Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Top 10: Steven Spielberg Films (Updated)

Steven Spielberg is my favorite director of all-time, and with today being his sixty-seventh birthday, I figured what better time than to revisit his best films.  I've updated my list of the ten best Steven Spielberg films to honor the man's monumental achievements as a director.  While there are many great films that I had to leave off the list, I think the ten films represented perfectly sum up Spielberg's career for me, so let's celebrate his birthday together and take a trip down memory lane.


10.  War of the Worlds

Perhaps more well-known now for being the film that Tom Cruise went on Oprah to promote when he jumped on her couch, none of that can still take away the thrills that come in what I believe to be Spielberg's most suspenseful blockbuster he's ever made.  There is a heart to this film, as we see Tom Cruise's everyman trying to protect his two estranged children, and that is what makes this film actually suspenseful.  You relate and you care, so when the aliens attack and start destroying the world, it's terrifying.  This is one of those rare remakes that actually bests its original, and I for one love Spielberg's gall to make one of these kind of disaster films and not be tempted to show Tom Cruise be a military character and saving the world.  War of the Worlds is simply a story about an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, trying to survive, and the larger issues are merely the backdrop where Cruise's actions have no affect on them.

9.  Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg's love letter to the Greatest Generation is also the greatest war film ever made.  The thing that made this film so groundbreaking at its time, was it completely went against the grain of every other war film ever made.  Spielberg actually made you feel like you were there when the Allies stormed Normandy, rather than glossing things over with pretty cinematography, everything is grimy, the camerawork is shaky with dirt and water on the lens, and the violence is unrelenting.  Beyond that, this film did not place these brave men on a pedestal, it actually showcased their human flaws, and yet it made them all the more relatable because of that, making their sacrifices actually mean something.  This film is heartwrenching, yet hopeful at the same time.  If you are ever in need of a reminder of what true patriotism is, watch this film.

8.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind

This is by far the best portrayal of contact between aliens and humans ever put to film.  What Spielberg did here was play down the science fiction aspects, and almost makes this science fiction film feel like a fantasy.  The sequences with the alien spaceships and the aliens themselves are so fantastical, so spiritually affirming, that it's hard to classify this film as science fiction.  Then there are the spiritual undertones that the story is laced with, and it makes this an even more fascinating film on an academic level.  Perhaps it is a loose interpretation of Saul's transformation into Paul, or perhaps not, but the parallels certainly make this a film I can't stop watching.

7.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Last Crusade is all about the past, and it's what makes it stand apart from the other Indiana Jones films.  From the opening sequence where we see how a young Indiana Jones became the man we all know and love, to the introduction of Sean Connery as Indy's father, this film gave us more clues as to who Indy really was deep down, and why he is that way.  With tons of knee-slapping comedy, and an ending that is so emotionally resonant that it will make anyone reflect on their own relationship with their father, Last Crusade is an adventure film that has more on its mind than just whips and fisticuffs, and that is why it's such a special film.

6.  Catch Me If You Can

This is one of Spielberg's most glee-filled films, featuring terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.  It is based on a true story that is so fantastical, it's hard to believe that it all actually happened.  The story of 19-year old conman, Frank Abagnale, Jr., is one for the ages, and one that exemplifies the age-old Spielberg theme of a refusal to grow up.  It showcases the optimistic innocence of youth in all its glory, while also highlighting the importance and potential rewards that can be found in maturation.  Of course, what really makes this one of my favorite Spielberg films is that it's simply a whole lot of fun, with tons of smiling going on while you're watching the film unfold.

5.  Jaws

Forget the fact that the shark looks fake, Jaws is still one of the most entertaining blockbusters to ever be committed to film.  The thing is, had Jaws merely been a film out to use cutting edge animatronic technology to realize the thrills and chills of the story, then it would not have become a classic of cinema.  It is because Jaws had relatable everyman characters as the heroes, and the fact that we never get a full on look at the shark till the final thirty minutes, that makes this such a thrill ride of a film.  From Roy Scheider's fish out-of-water Chief Brody (who coincidentally is afraid of the water), to Robert Shaw's Quint, the characters are lively and likable, and the shark...  Well, let's just say that he's now a thing of legend.

4.  Jurassic Park

This is the first film I ever remember seeing in a movie theater, and I still have a deep affection for it to this very day, but not for that reason alone.  For me, Jurassic Park is not just a blockbuster thrill ride, but it's an emotional experience.  From the moment we first see the dinosaurs in all of their majestic beauty, to the heart warming relationship between Dr. Grant and the two children, this film just packs an emotional resonance that many other imitators lack.  Then there are the special effects, which still stand tall as some of the best CGI work ever done.  Featuring seamless transitions from real animatronics to computer generated dinosaurs, never has there been a more convincing recreation of an extinct world.

3.  Raiders of the Lost Ark

"If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones."  That tag line sums up everything you need to know about Indiana Jones, and why Raiders of the Lost Ark is not only one of Spielberg's finest films, but is one of the best films period.  When Dr. Jones first arrives on the scene, stealing the artifact and getting chased by a boulder, you're hooked before you even know his name.  Harrison Ford is the man in the hat, and there is no other man alive that could have brought this character to life.  There is a tough guy swagger, mixed with a charming vulnerability that makes Indy not feel like an action figure superhero, but like a real man who's just more awesome than we'll ever be.  There has never been an action hero introduced since that has been so iconic, and in many ways I don't think there ever will be.  This is just a perfect film through and through, and it further reinforces the need and desire for a little mystery and adventure in our lives.

2.  E.T.  The Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. is an emotional roller coaster ride from beginning to end.  Like the conductor of a symphony, it plays your emotions in a way that no other film in the history of cinema has ever managed to do.  No other film have I ever seen manages to go from moments of frivolity, to moments of tenderness and sadness, with such a natural transition.  However, E.T. is most importantly a story of hope.  It is the result of a desire to find the good in all people, no matter how alien they may be.  It is that very hope that allows this film to still put a smile on your face, even after E.T. has had to leave Elliot and return home.  We should be sad, but we aren't.  While we will miss E.T., we know that not only Elliot, but us as well, have been changed for the better by knowing E.T.

1.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Temple of Doom is Spielberg's finest hour as a director.  This is inarguably the best of the Indiana Jones films, and it's simply because it is the most fun.  While this is the most dark Indy film, it's got so much humor seeping out from beneath the cracks that it manages to be fun and suspenseful at the same time.  Short Round is the most awesomely hilarious sidekick you could ever have given a cynical Harrison Ford to play off of.  Then there is the fact that this is just a legitimately creepy film.  The villains are so terrifying, that when Indy finally gets the upper hand, you cheer.  When Indy stands in that mineshaft, with the light of an oncoming mine car illuminating his angry face, you know he's about to bust some bad guys up and you can't wait to see it.  As a matter of fact, that final thirty minutes still makes me feel like a five-year-old kid sitting on the rug, watching a great heroic adventure play out.  Nothing can beat those kind of warm-and-fuzzies.


And there you have it.  Happy Birthday, Steven!

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