Steven Spielberg has been one of the most celebrated and beloved directors in Hollywood for almost half a century now, and there’s a reason for that. He’s had his ups and downs, just like any director who’s been consistently pumping out movies in a wide spectrum of genres for a few decades. but his ability to tell a story through the medium of film has always been unparalleled, ever since he made a movie about a shark that became the first ever summer blockbuster. Spielberg has been named the greatest film director of all time by Empire magazine. Here are all of his movies, ranked from worst to best.
32. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The third Indiana Jones movie was supposed to be the last. It had the word “last” in the title and it wrapped up the trilogy perfectly and ended with Indy and his friends riding off into the sunset – you couldn’t have thought up a better ending for Indy’s story. But for some reason, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas decided to come back years later and give us a geriatric Indy fighting aliens and UFOs in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They killed the franchise and made us hate a character that we once loved. Hopefully Spielberg can redeem himself with the upcoming fifth movie.
This romantic drama is a modernized remake of the Spencer Tracy war movie A Guy Named Joe. Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss had been discussing a remake of this movie since the filming of Jaws, but it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that it actually got made. It starred Dreyfuss and John Goodman and Holly Hunter and Audrey Hepburn in the final role before her death. It was a great cast and Spielberg had a lot of passion for the material, so it should’ve been a fine movie. But remakes are tough, and so is comedy, and sadly, this is one of the director’s weaker movies.
With the talent involved in 1941, it should’ve been an epic comedy masterpiece in the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World model. It’s a satirical movie about the American response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was written by the guys who wrote Back to the Future in collaboration with the guy who wrote Apocalypse Now and it starred John Belushi from Animal House, Robert Stack from Airplane!, John Candy from Spaceballs, Slim Pickens from Blazing Saddles, and Dan Aykroyd from The Blues Brothers, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. It should’ve been hilarious! But it wasn’t. it is a great movie, but Spielberg just isn’t a comedy guy. If 1941 was directed by John Landis or Harold Ramis or Ivan Reitman, it would’ve been a comedy classic.
This movie gives us a lot of mixed signals about what it wants to be. Is it an action movie or a period drama or a courtroom movie or a dark comedy? Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni can’t seem to make up their minds! So, it becomes a very muddled movie, like a fidgety kid who can’t settle on just one toy that they want to play with. But sociopolitically, it is also infamous for its white savior narrative. This is a story where a character of color relies on a white character to save them from injustice – it’s the kind of story that white people tell to deal with their white guilt.
On paper, Hook should be a great movie. It stars Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan and Dustin Hoffman as his nemesis Captain Hook. Julia Roberts played Tinker Bell and Bob Hoskins played Mr. Smee. That’s a brilliant cast! And it should’ve been a fantastic movie. But sadly, it has a great beginning and a great ending, but like so many movies, it suffers from a weak second act. Spielberg himself doesn’t like Hook. In 2013, he said, “I wanna see Hook again, because I so don’t like that movie, and I’m hoping someday I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.”
27. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The premise of A.I. Artificial Intelligence as a kind of Pinocchio with a robot instead of a puppet is a fantastic jumping off point for a beautiful science fiction movie. If Stanley Kubrick had made it as a Stanley Kubrick film – cold, unsettling, shot with intense attention to detail – it would’ve been a great movie. If Steven Spielberg had made it as a Steven Spielberg film – sweet, sentimental, heartwarming – it would’ve been a great movie. Unfortunately, they made it like a relay. Kubrick started making it as a Kubrick film, and then when he died, Spielberg finished it as a Spielberg film. Their styles are polar opposites, like fire and ice, so tonally, this movie is all over the place!
26. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Steven Spielberg suffered from a real problem when he made this movie: how do you make a sequel that lives up to the expectations left by Jurassic Park? Well, as it turns out, you can’t. The suspense and the tension and being more scared of what you can’t see than what you can see was what made the movie such a rollicking good time at the movies. But the sequel just crammed a bunch of dino action onto the screen and expected the audience to respond. There was no substance. The Lost World: Jurassic Park is just a big monster movie. It’s actually a little like King Kong, but with a T-rex instead of a giant gorilla. When the plot takes a turn into San Diego, things start to heat up, but by then, the movie’s too far gone.
25. The Terminal
This story of a man from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia who is denied entry into the United States once he gets to John F. Kennedy Airport and then can’t return to his home country, thanks to a military coup, and then must live in the airport terminal, is certainly an interesting one. The premise is great, but the problem is that it doesn’t really know where to go from there. You’ve got Tom Hanks living in an airport – what happens next? The writers decided that he would fall in love, so then what could’ve been a very different, closed-off movie falls into the pitfalls of romantic comedy clichés. Luckily, Hanks’ lead performance does wonders for the movie, so it’s still worth watching.
24. War Horse
It is pretty difficult to sentimentalize a brutal global war, but if anyone could do it, it would surely be Steven Spielberg. This novel by Michael Morpurgo has been adapted for the stage with better success, but the film isn’t all bad. It’s shot well and designed well and the World War I setting as opposed to Spielberg’s typical World War II movies made for a refreshing visual change of pace. Still, the better Spielberg war movies are the ones that show the graphic realities of war in a raw and intense way, rather than the relationship between a boy and his horse.
23. The Post
Steven Spielberg is so dedicated to the art of filmmaking that even in his twilight years, he would rather make another movie than take a few months off and wait for the visual effects on his previous movie to be completed. While Ready Player One was in post-production, he decided to tell this timely story of the journalists who sought to fight the White House and publish the Pentagon Papers. It drew some interesting parallels between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, since they’ve both called the free press “the enemy of the American people.” The Post has been compared to the Watergate drama All the President’s Men, but it’s important to make a distinction. The Post only shows us what happened, but All the President’s Men shows us how and why it happened.
22. War of the Worlds
For most of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, it’s a breathtaking alien invasion story drawing on 9/11 imagery and War on Terror analogies to make itself relevant. It’s great, really, right up until the ending. It could’ve done without a happy ending. The movie was so bleak and miserable up to that point, and that was what had made it so great. We didn’t need these indestructible tripods to suddenly have a fatal weakness and we didn’t need a heartfelt family reunion. A sad, hopeless ending would’ve made this a more powerful movie. But that’s not Spielberg’s M.O., so it had an unnecessarily sentimental ending. Oh, and also, Tim Robbins’ character was totally unnecessary, too.
21. Empire of the Sun
So many World War II movies focus on the threat of the Nazis, but the Axis powers weren’t entirely made up of the Nazis. The other big bad in the Second World War was the Japanese armed forces, but there aren’t as many movies about them. Empire of the Sun is the story of a kid from a wealthy British family who ends up becoming a prisoner of war in Japan, which is a fascinating story. The kid is played by a young Christian Bale and we get early signifiers of the intensity that would later win him the dark, brooding roles of Patrick Bateman and Bruce Wayne. It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have the perfect ending. The boy looks out into the distance as he sees an atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. It’s a very powerful image that almost makes up for the shortcomings that came before it.
20. The BFG
Steven Spielberg’s live action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG was a disappointment at the box office, but it was a lovely movie. It was breathtaking and heartfelt. Mark Rylance, one of the best actors working right now, really tugs on the old heartstrings in his performance in the title role. Spielberg and Dahl’s shared sense of wonder and sentimentality about storytelling made them a perfect match for one another. In fact, it would be great to see Spielberg adapt some more of his books for the big screen – he’s a much better fit for Dahl adaptations than gloomy Tim Burton.
19. The Adventures of Tintin
Who better to adapt the classic comic books of Hergé than Steven Spielberg? The guy had given us globe-trotting adventures with the Indiana Jones movies and he transferred those storytelling skills to the modern art of motion capture animation with The Adventures of Tintin. The movie is anchored by strong set pieces that advance the plot, which is all thanks to the smooth, well structured screenplay by the terrific British writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. But Spielberg had the vision to pull it all together and bring this story to life and turn actors in green spandex covered in ping pong balls into a breathtaking spectacle. Fingers crossed for the long awaited sequel!
This story of the U.S. President who abolished slavery should have been more exciting than it was. The Civil War scenes are powerful and visceral, as are all war scenes shot by Steven Spielberg, and trust the brilliant filmmaker to make a scene in which various Congressmen say either “yes” or “no” really intense and engaging, but there’s a lot of boring stuff in between that could’ve done with punching up. It’s a really quiet, brooding movie, which isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case, it slows the movie down. Still Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in the lead role is some of his best work.
17. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
George Lucas learned the wrong lesson from the critical acclaim that The Empire Strikes Back was met with. What he learned was to go darker with the sequel. That’s what he did when it came time to make a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. He made it more violent and gloomy and scary and sadistic. It’s not all bad. It does have some memorable moments, like when Indy jumps an inflatable raft out of a crashing plane and the climactic battle on the rickety bridge, and Short Round is great. But it is one of the weaker Indiana Jones movies.
16. The Color Purple
There’s been a lot of criticism aimed at The Color Purple for the fact that it’s a story about the struggles of black people and it was directed by a white man, but as a movie, it is fantastic. It’s powerful and emotional and beautifully made. In a lot of cases, movie adaptations of novels that deviate from the source material’s narrative aren’t successful, but here, Spielberg makes it work very well. He translates the literary language into more visual language, which makes it a classic film. It also marked a maturity for Spielberg, as it was the first time he directed a quieter drama after becoming known for big summer blockbusters.
15. Ready Player One
It was probably a dream come true for author Ernest Cline when Steven Spielberg decided to adapt his literary ode to ‘80s pop culture for the big screen. The movie has a stereotypical view of gamers, but that’s a minor concern. It’s a spectacular, awe-inspiring adventure in which a group of plucky, young heroes take on an evil and triumph over it – and that’s what makes it classic Spielberg. An overreliance on CGI effects tends to ruin movies, but in this case, the visual effects are spectacular and immerse up deep into the video game world of the OASIS. Ready Player One is one of the best movies of the year so far.
14. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg has always been fascinated with the prospect of alien life on other planets. He gave a young boy an alien pet in E.T., he invaded Earth with Martian tripods in War of the Worlds – hell, he even put aliens in an Indiana Jones movie! But perhaps his most intriguing foray into alien movies is this meditation on the psychological effects of a UFO sighting and an extraterrestrial race that visits Earth, communicates with sounds, and comes in peace. The aliens don’t have lasers, they don’t want to invade our planet, and they’re hardly ever seen on screen – but Spielberg’s mastery of the power of cinema still makes this an iconic and beautiful movie.
13. The Sugarland Express
It’s a shame that Steven Spielberg never returned to the crime genre, because his theatrical feature debut is a counterculture road picture, a quintessential ‘70s movie. It’s about a woman who breaks her husband out of prison and kidnaps their son to reunite the family, but then things get complicated and they end up taking a cop hostage. The problem with a lot of counterculture movies of that era, like Easy Rider, was that they lacked a tight plot structure, which was kind of the point, but it did hinder the moviegoing experience. With The Sugarland Express, Spielberg collaborated with Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins on a fantastic screenplay with some great plot development.
To understand how awesome Munich is, Seth Rogen sums it up perfectly in a monologue in Knocked Up that Steven Spielberg actually contacted Judd Apatow to thank him for. He says, “You know what movie I just saw again the other day, which is fucking, like, mind-blowing, and I haven’t seen it since it came out? Munich. That movie was Eric Bana kicking fuckin’ ass! Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We cappin’ motherfuckers.” Jonah Hill chimes in to say, “Not only killing, but fuckin’, like, takin’ names.” And then Rogen declares, “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.” That pretty much sums it up.
Duel was the movie that earned Steven Spielberg the job doing Jaws. The producers figured that if he could make a movie about a guy being terrorized by a truck, he could make a movie about a town being terrorized by a shark. Sure, it was just a TV movie – or movie of the week, if you will – but with a future visionary early in his career at the helm, it’s one of the best TV movies ever made. It’s suspenseful and exciting and full of symbolism. This is partly due to the screenplay by Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson, but it was Spielberg who brought it all to life on the screen.
10. Minority Report
The stories of Philip K. Dick have been mined for countless movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau etc. And Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise collaborated to adapt Minority Report, which is possibly the best of the bunch. Minority Report, the story of a brilliant detective who works for a future police force that can predict crimes before they even happen who predicts himself murdering someone and goes on the run while he figures out why he will do it and if he can prevent it, is just as mind-bending and exciting and cinematic and incredible as it sounds.
9. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
Until Steven Spielberg graced the world with the beautiful and heartfelt E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, every movie that Hollywood had pumped out that featured an alien lifeform had painted them as the villains. They were always coming to destroy Earth or enslave humanity. But Spielberg wondered what it would be like if a friendly alien came down whose only goal was to help people. And what if the government fighting the aliens weren’t the good guys, but the bad guys? The director also worked through some of the abandonment issues that he’s felt since his childhood while he was at it. This is the story of a boy who doesn’t have a great life and has an imaginary friend to help him through it – except that imaginary friend is real.
8. Bridge of Spies
Spy thrillers about the Cold War made by Hollywood usually blindly portray the Russian communists as evil villains and the Americans as the capitalist heroes seeking to vindicate the oppressed, but really, it wasn’t as black and white as that. Bridge of Spies is the perfect antidote to those movie. It’s a movie that takes everyone as an individual who believes they are fighting for good. An American lawyer played by Tom Hanks is hired to represent a Soviet spy who is found in New York. His services are supposed to be more of a formality, but he actually starts doing the best that he can to free this man and what grows out of it is a beautiful friendship while the lawyer becomes the most hated man in America. It’s a very interesting meditation on the Cold War and an incredible true story.
7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Considering how Temple of Doom had screwed up the tone of Indiana Jones and the third movies in trilogies are never usually any good, it’s very surprising how Last Crusade managed to turn it around. It dug deeper into the character, introducing us to his dad and his younger self and we come out with a greater appreciation of him. Add to that a spectacular adventure in which Indy crashes a plane into a tunnel and drives a small boat between two larger boats at the last second and comes face to face with Adolf Hitler and you’ve got one heck of a movie. It has a strong emotional pull, too, as Indy realizes what’s truly important in life and reconnects with his father, played brilliantly by Sean Connery.
6. Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park has been followed by a bunch of sequels, then a reboot, then more sequels. One of them just came out this summer. But none of them have managed to match the original for sheer entertainment. It has the perfect balance of the moral, philosophical concerns with the dino action – a balance that the sequels have been trying and failing to recreate ever since. That scene in the kitchen with the velociraptors, the breathtaking visual effects of the dinosaurs, the T-rex attack in the rain – as far as movies in general go, Jurassic Park is about as fun and entertaining as they come.
5. Catch Me If You Can
The true story behind Steven Spielberg’s caper movie Catch Me If You Can is so incredible that any big screen version of it would be at least entertaining. But few directors would have the vision to pull it off in the way that Spielberg did. Spielberg directed Catch Me If You Can in the same manner that Martin Scorsese directed Goodfellas – it has a fast pace, a sly comic wit, a brilliantly engaging plot. He also got fantastic lead performances from his stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, who are perfectly matched as a pair of cat and mouse rivals.
4. Schindler’s List
It has been reported that Steven Spielberg’s father lost around twenty relatives during the Holocaust, so it is an issue that’s very close to his heart. And that’s why, when he decided to make his own movie about the atrocities committed by the Nazis, it ended up being the most powerful and honest and raw depiction ever made. Whenever you think of Holocaust movies, you think of Schindler’s List. Watching Schindler’s List is a pretty harrowing experience, but that’s the point. You’re not supposed to enjoy it – it’s the Holocaust! It’s long – like, really long – but it’s also a masterpiece. The production took an emotional toll on Spielberg on a very personal level, but it was important that he did it.
3. Saving Private Ryan
Almost every major director in Hollywood has had a crack at doing a World War II epic. Christopher Nolan did one last year, Quentin Tarantino did one about a decade ago, Clint Eastwood’s done one, Mel Gibson’s done one – hell, even Michael Bay has given it a go. But their biggest challenger for the title of the best will always be Steven Spielberg. He’s made a few movies about the Second World War, but the greatest is definitely the late ‘90s opus Saving Private Ryan. Visually, it’s so bleak and raw that it puts you right there on the battlefield. No one is spared, the deaths aren’t glorified in slow motion with dramatic music, and it’s mostly shot with handheld cameras to capture the grit. It doesn’t even feel like a movie – it feels like a documentary shot with better cameras than they had back them.
With Jaws, Steven Spielberg took what could’ve been a B-movie that he phoned in for the paycheck and ended up creating a Hollywood trend that still exists today. By using creative ways to get around the small budget and the lack of a shark, Spielberg channeled Hitchcock and directed a film that was tense, suspenseful, terrifying, and brilliant. An early sign of Spielberg’s cinematic prowess, Jaws went on to become the highest grossing movie of all time. It was also the first ever high concept blockbuster released by a major studio in the summer months – a strategy that has been copied by every movie producer every summer ever since.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first movie featuring Indiana Jones, is consistently ranked as one of the greatest action movies ever made, and there’s a good reason for that. It has character development and action set pieces that advance the narrative and plot twists and exotic locations and a love story and pretty much everything you could ever want from a movie. There are so many memorable scenes: the scene with the bulky guy and the plane propeller, the scene with the boat from Das Boot, the scene where Indy shoots the swordsman, the scene where the Nazis open the Ark. It’s a masterpiece. It’s Spielberg’s finest hour, even to this day.