Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Director Essentials: Steven Spielberg

by Patrick Bromley
Of all the Director Essentials columns that I've done so far, this one was the hardest.

Arguably the most successful and commercial director of all time (as well as the most commercially successful), Steven Spielberg has more than 10 essential movies. There are no surprises in terms of what made this list, but I'm sure there will be unforgivable omissions to some of you -- "How could you leave off Minority Report? Where's Catch Me if You Can? What about Hook? Fuck Hook. The point is that Spielberg has a lot of great movies, plus several good ones and a few that are interesting. If someone was brand new to him as a director, these are the movies they should start with.

1. Jaws (1975) - Not Spielberg's first movie (he had already done Duel and The Sugarland Express), but his breakthrough movie and one of only a few "perfect" movies ever made. This movie and Star Wars are blamed for ruining movies, because they invented the Summer Blockbuster. The people that make that claim are overlooking the fact that Jaws (and, to a lesser extent, Star Wars) is a masterpiece and features none of the things that we've come to identify with "summer entertainment" other than that it is exciting and it came out during the summer.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - I have a theory that the only two kinds of Spielberg movies that work are the ones that he needs to make or the ones that no filmmaker alive could do better (this probably applies to a lot of directors, but seems particularly true when talking about Spielberg). Jaws was a movie that no one could have made better. Close Encounters is a movie that he needed to make, and it's interesting that he seems obsessed about making a movie that's largely about obsession. Too many different versions over the years have diluted the movie's impact (as well as a very '70s pace, which is unlikely to help bring new audiences to the movie), but the way that Spielberg takes what would otherwise be another genre movie (or, in his hands, a summer blockbuster) and turns it into a thoughtful drama is a clear indication of the direction his career would eventually take.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - Spielberg has always had something of a "one for them, one for me" approach to directing (though his "one for them" movies are often more effective). Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rare effort that manages to be both, which might explain why in an insanely impressive filmography, it's one of the best. The sequels would prove to be a case of diminishing returns culminating in one of his very worst movies (both of his worst movies are sequels), but the original is the template for how to do non-stop action and adventure without sacrificing intelligence or character. Few directors have as many masterpieces as Spielberg.

4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) - If I had to pick only one movie to represent Steven Spielberg, it would be this one. In fact, if I had to pick only one movie to represent all of the 1980s, it would be this one -- this is the movie that basically invented the Amblin brand, which both directly and indirectly impacted a ton of movies in the decade. Though it doesn't really showcase Spielberg's ability at creating the very best action set pieces around, it contains just about everything that makes him so special as a filmmaker: it's gorgeous and heartfelt and funny and special and demonstrates the director's incredibly ability to see the world with a child's sense of wonder, beauty and optimism. Of every great movie Spielberg has made, this is my favorite.

5. The Color Purple (1985) - There's very little about Alice Walker's book about the coming of age of a poor young black woman in the 1930s to suggest that Steven Spielberg was the right guy to direct the film adaptation. And there are plenty of people who have big (and legitimate) problems with his version, which ditches pretty much all of the book's sexuality (read: lesbians) and instead emphasizes the can-do spirit of a plucky Whoopi Goldberg. Divorced from the source material, though, The Color Purple is a pretty terrific movie -- the kind of story that Spielberg feels compelled to tell, with an attention to the humanity of its characters that's rare from a director known for populist blockbuster spectacle. Though it's got plenty of what can be wrong with Spielberg's movies (in particular the indulgence in sentimentality that isn't earned), it's really the first example of him having the clout to do whatever he wanted, shifting from genre stuff to period drama and convincing audiences to come along with him. The Color Purple doesn't exactly demonstrate that Spielberg can do anything, but it's a pretty good start.
6. Jurassic Park (1993) - And here's a movie that no one could have made better. It's easy to overlook just how good Jurassic Park is because by this point in his career Spielberg made it look completely effortless. And, yes, hiring the world's most commercial director to make a pre-determined blockbuster from a hugely successful populist novel might seem like a no-brainer, but there are so many ways in which a cynical choice like that (on paper, of course) could go wrong. Thankfully, Spielberg was clearly invigorated by the challenge of bringing realistic dinosaurs to the screen and built a thrilling and fun (and just the right amount of scary) adventure movie around it -- one of the very best blockbuster entertainments ever made (for those keeping score, Spielberg has three of Top 10...maybe even the Top 5). It's great because he's the best there is at this kind of the thing, but also because he gives a shit. If you want to see a version of this movie where the director doesn't give a shit, just watch The Lost World.

7. Schindler's List (1993) - Oh, right. Spielberg directed this Best Picture-winning, three-hour definitive Holocaust drama the same year he made Jurassic Park. Most filmmaker would kill to make two movies as successful (in their respective ways) as Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in their entire careers. Spielberg made them both in one year. One for them, one for me -- except some of his "one for me" movies also happen to win awards, make millions of dollars and are great.

8. Saving Private Ryan (1998) - WWII has defined so much of Spielberg's career, from the Nazis in Raiders to the Jewish experience of the Holocaust in Schindler's List to the story of a young POW in Japan in Empire of the Sun. It's amazing that it took him until the late '90s to look at the war from the side of the American soldiers, but it's of little surprise that his take redefined the American combat film. The opening sequence (or, rather, the one after the stupid bookend scene that actually opens the movie...oh, the bookend scenes...) on Omaha Beach is 27 minutes of the most incredible filmmaking ever put on screen. Unfortunately -- and I'm in the minority on this -- the rest of the movie goes a long way towards undermining that opening sequence. It's a very well-made movie with some big story problems and features some of Spielberg's worst tendencies as a director. The moments where we can sense him pushing himself as a filmmaker (like that opening) are transcendent and tee up a decade's worth of experimentation. There are too many other moments, though, where Spielberg is coasting.
9. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) - Here it gets tricky. The 2000s have proven to be the most interesting period in Spielberg's filmography, taking him to some very dark places and finding him bouncing around a bunch of different genres. He only made one outright bad movie in the decade (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull); the rest were all interesting to good to great. A.I. shows signs of being all of those things. It's a big mess, but it's a fascinating mess with flashes of brilliance that might have all worked if it had just ended 15 or 20 minutes sooner. What makes A.I. mandatory Spielberg is that, more than most, it's a movie he had to make; picking up from a treatment by Stanley Kubrick from where the director left off when he died in 1999, Spielberg fleshed out the rest and turned the finished product into a strange hybrid between the two filmmakers: the first act feels very Kubrickian, the second is Spielberg and the third is a mess. It was a demon that Spielberg needed to exorcise, paying tribute to one of his heroes (and contemporaries) and making a movie because he wanted to see it made. It's also one of the most experimental movies in Spielberg's filmography, lighting a fire under to him to explore darker material and new ideas for most of the 2000s.

10. Munich (2005) - After suffering at the hands of villains in his past films (both implied and explicit), the Jews are finally the ass-kicking "heroes" of Munich, only Spielberg has matured and grown weary and sad of violence. This is a great movie on several levels, working as both an insanely effective and suspenseful thriller, a historical document of the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics and a thoughtful meditation on the cycles of violence and revenge (the last shot, in particular, drives it home). It's amazing that the guy who made E.T. also has this movie in him, but Spielberg can do it all -- especially when his heart is in it.

More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis   
14. Brian De Palma


  1. Even though none of us at FTM put much stock in lists, this is a darn good one. I recently rewatched Jaws and E.T., and besides both being gorgeous on Blu-ray, I was amazed at how much I still loved them both. E.T, in particular, hit me in the emotional gut. I cried like a baby at several points in that movie. "I'" (sniff) Crap! I'm doing it again.

    1. I want to cry just READING that last line.

    2. The last time I watched it, I was so struck by the beauty of the scene where Peter Gallagher tries to explain to Elliot just how amazing this discovery is. He's so genuine. He's not being Mr. Scary Evil Scientist or trying to trick Elliot. He really is amazed by the discovery. It's such a great scene.

    3. My wife was traumatized by the movie when she was 4. Left the theater crying about the bad men hurting E.T. I only finally convinced her to watch it again a few weeks ago. Even I was surprised at how good-intentioned the scientists are. Everyone is trying to help E.T. They just don't know how. It would have been so easy to stick with the '80s mandate to demonize NASA. Spielberg captures what it is to look at the world of grown-ups through children's eyes.

    4. Patrick, you mean Peter Coyote as the government guy that talks to Elliott? I haven't seen the movie in decades (even though I own the DVD release with the two versions) but I distinctly remember Coyote being in the movie and not Gallagher. I'm pretty sure I would remember Gallagher's bushy eyebrows if I had seen them. ;-)

  2. Great job, Patrick. This is a hard list to make, but I think you nailed it. What's amazing to me is that for most directors, a movie like CATCH ME IF YOU CAN or WAR HORSE might appear on their Top 10 list, but with Spielberg there just isn't enough room.

  3. I know this isn't a "best of" list, but I'm curious to know what you think are some of Spielberg's worst films. You've already mentioned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Lost World -- any others that are objectively bad?

    1. I don't think he has many movies that are outright bad; the two already mentioned, and Hook, that it? He has other movies that don't totally work, but there are things to like in all of them -- even The Terminal and, if I'm feeling generous, the other two Indiana Jones movies. His segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie is rubbish, but that shouldn't really count.

  4. No War of the Worlds? Essential Spielberg and Essential T-Cruise. Tim Robbins is in the wrong movie, and the ending is a groaner. Other than that? Perfection.

    1. I refer you to the introduction of the piece.

      I'm a big fan of WotW, and I think some of what Spielberg does in the movie is among the best stuff he's done this decade, but the movie is VERY messy. You mentioned Tim Robbins, and it's missing a third act. I would consider it essential Spielberg mostly as the flipside of E.T. and to show how dark and angry he had by 2005, but I don't think it makes the list of 10 you have to see. For me, anyway; everyone's list is different.

  5. I'm afraid that I'm going to get a lot of flack for what I'm about to say, but here goes...Not only do I think "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a good movie and "War of the Worlds" is his worst film.

    Now before you start throwing your stones, let me explain. I'll definitely copped to its flaws(over-use of sub-par CG, Marion Ravenwood's whole arc, Louis Stevens and CG monkeys), but dammit it kept me entertained, something WotW didn't. Except for Cruise, the cast ranges from hammy(Tim Robbins) to annoying(Dakota Fanning). The only truly exciting scene is when the aliens first attack. I'm surprised WotW get a BIG pass, but people still complain about "Nuking the fridge" and gophers.

    Also, does anyone else hate it when (SPOILERS)Richard Dreyfuss kisses Melinda Dillion at the end of "Close Encounters". I know Teri Garr is presented as a shrew and his kids are annoying, but come on!

    Now excuse me while I go into protective custody.

    1. Spielberg has said that as he got older and had a family of his own that he has grown troubled by his depiction of Roy abandoning his family for his obsession. I think that's a fair assessment but that doesn't constitute a flaw in the film.

      Roy is likable because we know his obsession is grounded in truth and so Ronnie seems like a shrew for not believing in him. But I think the film actually gives her more credit than that. Initially she finds some romance in being carted off by Roy to try and see what he had seen. She gives him the benefit of the doubt and indulges his new interest by clipping out UFO articles for him. It's really only when he becomes disfunctional that she loses her patience and thinks he may be crazy. And it's perfectly reasonable for her to think so.

      Roy's kiss of Jillian always struck me as fairly platonic. At the end of the day, he is choosing aliens over his family not another woman.

    2. I think Close Encounters is Spielberg's most daring film, because it shows just how life changing a spiritual revelation can be - and not just for the better. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Roy has an epiphany when he encounters the aliens. The first thing he wants to do is share his experience with his family, but he can't. It's already too late, and because they have not had the same experience there is a wedge between Roy and his family that grows larger as the film goes on. Roy does not really want to leave his family, but there is also no way he can go back to his middle-class suburban existence. I strongly dislike the "special edition" of Close Encounters because it deletes a key scene: Roy tearing up his home to start building the tower. The original (and the later, final cut) makes it clear that his wife Ronnie leaves him when she can no longer take the madness. The special edition is edited to make it seem like Roy went off the deep end as a partial reaction to his wife leaving. I'm glad Spielberg decided to restore that scene, because it shows just how disruptive obsession can be. And Spielberg doesn't shy away from showing the consequences to the children; there's a heartbreaking shot of his younger son crying as he closes his bedroom door during one of his parents' major blowups. When I was a child the first part of Close Encounters was the slog you had to get through to get to the "good stuff" at the end. Now, I find the first and second acts the most fascinating parts of the film. The ending is still a stunner, but by then the drama is mostly resolved. Still and all, this movie is a remarkable achievement considering how young Spielberg was when he made it.

    3. I used to hold a similar view about Crystal Skulls but after watching out again I tend to agree with the detractors. Not to be a Spielberg apologist or anything but I get a much stronger Lucas feeling from it when thinking of Lucas' mentality since the Star Wars special editions. Unnecessary comedy inserted into nearly every scene and long dragged out action scenes more for the sake of the computer game than the movie.
      But I don't really mind the fridge or the aliens.

    4. Neither the fridge or the aliens are the problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even though the movie bungles the execution of both. I give the movie another look when it shows up on cable, always hoping it's not as bad as I remember. I haven't been able to find much to like still.

  6. Does the main problem in Crystal Skull rhyme with Rhia Rabeouf?

  7. I just got Duel in the mail today and just finished watching it now. First time in a couple of years. I think it's my favorite of his films.