Spielberg’s career is so vast and varied that it’s difficult to pin down a collection of favourite films. Below is my attempt, which covers everything from aliens and aeroplanes to Presidents and precious artefacts.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The indelible five tones and dazzling descent of the Mothership have gained iconic status, but what makes Close Encounters truly stand out its human drama. Stuck in the confines of suburbia and lacking the focus to engage with his job and family, Pinocchio-loving Roy Neary struggles to be a real boy. He spends much of the film on the verge of a breakdown and becomes increasingly alienated from those around him. His encounter with the alien visitors gives him the meaning he’s looking for, but the transcendence he achieves in the finale is tainted by tragedy. Close Encounters is a dream of a film, but it’s one that’s painfully aware of the fears and frustrations of reality.
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
If Roy became a ‘real boy’ by leaving Earth, Elliott becomes one by staying. E.T. is a tale of love, compassion and ultimately maturity: a tone poem about breaking through fear and finding in other people – and other beings – something similar to yourself. By creating such a close bond between Elliott and E.T., whilst at the same time constructing the narrative around E.T.’s need to return home, Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison capture the pain and beauty of growing up. Sometimes, to do what’s right, Elliott learns, we need to help others. Even if it means hurting ourselves.
3. Empire of the Sun (1987)
A key turning point in Spielberg’s evolution from entertainer to educator, Empire of the Sun is also one of his bleakest and most hopeless efforts. Following the story of young Jim Graham as he struggles to cope with life in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, the film deconstructs innocence, identity and escapism, asking how much we can use fantasy to flee the darker elements of real life. Drawing dark conclusions, Spielberg shows the devastation of war not through physical destruction, but the toll it takes on Jim’s sense of self. As the child closes his eyes at the film’s end, it’s unclear how much life, if any, sits behind those glassy eyes.
4. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Dismissed by some as a candy-coloured confection, Catch Me If You Can has a more mature heart than many give it credit for. Sharing themes in common with E.T. and Empire of the Sun, as well as A.I. and Minority Report, whose release it immediately followed, Catch Me If You Can explores the nature of escape and the toll divorce takes on children. Unlike Elliott, however, this film’s hero, Frank, never matures, instead trying to rectify the divorce, rather than live with it. The result is a story of the devastation that can come about when people try to live in the past.
5. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg’s breakout movie, Jaws is arguably the greatest blockbuster ever made and certainly the one that kicked the trend off. But it’s also so much more. A chilling horror, a delicate family drama, and a paranoia Nixon-era thriller rolled into one, Jaws treads a fine line across multiple genres and succeeds in them all. However, it’s in the character work where it truly marks out its intentions. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw excel as three visions of clashing masculinity in a film that seeks to attack masculine power and arrogance much more than it does the innocent beach-goers of Amity.
6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Often ranked below Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom, Last Crusade stands as my favourite Indiana Jones film thanks to its emotional resonance. The most personal of the series, Last Crusade finds Spielberg in reflective mood, looking back at his relationship with his father Arnold and trying to find a way to build bridges again. The finale, in which Indy needs to put his trust in something he can’t entirely understand and take a leap of faith, resonates so deeply because it’s something we all need to do. Spielberg himself was no exception.
7. Lincoln (2012)
When we look back on Spielberg’s career, we’ll identify a handful of films as turning point masterpieces: E.T., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln. These are more than just ‘good films’; they’re deeply personal works that changed Spielberg’s directorial style and whose influence can be seen in the films that followed. An austere and methodical movie, Lincoln takes its time to get to know the President and so brings him to vivid life in a way few films and documentaries prior had. Maybe more importantly, it shows democracy as a constantly-evolving mechanism that can easily be corrupted and so must never be taken for granted.
8. The BFG (2016)
Though it ranks as one of Spielberg’s rare box office misfires, The BFG is a triumphant adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel. Reining in some of the scarier elements of the source, Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison opt for emotion, giving us a vision of a world where loneliness, despair and hopelessness are the gravest horrors we can experience. The counter to these things, the film suggests, is storytelling and the connections we forge through the stories we tell: even as we grow old and these connections fade, stories help us remember people, places and the impact they made on us. The BFG is a poetic piece of work that speaks volumes about modern Spielberg and his melancholic, introspective sensibilities.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg re-defined the war film. This is due, in part, to the bloody, brutal opening sequence at Normandy, but there’s much more to the picture than just that. Designed to ensure the horrors of the Second World War could never be forgotten, Saving Private Ryan asks us to consider what remembrance really means: is it just about minute’s silences and visiting graves, or does true remembrance mean making sure that such devastation can never happen again? With its oft-misinterpreted final shot of a sombre American flag fluttering in the wind, Saving Private Ryan casts doubts on our efforts and demands that we, individually and as a society, do more to earn the sacrifice of those we lost.
10. The Terminal (2004)
This gentle and unassuming comedy was largely ignored upon release in 2004 – hardly surprisingly considering it’s an outlier even in the diversity of Spielberg’s 00s output. While it’s different on the outside though, The Terminal is very much in line with Spielberg’s thematic range, looking as it does, at what it means to be an American. Darker than most credit it for, The Terminal portrays an America that’s lost sight of The American Dream and warped it into a nightmare of prejudice, bullying and the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. The land that once promised to take “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is no longer the home it once promised to be.