Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.

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Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Three)

The short story “Trucks” first appeared in Cavalier, a men’s magazine, in June of 1973, which probably means that no one actually read it, or very few people did anyway. It was later published in Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, in 1979. This was King’s first venture into automotive horror. It’s not a sub-genre many of us ever consider but as King demonstrates in Danse Macabre it certainly exists.
 

“Even such a much-loved American institution as the motor vehicle has not escaped the troubled dreams of Hollywood…” (Danse, 163-4) From this tone we can see we’re usually not going to be dealing with masterpieces even within the genre. He then goes on to discuss a movie starring James Brolin called The Car. “The movie degenerates into a ho-hum piece of hackwork before the end of the second reel (the sort of movie where you can safely go out for popcorn refills at certain interval because you know the car isn’t going to strike for another ten minutes or so).” (Danse, 164).
 

We later are given a sense of what would be a better tale and King makes reference to Spielberg’s Duel (164) but ultimately concludes that to find other interesting car stories one should look towards stories and novels (164).
 

So, if King was not actually told to do this story because it was the one that De Laurentiis was willing to buy from him, perhaps he thought he was better off going into territory that hadn’t been handled all that successfully in the cinema.
    

King’s tale is very short and obviously needed to be expanded upon in order to make it into a motion picture. While the short story isn’t perfect, there are areas in which it is much more successful than the film. First off, we get no moments of comedy in the tale, unless we’ve seen the film, and I like the way the characters interacted in prose better.
     

In the short story there was more of an emphasis on waiting it out and also on speculation of impact. The characters discuss how much food they have stored and start to fill jugs with water; these issues are not addressed in the film, it’s as if everyone knows they’ll only be trapped for two days at most. The impact of these trucks taking over may have plays itself in the mind of the narrator and occasionally through dialogue. When there is a debate over pumping gas; the issue of being slaves to the machines comes up. Billy imagines people all over the country pumping gas into driverless trucks. He imagines an escape to a cave a digression to near pre-historic times. The inability for the trucks to reproduce and the contrast of whether or not they were currently being assembled at that moment was also postulated. 
 

Where the story is similar in some places is meaningless because of the way King approached the short story. He starts with the people already stuck in the truck stop. Even if the studio would require the cockamamie comet excuse later on, fine but it is much more frightening without such an outlandish set up; a set up might I add that doesn’t logically lead to machinery working and thinking on its own. Another way in which the short story is superior is in the ending. Here’s the way it ends: “Two planes leave silver contrails etched across the darkening eastern horizon. I wish I could believe there are people in them.” (Shift, 142).  And it’s over. They’re stuck and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. It’s a great ending, but obviously not one many film production companies will want to have, so King had to change.
 

Stephen King has always been a fan of the unknown and while he knows it’s difficult he occasionally likes to leave things opaque like in Dreamcatcher. It may have been better if he had been allowed to do that with this film.
 

In fairness to the film, the characters were more drawn out than they were in the short story. It was just a case of having too many and not having enough time to deal with them all.

Spielberg Sunday: Duel (1971)

Dennis Weaver in Duel (Universal TV)

Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.

Duel is a film that is deceptively simple in its narrative. It is simple enough that if you are simply told what it entails you’d wonder “Well, how can that ever make a good movie?” This is the same thought I had when my Uncle told me about it and talked about how great it was. He wasn’t wrong and there are many reasons why this film works so well.

While Spielberg worked many wonders in wielding this tale into an unforgettable motion picture, for which, we cannot forget that Richard Matheson wrote a tremendous screenplay based on his own short story. When we watch this film we get a sense of quiet and inner-monologue along with paranoid, frightened contemplation by our protagonist which is so well laid out that this comes very close to being a novel on film which is why people thought it couldn’t be done.

At the beginning we have a long sequence from the point of view of the protagonist and the only thing we hear besides the car-whipped wind and the hum of the engine is a radio call-in show where a man is talking to a woman and saying that he feels emasculated by his wife. Little do we know it but we are getting information about our protagonist without even knowing about it. I had suspected this for if we weren’t hearing a reflection of our protagonist this background conversation would be most extraneous indeed. The first time we see our protagonist is a shot in the rear view mirror of his car.

Duel takes what is a very real situation and takes it to its most insane and cataclysmic possible conclusions, the quintessence of horror. All we get in most of the beginning is a truck and a little car on a road. One cuts the other off and then they exchange volleys and try and block each other off. It’s a situation people find themselves in quite often, the exchange of ‘being cut-off’ and it is likely that, more than once, someone has wondered ‘Maybe I should stop messing around with this guy I don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ Not only do we see a man pushed to his limits but we only see this man. The trucker appears but once in the whole film. Occasionally, we see an arm sticking out a window but most of the time it’s a mystery. The fear of the unknown is also played upon in this film to a great extent and in what took a lot of courage and was difficult to pull off we never really do get to meet the trucker or understand him.

I don’t often hear people talk about Spielberg’s visual sensitivity this is usually because people often confused good art direction and set design with cinematography this is not the case and ‘Duel’ proves it. We see the wheels bounce and the camera accompanies it. We have two instances in which Spielberg uses a close up on the speedometer to increase the tension just a quick little glimpse and we watch the climb 70, 80, 90, this in tandem with the Hitchcockian and an occasional sampling of vivacious Bluegrass music. We watch our lead talking to his wife through a washing machine lid to show how trapped he feels when talking to his wife. We see shots of the back of the dusty, grimy trucks that read ‘Flammable’ and foreshadow the trucker’s demise and many more. The important thing about all of his camera work in the film is that it all has a purpose it doesn’t just look pretty. There’s a beautiful sequence where Spielberg tracks around the grill of the car and around the back and does the same with the truck moving up and down as he goes. Not only does this get us closer to the battle but it leaves us uneasy as do much of the shots and it works tremendously.

The paranoia of the picture really shows itself when the man is in the diner. At this point and really at any point in the film his name is irrelevant (When speaking to the operator we discover his surname is Mann, that isn’t an accident). He is just any old guy. In the diner we hear his thought process as he jumps through possibilities and then just as any person might. We see him look at the bar and scan all the patrons up from their boots to their faces. In this scene he loses it and confronts the wrong man about the on highway altercation he had. It’s in fact probably a film that has become more relevant as the years have gone on with incidents of “Road Rage” and even the coining of that phrase. We’ve seen this sleeper go from an odd chunk of macabre and mutate into something not so far-fetched.

The tension just doesn’t let down. We see tight shots of the back of the bus with the kids antagonizing an already aggravated man. We later see a great shot of the truck going back into the tunnel. He comes and knocks the bus out so that he and the car can engage in battle. It’s all battle now the trucker has decided to take it to the finish. Our protagonist once tried to avoid it by sitting at the side of the road for an hour but the truck was waiting for him just around the bend. Spielberg returns to the speedometer towards the end as we see the speed decrease because the radiator hose is leaking. This was foreshadowed when he stopped at a gas station and the guy popped his hood and that was noted it was dismissed as mechanic jive.

This is a film that should be noted not just as the first film of a great filmmaker but a great film on its own.

9/10