have seen the movie, it follows police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) as he joins forces with marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and terrifying local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to track down the massive great white shark, which has been terrorising the island’s beaches. People get munched, sea shanties are sung, boats aren’t big enough, and cinema is never the same again.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
In the wake of Jaws, Spielberg opted to take on another hugely ambitious project – a first contact science fiction movie told through the eyes of an electrician who becomes enraptured with alien visitors after witnessing the arrival of a spaceship. More than perhaps any other movie on this list, Close Encounters is a film that puts a sense of wonder centre stage.
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Richard Dreyfuss, rejoining with the director after Jaws, delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance as a man consumed by obsession. The finale, in which humanity and the alien race find a way to communicate, is a beautiful pay-off at the end of a story that delivers a deliberate, measured pace and eschews many of the dramatic clichés of how human beings will react to visitors from space. In Spielberg’s world, optimism is key – and Earth is ready to join the wider universe.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
Any of the Indiana Jones movies could have appeared on this list, with the one obvious exception hiding in a fridge somewhere, but it’s tough to top the original outing for Harrison Ford’s intrepid archaeologist. The film’s overall premise is simple, with the veteran explorer Jones hired by the American government to find the mythically powerful Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get their hands on it.
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Spielberg nails every facet of this, from the rampaging boulder of the opening set-piece to the unforgettable denouement of face-melting body horror. More or less every major action-adventure movie released in the last 40 years owes a clear debt to Raiders, and it says a lot that it gave Ford another character every bit as cool as Han Solo. That’s a tough ask.
E. T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
One of the criticisms occasionally levelled at Spielberg is that he’s too willing to wallow in schmaltz and sentimentality. When someone refers to a movie as “Spielbergian”, they’re often evoking a particular kind of saccharine emotion – a feeling that is most intimately connected to E. T. The tale of a big-eyed critter from outer space bonding with a 10-year-old boy is the film that launched a thousand tearful family evenings.
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The joy is that Spielberg is always capable of grounding his schmaltz in a world that feels real and believable, even when extra-terrestrial botanists with glowing fingers enter the equation. Henry Thomas is fantastic as Elliott, through whose eyes we see the initial fear and eventual love with which he greets his alien visitor. Their farewell is about as emotional as cinema can be. It’s manipulative, of course, but if Roger Ebert’s famous quote about the movies being a machine to generate empathy has any truth, it’s manifested most clearly in E. T.
JURASSIC PARK (1993)
With Jaws, Spielberg arguably delivered the first-ever bona fide big-screen blockbuster. Just shy of two decades later, Jurassic Park moved the idea of the big summer movie forward once again. Pushing the worlds of both animatronics and CGI to their 90s limits, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp helped Michael Crichton turn his novel about a dinosaur-based amusement park into one of the most memorable movies of the decade.
The set pieces come thick and fast, with the T-Rex chase and velociraptors in the kitchen scenes rightly embedded indelibly into cinema history. But the human characters are also exceedingly well-written, with Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and the late Richard Attenborough all delivering among their best work as the terrified people in the midst of the marauding, prehistoric reptiles.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
In 1993, Spielberg released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List – a one-two punch of incredible movies which could not be more different. In this monochrome drama about the horrors of the Holocaust, Liam Neeson plays the real-life figure, Oskar Schindler. He was a factory owner and member of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people by taking them from concentration camps and employing them in his factories at considerable personal risk to himself.
The film is harrowing and beautifully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński in black and white, other than the famous “girl in red” who appears on a handful of powerful occasions during the story. Unsurprisingly, 12 Oscar nominations greeted the movie, and it won for Best Picture and Best Director – Spielberg’s first wins – as well as for its screenplay and score.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Five years after winning his first Best Director gong for Schindler’s List, Spielberg repeated the feat with another chronicle of World War 2. Tom Hanks plays the US Army Captain at the head of a unit sent off on a special mission to track down the single surviving member of a family of four brothers after the other three are killed in action.
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The film opens with a brutal, bravura sequence depicting the American troops arriving at Omaha Beach and meeting a brutal fightback from the German military. For the subsequent two hours, character-based drama mingles with explosions of shocking violence. In the years since it has been released, the movie has received plaudits from real-life veterans for its portrayal of the brutality and tragedy of war. Despite all of this, it lost out on the Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love. Justice isn’t the Academy’s strong suit.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
After some of his heaviest and most serious work in the 1990s, Spielberg delivered a handful of terrific, crowd-pleasing blockbusters in the early part of the noughties. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks lead this one, which traces the probably-sort-of-maybe-true story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. DiCaprio relishes the chance to go big with his performance as Abagnale, who gets hold of a pilot’s uniform and uses the respect this earns him to cash a load of fraudulent cheques and make himself serious cash, ricocheting through numerous fake, prestigious careers in medicine and the law.
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While the truth of Abagnale’s story has been questioned, there’s no doubting the energy with which Spielberg and his cast approach the material. Hanks excels as the straight man to DiCaprio’s swaggering fraudster, and the movie goes in some unexpected and more nuanced directions in its final third. It’s a fast-paced joy.
MINORITY REPORT (2002)
Minority Report is a tech-noir in which Tom Cruise gets his eyes scooped out. What more can you want from a movie? Spielberg has a great time adapting Philip K. Dick’s short story into this thoughtful blockbuster about the notion of free will. Cruise plays a cop who catches perpetrators via the concept of “precrime”, in which a trio of people with precognitive powers are used to detect murders before they happen.
Everything begins to hit the fan when Cruise’s character is identified as committing a murder in a few days’ time, sending him on the run in order to work out whether he has been set up. Even at two and a half hours, the action keeps moving in the way that Spielberg’s popcorn-munching thrillers so often do and the result is an enthralling tale anchored by Cruise’s unquestionable star quality.
BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)
In recent years, Spielberg has balanced big, effects-driven blockbusters like Ready Player One with elegant, mature adult dramas. Bridge of Spies, in which Spielberg reunites with one of his favourite leading men in Hanks, is the pick of the latter category. Hanks plays a lawyer tasked with representing Mark Rylance’s KGB spy and then negotiating for his release in the midst of the Cold War.
It’s a beautiful script, co-written by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman, which allows Hanks and Rylance to flex their acting prowess opposite each other. There’s not much in the way of Spielberg’s trademark spectacle, but there aren’t many filmmakers who can get glossy, mature, prestige movies like this made at the highest level – so we should treasure old-fashioned gems when they arrive.