Ranking Every Steven Spielberg Movie From Worst To Best

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Ranking Every Steven Spielberg Movie From Worst to Best

Steven Spielberg. Unquestionably the most popular director of all-time. The King of the Blockbuster. Heck, The King of Movies. He’s directed some of the greatest films ever made, as well as some of the biggest money-makers. His resumé is stuffed with modern classics, as well as overlooked gems, and yes, a couple of duds. Here are all of his movies, ranked from worst to best.

33. 1941

The biggest disaster of Steven Spielberg’s career. The film was a financial flop, it never connected with the public, and the critics hated it. It’s pretty reliable to say that Spielberg at his worst is better than most other directors at their best, but this bloated comedy extravaganza about panic in L.A. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, puts that into doubt.

32. The Sugarland Express

This was the first theatrical feature from Spielberg, and it’s pretty clear that he was still trying to find his voice. There is an interesting story here about a couple that are forced into kidnapping back their son and taking police on a protracted chase across Texas, but its best moments are derivative of better films and Spielberg never puts much of his own stamp on the story. It’s a pretty rough debut.

31. Twilight Zone: The Movie

Though the movie itself is pretty great, one of the scariest of the horror anthology films, Steven Spielberg’s segment, “Kick the Can”, is pretty weak. He seems to be phoning it in here, taking a tale of old people dreaming of being young again, and hitting all the expected beats, including the sappy ending.

30. Duel

Before even The Sugarland Express, Spielberg made a TV movie about a killer semi-truck. And it’s a bit better than that description would suggest. Duel is incredibly simplistic, basically just a long chase scene, but it did give Spielberg his first chance to flex the cinematic muscles that would eventually lead to some of the greatest thrillers ever made.

29. The BFG

His second shot at motion capture (albeit only partially), Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s modern fairy tale of a girl and her Big Friendly Giant has enough wonderous visuals and good old-fashioned warmth to overcome some of the silliness of the original children’s book. Mark Rylance is okay as the BFG, and so are the special effects. All good, but nothing truly great.

28. The Adventures of Tintin

The only thing to differentiate Tintin from any of the other adventure movies in Spielberg’s catalogue is the stunning-looking, slightly off-kilter, Polar-Express-style motion capture technology. That’s not a slight to the film, which is breezy and fun and so forth, but it does say something about how forgettable the story of Tintin is. The action scenes are a blast, but they don’t add up to much.

27. Hook

Another children’s film from Spielberg, but this movie had potential to be something more. It sees a grown-up Peter Pan returning to Neverland to save his own children, and that premise opens up possibilities for a fascinating look at childhood from an adult’s perspective. But Hook is basically just a long, pretty, well-acted, Saturday morning cartoon. It benefits from a great Robin Williams performance and John Williams score, but it is Steven Spielberg on auto-pilot.

26. Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is as middle-of-the-road basic as you’re going to get from Steven Spielberg. It’s a spiritual cousin to Spielberg’s other, let’s call them, “civics movies”, about the importance of certain American practices, this time about the Cold War and every person’s right to a defense. But Bridge of Spies comes without the visual style or emotional heft of Amistad or Lincoln or The Post.

25. Empire of the Sun

After The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun was billed as Steven Spielberg’s next foray into “prestige cinema” after gaining fame as a blockbuster genius. It was also a bit of a disappointment. Set in World War II Japan and framed through the eyes of an English boy played by a young Christian Bale, Empire of the Sun is an often beautiful war epic that is held back by a thin layer of cliché on top of the world-class cinematography. 

24. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A film that many consider one of Spielberg’s very best, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is more like an admirable workout session for Spielberg, who in this film breaks from his more palatable tendencies to deliver an alien contact movie that is flat-out weird. The movie mostly follows Richard Dryfuss as a father who becomes obsessed with an alien message. There are a few iconic sequences of alien terror/wonder, but the movie is 80% Richard Dryfuss being a crazy person. It works in its own way, even if Spielberg would handle aliens better in later films.

23. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I will be the first to admit, I love this movie. The infamous fourth Indiana Jones adventure is everything I love about the franchise, with a 1950s spin. It’s great fun, and maybe my second favorite of the series. I will also admit that its sloppier than all the other Indy films. Too much CGI, too much goofiness, too many side characters. Still, I will defend it proudly as a worthy addition to the franchise.

22. Ready Player One

The story is not the main attraction of Ready Player One. It’s about a virtual Easter Egg hunt which takes place in a video game world called The Oasis. The plot, based on the not-so-great book by Ernest Cline, is fine, but Steven Spielberg makes the movie his. Ready Player One is really about a master director like Steven Spielberg showing today’s filmmakers what original summer blockbusters are all about. It’s a jolt of thrilling blockbuster energy, featuring some of the best action scenes of the decade, and about ten thousand recognizable pop culture figures.

21. The Post

The Post is based on the true story of The Washington Post’s attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers. Like Spielberg’s other “civics movies”, it sends a thoughtful message, this time about the importance of the free press. It’s rigorous, professional filmmaking, with great performances by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Not one of Spielberg’s classics, but a great film.

20. Lincoln

Here comes another Spielberg Civics movie. Lots of courtrooms and speeches and fancy costumes. What makes this stuff exciting, however, is one, the brilliant Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, two, the total commitment to historical accuracy, and three, an emotional ending that puts everything in perspective.

19. Always

You can feel Steven Spielberg’s personal love for Always. It is a remake of the 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, one of his favorites. Richard Dryfuss plays a Forest Fire pilot, Holly Hunter plays his wife. Without spoiling anything, their relationship takes a twist. There is a lot of love here, and a warm, nostalgic sweetness. Sometimes it gets a little too sweet, but that’s part of what makes Spielberg, Spielberg.

18. Jaws

Alright, we have to talk about Jaws. It’s one of Spielberg’s three most popular movies, at one point the number one highest grossing film of all-time. It’s frequently hailed as a masterpiece of suspense that will stand for eternity. It’s impact on film history is huge. It ushered in the entire summer blockbuster genre. But… it has been bested with time. It was only Steven Spielberg’s third full-length feature, and while it is impressive considering all the behind-the-scenes turmoil, it is also rusty. Spielberg got much better at delivering these types of thrills, and he did it with better visual effects and more confidence in later movies. Jaws is a good film and a monumental leap for cinema at the time, but it’s only the start of what Spielberg can really do.

17. The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Case in point. The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the same kind of summer thrill ride as Jaws, but despite not having that film’s freshness and innovation, it is much more assured. The Lost World is Steven Spielberg totally let loose. It’s everything he learned over his career about thrilling an audience put into practice. World class special effects, intense action scenes, terrific acting by Jeff Goldblum and Pete Postlethwaite, and a thumping score by John Williams. For pure thrills, and not much more, it’s as good as it gets.

16. The Terminal

Who does heartwarming better than Steven Spielberg? Nobody. Who is more likable than Tom Hanks? Nobody. So this movie about a fish-out-of-water refugee (Tom Hanks) happily stuck in an airport terminal, is as sugary sweet as you’d expect. Spielberg brings this magical little world to life, and the romance between Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ beleaguered flight attendant is sparkling. It’s a bit too long, but when a movie is this entertaining, it doesn’t really matter. 

15. Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can is one of the lesser known Spielberg joints, despite starring a prime Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Frank Abagnale, a master of deception on the run from Tom Hanks’ FBI investigator. The biggest showcase of the film is the many Fugitive-esque close calls. Spielberg excels in highlighting the small details of Abagnale’s genius. This one is way too long, dragging considerably towards the end, but too much of Spielberg, Hanks, and DiCaprio at the top of their game is not so bad.

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

All the Indiana Jones films are pretty much of the same quality. I don’t think there is a poorly made one of the four. Last Crusade benefits from a father/son plot thread featuring Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr. The story is basically just a riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark with Nazis after a powerful religious artifact. I would argue that Crusade improves on a lot from Raiders (a much better ending), but it doesn’t have quite the iconic Indiana Jones feel of the others.

13. Amistad

This is the best Spielberg Civics movie. Why? Because in addition to the history lesson we expect from a film like this, Amistad is a rousing emotional experience and an exquisitely designed visual experience. It’s a beautiful, moving account of the legal battles following the slave revolt of the La Amistad in 1839. Just plain great filmmaking.

12. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. began life as a long-gestating Stanley Kubrick project billed as a futuristic interpretation of Pinnocchio. It’s no wonder then, that it ended up being Steven Spielberg’s most fascinating science-fiction movie. Spielberg takes cues from Kubrick, making a film that is cold and strange and unsettling. He also infuses a hint of poetry into the tale of a robot boy looking for someone to love him.

11. The Color Purple

The Color Purple was perhaps Steven Spielberg’s first true “prestige picture”. Three years after E.T. captured the hearts of the movie-going world, he took time to make a much different picture. An adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple follows a young black girl, Celie Harris (Whoopie Goldberg), through the turn of the century South. It is sweeping and uplifting and all the things Spielberg would come to be known for. A true emotional ride. And that ending, what a tear-jerker.

10. War Horse

It didn’t cause much commotion in 2011 when it was released, but War Horse has earned a spot as one of Spielberg’s most underrated films. It is probably his best epic, following a boy and his horse through World War I Europe in a grand, sweeping spectacle of emotion. There are dozens of scenes that stand among Spielberg’s very best, including a trench warfare sequence that rivals anything in Saving Private Ryan.

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

It’s my personal favorite Indy flick, but admittedly, the second-most iconic. When Steven Spielberg is free to simply have fun, he’s one of the best to ever do it. Temple of Doom is pure adventure, a rip-roaring roller coaster combining the best elements of Raiders with a new, darker story courtesy of George Lucas. It’s a wonderful icon of the summer blockbuster.

8. War of the Worlds

Here is a movie that never got the respect it deserves. War of the Worlds is no less than the greatest alien invasion movie ever made, and one of the 2000s’ best blockbusters. It stars Tom Cruise as an estranged father trying to protect his kids from alien tripods in rural New England. War of the Worlds contains some of the most virtuosic action scenes of Spielberg’s career, but the action never gets in the way of the human story or the subtle 9/11 allegory.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark

This is the Indiana Jones picture that will be remembered most fondly. It is full of images that have become integral parts of Hollywood history themselves (a rolling boulder, a silhouette, a melted face). The story is the perfect template for adventure, resulting in a blast of old-fashioned energy that has captivated movie lovers for decades. The energy gets so high, in fact, that the ending can’t live up to the first three quarters of the film, but its timeless appeal makes up for that.

6. Munich

5. Minority Report

Science fiction has been one of Spielberg’s best genres. His best sci-fi film is Minority Report, which actually functions more like a film noir. It’s a complex mystery involving Pre-crime, a futuristic branch of the police that stop crime before it happens. Suffice to say, the mystery is absolutely riveting, and it’s bolstered by some of the most technically accomplished filmmaking of Spielberg’s career. Minority Report is a science fiction masterpiece and a film noir classic rolled into one.

4. Jurassic Park

The perfect summer blockbuster. Jurassic Park is an enormous, confident, iconic movie based on a genius novel by Michael Crichton. It might be known best for its game-changing special effects that brought dinosaurs back from extinction, but Jurassic Park is the full package. Oscar-worthy acting, masterful direction, magical music, and a special spirit of wonder. It really is as good a blockbuster as has ever been released.

3. Saving Private Ryan

There is no shortage of praise given to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a virtuoso piece of filmmaking that captures the horror of war in brutal, vivid detail. The thing is, the rest of the movie is just as powerful. Saving Private Ryan is so authentic to not just the techniques of war, but the feeling, that it almost renders every other war picture obsolete. Everything that can be said about war, brotherhood, duty, and compassion are contained in this extraordinary film.

2. Schindler’s List

The most personal, the most important, and possibly the best movie of Steven Spielberg’s career. His harrowing tale of Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) gradual turn from ambivalent businessman to passionate hero of the Jewish people, is a powerful historical drama. A tough-to-watch but nourishing experience about the tragedy of the Holocaust. But it is so much more than that. The characters become symbols for larger parts of humanity. Schindler’s List is more than a movie, it is a necessary historical document.

1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. is the movie Steven Spielberg will be remembered for. The story of a boy and an alien encapsulates everything that Spielberg has become known for. E.T. is a high-concept genre film, it involves familial drama and child-like wonder, and there is magic in its every frame. E.T. became the highest-grossing movie ever when it was released, captivating an entire generation. It is an enduring classic, the very definition of movie magic, a film that will last for all-time.

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