It seems almost impossible to remember now, but there was a time when Steven Spielberg was cranking out one indelible blockbuster after another – from 1975’s Jaws to 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark to 1993’s Jurassic Park. And though his output in this new century has been almost exclusively limited to overlong disappointments like 2004’s The Terminal and 2005’s Munich, Spielberg remains one of the most prolific and successful directors in all of Hollywood history – with the following ten movies standing as his best:
1. 'Jurassic Park'
Given that he created the summer blockbuster in 1975 with Jaws, Steven Spielberg has often gone out of his way to top himself over the years – with 1993’s Jurassic Park unquestionably standing as the filmmaker’s crowning achievement. Jurassic Park was released just as computer-generated special effects were starting to come into their own, which ensured that the film’s lifelike portrayal of dinosaurs left audiences speechless. (The revolutionary effects work still holds up more than 15 years later.) But really, Jurassic Park remains Spielberg’s very best film because of its indelible characters, jaw-dropping action sequences, and note-perfect conclusion. (And this is to say nothing of John Williams’ justifiably legendary score.)
2. 'E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial'
Steven Spielberg has always been fascinated with the idea of alien beings arriving on our planet, as the filmmaker has devoted several movies to otherworldly creatures that are both violent (War of the Worlds) and peaceful (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in intent. There’s no UFO in Spielberg’s filmography that’s as memorable as the title being in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, however, with the bond that ensues between E.T. and Elliott (Henry Thomas) ranking as one of the best friendships in movie history. Even the silly changes in 2002’s “Special Edition” – the decision to replace the guns with walkie-talkies, for example – can’t diminish what is a stirring, emotionally powerful story about friendship and the importance of family.
3. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
There are few adventure films in all of movie history that are as exciting and timeless as Raiders of the Lost Ark. From Harrison Ford’s iconic turn as Indiana Jones to the eye-popping action sequences to the endlessly quotable dialogue (“Snakes? Why’d it have to be snakes!”), Raiders of the Lost Ark is that rare movie that’s almost flawless in its execution – with Spielberg’s superlative directorial choices certainly playing a significant role in its success. The filmmaker does an excellent job of balancing the disparate elements in Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, and it’s no wonder that the American Film Institute has named Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the best 100 movies ever made.
Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical release, Jaws completely changed the way Hollywood made and released big-budget summer movies. The movie is generally considered the first true blockbuster, with its massive success paving the way for three (inferior) sequels and firmly establishing Spielberg as one of the most promising new filmmakers around town. What makes Jaws’ success even more remarkable is the fact that Spielberg and his team suffered through one problem after another during the movie’s production, with the most notorious example of this the filmmakers’ ongoing difficulties in getting the animatronic shark to work properly. The film’s impact can still be felt today, as many people can trace their fear of the water back to Jaws.
5. 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'
After the relative disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg must have felt tremendous pressure to return the series to the fun, fast-paced territory of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a rollicking adventure that comes awfully close to matching its 1981 predecessor in terms of excitement and entertainment value, with the casting of Sean Connery as Indy’s cantankerous father nothing short of brilliant. (The irresistible back-and-forth banter between the two characters is alone enough to justify the movie’s existence.) Last Crusade looks even better when compared to the series’ other sequels, Temple of Doom and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
6. 'Schindler’s List'
Steven Spielberg’s desire to be seen as more than just a purveyor of profitable popcorn movies had resulted in dramas like 1987’s Empire of the Sun and 1989’s Always, but it wasn’t until 1993 that the filmmaker was able to craft a drama that was just as successful as his summer blockbusters. Schindler’s List immediately established itself as a harrowing true-life tale that left audiences all over the world speechless, with the movie’s rapturous critical reception all but assuring it a Best Picture win at the following year’s Academy Awards. The film is also notable in that it finally earned Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director, as the filmmaker managed to beat out accomplished figures like Robert Altman and James Ivory.
After spending several years directing such television shows as Columbo and Night Gallery, Steven Spielberg made his full-length debut with a 1971 made-for-TV movie entitled Duel. The film follows a travelling salesman (Dennis Weaver’s David Mann) as he’s relentlessly pursued by an unseen trucker on a long stretch of highway in the California desert, with Duel’s massive success on American television eventually leading the studio to release it to cinemas across Europe and Australia. Spielberg does a superb job of sustaining an atmosphere of taut suspense from beginning to end, and it’s certainly not difficult to draw comparisons between Duel and Spielberg’s breakout movie, 1975’s Jaws. (Just replace a truck with a shark.)
8. 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'
Close Encounters of the Third Kind marked Steven Spielberg’s initial foray into the fascinating and sometimes scary world of alien creatures, with the movie following Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary as he grows increasingly convinced that UFOs will soon be arriving at an isolated wilderness area. In the years since its release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind has become a bona fide classic of the science fiction genre – which is all-the-more impressive when you consider that the movie’s aliens are left mostly in shadow and silhouette.
9. 'Saving Private Ryan'
Saving Private Ryan marked a serious return to form for Steven Spielberg, as the filmmaker was smarting from the relative disappointment of his two 1997 releases (The Lost World and Amistad). The movie follows a unit of American soldiers – led by Tom Hanks’ John H. Miller – as they attempt to rescue the title character (Matt Damon) from deep within enemy territory, with the film’s gritty atmosphere immediately established by a harrowing opening sequence revolving around the violent battle at Omaha Beach. Saving Private Ryan was praised for its authenticity by actual veterans of the Second World War, and the film eventually went on to pick up several Oscars – including another Best Director award for Spielberg.
10. 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence'
Undoubtedly the most controversial film of Steven Spielberg’s career, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence had long been a pet project of Stanley Kubrick – with the reclusive filmmaker eventually handing the movie off to Spielberg just four years before his untimely death. Though it’s about a half hour too long, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is nevertheless one of the most daring and ambitious films ever tackled by Spielberg – as the director offers up a surprisingly dark futuristic tale that boasts a number of shocking, downright depressing sequences. Haley Joel Osment’s pitch-perfect performance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’s pleasures, and the movie remains Spielberg’s most underrated effort to date.