If you walked up to any random stranger on the street and asked them to name a movie director, I’d bet 9 out of 10 would say Steven Spielberg. The most commercially successful director in the past sixty years, he single-handedly invented the modern blockbuster and has produced some of the most iconic movies of all time. He’s even responsible for the PG-13 movie rating when the second Indiana Jones movie and Gremlins (which Spielberg produced) were deemed a little too dark and intense for kids.
It may sound like a boring answer, but Spielberg is by far my favorite director. He’s proven to be an expert at both crowd-pleasing blockbusters and thoughtful, historical dramas. While not every single one of his movies is a hit, he always finds a way to inject the stories he tells with heart. And no one is better at exuberant adventure stories than him. The burst of emotion in all Spielberg’s movies are heightened by the otherworldly soundtracks from John Williams, who has scored all but five of Spielberg’s movies.
Ranking my favorite Spielberg movies is an almost impossible task – the top three below could honestly be in any order – but here are my 10 favorites from the legend himself:
- Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park is a perfect movie. The thing that stands out most nearly 30 years later(!!) is how incredible the special effects still are. Those dinosaurs look real. That skill, combined with a wonderful cast, make this movie hum with excitement from beginning to end. The way the movie so seamlessly transitions from the wonder and awe of an adventure movie to a horror movie – it’s easy to see the DNA (no pun intended) of Jaws in Jurassic Park, particularly in the deployment of the T-rex. The initial T-rex attack in the rain is one of the single greatest sequences in film history.
The characters in Jurassic Park mean the world to me. Tim is one of my favorite child characters ever, from his never-ending questions to his “do-you-think-he-saurus” jokes to his sad “I threw up” after the T-rex attack. I love Lex’s computer skills and the way she shakes the Jell-O when the raptors show up in the kitchen. Laura Dern’s Dr. Sattler is an icon and Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is the internet meme that keeps on giving.
And yes, that John Williams score is masterful.
- Jaws (1975)
What is there to say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? It’s one of the most important movies of the past 60 years, creating the template for summer blockbusters that we still follow today. The way Spielberg teases the shark (along with the iconic John Williams theme) before the big reveal never ceases to amaze. Jaws is a horror movie that you don’t realize is a horror movie, but it perfectly escalates the tension in the first half of the story and creates an air of fear and anxiety among the characters and the audience.
You’re always going to need a bigger boat.
- E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
No movie has more consistently made me cry on every rewatch than the last 10-15 minutes of E.T. I have such a strange history with this movie – I watched it as a kid, but my sister was so terrified of E.T. that we never watched it again, so it didn’t make a big impression on me. Then I remember going on the E.T. ride at Universal Studios, which left a surprisingly strong impression in my mind.
But watching E.T. again as an adult, especially after fully recognizing my true love of movies from the 1980s, something just clicked. This story about a sad, lonely boy and a scared, lonely alien finding and learning to understand each other pulls at your heartstrings in just the right way. It’s a story about finding your place in the universe, family and home.
Like Jurassic Park, E.T. expertly and subtly switches genres from coming-of-age adventure, through a horror detour and ending up as an escape movie. It’s wonderful. And shoutout to Henry Thomas, whose performance as Elliot is superb.
E.T. telling Elliot “I’ll be right here” in the finale just completely breaks me every single time.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first four movies on this list are all certified masterpieces. The Indiana Jones franchise perfected the adventure movie, gave Harrison Ford a second spot on the greatest movie characters of all time list, and is responsible for yet another iconic John Williams movie theme.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is packed full of humor, action and horror with memorable villains, the incomparable Marion Ravenwood and the Ark of the Covenant. It’s timeless and classic, feeling connected to both Casablanca and modern-day superhero movies.
Indy would be Spielberg’s first and (other than The Lost World) only franchise he’d return to, and it’s easy to see how much he loved these characters and this world.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Spielberg followed up his story about the horror below us in Jaws with the possibilities above us in Close Encounters. Like E.T. a few years later, the aliens in Close Encounters did not come to Earth for invasion, but rather communication. The mystery unfolds slowly in the first half of the movie with sequences both awe-inspiring (Barry opening the door to the alien lights) and hilarious (Neary throwing plants inside his kitchen window).
By the time the main characters reach Wyoming, the action quickens until the world seems to stand still during the “conversation” with the mother ship. John Williams’ score plays such an integral role in the finale that unites humanity and the aliens in perfect harmony.
- Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List is clearly not a “fun” movie to watch, but it’s probably the most important movie Spielberg ever made. I almost didn’t include it on my list because it’s not necessarily a favorite, but it is undeniably one of the best movies Spielberg has ever made.
The true story of a man who saved over a thousand Jews from the Nazis during World War II, Schindler’s List is harrowing. I personally haven’t watched it since high school, but there are images that I can still recall because of how powerful they are.
It’s essential viewing for anyone.
- Catch Me If You Can (2002)
The wildly true story of a teenage conman, Catch Me If You Can thrives on the electric energy of its two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse game that hides a deep loneliness and sadness within its main character. While he’s running from the law, DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale is also clearly running from himself. Spielberg expertly strikes the balance between the Frank’s antics and his personal struggles.
Like so many of Spielberg’s movies, Catch Me If You Can is about family, especially complex families. It’s exciting and dramatic, somber and entertaining.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
In some ways, Saving Private Ryan is a companion piece to Schindler’s List. Also set during World War II, Saving Private Ryan shows the horrors of war and the impact on those sent to fight in it.
It goes without saying at this point that the opening D-Day sequence completely revolutionized war movies. Spielberg puts the audience in the middle of the chaos and just lets it play out around us. Once you’re out of breath and exhausted from the cacophony, we follow a tired crew sent out on a rescue mission. Saving Private Ryan shows the value of a single life and brings a world war to a personal level.
- The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Spielberg’s only animated feature, The Adventures of Tintin is a delightful adventure that feels like a spiritual cousin to Indiana Jones. Based on the Tintin comics, the movie follows the titular hero and an old sea captain in search of a lost treasure.
Tintin uses a mix of motion capture and computer-generated animation, but the movie finds the perfect balance between realism and keeping the cartoonish look of its characters. Unlike other motion capture movies like The Polar Express, there’s a fluidity to the characters’ movement and not so much of an uncanny valley in their expressions.
The action in Tintin is superb. In particular, there’s an extended one-shot chase sequence that’s spectacular to watch. It’s clear Spielberg reveled in the opportunity to make an animated movie with complete freedom of where he could place his camera. Tintin is certainly one of Spielberg’s most underrated movies, so definitely give it a watch.
- West Side Story (2021)
I’ve already talked about how much I love Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. The updates made to the source material elevate the story and supporting characters, the cast is sensational, the choreography is mesmerizing, and just about every other aspect of the movie is outstanding.
Only a director like Spielberg could direct his first musical as his 33rd movie and make it look so easy and also direct a remake of a classic, award-winning musical and somehow make it better. He knows how to capture and highlight the choreography and emotion in each scene. From the dance hall scene to “America,” each song is a highlight.
Although I’ve listed my 10 favorite movies already, I just had to shout out a few more.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a surprisingly deep story about humanity and love that is driven by an outstanding Haley Joel Osment performance. Minority Report is one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen and has such a unique look and vibe throughout. The Terminal is another spectacular Tom Hanks performance and a much more emotional journey than you’d expect.