Several years ago I made a list in tiers of American directors. I will not share that list, because it is quite dumb, but I think my first three tiers still make sense as concepts. In the first tier went directors who could combine peak with longevity, who made brilliant movies consistently throughout a career spanning decades. In the second tier went those who had historic peaks or historic longevity, but not necessarily both. And then I put innovators into a third tier, people who we might quibble with on a film-to-film basis much more than we would for anyone in the top two tiers, but who had made some classics and whose influence as filmmakers, whose understanding of the grammar of the medium allowed them to reshape it, belonged in an upper echelon. For me, that’s Steven Spielberg, who is probably the most important American director of my lifetime, but whose filmography simply cannot support an argument that suggests he is the greatest American director of my lifetime or, for that matter, any decade in which he’s worked. Approaching his movies, even as a skeptic, is a strange exercise. In the course of this meta-analysis I learned a lot about where everyone else puts his movies, which, for rating Spielberg, seems much more important than where one would put those movies oneself. For some of those highly ranked movies, I was absolutely bewildered; who could respect some of those movies? And then for some others, my response was, “Oh, sure, that’s one of the hundred best movies ever made in this country.” Unless you’re Noah Berlatsky, I don’t think there’s any real way to be immune to the guy. It just depends on what kind of silliness you’re willing to lap up or, perhaps, what kind of silliness you can find imbued with a deadly seriousness.
As of today, Spielberg has released thirty-two narrative features. West Side Story will come out one of these days, bring the tally up to 33, and make everything I’ve done irrelevant, so read fast. My process went like this:
- Comb the Internet as much as I could to find lists which ranked Spielberg’s movies from The Sugarland Express through Ready Player One. I was really picky about this, and did not include entries which did not rank every one of those movies. (The single exception here, insofar as it’s an exception, is from They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, but you can backform a ranking well enough using the information on the site, so I took a chance.)
- I did include Duel in these rankings, but if a list didn’t include it because it’s technically a TV movie, I adjusted the list accordingly. I did not include The Twilight Zone, because that’s not entirely his movie, and most lists don’t include that segment anyway. Also, if you’re one of the people ranking movies that Spielberg directed and you include Poltergeist, that’s just disrespectful and you need to reconsider your actions.
- In the end, I found a combination of lists from sources which, I’ll grant, are not all the gold standard in criticism. Generally speaking I wanted something a little better than “just someone’s blog” and any better than that I leapt at. The list of sources, in all: Business Insider Australia, Business Insider Netherlands, Chicago Now, Collider, Consequence of Sound, Death by Films, Esquire, EW, Far Out Magazine, Gold Derby, Independent, Insider, Metacritic, Michigan Live, Moviefone, Rolling Stone, Rotten Tomatoes, Screenrant, Studiobinder, Thrillist, Time Out, TSPDT, USA Today, and Vulture. In other words, some of these are aggregators, some of these are individual outlets, some of these are respectable…it’s a hodgepodge. My animating principle here is that more is good, with the exception of pure fan numbers (IMDb, Letterboxd, etc.), which are not really what I’m measuring here.
- The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list, get an average over the 24, low number wins.
After punching in a bunch of numbers, I think it’s fair to say there are six Spielberg tiers. We’ll go in reverse order because, trust me, everyone else is doing it.
Tier 6: Movies Someone Thinks is Spielberg’s Worst
32) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull / Average score – 28.958
31) The Lost World: Jurassic Park / Average score – 28.375
30) 1941 / Average score – 28.208
29) Hook / Average score – 27.167
28) The Terminal / Average score – 26.25
27) Always / Average score – 26.042
Basically, if you’re a movie that got rated 32nd somewhere, then you’re down here. Crystal Skull was a bottom-three choice on fourteen out of twenty-four lists. I can tell you that I fundamentally disagree with the placement it’s got. That movie is not any worse than Temple of Doom, for example, but it did have the misfortune of being released when the commentariat was jaded and in their thirties as opposed to under the age of ten and extremely susceptible to this crap. (Then again, why no one learned their lesson from a little thing called the “Star Wars prequels” in terms of how badly everyone reacts when they can’t be made to feel like they’re eight again despite being old enough to have an eight-year-old.) I encourage people to watch that movie again is all. On the whole, though, it’s sort of hard to argue that this makes up Spielberg’s bottom tier (although I would heartily include Ready Player One in this group). 1941, arguably the most difficult Spielberg movie to pick up in the streaming era, is not one I’ve seen. Seeing as everyone else’s late work from the New Hollywood is better than people thought they were in the late ’70s—Sorcerer, Heaven’s Gate, New York, New York, etc.—I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this one, at the very least, deserves some kind of reappraisal.
Always, a movie which is not even as good as the film it’s based on, A Guy Named Joe, also deserves some level of reappraisal, but the mistakes of that movie are overwhelmingly the mistakes of Spielberg generally, reaching for an emotional pull even when the emotional pull itself doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s one thing to adapt this movie about pilots in dangerous situations from the ’40s to the ’80s, but it’s quite another to bring along the flyboy sexism of World War II-era pilots to firefighters in the ’80s while pretending that the danger in flying a B-25 into enemy fire is basically equivalent to dropping chemical fire suppressants. On a similar wavelength, there’s a shot in The Terminal which I think sums up the way that these movies feel. (It’d be easy to pick out similarly telling shots from Always or Hook or especially The Lost World.) It’s early in the film, when Tom Hanks’ character is surveying the terminal where he’s going to make his home for the next several months, and the camera swirls around this hangar that Spielberg has decked out with all the trappings of some random airport terminal: chain restaurants, bookstores, people milling about, above all Starbucks. You can tell it’s Spielberg. I mean this as a compliment: who else would swing the camera around this terminal like that, letting us see all of these meaningless little shops which have all of a sudden taken on such a significance for the protagonist. And yet…it’s sort of empty all the same. The idea behind it is there, but something about the execution is lacking.
Tier 5: Spielberg Below Standard
26) The BFG / Average score – 24.792
25) Ready Player One / Average score – 22.792
24) Amistad / Average score – 22
23) The Adventures of Tintin / Average score – 21.8333
22) The Sugarland Express / Average score – 21.625
21) War Horse / Average score – 20.833
20) The War of the Worlds / Average score – 19.292
First of all, for all you scoreboard watchers out there, BFG probably belongs, just by score, with the last grouping, but the lowest ranking it got was 31 from EW, and 1941 saved it from joining that bottom tier. And on a personal note, this is the group of Spielberg movies I feel least comfortable talking about. I have never seen BFG, Sugarland Express, or War Horse, and the only one of these I’ve watched as an adult is Tintin. If these movies are more like Tintin, then I think I’d enjoy this tier an awful lot; for me, that film is Spielberg’s best of the century thus far, but I digress.
War Horse, a movie which got nominated for Best Picture back in 2011, is hanging around with like, Ready Player One and The Sugarland Express; whether this says more about the Anglophone film year in 2011 or more about the quality of Spielberg pictures generally is probably in the eye of the beholder. The big surprise here, at least for someone like me who spends too much time reading Film Twitter stuff, is how the “War of the Worlds is 9/11″ talking point doesn’t appear to have gotten much purchase outside of Film Twitter. (It could be that it’s really not like 9/11? Has that occurred to people?) What stands out in this group to me—and again, I say this without having seen a number of them—is that they tend to be intended as popcorn entertainment without having the rewatchability factor that so many of Spielberg’s better popcorn movies have. Not to slag on Ready Player One more, but it’s hard to imagine that movie being nearly as fun to watch a second time as Catch Me if You Can. With the possible exception of War Horse, none of these are movies that I’ve encountered people speaking passionately about in any direction. Crystal Skull left a mark on people, but people will remember that on their Sporcle quizzes before they remember Amistad.
Tier 4: Spielberg Preferences Averaged Out
19) A.I.: Artificial Intelligence / Average score – 17.583
18) The Color Purple / Average score – 17.083
17) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom / Average score – 16.167
16) The Post / Average score – 15.625
15) Bridge of Spies / Average score – 15.333
14) Empire of the Sun / Average score – 14.458
13) Munich / Average score – 14.125
Full disclosure here to start: despite buying a copy of Munich from Wal-Mart as a college freshman or something, I have still never seen that movie. Someday I’ll get around to it! Apparently it is a top-half Spielberg effort!
Another pretty wide range of scores here, about three and a half points different from 13 to 19. It’s also a group with a pretty wide range of scores in general. Out of Spielberg’s thirty-two movies across twenty-four rankings, there are nine movies where the highest rank is twenty or more spots above the lowest rank. Five of them are in this tier. Munich has more of that 9/11 shine on it than War of the Worlds, and you can tell because it’s the more namebrand outlets which are rating it highly. EW has it sixth, which is its best spot, but Time Out has it above Saving Private Ryan and Vulture has it above Jurassic Park. Empire of the Sun is suffering a little from historical critics deriding it (per Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes), though contemporary critics seem to be higher on it, as a general rule. Temple of Doom has a fairly consistent set of rankings, on the whole, but search through enough lists and you can find folks who have it in the top 10 and folks who think it’s only better than Lost World. The Color Purple—famously winless at the Oscars, but also ten Oscar nominations—is mostly in the bottom half of these lists unless it’s top 10.
Then there’s A.I., the famous sorta-collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick, a film that I desperately wanted to like but isn’t even messy in an interesting way. This is also a peak Janusz Kaminski job, which is to say I hate the way this movie looks and abhor the way Kaminski treats light, as if the only way to see the world is through the eyes of someone having a terrible migraine. (A brief aside: Spielberg developing a practically Mormon need for evangelism and missing out on that Director nomination for Jaws are the other two worst things that happened to Spielberg as a director.) It’s a movie that I could imagine Spielberg tackling in a very different way in a couple years, in the same way that Hitchcock went back to the well with The Man Who Knew Too Much, and I think I’d welcome a mulligan on A.I., a movie where even the praise for it seems to be riddled more with references to better stories and storytellers than praise for the film itself.
Finally, it is very funny to me that Bridge of Spies and The Post, two movies which are basically identical in their thrusts if not in style or quality, have ended up next to one another right in the middle of this list and not made a peep. Separated by fewer than three-tenths of a point, with nearly identical placements on the list—both bottomed out at 24, but The Post peaked at 8, one spot higher than Bridge of Spies—these movies were basically identical for our critics. For the outlets that published a group ranking, I have a funny feeling that no movies took up less discussion time than those two.
Tier 3: “Underrated” Spielberg
12) Duel / Average score – 12.944
11) Catch Me if You Can / Average score – 12.542
10) Minority Report / Average score – 12.458
9) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade / Average score – 12.291
8) Lincoln / Average score – 11.833
I want to start with the difference between the average score for Lincoln and the average score for Saving Private Ryan: it’s more than four points, which is more than the difference between Lincoln and Temple of Doom down at 17. If a hypothetical movie were as far away from the picture rated number one as Lincoln is from Saving Private Ryan, that hypothetical movie would be eighth. There is an absolutely enormous gap between Tier 3 and Tier 2, in other words, one that I didn’t catch when I reviewed Catch Me if You Can a few months ago. Then again, I was looking primarily at fan sources there, and out of my little suite I pulled from, the only one I used here was Metacritic. For critics, there’s still a canonical Spielberg Seven which outrank all the rest, even if fans have proffered up some other films which might encroach upon that land.
Until then, we have five Spielberg movies which I think I have heard of as underrated, or referred to as underrated with my own voice, God forgive me, at one time or another. The idea of an underrated Spielberg movie compared to movies by other directors is absolutely ludicrous, and it’s worth noting that these five movies are all easily in the top half of his filmography; by any definition, there’s no way that any of these are underrated. The only one that might deserve that term, and even then I’m not sure I’d allow it, is Duel. One of the most thrilling movies I’ve watched this year, and, let’s say it all together now, thrilling because of how spare and low-stakes it is. Cut together an anxious face, a dashboard, a speedy red car, an enormous brown semi, the road, the desert, and then mix it all together again, choose a different angle, emphasize fear in one moment and pure inches-above-the-road speed in the next. If there’s a movie that young filmmakers should see from Spielberg early on, it’s clearly this one, a film that oozes with the promise of its twenty-five year-old director. Minority Report feels like the movie from this tier which might make a Spielberg Super Eight with the passage of a little more time; personally, the problems I have with the unwieldiness and pretensions of A.I. are basically identical to the ones I have with Minority Report. Catch Me if You Can still plays pretty well, although the more I see it the more the screenplay absolutely grates on me, which is problematic seeing as the screenplay is one of the selling points. For me, Last Crusade is a top-five Spielberg movie, maybe the last time in one of his action-adventure movies which graciously asks me to laugh instead of pulling a switchblade on me and threatening me if I don’t: “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!” (Ditto about the father-son stuff, too!)
Lincoln…look, no result surprised me as much as Lincoln coming in a relatively comfortable eighth place here, the highest ranked movie of Spielberg’s 21st Century. It’s not even that this is a bad movie, although the beginning and ending of this movie are criminally miscalculated. It’s just a little surprising that people frequently complain about stuffy biopics with their predictable arcs, production design pretending to be meaning, and costume and makeup pretending to be acting…and it looks like this is still a top 10 Spielberg movie for this ersatz voting body. In 1944, the film Wilson was released to relative acclaim, if not financial success; it won five Oscars from ten nominations for telling the story of Woodrow Wilson in a pretty straightforward fashion. I realize that the number of movies that people remember from seventy-five years ago is pretty slim, but let’s just say there are some similarities that don’t necessarily bode well for the historical relevance of this movie.
Tier 2: Spielberg Spectacle
7) Saving Private Ryan / Average score – 7.208
6) Jurassic Park / Average score – 6.667
5) Close Encounters of the Third Kind / Average score – 6.042
Really an incredible FMK situation here for me with these three movies, which, if I can get personal for a second, stand as three essential Spielberg movies in my own understanding of his films. (Before we get too personal: Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, Private Ryan.) A few years ago I watched Close Encounters for the first time since high school, and where I’d been really taken with it as a kid, I found the movie overloaded and drawn out as a person in my mid-twenties. The last half-hour continues to rock and roll (which I really don’t mean to understate), but the film is focused on too many people, and where it might have been understood as a kind of distant ensemble cast in which Dreyfuss, Dillon, and Truffaut all held up a pillar, in practice this is a Dreyfuss movie with looks to the other two which don’t have anything like the possible payoff. It was one of the first times I’d watched a “classic movie” and felt a little let down by it, a feeling that has happened, haha, many times since then, but it was a new experience for me in my early twenties. Saving Private Ryan was one of the first movies I watched, again in my mid-twenties, which was a letdown despite the fact that it had been advertised to me, almost unanimously, as a Great Film. It was, as far as I could tell, not a Great Film, and on a recent repeat watch I continued to find it a Not Very Good At All Film. It was sort of fitting that it was with Spielberg I found the wisdom of the crowds (at least this typically masculine crowd) pretty incorrect. And then there’s Jurassic Park, a film which I’ve come to see as his greatest work. The last time I saw it was on a big screen, albeit an outdoor big screen that was being put up for the pandemic and not necessarily in the best quality; I probably would have seen the movie better at home than I did at the outdoor theater. It remains a basically perfect blockbuster, spectacular over and over again while maintaining its ideas with the kind of clarity and force that one wishes Spielberg could muster up for his movies which are more stridently about clarity and force. That shot of the pelicans with the quiet piano theme over it at the end of the movie is one of the finest filmic moments of the ’90s, wry and hopeful and a little melancholy all at once. As much as I’ll dump on Spielberg, I think Jurassic Park is an absolutely undeniable work. It is a little sad that so many of the people voting in this poll denied it! (Jurassic Park is also the only film of the top seven Spielbergs to never have appeared on the AFI top 100…someday, when I am the czar of the AFI…)
The running theme in this tier is Spielberg’s showmanship. If you want a Mount Rushmore of Spielberg showing off his facility and fluidity with the camera, his predilection for enormous moments that’ll knock you back in your seat, three of the four scenes should come from this tier: the T-rex in the rain sequence, the Omaha Beach scene, and the communication sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The boulder and so on from Raiders makes four. Mount Spielberg is willing to give another look to the bike ride effacing the Moon in E.T., the first appearance of the shark in Jaws, and other sundry suggestions, but the dynamiting has already begun.) They aren’t his best scenes—I’d have a couple others above that one from Jurassic Park, clearly—but they are the scenes which are quintessentially his. In all three of those sequences from this tier, the camera or the special effects or the sound design act as stars more than people. The shaking, subjective camera of Omaha Beach is the key; the T-rex owns the screen no matter how many people are screaming; the mothership, bellowing and beeping, is the only thing that matters. In a stage production, we can be awed by people; in a film, we are awed by things, and that’s a distinction which Spielberg has always understood.
Tier 1: The Spielberg Gospels
4) E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial / Average score – 4.083
3) Schindler’s List / Average score – 3.5
2) Raiders of the Lost Ark / Average score – 3.208
1) Jaws / Average score – 2.875
Now feels like a good time to share some slightly more specific information about some of the voting. I went through my spreadsheet again (which is garishly colored as an organizational tool, don’t worry about it) and isolated the movies which got first-, second-, and third-place votes. A little unsurprisingly, more than a little disappointingly, only the seven movies from the top two tiers received those votes.
And in case you don’t feel like counting, here are the results:
As I was filling in my chart, seeing E.T. sweep up all those top-three votes while Saving Private Ryan got scraps was my first sign that the latter might not end up a top-five movie. There’s an interesting comparison between the two of them, because on the popular end, Saving Private Ryan is on the rise while E.T. is on something of a downswing. The critical consensus, however, still seems to have E.T. ahead, and by a fairly comfortable margin at that. If Private Ryan continues to rise on lists like this, though, and E.T. takes a tumble, I think that might signal some changing of the guard in the critical commentariat. This is my way of hiding the fact that I have absolutely nothing to say about E.T., a movie which I didn’t see until I was no longer a child and so I guess I missed my window to understand what the fuss is about.
You’ll notice that Schindler’s List has the largest number of lists giving it top-three consideration, and while being down three first-place votes to Jaws might have been the whole ballgame on its own, there are two things that keeps Schindler’s List from taking the top spot: the Collider list and the Thrillist list. Schindler’s List is rated 14 on Collider; Matt Goldberg voices some frustration with the way that Schindler’s List sort of elides the Jewish characters’ religious identity in favor of presenting them primarily as victims. And on Thrillist, Dan Jackson and Matt Patches don’t even have any real criticism of the film to offer; they just prefer Lincoln and Catch Me if You Can. Without getting into my own issues with Schindler’s List (a movie I find myself revisiting once every few years in the hopes I’ll have the same opinion as everyone else), I’m glad to see two Spielberg movies which I think represent him at his best as a director. Like Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws both manage to pack in enormous entertainment, tremendous command of pace, and just enough food for thought that you can chew on that once you’ve knocked out the candy from the cardboard box. Raiders is, in its own way, more concerned with religious faith than Schindler’s List. At the end of that movie, the story would be absolutely the same (short a rekindled romance or so) if Indiana Jones had never left the university campus to go treasure/Nazi hunting. How’s that for being given proof to believe in an omnipotent Old Testament God? Jaws, like Jurassic Park and its sequels, has taken on a frightening new relevance in the past year, as our society did exactly what Mayor Vaughn and John Hammond would have wanted us to do regardless of how big and chompy the sharks and dinos are. (We can afford to say less, I think, about the characterization and the Indianapolis sequence in Jaws. What’s terrific about that movie has very little indeed to do with words, and so much more to do with faces and movement.) There’s an austere beauty in the way that Schindler’s List is filmed, and there’s a good argument to be made that absent a few missteps here and there, it is the most remarkably crafted of Spielberg’s oeuvre. But for those images that you can close your eyes and see with absolute fidelity, there just isn’t a comparison like seeing the shark pop up out of the water behind Scheider in Jaws, or the way the light explodes out of the headpiece in Raiders. While it’s too bad that Jurassic Park isn’t in this top tier, I was pleased to see that Jaws and Raiders, which I think would fill out my Spielberg top three, make the 1-2 punch at the top of this list.