12. 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977)
What would it really look like if mankind made contact with aliens? For his part, Spielberg conjures up a busy, messy world where scientists, military men, government officials, and ordinary Americans struggle to come to terms with the moment we make contact. And so much of Close Encounters feels like a sustained, brilliant first act – intercutting between different people, none of whom has the full picture. Many consider this to be his masterpiece, and there's so much great stuff in it...so why isn't it higher on this list? While the film's odd structure is certainly an asset, it devolves into a great big lightshow for its final act – and there's something discomfiting about all these people staring wide-eyed in wonder at the skies. It's interesting to watch how Spielberg turns the tables around a couple of years later, with Raiders of the Lost Ark's similarly awe-inspiring finale – only this time the light show bites back and melts the gawkers' faces.