Following in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg is the second director to be the subject of a “Canon” column. So I bet he’s thrilled.
Oh and before you ask, no I did not include Duel or Poltergeist. Duel is a TV movie, Poltergeist has never been confirmed as really directed by Spielberg. My List, my rules, America! (And elsewhere in the world.)
Steven Spielberg Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly)
Jaws- It birthed the modern blockbuster movement. It was a master class in how to work around cheap or disappointing special effects (the shark was famously wildly fake looking) to build tension. It had a sense of scope without losing sight of the human and personal.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind- A movie that plays weirdly dark to me now, as a father—a sentiment echoed in some ways by Spielberg himself these days—it is nonetheless a great film. In fact, being a dad deepens my appreciation for how obsessed, how utterly out of control Richard Dreyfuss’s protagonist is in this. The fact that Spielberg also conjured a race of aliens that was neither cuddly (as he would later with E.T.) nor deadly (most other alien movies) is an impressive feat even now.
Raiders of the Lost Ark- The 40’s adventure serials reborn, better than ever. Han Solo might be Harrison Ford’s most charismatic role, but Dr. Jones has charisma to burn and layers to boot.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial- @SkipSerpico has a great rant about why this movie is actually terrible that I hope he someday commits to paper because it is that entertaining. However, he’s so damn wrong.
Yes, at its most basic it is a story of an alien with a hankering for Reese’s pieces (and moms, in an earlier cut) hanging out with some kids until his “people” return for him. However, it is also a portrait of suburban living after the 50’s bloom was off that rose, friendship (and how easily they can go toxic when you’re a kid), letting go, and, of course, a dose of post-70’s “the government is monstrous” paranoia.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade- Not as good as Raiders, but arguably more fun. Sean Connery is a delightful addition to the cast as the senior Jones and Spielberg’s ability to bring the action to edge of your seat life is even stronger than in the first film.
Jurassic Park- All these years later, has any film integrated CGI and practical effects with much confidence and so seamlessly? And then made the resulting world envelope the viewer so thoroughly, with such ease? And also still just be a really crackling monster movie full of great characters? I'm hard pressed to name one. So, yeah, Jurassic Park belongs here.
Schindler’s List- I shouldn’t have to justify this one’s inclusion, but I’ll give a couple of quick hits anyway. The use of limited color. Performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley, the cinematography. It is probably a “watch once and never again” for many (most?) but you still need to have that one watch.
Saving Private Ryan- Although I would argue the last 10 minutes or so miss the point of the rest of the movie so thoroughly, there’s no denying it deserves to be here. Spielberg goes so full out (and not just in the bravura D-Day Invasion set piece that opens the movie) that it is near impossible not to feel grounded in the film’s reality.
Minority Report- An exploration of free will v. fate, the overreach of law enforcement and marketing, grief, substance abuse, and obsession that just happens to be a pretty fleet footed and visually spectacular science fiction film.
Catch Me if You Can- Just delightful. Of all of Spielberg’s films, I might say this is the most pure fun. Which can distract you from how tragic it truly is, between DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale’s lack of place in the world and Christopher Walken as a fragile, always teetering on the edge of falling apart Frank Sr.
Lincoln- It is not flawless—the black Union soldiers’ bookends are everything the rest of the movie seems to be built to avoid and the burnished look is a bit much for me—but you don’t need to be flawless to be great. Daniel Day Lewis being excellent is old news, perhaps, but it is still true. What you may not know if you haven’t seen it yet is how terrific Tommy Lee Jones is. Or that the quality performances just keep unfurling from there.
Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration
The Color Purple- Spielberg’s first total strike at “serious films,” is not a perfect adaptation of the book and his instincts for solemnity and gravitas would improve over time. Nonetheless, it is a good film that let’s you watch a filmmaker evolving his craft and challenging himself.
Amistad- I probably would rank this above based on pure emotional connection—it’s set in Connecticut, I first saw it on a field trip with one of my favorite teachers of all time, it reinforces my Matthew McConaughey always turns in a good performance when he’s an attorney—, but I have to be professional about this. As such, I recognize that it is not a strong as some of Spielberg’s other historical epics—Schindler’s List, Lincoln—but better than others—Munich or War Horse, for instance. It has some pacing issues and can be a little didactic at points—although it is about slavery, so I’m inclined to forgive that—but overall it is an interesting and immersive film about a little known, until the movie of course, historical moment.
War of the Worlds- Actually just misses the above category by a nose (or an ending, if you will). Dark and dread saturated, this is Spielberg’s entry in the “Grappling with 9/11 via Sci-Fi/Action Movies” subgenre. It also features Tom Cruise is one of his arguably least likeable roles—a riff on the absent father that does not feel stale—Tim Robbins in a brief but mesmerizing bit part as a paranoid who suddenly has his worst fears exceeded, and yet another solid Dakota Fanning performance. I quite like the movie and am always a little surprised to hear most people express distaste for it.
Munich- If the film could stay as self-assured throughout as it is when it begins, it would definitely be in the above category. However, as the moral ambiguity mounts, Spielberg seems to lose some control of things and the movies goes a bit slack and shapeless. The ending sex scene gets dumped on all the time (that reads a lot dirtier than I expected) but it isn’t terrible, just a bit of juxtaposition you’d expect a director as adept as Spielberg to be able to give us that comparison with a bit more subtlety.
The Adventures of Tintin- I had zero expectations for this, but it was just delightful. It definitely does not belong above, but it speeds along with surprising deftness.
A Few to Avoid
1941- Stanley Kubrick thought it was funny. He was the only one.
Always- When people complain that Spielberg is overly sentiment, they are usually wrong, in my opinion. This one though…this supports their argument quite well.
Hook- A movie about growing up that could only be tolerated by children, the one group that would have no connection to the deeper themes involved. So that’s not great. Also, it is overlong and fairly dumb so just striking out all over the place, really.
Jurassic Park: The Lost World- There are worse sequels. There are worse movies. But this one was such a crushing let down. Bury it deep and never speak of it again.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence- The worst aspects of Spielberg and Kubrick’s storytelling, together! In one movie! Oh happy day!
In fairness, it has some pretty great moments, but has weird celebrity cameos that serve only to pull you out of the story and the ending (while not as terrible as others would have you believe) plays a bit like, “Well, I need to end this movie here so….let’s do this” with little more depth than that.