Steven-Spielberg

by Jason F. Koenigsberg

Have you seen the new HBO documentary Spielberg on HBO? If not, you can skip it. It was bland and had no point of view, offering very little in terms of insight about the man and his movies. The fact that it lacked a voice was almost made up for by its candid subject, Spielberg himself honestly discussing his spiritual and religious discovery. Plus, it was pretty awesome to see Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and a bunch of other film school brats hanging out, playing pool and watching movies together in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Other than that, Spielberg is good for the casual moviegoer but not good enough for Pan and Slam. It made Spielberg’s immense body of work look like nothing other than a greatest hits montage, spending the most time on his biggest and most successful films. Some of his lesser known titles were only mentioned in a sentence or two, and some not at all. 

Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest and most successful filmmaker of all time, seemed like a very humdrum person and that is a real shame. His films have touched the hearts of millions spanning generations while earning billions of dollars as well as critical acclaim and more awards that can possibly be counted. But they can all basically be categorized as similar films in tone (with the exception of Munich). Spielberg is the best at what he does, delivering crowd pleasing pictures to the masses. His movies are happy and feature strong heroes fighting for justice while preserving the family unit. As great as they are, they are not the most layered intellectual works, but they are the best of their kind. Steven Spielberg for decades has been able to tap into the general public and impact their emotions with his use of images, and John Williams’ rousing scores.

He is one of the hardest working filmmakers and has two films coming out in the next six months. One is an Oscar bait film starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep tentatively titled The Papers, the other is a big budget adaptation of Ready Player One due in the spring. He has collaborated many times with Hanks, it is hard to believe this will be the first time Meryl Streep has worked with Spielberg. But if you take a step back, Spielberg’s films are not known for having amazing performances but for being amazing pictures as a whole. Until this decade no actor had won an Academy Award for a Spielberg film. Now only two have, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (2012) and Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies (2015). 

Here is our look at the best and worst of Steven Spielberg, one of the longest and most prolific careers in the history of cinema. It will not include any of the terrific films Spielberg produced such as Poltergeist (1982), Back to the Future (1985), or Cape Fear (1991), only films he directed. Let us take a look at his best, worst, most overrated and most underrated, and there are still so many titles that are worth talking about that will not fit into this article, they did not fit into a two and a half hour documentary on HBO either. The proper forum for a Spielberg retrospective would be a book or very long documentary miniseries in the style of Ken Burns. But even then, perhaps that would get repetitive since a lot of Spielberg’s movies fit the same vein as you will see below. Now, without any further ado, the best and worst of Steven Spielberg…

The Best

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

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Liam Neeson in ‘Schindler’s List’

This might seem like a cliche answer, but Schindler’s List is the best and most mature film of Spielberg’s career. It is one of the best films of all time. The only Spielberg film to win both Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards and it deserved them both during a particularly strong year for film. 1993 was the best year of Spielberg’s career, and quite possibly the best year any filmmaker has had in the history of the business. That June saw the release of Jurassic Park, a game changer in terms of blockbuster special effects and record breaking grosses at the box office. Then in December he went from crowd pleasing summer popcorn entertainment to delivering the most harrowing and heartbreaking motion picture about the Holocaust the world had ever seen. Finally earning the respectability many of his biggest critics and detractors had that he only made fun escapist pictures. With Schindler’s List, he silenced them and gave the world an unforgettable history lesson about the darkest moment in the 20th century and the worst atrocities mankind has ever committed in recorded history. Featuring outstanding performances from Liam Neeson as the title character, Ben Kingsley as the moral compass and Ralph Fiennes as one of the most terrifying and ferocious villains in movie history. Alongside one of John Williams’ finest scores and glorious black and white cinematography, Schindler’s List is his masterpiece This is one of the most powerful endings I have ever seen in any film and it’s not even the one scene in this picture that brought me to tears that would be this scene here that really encompasses the enormous and devastating magnitude of the Holocaust (along with the best acting Liam Neeson has ever done on screen and I am not exaggerating). For me the scene that comes after it provides closure with a drama that no actors can really create. You see the real life Jews that were saved by Oskar Schindler and the fact that because of him they have children and their families will continue. This is a classic and Spielberg showed the world he can handle mature subjects as good as any of his peers, if not better. 

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Edward Burns in ‘Saving Private Ryan’

The only other film of Spielberg’s to rival the emotional rollercoaster of Schindler’s List along with treating its audience and subject matter with such intelligence and maturity is Saving Private Ryan. The second and thus far final movie he won the Best Director Academy Award for and many still feel he was robbed of Best Picture losing to Shakespeare in Love. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are some of the most violent ever filmed in a major studio production. Yet much like with Schindler’s List, when Spielberg shoots violence, he does so with a sense of importance that no other director can capture. Yes Saving Private Ryan is extremely brutal and graphic, but it never feels gratuitous, it feels like every bloody image serves a purpose to illustrate that war is hell, and these soldiers are heroes fighting for our freedom. What Schindler’s List did for Holocaust survivors and raising awareness, Saving Private Ryan did for D-Day and honored our veterans. Both are as educational as they are entertaining and could be shown to children to illustrate the horrors of war. World War II has never been shot like this on film and no matter now many try to imitate this style, they never come close to creating the emotional impact of Saving Private Ryan. Few would have ever thought that the director who specialized in childhood dreams and fantasies would make one of the greatest war films of all time, but Spielberg did just that and further solidified his reputation of being one of the best filmmakers of all time to achieve both commercial and critical success. This is one of the best war movies ever made. 

3. Jaws (1975)

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Spielberg’s second theatrical feature and his first big blockbuster. In fact this is the first summer blockbuster of all time. Jaws was a major turning point for movies as an art and a business. It established summertime as the season for studios to release their biggest budget films and yield the biggest receipts. Without Jaws, there would be no Star Wars (1977), no Independence Day (1996), no Dark Knight (2008). This is the movie that defined the summer blockbuster and over forty years later, it still holds up with effective thrills, natural humor and relatable characters. It is still one of Spielberg’s very best movies and that makes it one of the best movies of all time. There are some negative side effects from Jaws. Michael Bay owes his entire career to this film, and this is the moment studios realized how much money could be made by following this formula, just a few years prior the three biggest moneymakers of 1971 were The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, and A Clockwork Orange. Re-read that sentence or look up the facts on your own, it is hard to imagine any of those outstanding films being the highest grossing pictures of any year, but they were. Anyone who sees Jaws will think twice about jumping into the ocean the next time they are at the beach. Jaws was a notoriously troubled production. Everything went wrong as they shot many scenes exclusively on water. Spielberg was still basically a kid in his twenties trying to prove himself as a director going way over budget and dealing with a mechanized shark that did not work but it ended up playing to the movies greatest strength, fear of the unknown and not seeing the actual shark. John Williams eerie score definitely helped add thrills, and the performances from Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus worked exceedingly well. The first great Spielberg picture and arguably still his best. 

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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The best action adventure film of pure escapism is quite possibly Raiders of the Lost Ark. Never before have movies been this much fun. Harrison Ford was perfect as the whip wielding, fedora wearing hero Indiana Jones, a character that would become more iconic than the movies themselves. This was Spielberg getting back on track and scoring a huge hit with audiences and critics. He suffered his first flop two years prior with the World War II comedy 1941 and needed to prove that he could still handle a big budget. He almost directed the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, but his old friend George Lucas gave him an offer to direct a film he wanted to produce. The rest is history. Raiders of the Lost Ark earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Chariots of Fire won the top award that year, and although it is a very good film, nobody remembers it as well as they remember seeing Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in his first and greatest adventure. Raiders of the Lost Ark reminds people why they go to the movies in the first place, to escape and have exhilarating adventures. 

5. E.T. The Extra-terrestrial (1982)

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After his big hit with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg would go on a hot streak throughout the rest of the 1980’s and early 90’s that most filmmakers could only dream of. He was involved in some of the biggest hits of that time as a director and producer. As big as his previous hits Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark were, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial would be the biggest hit of his career for quite some time. This film ruled the summer box-office of 1982, an unusually great year for movies. This was Spielberg’s smallest scale blockbuster to date and his most personal movie. It did not require big stars or the same effects budget as all of his other films. The humanity of the movie is what made it work and the relationships of the fractured family spoke to audiences. Some might dismiss E.T. as just a tearjerker, but then this is the best made tearjerker of all time and transcended science fiction much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters did. I had such a difficult time choosing between this film or Close Encounters as the fifth greatest Spielberg movie. They both have so much in common about dealing with a family that does not understand each other and intelligent creatures from another world coming down in peace to help make their lives better. I went with E.T. since it is the one I am more familiar with and had a deeper impact on my emotions growing up. I also think that it said more about family and friendship since it is a smaller and more personal film. Close Encounters was a globe trotting adventure as well as the story of one man getting swept up by forces unseen to him and drawing him away from his loved ones. E.T. also features arguably the best performance by a child actor with young Henry Thomas as Elliot. Other directors could have made E.T. but none could have made it as well as Steven Spielberg. 

 

The Worst

1. Hook (1991)

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Not every childlike fantasy Spielberg tried to tap into worked. Look no further than Hook. This is an absolutely dreadful and over bloated modern update of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. He was working from a terrible script and it really showed. The talented A-list cast could not save this dreck. It seemed perfectly cast with Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman barely recognizable as Captain Hook, Bob Hoskins was still a big name as Smee, and Julia Roberts fresh off her Oscar nominated turn in Pretty Woman (1990) was Tinkerbell. But nobody could save this expensive bomb from its shortcomings. Robin Williams is not allowed to be fun and fancy free until the final act, the whole first hour he is a miserable workaholic absentee father and they do not get to Neverland until almost an hour in. This movie is long, boring and uninspiring. It feels like someone trying to make Peter Pan into a Spielberg movie and not a film from Spielberg himself. The Lost Boys are annoying and so is Williams once he gets his Peter Pan groove back, plus killing one of the main boys felt contrived. Even as a kid sitting in the theater I knew something was not right. It did not feel fun and escapist as Spielberg’s best movies. The same themes were there about a family, but the thrills and excitement of his best movies were nowhere to be found. Hook was his worst film at the time it was released and remains his lowest point as a director. 

2. The Terminal (2004)

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Steven Spielberg was working very hard during the early 2000’s. It was like a renaissance back to his late 70’s and early 80’s period, albeit a more cynical one. His films had a darker tone. So when he tried to lighten things up with a comedy starring one his favorite actors to work with the result was oddly lifeless and inert. Tom Hanks, one of the most talented actors of his generation who can adeptly handle drama and comedy with equal expertise starred as a man traveling from Eastern Europe to New York City and because of a technicality involving an uprising in his native country, the fictitious Krakosia, he cannot leave JFK airport and enter US soil. The scenario of a foreigner stuck in an airport could be entertaining, but The Terminal was not. It was interminably boring. Long, slow, preachy and nothing worth noting. With a running time at two and half hours, it felt even longer like you were stuck in the airport in realtime. Even Spielberg’s worst films are competently directed, acted, and edited, The Terminal just had nothing to make you want to wait around with Tom Hanks and his cadre of remotely interesting characters. Maybe 90 minutes would have been ok, but not two and a half hours. 

3. War of the Worlds (2005)

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Steven Spielberg has made some of the best science fiction movies of all time. When dealing with aliens Spielberg once stated that if there is extraterrestrial life and they are intelligent enough to travel space and time and make contact with humans that they will be here in peace to spread their benevolence. Two of his best sci-fi films Close Encounters and E.T. both follow that belief. Spielberg’s remake of War of Worlds throws that mantra of peace right out the window. His War of the Worlds was just a joyless and depressing Independence Day retread. Only instead of following the US President and an Air Force pilot, we are stuck with Tom Cruise who goes from deadbeat dad to Super Dad in a span of two hours, once again trying to protect and keep together his family. But Spielberg rationalized his sacrifice of his science fiction credence since he did not consider War of the Worlds an alien movie, but a 9/11 movie. It does take place in New Jersey, the special effects do not showcase the alien technology but instead the gray smoke filled look when the attack is clearly meant to be reminiscent of the attacks on September 11, 2001. The dust in Tom Cruise’s hair, the debris, the plane wreckage are all clear symbols from that day. Even the aliens themselves are parallels for the terrorists as an enemy that attacks us by surprise and we have no way of understanding or communicating with them. Whether those symbols are obvious or not, and regardless of if the 9/11 allegory is appropriate and timely, War of the Worlds is still a pretty lousy film. Cloverfield (2008) did it better and that is a real shame. Tom Cruise as an everyman does more impressive stunt work here than in some of his Mission: Impossible movies. The Tim Robbins scene slows the movie down and feels about ten times as long as it should and Dakota Fanning was in the midst of her most overexposed period. The ending is abrupt like the book, the tripods look sinister sometimes and silly other times. It is one of his most uneven efforts and the fancy camera work and editing are more distracting than they are invigorating. Whether dealing with terrorists or aliens, War of the Worlds did not work, but Spielberg would rebound and make a much better response to the war on terror and the world climate only a few months later. 

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

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I hate to admit that I kind of liked parts of this movie. The fourth Indiana Jones film has become sort of a punching bag and easy target in many circles. South Park may have captured it best when they showed Lucas and Spielberg raping Indiana Jones, who they establish has become our friend as much as he belongs to his creators. There are so many ludicrous moments in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull going through them all would take up an article on its own. I’ll just say that it was nice to see Indiana Jones back on the big screen, even though Harrison Ford looked a little too old to be doing a lot of what they had him do. It was his Rocky Balboa (2006). A lot of terrible moments, but still coasting on nostalgia. So many talented actors are wasted on a stupid script that destroyed a lot of the mystery of his character and the plots of the films before it. The CGI was bad and the ending with aliens that was basically the same ending as the often reviled Predator 2 (1990) is a step down from every Indiana Jones moment. Plus Indy settling down says more about Spielberg and Lucas being old men and not the movie geeks filled with wonder that they used to be. The original three films are as perfect of a trilogy as one could ask for and the final shot of The Last Crusade (1989) with Indy riding off into the sunset with his father, Sallah and Brody was the best ending one could have hoped for. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hugely diminishes that moment, and just about everything else great about Indiana Jones that came before it. 

5. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

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After Steven Spielberg’s career year of 1993 with the one-two Oscar winning punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, he took some much needed time off. Who could blame him, he certainly deserved it. His next film would come four years later and to much excitement. He was adapting Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, one of Spielberg’s biggest films ever. The result could not have been more disappointing. For fans of the book, there was little to nothing in common with the source material other than the lead character Dr. Ian Malcolm played by Jeff Goldblum and the fact that there were dinosaurs. The budget of $73 million was only a few million more than the 1993 original, so it seemed like Universal was being modest with their budget and the result was a very modest film, not trying to reinvent the special effects blockbuster as the first movie had done. Perhaps there were contractual obligations and business dealings that made this movie seem so mundane. Spielberg was about to unveil his new Dreamworks studio with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. He would rebound that December with the slavery epic Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan the following summer. The Lost World is often looked at a blip on the radar of Spielberg’s prolific career. It is not good, but not terrible either. The scene of the T-Rex roaming around and causing destruction in San Diego was pretty entertaining. Otherwise The Lost World, much like Hook and Indy 4 contains a lot of great actors like Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, and Pete Postlethwaite delivering performances that almost anybody could have done. It is sandwiched between some of the most outstanding and powerful films of his career, kind of like he phoned it in and knew that bigger and better movies were right around the corner. 

The Most Overrated

1. Jurassic Park (1993)

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I may not have liked The Lost World like many people, but I know I am in the minority with my opinion of the original Jurassic Park. I recall seeing this in the theater as a kid and being pretty disappointed. So much was sacrificed from the novel which I still consider one of the best books I have ever read that I was totally thrown to see Dr. Hammond played by Sir Richard Attenborough as a warm and kind grandfather I did not know what to make of it. They kept a lot of the science in, but the suspense and intrigue the book had was gone in favor of simple chase scenes of various kinds. I have always considered this movie to be overrated and not one of Spielberg’s greatest achievements where it is often placed in the pantheon of his filmography. Sure the special effects were cutting edge and state of the art, and they hold up today, but the plot is so stupid. It left me wishing what could have been if they adapted the novel more faithfully and I think that would have worked much better than what audiences were given. Once again, not horrible, Spielberg is such a competent director he has yet to make a truly bad movie, just not very good and certainly not as grand as its reputation suggests. 

2. War Horse (2011)

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This is easily the dullest Spielberg movie and is only overrated in terms of its undeserving Best Picture nomination. If it were the good old pre-Dark Knight days of the Academy Awards there is no way this snooze fest makes it into the top five, it barely cracked the final cut in 2011. Based on a beloved play, it should have stayed that way. Instead it got a big budget adaptation from one of Hollywoods biggest directors and the result was blah. War Horse has scenes featuring World War I trench warfare that do not hold a candle to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) or even this summers Wonder Woman (2017). The human characters are cardboard and I think they were supposed to be, we are supposed to fall in love with the horse and we do, but I remember caring more for Seabiscuit (2005) than I did the horse in this picture. Beautiful colors by his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski cannot save this monotonous and predictable film. I hated this movie so much that I was reluctant to see his outstanding follow up Lincoln a year later because I was expecting more of the same pandering crap. I was glad that I was wrong. 

3. Bridge of Spies (2015)

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I truly enjoyed Bridge of Spies, but did it really deserve a Best Picture nomination? I doubt it. Once again the expansion of Best Picture nominees does more harm than good. It was a flawed but overall well directed and acted picture. As great as Mark Rylance was, it is tough to say he deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar over Sylvester Stallone for Creed, but that is really like comparing apples and oranges. The good outweighs the bad, but it is tough to determine Spielberg’s most overrated film when most of his films are varying degrees of good to excellent. The weakest aspect of Bridge of Spies was Spielberg himself, not knowing when to end the picture at the right moment. As he did with his previous and overall superb film Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies goes on about ten minutes too long. The final scenes were an epilogue that we did not need. There is a moment (on a bridge coincidentally, tying into the double meaning of the title) that would have been a perfect place to have the end coda and roll the credits, but Spielberg added superfluous scenes at the end that added no emotional impact. That being said, the positive aspects clearly outweigh the negative and not only is Bridge of Spies a very good picture but its biggest strength is how it parallels our current political climate with the Cold War. The obvious comparison of the cameras on the U2 spy plane with our governments “big brother” mentality since the Patriot Act and how easy our government can spy on us or how we can watch each other with drones or even just using Google Earth. Also topical were the shots of the Berlin Wall being constructed as President Donald Trump would love to see a similar wall put up between the United States and Mexico. These are just some of the small touches that add up to making Bridge of Spies an intelligent and worthwhile film, just not Best Picture material in the same vein as all his other Best Picture nominees that did not win the top prize. Compared to Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies does not deserve to be in the same category, but according to the Oscars, it is. 

4. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

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Spielberg had a very impressive 2002. That June he released Minority Report, one of his best science fiction films, and then on Christmas Day delivered Catch Me If You Can, a more Spielbergian picture in terms of style and tone. Starring Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks as a con artist on the run in the 1960’s and the sad sack FBI agent on his tail respectively. It is based on the true story of Frank Abignale Jr. and his outrageous exploits as he ran from the law. Hanks and DiCaprio may be two of the best actors of all time, but so is Christopher Walken who stole the show as Frank Sr., DiCaprio’s father and earned his second Oscar nomination, his first since winning for The Deer Hunter back in 1978. Why is it overrated? Catch Me If You Can is a good film, but not outstanding and I think that it’s well timed release, helped it earn a lot of money and praise, but it took away from two great films, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York which also starred DiCaprio and was released a few days prior during the Holiday Season hoping to garner awards recognition, and Spielberg’s own Minority Report which was released back in the summer and was the most rigorously entertaining film from 2002. In fact both of those films were on my top 10 of the year at numbers one and two. Catch Me If You Can is regarded as being in the same boat as those films, I do not even think it deserves to be in a dingy next to them, but it still has its merits. 

5. The Color Purple (1985)

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I loved this movie back when I first saw it. Then years later I read the Alice Walker story. Wow, Spielberg made a great movie, but he sure went soft on a lot of the adult themes. In the hands of another director The Color Purple could have been a much more powerful movie, or at least more brutal. In fact if Spielberg were to make it now, I think he would include a lot of the more complex subject matter that was in the book and omitted from the film. All the Spielberg criticisms of him just being a big kid who could not handle mature subject matter may have had a point back in 1985. Spielberg has evolved as a filmmaker since then and as great as The Color Purple was he was probably not the best man for the job. He was still a big kid at heart filled with imagination and wonder. That same year he produced Back to the Future, a movie that felt more in spirit with Spielberg’s work and was unquestionably the best film released in 1985. The Color Purple would earn a total of 14 Oscar nominations that year, only to set a record of being the only film to go 0-14 and becoming the biggest loser in Oscar history, sparking more outrage over race than Spielberg being robbed. 

 

The Most Underrated

1. Munich (2005)

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Spielberg’s darkest and most personal passion project Munich is the most controversial film of his career. A movie laced with anger and betrayal. This is very much a film of its time and I came very close to placing it on his five best. But it is more underrated than those films so by default it belongs here. This is his best social commentary on the world post 9/11 dealing with terrorism. The violence can strike at anytime and Munich feels violent as if it is a warning that life is so fragile and we can perish at any moment. Based on the 1972 terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics on the Israeli athletes and the Mossad plan for vengeance put into place afterwards. Some complained Spielberg went too harsh and unrestrained with Munich, others felt he was too delicate and tried hard to appease both sides. I think he balanced the need for vengeance and justice perfectly. Innocent people died from both sides and he shows that taking a life is wrong no matter what. This is the best and most realistic film about taking someones life and dealing with the physical and emotional toll of revenge. Nobody is happy and nothing can ever satisfy once you start down the path of revenge. Munich also contains the best final shot of any Spielberg film. It was not a big hit but managed to earn five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. I think it was the best film of 2005. 

2. Minority Report (2002)

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If you have made it this far you have read my praise of his 2002 sci-fi tour de force Minority Report. This was another film that I wanted to place on his top 5 but once again feel it is more underrated than it is appreciated, this way I could write about more of Spielberg’s greatest films. A masterful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, it involves Tom Cruise in his best collaboration with Spielberg as a DC cop in the future when murder is nonexistent because of Pre-Crime, a special unit that utilizes psychics that can tell when a murder takes place before it occurs. The capital city has not had a murder in years but the whole ethical question it raises is what comes under scrutiny. Is someone a murderer even though they have not committed the murder yet at the time of their arrest? These deep philosophical questions are examined in one of the most riveting action packed and intelligent movies of its era. Tom Cruise’s character eventually gets labeled a murderer and the chase begins. He flees capture with a lot of running, climbing, jumping, going up and down and eventually driving out to the countryside as he flees his co-workers. Outstanding Oscar caliber performances from Tom Cruise, Max Von Sydow, and Samantha Morton, Minority Report is an action packed innovative thrill ride with the best use of product placement and creating a realistic image of our future. One of Spielberg’s most underrated and without a doubt one of his best. 

3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

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Haley Joel Osment in ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’

Spielberg’s first film since his award winning and highly successful Saving Private Ryan was done as a favor to his late friend and colleague Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg and Kubrick’s films could not be any more opposite. One that made warm, crowd pleasing successful films loved by all, the other made cold, artsier pictures, not easily accessible to the mainstream, but were usually beloved by critics. It seemed like an odd match and it was. But A.I. was Spielberg’s return to science fiction after making almost exclusively historical films. He even turned down a very lucrative offer to direct the first Harry Potter film for Warner Bros. to make A.I. instead. It was also the first time Spielberg wrote a screenplay since Close Encounters back in 1977. Upon its release during the heart of the summer blockbuster season it was met with tepid responses from critics and audiences and performed more like a Kubrick film than a Spielberg one. It was not a hit and over time it has seen its reputation vindicated. A.I. is an extraordinary picture filled with ideas about life, love, identity and family. It is the darkest Spielberg film other than Munich to deal with themes that he has touched upon in all his pictures. On the surface it is a futuristic retelling of Pinocchio, but beneath it, A.I. has the heart and soul of the best science fiction films that make its audience wonder and contemplate their own values and meaning in life. It also contains the second best performance from a child actor with Haley Joel Osment outdoing himself and his Oscar nominated turn in The Sixth Sense (1999) and joining Henry Thomas as one of the best performances from an actor that cannot legally get behind the wheel of a car. Spielberg showed signs of a more cynical nature even though this film was released a few months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He even shows a Manhattan completely destroyed and mostly underwater and the two towers of the World Trade Center are clearly visible. We can always wonder what would have been had the meticulous Kubrick lived to direct it, but as it is A.I. remains a spectacular Spielberg movie. 

4. Always (1989)

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Now this is the true definition of an underrated movie. Have you even heard of this movie? If not then go out of your way and see Always. A love story with a supernatural touch. Always is the last film to date where Spielberg directed his old buddy Richard Dreyfus who plays a deceased pilot mentoring another pilot that falls in love with his old girlfriend. Holly Hunter and John Goodman are both great and it also featured the final performance of the late great Audrey Hepburn who came out of semi-retirement because she wanted to work with Spielberg ever since she saw E.T. It is a romantic fantasy with a classic old school Hollywood feel. Always was released during a busy Hollywood season in 1989 and failed to find an audience or even positive notices from critics. Spielberg had scored a big win at the box offices earlier that summer with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. This was him just having fun but I am surprised at how forgotten and ignored Always has become. It was not even mentioned once in the HBO documentary nor did I even see one image from it. They did not mention Hook, but showed about three seconds of Robin Williams flying. Always did not even get that. It may not be one of his best, but it is worth seeing and therefore easily one of his most underrated. 

5. 1941 (1979)

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Previously mentioned in my Top 10 Stupid Movies for Smart People, 1941 is a comedy spectacle of the biggest scale. Spielberg drained Universal’s bank account with his big budget bomb. Critics ripped it apart and it was a monumental flop, but I love this movie. Spielberg’s first major flop is actually a very funny screwball farce about what if the Germans and Japanese attacked Los Angeles during World War II and how America would react. A lot of historical references throughout, and when the general is seen crying hysterically as he watches Dumbo (which was originally released in 1941) is a funny and smart moment to savor. Its all star cast is a lot of fun to watch featuring John Belishi, Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Plus John Williams epic score is one of his best and most underrated works. 

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