Friday, July 28, 2017

Top Ten Things: Steven Spielberg Films

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things!  You know how it works.  It's a countdown.  Of ten items.

Today it's the top ten films by one of the all-time great directors, Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg's extraordinary forty-plus-year career has given us multiple iconic films and he's renowned for his uncanny ability to craft intelligent movies we can all relate to.  Whether he's making a summer action movie or a thoughtful historical epic, Spielberg excels at imbuing his movies with substance.  His best work demands multiple viewings over decades, and there probably isn't another director alive who's repeatedly demonstrated such pure storytelling ability across such varied genres.

Here now is the list....



10. Jurassic Park


In 1993 Spielberg created the definitive dinosaur movie, about a small group of scientists and children sent to a remote island near Costa Rica to be a focus group of sorts for the first-ever dinosaur zoo.  Predictably nothing on the island works properly, and thanks to a rogue IT manager the dinosaurs are able to escape their enclosures and wreak havoc on the park and its human occupants.  Jurassic Park doesn't contain much in the way of lofty concepts; it's simply a quintessential popcorn action-adventure with some of the best creature effects ever put to film.  This was one of the earliest movies to make extensive use of CGI, and for the most part those dinosaurs still hold up today.  As with Jaws, Spielberg was wise enough to let the human characters carry the early parts of the story so we care what happens to them, and built up to the appearance of each species of dinosaur.  The T-Rex sequence is a masterfully assembled piece of action-horror, and the later Velociraptor scenes work on the same monster movie level as some of the sequences in Aliens.  Twenty-plus years later Jurassic Park's flaws show through pretty clearly, but it's still a great example of Spielberg's ability to create crowd-pleasing entertainment that actually has a brain.





9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


The third and final chapter (Crystal Skull was just a bad dream...) of the Indiana Jones saga reminds me of Return of the Jedi in many ways, insomuch as the bulk of the story elements from the trilogy's first film are reused here.  Indy is up against the Nazis once again, racing to find a religious artifact that will allegedly render its owner invincible.  Indy's pals Sallah and Marcus Brody are back to join in the fun, and in a casting coup, Sean Connery plays Indy's father, who has spent a lifetime searching for the Holy Grail.  The action sequences, as good as they are, don't quite hold up to those of the first two films for me, and this movie's real strength is the interplay between Ford and Connery, who have perfect chemistry together.  Don't get me wrong, Last Crusade is a fantastic piece of summer moviemaking.  But it doesn't have the freshness of Raiders or the unrelenting pace of Temple.  So like Return of the Jedi it's simply a very worthy conclusion to the series (Jeezus, why couldn't they have left well enough alone??) that introduces a new side to the action hero we've all come to love.





8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


The followup to the iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom was, I believe, the first time anyone in Hollywood used the word "prequel."  For some reason Spielberg and Lucas set this movie a year before Raiders (Sort of an odd choice since it removes the suspense of whether Indy survives or not), and this one plays out like a standalone adventure, with Dr. Jones himself the only Raiders character present.  This time Indy has to retrieve a mystical stone which has been stolen from an Indian village by an evil underground cult.  This film pushed the limits of what could be shown in a PG-rated movie and set an exceedingly dark tone; there's human sacrifice, brainwashing, child slavery, people being crushed, people being eaten by alligators, and most infamously a dude having his still-beating heart ripped out of his chest.  In fact we have Temple of Doom and Gremlins to thank for the existence of a PG-13 rating.  Most (including Spielberg himself) consider Temple of Doom the weakest of the Indy trilogy, but I disagree.  I love how unapologetically dark this film is and how different it is from Raiders.  This movie might also have the most fun climax of any Indy film, with our heroes and villains fighting for survival while hanging from the side of a cliff (but only after a long and thrilling mine cart chase).  Temple also has probably the greatest booby trap sequence of all time - that scary room with all the spikes.  As a kid this was one of the earliest sequels I got to experience as it was coming out, and it still holds up for me as a tremendously fun roller coaster ride of a movie.






7. Lincoln


Spielberg's semi-adaptation of Doris Kearns-Goodwin's Team of Rivals was in the works for several years, so long in fact that original star Liam Neeson had to drop out of the project due to scheduling conflicts.  This was a major blessing in disguise, as the part of Abraham Lincoln went to master thespian Daniel Day-Lewis.  Day-Lewis is one of the most chameleonic actors alive, and he once again disappeared into the role, transforming into the extolled 16th President.  The film deals with the final months of Lincoln's life, as he balanced the ongoing American Civil War and the need to pass a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.  Lincoln urgently pressed Congress to pass the 13th Amendment before the Civil War ended, lest the conquered slave states create an imbalance in the House and Senate that would render the Amendment unpassable.  At the same time however he was being pressured by his more moderate allies to end the war as soon as possible, which would lose him the support of the hard abolitionists in Congress.  For a film set largely in the Capitol building and various sitting rooms, it's quite gripping, especially since we know historically how it turned out.  In addition to Day-Lewis's wonderful performance, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens are both excellent.  Lincoln as a whole is very understated and strives for realism and historical accuracy, and we're given a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the 19th century American political process during one of the nation's most tumultuous eras.  It's a return to form for Spielberg, whose recent work has been a mixed bag for me.





6. Schindler's List


One of Spielberg's most critically acclaimed films was this unforgiving account of the Holocaust through the eyes of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who found a way to save hundreds of Jews by hiring them as skilled laborers in his factories.  Initially a member of the Nazi party, he is appalled by the violence he witnesses during the liquidation of Krakow, and eventually spends his entire fortune ensuring the safety of as many Jews as possible.  Featuring incredible performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, and shot in expressionist black and white, Schindler's List proved Spielberg a true film auteur, capable of making unflinchingly honest "message" films as well as populist adventures.  This is generally considered the definitive Holocaust drama and remains one of Spielberg's very best serious films.





5. E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial


One of the ultimate "choke-up" movies, E.T. is a simple story about a friendship that spans the entire galaxy.  The main character Eliot (played by Henry Thomas in one of the best-ever performances by a child) discovers a strange but lovable little alien creature with whom he forms such a strong bond the two become psychically linked.  E.T. was stranded by his people and spends much of the movie figuring out a way to contact them while attempting to blend into his Earthbound surroundings.  This film was Spielberg's first attempt at a heartwarming "feelgood movie," and the result was an emotionally charged box office triumph; E.T. was the highest-grossing film of all time for eleven years until Spielberg eclipsed his own record with Jurassic Park.  This is truly a film the entire family can relate to on some level and manages to be an effective tear-jerker without a single romantic story thread.  The bond between friends becomes a metaphor for the attachment we feel for our pets, and along with Old Yeller, E.T. remains one of the most beloved non-human film characters of all time.





4. Minority Report


This is one of my favorite sci-fi movies of the current century.  Based on Philip K. Dick's short story, Minority Report concerns a futuristic law enforcement unit in Washington DC called Pre-Crime, wherein three gifted citizens with clairvoyant abilities (known as pre-cogs) are able to predict murders before they happen, allowing the police to pre-emptively arrest the would-be assassins.  The program has been so effective at reducing murders (by 100%), the government is considering implementing Pre-Crime nationwide.  Tom Cruise stars as Captain John Anderton, the department's top officer, and the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department.  Anderton's life is turned on its ear though, when the pre-cogs predict he himself will murder a total stranger in 36 hours, and he goes into hiding, hoping to clear his name.  Unfortunately doing so could also undermine the entire program, in which Anderton was a firm believer until now.  This film is both a noir-esque whodunit and a futuristic social commentary, blending its multi-genre influences brilliantly and asking important questions about our choices and whether we're subject to determinism.  Spielberg juggles the various plot elements and characters like a virtuoso, always keeping us guessing until the well-earned payoff.  This is Spielberg's best science fiction film.





3. Jaws


Here's a movie I must watch every Fourth of July weekend.  The film that put Spielberg on the map and birthed the summer blockbuster, Jaws benefitted tremendously from Spielberg's youthful exuberance, and inadvertently from the limitations of 1970s special effects.  The full-size mechanical shark worked so seldomly that Spielberg was forced to focus his energies on developing the characters and settings, building suspense throughout the film's two hours by NOT showing the shark.  When we finally do see its monstrous head pop out of the water it's a satisfying payoff we've been thoroughly prepared for, and it makes the final twenty minutes of the film riveting.  But without the excellent performances and chemistry between the lead actors the film wouldn't have the lasting appeal it's enjoyed for 40+ years.  Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw completely embody their characters and have such clearly defined roles in the story we feel like we're part of the action, stumbling right along with them on that rickety, ill-equipped little fishing boat.  This is a movie I don't see myself ever tiring of; every time I visit the beach I'm reminded of Spielberg's first mega-hit.





2. Saving Private Ryan


Probably the greatest war film ever made (It's between this and Apocalypse Now), Saving Private Ryan managed to so thoroughly capture what it must have been like for the brave soldiers who stormed the beach at Normandy, the battle scenes almost play out like a documentary.  This film pulls no punches in depicting the horrors those thousands of young men endured on D-Day, as well as the isolation and adversity they faced daily.  Loosely based on the case of the Niland brothers, SPR follows a small squad of soldiers across war-torn France in search of the lone surviving Ryan brother so he can be sent home.  Tom Hanks leads a stellar cast including Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, and Matt Damon as the title character.  Once again, in addition to spectacularly realized scenes of violence, Spielberg provides us with a host of relatable characters who give the battle scenes weight and meaning.  By the end of this extraordinary film we are wrung out, emotionally exhausted, and horrified (Hell, that was the case after the opening sequence!).  Saving Private Ryan is one of the most expertly crafted, visceral cinematic experiences ever put to film, and it rendered obsolete just about every war movie that followed it.





1. Raiders of the Lost Ark


The original Indiana Jones film is and probably always will be at the top of the Spielberg heap as far as I'm concerned.  A near-perfect throwback to the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, Raiders features no fewer than half a dozen spectacular adventure set pieces, kicking off with possibly my favorite sequence of any Indy film, the opening scene in the South American temple.  Is there a more iconic action-adventure moment than everyone's favorite archaeologist being chased by a 15-foot boulder?  With Raiders, Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford brought to life one of the all-time great movie heroes, always in over his head but always up to the challenge.  It's rare for anyone to create a film character literally every young boy wants to be when they grow up.  Raiders not only spawned three (TWO!!) sequels but countless imitators, and is in my estimation probably the perfect action film, full of breathtaking stunts, thrilling chases, understated humor, and enduring special effects (Seriously, how cool do the melting Nazi faces still look to this day?).  It's one of those movies where the filmmakers just got everything exactly right, and even after probably 100 viewings it's still one I pop into the blu-ray player on a semi-regular basis.



And those are my ten favorite Spielberg films.  Comment below with some of your picks.  Thanks for reading! 

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