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The Beginner’s Guide to Steven Spielberg

The Beginner’s Guide to Steven Spielberg: Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Ask a film fan of any age to name the all-time best directors—it won’t take long before the name Steven Spielberg pops up. Director of 31 features and producer of countless others, Spielberg has earned fans across multiple generations of moviegoers, and it’s not too difficult to figure out why: Time and time again, the man somehow nails the elusive sweet spot between epic and heartfelt.

Here’s a chronological tour through the director’s major big-screen works.

DUEL (1971)
Although originally produced as an ABC Movie of the Week, Universal realized they had something of inordinate quality on their hands—so, after a few tweaks from the director, they released it in theaters a few months after its television premiere. It’s about an average Joe who finds himself tracked, stalked and terrorized by a mysterious trucker who drives a very ominous rig. Spielberg’s other TV films (namely, 1972’s Something Evil and 1973’s Savage) did not receive the same treatment and were left to languish in obscurity—maybe for the best.

Although virtually forgotten by everyone but ardent movie buffs and the hardcore Spielberg faithful, The Sugarland Express (the director’s “true” feature film debut) showcases a lot the components we’d come to know and love from this filmmaker: warmth, energy, humanity and (despite a slightly downbeat ending) an unwavering sense of optimism. It’s based on an actual case in which a pair of “unfit” parents hightail it across the country to claim their kid as various authority figures give chase.

JAWS (1975)
The first true “blockbuster” hit of the modern era, if you still consider the mid ‘70s part of the modern era, Jaws proved to be a wildly difficult production, but thanks mainly to Spielberg’s already deft touch at balancing scares, wonder, wit and humanity, it also turned out to be one of the most popular films ever made. Best of all, it still holds up as well today as it ever did. This movie really will make you think twice about hopping into the ocean, and that’s a pretty powerful effect for a movie to have on people.

This is Spielberg’s first foray into science fiction, a genre that he would treat very well over the next few decades, and it’s a surprisingly mature and thematically fascinating piece of speculative fiction across the board. On one hand it’s a low-key adventure story about a man obsessed with an impending alien “invasion,” and on the other it’s an insightful deflation of the suburban American dream. This is not the type of sci-fi fluff one would expect from a young director.

1941 (1979)
Although widely dismissed as Spielberg’s first (not to mention biggest) box office bomb, this overcaffeinated, overlong, and over-the-top wartime farce actually brought in over $90 million worldwide, against a reported budget of $35 million—which was massive in 1979 dollars. Perhaps it’s just that, after the cool thrills of Jaws and the gee-whiz spectacle of Close Encounters, moviegoers and film critics were already expecting a little something more than a loud, gigantic slapstick farce. Personally I love the movie despite its obvious shortcomings. The eclectic ensemble cast, the bracing John Williams score and the admirable commitment to full-bore insanity are simply something to behold. Plus this is the film that brought the Back to the Future team together, so let’s give it some respect for that.

It’s tough to pin down the exact movie that turned Spielberg from an impressive newcomer into a bona-fide Hollywood sensation, but I’d say it was probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. This lovable throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s simply never gets old. It’s about as perfect as a piece of cinematic art can be, if it’s me you’re asking.

So if Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders were not enough to turn you into a Steven Spielberg fan, then it was probably E.T. that sealed the deal for good. Unquestionably one of the best films of the 1980s—and certainly one of the finest family films you’d ever want to curl up on the couch with—E.T. is a masterful blend of light comedy, heartfelt drama and rousing adventure.

Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment might not have been the standout in this creepy collection—that honor goes to Joe Dante’s twisted tale about an all-powerful god-child—but it did add a nice dash of nostalgic class to the menu.

The inevitable Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel turned out to be a prequel (look it up!) and it sure seems like Spielberg was intent on satisfying his slightly more childish tendencies. But despite some unnecessarily gruesome moments, a slightly depressing premise and a grating performance from Kate Capshaw, the action sequences are so damn cool you’ll barely notice its shortcomings. (No offense to Ms. Capshaw, who has been great in other films; she just gives me a headache whenever I watch this movie.)

After a decade of doling out undeniably fun movies, Spielberg finally set his sights on a project that was serious and sobering as movies get. Based on the celebrated novel by Alice Walker and nominated for 11 Oscars, this was the movie that taught us there was a lot more to Steven Spielberg than high-end popcorn fare.

As if to underline the point made by The Color Purple, Spielberg delivered another fantastic movie that dealt with some very painful history—and yet he still manages to find hope and heart in the most depressing of settings. J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical tale of a young boy stuck in a POW camp during WWII comes to vibrant life in one of Spielberg’s most mature and underrated features.

After helming two impressive but thematically heavy films, we could almost feel the playful Spielberg itching to make a comeback—and he definitely did with this thrilling, good-natured and unexpectedly funny Indiana Jones adventure. River Phoenix as a young Indy still stands out as a particular highlight, as does Sean Connery as Dr. Jones’ perpetually disapproving pop. Plus, of course, we still get the wonderful John Williams music, the exotic locales and tons of high-quality action sequences.

ALWAYS (1989)
Spielberg’s heart was clearly in the right place when he attempted a remake of the supernatural comedic drama A Guy Named Joe (1943), and while he had an awesome cast (Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Richard Dreyfuss) and delivered a few touching moments, Always seems have been all but forgotten among the director’s bigger films. Spielberg completists may be pleasantly surprised after scratching this one off their list.

HOOK (1991)
Although generally considered one of Spielberg’s lesser films (by me, for example) there’s still a good deal here that’s worth savoring—not the least of which is the late Robin Williams’ wonderful lead performance as a grown-up Peter Pan. John Williams’ score is, again, a true highlight of this tale of lost innocence and the importance of staying young at heart.

Put simply: this film is to the millennial generation what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to Generation X. Smart, funny and plain old fun, Jurassic Park still stands as one of Spielberg’s most beloved blockbusters. 

As he did between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Color Purple, Spielberg follows a “pure entertainment” spectacle with a powerful, sobering drama about one of modern history’s darkest chapters. And while there is certainly no shortage of excellent films about the Holocaust, Mr. Spielberg’s humanity and against-all-odds optimism are more than evident throughout the film.

A respectable attempt to recapture the novelty of the first Jurassic Park—although aside from Jeff Goldblum’s wise-ass performance and a wildly suspenseful “cliffhanger” sequence, there’s not much here that’s all that novel. The Lost World was a massive hit at the box office but, like the Michael Crichton book on which it was based, it was generally seen as a minor disappointment. Having said that, one of Spielberg’s lesser films is better than many filmmakers’ better films.

AMISTAD (1997)
Almost as if in response to the mindless popcorn flick that was The Lost World, Spielberg returns once again to a moving courtroom drama about early American slavery. This well-polished and well-intentioned period piece may suffer from a few cliché moments and perhaps a few miscastings, but it’s a fascinating film all the same.

Although he certainly had nothing to prove in the drama department by this point, Mr. Spielberg was still fully intent on bringing history to life in a way that no other filmmaker had done before. And while everyone seems to focus on the opening sequence—a stunningly realistic depiction of the landing on Normandy—it’s also an excellent story of bravery, loyalty and redemption. Anyone with even a passing interest in WWII should consider this essential viewing.

The closest we’ll ever get to a true collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, this visually arresting tale of a robot boy on a quest to meet his maker has proven to be one of Spielberg’s most divisive films. Most film buffs seem to like it, but it’s that final chapter that seems to split people right down the middle. Personally I think that ending works like a charm.

Spielberg seemed to take a hiatus from science fiction between E.T. and A.I. but had little difficulty going back-to-back this time, and the result was a wonderfully clever combination of futuristic film noir and fast-paced action thriller. Once again there were complaints about the ending; once again I disagree with those complaints. This guy just knows how to make great sci-fi.

Con man movies are not uncommon, but good luck finding another one that’s presented with this much energy, creativity and character-based humor. Of course it won’t hurt if your story features Leonardo DiCaprio as the con man and Tom Hanks as the lawman intent on bringing him down—as well as Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Amy Adams in your supporting cast. Generally speaking, Spielberg’s fun movies are awash in flashy special effects, but not here. The beauty of this film lies in the cast, the screenplay and the lovely 1960s production design.

Arguably Spielberg’s most low-key feature, The Terminal features some fine performances and a worthwhile message, but it still feels a little like a big-budget Lifetime Channel production, and nobody wants that from this filmmaker. It’s the tale of an immigrant who flees his home country but is forced to take up residence in an unexpectedly friendly airport. Certainly worth seeing but the film sorta of feels like a human-interest story that goes precisely where you expect.

If anyone can be trusted to adapt H.G. Wells and remake a beloved sci-fi classic from 1953 at the same time, it’s Steven Spielberg. Early skeptics were won over by the director’s goal of bringing some new wrinkles to an oft-told tale of alien invasion, and general audiences ate it up. War of the Worlds was Spielberg’s biggest hit since 1993’s Jurassic Park—and it holds up quite well upon repeat viewings.

MUNICH (2005)
Spielberg delivers two films in the same calendar year for the third time (see also: 1993, 1997, and 2011) and, as usual, they proved to be a very disparate pair. War of the Worlds was full-bore summertime spectacle, whereas Munich is a tight-fisted, suspenseful and tragic story of revenge and justice. Eric Bana plays a Mossad agent who is assigned to track down and locate the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. So yeah, while it’s not exactly a fun film it is a remarkably sobering and intense one.

OK, let’s not sugarcoat it: Many fans seem to consider Crystal Skull the Spielberg equivalent to George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace—and while it’s hard to argue with the complaints, there’s still at least two or three highly entertaining sequences to be found here. It may be Indiana Jones’ least successful cinematic adventure, but at least it’s still a true-blue Indiana Jones movie.

If it seems like Spielberg would be a perfect choice to bring a widely adored comic strip character to life, well, that’s because he would be—and more than capably proved it. A longtime fan of the character—he optioned the film rights way back in the 1980s—Spielberg brought his old-school, adventure-lovin’ charms to his frist (and not last, we hope) animated feature.

WAR HORSE (2011)
We don’t see a whole lot of movies about WWI these days, let alone ones whose central character is a horse, and that’s part of what makes this earnest and visually beautiful film such a pleasant surprise. War Horse is not destined to grace the top the list of Spielberg’s most memorable films, but that’s just fine. Every filmmaker should be lucky enough to have films like this stuck in their “underrated” pile.

LINCOLN (2012)
There are few historical figures we know as well as Abraham Lincoln, but leave it to Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to deliver a biopic that shines a light on many of Lincoln’s subtler traits and actions. The film picks up near the end of the Civil War and more than capably illustrates how the President abolished slavery and kept the nation from falling apart at its lowest point. Plus it offers a Daniel Day Lewis performance that’s nothing short of staggering.

Once again Spielberg takes a fact-based story that could have hit the screen like a made-for-TV production, but brings a freshness and vibrancy that most filmmakers would kill to emulate. It’s a densely plotted tale of treason, betrayal and espionage but of course the Spielberg touch means you can easily keep up, provided you pay attention. As usual Tom Hanks runs the show with remarkable class and warmth, but it’s Mark Rylance as a Russian spy who manages to steal the film.

Now that’s what you call a body of work! If you’re a young film fanatic, I firmly recommend you fill in all the blanks n your Spielberg list. Don’t forget, not only are we getting another BFG real soon, but it looks like Spielberg is sticking firmly in family fun mode for a while: His next film is an adaptation of the wonderfully geeky novel Ready Player One.

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