There’s a reason so many people remember the films of Steven Spielberg. The director has made films with the right balance of professional craft and child-like imagination that’s connected with people of all ages, managing to have movies be commercially appealing and artistically impressive. Whether you’re a snobby film buff or an average joe stuffing popcorn in your face, you’ve probably liked a Steven Spielberg movie because you can feel the effort he puts into his movies. Whether they’re good or bad, viewers can tell that Spielberg REALLY loves making movies.
With his latest effort opening Friday, the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, we at The Young Folks talked about the movies of Spielberg that stood out the most. With a career that spans over 40 years, there was a lot to choose from.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) by Jon Espino
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a multi-genre masterpiece. It successfully combines a film about adventure with Western elements and mystical moments, and just a hint of historical information. If you thought you liked Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, you’ll be pleased to realize that you love him as archeologist Indiana Jones. Essentially the same character, except where Solo lusts after money, Indy is all about the conquest and discovery.
Indy is a character that is meant to embody every aspect of the American attitude of the time. He is brash and coarse. He goes to foreign lands, uses their resources and takes their artifacts in the name of the museum (or America). His demeanor is that of an old-school cowboy whose honor and values sometimes seem as archaic as the artifacts he finds. His machismo attitude also keeps him from showing emotion or admitting his love for someone. His complexity and commentary is one of the many reasons I love this film.
Raiders of the Lost Ark succeeds as an amalgam of genre elements because it openly embraces its camp. It is boldly funny and brazenly self-aware at times, which is the only way you could accept some of the audacious things that happen on the search for the ark. It is far more clever than it has any right to be, and it fully embraces the tropes (like the villains and the damsel-in-distress) and expertly plays around with them. This is one treasure that has, and will continue to, pass the test of time.
Minority Report (2002) by Mauricio Abascal
When you pair an iconic director with an iconic action star like Tom Cruise, you’re bound to get an action-packed, science fiction film that may leave you thinking “What just happened?” Minority Report is one of those mind-bending films that actually makes you think instead of just throwing explosions in your face (yea, I’m calling you out Michael Bay).
Cruise plays Chief John Anderton, a top cop in the near future where police forces can predict future crimes before they happen. Anderton and his team have a flawless arrest record, but one random prediction has Anderton murdering someone. With that, he goes on the run trying to figure out what events lead him to this murder and how he can save his future.
Plot twists and character development paired with some incredible action sequences and award-winning visual effects, Spielberg once again created a film that’s interesting, enticing, and all around fun. He must have done something right to spawn a television spin-off series by the same name!
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) by Gabrielle Bondi
Every Christmas Eve as a kid, I watched E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, mainly because the holiday was always celebrated at my uncle’s house and that was the only movie he owned. I enjoyed the film, but it never quite resonated with me like Jurassic Park had. I would watch it with mild interest, since it was totally a better option than It’s A Wonderful Life.
It wasn’t until years later that I revisited E.T. after not seeing it for a long while (my uncle finally got cable), and wow, did it hit me hard with how genuine and moving the film is. I sobbed. I suppose it took a little extra maturity to truly recognize the nuance of the film, how it tackles a strongly plotted narrative, fully develops its characters, and transforms something that looks as strange as E.T. into something beautiful: a symbol of love, hope, and compassion.
Spielberg has been a fan of outsiders and broken families. E.T.
is no different with its main character Elliott (Henry Thomas) a lonely boy in the suburbs dealing with a father who left his family. Fortunately, he finds a fellow outsider with a small alien that he takes in and decides to protect. Life lessons and hijinks ensue, but it’s what Spielberg does with the story that makes it all soar.
Spielberg expertly weaves a story, characters and an odd-looking alien into a film that not only is insanely emotionally moving, but provokes audiences to re-examine our own lives–while also feeling like pure escapism. It’s a very human story for being about an extra-terrestrial.
The Terminal (2004) by Michael Fairbanks
When it comes to Steven Spielberg’s films, there is normally something inherently spectacular about them. It could be a period of history flawlessly re-created, a groundbreaking creature design, or an action sequence that throws the viewer out of their chair and onto the screen. As such, his 2004 effort The Terminal often finds itself lost in the shuffle. It’s a sweet little romantic comedy among looming titans of cinema, and frankly that’s a crying shame. While it’s perhaps the least showy of Spielberg’s films, it’s perhaps the funniest and most tender, like a hot cup of cocoa in zero degree weather.
Tom Hanks gives one of his most underrated performances as Viktor Navorski, a man from Krakozhia, a country so small that it’s hardly a dot on the map. Upon landing in JFK airport, he finds himself detained when a rebellion in his home nation effectively discredits Krakozhia as a nation. As such, Viktor (who hardly knows a word of English) can’t go back home, or out into America. He’s forced to live in the terminal until something can be worked out, much to the dismay of disgruntled customs officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci).
If this film is any indication, under all of the horror and pain Spielberg is itching to portray in all his work, is an absolute sweetheart who wants to make people happy. Make no mistake, this film is sappier than a maple tree, but it works because of how well crafted and genuine it is. The characters here are nothing short of fantastic, especially Hanks’ Viktor. As we watch an optimistic and kind man go out of his way to make the people he meets along the way happy, there is never a moment where we aren’t rooting for him to get through it. He also affects Viktor’s foreign accent without it feeling remotely hokey, making his gradual understanding of the English language all the more gratifying. All of the supporting characters are just as rich, the screenplay going out of it’s way to make even the smallest airport employee interesting. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives one of her best performances as an over-whelmed flight attendant who catches Victor’s eye, and Tucci is icy and even a little hilarious as the bemused bureaucrat. We also get some nice turns from Diego Luna, Chi McBride, and Zoe Saldana who are in the film just enough to have depth without overwhelming Viktor.
It should also be noted that every inch of The Terminal is a set. That’s right, Spielberg took an actual hangar and built a completely functional Terminal with working shops and gates. It’s the kind of investment that most large studios wouldn’t make on such a small scale story, but it makes all of the difference. Every second of this movie lives and breathes its setting and there isn’t a single moment where it feels like anything than Viktor’s fast food filled home.
The Terminal isn’t just as sweet as Steven Spielberg movies get, but as sweet as movies get. The performances are some of the best of each actor’s body of work, particularly Hanks, who was absolutely robbed of a Best Actor nomination here. Rarely if ever hitting a false note, we fall in love with every inch of this place as much as Viktor does. Not to mention, the emotional payoff is about as touching a thing as I’ve ever seen. Watching this movie might be the only time you ever want to be delayed in an airport, because you just won’t want it to end.
Schindler’s List (1993) by Alex Suffolk
When people think of Spielberg, they often think of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., or Jurassic Park, usually equating the man with whimsy and wonder. And while Spielberg does excel in those fields, I feel like equating him only with those qualities is selling him drastically short. I’d say that he is the master of cinematic emotion. And I think there is no other film in his repertoire that is so powerful and emotionally driven as Schindler’s List.
Schindler’s List is a story about the darkest depths that humanity can sink to, but also how from the darkest depths, the glints of light in humanity can still shine through – a message prevalent in every facet of the film. The most apparent example of this is the aesthetic choice of having the movie in black and white except for a selection of key items – hammering in the notion that even amidst the drab and dreary there are bits of vibrancy and hope to fixate on (which makes it all the more heartbreaking when one piece of color in particular is lost to the gray). Then there’s the arch of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) himself, who goes from a greedy man who doesn’t care about the lives he exploits to lamenting about how he could have saved even more lives. There’s even a glint of humanity in the villainous Amon Goethe (Ralph Fiennes), in that we see him struggle with a romantic attraction that he’s ashamed of. Any other director could have left an overseer of a Nazi death camp as just a vile, one-dimensional monster and it would have been accepted, but Spielberg cashes out on the gamble of humanizing Goethe; by showing us this emotion in such an evil character, Spielberg forces us to acknowledge that the tremendous evil of the holocaust was at the end of it all, still a human evil. And finally, there’s the ending, where we cut to present reality and watch as the people that Schindler saved, their descendants, and the actors that played them honor the grave of Oskar Schindler. The score is melancholy and weeping, and it ends with a memoriam to the lives lost in the holocaust, but this last sequence is also an inspirational reminder of the lives saved – a light at the end of one of the darkest tunnels in history.
Schindler’s List serves not only as a heart-wrenchingly honest depiction of human atrocity, but a reminder that there is always some goodness to be found in humanity. No other director in Hollywood could pull off that duality of tone and emotion. But Steven Spielberg can. And that’s why he will always be revered as one of the absolute finest in the history of film.
Jurassic Park (1993) by Allyson Johnson
There have been better films by Steven Spielberg, and there have been films of his that I’ve enjoyed more, but few have set the bar so high in terms of practical effects and genuine suspense building as Jurassic Park.
It’s a classic story of man playing God, when exuberant theme park owner John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) spares no expense in creating the ultimate attraction on Isla Nubar. Before the park officially opens its’ massive gates, Hammond brings in some experts to ensure the park’s safety after a nasty incident involving a worker and one of the park’s more vicious attractions. Hammond brings in paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (the ever-sunny Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (master of “uhh”s, Jeff Goldblum) who all have different theories on the park. Unfortunately, when something goes awry and the park’s power goes out, they realize the park’s prehistoric attractions have one theory for their new visitors: dinner.
As was typical of Spielberg, his cast were all wonderfully engaging, but none were superstars as would be the model for most blockbusters. Character actors such as Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern got to shine in a movie that was really all about the dinosaurs and they were magnificent. I was rather late to the party in terms of Spielberg filmography, something I’m still actively working on and I only just saw Jurassic Park within the last two years and I can’t imagine the awe (and equal amounts of trepidation) I would have felt if I’d seen it at a younger age. Jurassic Park, while far from perfect, is the kind of film that makes kids like me curious about filmmaking. Using practical effects and animatronics to create the terrorizing dinosaurs, the ultimate monster in the film, it takes on a craftsman like atmosphere where the movie, so totally encompassing, also feels as if it were hand built from the ground up.
It’s a movie that makes you wonder, makes you jump and Spielberg’s innovative mind is on full alert for the entire film.
Jaws (1975) by Bri Lockhart
“Are you here to see Jaws? You look like the type of people who would be here to see Jaws,” a fellow theater-goer said to my family, looking for the line. We were, in fact, there this past June to see Spielberg’s classic monster movie for its 40th anniversary.
It’s funny how so much praise still holds steady for what’s essentially a monster hunt, but Jaws thrives on its simplicity. It involves the police chief of a small island (Roy Scheider), an oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a shifty shark hunter (Robert Shaw) heading out into the nearly endless sea looking for a big bad great white (nicknamed Bruce by the film’s crew) that’s been terrorizing the small island.
Jaws is iconic for a lot of reasons, the most important being it was the first true summer blockbuster. Prior to Jaws, an early summer release was to movies what Friday night is to TV: the kill spot. Its success earned it a big spot in the heart of America’s popular culture. Even before I saw the movie in full, I knew plenty about it; besides it being on in the background of all of my childhood birthday parties and my mother’s stories about its theatrical release, it’s a favorite in the pop culture canon of references. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer quoted its famous ad-libbed line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” in the third season finale.
Jaws owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s direction, but what stands out to me the most is his handling of Bruce’s character. With the mechanical sharks breaking down and sinking to the bottom of the ocean several times, Spielberg had to figure out some workarounds for not having a shark available for every shot. The true genius of Jaws comes from flipping an exceedingly familiar horror movie staple on its head: fear of the unknown. Thanks to perspective, you don’t even see the whole of Bruce until the last third of the movie–instead, you’re put in the great white shark’s eyes, knowing all too well what is about to happen to his victims. This decision about perspective, along with John Williams’s iconic score, puts the audience in a position where the terror leading up to the act is worse than the horror following the act itself. Spielberg took a situation that might have been considered disastrous and made it one of Jaws’s greatest strengths.
Duel (1971) by Matthew Goudreau
Before he terrified audiences with the fear of the unknown monster in Jaws, Spielberg set the stage for his future success in Duel.
Presented as a terrifying game of cat and mouse, Duel follows a mild mannered electronic salesman named David (Dennis Weaver). While driving cross country, David finds himself in a deadly pursuit by a lone oil rigger.
Lead actor Weaver is an average joe who has to rely on his wits to survive. In many respects, he’s the prototype for what Roy Scheider would bring to Jaws. It wouldn’t have been necessary to provide him a character arc, but it does help us identify with him as a man facing life or death.
Much like Jaws, the suspense derives from the unknown. The lack of identity given to the rigger makes you wonder whether or not it’s a living entity itself. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s directorial prowess that he maintains the thrilling atmosphere with limited monetary tools. I chose Duel for this collaborative piece for that very reason. I’ve always preferred Spielberg when he’s minimal. That’s why I still have such admiration for him as a director. I’ve been hit and miss on his recent filmography, but he was at his best for the first half of his career. For all the criticism Spielberg garners (both warranted and unwarranted) for “creating the blockbuster”, Duel is a great showcase that proves Spielberg doesn’t need overblown special effects to entertain. If anything, it demonstrates he’s better off without them.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) by Matt Rice
Stephen King once referred to Stanley Kubrick as, “a man who thinks too much and feels too little.” By contrast, the opposite could be said about Steven Spielberg. So, when Kubrick and Spielberg came together for A.I., which Kubrick had been developing since the 1970s, what came of it was the most emotionally and intellectually honest film that either man had made. Naturally, like much of Kubrick’s work, it was heavily misjudged upon release.
The film did have its supporters. Jonathan Rosenbaum thought it was a masterpiece, recently naming it one of the 10 greatest American films of all time, while Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode, initially critical of the movie, later said they’d heavily underrated it. But overall, it’s been heavily criticized for being an uneven collision between the filmmakers’ individual styles, as well as taking forever to conclude. Still, the fact that critics were often inaccurate in judging which parts of A.I. were Spielberg’s doing and which were Kubrick’s suggests that many simply didn’t understand what the film was doing.
Based on Brian Aldiss’ short story, Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, A.I. is a sort-of futuristic take on Pinocchio, the inanimate object made to be real trying to find a home for his mechanical heart. Instead of being made of wood, Spielberg and Kubrick’s lead is made of metal as a robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment). He’s of a new class of robot that can actually emulate thought and emotion, which comes as a help for a married couple whose son is in a coma. Though apprehensive at first, the wife (Frances O’Connor) grows fond of David and activates an imprinting program that causes David to wholeheartedly believe she is his real mother. That love is passionate but unstable, and David is soon sent away when the couple’s real son comes home and is troubled by his new adoptive brother. But David’s love for his mother is something that can’t be switched off, so he goes off on an adventure to find a way to make himself human and return home to his mother.
In his films, Spielberg often uses positive emotions as a payoff for negative ones, while Kubrick would often blend the bitter and the sweet until it was hard to differentiate them. In A.I., though, emotions build off of each other. It tells a tremendously sad and dark story about human weakness and how it manifests in our creations, and while there is beauty and wonder present in the movie, even the cheerful moments—such as the fairy tale-esque ending—contain much tragedy.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) by Jon Winkler
Sure, Spielberg has brought a lot of amazing wonder and fantasy to the big-screen. I will forever be grateful for the man that brought dinosaurs, giant sharks, the beaches of Normandy, robots who can love and professors raiding temples. But Spielberg’s movies connect best when everything centers around human elements, especially when you can tell the characters in his movies echo the man himself. From all of the people Spielberg has put in front of his camera, no one seems to have mirrored him more than Frank Abagnale Jr. escaping his dull, broken family and reveling in the swinging 60s.
Catch Me If You Can is the true story of Abagnale Jr. (played with youthful vigor by Leonardo DiCaprio), a New York teenager who runs away from home when his parents’ marriage falls apart. He uses his charm to con people into thinking he’s a Pan Am pilot, eventually forging Pan Am checks that add up to over $2 million dollars. This garners the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks as a workaholic grump), who specializes in bank fraud and consistently pursues Frank as he goes from posing as a doctor to a lawyer and some stuff in-between to find his own happiness.
Everything about Catch Me If You Can swings without a hitch. Spielberg’s depiction of 1960s America, with Pan Am stewardesses strutting around, pool parties with guests wearing Italian leather and Frank Sinatra playing in the background is engrossing. His trademark spotlight fetish works much better here when using the warm sun to illuminate scenes. He gets grade-A performances from his actors too, as DiCaprio does something rare for him and actually embraces his pretty-boy looks as part of the character. Frank knows he’s a charmer and knows girls like to swoon over him (especially with his trick with the necklace seen in the film), so he uses it like a magic wand. But that doesn’t take away from the hurt in his eyes every time he sees his father (an equally charming Christopher Walken) or when he runs out of options to evade Carl. Speaking of which, Hanks has rarely used his Jimmy Stewart-esque appeal to be a antagonist but it works here. His phone chats with Frank are both character development and seem very natural. It’s a cat-and-mouse game for sure, but the two also build off of each other. In fact, he’s the future that scares Frank: a dead-end desk job with no form of exploration and expansion. Frank’s not just running from the law, he’s running from his future.
And maybe that’s why Frank and Spielberg have so much in common. Spielberg is also whipping up fantasies on a daily basis trying to avoid boring normal life. It’s why Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg’s best movies because it’s one of the best definitions of who Spielberg is. No matter how old he gets or much praise or money he earns, he’s still kid at heart playing with various fantasies and real world events, making them his own.