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. After half a century devoted to filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is the highest-grossing film director in history.
In an interview, Spielberg said, “I never had a big thought about what I could do with movies in those days. I was infatuated with the control that movies gave me in creating a sequence of events or a feeling, stuff like a train wreck with two Lionel trains that I could then repeat and see over and over again.”
He added: “I think it was just a realisation that I could change the way I perceived life through another medium to make it come out better for me. I was making these little 8mm rinky-dink movies, and I knew that made me feel really good about my life, and possibly I could bring some other people into this amazing medium, to enjoy what I was putting together.”
On his 74th birthday, we take a look at Steven Spielberg’s extensive filmography as a celebration of one of the biggest and most impactful talents of Hollywood.
Steven Spielberg’s feature films ranked from worst to best
32. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
A messy and chaotic sequel to the 1993 classic, The Lost World made over $618 million worldwide and even earned an Oscar bid for Special Effects, but it failed to impress audiences who were expecting a spectacle like the original film. The film is mostly remembered now for its failure to continue the legacy of Jurassic Park.
“My sequels aren’t as good as my originals because I go onto every sequel I’ve made and I’m too confident,” Spielberg said. “This movie made a ka-zillion dollars, which justifies the sequel, so I come in like it’s going to be a slam dunk and I wind up making an inferior movie to the one before. I’m talking about The Lost World and Jurassic Park.”
This war comedy film is loosely based on the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 and depicts large scale paranoia. After the tragedy of Pearl Harbour, citizens of Los Angeles fear that the Japanese will invade their city too as tensions keep rising.
Spielberg reflected, “I really didn’t know what I was doing on this movie. I think one of the reasons it came out so chaotic is I really didn’t have a vision for 1941. If [Robert] Zemeckis was the director, I’m convinced he would have done a much better job because that was really the kind of film the author should have stepped forward and directed.”
30. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Featuring an old Indiana Jones and his young son (played by Shia LaBeouf), fans all around the world were let down by the 2008 continuation of the franchise. It was so bad that South Park spent an entire episode whining about the film, showing the children in a traumatic state after they witnessed Lucas and Spielberg “raping Indiana Jones”.
“I’m very happy with the movie. I always have been,” the director admitted. “I sympathise with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George [Lucas] and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings. But I am loyal to my best friend.”
“When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I’ll add my own touches, I’ll bring my own cast in, I’ll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that.”
29. Ready Player One (2018)
Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, Spielberg’s latest film is set in 2045 and attempts to analyse the conflict between virtual reality and real life. It is an allegorical tale about video games and uses extensive special effects to visualise this futuristic dystopia, making Spielberg claim that this was the most challenging film he has done since Saving Private Ryan.
Spielberg explained, “I think anybody who read the book, who was connected, at all, with the movie industry, would have loved to have made this into a movie. The book had seven movies in it, maybe twelve. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to tell the story about this competition, in both of these worlds, and to make it an express train, racing toward the third act and, at the same time, make it a cautionary tale about leaving us the choice of where we want to exist.
“Do we want to exist in reality, or do we want to exist in an escapist universe? Those themes were so profound for me. That theme is consistent throughout the whole book, but there are so many places we could have taken the book.”
28. Hook (1991)
Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy film stars Robin Williams as an old Peter Pan who does not know what it means to be a child anymore. When his old nemesis Captain Hook kidnaps his children, he is thrust into the magical world of his past again and discovers his old self.
On the promotional tour for Lincoln, Spielberg confessed in an interview with Mark Kermode & Mayo radio show, “I want to see Hook again, I still don’t like that movie. I’m hoping some day I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.”
27. The BFG (2016)
Based on Roald Dahl’s classic novel, The BFG attempts to deconstruct the monstrosity of giants by showing that some giants are good too. It revolves around the friendship between a 10-year old orphaned girl and “The Big Friendly Giant” who work together to stop the giants who love eating humans.
“What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl, not a boy, and it’s a very strong girl,” the filmmaker revealed. “And the protagonist was going to allow us, at a certain point, to believe that four feet tall can completely outrank 25-feet of giant.
“I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story, and that her courage and values was going to, in a way, turn the cowardly lion into the brave hero, at the end, which is what she turns The BFG into. I saw all kinds of The Wizard of Oz comparisons, when I was first reading the book.”
26. Amistad (1997)
Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama recounts the real events of 1839 when an uprising conducted by captured tribesmen took place aboard the ship La Amistad. The film tries to explore the exploitation of one culture by another, and some sequences depicting life in a slave ship are truly unsettling, but it somehow falls short, never managing to punctuate its artistic statements.
Morgan Freeman said, “I knew the story of the Amistad, but nobody had ever actually sat down and done a movie about this incident and I was just, again – number one I can’t believe the luck, having the sheer luck at having someone consider me for this wonderful idea. I really need to knock wood, because part of my career, a large part of my career has been enormous amounts of great good luck.”
25. The Colour Purple (1985)
Based on Alicia Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Spielberg’s 1985 period drama marked a deviation from the kind of blockbusters he was usually associated with. The film follows a young Black girl called Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg) and uses her story to comment on the widespread racism and prejudice which Black women were subjected to during that period.
“The way I played Celie,” Whoopi Goldberg said, “Was to stand back from her. There’s a theory that an actor should identify with the character. Well, I loved her, but I didn’t identify with her. Celie is so far away from me, it was easy to allow her pain to be there, because her life has so little to do with mine.”
24. The Terminal (2004)
A moving and hilarious story about national identity and transition, The Terminal stars Tom Hanks as an Eastern European man who gets stuck in an airport terminal when his country experiences a military coup. Although the film has its flaws, it manages to make the audience forget about them by playing with the familiar tropes of love and humour.
Spielberg said, “I read the script and it made me forget the five screenplays I’d read before it. I thought it was an amazing idea and I had an immediate affinity for Viktor’s story. I believe all of us have felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives – this displaced person in search of a life.”
He added, “And I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, at some point, spent longer sitting in an airport chair than on the airplane ride itself. Airports have become small microcosms of society: they’re places to eat, shop and meet people.”
23. The Sugarland Express (1974)
One of Spielberg’s early gems, this 1974 crime drama is partially based on a real-life incident and tells the story of a married couple trying to get out of the clutches of the law. The Sugarland Express was featured at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the award for Best Screenplay.
Spielberg explained, “I wrote the story based on this newspaper article I read about an actual couple that was going to get their baby back from child welfare and this led to a crazy, hullabaloo of a chase throughout Texas. It did not escape me that Billy Wilder had made one of my favourite movies of all time, which was Ace in the Hole, and that really affected me and the whole carnival atmosphere of an ongoing tragic situation and the capitalisation and sensationalising and exploitation of that.”
22. AI. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Stanley Kubrick had initially started the development of this project, but he was too ahead of the technology available at the time, claiming that the CGI was not advanced enough to translate his ideas to the cinematic medium. He eventually handed the film to Spielberg who managed to make the idea into a cult-classic.
The film tries to ask questions about post-humanism and the human identity by depicting the story of an android who has been programmed with the ability to love. A.I. garnered multiple Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and became a commercial success, grossing around $235 million.
While speaking about Spielberg’s film, artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Ken Stanley said, “A.I. is almost always terrifying. If you compare Spielberg’s A.I. to different movies out there like Terminator, it is actually one of the better stories for A.I. In the movie, it outlived people, and perhaps replaced people and made us obsolete.”
Adding: “It also seems like it got out of hand. Those are really common themes in science fiction. A.I. researchers are so far away from those science fiction themes. So, that means that to some extent the public is exposed to a lot of stuff that can be perhaps troublesome but is not an immediate concern.”
21. Always (1989)
A remake of the classic 1943 romantic film A Guy Named Joe, Always tells the same story but changes the wartime setting to a commentary on the environment: featuring aerial firefighting. Very sentimental in nature, Always undercuts its own realism with supernatural elements.
Although the film fails to find a balance between the natural aspects of its drama and the supernatural nature of its conceptualisation, Always has been cited by critics as an influential work with respect to the subgenre of romantic “ghost” dramas like Ghost in 1990
20. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
A cinematic adaptation of the famous comic book series, Spielberg’s 2011 animated action-adventure film is a beautifully rendered treasure hunt which features most of the iconic characters of the franchise in their new CGI avatars. It was the first motion-captured animated film to win the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, earning an Academy Award nomination as well.
“I think five-minutes into watching this movie people will soon see that the medium is not the message, that the characters and the story and the plot are,” Spielberg said. “Every movie you’re going to forget that it’s 3D whether it’s widescreen or whatever it is, you’re going to forget everything if the movie is working.
“If the movie doesn’t work or if the movie generically doesn’t work then immediately you start to pick apart whatever has contributed to that. If any movie is working, hopefully how it was made will be the least of your concern, you’ll only want to have a good time.”
19. War of the Worlds (2005)
A modern interpretation of the famous H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds is an intense tale of neo-colonial space invasion which features a timeline where our planet is attacked by extraterrestrial war machines. Another commercial success by Spielberg, the film also earned three Academy Award nominations.
“The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I’ve never been able to get out of my head,” said Spielberg. “There are politics underneath some of the scares, and some of the adventure and some of the fear but I really wanted to make it suggestive enough so everybody could have their own opinion.”
18. The Post (2017)
Spielberg’s 2017 political thriller stars Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the first woman to be the publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks plays the role of the editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, in this 1971 story about journalists’ struggles to publish classified documents about the Vietnam War.
“Every single shot was discovered through the discovery of the actors’ performance,” Spielberg said. “When you get performances like this and a company of actors like that, the shots are coming at me fast—I’m having trouble keeping them in my head how I want to shoot the scene—but I came to work every day with an open mind without a shot list…The same way the actors never rehearsed, everything was done in the moment and very spontaneously.”
17. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies is set during the Cold War era and follows a lawyer (played by Tom Hanks) who is entrusted with the duty of ensuring a prisoner exchange deal with the Soviets. The film ended up earning 6 Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
While speaking about the film, Spielberg admitted, “I can’t live on an alien planet my entire career. I’ve got to find things that are earthbound that make me glad to be on this planet and experiences, when I’m making films, that have relevance and have kinship to actual events in history. That fills me up; that makes me actually happier in this stage of my life than even a success like Jurassic World.“
16. Minority Report (2002)
Loosely based on a short story by the famous sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick, Minority Report is a philosophical investigation of the surveillance state and its belief in pre-deterministic interventions. It depicts a society where the police identify criminals even before they have committed a crime, challenging the very notion of what it means to be a criminal and dismissing ideas of free will.
The filmmaker said of the genre, “Science fiction loves to warn. Remember, science fiction’s always been the kind of first level alert to think about things to come. It’s easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we’re preaching to them. Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, any one that’s worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true.”
15. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
A prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, this instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise is set in India and follows Jones’ adventures as he attempts to rescue local children from the clutches of a demonic cult which practices child slavery and human sacrifices. The film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Spielberg revealed, “When George Lucas came to me with the story, it was about black magic, voodoo, and a temple of doom. My job and my challenge was to balance the dark side of this Indiana Jones saga with as much comedy as I could afford.”
14. War Horse (2011)
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, Spielberg’s 2011 war drama was the first time he ventured away from the familiar subject of the second World War and focused on what came before it. Through the story of a teenager’s connection with a thoroughbred horse, Spielberg conducts an expansive survey of the conditions of that time.
“I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the first World War; I didn’t know much about it,” the director admitted. “I also don’t consider War Horse to be a war movie; it’s not one of my ‘war movies.’ This is much more of a real story of the connections that, sometimes, animals achieve and the way animals can actually connect people together. That’s what Joey does. Joey’s miracles are really in his great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he encounters and brings something new into their lives.”
13. Munich (2005)
Munich tells the story of the Israeli government’s revenge on the terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich. Although it was one of Spielberg’s lowest-grossing films, it earned multiple Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, but it was criticised for its deviation from real counter-terrorism.
Spielberg reflected, “I declined for several years because I didn’t like the scripts and because I considered it too complex a problem. I discussed this film with all kinds of people who mean a lot to me, in the hope that they would talk me out of it, even my parents and my rabbi. But no-one would do me that favour. So my scriptwriter Tony Kushner and myself took on the project as seriously and politically unbiased, and as uncompromisingly as possible.”
12. Duel (1971)
Spielberg’s feature-length directorial debut, Duel has cemented its status as an influential cult-classic over the years. It is a brilliant cinematic translation of the anxiety-inducing account of a business commuter who is chased and terrorised by a psychopathic truck driver after the overtakes the truck.
In an interview with Edgar Wright, Spielberg said, “It’s a primal road rage story. You’re watching a lightweight go up against a heavyweight champion. Like David and Goliath, at first you put your money on the giant and it turns out that David starts to turn the tables. I had also thought of it as a Biblical parable.
“I first read the short story by Richard Matheson in Playboy magazine given to me, thank god, by my brilliant secretary at the time, Nona Tyson, who had read the short story and said, ‘I think this is right up your alley’. She gave me Playboy. It was one of the few times I ever picked up Playboy without looking at the pictures.”
11. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Harrison Ford stars as the iconic Indiana Jones and teams up with his estranged father (played by Sean Connery) in the third instalment to the acclaimed series. Connery and Ford make a brilliant and humorous on-screen duo as they stop the Nazis from laying their hands on the Holy Grail. The narrative is especially touching because the father-son story was close to Spielberg’s heart.
Spielberg remembered, “Sean was in a great mood most of the movie because he was able to be funny. He was able to use his comedic skills, and Harrison was in a fantastic mood because he was able to be the foil for the father. It was the most fun we had between actors in all of these movies.”
Connery spoke highly of the director, “I got on famously with Steven, and speak with him often. There was no seduction talk, no movie-star stuff. And Harrison’s a pro, he’s terrific. We got a really good relationship going. Steven was marvellous for ideas. You only have to look at the sequence where I’m in the tank. It was originally scheduled for a day, two days maybe. I think it went to seven days in the end.”
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 three 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 Extraterrestrial (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 sympathise 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 realise 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 instalment 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.”