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Steven Spielberg’s Best Films (Ranked)

Watch the greatest director’s greatest hits, then his new Oscar favorite, ‘The Fabelmans’

Steven Spielberg at the AFI Fest screening of "The Fabelmans" held at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 6, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images

Choosing Steven Spielberg’s best films is a bit like choosing Faberge’s best eggs — they’re all pretty priceless. But with the world’s greatest living auteur releasing this year’s frontrunner for the best picture Oscar — The Fabelmans, an autobiographical idyll about the director’s early years growing up a film geek in 1950s — it seemed appropriate to at least give it a try. Below, we pick seven of the maestro’s most masterful masterpieces.

7. Jaws (1975)

Spielberg was only 27 when he made it. For much of the 150-day production he had no script. Two of his lead actors, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, hated each other’s guts. And the shark — nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer — kept sinking. And yet, somehow, Jaws changed everything in Hollywood, all but inventing the summer blockbuster. After just a month in theaters, it blew past The Godfather and The Exorcist to become the biggest hit of its time, earning $470 million (worth about $2 billion today). Even more impressive, 47 years later, Spielberg’s fish tale is still scary enough to keep you out of the ocean, no matter how fake Bruce looks.

Watch it: on Prime Video, iTunes

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6. Lincoln (2012)

Although it did well at the box office — $275 million — it was hardly one of Spielberg’s bigger hits. Still, Tony Kushner’s unflinching script delving into the sometimes unsavory political sausage-making behind the passing of the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves felt particularly poignant during the Obama administration. And Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as the 16th president — a part Liam Neeson turned down — is arguably the high point of an acting career filled with high points (he won the best actor Oscar for it). The only quibble is with the film’s ending, which shows Lincoln on his deathbed. “I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” Samuel L. Jackson said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”

Watch it: on Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play

5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Visitors have been invading Earth since the 1950s, in drive-ins with B-grade schlock like It Came From Outer Space — but never before had a major Hollywood filmmaker bothered to seriously portray what a visit by aliens might actually look like. NASA declined to cooperate, but Spielberg hired scientific consultants — like an astronomer from the U.S. Air Force’s famous Project Blue Book — to help keep the plot grounded in fact, or at least informed speculation. More important, to play alien-obsessed electrical lineman Roy Neary, Spielberg hired Richard Dreyfuss, whose inspired acting with a plate of mashed potatoes really should have earned him an Oscar nomination. (Peter Finch won instead, for Network — Spielberg fans were mad as hell.)

Watch it: on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu

4. Schindler’s List (1993)

For Spielberg’s first major attempt at a serious, grownup film, he chose the most sober subject imaginable — the Holocaust. Liam Neeson (hired after Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson pursued the part) plays German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helped save the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish prisoners during World War II. It remains Spielberg’s only film shot in black and white, save for one memorable splash of color: a little girl in the Krakow ghetto hauntingly shown in a red coat (which later in the film makes her dead body all the more heartbreakingly recognizable). The film ended up winning seven Academy Awards, including for best picture and best director.

Watch it: on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu

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​​3. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982)

Think of it as The Wizard of Oz in reverse. An alien munchkin lands on Earth, where he’s befriended by three sometimes cowardly, sometimes brainless but never heartless locals: 10-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas), Elliot’s teenage brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and their younger sister (6-year-old Drew Barrymore). Oh, and there’s their little dog too! Still need convincing? At the very end, after ET phones no-place-like-home and streaks away in a hot-air-balloon-shaped spaceship, what does he leave behind in the sky? Yup, a rainbow. Oz comparisons aside, if there was ever any doubt that Spielberg had a heart, here was living proof, glowing red on the chest of a 3-foot-tall animatronic alien who didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Watch it: on Peacock TV, Vudu

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2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Not everybody loved its ending — too maudlin and over-the-top patriotic, some critics griped — but everybody was blown away by its beginning. Those first 20 minutes on Omaha Beach, where whizzing bullets and exploding artillery seemed so authentic audiences all but dove under their seats, comprised the most harrowing and visceral depiction of World War II ever put on film. Tom Hanks, in one of his most tightly wound turns, is a schoolteacher-turned-Army-captain who leads a unit of soldiers (Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi) behind enemy lines to recover Pfc. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers had already been killed in action. Almost as shocking as the film’s battle sequences was its fate at the Oscars, where virtually everyone assumed Spielberg would walk away with best picture, but Harvey Weinstein’s PR war won Shakespeare in Love the top prize (although Spielberg did pick up best director).

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1. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The best popcorn movie Spielberg (or maybe anybody) ever made. From its iconic opening sequence, with that giant boulder rolling after Indy in a booby-trapped Peruvian temple, to its punchline ending, with the Ark getting boxed up in a government warehouse where it likely won’t be discovered for another 3,000 years, there isn’t a frame of this film that isn’t edge-of-your-seat awesome. Spielberg might never have made Raiders if producers hadn’t kept rejecting his offers to direct a James Bond movie. But his buddy George Lucas suggested he take a crack at his own action story, about a swashbuckling archaeology professor who goes on a globe-trotting adventure to recover the Lost Ark of the Covenant, an ancient Hebrew “radio to God.” In retrospect, it seems biblically foreordained that Harrison Ford would play the swaggering, fedora-wearing title hero, but he was a last-minute addition after CBS made Tom Selleck relinquish Indy to do another season of Magnum PI. Fate, it seems, is still on Ford’s side — the 80-year-old actor will be cracking the whip one more time in a fourth, still-untitled sequel, due in theaters in 2023.

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