|Mr. Spielberg has probably gotten pretty good at posing for these "Spielberg Directing" publicity shots|
This year, Spielberg's more escapist fare is The Adventures of Tintin, a state-of-the-art animated motion capture adventure that many are characterizing as an attempt to foist a massively popular international comic hero on unsuspecting American audiences.
Spielberg's more serious film is War Horse, a movie that depicts the horrific events of the First World War as seen through the eyes of a horse in military service.
On this occasion, I have decided to look back at Mr. Spielberg's incredible directing career through the prism of my own personal Spielberg Top 10...
10. Sugarland Express (1974)
Sugarland Express is Spielberg's first theatrical release. He had previously directed Duel, a TV movie about a seemingly phantom truck harassing a meek traveling salesmen on the open highways of America. Duel was released theatrically in Europe so there is some debate as to what film is truly Spielberg's first theatrical release.
Based on a true story, Sugarland Express follows the exploits of a very young Goldie Hawn as she breaks her husband out of jail because she fears that she will soon lose custody of her son. In the process, the two fugitives take a Texas State Trooper hostage. It's not long before their escape becomes a media circus. They are followed down the highways of Texas by a large caravan of cops and media.
It's your basic chase movie with a twist.
One scene that I love takes place while Goldie and her husband William Atherton (later the sleazy journalist in Die Hard) are holed up someplace or other. They look out the window and see a drive-in theater in the distance. They quietly watch a Road Runner cartoon with no sound; a wonderfully surreal visual allegory to the events of the film.
That scene also hits on one of Spielberg's greatest recurring themes: the mediated experience of real events.
9. Empire of the Sun (1987)
The guy from Being John Malkovich becomes a father figure to a twelve year-old Batman in a Japanese POW camp in China during WWII.
Spielberg's early ventures into serious "grown up" films were commercially risky and generally not well received critically. Many critics and audiences who saw the director as crowd pleasing sentimentalist greeted Empire of the Sun and his earlier The Color Purple with skeptically crossed arms. Looking back on Empire of the Sun, though, for shear human emotional impact set against an incredibly detailed and nuanced historical backdrop, the movie can not be beat.
It's an epic that has stayed with me all these years.
Empire of the Sun is a film that plays to another one of Mr.Spielberg's big themes: the deconstruction and ersatz reconstruction of the nuclear family.
8. Jurassic Park (1993)
|Yes, yes, I know. This is Spielberg directing the sequel.|
In the late 80's and very early 90's, he had stumbled through his ill received more serious films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Then there were the odd misfires of Always and Hook. His only real old Spielbergian box office smash was the third film of what was then the Indiana Jones trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. While the third Indy installment has a bit more depth than the first two films, it was still, nevertheless, kinda rehashing old territory.
In 1993, Spielberg once again embraced his now neglected inner child along with some cutting edge special effects. The result was Jurassic Park, one of the biggest box office hits of not just the 90's but of Spielberg's career.
While the movie is a tad weak narrative-wise, the dinosaurs are brought to life in with a combination of technical expertise and artistic mastery that only Mr. Spielberg could pull off. The Thunder Lizards are the true stars of the film and, like any solid movie stars, they carry it well. The human-raptor cat and mouse chase scenes of the later part of Jurassic Park represents some of Spielberg's most tense, scary and thrilling work since Jaws.
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Spielberg's first, but not last, cinematic fraternizing with aliens.
Close Encounters is quite possibly Spielberg's most visual film. The dialogue is often sparse and usually only supports the visuals anyway. The film also has that great cinematic layering technique that is often seen in the director's earlier work. There is a lengthy scene where Richard Dreyfus spends a whole day making a scale replica of Devil's Tower, the locale of a future UFO landing, in his living room. As he obsessively does so, the audio and visuals of an entire day of TV programing play in the background. It's a classic example of Spielberg's skilful multi-layering.
Spielberg cast one of his cinematic heroes in Close Encounters: Francois Truffaut. Truffaut's films and the legendary French director's portrayal of children in particular, were a major influence on Spielberg. Critics who cite the kids in Spielberg's films as being influenced by Disney movies have clearly never a Truffaut film. Nor, for that matter, have they likely seen any pre-Spielberg era live action Disney movies either.
In later interviews, Truffaut said that he arrived on set with a book by the legendary acting teacher Constantin Stanislavsky. He says that then Spielberg showed him the storyboards for the film. After seeing the storyboards, Truffaut immediately put the book away as it was clear he would not be needing it for this movie. Yep, while there are some great performances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the movie is just not about the acting.
6. War of the Worlds (2005)
By 2005, the line between Spielberg's fantasy films and his so-called "grown up" serious films was becoming increasingly blurred. War of the Worlds is a prime example.
Spielberg's adaptation of the HG Wells' science fiction classic was part of his unofficial trilogy of dark SF films. The other two were A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002). AI and Minority Report are two of Spielberg's most maligned and misunderstood movies. Even so, though, War of the Worlds still remains the strongest film of the three.
Heavily influenced by the events of the post 911 era, War of the Worlds is as much about the destruction of human society and values as it is about an alien invasion.
The alien tripod's attack on a ferry which Tom Cruise and his children are attempting escape on is a tour de force of Spielberg's strengths: visual tension and solid special effects make foe a scene that has a powerful emotional impact. Yes, Spielberg has this wonderful way of putting his characters through hell while ultimately finally delivering them from evil.
Many of Spielberg's films have been referred to, over the years, as comic books. If that's the case, then Munich is his graphic novel.
Munich is highly stylized yet quite morally ambiguous. The film closely follows an elite group of Israeli intelligence agents.Their mission is to covertly eliminate the Palestinian terrorists believed to have been responsible for the killing of members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. Whether or not the events depicted in the film actually took place or not is still the subject of some debate.
Munich is based on the 1984 book Vengeance by Hungarian born Canadian writer and columnist George Jonas. The film departs from the book in many significant ways. Jonas clearly states his own personal feelings towards the events he writes about. He contends that while terrorism is evil, counter-terrorism can be morally justified and is necessary.
Spielberg's film, on the other hand, is very sympathetic towards the agents while being critical of the mission itself. Munich is also allegorically critical of the American reaction to the event of 9-11 (the final shot of the film is of the 70's NYC skyline with the World Trade Center featured prominently). Justified or not, Spielberg took a lot of heat for Munich and the film continues to dwell in relative obscurity.
Unlike many of Spielberg's films, even the serious ones, Munich is not dominated by his overwhelming directorial presence. The cinematic elements of the film, while very strong, do not call attention to themselves as strongly as they might in his other films. Thus the focus of Munich shifts towards the characters and the events they are caught up in.
IMO, Munich is one of Steven Spielberg's most underrated films.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
You ever wonder what it would have been like if Spielberg and George Lucas would have left Raiders of the Lost Ark as just one movie? Yep. One Indiana Jones adventure. No sequels. No books. No comics. No Young Indiana Jones. Just the one movie and that's it, that's all.
K. There's more fantasy in that paragraph than there is in Raiders of the Lost Ark itself.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is loosely based on the old Hollywood theatrical serial adventures that used to play in weekly 15-20 minute installments in movie theaters back in the days before TV. Though, it is much more exciting that many of those serials. In fact, Raiders is a triumph of action and excitement that had never been seen before on the big screen.
Harrison Ford is brilliantly cast the globe-trotting archaeologist who, while incredibly brave and heroic, clearly has some anger management issues. Ford is one of those Hollywood movie star actors who is incredibly good at playing one thing. And that thing is Indiana Jones, followed closely by Han Solo (and, c'mon, is there really that much difference between the two characters?).
I remember watching, on one of my umpteenth re-viewings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the shot of the Ark of the Covenant in the cargo hold of a ship the Nazis had just commandeered. The Ark is in a crate with a large swastika stamped on the side of it. While the crate sits there alone in the hold and rats scurry by, a light shines out of it. The swastika is burnt away and replaced by a Star of David. I remember at that moment thinking to myself "Someday Spielberg is going to do a serious film about the Holocaust".
Which brings us to....
3. Schindler's List (1993)
I have to admit right off the bat that Schindler's List is one of the rare Spielberg films that I have only seen once. The others I've seen only once are Always, Hook and The Terminal for, as you can guess, completely different reasons.
The truth is that I found Schindler's List such an incredibly emotionally harrowing experience that I've not been eager to go there again.
Nonetheless, there are many scenes in the movie that are still permanently etched in my mind. One in particular was the subject of some debate with a friend of mine back in the day. It's the scene where some young kids hide from the Nazis in the disgusting bowels of an outhouse. I remember my friend making the case that even in the context of the Holocaust, Spielberg was still clinging to his old habits of portraying cute kids; that those kids in that scene still had these big wide innocents eyes just like anything out of, say, ET.
My answer to that argument was and is simple. However, "cute" they may be, these are kids that are literally up to their necks in human excrement in an attempt to escape what is widely considered the largest act of genocide in human history.
See my point about the prevalence of condescending attitudes towards Spielberg's work?
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
|Again with the pointing.|
The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan alone deserved an Oscar. Really, is anyone still blogging about Shakespeare in Love almost 14 years later?
Sorry. Pet peeve. Moving on.
Saving Private Ryan is the ultimate deconstruction and reconstruction of the mythological nature of World War II that has become common in movies and in the popular consciousness in general. World War II, in movies up to that point, was rarely depicted as an incredibly horrific war (least of all in American movies). That kind of treatment of warfare was usually reserved for films about the war in Vietnam.
Spielberg's incredible visuals created a decidedly different vision of World War II. Some veterans of the D-Day invasion have said that Saving Private Ryan is the closest on screen recreation of the event that they have ever seen.
For instance, to avoid the typical look and sound of "movie guns", Spielberg had very realistic mannequins made of the actors so that real bullets from real guns could be fired into them for some shots. He and his Director of Photography, Janus Kaminski, studied a great deal of WWII combat footage and photo journalism to get the verisimilitude just right. It also just about the only war movie off the top of my head where you actually see soldiers cry.
One of Steven Spielberg's finest achievements.
For my money, there is no film of Spielberg's that is as well crafted and as thoroughly entertaining as Jaws. From start to finish, there is never a dull moment.
It is also rare case of the movie being better than the book. Peter Benchley's bestselling novel of the same name gets bogged down on a mafia subplot and some completely unnecessary sexual encounters.The movie drops all that extra fat and concentrates on the lean action of a classic killer shark story.
From John Williams' iconic Jaws theme to the surprisingly effective mechanical shark to Richard Dreyfus, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw in some of the best performances of their careers, Jaws is a true classic film of American cinema. Spielberg was just 27 years old when he directed it.
Jaws has one of the best scare scenes ever. In what starts as an unremarkable dialogue scene, Scheider complains about getting stuck dumping dead fish off the side off the boat in attempt attract the shark. While he complains and starts dumping the stuff into the water, suddenly, and without any build up of tension or expectations, a giant shark head casually comes right up out of the water behind him. He turns then sees the shark. Then, stunned, he gets up slowly and backs away towards the unaware Dreyfus and Shaw. Then Roy Scheider utters one my favorite famous lines from any movie ever:
"We're going to need a bigger boat."