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The best and worst Steven Spielberg movies

From sharks to dinosaurs, immigrants to aliens, whip-cracking heroes to sneering Nazis, Steven Spielberg is America's most iconic filmmaker. Here we rank the highs and lows of Steven Spielberg movies

They call him The Magic Beard, the whizzkid, the ultimate movie brat: the all-American boy who gorged himself on Disney cartoons, sci-fi comics and TV junk and spun it into box office gold. But there's so much more to Steven Spielberg. As a Jewish kid in white-bread California he grew up an outsider, and his films are rich in empathy, humanism and fierce intelligence. As his new film, Cold War drama 'Bridge of Spies' lands in cinemas, we take a look at the dazzling best and dullsville worst of the ultimate Hollywood filmmaker.

Steven Spielberg movies: 27-21


The Terminal (2004)

Spielberg had made poor films before ‘The Terminal’, but each of them had a flash of that old magic – a dazzling shot, a winning character beat, a moment of grandeur. Not ‘The Terminal’. This vaguely-based-on-reality tale of a hapless, loveable foreigner (Tom Hanks, inevitably) marooned in JFK airport following a visa mix-up is totally anonymous on every level. Still, perhaps it’s to Spielberg’s credit that this drab, inoffensive piece of fluff is as bad as it gets. TH

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War Horse (2011)

A towering monument to all of Spielberg’s worst tendencies, this trite and terribly unfocused adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel doesn’t even manage to match the visual chutzpah of the stage version that launched a few years prior to the film. ‘War Horse’ tells the bloated saga of a horse that, um, goes to war (WWI to be exact). The story is seen through the eyes of the young boy who cares about the steed more than any of us ever will. This wasn’t Spielberg’s first stinker, but it was the first time it felt like he was on autopilot. DE

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The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The idea of making a sequel to ‘Jurassic Park’ made artistic as well as commercial sense: there was plenty more mileage in the dinosaurs-stomp-hapless-humans template. The problem came when Spielberg decided to forego an original screen story and adapt Michael Crichton’s feeble, unimaginative follow-up novel. The central narrative hook – there’s another island! – is risible, and the A to B chase plot gets old fast. It’s worth watching, however, for one unforgettable sequence involving Julianne Moore, a pane of shattering glass and a pair of raging T-Rexes. TH

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

Two decades after his rakish archeologist was last seen on screen, Harrison Ford picked up the whip for this so-so Cold-War set reboot. It was neither remarkable nor awful, and had a nuclear-test-bomb scene that wowed. But mostly it felt like an unwelcome retread. Also, the marriage of Indy's old-school adventure antics with something more sci-fi and Space Age feels weird and out of place. DC

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Always (1989)

After ‘Empire of the Sun’, Spielberg kept the airplane fetish alive with this wildly miscalculated remake of Victor Fleming’s 1943 weepie ‘My Name is Joe’, which tells the story of an aerial firefighter (Richard Dreyfus) who dies in the line of duty and then becomes his wife’s wingman in heaven. Saccharine, hollow and ultimately senseless, it’s still worth a watch to see Audrey Hepburn’s final performance, the immortal star ironically playing an incarnation of Death. DE

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Hook (1991)

No story concept speaks to Spielberg’s core more than the Peter Pan myth, in which little boys never grow old and adventure is just over the horizon. Ironically, when the director finally got around to making his update of J.M. Barrie’s classic, he flubbed it: ‘Hook’ is noisy, shrill, awkwardly envisioned and more like ‘The Goonies’ than you’d care to remember. Apart from Julia Roberts’ effervescent Tinkerbell, the acting is desperate. It was possible to assume (incorrectly) that Spielberg was done. JR

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The Color Purple (1985)

Only Spielberg could see in Alice Walker’s unsparing novel such warmth, such cause for hope. Only he could depict the cruel, impoverished experiences of being black in the rural south in the early decades of the last century with such lavish, unapologetic grandiosity. A sentimental, troubling and finally triumphant tearjerker of a film, aided by a tremendous performance from Whoopi Goldberg. TS

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Steven Spielberg movies: 20-11


1941 (1979)

There's one great visual joke here, as the Santa Monica Ferris wheel rolls into the ocean, a comic casualty of a Japanese sub attack on the coast of California. But mainly, this movie is a blip between giant, culture-changing projects, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981). For all its junky chaos, 1941 lacks soul and a human dimension that Spielberg would rarely forget going forward. His subsequent returns to WWII would be a lot more serious. JR

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The Sugarland Express (1974)

Spielberg’s first ‘proper’ movie – ‘Duel’ was made for US TV, though it was released as a feature in Europe. ‘The Sugarland Express’ follows a working class American woman who busts her husband out of prison and sets off to reunite him with their kids, pursued by a rogue’s gallery of crazed cops and hot-for-a-story newsmen. Sold as a ‘Smokey and the Bandit’-style CB comedy, the film is far more emotionally complex: this was as close as Spielberg would ever get to the freewheeling, Euro-influenced New Wave style of contemporaries like Scorsese and Hal Ashby. TH

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Amistad (1997)

This was Spielberg’s first serious film after ‘Schindler’s List’ (although it followed the sequel to ‘Jurassic Park’), so expectations were high. It focuses on a controversial chapter in American history, slavery, and specifically the court case that followed a ship mutiny by Africans stolen from their homeland. It’s a noble but slightly dreary affair, nodding forward to Spielberg's ‘Lincoln’ in that it focuses heavily on a judicial process, but not as sharply. It's still wholly admirable. DC

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War of the Worlds (2005)

The most expensive 9/11 allegory ever made, Spielberg’s update of H.G. Wells’s iconic novel about is so breathlessly exciting that it doesn’t even matter if the last act is one of the director’s most egregious concessions to daddy issues and sentimental claptrap. Following totally average blue-collar dad Tom Cruise through an alien invasion like he’s a mouse in a maze full of lasers, Spielberg weaves a blockbuster of terror, destruction and the hope required to rebuild. DE

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Is ‘Temple of Doom’ ugly, brutal and offensive? Yep. Is it stupendously entertaining nonetheless? It sure is. Now regarded as Spielberg’s bitter post-divorce tantrum movie, this thunderous sequel to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ revels in grotesquery, from eyeball soup to gouged-out hearts to dead-eyed slave children. The racism is inexcusable – that Spielberg’s image of India was drawn from boys’ own stories of the British Empire rather than objective reality is hardly a valid justification – but when the action gets going, the film roars like a rocket. Just don’t show it to the kids. TH

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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

If you pitched the story now, they’d likely seek out a straightjacket: a screwball comedy, about an archaeological bounty hunter with a PHD, khakis and a bullwhip coiled on his hip. Harrison Ford will play him with the gruff sex appeal of Bogart and the anarchic spontaneity of Cary Grant. He will chase, and be chased by camp Nazis through the hidden curiosities of the Middle East, in search of the remnants of Jesus.

To then cast Sean Connery, the bearded and cuddly former Bond, who still has the verve to fell a plane with an umbrella and a flock of gulls, was the audacious stuff of genius. ‘The Last Crusade’ remains one of the purest, most escapist larks any cinemagoer can hope to have. TS

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Minority Report (2002)

This sci-fi thriller, set in a future Washington, where psychic Pre-Cogs detect and detain killers before they act, saw Spielberg in straight-faced, adult-pop mode and working from a Philip K Dick short story. Like his previous film, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’, it struggles to marry a sinister view of what’s to come with the more immediate requirements of the commercial blockbuster. Still, it's one of Spielberg's darker, more mature entertainments. DC

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Judging from previous motion-captured eyesores like ‘The Polar Express’ and ‘Beowulf’, this modern twist on the classic Hergé adventure comics should have been a disaster. But thanks to a crackling script, Andy Serkis’s inimitable gusto and the most visceral kinetic energy of any animated film since ‘Ratatouille’ (that chase scene in Bagghar!), Spielberg’s adaptation isn’t just tremendous fun for kids, but also for those who were kids when Tintin only lived on the page. DE

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Lincoln (2012)

We all knew what ‘Lincoln’ was going to be before we saw it: tub-thumping speeches, arm-waving, Oscar-bait performances, soaring strings, blunt emotional manipulation. So the film itself came as something as a surprise: this is a quiet, thoughtful, intensely dramatic movie, focusing on the minutiae of political debate rather than the great sweep of history. This time, the Oscars were well deserved. TH

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Catch Me If You Can (2002)

A wizardly, fleet-footed saga of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), Spielberg’s upbeat crime drama feels like his ‘Goodfellas’, suggesting a path never taken. After a gorgeous animated title sequence, the movie eases into a feast of acting, with antagonists DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, playing a persistent FBI agent, at the very top of their games. But the truly astounding performance here is by Chistopher Walken as Frank’s vulnerable, hardworking dad, whose ‘two mice’ wisdom sours into disappointment. JR

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Steven Spielberg movies: the top ten


Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Omaha Beach sequence may yet be the one Spielberg is remembered for: still the most convincing, bludgeoning, borderline unwatchable depiction of war in movie history. What follows is bleaker and more brutal than you remember, a story of pointless heroism and meaningless, sudden death – at least until that rather crude and unnecessary epilogue. TH

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AI Artificial Intelligence (2001)

If one theme defines Spielberg, it’s childhood: the universal, recognisable feeling of trying, as a child, to understand the mass contradictions of adult life. Elliott in ‘ET’ and a young Christian Bale in ‘Empire of the Sun’ may be the poster boys of Spielberg’s best-known adventures, but it’s ‘A.I.’, with Haley Joel Osment as a sentient robot designed to comfort childless adults, that really mines the darkness of this idea. Shorn of the sentimentality that can mar his worst work, this is one of Spielberg’s strangest, ambiguous and most troubling movies. TS

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

No other Spielberg film has such a glaring disparity between the quality of its direction (incredible) and the quality of its screenwriting (agony). But oh, that direction. Based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel and starring tween Christian Bale as a pampered British kid separated from his parents in Shanghai at the twilight of WWII, ‘Empire of the Sun’ nullifies its stagnant and often grating script with some of the most dynamic visuals in any historical epic this side of David Lean (who was originally slated to direct). DE

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Munich (2005)

A tough movie to release in a post-9/11 landscape (and one of the first to digitally recreate the Twin Towers), Spielberg’s terrorist revenge story suggests that violence becomes an unstoppable cycle, separating decent men like Eric Bana’s Mossad man Avner from their families, their culture and their purpose. Undercutting its action with a sick strain of self-ruination and doom, ‘Munich’ is one of the director’s most underrated adult entertainments. JR

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Jurassic Park (1993)

Just as ‘E.T.’ and ‘Jaws’ lodged themselves in the consciousness of an earlier generation, so ‘Jurassic Park’ has become age-defining in that it introduced a new wave of filmgoers to the possibilities of broad entertainment combined with reason-defying digital special effects. Its story of resurrected dinosaurs is memorable mostly for the spectacle: the T-rex stampede across the horizon remains a landmark. But as ever with Spielberg, it's the humour and warmth that make it more than a computerised experience. DC

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The 1970s remain the benchmark for sci-fi, and is there a better example of the genre? Released 38 years ago, this early blockbuster of alien contact still holds its own. The special effects were light-years ahead of their time, yet ‘Close Encounters’ remains, at heart, a very human story – the tale an ordinary guy trying his best to deal with the extraordinary. Bathed in love for small-town America, there is no better showcase for Spielberg’s singular sense of wonder. The follow-up to ‘Jaws’, made as Spielberg just turned 30, it remains one of his definitive films. TS

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Spielberg’s exhilarating adventure completely rewrote the rules of action cinema – and its influence is still palpable. ‘Raiders’ is where the hard work of sequence building really paid off, resulting in a series of chases that were landmarks: the opening boulder run, the Cairo basket swap and the under-the-truck escape. The director’s longtime music collaborator, composer John Williams, was having a mighty day behind the keys: this is some of his most iconic work. JR

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Schindler's List (1993)

It’s a shame that Spielberg’s only Best Picture winner to date is doomed to be underappreciated for its craft due to its essential subject matter. As it happens, this Holocaust epic about the crooked German businessman (Liam Neeson) who saved 1,200 Jews from Nazi gas chambers also features some of the most vital and virtuosic filmmaking of the director’s career. Despite its reputation, this inarguably grim masterpiece is possessed by the sweep of pure spectacle – indeed, one of the most consistent criticisms levelled against the film is that it’s too entertaining for its subject. DE

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ET the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

For a whole generation now creeping toward middle age, this suburban fantasy (along with ‘Star Wars’, of course) defined what cinema was and could be. Just some of the special things about it: the growing bond between the boy, Elliott, and his alien visitor; the threat of the adult world closing in; the parents-defying flight on bicycles; and, of course, one of the most satisfying, moving endings in popular cinema. DC

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Jaws (1975)

To paraphrase Richard Dreyfus’s ichthyologist Hooper, what we have with ‘Jaws’ is a perfect engine, an entertainment machine and a miracle of cinematic evolution. There’s not a moment here that doesn’t do exactly what it’s supposed to, from punch-in-the-throat scares to tear-in-the-eye sweetness, from grand maritime adventure to intimate macho-baiting humour. John Williams’s score might be the most memorable in film history, and the same goes for the USS Indianapolis speech, delivered (and at least partially written) by Robert Shaw. Even its off-camera mythology is iconic, immortalised as one of Hollywood’s toughest, longest shoots. In its fortieth year, ‘Jaws’ hasn’t lost an ounce of its relentless, streamlined effectiveness. Watch it and be amazed. TH

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Read our review of 'Bridge of Spies'

Bridge of Spies

4 out of 5 stars

Acts of politeness small and large mark Steven Spielberg's latest film, a deeply satisfying Cold War spy thriller that feels more subdued than usual for the director – even more so than 2012's thoughtful 'Lincoln' – but one that shapes up expertly into a John Le Carré-style nail-biter. 

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By: Cath Clarke


Patricio E

The screen grab for Jurassic Park: The Lost World is wrong. The one displayed is from the first Jurassic Park.