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Steven Spielberg’s Movies, Ranked Worst to Best

From ‘Raiders’ to ‘Ready Player One,’ the King of Hollywood’s work from completists-only to modern classics

There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg is still the undisputed King of Hollywood. Over the course of a nearly five-decade-long career, he has perfected and/or inaugurated any number of cinematic movements and innovations. Coming of age as one of the “movie brats” – the generation of filmmakers who transformed American cinema in the Sixties and Seventies – Spielberg also helped kick off Hollywood’s blockbuster culture with Jaws in 1975 (and then sent that culture into overdrive with the one-two punch of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial in 1981 and 1982).

The success of such movies and their imitators has been identified by many as one of the reasons why American film culture took a nosedive in the 1980s, but his career has always alternated between blockbusters and more serious fare. He has tackled tough subjects – the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, WWII in Saving Private Ryan, terrorism in Munich, the Civil War and slavery in Lincoln – while somehow always managing to make films that also work as popular entertainments along the way. To wit: in just the past four months, Spielberg has released one Best Picture nominee, the historical drama The Post, and is now back in theaters with one of the more complicated and ambitious works of his career, the long-awaited virtual-reality sci-fi adventure Ready Player One.

For all its popularity, his body of work is surprisingly diverse, and one senses from each effort the work of a director always pushing his audience as well as himself. So, we decided to look over his filmography in honor of his latest release. Of course, his films are so successful that the vast majority of the movies on this list – even some near the bottom – are worth recommending. Without further ado, here are all of Steven Spielberg’s films, ranked from “worst” to best.


‘1941’ (1979)

Here’s a weird thing: Steven Spielberg can’t really do broad comedy. That sounds like an absurd thing to say, given the sheer amount of humor in, say, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Catch Me If You Can. But while Spielberg is great at introducing lightheartedness into more intense or emotional material, he’s totally lost when his offhand levity is traded in for look-at-me cartwheels. This bloated attempt at a zany multi-character WWII comedy, about Los Angeles panicking at news of a Japanese attack, is a film of massive scale and multiple running gags (rolling Ferris wheels! Sherman tanks on Sunset Boulevard! John Belushi on the loose!). But when you aim for belly laughs and the best you can get is an occasional chuckle, that’s considered a failure. The celebrated USO sequence – the closest Spielberg has come to making a musical, next to the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – is wonderful. The rest of the film, not so much.


‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ (1983)

Spielberg’s entry into this omnibus homage to Rod Serling’s seminal TV series is a redo of the show’s 1962 episode “Kick the Can,” featuring Scatman Crothers as a mysterious, magical man who gives the elderly residents of a retirement home the chance to be young again. The results on high on the predictably Serling-ian “ironic” scale, but this chapter’s sickly sentimentality seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about the director at the time. To be fair, he’s playing it up as pastiche, so it’s meant to be syrupy and overbaked. That doesn’t make it any less tolerable, however, and composer Jerry Goldsmith aping John Williams’ scores doesn’t help much either.


‘The BFG’ (2016)

In theory, this should have been a home run. Working from
the late, great E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic tale, Spielberg returned to the world of
children’s fantasy for this story about an orphaned girl who is abducted and
befriended by a big friendly giant (Mark Rylance). Only this hapless behemoth lives in a far-away land
where he’s bullied by other giants. There are some lovely moments – the effects
are delightful and imaginative, and Rylance’s performance is quite soulful. But the whole thing feels so tired, so precious, so programmed – and it goes fully off the
rails when our plucky heroine and the giant find themselves at Buckingham
Palace, where Spielberg’s inability to do full-on broad comedy becomes obvious. How can a children’s
movie have this little spontaneity?


‘The Terminal’ (2004)

Tom Hanks is awkwardly charming as an East European visitor forced to live in the limbo of JFK airport’s international terminal after his country experiences a coup and his visa is rendered invalid. Stanley Tucci is his typically Spielberg-esque nemesis, a bureaucrat more interested in keeping his airport functioning smoothly than anything else. The film’s tonal mishmash of pathos and farce is too much, and yet again, we have an example of Spielberg’s helplessness when trying to do an outright comedy. Plus he also attempts an old-fashioned romance, courtesy of Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ flight attendant – and it turns out he’s not too good at that either.


‘Always’ (1989)

The director and his Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss were reportedly obsessed with the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe – so why not remake it as an, er, tepid, over-produced romance? Dreyfuss plays a daredevil pilot who puts out forest fires; he later crashes, dies, and returns as a ghost to help the hunky young pilot (Brad Johnson) who will take his place professionally and in the heart of a sassy, sexy air traffic controller (Holly Hunter). Spielberg stages the airborne scenes and the crash sequence with his usual professionalism, but he can’t make the love-story sparks fly at all.


‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (2008)

Many had dreamed of a fourth Indiana Jones for years — so when Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and star Harrison Ford announced they were teaming up for a new adventure, it felt like the Movie Gods had smiled on the fans. And for its first half or so, Crystal Skull does some justice to its predecessors, with numerous set pieces that, while certainly ridiculous, shows that Spielberg & co. could still craft a visceral thrill ride. Unfortunately, the decision to have Shia LaBeouf play Indy’s son may not have been the best call (to say the least), and the film seems to pander more and more to younger viewers as it goes on. The less said about the climax involving aliens, the better.


‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

The third film in the Indiana Jones series has several fantastic set pieces, but it’s also marred by lazy plotting that simply tries to ape the vastly superior Raiders. (This time, they’re after the Holy Grail instead of the Ark of the Covenant.) The highlight is Sean Connery’s convincingly pissy performance as Indiana Jones’ bickering, judgmental dad; watching the original James Bond and the once and future Han Solo snipe away at each other is a joy. But this feels more like an act of fan service than a real adventure. The best thing you can say about Crystal Skull is that thanks to that misfire, this entry is no longer the franchise’s worst.


‘Hook’ (1991)

Robin Williams plays a bourgeois corporate type who just happens to be Peter Pan all grown up in the real world. When his kids are kidnapped by Captain Hook (a preening, craggly Dustin Hoffman), he has to travel back to Neverland and reclaim his inner child, so he can fly again, fight his old nemesis and save his family. It marks, in many ways, the fulcrum on which Spielberg’s career turns: With this film, he stopped making movies about innocence lost, and started to focus on stories about fathers and the responsibilities of parenthood, both real and metaphorical. As an action movie or a take on the Pan mythology, however, it never gets off the ground.


‘Ready Player One’ (2018)

Spielberg’s frantic, overloaded film of Ernest Cline’s cult
novel – about a future where millions of gamers compete in a massive
multiplayer virtual contest for control – is partly a nostalgic throwback to
his heyday (references to the 1980s, and to movies he had a hand in, abound) and
partly a cautionary tale about the indulgent, runaway fantasy world he himself
helped create. Is it just one giant, indulgent bit of nerd service? Or does it
actually have something interesting to say? (Whoa, wait – could it be both?) One
suspects that people will be arguing about this movie for a long time. The movie definitely got some rough spots – some key characters are ill-defined, and
Spielberg seems more interested in trying to dazzle us than to move us, which
is uncharacteristic for him. But it’s fascinating watching the guy who helped make
blockbuster sci-fi spectacles a thing so many years ago try to redefine the
very genre with which he’s so often identified.


‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ (1997)

When he makes actual sequels, Spielberg has a tendency to go way, way dark. (See Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) This follow-up to his 1993 box-office juggernaut about genetically engineered dinosaurs wreaking havoc jettison the modern-day theme park setting; this time, there’s a second island where dinosaurs have been bred. Things go predictably haywire, yet The Lost World feels decidedly less kid-friendly and decidedly more unpleasant than its blockbuster predecessor. Which makes it somewhat effective as a thriller – you get the sense throughout that no character is safe – and uncharacteristically nasty as a piece of Spielberg-ian multiplex entertainment.


‘Munich’ (2005)

For its first hour or so, Spielberg’s thriller about the secret group of Israeli agents tasked with avenging the murders at the 1972 Munich Olympics is terrifying. And while Spielberg admirably shows how revenge brings little closure or comfort, the film’s didacticism starts to take over in the second half. (Also, that outrageous sex scene near the end, in which our hero envisions the murder of the athletes while he makes love to his wife, is ill-advised to say the least.) Still, the film’s very last scene ends on a note of both complexity and historic despair, as the terrified, lonely hero stands in the shadow of the Twin Towers – a symbol of the endless cycle of vengeance.


‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

The unthinkably violent and harrowing opening D-Day sequence of Spielberg’s WWII drama is one for the ages – another example of the director’s ability to go for the jugular when the situation calls for it. But then the film settles in for the long slog, as Tom Hanks, Ed Burns and a generic squad of soldiers (some of whom, like Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi, have since become stars themselves) travel through the devastated European countryside to retrieve private Ryan (Matt Damon) – and the rest of the film devolves into something bland and mawkish to a fault. Still, that opening scene. Wow.


‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)

It’s an update of H.G. Wells’ watch-the-skies sci-fi classic, with Tom Cruise as a divorced mess struggling to spend quality time with his kids when – dammit all to hell! – aliens invade, laying waste to everything in sight. Spielberg choreographs the invasion and its aftermath with a mixture of disaster movie spectacle and post-9/11 gravitas; the urgency and the danger never quite let up. Well, at least until Tim Robbins shows up as a weirdo survivalist, and the film fizzles in its final act.


‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1984)

At the time this follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, many felt that Spielberg had finally gone too far – that his fondness for cartoonish violence and gore had finally slid into outright sadism. The movie was even pivotal in prompting the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, because it seemed weird to be giving PG ratings to movies in which people had their hearts ripped out onscreen. Its atmospheric locale and creepy storyline feel even more evocative of the vintage serials that inspired this series than the original Raiders; at the same time, what seemed innocuous back then now seems racially insensitive or misogynistic. (The depictions of Jonathan Ke Quan’s Short Round and Kate Capshaw’s lounge singer both seem unfortunate now, to say the least.) Hey, at least it doesn’t have aliens – yes, we’re looking at you, Crystal Skull.


‘The Color Purple’ (1985)

In what many considered to be his first “serious” film, Spielberg took Alice Walker’s internalized, almost experimental Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and turned it into a lavish, expansive, emotional epic. As the innocent but relentlessly brutalized Celie, an African woman living in the South, Whoopi Goldberg (in her film acting debut) was a beacon of pathos, while Danny Glover gave her abusive, callous husband Albert remarkable complexity. Does the film go a little too far in rounding out the sharp edges and provocations of the book? Yes, but Spielberg’s ability to turn the harsh, sometimes unforgiving tragedies into grand, moving triumphs of the human spirit is remarkable. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, but didn’t win any; he’d have to wait almost a decade before one of his films would nab Academy’s grand prize.

Steven Spielberg

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‘War Horse’ (2011)

Spielberg's take on this WWI tale – first a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, then a play by Nick Stafford – about a young Devon lad who tracks down his beloved horse in the trenches of France, starts off as a quaint, provincial reverie along the lines of John Ford's How Green Is My Valley. Then it does something fascinating: As the war spreads, it consumes the film's Old World aesthetic and brings it kicking and screaming into the murderous, mechanized modern world. True, some felt War Horse was too old-fashioned — but in fact, it's about the very idea of being old-fashioned.


‘Bridge of Spies’ (2015)

Spielberg leans into the even-handed somberness of this
real-life story about the lawyer (played by America’s Dad, Tom Hanks) who was
tasked by the U.S. government with negotiating the exchange of a Soviet spy (Mark
Rylance) for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the early 1960s. The
performances are great – Rylance won a well-deserved Oscar for his surprisingly
melancholy turn – and Spielberg has a surprising amount of fun with the
atmosphere of divided, Cold War-era Berlin. But this film also feels
spiritually refreshing for the director: Even in his more serious work, has
often demonstrated a Manichean streak, one with clearly defined notions of good
and evil. This might be the one Spielberg film where he seems determined to allow every
character their humanity, and to embrace the complexity of the world.

Steven Spielberg

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‘The Adventures of Tintin’ (2011)

Made in collaboration with Peter Jackson, Spielberg's re-imagining of Belgian cartoonist Herge's iconic, cowlicked boy detective is an ideal blend of reality and computer animation: The characters have just enough weight and presence to feel like they've finally come to life, while the colorful style still allows them to retain their distinctive features from the original comic books. And once it gets going, the film – which incorporates narrative elements from a number of Tintin stories – never really stops, with chase scenes piled atop one another. It was admittedly too much for some viewers, but the movie's sheer energy is something to behold.


‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)

It’s safe to say that 1993 was a very good year for Spielberg: Not only did he make one of the most brutal films about the Holocaust to come out of Hollywood (a feat which would win him an Oscar), but also made one of his biggest hits ever by adapting Michael Crichton’s novel about a theme park populated by real dinosaurs. It’s a wild ride, to be sure, but let’s not forget that Spielberg got his start in horror films, and Jurassic Park is a real monster movie — the fact that these predatory beasts run amuck have been rendered with such lifelike special effects only makes them that much more terrifying.