Friday, 13 January 2017

From Duel to Dahl:
The feature films of Steven Spielberg
reviewed and ranked

Lukewarm on the heels of my all-consuming Alfred Hitchcock project, I spent much of 2016 rewatching (and, in some cases, having my first go on) the films of bearded genius and double-denim advocate Steven Spielberg. The Berg's first official theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, came out the year I was born, so it logically follows that he's been making films specifically for me for my whole life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

It's impossible to underestimate the impact Stevo has made on both the global cinematic landscape and on me as a tedious film nerd; anyone who grew up in the cinema in the '80s will know that he was always there, whether directing or producing, presenting you with an invaluable gift or two each year by which you would come to define your childhood. And having reeled us in as kids and teens with aliens, archaeologists and dinosaurs, he ensured an in-built audience for his grown-up tales of war, slavery and terrorism.

Watching his thirty features, it wasn't how few duffers (let's say eight for the sake of argument) or works of sheer genius (seven) he's directed that struck me, so much as the other half of his output in between: a rock-solid brick wall of beautifully-crafted, endlessly engaging stories, any one of which most directors would kill to have created in their career. These are the films it's hardest to rank, suggesting that this entire exercise might have just been a complete waste of time ahahahahaha.

So here goes, and don't @ me because I've included Duel; despite being made for TV it did eventually get a theatrical release, and besides it's precisely one spillion times more cinematic than most telly was in the early '70s. OK? Good. Let's Bergolate!

30.
2016
If further proof were required of just how awful 2016 was, then the fact that it vomited up Steven Spielberg's worst film is it. Both Sophie and BFG lack any of the charisma with which Roald Dahl imbued them, the giants are all lifelong residents of the uncanny valley, and the innovation and inspiration of E.T. or Tintin - this film's closest cousins - have utterly eluded Spielberg here. It's a limp, lifeless slog through scenes that drag on for days without any sense of urgency or aim, and the absence of any kind of momentum is deeply concerning. And like Hook and War Horse before it, The BFG dishes up another example of Spielberg's comically romanticised, chocolate-box idea of England, making you wonder why Sophie would ever want to leave it to live with a man whose bogeys are bigger than she is.

29.
1987
This is Spielberg's third film tinkering around the edges of World War II, as if he's gently prodding the beast before plucking up the courage to launch the full-scale assaults of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan on it. He hasn't quite worked out his plan of attack yet though, and Empire Of The Sun fails to adequately convey both the geopolitical situation of Japanese-occupied China and the microcosmic story of JG Ballard's own personal war. A disjointed, uncertain and consequently dull meander through Ballard's memoirs, it hinges on the performance of young Christian Bale, who - while never bad - is largely unlikeable and annoying. Spielberg lets his visual metaphors get out of hand too, many of them feeling more at home in a soft rock music video than a wartime drama.

28.
1979
Exhausting levels of visual carnage and prolonged shouting characterise this blip in Spielberg's otherwise solid run of early films. The lightness of touch he usually combines with megabudget spectacle evades him on this occasion, and while watching an entire house fall off a cliff (for example) might be fun, it's not necessarily funny. The dance hall sequence is a blast though, and while it's hard to identify with most of the characters, I can, at least, fully appreciate the appeal of getting Nancy Allen into an aeroplane.

27.
2008
It isn't that Harrison Ford's too old for this shit, it's that this shit's too old for Harrison Ford. There's enough charm in the franchise and fizz in Spielberg's bottle to make this work if only the script wasn't so dumb and overwritten: the trail of the crystal skull is needlessly complicated, both Mutt and Mac are dead weights to the plot, and there's more than one unnecessary set-piece that ends with our heroes exactly where they were when it began. Spielberg's comic-strip compositions rekindle a little of the magic, but he loses his touch in the drawn-out jeep chase and his over-reliance on CGI. CG gophers are one thing, but CG scorpions, CG ants, CG monkeys and - most egregiously - CG fucking aliens make you yearn for the spiders, bugs and snakes of what I fear we may soon be referring to as The Original Trilogy.

26.
2011
After the breathless excitement of Tintin it only seems logical that Spielberg might want to spend half an hour showing a bloody horse ploughing a bloody field, but personally I could have done without it. Everything post-plough marathon is fine though, provided you're an incredibly patient under-12-year-old; as the equine Forrest Gump leads us through a bloodless first world war, carrying us from one syrupy tale of human kindness to another, only the cynicism-free innocence of a child could stand the amount of cheese that flows from every frame. Tremendous to see Hiddleston and Cumberbatch go head-to-head, but otherwise I could cheerily boil this down for glue.

25.
1991
There's magic sprinkled all over the place here, from the riotous production design to John Williams' swashbuckling score, but even the happiest thoughts can't make Hook fly. Its middle is as flabby as Peter Banning's (A HUNDRED MINUTES elapse before Peter fully Pans out) and Robin Williams is miscast, looking understandably uncomfortable in those tights. Hoffman gives good sneer though, Julia Roberts is delightful, and it's fun to see the genesis of Jurassic Park's lawyer-munching scene in Captain Hook's death-by-croc-from-above.

24.
1997
Part 1 of Spielberg's The Trouble With Slavery double bill is an even lower-key affair than Lincoln, to the point of being bone dry for much of its running time. A harrowing flashback at the mid-point injects some much-needed emotional fuel, and from then on Amistad becomes a semi-gripping depiction of the neverending fight for justice in the face of entrenched bigotry. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Spielberg's Spielbergery is kept to a respectful minimum, the performances (notwithstanding Anthony Hopkins' hammed-up, accent-ambivalent John Quincy Adams) doing the talking instead. Worthy, but lacking the watchability of the equally noble Schindler's List.

23.
2004
This Chaplinesque oddity begins well, before descending into an overstretched 'What if...?' scenario that can't satisfactorily answer its own question. What could have been an incisive allegory for the immigrant experience (particularly post-9/11) gets bogged down in a tedious romantic subplot and an unsustainable personal war between The Little Guy and The Man. Tom Hanks handles the physical comedy well but his casting as an Eastern European outsider is uncomfortable, reminding you that Spielberg is often risk-averse with his leading roles (he's never cast a person of colour as the lead in a film that isn't specifically about people of colour). Still, nice to see Zoë Saldana as a Trekkie, five years before she played Uhura.

22.
1989
A rickety, insubstantial machine powered by the twin engines of Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter at their most lovable, Always is Spielberg's barely-concealed dream of working in Hollywood's golden age come true. Unashamedly romantic and absolutely awash with cheese, it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny (Dreyfuss' replacement in Hunter's affections, Brad Johnson, is a charisma vacuum; Marg Helgenberger disappears mid-movie) but is as good a way as any to spend a couple of hours having your heartstrings tugged at by a master heartstring-tugger.

21.
1997
There's as much daftness in Jurassic Park as there is in its unfairly-overlooked sequel, it's just hidden less well here. Granted, the story doesn't take us anywhere new (barring the misjudged San Diego excursion), but the darker tone - which matches Spielberg's only other Part 2, Temple Of Doom - and the masterful execution of the set pieces are enough to warrant the film's existence. Jeff Goldblum makes for a refreshing anti-action hero, arguably underwritten but magnetic enough not to be overshadowed by the CG spectacle surrounding him.

20.
1998
Spielberg's first men-on-a-mission movie is, of course, not a men-on-a-mission movie at all, but a real-individual-human-beings-with-lives-dreams-and-mothers-on-a-mission movie. Like Captain Miller's quest to find one man among tens of thousands of soldiers, though, the script's search for the individual among the many is worthy but beset with hurdles. Every cross in that Normandy graveyard is a person, Spielberg says, but it's tough to identify with any of them bar Jeremy Davies' Corporal "they don't like it" Upham, and a quarter of the film is over before we're plucked from Miller's safe (if shaky) arms and handed over to the one character who reacts like most of us would in a warzone.

The battle scenes are an undeniably visceral cinematic achievement, but without a consistent pair of eyes to see them through or any characters to truly cling to, Saving Private Ryan is ultimately "just" a very well-made war film. Without any disrespect to Davies, a 25-year-old Tom Hanks as Upham and a 45-year-old hardass like, say, Clint Eastwood as Miller, might have put this a step closer to achieving its mission.

19.
2002
There's an exceptional murder-mystery-slash-chase-movie with a futuristic spin screaming to be set free from the shackles of a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster here. Cruise's presence (and, in fairness, his ownership of the rights to the story) undoubtedly got the film made - and made by Steven Spielberg - but a couple of the set-pieces are blatantly crowbarred in to please plot-phobic audience members and sell a few videogames. Still, the world-building is flawless, the eye motif is fun and Colin Farrell's angry palm-punching is never not hilarious. I could have done without the aggressively twee coda (success and happiness can only be achieved with a complete family unit), and any commentary about the saturation of advertising in the future is self-defeating when it requires intrusive product placement (Nokia are doing surprisingly well in 2054), but it's great to see Spielberg find his fun mojo again after the sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan and A.I..

18.
2012
So dry and bewildering for its first hour that it virtually challenges you to keep watching (I've gone into both my viewings armed with this invaluable primer), Lincoln's rewards for the tenacious are plentiful. Not the least of these, naturally, is Daniel Day-Lewis' mesmerising performance, even if he often seems to be performing a deeply earnest one-man show while Tommy Lee Jones is providing the bulk of the entertainment elsewhere. Every frame feels so steeped in authenticity that watching the 13th Amendment being passed genuinely feels like witnessing history in the making, and the despondency of emerging from an age of hard-won social progress into the cold reality of Planet Trump is tough to bear.

17.
2015
A low-key but perfectly-crafted Cold War drama, Bridge Of Spies often feels more like Janusz Kaminski's film than Steven Spielberg's. While it's hard to fault any of Kaminski's work with The Berg, every frame of this is impressionistic eyeball sex of the most arousing order. It helps that the costume and set design are equally classy; the deep blues and expensive mahoganies of the early scenes - in sharp contrast to the cold greys of the Berlin sections - are divine to behold. Meanwhile Spielberg turns out another lesson in the importance of liberal values at a time when the world needs them more than ever, and sure enough, the world completely ignored him. Just imagine if it hadn't: Trump would've gone away and we'd all be wearing sensible cardigans like Tom Hanks does.

16.
1977
It's more successful as a lyrical but lightweight story about extraterrestrial contact than a study of obsession (and it seems to want to be both), but CE3K sure looks purty and sounds incredible; the early sightings are beautifully eerie while the third act is a full-on John Williams operagasm. I would love to see a special feature in which Vilmos Zsigmond presents his receipt for lightbulbs to Columbia for reimbursement.

15.
1971
Spielberg's (eventual) theatrical debut, a Hitchcockian Twilight Zone episode teased out to feature length, sees the 25-year-old director already letting rip with a fearlessly kinetic camera and lughole-troubling sound design. You can see him experimenting with lenses to remarkable effect, and his natural eye for a shot is, at this stage, an unhoned but powerful tool. To me (although Spielberg and writer Richard Matheson say otherwise), Duel is a hugely unsubtle metaphor about threatened masculinity, with the beefy, macho truck being the first of Spielberg's unstoppable forces (cf. sharks, dinosaurs, Nazis) to be overcome if man - or, in this case, Mann - is going to win back his place in the world. A little overlong and repetitive in places, but it's still the best film to feature a roadside gas-station-slash-herpetarium.

14.
2002
The Bergomeister finds a new twist for his dysfunctional family motif in the tale of a boy running away from one father into the arms of another, albeit somewhat circuitously (if only Tom Hanks' Carl Hanratty and Christopher Walken's Frank Abagnale Sr had just moved in together, this could have been Spielberg's own My Two Dads). Frank Jr's unwitting search for a new family floats on a breeze of effortless storytelling here, punctuated by adoring snapshots of '60s pop culture and the slickly deceptive luxury escapism found in the Pan Am and James Bond brands. Arguably a better film now than on release thanks to the 26-year-old in pigtails and braces who went on to become Amy Adams.

13.
1974
Goldie Hawn is off-the-scale adorable in this deceptively charming road trip caper, with William Atherton a revelation for those of us (i.e. me) who only know him as a pompous prick from the likes of Ghostbusters and Die Hard. Sugarland's trump card, though, is its cast of supporting characters: a menagerie of sharply-crafted bit players, each given a rich vignette or two to enhance the overall comedy. The film's rep has suffered in the shadow of Spielberg's higher-concept fare, but it's obvious that in lesser hands this would have been even more forgotten by now.

12.
2001
Kubrickian pessimism and Spielbergian optimism blend surprisingly well in this worryingly just-about-believable vision of what will happen when Apple finally get around to the iChild. Moral and ethical quandaries taint Spielbrick's uncannily realised world with an eerie discomfort about what we're capable of, matched only by the freaky weirdness conjured up by Haley Joel Osment (surely Stan Winston's greatest animatronic creation). A beautiful film but also a touching tribute to a friend; if anyone was going to bring Stanley Kubrick back to life for a heartbreakingly brief amount of time, it was Steven Spielberg.

11.
2005
Inevitably simplifying a complex operation which took place against an unfathomably bewildering political background, Munich is easily accused of boiling its delicate subject matter down to Eurotrip for amateur assassins. But Spielberg's grown-up dramas have always been about the situation in microcosm; conflict internalised in small groups or individuals. It's his way of humanising the inhuman, and although it's not very subtle here, it is very effective. Personal morals and ethics are stirred into the alphabet soup of international agencies until they dissolve completely, leaving behind only the acrid taste of paranoia.

Even without the presence of one James Bond and two Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric - playing father and son, no less), Munich would be a fascinating alternative view of government-sponsored killers inhabiting "a world of intersecting secrecies". The futility of knocking off a bad guy only for two more to take his place, combined with the reality of never truly knowing why you're doing the job, fosters the kind of existential crisis that would have driven Bond insane years ago. Spielberg's depressingly obvious conclusion that state-sanctioned violence is eternally self-perpetuating is hauntingly conveyed in the film's final shot, and reveals a bleak despair that suggests his more fun films are as much escapism for him as they are for us.

10.
2005
An exceptionally-crafted disaster movie with jaw-dropping scenes of destruction and carnage, War Of The Worlds - cannily appropriating HG Wells' double meaning of the title to subtly nod at ideological as well as interplanetary conflict - also functions as one of the smartest post-9/11 films to come out of Hollywood. Under attack from malevolent, unimaginably patient and calculating metaphors, humanity's survival instinct is laid bare in its best and worst forms, and Spielberg frequently confronts us with actions of barbaric selfishness with which we cannot help but empathise.

The script stumbles slightly in abandoning the hero's reactionary, gung-ho son once he's fulfilled his symbolic purpose, but given that the remarkable 11-year-old Dakota Fanning is doing all the heavy lifting he isn't missed. And, as with Minority Report, Tom Cruise's presence is a necessity born of the fact that he brought the project to Spielberg but highlights the sense that a better, lesser-known actor might have pulled us further into the film's world.

9.
2011
After a three-year gap to let the stench of Crystal Skull dissipate, Spielberg's comeback was everything Indy used to be: breathless, air-punching adventure from beginning to end. The performance-capture format was a bold move but there's simply no other way this could have worked, and you can feel The Berg's excitement at its possibilities in every frame (not least in that glorious 152-second shot that crowns the tremendous escape from Bagghar). The wait for a sequel continues to rank as one of the worst experiences mankind has ever faced.

8.
1989
A few too many misfiring gags in the first half and an overdependence on getting to another set piece as soon as possible still can't cancel out the winning charm of Lucas, Spielberg and Ford's timeless creation. Casting James Bond as Indiana Jones' Dad is inspired, and more than makes up for the weak villain and villainess. Vic Armstrong's incredible stunt work and the mighty John Williams help make Last Crusade eternally re-watchable, but it's the most dated of the original trilogy. See, I told you we'd all be calling it that soon.

7.
1982
Spielberg's inner child was never more visible than in this tale of a young boy and his intergalactic alcoholic botanist chum. Like the best kids' films, it deals with the misery of growing up: the magical twilight of the first half, with its faceless grown-ups (except for Mom) and literal wide-eyed optimism, gives way to a harshly-lit second full of mean adults, death and loss. Spielberg never forgets the simple innocence of children though, and sees it in every three-quarter lit profile shot of their faces.

6.
1975
As incredible an achievement as this simple tale of a hungry, tuba-playing fish is, I've always felt it loses momentum when it heads out to sea to become Alien on a boat. I miss the island-based tension, the pig-headedness of Mayor Vaughn (the film's true villain), Spielberg's impeccable deep staging and the terror that comes from never seeing the shark. That said, John Williams' score more than makes up for any of Jaws' second-half deficiencies, plugging the gaps where the director's catastrophically unreliable mechanical star let him down. For some reason we still appear to be waiting for Jaws Origins: Quint; this doesn't count.

5.
1993
Welcome... to peak Spielberg: the grand convergence of all the director's talents in one glorious, toothy package. Everything he ever did well, he does perfectly here, demonstrating the finest control over audiences since Alfred J Hitchcock popped his chubby clogs. If the exposition's a little clunky and the plot occasionally nonsense, it simply doesn't matter: Spielberg conducts a symphony of across-the-board technical excellence (of which Gary Rydstrom's eviscerating sound design deserves top billing) that drowns out any flaws in an opus of peerless entertainment. Having said all that, he still made four films that are even better.

4.
1984
I suppose you have to take the questionable ethnic representations and woefully underserved female character in the spirit of the serials and adventures that inspired the Indy films, lest they overshadow what is a breathlessly exciting and gleefully dark se/prequel. Every fight and stunt matters, every set-piece is seared into action cinema lore and the script (barring Screamin' Willie Scott's near-constant wailing) is emblematic of the wit that characterises the Golden Age of Spielberg. Temple Of Doom is Raiders' evil twin, and anyone who prefers Last Crusade is an unbearable goody-goody.

3.
1985
Whoopi Goldberg is terrific in her first screen role as punchbag and doormat to a hardscrabble existence in early 20th century Georgia. Spielberg transforms the gobby New York stand-up into a shy, downtrodden housewife who just about keeps a slender grip on her pride in the director’s first “grown up” film, retaining his effortless visual storytelling tics and necessary sense of humour despite the bleak subject matter. The Colo(u)r Purple wrings joy from small kindnesses, lacing a potentially crushing experience with the sweet potential of hope, but despite all that I definitely did not cry. (I definitely did)

2.
1993
Twelve years after Raiders Of The Lost Ark, SS takes on the SS again - and this time it's war. Schindler's List is a masterclass in balancing tone under the trickiest conditions: it effortlessly shifts from heartbreaking poignancy to unflinching brutality, even finding time for some refreshing LOLs along the way (some of Spielberg's best visual gags can be found in the first hour of this otherwise sombre epic). There's a sense that, in Spielberg's vision, the necessarily horrific depictions of the ghetto liquidation and Płaszów concentration camp took precedence over really understanding Oskar Schindler, but it hardly matters; few directors in the history of cinema have been in a position to adequately convey such inexplicable evil to a mass audience. Spielberg recognises and respects his awesome responsibility, and the result is a devastating lesson in the consequences of intolerance that, tragically, is no less relevant now than it was then.

1.
1981
I've spent my life digging around in this movie for that most elusive of artefacts: a flaw. I'm calling off the search now though, because Raiders is the perfect film - not just my favourite Spielberg, but probably my favourite film ever. Never have a character and actor been so impeccably matched as Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford; John Williams and Douglas Slocombe are right at the top of their considerable games, and Lawrence Kasdan's script is as loving a tribute to its inspirations in serial film as is possible. Tying all this and more together with unlimited invention, charm and wit, Spielberg makes up for previous disaster 1941 and earns himself a Get Out Of Jail Free card for every future indiscretion. Roll on Indy 5! (*crosses everything*)


Thanks to Christian Annyas and Movie Screencaps for the title cards.

4 comments :

  1. I think you have put AI far too high up this list. As a piece of sci-fi popcorn it was passable, but as a remake of Joe 90 it missed the mark by a mile. I mean, where was his spinning chair thingy?

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  2. Seeing as how you followed up your Hitchcock movie ranking with a Hitchcock TV series ranking, will we be seeing some sort of ranking to do with Spielberg's 'Animaniacs' to follow up this list? Or perhaps its spin-off 'Pinky & the Brain'?

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  3. Late to the party but felt compelled to comment as I too have grown up with SS.

    Firstly, great post. Inspired idea and well-written. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Secondly, I disagree on a few points, naturally. This is the interwebs after all.

    I think CE3K needs to be bumped WAYYYYY up. Come on, man - this movie established what the rules of 'first contact' would be for every subsequent movie ever to cover this topic. And it managed to do it a non-ham-fisted way, but rather through a subversive and unsettling invasion of the psyche of its everyman main character, Roy. Sure, he ends up as a galactic dead beat dad by the end, but let's face it, he was never going to go home and clean the 1:40 scale replica of Devil's tower out of his family room, anyway. Complex and simple at the same time, CE3K is a masterpiece.

    Similarly, I think Empire of the Sun needs some more love. Sure, the story isn't tight and it rambles on a bit as Jamie bounces from place to place. But the movie is fearless in being pensive and reserved while showing the surreal vision of war through an irascible child's eyes.

    Ok, now onto Amistad. The completely miscast McConaughey aside, this movie is a masterpiece, in my opinion. And, dare I say, one of the most important movies made regarding African American history. It succeeds because it takes the massive topic of slavery and it personalizes it for one person, one man: Cinque. And my God, how Djimon Hounsou deserved an Oscar for his performance. Consider the challenges for this movie. It's main character does not speak English, so immediately you are dealing with the task of subtitles and translations. And much of the movie is prolonged exposition. Thus, the language barrier could have been ridiculously tedious for the average American viewer, but it isn't. It is anything but, and listening to Cinque speak in his native tongue is actually a pleasure, while the necessary translations help to add the layer of frustration that Cinque feels throughout the movie. Consider that in 1997, two sea-faring movies were nominated for best picture; Amistad and a little-known movie called Titanic. The fact that Titanic beat Amistad for best picture is a greater tragedy than the actual sinking of the damned ship.

    So, who is over ranked in your list in my humble opinion? Indy Parts II and III. Sure, they are rollicking good fun, and it will always be a pleasure to see Harrison Ford in the fedora, but come on - these movies are train wrecks. They took the masterful ROTL and turned it into a slapstick, shlocky franchise. When you compare either to Raiders, there are so many missteps, mistakes, miscues, miscastings, and miscarriages that all attempts at sequels have devolved into cringe inducing, head shaking experiences.

    Finally, what do I think you got right? Raiders of the Lost Ark. You nailed it, my friend. I could not agree more with you. It is the perfect movie and remains my favorite movie of all time. Nothing else compares. Your description does it justice.

    Thanks again for a fantastic list.

    @cycldog

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  4. Aw, thanks very much! Glad to spark debate; it would be weird if anyone replied to say they agreed 100% with my findings (even though they are 100% correct).

    CE3K is great for sure, and I do appreciate its place in sci-fi. It just meanders a bit too much for my liking; I feel like it leans towards a study of the kind of all-consuming obsession that drives discovery and progress, but chickens out in favour of a lot of flashing lights and spectacle.

    This viewing of Empire Of The Sun was my first. Maybe I need to give it another go, but I can't say it's near the top of my rewatch list. Ditto Amistad.

    I do think Temple Of Doom is wonderful though, especially after revisiting it after the longest time. It's so dark and grim without losing its sense of humour: Raiders is all-out fun but if it got older and more cynical and saw some horror in its life it would be Temple Of Doom.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting. See you for the next one...

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