Top 10 favorite Spielberg movies

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:

  1. Jurassic Park (1993)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. Jaws (1975)
Copyright Universal Pictures

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.

  1. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Copyright Paramount, Lucasfilm

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.

  1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Copyright Columbia Pictures

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.

  1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Copyright DreamWorks Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Copyright Paramount, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Copyright Paramount, Amblin Entertainment

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.

  1. West Side Story (2021)
Copyright 20th Century Studios, Amblin Entertainment

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.

Honorable mentions:

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.

All-time Top 10: Jurassic Park

I was a HUGE dinosaur kid. Some of the first movies I remember watching were the early Land Before Time movies. My cousin and I loved them so much we would pretend to be Little Foot and Cera when we would swim in our grandparents’ pool. And before I discovered Harry Potter, my favorite book series was Dinotopia, a fantasy world where dinosaurs lived on a hidden island and learned to speak. I could tell you at a very young age that the Triceratops was my favorite dinosaur and pronounce dinosaur names I had no business knowing. I. Loved. Dinosaurs.

So it’s strange that I don’t remember when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. It was released in 1993 and being three I was a little too young to see it in theaters, but by the time my dinosaur obsession kicked in, it should have been at the top of my list. I think I may have even seen the second or third movie before I saw the original. So before Jurassic World came out in 2015, I went back and watched the original trilogy.

Jurassic Park is a masterpiece. In a lot of ways, it marked the dawn of the modern blockbuster, especially due to its groundbreaking visual effects and engaging action scenes. The main characters are outstanding and entertaining to watch and gave us some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton and directed by Stephen Spielberg, Jurassic Park follows a team of paleontologists and scientists as they visit a remote island where an eccentric, wealthy businessman has figured out how to bring dinosaurs back to life. I’m sure most of you know the story, but shockingly, all hell breaks loose.

Let’s start with the visual effects. It is shocking how well the CGI in this movie holds up. There are plenty of featurettes and behind-the-scenes videos explaining how they invented the technology needed to create the dinosaurs, but a combination of real animatronics and computer-generated models literally brought dinosaurs back from extinction. There’s a reason why the movie won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year.

The combination of these two effects are perfectly displayed in the movie’s most iconic sequence: the T-rex attack. It’s one of the greatest action sequences in cinematic history. From the moment the water ripples on the dashboard, we known something big is about to go down. The life-sized animatronic monster is terrifying and both it and the CGI version are expertly used so neither looks out of place.

The second most iconic scene uses visual effects in the same way. When Tim and Lex are on the run from a group of velociraptors, they’re followed into the resort’s kitchen. Again, Spielberg knew just how much CGI he could use and where the practical raptors would be better. And the sick triceratops? 100% real. These scenes are still just as tense and exciting today as they were 25 years ago because of the direction and the talent behind the dinosaurs.

Of course, the look of the dinosaurs could only do so much on their own. The characters’ reactions are crucial in selling the story. And what a cast Spielberg assembled. Sam Neill is delightful in his transformation from gruff scientist who hates kids to risking his life for Tim and Lex. Laura Dern is an icon and gets probably my favorite line of the whole movie: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.” And has Jeff Goldblum ever had a more iconic role? Dr. Ian Malcolm is so weird and awkward and cocky, but that Goldblum charm radiates through his entire performance. Richard Attenborough rounds out the main cast as the goofy and over-sure John Hammond.

A Spielberg movie isn’t complete with a John Williams score. In terms of iconic movie themes, no one will ever beat John Williams, and Jurassic Park is one of his best. The main theme has a beautiful sense of awe and almost a religious respect to it. I’ve always assumed it’s the music you hear when the gates of heaven open after you die. Outside of the main theme, Williams captures the mood of every scene expertly – be it joy, fear, or anything in between.

For me, all these parts – the effects, the cast and the score – all come together to create cinematic magic in the scene where Alan, Ellie and Ian see the dinosaurs for the first time. Neill and Dern give the greatest performances of shock and awe looking at an amazingly lifelike brachiosaurus while Williams’ score swells into that iconic theme.

Jurassic Park asks some big questions that are still just as relevant today as they were in the early 1990s. Corporate greed, capitalism, limitations of scientific advancement, and the ethics of what humanity can do are all present in the movie. The entire thesis of the movie can be summed up in Dr. Malcolm’s line: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In today’s world, technology advances at such a rate that we can barely keep up. Maybe we all need to sit back and think of whether we should do something just because we can.

Whether you’re seven or 97, Jurassic Park is great at any age. It’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and has a lot of heart. For a former dinosaur kid, it will always be one of my all-time top 10.