by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
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