Inarguably, Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers currently alive and working. Still putting out films at a stunningly cracking pace, his impact on what we now consider a Hollywood blockbuster, or a historical epic, or a Holocaust drama, or any of the litany of genres he’s tried on for size, is frankly immeasurable. For better or worse, he might just be the man who has most shaped our current societal relationship with those giant flickering images in pitch-black voids – a pretty interesting guy, if you ask me.
So, about six months ago I decided to make a go of it and watch each and every one of his films – all thirty-one of them, in chronological order. It was a fascinating journey through forty-seven years of a single man’s life, and what I was able to glean from it was much more positive than I was initially expecting. Turns out, he’s a pretty talented dude. Go figure.
To celebrate the release of his thirty-second feature, ‘Ready Player One’ (now with its very own spot on this list), here is my completely definitive, inarguably correct, wholly overlong ranking of each and every one of his films from 1971 to 2018.
God love ya, Stevie.
Really the only completely irredeemable misfire on this list (which, I mean, look at that number - only one out of thirty is pretty dang impressive), this is a terrifically ugly, obnoxious, toxic film.
Set directly after the Pearl Harbour bombings and featuring a sprawling cast of Californians gripped in 'hilarious' WWII hysteria, Spielberg’s first attempt at broad comedy is too... everything. Too big, too vast, too in love with its own budget and ability to blow shit up. It may be a scarily intriguing failure, but it’s a failure nonetheless.
This is where we establish that this is a highly personal list, because for some reason this film has defenders, people for whom childhood nostalgia has Stockholm syndrome-d them into thinking that this in any way passes for a good film.
I am in no way affiliated with their cult.
Jokes aside, this was my first time seeing Spielberg’s take on the Peter Pan legend, set years later as an adult Pan must travel back to Neverland to save his kids and recapture his youthful spirit. I went in with an open mind, honestly hoping for a misunderstood gem, but to no avail. For me, this film is like a skin rash - every forced look of wonder, every “Bangarang!”, every truly hideous set design, every floundering cast member, every... oh look, you get the gist. Even with the moments of true Spielbergian craft that it of course has, it itches.
I wasn’t a fan of Spielberg’s Roald Dahl adaptation when it came out, having dozed my way through it all the way back in 2016, but rewatching it for the purpose of this list was, honestly, pretty brutal. It’s already aged rather poorly, from the incredibly awkward compositing of the CGI and real-world characters, to the keenly felt two-hour runtime. In bringing to life Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, it so desperately wants to be whimsical and "fun" that it ends up being essentially neither. And yet... there are moments - whole sequences, even - where it is charming, genuinely affecting in fact, as Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill form an authentic rapport amidst the tedium. And hey, it’s got farting corgis, so it can’t be all that bad... right?
I’m not quite sure what to say about this one, except that it just sort of... exists? In the moment it’s pleasurable, as Spielberg’s proficient craftsmanship would designate even the dumbest of blockbusters - which is lucky, because this is truly idiotic stuff. Maybe you’re more intelligent than I am and it will hit you in the moment, but it wasn’t until the credits rolled that I truly sat back and thought... da fuq? So spectacularly misguided from its very inception, not an ounce of its plot or character mechanics make any sort of sense. It scrapes by on Jeff Goldblum’s charm (though his Ian Malcolm in no way should be the lead of this or any film), a game Julianne Moore, a downright great Pete Postlethwaite, and a genuinely impressive set piece with that cracking glass, but otherwise? No bueno.
Look, it’s really not as bad as everyone says it is. Is it good? Well, let’s not go crazy. But is it the disaster its reputation would suggest? I’d say the fandom, ahem, "nuked the fridge" on that one.
Picking up almost two decades after the previous adventure for the good Dr Jones, this (mostly) unfairly maligned entry may have given us Shia LaBeouf’s greaser Mutt swinging through a jungle accompanied by monkeys (seriously, that sentence is wild), alongside ludicrously inconsistent character work for its entire supporting cast, particularly a completely wasted Karen Allen. But its shifting of the franchise’s focus to 50s sci-fi-pastiche is intriguing, and the family dynamics introduced have merit – as do the frankly righteously entertaining opening twenty minutes (including, yes, that fridge incident, which I will half-heartedly defend on any given day). Plus, any film that gifts to the world Cate Blanchett giving full camp, Russian-mommy, power-bob realness as a character named Irina Spalko... well, that’s just a-okay in my book.
Though it periodically strikes interestingly textured, hauntingly realised notes (the opening images, the horrific Tecora sequence), the inescapable fact of the matter is that this should not be a Steven Spielberg film. Coming as his dramatic follow-up to ‘Schindler’s List’, the expectations were high. And it’s not that it’s badly made; it hasn’t been poorly acted or filmed or put together... it just shouldn’t exist in this form.
In this story of Mende captives aboard a Spanish slave ship who bloodily revolt against their abductors, only to then be forced into a protracted legal battle on American soil over their very freedom, Spielberg too often divorces us from the Mende perspective. Instead, he heavily focuses on the legalese and political machinery involved in the case (something he would find the perfect avenue for in ‘Lincoln’) to the detriment of the heinously historically aggrieved parties. It leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, particularly when you consider that the white saviour in this slavery story isn’t just Anthony Hopkins’ strangely made-up, speechifying John Quincy Adams, it’s also the entire U.S. legal system.
Is this movie a collective fever dream that we’ve all silently agreed to buy into? Because my dude, it is odd. A Frank Capra-esque fairytale about a jazz-loving Tom Hanks (with a strange mish-mash of an Eastern European accent), trapped in JFK airport after his home country’s civil war results in a visa crisis; it’s one-part serious rumination on modern refugees for every seven-parts over-scored saccharine schmaltz-fest. And yet... it’s amiably enjoyable? Hanks is reliably solid, there are (somehow) real moments of pathos, and Spielberg is very clearly having a blast bringing a modern, Chaplin-esque take on Capra to unwitting audiences. However... that script. It’s a mess. I could ding the wildly uneven supporting performances, but everyone - from Stanley Tucci’s prevaricating villain, to Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana’s stalker and stalkee who fall in love, all the way to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Cameron Crowe-nightmare of a love interest - everyone is sold short by the wildly uneven script, even ol’ Spiel-y himself.
Either a celebration of geek culture or a terrifying nightmare vision of a society that’s stunted, soured, and nostalgia-fucked itself into oblivion, Spielberg’s thirty-second film aims for the former but can’t escape the fact that, well... we’re living in the latter. This feels like a film out of time not just in its textual obsession with the films and pop culture of the 1980s, but also in its complete subtextual ignorance of the toxic masculinity and cultural fascism at the heart of modern fanboy culture - hell, its head is so far in the sand on anything happening in the real world right now that it basically has a complete vacancy of thought all together.
I know it most definitely doesn’t sound like it, but I actually had a fun-to-okay time with this movie. Does Spielberg deliver inventive and enjoyable set pieces? Of course. Is it entertaining to see him play with the freedoms the (admittedly weightless and monotonous) CGI and mo-cap technology afford him? You betcha. But most importantly, does it fall apart at the seams and dampen your hope for humanity as soon as you expend the slightest iota of intellectual energy on its philosophical implications and the biting satire that it maybe could have been? Oh look, I'm dead inside.
But hey, that one scene set inside another movie is pretty cool.
Nope, scratch that, this is the fever dream. This one. The one where Richard Dreyfuss is a hotshot fire-fighting pilot, who dies saving his buddy, meets Audrey Hepburn/God/Death, and then has to ghost-coach a new pilot into being both the new hotshot and the new beau for his widow, Holly Hunter. WTF. Did I mention that the first half hour is a cacophonous screwball comedy? Did I mention it was Audrey Hepburn’s last film role, and she was carried onto set so as not to dirty her pristinely white costumes, many of which were her own clothes? Did I mention how unnecessarily good Holly Hunter is, even as she’s asked to violently whiplash her character between completely opposing emotions at a moment’s notice? Did you fully comprehend the ghost-wingmanning-his-widow premise??
I just – I really cannot overemphasise how fantastically bonkers this film is, possibly without it even realising. For that alone, please seek it out.
There’s really not much to say about Spielberg’s debut feature-length TV movie, often thought of as his first film (which is why we’re including it here), and I honestly don’t mean that to sound as shady as it does. There’s not much to say because, well, it’s really just pretty solid. An effective little thriller that, sure, is maybe a little too padded in its ninety minute runtime, but nevertheless betrays its director’s proficiency with visual filmmaking language, as well as his Hitchcockian flair for suspense. A simple story of an ordinary man pursued across an empty highway by a psychotic, faceless truck driver in a huge tanker, ‘Duel’ might be paper-thin in plotting and thematic value, but it’s an entertaining romp with a pretty fantastic ‘Wages of Fear’ hat-tip at the end for good measure.
Maybe file this one in the near-vicinity of ‘Amistad’ for its similar "maybe Steve-o shouldn’t have been the one to direct this" vibes, but, to be fair, it’s elevated by some fantastic female performances, while also holding a particularly notable spot in the director’s filmography.
Spielberg’s first foray into straightforward adult drama (chronologically, from here you can really see him ramping up to ‘Schindler’s’), it’s the story of an African American woman in the South who suffers through a lifetime of abuse and mistreatment, but nevertheless finds her own identity thanks to female companionship. Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery – each of them lend heart, force, and implacable resolve to their characters, and were duly Oscar-nominated for their efforts. But really, this is Goldberg’s show, and dammit if she didn’t deserve that statue. Behind every moment of joy is the heartache that led her there, and behind every moment of horror is the woman she is gradually becoming. It’s an astounding performance, singlehandedly restoring the queer text of the novel as subtext. So good, in fact, that you really kind of wish it was housed in a film that wasn’t quite as emotionally simplistic and bombastic.
Back in my wild, youthful days, I considered this to be the best Indiana Jones movie, because for some reason teenage me enjoyed being incorrect. Good for him.
However, the sheen has worn off. Unlike its predecessors, at its best it’s really just a pretty solid adventure film - and hey, that’s okay! The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is fantastic, and I’m sure you’ll be sensing a theme by now with Spielberg when I say that it really does have some impressively staged set pieces. But... the plotting is messy, the finale is flimsy, and for some reason it’s harder for me to excuse the complete dearth of female characters in Dr Jones’ universe in this film in particular.
Well, kid, we’ll always have James Bond running at a flock of seagulls with an umbrella.
On the one hand, this film is deeply uncool. It’s naff, it’s incredibly sentimental, it’s unabashedly tugging on your heartstrings at every moment - bruh, it’s about a goddamn war-horse.
On the other hand... look, sue me. It works like gangbusters, and this time around reduced me to a blubbering puddle. The episodic structure is admittedly hit-and-miss, but the stately, borderline theatrical classicism that Spielberg brings to this tale of a particularly special horse making its way through the many fronts of World War I, is kind of wonderful. Sure, every character in this film is so obsessed with that horse that they’re really only a couple of rides away from a Daniel Radcliffe-led therapy session, but the film itself makes such an endearingly unironic and openhearted case for itself that I find it hard to argue. What can I say? I like the horse, people.
Chalk this one up as one of the discoveries of this exercise.
A surprisingly robust little action/drama, it’s at least partially fascinating for the ways in which you can see Spielberg finding his voice (impressively assuredly so) in this, his first theatrically released feature. A ‘Badlands’-esque tale of a woman who breaks her husband out of prison so the two can travel cross-country and kidnap their young son from his foster parents, the film quickly turns their road trip into a slow-motion car chase, as the couple become would-be celebrities after they take an unwitting police officer hostage.
Underneath all of the shenanigans is a deceptively melancholic streak, though, as the director takes care to show the humanity and purity of intention at the heart of two possibly clownish figures. It’s an auspicious debut, both technically dazzling and already illuminating the humane centre that would run through his entire filmography. It may not be well known, but it’s worth seeking out.
Possibly as purely pleasurable as modern Spielberg gets (that’s not a read, promise), this hugely enjoyable adventure throwback takes Hergé’s simple line drawings of a boy detective and transforms them into a 3D motion capture animation romp.
Thankfully circumventing the depths of the uncanny valley plumbed by the likes of ‘The Polar Express’, Spielberg’s take on Tintin with co-producer Peter Jackson finds the filmmaker having the most fun he’s clearly had in years. Evidence? Look no further than that dumbfoundingly brilliant tour-de-force action sequence that unfolds entirely in a single unbroken shot, the director so clearly gallivanting around the screen with glee that you half-expect to hear him giggling as part of the soundscape. Throw in a particularly jaunty and delightful John Williams score, a reliably great Andy Serkis, and a snappy, witty script, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Remember what I said about Spielberg and his set pieces? Here’s the big one. The Omaha beach landing is one of the most stomach-churning, kinetically horrifying, sickeningly thrilling achievements in all of feature filmmaking, so strong in its intention and execution that it almost completely overshadows the rest of the film it’s a part of.
Which might be for the best, because the rest of the film is a decidedly more mixed bag. Dour, dirty, and deeply nihilist in occasionally unexpected ways, it nevertheless holds an inarguably powerful sway over the viewer with effectively simple character work and a slew of solid performances from its ensemble cast. Still, there’s much more in need of wrestling with here than its "masterpiece" status and admittedly bravura filmmaking so often imply.
(Sidebar: I have endless reserves of hatred for this film’s framing device. Endless. No need for wrestling there.)
Do you see that? Over there? Oh look, it’s the hill that I’m willing to die on - this is a genuinely great film, with one of the best opening credit sequences in cinema history.
I’m sorry, but a huge action/adventure sequel beginning with a Busby Berkley-style musical number set to a Mandarin version of Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ - that’s pretty goddamn ballsy. Not to mention the fact that its style, its film grammar, its locale and context, all of them so perfectly establish the film as completely different in tone and intention to its predecessor, while also expanding upon the exact same inspirations and pastiches that made the original so beloved. Is it stronger? Does that excuse some of the uncomfortable cultural insensitivity or occasionally unfortunate characterisation of (once again) the only female character? Of course not. But this is a much stronger sequel than many give it credit for, and I’ll keep dying on that hill until they do.
Somehow, one of the most fascinating examinations of a post-9/11 America is an adaptation of an over one hundred-year-old sci-fi novel, and it stars Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. Wowzers.
Injecting some of his most potent blockbuster filmmaking into a strikingly timely story of invasion and warfare, this is a hugely beguiling Hollywood product. Grim and gritty (and not just in a dour DC-superhero movie kind of way), ‘War of the Worlds’ grabs you by the throat for its entire first half, deftly weaving family drama and global cataclysm through Janusz Kaminski’s constantly roving - yet never harried or less than remarkable - colour-drained photography. The ending may smart, and the plotting may become vaguely wayward as it goes along, but Spielberg and his team conjure some of the most thrillingly and unforgettably evocative imagery of any 21st century blockbuster. Michael Bay, eat your heart out.
It might be a bit surprising to see this one only charting in the middle of this list, but that’s just as much to do with the overall strength of Spielberg’s filmography (really, from here on out they’re all baseline great films) as it is with my own failings as a critic. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for what would become the first in the filmmaker’s decades-spanning pseudo-trilogy on our making contact with alien life forms; I just don’t quite get the same emotional or transcendental impact that it has on so many.
But let’s focus on the positives, because there really is a litany of them. This marks the first time that Spielberg got to paint on a truly epic canvas, and you can feel him expanding and stretching in wondrous ways as he cashes in that sweet blank cheque that ‘Jaws’ afforded him. The texture and reality that he so delicately brings to those family scenes, the gargantuan imagery he’s able to wrangle, the grandeur of John Williams’ iconic score - this is truly spectacular movie-making magic from a cocksure kid who was only getting started. Rude.
Maybe the clearest dry-run for ‘Schindler’s’, this is also almost the peak melting pot Spielberg film, marrying the grand scale historical epic with his intimately wrought coming-of-age drama with a child’s-eye view. This is Spielberg at his most David Lean, wrangling truly magnificent, potent imagery that wouldn’t look out of place within his idol’s work.
Based on novelist J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical account of his own childhood, it details the Japanese invasion and occupation of Shanghai during World War II, yet told from the perspective of young Jim (baby Christian Bale!) who is separated from his parents and interred in a Japanese confinement camp. It may have pacing and script issues, but my god, the direction on display is masterly. That may be a bit of a boringly insipid thing to say at this point in this increasingly fawning list (my apologies), but the deftness with which Spielberg balances this big, sprawling moment in history with the specificity and intimacy of Jim’s emotionally devastating arc, is genuinely sublime. A taste of things to come, indeed.
Name a based-on-a-true story drama that’s more breathlessly entertaining, perfectly cast and snappily stylish - go ahead, I’ll wait.
Assembling a killer cast at the top of their game to tell the (mostly) true story of real-life conman Frank Abagnale Jr, Spielberg pulls off a giant feat of fleet-footed fantasy-fulfilment. Sleek, sexy, and with a surprisingly honest vein of hard-won melancholy underneath it all, this is actually one of my most-watched, nostalgic-favourite Spielbergs. This time around, what stood out (apart from that fantastic Saul Bass-riff of an opening credits sequence) was the strength of the performances, as each of the central male triumvirate deliver some of the best work of their careers. DiCaprio oozes charisma, Hanks is at his broadest and most delightfully bull-like, and best of all, Walken is a dream. His Abagnale Sr is broken and past-his-prime, but Walken lends such humanity and remarkable depths of feeling, giving what is easily one of the best performances in a Spielberg film.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this and the next two entries slot themselves in nicely alongside each other on this list, because this pseudo-trilogy of Important Moments in Historical American Decency is one of the great pleasures of modern Spielberg. Here, he delivers maybe the definitive Abraham Lincoln biopic, and it’s to Spielberg’s credit that that’s not just because of Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering performance as Honest Abe.
No, it’s in Tony Kushner’s dynamite screenplay, so wonderfully weaving together the myth and the man amidst a particularly rambunctious and process-driven legal thriller (and gifting Day-Lewis with some beautifully delicate storytelling monologues for good measure). It’s in the staggeringly deep bench of disgustingly talented supporting players, with Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones deservedly rising above the fray with deliciously simultaneous nuance and bombast. Most of all, it’s in the way that the filmmaker never lets the film fall into the staid and stolid Oscar-bait bullshit that it so easily could have been, bringing life and rowdy energy wherever he can. My dudes, history really can come alive.
For a mere few months it got to call itself Spielberg’s most recent film - but no matter, it can still call itself one of his best. I should probably keep this one brief, because I did only recently review it, but guys I’m still just so happy this movie exists.
Apart from Meryl Streep’s iconic, possibly career-best work, what I keep coming back to about this film is its deep and resounding urge to respond to the time it is living in and do and say something true and good, just like the characters it depicts. It’s Spielberg and co. looking at the world around them, and responding to its ugliness with the most perfectly appropriate story of a woman coming into her own. Caftan you hear the love tonight (forgive me), because god do I love this film.
I’m sorry, but this movie needs some sort of re-appreciation or something, because, pardon my French, but this movie fucks. Sure, in its Oscar year it was nominated for Best Picture and won Mark Rylance a particularly well-deserved supporting actor award (I was mad at the time for Sylvester Stallone, but don’t worry, I’m grown now), and sure it got almost universally positive reviews upon release, but I still believe people are sleeping on this one.
Perhaps blame particularly dispiriting marketing and trailers, but don’t for one second blame this film. Half engrossing courtroom drama, half tense espionage thriller, this is the exact kind of intelligent, meaty picture aimed squarely at adults that Hollywood barely makes any more. But fear not - Stevie Spielberg is perfectly placed to pick up the slack. Bolstered by a fleet-footed, thematically tight, Coen brothers-assisted script, while also being yet another entry in Tom Hanks’ "decent man being good at his job" oeuvre, this is most definitely vintage Spielberg that deserves to be regarded as right up there with his best.
One of the most impressively intelligent, dynamically propulsive, thrillingly assembled adult popcorn entertainments in many a damn moon. A sci-fi potboiler with a lot on its mind, Spiel-dog is able to marry the heady concepts of Philip K. Dick’s original short story (a futuristic "utopia" where gifted Pre-Cogs are used by a special police force to stop murders before they occur) with his ever-present drive to wow and entertain in the most blockbuster-y fashion possible.
And boy, does he ever. Spectacularly inventive action sequences stack up on top of each other seamlessly, as he delights in each and every piece of futuristic technology he gets to play with and destroy. There’s much to be praised here, but really it comes down to just two scenes in particular for me. In one, Spielberg delves into body horror and high tension involving eyeballs and spider-like surveillance tech. In the other, well, it’s the scene. Samantha Morton, goddess. A mall. A perfectly orchestrated escape. "He knows." It’s perfection.
I’d say it’s right about here in the list where we get into full-blown masterpiece territory. However, what’s so fantastic about Spielberg is the way that each of the following seven films, including this one, works so differently and speaks so uniquely to a certain facet of the filmmaker’s obsessions.
Here, it feels like legacy, as the great director crafts what amounts to a simultaneously deceptively cold and enormously moving ode to the late-great Stanley Kubrick (as is Hollywood lore by now, the original creator of this project). It’s mesmerising, as it feels like you’re watching Spielberg reckoning with his own child-like preoccupations, layering in and souring the very images and beats that he had built a career on.
The quietly devastating story of a little robot boy who just wants to be loved, this is a much stranger and pricklier film than audiences at the time were expecting. Still, I find it endlessly beguiling - even with ‘Always’ sitting right there, it’s easily his weirdest film.
For the purposes of this list, my most recent rewatch of this film was in the company of one Daniel Lammin, fellow SWITCH contributor (hi Daniel), and almost as pleasurable as actually watching the film was witnessing the sight of a grown man reduced to childlike fits of glee at the pure spectacle of giant dinosaurs tearing shit up.
That’s probably the best way to describe this film, and a lot of Spielberg’s work in general, really: it’s reconnecting adults with a youthful wonder, a lost innocence. It’s why "Spielberg face" is such a recognisable trope, and used so wonderfully here (and so horrifically in something like ‘Hook’) to tie together the audience and the characters on screen in blissfully vicarious wonderment. This is the filmmaker at his most forward thinking, pushing the envelope in terms of special effects, while also smartly tackling scarily modern conversations around the ethics of genetics. But it’s the warmth, humour and reverence Spielberg brings to it that elevate it above and beyond the incredible spectacle that it is.
What’s left to say about one of the most iconic films of all time?
Essentially creating and perfecting the modern Hollywood action blockbuster in one fell swoop, Spielberg rummages through cinematic history to pave a way for the future. Filled to the brim with indelible moments, intricately yet fluidly choreographed set pieces, and some of the most perfectly economical character and icon building ever put on screen, this is almost casually masterful stuff.
But above all else? This movie is fun, and rapturously entertaining from start to finish. Maybe the greatest adventure film of all time, I think it might be Spielberg’s deliriously terrifying knack for constantly evolving invention that sets it apart from the many unfortunate imitators that have tried to emulate it in the years since. I mean, come on, that bit with the sword-fighter and the gun just makes me so goddamn happy every single time.
Kids, these top four films could essentially be in any order, because they are each among some of the greatest films of all time, period.
To begin with, there’s ‘Munich’, the film that most knocked me off my feet over the course of this undertaking. Having not revisited it since my first viewing upon its home video release (mind you, back when I was a child), I was completely unprepared for exactly how knotty, tense, and vigorously interrogative it is as a film.
Detailing the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, this is a mature, adult Spielberg, wrestling with the morally ambiguous with easily his best writing collaborator, Tony Kushner. What these two titans of their respective crafts bring out in each other is nothing short of astounding, each using their talents to wheedle out a constant state of unease and tension, no matter what the scene is - whether it’s a staggeringly-composed, almost wordless bombing of a French apartment, or a deeply personal and intellectual conversation between foot soldiers of opposing forces. This is a film about violence and revenge, obsessed with the fine line between justice and vengeance.
The Holocaust drama to end all Holocaust dramas, it’s a shame that Spielberg’s epic has become synonymous with words like "slog" or "miserable" or "oh God stop", because it’s a fascinating exorcism for the director - and almost offputtingly entertaining. ‘Schindler’s List’ is a scorching, emotionally brutal descent into the horrors of a period that truly stains humankind, yet it’s also jaw-droppingly engrossing and horrifyingly riveting. It’s as if Spielberg knew the only way to ensure its place as an unforgettable reminder of the travesties of man was to turn those travesties into, well, spectacle.
Not only is it a towering achievement in and of itself, it also holds a gigantic place in the context of its director’s evolution and trajectory. Coming with his first real exploration of his own Judaism on screen, it’s striking how much it feels like Spielberg is committing some sort of purge, forcing himself to face and present these horrors on screen. Over the course of the entire decade leading up to its creation, you can retroactively see Spielberg laying the groundwork, honing specific aspects of his craft in some sort of unconscious readiness for this project. His steps toward balancing the intimate and the epic, his development as a dexterous director of performance, his experiments with tone and visual language and its economic use - all of it here comes to fruition. In a word, it’s masterful.
You think you’re watching a great film, and then those last ten minutes happen. For a director who can pretty frequently be accused of gilding the lily when it comes to his endings, it doesn’t get more perfect than a devastated boy being forced to say goodbye to his emotional support alien. The swelling, magical score; the pure feeling of Henry Thomas’ performance; the lush, luminescent cinematography; the haunting simplicity of “Come” - “Stay”; hell, even the sheer feat of getting that ludicrous puppet to be as emotive and believable as it is. It all combines for one of the most momentously, ecstatically emotional moments in all of cinema.
And yeah, the rest of the film is alright as well.
I could regurgitate the praise, the fun facts, the astonished questions that you’ve all heard before ("It’s a masterpiece! The shark never worked! How did he do it?!") or I could leave you with a simple list...
The score. That opening kill. The U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue. That jump scare. Roy Scheider, the DILF we all deserve. The subtle hints toward alcoholism. The muted, carefully etched family portrait. The blocking of simple conversation scenes, particularly that ferry negotiation. The weight and horror of each and every death.
Everything that happens on a beach. Everything that happens in water. Everything that happens between those three men.
It’s a masterpiece. Did you know the shark never worked?
My god, how does he do it?