Total Recall

Rank Steven Spielberg's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the celebrated director.

by | August 30, 2017 | Comments

Steven Spielberg has two big movies opening in the early months of 2018 — the based-on-true-events drama The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and the nostalgic sci-fi adventure Ready Player One, based on the popular book of the same name. To celebrate, we’re looking back too on this acclaimed director’s lifetime behind the lens, ranking his brightest critical highlights by Tomatometer while inviting you to put together a lineup of your own personal favorites. It’s time for Total Recall!

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 99%

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

No surprises here, right? A modern classic that added another jewel to Spielberg’s crown, earned nine Oscar nominations, and created millions of Reese’s Pieces fans, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial imagined what might happen if an alien life form came to Earth — and had more to fear from us than we did from it. Using a group of kids (including Drew Barrymore in an early star-making turn) as his leads, Spielberg framed a fairly oft-told story in a new way, giving audiences a child’s-eye view that reinforced his movie’s sense of innocent wonder without sacrificing the elements of confusion, danger, and suburban post-war anxiety that made it so much more than a simple family-friendly alien adventure. A massive commercial hit that reaped nearly universal critical acclaim on its way to four Oscars (against nine nominations), it remains a touchstone for cineastes of several generations. “We have yet to recover from his revelation,” wrote Anthony Lane for the New Yorker “that there is nothing more real than sitting in your own back yard — waiting for the unreal to come down, take a handful of candy, and fly you to the moon.”

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2. Jaws (1975) 97%


(Photo by Universal Pictures)

Just a year after underperforming at the box office with The Sugarland Express, Spielberg returned to theaters with the movie that made him — after it nearly broke him. After reluctantly taking the reins on the big-screen adaptation of the Peter Benchley bestseller about a New England town terrorized by a great white shark, Spielberg found himself beset by all manner of production problems, struggling to hit studio deadlines and budget benchmarks. The entire project was nearly shut down, but he ultimately delivered, and the result was a paradigm-shifting blockbuster that reaped incredible box-office dividends in addition to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Elevating Spielberg from the young Hollywood elite to the industry’s upper echelon of filmmakers, Jaws launched his career in earnest almost overnight — and looking back, it’s fairly incredible he was able to emerge from its shadow as quickly and consistently as he did. “I don’t think there’s a more exciting talent at work right now than Spielberg, an authentic moviemaking prodigy,” proclaimed the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold. “Perhaps his worst problem from June 20, 1975, on will be preventing success from making a nervous or artistic wreck of him.”

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3. Catch Me if You Can (2002) 96%

(Photo by Dreamworks courtesy Everett Collection)

Spielberg lined up Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio to help him dramatize the story of real-life legendary con man Frank Abagnale, who led the FBI on a wild goose chase during the ’60s while posing as everything from an airline pilot to a doctor, and stealing millions of dollars along the way. Though it was often criticized for its 141-minute running time, Catch Me if You Can had a lot going for it right off the bat, including a fascinating, stranger-than-fiction storyline, directorial work from Steven Spielberg at his breeziest, and DiCaprio (as Abagnale) pitting his naturally rakish charm against Hanks’ driven yet empathetic FBI agent. Yeah, it’s just a caper movie — and a curiously slight one, given its length — but it’s also, in the words of the Denver Rocky Mountain News’ Robert Denerstein, “Precisely what a mainstream movie should be: fleet, savvy and, like a good con, executed as if it were the easiest thing in the world.”

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4. Schindler's List (1993) 98%

Schindler's List

(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

Steven Spielberg circled Schindler’s List for years, concerned he didn’t have the skills or maturity necessary to dramatize the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi Party member who used his position as a German industrialist to save nearly 1,200 Jews during World War II. After trying to give the project away more than once (Spielberg’s candidates for his own replacement included Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese), he finally started filming in early 1993 — and the result is one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the ’90s, and the crowning achievement of Spielberg’s career. Neeson, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, anchors the film as Schindler, lending depth and nuance to the portrayal of a man who started the war as a profiteer and ended it wracked with guilt over the lives he’d failed to spare, despite risking his life — and losing his fortune — to prevent the deaths of so many. It may have taken Spielberg time to feel he was up to the challenge of Schindler’s List, but in the end, he had nothing to worry about; as Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.”

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5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 94%

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

By the late ‘70s, Hollywood had cranked out enough alien invasion movies filmgoers had started taking it for granted that flying saucers in the sky meant we were all in a lot of trouble. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind took this notion, turned it on its head, and gave us one of our most enduring all-time sci-fi classics. In Spielberg’s vision, our extraterrestrial guests meant us no harm; they were merely curious, and their presence, rather than being a harbinger of doom, signaled our collective evolution and hinted at our limitless possibilities. (And okay, they had to land here to return all the people they’d abducted over the years, but what’s a few kidnappings between friends?) It all might seem a little quaint and soft-hearted now, but during the Cold War, there was something revolutionary about an alien movie that ended with a smile — and it remains, in the words of Roger Ebert, “One of the great moviegoing experiences.”

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6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 96%

Raiders of the Lost Ark

(Photo by Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

The idea of Spielberg and his pal George Lucas teaming up after Star Wars and Close Encounters was enough to make a young film fan go wild with anticipation — and the result, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, did not disappoint. The first in a series of serial-inspired adventures starring Harrison Ford as swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, Raiders further established Lucas and Spielberg as two of Hollywood’s most bankable filmmakers, cemented Ford as a leading man, and made stubble and a decrepit leather jacket synonymous with high adventure, all while lining Paramount’s coffers with more than $380 million in ticket receipts. A delirious mashup of everything from classic Saturday serials to Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics, Raiders took audiences on a thrill ride so breathtaking that not even the New York Times’ Vincent Canby could keep from cheering that it was “one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made.”

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7. Jurassic Park (1993) 92%

Jurassic Park

(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

Heralding the full-on arrival of Hollywood’s CG era with a throwback to good old-fashioned creature features, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park offered sublime spectacle without forgetting the cardinal rule of filmmaking: You have to tell a story audiences are going to care about. To that end, Park assembled a cast of savvy character actors (including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough) to lend heart and believability to a sci-fi-infused tale about a goofy millionaire (Attenborough) who bankrolls a vacation destination filled with real live dinosaurs. Having said that, it would be disingenuous to suggest that David Koepp and Michael Crichton’s script spent much time on human characterizations; it was far too busy zipping around from one dino-peril to the next. But that was just fine with audiences, who made Jurassic Park the year’s top-grossing film by a wide margin — and with most critics, including Movieline’s Stephen Farber, who admitted “True, the dialogue and performances are feeble, but the thing is basically no more — and no less — than a nifty monster movie that delivers crackerjack thrills.”

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8. Saving Private Ryan (1998) 94%

Saving Private Ryan

American directors have been making movies about World War II since 1940, and even as early as the ‘80s, it was a genre associated by many with Norman Rockwell revisionism and John Wayne machismo. By 1998, for a movie about the war to add anything new to the dialogue, it would have to be something truly special – but with Spielberg behind the cameras and a cast led by Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan was off to a pretty good start even before the first roll of film had been shot. The end result, of course, was one of the best-reviewed films (and biggest hits) of the year – a $481 million hit that arrived perfectly timed to coincide with a new wave of interest in what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” Lauded for its sometimes shocking realism, Ryan was eventually nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and helped prompt Hanks’ involvement (along with Spielberg and many others) in HBO’s 10-part World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers — an important film, in other words, and one that, despite a few dissenting opinions (Andrew Sarris called it “tediously manipulative”), earned a healthy 92 percent Tomatometer thanks to plenty of high praise from critics like Richard Schickel of Time, who applauded it as “a war film that, entirely aware of its genre’s conventions, transcends them as it transcends the simplistic moralities that inform its predecessors, to take the high, morally haunting ground.”

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9. Bridge of Spies (2015) 91%

Bridge of Spies

(Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Spielberg’s classics evoke ’80s nostalgia and Tom Hanks embodies simple decency better than arguably any other leading man working today, which made them a natural duo for 2015’s Bridge of Spies — a Cold War drama about an American lawyer burdened with the thankless fallout from a spy plane pilot’s Russian capture. They haven’t really made ’em like this since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but by deliberately connecting Bridge‘s bygone setting to the modern sociopolitical climate, Spielberg proved he was out to make more than your average period piece. Nominated for six Oscars (one of which was taken home by Best Supporting Actor Mark Rylance), the end result was a box office hit that harkened back to the past while remaining uncomfortably relevant. “Bridge of Spies is a heart-on-its-sleeve affirmation of American values,” observed BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore. “Not in the loaded contemporary sense of the term, but in the way the country was founded on values we have to work and fight to abide by.”

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10. The Sugarland Express (1974) 86%

The Sugarland Express

Spielberg was still a young college dropout with a few years of TV work under his belt when he cut his feature-film teeth on The Sugarland Express, a 1974 crime drama about a husband and wife (Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) bound and determined to prevent their young son from being put in a foster home — even if it means they have to hold a cop hostage and lead police on a chase across Texas in order to do it. Inspired by real-life events and topped off by a typically charming performance from Hawn, Express demonstrated Spielberg’s youthful command of his medium, particularly with its action sequences; although audiences largely ignored it at the time, it’s come to be recognized as an entertaining early entry in a filmography chock-full of them. “The Sugarland Express is not terribly original — Bonnie and ClydeBadlands and The Getaway are indelibly marked in its DNA,” wrote Christopher Lloyd for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “But it shows an already dazzling young filmmaker honing his skills and vision.”

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