There is, perhaps, no one owed a greater debt to modern filmmaking than Steven Spielberg. The man himself has literally created his own genre of movies and countless filmmakers in every aspect of production invoke Spielberg as some sort of influence. From his breakthrough horror/thriller Jaws to the sweeping war epic Saving Private Ryan, and to his more recent historical biopic Lincoln, Spielberg has dazzled, inspired, impacted, and entertained. Truly, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Spielberg as a modern storyteller.
To try and narrow a list down to five movies might seem like a sheer impossibility given Spielberg’s output, range, and impact, but it only means the scale of what can make the list is going to be narrowed down to some of the most culturally significant movies of the modern filmmaking era. While this list may not be in the order you would prefer, it is safe to say every movie on this list is truly great. Top 5 of Spielberg’s career? Well, that is why we have these lists: to heartily debate. And what filmmaker deserves hearty debate more than “The King of Entertainment”?
The 21st century had been a mixed bag for Speilberg leading up to 2012’s Lincoln. After the 90’s produced three masterpieces with Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan, the anticipation over every film he made was not just would it be a great film, but would it be a masterpiece. After Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg made a slew of good to kinda good movies, although a few of them have staunch defenders as some of his best work. People began to question if Spielberg would ever “return to form” after the disaster of the Indiana Jones movie that shall not be named.
Fears were laid to rest when his biopic of arguably the United States’ greatest president released. Utilizing the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg had, once again, masterfully produced an epic tale about one of the most trying times in our country’s history. It captures the politics and political intrigue of the time not just in an accurate way, but an interesting and compelling way. It speaks to racism, social injustice, moral responsibility, and leadership. It made me thankful for our 16th President and left me in awe, a quality of the best of Spielberg’s movies, of a man who carried a heavy burden, but maintained great strength to the very end.
Where do I even start with this movie? For those of us who are a part of my generation, Saving Private Ryan was the capstone on our Spielberg fandom that had been going since the early 80’s. As a young adult when this movie debuted, it’s scope, power, and emotional magnitude changed a part of me. It was reverent and honoring of those who had fought in World War II, but it pulled no punches in depicting the horrors and moral dilemmas of fighting a long and brutal campaign that cost millions of lives. War was never cooler, more real, or more terrifying. It was Spielberg-ian inspiration tinged with horror; something he perfected on a historical scale previously but never in a more palatable way than this movie.
It also bears mentioning how influential this movie was and how it’s aesthetic and tone shaped depictions of World War II across multiple mediums. First of all, it was the major influence on one of HBO’s first miniseries, Band of Brothers, and was produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Arguably, it is every bit as good, if not better, than Saving Private Ryan. Both this miniseries and a video game, Medal of Honor, directly copied Spielberg’s aesthetic and revolutionized their respective mediums. HBO used this success to keep churning out great 10-episode miniseries and now everyone does it. Medal of Honor spawned innumerable sequels and is probably the most recognizable multiplayer online gaming franchise in existence. Those roots start with Spielberg and this film. Simply amazing.
Adventure! Excitement! Harrison Ford! Nazis!
When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg team up, good things happen–minus the movie that shall not be named. The first and the best of the Indiana Jones movies, Raiders dared all young men and women to dream of being smart, adventurous, and capable of handling a whip. When you think Spielberg, this is the movie that defines the spirit of everything he has ever made. It’s operatic, funny, down-to-earth, intense, whimsical, inspiring, and thrilling. Returning to this movie always leaves a smile plastered to my face as I watch the beauty and heart-pumping action. For its time it was the best of the best at work and even today it remains magical and infinitely more impressive given the scale and danger of the pre-CGI stunts.
The movie also utilizes the unique talent of Harrison Ford and essentially transports the character of Han Solo from Star Wars to our world. What kind of adventures would Han get into if lived during the time of World War II and wanted fame and fortune? This. Why bother with a Han Solo origin story? We’ve got this and two other movies!
Almost everyone I have ever talked to has said this movie made them scared to go in the water. I remember, after I saw this movie, I was even scared of swimming in pools, where there was no chance a shark could ever be in one. I remember, I have no idea how old I was, swimming in a hotel pool in Kalamazoo, Michigan and being convinced there was a shark at the bottom of the deep end. At age 32, it seems ridiculous, but if you invited me to go swimming in the ocean, I would probably take a rain check and go find a fish taco stand.
In fact, our culture’s obsession with shark attacks probably owes a large amount of its hype to Spielberg’s breakout film. It is one the greatest horror/thrillers ever made and it also made John Williams a household name with two bass notes. It has so permeated the culture those two notes will forever be associated with sharks or any aquatic attack of humans. Jaws is a movie out of time. Almost nothing in the movie dates it save the fashion choices for swimsuits. The mechanical shark, famous for its problems during filming, looks so real, acts so real, and is used so effectively it creates an illusion of being totally real. The scariest shark is the shark we see only at the worst possible moments. It leaves it open to the imagination and swimming pools in Kalamazoo.
Of all the movies Spielberg has made, this one, released in the same year as Jurassic Park, is Spielberg’s magnum opus and the movie that crowned him as America’s greatest living director. I remember when this movie was debuting on TV for the first time–remember when movies did that?– and it was the biggest deal ever. I saw an edited for TV version, being a huge history nerd and Spielberg fan, and was floored. The choice to film in black and white, along with perfect performances from absolutely everyone in the movie, made this feel like I was actually in Poland during World War II.
The one thing I will always remember about this movie, regardless of how spotty my brain gets in my aged years, is the juxtaposition of Schindler’s righteous fight versus the images of brutality and inhumanity towards the Jewish people herded into Auschwitz. Schindler is far from a perfect man, but who has ever achieved perfection in either their motives, the character, or their deeds? The final scene with the gold pin and his lament is proof positive we’ve never done enough, but what we do, done with a righteous heart, is enough. And yet, how much there will always be left to do because of the inhumanity and brokenness of this world. Speilberg’s greatest achievement is transcendent, spiritual filmmaking that upholds a good God in the darkest of times.