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.
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.”
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.)