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.

The Best Films of 2011 #10-1

As the number of films I watch has grown so has the number of films I rank among my best of the year. Essentially what matters to me is not so much the number of films included amogst the best of the year but rather the proportion. When I started these picks as a teenager I’d pretty much only be guaranteed a Saturday matinee at the local UA so that amounted to about 52 films a year. Meaning the five Best Picture nominees were equivalent to the top 10%. It’s not a bad rule of thumb. Granted only picking 10 Best Picture nominees of about 222 films deemed eligible equals about 4.5% of the total films I viewed. Therefore it’s not much of a stretch to take my Best List which goes beyond just the nominees from 15 to 25. In fact, I just had to pick the first few that came to mind. Some that wouldn’t show up on another list I did because 30 would be easily achievable.

You can find the beginning of the list here.

Top 10 introduction

It was an interesting year in terms of cinematic themes. The truth of themes is they happen by accident when it comes to a list such as this. I never expected going into the year that it’d be a year for glorifying the halcyon days of moviemaking while also celebrating the art and pushing it forward. Yet it was also done mostly in films that aren’t exactly about filmmaking.

At the top of this list you’ll find two films that are kind of about filmmaking but they’re also about life, friendship, dealing with loss and falling in love. They use movies and aliens as devices. They speak brilliantly about the power of the form and exude it but they also both feature train crashes but aren’t about them.

Waxing poetic about the marvel of cinema alone isn’t enough. It’s interesting to note but not a guaranteed formula.

By now you may have guessed that Super 8 and Hugo are on this list. I will speak more specifically of their merits below. In common terms though it’s wonderful that to different extents they revere the process and glorify the form but that is only a small part of why they work and symptomatic of the fact that we want films to debate, discuss and become enamored with; films that encourage the kinds of behaviors and practices that we want both the industry and audiences.

It’s not something I’d expect to pop up as a theme annually but as I’ve said about these awards that I want them in essence to be a snapshot. Time is a factor on all works of cinema and feelings evolve, however, there seems to be sentiment prevailing amongst filmmakers wherein the need to express the importance, history and majesty of be art which I, of course, support but these sentiments are also nested in fantastic stories- a true win-win proposition.

10. War Horse

Jeremy Irvine in War Horse (DreamWorks/Disney)

I noticed a lot of lukewarm sentiments towards Spielberg’s two 2011 offerings. While at face value I wasn’t as amped for these two as other pairings these are two Spielberg movies, which makes them automatically more interesting and exciting than two movies by anyone else on the face of the Earth. I thought the trailers undermined the likely quality of both projects and I was right. I also thought after becoming absolutely enamored with Tintin after I saw it that it’d be the better of the two and I was wrong. Even coming in with raised expectations and some knowledge of what the movie was and would be like I didn’t expect War Horse to be as good as it is. There’s the grandiosity and scope of old time filmmaking as well as the heart and earnestness of them but unlike a lot of the masters Spielberg just has my number and knows how to get to me. I’ve never been as moved by what’s essentially a boy and his horse movie or more aptly put a horse and his boy movie. There’s also that hearkening to yesteryear in as much as the film doesn’t fear traveling and shifting human protagonists or at the very least adding different perspectives. The cinematography is brilliant and captivating. I expected to really like both of his offerings and prefer the first one. I loved them both but Spielberg knows how to surprise us still and I love this one more.

9. Terri

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Terri is one of those really great indie discoveries that you have to make an effort to make. I try and find a few of them annually. To tell you the truth I’m not even sure I remember how I first heard of it. All I recall was I’d heard little about it before it came out but then I read the synopsis and that was enough for me. As my review indicates there’s much in it I loved and practically none of it was expected. The summer, for whatever reason, seems to yield the most indies I enjoy so by all means check out the event films, the tentpoles if you will, that intrigue you but look around some really great films are lurking where and when you’d never think to look.

8. In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

Another hallmark of 2011 was films being awarded big prizes and after having seen them I agreed wholeheartedly. This is a rarity for me. It was my disagreeing with consensus on a lot of occasions that inspired the BAM Awards when I was 15. My knee-jerk uninformed opinion was this film won awards for kowtowing to American sensibilities. It doesn’t, not in the least. It deals with very idealistic questions of non-violence, morality and integrity but does so in a very smart, artful and thoughtful way and all while being a great drama too.

7. The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Basically, what I’ve said about this film in the review and in the BAM Winners is most of what needs saying except for the fact that this was the one film all year that screamed to be re-screened. I haven’t gotten that chance because I need to find someone else to go with if it’s theatrical and also the DVD/Blu-Ray bundle is one of the most uninspired for an acclaimed film I’ve seen in a long time. Aside from that it is overdue for a second look and interpretation as it’s so fun to try and tackle it.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros.)

All good things come to those who wait it is said. I discussed a little bit in my review about the difficulties I had in seeing the last Harry Potter movie. I knew what dates I planned to go to Brazil for a family function and later I realized Potter’s worldwide release fell right in the middle, I could not and would not wait. So I had a few attempts that failed. Once it seemed a website almost sold me tickets to a show that didn’t exist. We gave up on the site because I couldn’t use my card and found out there was no midnight show on a Sunday night. Anyway, after a few aborted attempts, and a few trips to the mall where the theatre was (so close, yet so far), I saw Harry Potter. Albeit delayed things worked out perfectly. My cousin picked the seats in the automated system because he knew the incline of the stadium seats made my preferred front row undesirable and we got a subtitled screening as we all wanted. The subtitles is something I dealt with before but actually proved a great litmus test. I had to focus twice as hard to watch it because I wanted to follow, analyze and digest the story and technical elements yet there’s writing on the screen I comprehend yet don’t need. It’s a weird position to be in. Anyway, the litmus test is I would’ve been that glued to the screen whether I needed the extra focus or not it was and is an enrapturing experience and with it being the first theatrical film in about 10 years wherein I was dealing with superfluous (to me) subtitles I eventually got into a comfort zone but the focus remained due to the film itself.

5. Winter in Wartime

Martijn Lakemeier in Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Classics)

In my writing on The Worst Film of 2011 I talk about how some of my favorite films of the year are ones I don’t expect to see and I remember the experience of it whether the film was good or not. I was in New York and I had a couple of viewing options I had thought of but was running off schedule and I was debating what to watch before hopping on a train and heading home. Potiche was an option, which I later Netflixed and it was OK, but I passed. I can’t even tell you what my number one option which was no longer viable was. Then I happened upon the Quad Theatre I saw they were playing Winter in Wartime, which I wanted to see anyway. So my choice was made. I forgot how great a little movie house it is. I even took some pictures on my phone on the inside before the film and after to mark the occasion. I probably only saw a trailer for the film once if that. I was a pretty blank slate. As soon as it ended my initial reaction was “Wow, wow, wow, that was great” I tweeted something to that extent. It is and was a great movie but it was also a great experience and one I didn’t expect and one of the best case studies I have for being a blank slate.

4. The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

Life, death, family, love, secrets, lies, forgiveness, redemption are just a few of the things this movie is about. In short, everything as Ingmar Bergman might’ve said. Similarly, it takes place equally in the past and the present because a lot of what it’s about it getting over past issues and struggles. The photo you see above features two of the main characters, a brother and sister, when they were very young and very different. It’s their scenes when they’re older (the kids go through three phases) that really stick with me just as their mother’s younger scenes stick with me. It’s an intricate thing to synopsize but as convoluded as it sounds its seamless and logical in watching the film. It’s funny, shocking and moving too and a great film.

3. Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

Toast is another case of a movie just finding you. I mentioned it in the review and a few other places. I frequent a local arthouse which is actually a non-profit and they participated in a film series called From Britain with Love which showcased many British independent films. I believe I saw three and all shows featured a Q & A with the director afterward via satellite. All the screenings were memorable because of it but clearly the films weren’t all on equal footing. I just wish I got to see all of them at the time but the scheduling didn’t work due to my aforementioned trip to Brazil. I hardly heard of Toast before or after so I’m so glad it was in this program and I got to see it. All its wonders are detailed in my review but do see it. It’s Lee Hall taking his skill to an adaptation and S.J. Clarkson elevating it with great direction and cinematography and a perfectly selected cast.

2. Super 8

Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths in Super 8 (Paramount)

With the top couple of movies it really does become an exercise in repetition because I have written about them so much. What does need saying flat out is that I try and take films for what they are and what they are trying to accomplish therefore there’s no ceiling to me for a certain kind of film in my list. Similarly, it’s usually right around the top 3 that you really see the class of the year and this year has a pretty strong top I think with some pretty special achievements. I always think it’s dangerous and difficult to play “Grade the Year” there’s always good, bad and ugly. My allusion to 1987 in Foreign Films category was to all the great films in that year’s Oscar field and so on, as a whole any year has its peaks and valleys some higher than others I think these three are about as good a vanguard as one could ask for.

1. Hugo

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo (Paramount)

There’ve been years where I had no idea what I was going to pick as my Best Picture, 2005 seems to fit that bill. There have been years were I wanted to make sure something got in under the wire, it did and then blew me away like in 2003 or where a favorite at mid-year went pretty much unchallenged like in 2010. I expected Super 8 to repeat the feat Inception did of being a summer favorite and although many would assail it none would touch it. Then Hugo came along and I know I talked about anticipating it but I didn’t expect these heights. I didn’t expect to know during first viewing, and to re-affirm it upon second and third, that it was my favorite film of the year as much I didn’t expect anything to top The White Ribbon the early favorite in 2010. However, the good that comes from singling out a few films through the year is that it sets a bar (hopefully a high one) and there are those two or three films, usually three, a year that really do something amazing and the third is usually the most surprising it seems. In any case you make a list because you like enough films to want to call attention to them and I make a point here of saying these top three, hell, my whole top 25 made all the difficult ones bearable but the upper-crust, those in this section, are why we keep going back to the movies. Regardless of what films you put in your top 10, or five, or however many you pick, cherish these; know that they’re rare and that’s what you seek as a moviegoer or moviemaker and that if you try, you shall find them.