Monday High-5: The Best of Steven Spielberg

Words: J. Wood

Ever since I started writing this weekly column I have kept abreast of the upcoming releases to decide upon topics and of course, when I saw that Steven Spielberg was releasing a new film I had to make his filmography a topic but, as this article has loomed, it has become more and more a burden, how do you cut Spielberg’s output down to five.  So, in a break from tradition rather than do my five favourite Spielberg films I have decided to do my best Steven Spielberg film from each decade in which he has been making films (which handily happens to be five).  The thing about Spielberg is that although he will be best remembered for ‘spectacle cinema’ and indeed is the directorial name even the most casual cinemagoer can bring to mind, I believe him to be an absolute master at serious cinema, and although there are a good number of his films I do not like, there are none I don’t admire what he was trying to do.  So without further ado, here I go.


1970s – Jaws (1975)


This was the film that defined and created the term ‘blockbuster’ and, despite only being a 12 Certificate still scares the hell out of me today.  This is quite possibly my favourite Spielberg film, although not necessarily the one I would call his best, and for such a young, inexperienced director is a work of remarkable confidence, composure and intelligence.  Of course everybody knows the stories about the troubled shoot, the spiralling budget and of Bruce, the malfunctioning animatronic shark whose lack of functionality makes for some of the film’s best moments.  Indeed Jaws would not be half the film it is without the Hitchcockian like ‘shark-eye-view’ shots necessitated by not having a functioning model, which aligned with John Williams’ iconic yet very simplistic score make for cinematic gold.  Of course due to all the technical wizardry it is easy to forget just how well written Jaws is as  a character piece, with Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and especially Robert Shaw owning the screen in the longer than you think fishing boat scenes towards the end of the film’s middle act.  Indeed the acting is top notch throughout, with all the cast effortlessly creating real characters with real emotions reacting appropriately, if not always correctly to an unthinkable scenario.  The defining moment for me will always be the boat wreck, when the body emerges.  I have seen the film over twenty times and still jump at the very same moment.  This is a blockbuster with a satisfyingly thought through final act unlike so many and I think, unlike a very prominent film critic some of our readers may be aware of, of course Jaws is about a shark.


1980s – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Indiana Jones is fantasy adventure cinema at its most pure form, a joyous, riotous thrill ride from beginning to end filled with exotic locations, brilliant chases and a bizarre plot driving the action.  That the original trilogy is a string of brilliantly put together pieces of cinema on top of this only furthers just how fun they can be, and indeed I believe that at their best moments they are the most purely enjoyable films Spielberg has ever made.  In a decade that also included E.T. choosing an Indiana Jones film was difficult, and choosing which one was even more so.  Although my editor disagrees Indiana Jones is clearly better with Nazis, and although my childhood favourite was always The Last Crusade, Raiders of the Lost Ark just pips it for my 26 year old self.  There is a sublime confidence about it as a piece of filmmaking, not just from the bravura opening temple sequence, but just the fearlessly breakneck speed at which Spielberg gets into telling his story.  Moving from Nepal, to Egypt and beyond in a search for the Ark of the Covenant, there is just the right amount of religious undertone to the boys own adventure nature of the story.  Boasting Karen Allen as the best companion Indy ever had, and in Belloq and Toht the finest adversaries he ever came up against, Harrison Ford played the role with sublime coolness, not least at the moment he ends a swordsman’s threat in the most casual manner.  Why is this my favourite?  Partly because it created the icon, introduced us to (another) iconic John Williams score, but mostly because, although I still think this misses the added sense of fun Sean Connery brought to The Last Crusade, its not half as much a miss as Marcus and Salleh were to Temple of Doom.


1990s – Schindler’s List (1993)

schindlers list

The very best movie Steven Spielberg has ever made and the film that, after the tepid receptions The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun received, proved that there was a genuinely great director in Spielberg and not just a master emotional manipulator and purveyor of great spectacle.  The great wisdom of this film is that it tackles a minute pocket of a vast horror of the 20th Century and, in doing so, gets right to the heart of the issue.  Shot in gorgeous monochrome, save for the one girl in the red coat in the Krakow Ghetto, the payoff to a seeming anomaly being simply spellbinding, the film has a timeless feel that helps let it stand alone in Spielberg’s filmography.  This is a film that does not rely on any bravura filmmaking tactics or clever techniques, just brave, bold storytelling.  When Ben Kingsley, as Itzhak Stern is the weakest of the three main players it emphasises the quality of the acting.  For my money Liam Neeson has never bettered his turn as Oskar Schindler, turning the character from a manipulative small time middleman out to exploit an oppressed people to someone so affected by the horrors he has seen that the smallest gestures break him, it is simply masterful to watch, as is Ralph Fiennes’ sadistic turn as pure evil camp guard Amon Goeth.  The film has one sequence of such horrendous bravura, in which a trainful of Jews arrive at Auschwitz, their fates seemingly sealed.  The entire sequence is supremely tense in the most unbelievable of ways that you forget that this is not some tent pole thriller but a drama about the lowest depths humanity can sink to.  Some dislike the final scene, using it as a stick to beat Spielberg with for his toying with emotions but it, along with John Williams’ mournful score are perfect fits for a perfect movie.


2000s – Minority Report (2002)

minority report

This is often remembered as just another Tom Cruise thriller from the time when his status still allowed him to command an audience single-handedly, but what it is instead is ‘The Best of The Rest’ Philip K. Dick cinematic adaptation after the peerless Blade Runner.  Cruise stars as John Anderton, a surprisingly flawed character for a big summer movie, and part of a future Pre-Crime unit who goes on the run after being accused of a future murder.  This is one of the few heroic roles in which I like the way Cruise is directed, with Spielberg choosing to expose the strange flaws to his personality that make him such a great villainous/creepy turn (Collateral/Magnolia), while never losing sight of the fact that this is a big budget summer movie, bread and butter to him.  The film’s utilisation of Cruise works brilliantly to its advantage as his believability in the dependable leading man role to allow Colin Farrell and the brilliant Samantha Morton a sounding board for which to use to offer ‘braver’ performances.  Morton especially is phenomenal in a very testing role and, while I would class my relationship with the output of Colin Farrell as ‘difficult’ there is a raw energy to his pursuer here that has dissipated over the years.  Not to put this down but of the five films to make this list this is my least favourite, but that is not a disservice in the slightest, merely a major compliment to the others.  There are very few directors who could make a two and a half hour feel so short, take subject matter like this and offset such depressive subject matter with exhilaration and get away with it, but then I guess that’s the quality that means Steven Spielberg can release a film over 40 years after his first and still get such wide and positive press for it.


2010s – Bridge Of Spies (2015)

bridge of spies
I saw this a few days ago and walked out of the cinema pleased that not only had Spielberg come out of a relatively poor spell but he had also for me made his best film since 1993.  This is a superbly written film, and it is surprising to see quite how at ease Spielberg’s filmmaking is at accommodating some of the quirkiness of the Coen Brothers, a trait he has steered clear of for much of his career.  This is the kind of film I had worried Spielberg could make in his sleep to a three star standard, but this is pretty much as good as it gets.  Utilising Tom Hanks in the way he ought to be, as the defiant everyman, almost the Jimmy Stewart of his generation, this is a performance of great resolution, of great morality, yet of great interest, the character is multi-faceted in spite of his rigid beliefs, and even manages to pull off having a cold to perfection.  He is blessed with a fine supporting cast, not least in British theatre giant Mark Rylance, who gives a performance of such subtleties and nuances I cannot wait to rewatch this, simply because I just cannot believe that it is as good as I believe it to be.  As a filmmaker Spielberg punctuates the main drama here with two or three extended sequences that are both inherent to the plot yet running tangentially from it, and this is where he has his fun.  As always Adam Stockhausen designs the sets and look of the film wonderfully and, despite giving himself the opportunity to, Spielberg swerves away from his now traditional emotional manipulation of his audience, and this for me made the film all the more special.