Few directors have been able to produce the masterclass of cinema that Steven Spielberg has. Molding the identity of an entire generation of classic movies and modern blockbusters, here are the definitive rankings of the top five films of the director’s first two decades in the industry.
When the arrival of a monstrous shark rocks the quiet beach community of Amity Island, the local sheriff allies with a tough sea captain and a marine biologist to end the beast’s reign of terror. As Spielberg’s first major movie and a pioneer of the Hollywood summer blockbuster genre, to call “Jaws” a trailblazer in modern American filmmaking would be a gross understatement. The movie is nerve-wracking with a slew of lovable, seafaring characters, and it skyrocketed Spielberg to directorial fame after its premiere. Universal Studios took a huge chance on the cast, animatronics and Spielberg as a director, but these risks all paid off. “Jaws” remains one of the most iconic films of all time, defining the thriller genre with its combination of horror and adventure.
In this film, road rage is taken to another level when a lone commuter passes an eighteen-wheeler and is subsequently hunted down a California desert highway by the truck’s faceless driver. “Duel” quickly proved itself to be one of Spielberg’s directorial masterpieces and an omen of the success to follow Spielberg in the next half-century. Spielberg sets up a gripping and suspenseful narrative with little to no dialogue, a single backdrop and a villain that is nothing but a hand on a steering wheel. Only Spielberg could make the huge semi-truck come alive, as its twisted rampage destroys the psyche of the protagonist. “Duel” further established its worthy place in Spielberg’s masterful canon when it inspired the outline for “Jaws” four years later.
3. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”
A young boy encounters a gentle extraterrestrial being in his suburban backyard and decides to help the alien contact its home planet while outside forces threaten their destruction. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is the quintessential childhood tear-jerker, leaving its mark on the filmmaking industry and the hearts of countless audiences by showcasing the power of friendship. Inspired in part by Spielberg’s early life and his film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Spielberg fills the sci-fi thriller with childlike imagination. Although “E.T.” was a very high-grossing film for the 1980s, earning nearly $800 million in the box office, the heartwarming story is what makes it one of Spielberg’s best.
2. “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”
An all-powerful artifact, the Ark of the Covenant, becomes the subject of a perilous race between archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones and the German Third Reich. It is almost impossible to mention Spielberg’s canon without referencing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” due to its incredible cinematic and cultural significance. The film is an epic in every sense of the word, combining action, drama, adventure, comedy and romance. As if inventing one of the most recognizable heroes in classic film history was not enough, “Raiders” revived adventure movies for decades to come, as the love child of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg brought to life the old-Hollywood adventure heroes from their childhood. The film is awe-inducing, faultlessly executed and, in terms of blockbusters, just short of perfect.
1. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
A life-altering encounter with a UFO leads an ordinary suburban family man, Roy Neary, to gain an obsession with otherworldly events. The defining feature that sets “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” apart from all other Speilberg films is that even with its otherworldly plot, the film is unapologetically human. The audience knows only as much as the protagonist, whose close encounter with aliens and subsequent internal visions drive him to near insanity. The audience feels for him, sympathizes with his confusion and curiosity and is nearly driven to that same level of insanity through Spielberg’s skillful editing and characterization. With vulnerable acting, an honest script and a soundtrack that proves you only need five notes to make an iconic score, Spielberg breathes human life into the science fiction genre. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will make you look toward the stars and wonder beyond yourself — a clear sign that you have watched a film that could only have been directed by Steven Spielberg.