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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.

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20

‘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.

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19

‘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.

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18

‘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.

17

‘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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16

‘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.

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15

‘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.

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14

‘Amistad’ (1997)

Yes, the "Give…us…free!" sequence might be the worst thing Spielberg has ever directed – the kind of syrupy, sentimental indulgence his detractors were always going on about. But the rest of this film, much maligned at the time, is incredibly powerful. Following the real-life legal efforts to free a group of slaves who took over the title ship in 1839, this historical drama is alternately sober-minded and passionate. Because the slaves – led by Djimon Hounsou, giving one of the finest performances in any Spielberg movie – were treated as property under U.S. law at the time, two Abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard) have to make common cause with an oily real estate lawyer (played by Matthew McConaughey). But the film balances that disturbing insight with a ferocious, traumatic flashback to the "Middle Passage," showing the unthinkable brutality with which these human beings were treated during their journey. In many ways, Amistad is the necessary correlative to Lincoln, which shows how Abraham Lincoln and his allies had to use duplicitous means to achieve justice.

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13

‘Duel’ (1971)

Dennis Weaver finds himself pursued by an unseen, psychotic trucker. It's a simple premise, and as one might imagine, Spielberg's gift for suspense and his ability to mount a car chase serve him well here. But the prime attraction is the macho neurosis that drives the movie: Weaver's henpecked, suburban family man clearly feels psychologically besieged by this relentless, unhinged force, and watching him getting in touch with his inner Iron John is slyly exciting. Duel was one of several TV movies the director made in the early 1970s – including the fascinatingly weird L.A. 2017 – though it was released theatrically in Europe. It's since become canonized as one of Spielberg's finest early achievements and a huge glimpse of what was heading down the road.

Steven Spielberg

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12

‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)

This drama about a young wife (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband out of prison, so they can retrieve their baby from a foster home and flee to Mexico was the director’s entry into the popular late Sixties/early Seventies lovers-on-the-run movie sweepstakes. And unlike most entries in this subgenre (see Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde), Spielberg’s film is much more of a ride – the glee with which he orchestrates car chases and crashes is thrilling to watch. It also gives you an early indication that his work won’t be all rainbows and Reese’s Pieces, all the time: As the protagonists’ freewheeling recklessness continues on a collision course with the forces of law and order, we know their adventure can’t end well. Spoiler alert: It does not.

Steven Spielberg

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11

‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)

Watching this distant-future update of Pinocchio with a robot boy in a distant future trying to win the love of his family, is a conflicting, conflicted experience. It started off as a long-gestating Stanley Kubrick dream project. But
when the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey passed away, the director of
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial took over the project and rewrote the
script. Watching the film’s robot protagonist David (Haley Joel Osment) struggle with his “human” brother Martin, you sense that this material holds genuine personal import for Spielberg, the father of both adopted and biological children.

Steven Spielberg

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10

‘Lincoln’ (2012)

At times, this portrait of our nation's 16th President (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment in the waning days of the Civil War feels like the least Spielberg-ian of the director's films. Certainly, its insularity, its single-minded focus on process, and its reams of dialogue are a far cry from the epic sweep of his other historical movies. But there's a master class going on here. Look at the use of space – how he portrays the White House as a ghostly mansion haunted by images of war and slavery, slowly becoming suffused with light as Lincoln gets closer to his goal. Look at the contrasts in the POTUS' personality, perfectly captured by Day-Lewis: the avuncular, chatty leader who also happens to be a ruthless, calculating practitioner of realpolitik. Look at the way that Honest Abe, halfway towards becoming a myth, has to use the majesty of his office and position to reach a series of mundane compromises to achieve historic goals. This is one of Spielberg's most deceptively complex films, and the rare movie that effectively shows history at work.

Steven Spielberg

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9

‘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.

8

‘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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7

‘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.

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6

‘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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5

‘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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4

‘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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3

‘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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2

‘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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1

‘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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