Posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
I had no intention of writing a Steven Spielberg ranking until too many people started dismissing The BFG as the film disappointed at the box office. After all, I approach Mr. Spielberg with the respect and devotion a churchgoer has for a saint – there are few cinematic storytellers I value more. So watching the internet erupt in headlines about whether or not Spielberg was over felt like blasphemy. Of course he’s not over. The man who made made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark will never be over. Like every other director, he will have his peaks and valleys…and if The BFG is a valley, then his low points dwarf the work of most filmmakers.
This is the internet, so you know the drill. I’m going to rank Spielberg’s theatrically released (sorry, Duel) films. You can then argue about them in the manner you see fit.
29. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Most of Steven Spielberg’s lesser movies contain great scenes amidst clunky stories, moments of stunning inspiration that lurch out and grab your attention when you’ve written everything else off. The Lost World: Jurassic Park contains precious little of that. This is a tired sequel made by a masterful filmmaker whose brain seems to be occupied elsewhere and everything about this movie feels like it was fueled by obligation rather than passion. That’s a common sight in Hollywood, but very rare and very disappointing, for a Spielberg movie.
28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Spielberg’s disinterest in making a fourth Indiana Jones movie is palpable, making it a dreary companion piece to The Lost World and one of the most disappointing major releases of all time. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull is too weird to be completely ignored and its truly strange and inexplicable decisions inspire more conversation and debate than his Jurassic Park sequel. For that reason alone, it cannot be ranked last…it gets second-to-last.
27. Hook (1991)
It’s easy to see how Hook felt honest and pure on paper, an exploration of the joys of childhood explored by a filmmaker who has always been in touch with his inner kid. In execution, this update on the Peter Pan mythos is gorgeous nonsense, shrill and obnoxious and filled with characters who are either walking cartoons or paper-thin caricatures. There is plenty of Spielberg’s soul on display here and there is an alternate dimension where he was the perfect man to take on this story, but all of his worst habits as a filmmaker are standing at the forefront.
26. Always (1989)
As good as Spielberg is at tapping into wonder and awe and the terrifying/amazing emotions that go hand-in-hand with being a child, he’s always been a little rusty when it comes to creating romance on screen. Always is the only one of his movies that purely relies on romance as a driving story factor and the whole thing falls flat. He is obviously more comfortable with the more fantastical elements of this story, which only ultimately serve as a distraction from what really matters.
25. 1941 (1979)
It’s easy to see why 1941 has a strong cult following these days – it’s ambitious and weird and filled with funny people doing very silly work. However, Spielberg has always been better at sprinkling comedy into larger narratives than making it the focus of an entire movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark is funnier than 1941. Lincoln is funnier than 1941. When humor informs the characters and story, Spielberg can direct is masterfully. When it is front and center, he loses his grip on the tale he is trying to tell.
24. The Terminal (2004)
Like many of Spielberg’s lesser movies, The Terminal is about as well-intentioned as they come, but the results are treacly rather than sweet. His ongoing struggle throughout his entire filmography is just how much of his trademark sentimentality he’ll allow to rule every story he tells and this is an example where he leans a little too hard on it, taking a great high concept premise (Tom Hanks is trapped in an airport indefinitely for political reasons) and doing shockingly little with it beyond pushing the earnestness up to eleven. It’s a noble effort, albeit one that doesn’t quite come together.
23. The Sugarland Express (1974)
If Jaws represented Steven Spielberg effectively ending the era of the Hollywood auteur that began a decade earlier, The Sugarland Express represents him standing with one foot in two very different worlds. This is a film that shares DNA with the counterculture films of the late ’60s and early ’70s while also showcasing the populist sensibilities that would made Spielberg’s movies a box office sensation in the years to come. It is a fine first feature and vital viewing to understand his evolution as a filmmaker, even if it feels slight in his larger filmography.
22. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Both Spielberg and producer George Lucas have offered plenty of excuses over the years for why Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is what it is but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they made one of the nastiest, ugliest and most mean-spiritied blockbusters of all time. This is a movie fascinated with the grotesque, a sequel that takes all of that Raiders of the Lost Ark goodwill and uses it as fuel to force the audience to endure scenes of torture and brutal violence and overtly silly (and slightly racist) comedy. This is Spielberg at his most adolescent, an 11-year old practical joker in a man’s body, and the results are uneven…even if they’re wildly entertaining in spite of everything.
21. The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg’s first “grown-up” movie is more famous today for failing to win a trophy for any of its 11 Oscar nominations than it is for anything else, which is a shame. While not as assuredly directed his later dramatic work, The Color Purple finds a populist filmmaker stepping out of his comfort zone and dealing with difficult material with deft and natural skill. It’s not a subtle or nuanced movie and movie fans have argued for decades over whether or not Spielberg was ever the right guy to make on this story, but it’s a finely made, finely acted, and beautifully produced movie whose heart is in the right place in every single scene.