“Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about.”—Steven Spielberg
Considered to be one of the leaders of the New Hollywood era, American filmmaker Steven Spielberg is one of the biggest names in the film industry and his projects have often defined the sensibilities of popular culture.
Having risen to fame after his critical and commercial success of his 1975 film Jaws, an effort which was called the first ‘summer blockbuster’, His filmography has continued to grow impressively versatile and contains sci-fi epics like E.T. and Jurassic Park as well as serious works like Schindler’s List.
Spielberg was involved in making short films since he was a child. In 1958, he became a Boy Scout and fulfilled a requirement for the photography merit badge by shooting a nine-minute, 8mm film called The Last Gunfight. He later recalled, “My dad’s still-camera was broken, so I asked the scoutmaster if I could tell a story with my father’s movie camera. He said yes, and I got an idea to do a Western. I made it and got my merit badge. That was how it all started.” After half a century devoted to filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is the highest-grossing film director in history.
As a celebration of one of the biggest and most impactful talents of Hollywood, here’s a list of ten of Spielberg’s greatest works.
Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films:
10. Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977)
After Spielberg’s first major box-office success with Jaws in 1975, he followed it up with this sci-fi epic which features Richard Dreyfuss as a line worker who witnesses a UFO on an abandoned road and embarks on a journey to establish contact with alien intelligence. It is a beautifully engaging story which insists that life can never be ordinary when we are surrounded by the magical mysteries of the cosmos. It won the Academy Award for ‘Best Cinematography’ in 1978.
Spielberg revealed that his father took him to view a meteor shower through the telescope in New Jersey, and the experience later inspired his work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, “We got out there, and we lay down on his Army knapsack, and we looked up at the sky, and every 30 seconds or so there was a brilliant flash of light that streaked across the sky.”
He added, “I just remember looking at the sky, because of the influence of my father, and saying, ‘If I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace’.”
9. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Set during a period of global disruption, Empire of the Sun depicts Japan’s invasion of China during the second world war through the story of Jamie Graham (played by Christian Bale), a young schoolboy who ends up being separated from his family because of the war. This film is primarily about his struggle to survive in a world that is defined by violence and suffering. Spielberg’s 1987 effort was nominated for six Academy Awards and ‘Best Motion Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.
Speaking about the film, Spielberg said, “I really had come to terms with what I’ve been tenaciously clinging to, which was a celebration of a kind of naiveté… But I just reached a saturation point, and I thought Empire was a great way of performing an exorcism on that period.
“I had never read anything with an adult setting… where a child saw things through a man’s eyes as opposed to a man discovering things through the child in him.”
8. Lincoln (2012)
Focusing on the final few months of Lincoln’s life, the 2012 film recounts the story of the president’s battle to pass the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery as the bloody Civil War draws to a close. Spielberg moves away from his trademark visual flair and lets the poignancy of the story shine. Daniel Day-Lewis’ powerful performance as the iconic American president is one for the ages.
“This was going to be a story of his last 3 years but the script was 550 pages long. For me, the most compelling part of that screenplay was a 65-page section which was the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery,” Spielberg recalled. “And out of 550 pages, that 65-page section is where I stood up and said that’s it, that’s our story, that’s our film.”
Adding, “Tony (Kushner) and I found that the more real estate of Lincoln’s life we covered, the more it diminished him as someone who understood politics, personalities and political theatre.”
7. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The premise of Spielberg’s famous 1982 film is simple enough: an adorable alien somehow gets stranded on our planet. It takes help from children to escape the authoritarian intentions of the government and to make it back safely to its home planet. Spielberg has masterfully crafted a sci-fi fairy tale that is full of warmth and empathy.
“E.T. was a gift that came from the heavens from me. I was in Tunisia, making Raiders of the Lost Ark and we were setting up a shot. I was picking up fossils in the desert…I was remembering the end of Close Encounters…I thought, ‘What if the alien had stayed behind on Earth?’”
6. Jaws (1975)
Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, Jaws is one of Spielberg’s most famous and brilliant works. It features a terrifying white shark who acts as a constant reminder of our mortality. Police chief Martin Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper and ship captain Quint, team up to battle this threat but fighting nature is always a losing battle. Spielberg tapped into the vulnerable psychology of fear and the film’s impact was so great that many people avoided water bodies altogether!
“I was naive about the ocean, basically. I was pretty naive about mother nature and the hubris of a filmmaker who thinks he can conquer the elements was foolhardy,” Spielberg reflected. “But I was too young to know I was being foolhardy when I demanded that we shoot the film in the Atlantic Ocean and not in a North Hollywood tank.
“But had I to do it all over again I would have gone back to the sea because it was the only way for the audience to feel that these three men were cast adrift with a great white shark hunting them.”
5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
In this 2002 crime drama, Spielberg presents the true story of the famous con-artist Frank Abagnale (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Thoroughly enjoyable, witty and tense, we remain on the edge of our seats as Frank pulls off the most outrageous scams with government agent Carl Hanratty (played by Tom Hanks) on his heels.
Spielberg explained why he was drawn to the film, saying, “I committed to directing Catch Me If You Can not because of the divorce component, but principally because Frank Abagnale did things that were the most astonishing scams I had ever heard.”
He also said, “And I’m a big fan of scams. I love The Flim-Flam Man. I loved Scarecrow with Gene Hackman. I loved Elmer Gantry – which I think is a bit of a scam movie. The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were kind of scams. You know, some of these villains, you have to sympathize with them.”
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
Arguably Spielberg’s most ambitious project to date, it is hard to even quantify the influence of Jurassic Park on popular culture. The director brought the dinosaurs back to life and that’s not just a phrase, Spielberg really managed to show the prehistoric creatures in a modern context, alive and terrifying. Based on the late Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, Jurassic Park is a compelling, heterotopic amusement park.
Spielberg was frustrated about having to film Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park simultaneously, “I didn’t anticipate what it would feel like after I returned from the (Schindler’s List) set to spend three hours over going over ILM effects shots on Jurassic Park and how angry I was and how I resented having to do that.
“I would sit there angry and bitter and giving notes on how a Tyrannosaurus Rex should run chasing a jeep, when all I could think of was what I had shot that day in Krakow.”
3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
One of the most moving war films in the mainstream consciousness of the last twenty years or so, Spielberg’s recreation of the events at Normandy with a hand-held camera are aesthetically spectacular, which is somewhat of a problematic comment when we realize the tragic events on display. The film won two Academy Awards in 1999, for ‘Best Cinematography’ as well as ‘Best Direction’.
The filmmaker said, “If we pulled this off in the right way — and it stood the test of time — this was going to stand in, in some small way, for what those kids experienced at 6:30 in the morning on June 6, 1944.”
He also noted, “We took every inch of that beach — as filmmakers, not as war veterans. It took us 25 days of shooting to capture 25 minutes of those landings.”
2. Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
The first installment to the legendary saga of archaeologist/professor/bad-ass intellectual cowboy Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford), Spielberg struck gold with Raiders. Indiana Jones battles snakes and Nazis and all kinds of other dangerous elements to get to the sacred Ark of the Covenant. Spielberg creates a fascinating concoction of biblical as well as modern allusions and Harrison Ford is effortlessly charming in this stellar role.
Spielberg made an interesting revelation about the film, saying, “The one thing in Raiders I was a little bit dubious about was what happens when they open the ark. What actually is going to come out of the ark?
“There were a lot of crazy things in the script that came out of the ark. I wasn’t sure how much we could actually get on the screen. We made a lot of it up when we were in postproduction.”
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
One of the essential films of the last thirty years and undoubtedly Spielberg’s greatest, Schindler’s List follows the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler who starts out employing Jews in his factory to improve profit margins but ends up being moved by the horrific conditions they were in. He decides to take matters into his own hand and tries to save as many Jews as he can. Intimately filmed and powerfully direct, Schindler’s List is the crowning jewel of Spielberg’s filmography. Out of 12 Academy Award nominations, it won in seven categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
“When Schindler’s List was first published in 1982, Sid Sheinberg of MCA bought it for me to direct,” Spielberg said. “Although I had heard personal stories from the time I was a child, this was the most compelling, unique story. Here was this complex man who was not a survivor but a businessman, a Catholic, a member of the Nazi party who, for reasons we will never know for certain, saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews.”
According to him, he made the film because he wanted to spread awareness about the tragedy: “My primary purpose in making Schindler’s List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all.”