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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.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987)

Spielberg's epic adaptation of J.G. Ballard's WWII memoir didn't get nearly enough love when it came out, but its reputation has steadily (and rightfully) grown over the years. As Jim Graham, a boy whose opulent life with his expat parents in Shanghai is upended when the Japanese invade, a very young Christian Bale is equal parts fresh-faced charm and snooty privilege; he's an adorably irritating Spielberg boy protagonist. It's a stark portrait of shattered illusions, showing how youthful wonder transforms into terror and paralysis. And as the American mercenary and opportunist who befriends Jim, and then fails to live up to the boy's expectations, John Malkovich gives one of his finest performances.


‘The Post’ (2017)

Despite the acclaim and accomplishment of films like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, some had begun to grouse that Spielberg was
becoming a stuffy historical filmmaker – a presenter of dusty prestige pictures
with little of the dash of his earlier work. They were wrong, but still. One of
the things that makes The Post so
special is the fact that Spielberg shoots this historical drama – about the
Washington Post’s efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers even as the Nixon
White House was threatening retaliation – like an action thriller. Yes, these
people wield typewriters and copiers instead of actual weapons. But Spielberg
brings a remarkable immediacy and energy to the material, making the patience
and drudgery and meticulousness of journalism seem positively heroic. His wide-eyed
fascination with the machinery and processes of this world is infectious.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Minority Report’ (2002)

The director's contribution to le cinema du Philip K. Dick imagines Tom Cruise as a futuristic cop who specializes in investigating "pre-crimes" – knowing when someone is going to commit murder, and then arresting them before they do it. (Let's give it up for technology…and bald-headed psychics who hang out in pools!) When he himself is accused of one such predicted felony, however, our hero goes on the run, and the film transforms from a mere genre piece to a poignant portrait of a society that has lost its moorings. At heart, like so many of Spielberg's works, this is a tale of fathers and sons – both on an individual level and on a social level.And though the film had been in production prior to 9/11, the filmmaker's ability to channel the zeitgeist's paranoia and burgeoning surveillance culture is downright uncanny.


‘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.

Steven Spielberg

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‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)

It's the ultimate boy-meets alien tale and one of the director's most beloved films, and it's easy to see why: Despite plenty of unforgettable set pieces, iconic images (that moonlight bike ride!), the instantly recognizable John Williams score and a host of wonderful child-actor performances, what really makes the movie resonate decades after achieving pop-cultural immortality is its honest depiction of bonding through mutual loneliness. Stranded on Earth, this scared, long-necked creature and this fragile young lad find each other and literally (no, literally) mind-meld. So many of us fell in love with it as kids; the fact that it still holds up beautifully is a testament to Spielberg's investment in grounding the fantastic and turning mundane suburbia into a place of endless wonder. And if you say that you still don't cry when you watch that climactic goodbye embrace, you're a liar.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Catch Me If You Can’ (2002)

Meet legendary conman Frank Abegnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) who eventually brought him to justice. Yes, it's another tale of innocence lost and families broken, starring two of the world's biggest actors — but it's incredibly sophisticated stylistically and despite being a hit, remains a vastly underrated, highly subversive gem within the director's body of work. Frank's duplicities read like a journey through American culture and prosperity at the mid-century mark – from his posing as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer, respectively, to his James Bondian posturing – and the filmmaker mimics these styles with verve and vigor. And just when things start to feel a little too champagne-bubbly for its own good, he offsets it with the gritty, handheld poetry of the Tom Hanks scenes. It's a fascinating dialogue between two characters, two modes of living, and two Spielbergs – the pop specialist and the serious artist.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

What's left to say about Spielberg's most acclaimed film and one of Hollywood's few genuine attempts to confront the Holocaust? It's a haunting work, to be sure – but also a haunted one, ostensibly a tale of survival regarding the thousand-plus Jews who were effectively saved by the efforts of German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). But it can't shake the ghosts of those who didn't survive, and keeps showing us their fates as well. The brief glimpse of Auschwitz, not to mention the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, are some of the most unbearable sequences Spielberg has ever put to film. And other than a few concessions to stylistics (that red coat), the director tempered the usual sensationalism of his usual historical drama aesthethic, shooting in black and white and consciously forgoing some of his cherished cinematic techniques. It's a stark work, and a deeply humanistic one as well.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Jaws’ (1975)

Despite his reputation in the 1980s as a director (and patron-saint producer) of cuddly, kid-friendly adventures, Spielberg's first blockbuster was this terrifying, often gory adaptation of Peter Benchley's shark thriller. It's been endlessly imitated, in terms of its influence and as an easy target for parody (think of how many times John Williams' deceivingly simple, undeniably ominous theme music has been used as a punchline), and has been accused of being everything from a trumped-up B picture to the catalyst for the bottom-line-and-blockbuster-obsessed industry that we're dealing with today. Yet the film has lost none of its power after all these years, in part because of its ruthlessness: In Spielberg's hands, the shark becomes not just a great movie monster, but also an existential fact – consuming its victims with little care for who they are. That unhinged, anything-goes quality, enhanced by an almost mathematical deployment of scares, still keeps us riveted and shocked, even after multiple viewings. It's a magic trick like very few others in film history.

Steven Spielberg

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‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

Spielberg's thrills-spills-and-chills masterpiece is both an homage to classic movie serials and also something totally of its early Eighties' moment. It's a film of beautifully conceived and precisely executed action – each scene more surprising, ornate, and eye-popping than the last – yet archeologist and man of adventure Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is never just a figure inside a big, SFX machine; the set pieces work because the film is so firmly invested in character. Watch how our hero and his duplicitous guide go back and forth in the film's breathtaking opening sequence; or Indy's interactions with Marion (Karen Allen) in the Well of Souls; or his weirdly jokey exchanges with the various Nazi foot-soldiers and drivers throughout the film's incredible desert truck chase scene. Its effects and technique are dazzling; it's a perfect blend of jaw-dropping spectacle and the sort of actor-driven movie-movie moments that are redolent of Golden-Age-of-Hollywood classics; and it's as perfect a piece of pure, uncut entertainment as anyone has produced in the last few decades.

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