10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Though a bit silly in places, this followup starring Harrison Ford and Spielberg’s soon-to-be-wife Kate Capshaw was also bursting with energy and wickedly amusing stunts, not to mention the thrilling moment when Indy avoids death by slipping below a sliding door but then reaches back for his battered fedora. It’s a quintessential example of Spielberg’s good-natured wit.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg’s definitive WW II picture frequently makes no sense — why would a simple infantry platoon try to take on an armored battalion, when all Capt. Miller’s troops have to do is stroll across a bridge and blow it up behind them? But it deserves a place in the annals of cinema history for its breathtaking, nerve-shattering opening scene of the D-Day invasion, a tableau that redefined what gritty, gruesome war realism could be.
8. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Leonardo DiCaprio has never given a better performance than he did as the boyish con artist Frank Abagnale, who breezes through the 1960s on forged checks and pretends to be a pilot, a surgeon, a lawyer and anything else that strikes his fancy. Alas, Tom Hanks’s Boston accent as the FBI man on his tail is unfortunate.
7. Always (1989)
A beautifully told, romantic ghost story, this uncharacteristically disarming adaptation of Spielberg’s childhood favorite A Guy Named Joe featured the most nuanced and appealing female character he ever conjured up, Holly Hunter’s Dorinda, who loses her courageous boyfriend (Richard Dreyfuss) when he dies piloting a plane in the course of trying to put out a forest fire. He continues to exert a supernatural pull on her life even as she finds love with another man.
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
That the film was a special-effects landmark wasn’t really the key to its success: Spielberg made the dinosaurs matter by taking the time to establish his cast of characters and their conflicts well before any monsters appear. And he found brilliant ways to use his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor to offset the terror. Who else but Spielberg could get a laugh out of the familiar legend, “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”?
5. Jaws (1975)
Forty years on, the shark thriller has lost much of its shock value, and its pace now seems deliberate rather than frenzied. But the 27-year-old Spielberg’s ability to manufacture dread and suspense from a malfunctioning prop (the crew couldn’t get the damn mechanical shark to work half the time) was uncanny, and the manly camaraderie of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss as they ventured out alone into the wilderness to save the townsfolk was like that of a trio of gunslingers daring to settle the West.
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Releasing two defining films in a single year proved Spielberg was still operating at peak levels two decades into his unprecedented career. The problem of how to do a Holocaust film was one that had essentially flummoxed Hollywood for 50 years before Spielberg found the proper approach: Amid the squalor and the massacre, he cast his vision toward the shining light of humanity embodied by the savior Oskar Schindler, personified by the quiet dignity of Liam Neeson in a star-making performance.
3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Like Always, A.I. puzzled audiences and didn’t receive the attention it deserved, but this adaptation of the Pinocchio legend as developed by Stanley Kubrick showcased Spielberg’s ability to combine micro and macro issues to spellbinding effect.
A little robot boy (Haley Joel Osment) who yearns to become human but is instead cast away by his adopted family goes on a journey that spans a vast amount of time, powered by an innocent but indomitable love.
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Keeping in touch with a child’s viewpoint without letting an adult’s cynicism or condescension cloud the magic was why Spielberg managed to make such a classic film out of such a simple fable. Endearing, beautiful and exhilarating, E.T. was self-contained perfection, which is why Spielberg never made a sequel.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Making an homage to adventure yarns of yesteryear? Anyone can do that. Making something in the same spirit, but far better? That’s what Spielberg did with a film that never lets up, never makes you stop squirming, smiling, laughing and cheering. Raiders of the Lost Ark might be the funnest film ever made.
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