33. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Don’t blame Harrison Ford, who was a spry 65 when he shot this fourth Indy adventure. It’s the rest of the film that’s a mess: we get Mayans, kung-fu assassins, extraterrestrials, giant ants and that fridge, which protects the hero from an atomic blast in the most widely mocked scene of Spielberg’s career.
32. Hook (1991)
This Peter Pan sequel began life as a musical before Spielberg “chickened out after the first week of shooting” and removed all the songs. Show tunes might have distracted from Robin Williams at his most saccharine or Julia Roberts as a swattable Tinkerbell.
31. War Horse (2011)
Or: All Equine on the Western Front. A boy and his horse are separated by war in this adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel and National Theatre hit. Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch do proper Period Drama Acting against a backdrop of CGI skies and synthetic emotion.
30. Always (1989)
Based on one of Spielberg’s two favourite films (A Guy Named Joe) and featuring a final role for Audrey Hepburn (the star of the other, Two for the Road), this labour of love is laborious all right. Richard Dreyfuss is the dead pilot guiding his earthbound sweetheart (Holly Hunter) to happiness.
29. Ready Player One (2018)
A futuristic VR hotchpotch featuring a sluggish hero, lacklustre world-building and self-congratulatory references such as the DeLorean from the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future, a device named the Zemeckis Cube, and an interminable sequence piggybacking on The Shining.
28. The BFG (2016)
Despite some touching rapport between a performance-capture Mark Rylance and the peppery, 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill, this Roald Dahl fantasy goes downhill once it reaches Buckingham Palace and some twee, oleaginous material involving the Queen (Penelope Wilton).
27. The Terminal (2004)
A self-consciously quirky comedy in which an eastern European jazz buff (Tom Hanks) finds himself stateless and consigned to a JFK airport terminal. What might have been a Tati-esque study of man against modernity sinks in whimsy, though Hanks’s romantic dinner with a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a gem of a scene.
26. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
“If I’m on my heels, I get better ideas than … coming in to do the sequel to Jurassic Park,” Spielberg told this paper last year. “It’s a lot better for me not to make the sequel to Jurassic Park.” Hear, hear. Blockbuster-by-numbers stuff save for a tense sequence involving a Winnebago dangling off the edge of a cliff.
25. The Color Purple (1985)
Nakedly craving Oscar recognition, Spielberg made his first foray into “grown-up” material, casting newcomers Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in an adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel about the struggles of a young African-American woman in early-20th-century Georgia. Performances aside, the film reeks of insincerity.
24. Amistad (1997)
There’s genuine ferocity to the uprising at the start of this real-life 19th-century slavery drama. Thereafter, the film settles into courtroom ponderousness and a predominantly white perspective despite the commanding presence of Djimon Hounsou. Anthony Hopkins grandstands enjoyably as former president John Quincy Adams.
23. Munich (2005)
In following the Mossad revenge mission to hunt down the Palestinians responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg’s thriller is torn apart by equivocation, and his own temperamental unsuitability for the job in hand. The closing sex scene is the worst of the film’s misjudgments.
22. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
Technically dazzling but low on charm, this performance-capture extravaganza features complex, breakneck action sequences. A mind-blowing motorbike-and-sidecar chase is the clear highlight. The overall effect is very CGI: computer-generated Indy, that is.
21. 1941 (1979)
For years, this wartime comedy was the one film cited as proof that its director had feet of clay. Today, it’s mostly a gas once you get past the smug opening Jaws pastiche. Pratfalls, explosions, men landing in crates of eggs, dogs kitted out in naval uniforms, a Ferris wheel liberated from its moorings to roll along a pier – who’s complaining?
20. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Based on JG Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about an 11-year-old British boy (Christian Bale) who becomes separated from his parents in early-1940s Shanghai. Young Bale was already exhibiting the concentrated intensity for which he is now renowned, though Spielberg hadn’t yet found a way to balance grandeur and intimacy with the deftness displayed in his fantasy work.
19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
After a knockout prologue explaining where the young Indy (played by River Phoenix) got his panama hat, bullwhip, scar and ophidiophobia, this third outing settles down into standard Nazi-biffing action. It comes to life again once the older Indy teams up with his father (Sean Connery) for bants and bickering en route to nab the holy grail.
18. The Post (2017)
Hanks is Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor stepping into the breach when Nixon tries to thwart publication of the Pentagon Papers, which prove, among other things, that the US government knew the Vietnam war was unwinnable. Spielberg exhibits affection for the beat and bustle of daredevil print journalism.
17. The Sugarland Express (1974)
“I haven’t got any style yet,” the director reflected shortly before the release of his cinema debut about a woman (Goldie Hawn) who persuades her convict husband (William Atherton) to flee jail to help her snatch their baby from foster parents. There are flashes of panache and a memorable moment using a Road Runner cartoon for portentous purposes.
16. Lincoln (2012)
The passing of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery is picked over in fastidious detail by screenwriter Tony Kushner. There are plenty of longueurs but at its liveliest the string-pulling and horse-trading masterminded by Lincoln (an Oscar-winning Daniel Day-Lewis) could pass for The Thick of It in stovepipe hats and mutton-chop sideburns.
15. War of the Worlds (2005)
Admirably low on gung-ho, Independence Day-style frivolity, this frighteningly chaotic update of the HG Wells novel is fit for a post-9/11 audience who had begun watching the skies with new-found terror. Tom Cruise is impressively bedraggled as the crap dad forced into action, with Dakota Fanning as his smart-cookie daughter.
14. West Side Story (2021)
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are the shiny Romeo and Juliet of this generally tougher, more authentically cast take on the 1957 stage musical. But it is the supporting cast – especially Oscar-winning Ariana DeBose as Anita, and the wiry Mike Faist as Riff – who are worth making a song and dance about.
13. Jurassic Park (1993)
Next to Jaws, this is the Spielberg film most often cited as his scariest. But as the critic Adam Mars-Jones pointed out at the time, any horror in Jurassic Park “is constantly disrupted by an incongruous reassurance”. Gags follow frights, danger dispelled with consoling cuddles. There are bravura sequences – the nocturnal, rain-lashed T rex attack, the velociraptors in the kitchen – but this is strictly one for the soft-play area.
12. Bridge of Spies (2015)
In the first and best of his three collaborations with Spielberg to date, Rylance (who declined a role in Empire of the Sun) is the KGB spy Rudolf Abel. Captured in Brooklyn in 1957, he is defended by good-egg lawyer James B Donovan (Hanks), who helps steer the deal-making and spy-swapping. With the Coen brothers among the screenwriters, this is a wry study of empathy in a time of discord.
11. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Opening with a witty, elegant animated title sequence, this caper follows a real-life teenage conman (Leonardo DiCaprio), who posed as everything from a French teacher to a Pan Am pilot, and the FBI drudge (Hanks) who pursued him. Loose and limber, with a chaser of nagging melancholy.
10. Minority Report (2002)
“I am arresting you for the future murder of …” So begins this thrilling Philip K Dick adaptation boasting a dynamic cast (Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton) and harum-scarum set pieces: a chase on an automobile production line, a flight through a tenement slum on a hijacked jet-pack. Offbeat delights include the sight of Cruise (who spends portions of the film bandaged or disfigured) chasing his own runaway eyeballs.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Hanks leads the mission to rescue a soldier (Matt Damon) behind enemy lines in a film justly remembered for its graphic and relentless Omaha Beach sequence, which permanently altered what the experience of a Spielberg movie could be. Shame about the perverse decision to frame the story as the flashback of a character who wasn’t there to witness most of the action.
8. Schindler’s List (1993)
Kicking off Spielberg’s glorious collaboration with the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has shot all his films since then, this harrowing, boldly ambiguous story of hope in the Holocaust won Spielberg the first of his two best director Oscars. It’s still baffling, though, that so much time is devoted to the sadistic SS officer played by Ralph Fiennes, undermining the quotidian cruelty bravely insisted on elsewhere in the film. Did Spielberg worry that we would nod off without him?
7. AI Artificial Intelligence (2001)
With this adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, Spielberg fuses his own sentimental sensibility with murkier elements more redolent of Stanley Kubrick (who was originally set to make the film). Haley Joel Osment is both eerie and upsetting as the robotic child first cherished then rejected by his owners, before embarking on a Pinocchio-esque quest for identity. The freakiest film in Spielberg’s canon.
6. Duel (1971)
The plot of this made-for-TV movie, later released in cinemas, could be written on a petrol cap: a driver is pursued by a truck. What is the motivation for this multi-wheeled stalker? Where is his face? You might as well ask why the birds had it in for Tippi Hedren. Savour instead the sight of a wunderkind (just 24!) at his most driven.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Paying tribute to the cliffhanger serials of their youth, Spielberg and George Lucas delivered two hours of unadulterated pleasure. Harrison Ford is at his most seductively rumpled as the archaeologist-adventurer trying to stop the Nazis getting their mitts on the Ark of the Covenant. There is a runaway boulder, a breathless Stagecoach-beating chase sequence, a melty-faced finale, and snakes – lots of snakes. Esteemed British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe brings old-fashioned flair.
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The genius of this delicate, inquisitive work lies in its filtering of fantastical ideas and images through humdrum domestic settings. Beneath its eye-popping special effects and ecstatic set pieces (the abduction of a child lured from his home by aliens is worthy of comparison to Hitchcock), the film is both a gasp of wonder at the universe and a raw account of an ordinary man (Richard Dreyfuss) torn from his family by obsession.
3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The second Indiana Jones adventure is set one year before Raiders of the Lost Ark, and is roughly 10 times nastier, littered with gruesome spectacle and some regrettably archaic attitudes towards Indian culture. But it remains an unbeatable example of Spielberg in his action-movie pomp. The opening sequence alone – a razzle-dazzle musical number that gives way to a life-or-death dancefloor struggle, a car chase and an impossible escape from a crashing plane – is enough to prove him an all-time master. Rollercoaster cinema at its giddiest.
2. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg was 27 when he created one of the mightiest, scariest thrillers of all time. Its troubled production has been exhaustively documented (most recently on stage in The Shark Is Broken, co-written by and starring Ian Shaw, the son of Robert Shaw, who played Quint) but what matters now is what’s on screen: an impeccably paced slow-burner that knows exactly when to tease and when to terrify. All accompanied by John Williams’s indelible main theme, which is nothing short of a cardiac arrest in musical form.
1. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
A perfect movie. Think of the miraculous juvenile performers (Spielberg proving himself the equal here of Truffaut, who first encouraged him to make a film about “keeds”); John Williams’s soaring score with its little recesses of menace; the vivid sense of wildness encroaching on the suburbs; screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s knack for distilling tear-duct-draining emotion into a single tableau or phrase (“We’re sick – I think we’re dying” kills me every time); and the eloquent framing and cross-cutting, especially during the biology class sequence. Cultural ubiquity has diminished neither this masterpiece nor ET himself. He comes in peace; we are left in pieces.