The Best and Worst of Steven Spielberg: Assessing the Oeuvre of a Great Filmmaker

Raiders of the Lost ArkI still can’t get over the fact that Steven Spielberg directed Hook (1991).

It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. A lousy, mirthless script that muddles its classic source material: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Miscast stars who ham it up with forced panache. And a lethargic pace inspired, I assume, by the speed of a stuffed crocodile.

This pile of putrid celluloid comes courtesy of the same guy who brought us Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)?

Every great director with a significant body of work has made at least one lesser picture. Spielberg is no exception. That Hook is so bad continues to puzzle me, as his oeuvre otherwise ranks him among the greats.  But, hey: Even Alfred Hitchcock made stinkers, right? I mean, c’mon … Torn Curtain (1966)? Tedious stuff.

Thankfully, the Spielster rebounded brilliantly after his Neverland debacle, offering the toothsome Jurassic Park (1993) and the moving Schindler’s List (1993) post-haste. With those pictures, he raised my estimation of his talents once again, and although his works since have not approached the combination of monumental scope and superb economy exhibited in the latter film, he has proven himself to be a director with a distinct style and perspective, a humanist willing to take cinematic risks while providing entertainment that often rewards and sometimes challenges.

That’s what I call a great filmmaker.

Most of his masterpieces, in my humble opinion, were crafted in the early to middle part of his career. In this piece, I showcase 10 of them. I also detail the three pictures of his that I like least … including Hook. They are personal preferences, and I don’t claim to hold majority opinions. I do think, however, all of them—even the duds—demonstrate why Spielberg should be placed on the same tier as master directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, François Truffaut and Luchino Visconti. Each member of this hallowed group made more good movies than bad ones. But they’ve crafted failures, too, and perhaps those point to their greatness most of all. They are the aberrations, the anomalies. They are what make them less than perfect. They are what makes me appreciate them more.

So here are my choices among Spielberg’s many films: the winners and the losers. Needless to say, they are a microcosm of the director’s career.

The Triumphs 

Duel (1971) 

An early Spielberg nail-biter starring Dennis Weaver as an average Joe who runs afoul of a homicidal, only-seen-in-glimpses truck driver on the highway. Terrific editing, tense situations and just the right amount of dialogue (adapted by Richard Matheson from his story) make this one a classic. It’s rarely seen compared to the director’s other masterpieces, but it’s no less riveting.

Jaws (1975) 

I can watch this over and over again without getting tired of it. That’s the mark of a good movie, and Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best. Complex characters developed without an overdose of exposition elevate this giant-shark-driven flick from the usual crop of horror pictures, and John Williams’ unforgettable, menacing score—despite its similarities to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps—makes the frissons all the more thrilling. A special movie.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 

Hey, Truffaut’s in this! That’s only part of the reason why this movie’s so good. You’ve got friendly aliens, too, and a sensitive treatment of humanity’s infatuation with the idea of life outside Earth. A popular sci-fi picture that still holds up well today and offers a viewpoint that differs significantly from the usual alien-monster movie that we get thrust upon us more often than we should.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 

Possibly the most enjoyable of Spielberg’s masterpieces, Raiders is a thrill-a-minute exercise in excitement, a homage to the age of serials that has some of the best editing and cinematography in the canon. It’s become iconic, this picture has, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of its chase scenes and special effects that look as good in this age of CGI as they did when the film came out 34 years ago. A reinvention of the genre that has become its definition.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 

I still remember lines around the block for this picture, a big hit in its day and a surprisingly intimate look at a boy and his, well, alien. Humorous and touching—further proof of Spielberg’s talent for eliciting sharp, believable performances from children and adults alike. It’s not his best film, but it’s certainly up there.

Empire of the Sun (1987) 

Something of a departure for Spielberg, Empire offers a poignant look at a boy’s life during World War II after he is placed in a confinement camp by the Japanese. It’s a remarkable movie, with an excellent performance by the young Christian Bale and supporting work from John Malkovich. Little-seen nowadays but expertly done.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) 

This is the Indy flick that comes closest to replicating the fun of the original Raiders, with Sean Connery adding zest as the titular hero’s not-always-proud papa. Amusing jokes, a fast pace and crisp direction put this on a par with Spielberg’s best pulse-pounders. Stimulating stuff.

Jurassic Park (1993) 

Dinosaurs just weren’t the same after this reptiles-run-amok movie came out, and though there’s enough silly dialogue and situations in this picture to choke a stegosaur, the greatness of the set pieces—especially those involving the roaring Tyrannosaurus rex and vicious velociraptors—overshadow everything else. Spectacular, seminal CGI effects and fine casting (particularly Jeff Goldblum as a wisecracking intellectual) keep this film soaring.

Schindler’s List (1993) 

Masterpieces only come around once in a while, and Spielberg’s document of the Holocaust and the eponymous German industrialist’s attempts to rescue his Jewish workers is one of them: a searing, brutally violent and tremendously moving black-and-white movie that is one of the most powerful narrative representations of this terrible period on film. My only criticism of it is that it doesn’t show the full extent of the horrors of the time: I knew people who survived Auschwitz, and what they told me, if put onscreen, would repel even the most hardened movie-viewer. (Pictures such as Night and Fog (1955) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) provide real footage of the atrocities the Nazis committed, and are essential to documenting the evils that they did.) Brilliant turns by Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes make Schindler’s List hit even closer to home. Memorable.

Minority Report (2002) 

Smart sci-fi filmmaking, with choice source material (a Philip K. Dick story), about a cop who catches murderers before they commit crimes. I usually find Tom Cruise’s performances mannered, but he was more than decent in this thoughtful movie, which also gets super supporting work from Max von Sydow and Colin Farrell. Nicely done.

The Failures 

Hook (1991) 

Dreadful writing, untamed scenery-chewing and a pace no sane moviegoer should be forced to endure helped make this inspired-by-Peter-Pan travesty the lemon that it is. Oh, and that whole bit about the grown-up Pan finding himself? No, thanks—I’ll walk the plank instead.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) 

This World War II-set film should’ve been a lot better than it was, given the realistic, virtuoso Normandy-beach battle scene and talent behind and in front of the camera, including star Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, subpar dialogue brought it down, despite the noble intentions. Not something I’d want to watch again.

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

There was a lot of anticipation for this film, and some moments captured the elements that made its predecessors so enjoyable. But the fact is, the picture is exposition-heavy and too convoluted for its own good. Plus, the villains in this instalment were Soviets, not the Nazis of previous iterations—and you can’t get much more loathsome than history’s National Socialists. Sloppy genre moviemaking.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Steven Spielberg: Assessing the Oeuvre of a Great Filmmaker

  1. You missed AI Artificial Intelligence. And it doesn’t belong on the Best list either. Or maybe it’s just that my intelligence wasn’t artificial enough to accept the ending.

  2. I actually really loved Hook as a kid. Made the mistake of watching it again a year or two ago, and it truly is awful. There’s an early scene where some old people are dragged out by a storm for some reason, and that was nicely done, but the rest has put me off revisiting any other childhood favourites.

    Can’t agree with Saving Private Ryan for the opening scene alone. And I also have a tendency to sentimentality which is probably why I like Spielberg!

  3. Not usually one of my favourite directors, mainly due to his tendency for sentimentality, and a personal dislike of the ‘Indiana Jones’ series. However, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Duel’, ‘Jaws’, and ‘Close Encounters’ all mean he deserves his place in the story of great American film-makers. And that first twenty minutes of ‘Private Ryan’ is really amazing stuff.
    Nice appreciation Simon.
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. I understand your feeling about the sentimentality inherent in much of Spielberg’s work; I think it’s part of what makes him the populist filmmaker that he is. Of course, that’s not to everyone’s taste, and there are times when it gets to be too much (Hook is one example of this), but in his best pictures, I find the sensibilities to be very real. As for Ryan, although it was technically impressive, it left me cold, and I found it lagged greatly … something which doesn’t happen in his greatest movies.

  4. Good stuff, Simon. I’d put Color Purple on my best list, in no small part because of the casting of so many unknown commodities in crucial roles, and I can’t see putting Private Ryan on a failure list, especially with 1941 sitting out there. But Jaws and Empire are two of the most underrated American movies of the past half century. As for Hook, I was a new teacher when it came out and we spent many hours trying to figure out how it could fail so badly. I eventually decided that the director was so powerful that no one was brave enough to tell him how wrong headed it was. It takes like 45 minutes just to get the Neverland! I think the 2nd and 3rd acts are somewhat better, but the movie is sabotaged by its long ponderous beginning.

    Still, I’d take his career.

    • Thanks, Jon. I’m one of the few that disliked Saving Private Ryan; I felt it was tedious, despite the cinematic pyrotechnics. To me, it felt like part of a movie–something unfinished, not polished; part of the reason for that was the script, which I found lackluster and flat. Regarding Hook, the less seen of it, in my opinion, the better.

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