By John H. Foote
The Directors Guild of America has nominated him 11 times, more than any other filmmaker in the history of the movies, and three times honoured him as the year’s Best Director. Seven times he has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director, winning twice, however it is clear there should have been at least five other nominations and an additional two to three wins.
The National Society of Film Critics has twice named his work Best Film with an additional Best Director award for him, as have the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, while the New York Film Critics have twice named his work best of the year but chose not to honor him as Best Director.
It was once said to me that “Spielberg is incapable of making a bad film” which might be true after all. Spielberg’ weakest films (as with Martin Scorsese) are stronger than many of the new films emerging or streaming right now, and it has been that way their entire careers. Ranking The Color Purple at the lower end will no doubt cause some controversy, but frankly he took a great, spiky novel and turned it into a colourful “zipadeedoodah” movie in which African Americans at the turn of the 20th century did not have it that bad. The Color Purple trivialized what happened to African Americans at the turn of the century, and despite an astonishing Whoopi Goldberg performance, is a messy film. He made the film for all the wrong reasons.
His finest work represents some of the greatest films made, movies that soar into realm of fantasy or films that plunge us into the startling realism of the modern world. He has explored World War II on film many times, best of all in his masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Empire of the Sun (1987) as well as War Horse (2011), to accompany his magnificent HBO mini-series The Pacific (2010).
He is today, along with Martin Scorsese, considered one of the greatest directors in film history.
The first six are weak, bad films; the rest are all excellent films and the top ten could be in any order, but the two best are as they should be.
31. HOOK (1991)
I cannot measure the absolute disdain and hatred for this film. Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith and Julia Roberts must hang their head in shame over this. Noisy, offensive, these Lost Boys deserved to stay lost. How could so many talented people not see the most obvious fix for this film?? Send Toodles back with Peter! He was a Lost Boy, the Lost Boys remember him and have the marbles he lost so long ago, but most importantly he knows Peter Banning (Williams) is Peter Pan! But, nope, nobody thought of this. So, the wonderful old actor playing him wanders aimlessly around talking about losing his marbles, and they all take him literally. Robin Williams postures as Peter, who has forgotten he was ever “the Pan” and Dustin Hoffman hams it up as a foppish, speech-impeded Captain Hook. The magnificent pirate never leaves the dock, not once. More annoying than any film Spielberg has ever made, I hated it then and hate even more now. The cast and crew referred to Julia Roberts as Tinker Hell, not a lot of love there. Kind of how I feel about the film.
30. THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)
OK, before the knives come out, listen up. Spielberg wanted an Oscar for Best Director, believing it would legitimize him within the Hollywood community. So instead of choosing another adventure or fantasy, which had made him among the greatest (whether the Academy thought so or not) he decided to film the adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel about the black experience at turn of the 19th century America. But in doing so, he stripped the film of all the book’s powerful rage, all of that seething anger the blacks harboured towards the whites, all the abuse, the homosexuality, anything potentially controversial was removed because Spielberg was not yet mature enough to make such a film. The film is so colourful one might swear they are watching an uplifting Disney drama, the score so overpowering and saccharin sweet, it telegraphs all the events and informs the audience what they are to think, and the performances, save Whoopi Goldberg are predictable. Goldberg brings dignity to her performance and deserved her nomination for Best Actress. The film received 11 nominations but not Best Director. That sent a message.
29. THE LOST WORLD – JURASSIC PARK (1997)
More of the same without the awe and wonder. After a long break from movie making after Schindler’s List, this gave Spielberg a gentle, easy return. Nothing more. Great effects, some impressive action sequences, but lacking heart and soul. He said he made the film to get back into the directing groove. The film has some great action sequences—Julianne Moore on an ever-spreading, shattering window, any time the Raptors are on screen but it lacks the bite (sorry) of the first. Effects-heavy, beautifully shot, but empty and lacking heart.
28. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
I am not sure what I disliked more, Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion in a lead-lined fridge, or Shia LaBeouf as his son, swinging through the trees like Tarzan? It was great to see Ford in the fedora again, a little older, maybe a little wiser, certainly a little more broken, but the film was just stupid. Bringing the lovely Karen Allen was a great move because she and Ford always had great chemistry, but to give them a son? And for it to be LaBeouf? Russians are the bad guys this time with Cate Blanchett in a severe Louise Brooks hairdo as a nasty Russian who seeks an object hidden in the jungles of South America. What should have been fun grew tiresome very quickly and not even the killer ants or inner dimensional aliens could save it.
27. 1941 (1979)
With the studios throwing money at the new breed of filmmaker in the 70s, despite failures before this, Spielberg was given more than $40 million to make a comedy about WWII. His friends wondered why he suddenly thought he could direct comedy. Glimpses for sure in his films, but an entire movie? What emerged was a busy, wildly erratic film in which he appeared to turn some of his actors loose and let them do whatever the hell they pleased. John Belushi was very funny doing his Animal House (1978) character as a fighter pilot, buzzing his plane through Hollywood. Dan Ackroyd spouted silly lines throughout. The opening was promising, a spoof of the famous Jaws opening but instead of being pulled to her death by a shark, the same young woman has a periscope of a Japanese sub come up between her legs taking her high in the air. Jitterbug contests, huge battles in the streets of LA, and absolute chaos wore down the audiences very quickly.
26. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Gone was the good nature wink in the eye of the first film, replaced by nastiness: child labour, kidnapping, a madman running a religious cult, Indiana Jones turning bad guy temporarily. All this gave this film a much darker edge than anyone expected. The violence was shocking, unnecessary really, challenging the ratings system in North America. There is a mean-spirited thinking to the film that bothered me and the portrayal of violence towards children was chilling. Still, it made a fortune.
25. THE BFG (2016)
Though it flopped in theatres and did not do well with film critics (well some of us), I liked the film very much, found the whole thing enchanting. Like a story book, lavishly illustrated, the film pops off the screen beautifully thanks to the army of designers, and the performance of Mark Rylance as the giant. The production design is magnificent, sweeping us into a truly magical fairy tale. Audiences did not respond, but it worked for me.
24. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974)
The famous critic Pauline Kael called the film “the greatest debut film by any director since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane“. This was heady praise indeed for the young director making the transition to feature films from television. A road film with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, the story hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion, using many of the talents he had with his TV film Duel (1974) his monster vehicle movie, the picture is both involving and exciting. Hawn and Atherton are excellent. A box office disappointment, the film nonetheless made clear this Spielberg kid could direct. Universal kept him around after his success on TV, and he delivered an impressive debut.
23. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011)
Spielberg’s first, and thus far, only animated film was this epic bringing to life the Great Britain hero Tintin and his person. Beautifully animated with touches of Lawrence of Arabia merged with the Indiana Jones films, it was exciting. The trouble was no one in North America really got or knew about Tintin. Very British adventure.
22. READY PLAYER ONE (2018)
This dazzling film that looks exactly like a video game. King Kong turns up along with every major piece of 80s pop culture making an appearance in major or minor roles. It has a frantically paced narrative that is less important than the visuals served up through the picture. Our heroes hurtle from one adventure to another, each more exciting than the one before recalling the Indiana Jones films, though in a future filled with movie references from the 80s and earlier.
21. ALWAYS (1989)
His favorite film as a kid was A Guy Named Joe (1944) a WWII drama starring Spencer Tracy, which he decided to remake, sort of, setting the drama in the blazing US forest fires. Richard Dreyfuss took the Tracey role as a hot-shot firefighter who takes incredible risks and is killed during one of them when his plane catches fire and explodes. Holly Hunter is the girl left behind, torn apart by her grief, and John Goodman the best buddy who misses his friend but knows he must move on. Hunter portrays grief exactly as it is, Dreyfuss is jolly and arrogant, but clearly misses her and loves her very much, regretting never having told her so in life. There is a magical sequence when Hunter puts on “girl clothes” and she and Dreyfuss dance among the other men. She recreates the dance a year later, not knowing he dances with her from the beyond. It has its moments but just never grabbed the audience. Hunter’s portrayal of grief is among the finest I have seen onscreen, and the forest fire sequences are electrifying. Brad Johnson lacks the charisma to attract Hunter I think, but he certainly has the looks of a movie star.
20. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Hearing about Michael Crichton’s book about cloned dinosaurs in the modern world, Spielberg bought the rights just as computer generated images were being introduced. Shown some footage of dinosaurs on computer, he turned to his effects men and stated, “You’re extinct, guys”. The dinosaurs in the film are dazzling creations, especially the massive T-Rex and those vicious raptors, both lethal killers in different sizes. Seeing the T-Rex attack and chase the children through the jungle remains one of the most spectacular and intensely visceral sequences on film. The actors are fine, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and especially Jeff Goldblum but they know they do not matter, the stars here are the dinosaurs and they are magnificent. The film won three Academy Awards for its Visual Effects, Sound and Sound Editing. Another iconic score from John Williams, and massive box office receipts. The reveal of the dinosaurs is spectacular and superbly acted by the cast, audiences were left in stunned silence at the majesty of the creations.
19. THE TERMINAL (2004)
Tom Hanks is a distinctly American actor. Maybe the crowds stayed away from this movie because hearing him with a Russian accent was simply too hard to accept. All they did was cheat themselves of a lovely fable with Hanks near Chaplin-esque as Viktor, a man stranded at the airport when a coup in his country renders him homeless, a man without a country. Based on a true story, Viktor proves very resourceful in attaining a job, a place to sleep, and does so all quietly and without causing too much trouble. His masterful creation of a fountain stuns the workers he is working with, and his goofy little jive dance as he works endears him to anyone watching. The film belongs to Hanks; no one else makes much of an impact. Far better than it said to be, critics blew this one. One of the year’s best performances and ignored in every way.
18. WAR HORSE (2011)
One of the most visually stunning Spielberg has ever made, this adaptation of the popular stage play of the early 2010’s was a sometimes breathtaking homage to the work of Victor Fleming and John Ford. In many ways War Horse is a love letter to the films of those two masters, and the boy/ animal friendships films of the forties. Glorious colour, superbly captured by Janusz Kaminski is startling to see, and the film plunges us directly into WWI as very few films ever had. The movie is essentially a boy and his horse film, and when the horse is requisitioned for the war by the army, the film becomes about the two of the reuniting. The screenplay falter s here lacking any real depth, though the visuals involving the war are remarkable. There si a profoundly moving scene when a German soldier helps cutting the horse trapped in barbed wire, the two men peacefully moving on once the animal is cut free. Something right out of a John Ford film. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best picture, but not Best Director, it is a visual feast yet old fashioned and deeply sentimental.
17. THE POST (2017)
Brilliant and timely film made during the nightmarish Trump years when the President was accusing mainstream media as being “fake news”. The film deals with the Washington Post, before Watergate, stumbling onto a story about the war in Vietnam and the fact America was being accused of atrocities, and losing the war. President Nixon tried to have the articles banned, but the Post bravely went ahead and printed them anyway. Tom Hanks is outstanding as Ben Bradlee, while Meryl Streep portrays the owner of the Post. Excellent reviews greeted the film, but very little interest among audiences. Still, it was a Best Picture nominee and Streep was nominated for Best Actress. Oddly, nothing else.
16. WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
Can a great film be undone in its last two minutes? (SPOILER!) When Robbie walks out of the house in Boston, very much alive, though his father (portrayed by Tom Cruise) thought him dead, the premise of the movie fell apart for me. How did this cocky, arrogant teenager make it there before his father and sister, and how is he still alive? We watch him go over the hill as the aliens decimate the military, but he survives? This startling, visceral film, an allegory about terrorism, is undone by a sappy, impossible ending. Sorry Steven, we didn’t buy it. The film has an undeniable edge with the stunning effects, genuinely terrifying aliens hell bent on exterminating all of mankind, great performances from both Cruise Dakota Fanning, not to mention a purely unhinged performance from Tim Robbins. But it’s all lost by that sentimental ending. An astounding, terrifying allegory about 9/11. When Rachel (Fanning) screams “Is it the terrorists?” as devastation unfolds around her, she brings us right back to that terrible September day in 2001.
15. BRIDGES OF SPIES (2015)
This Cold War thriller deals with lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is assigned by his government to facilitate the release of imprisoned pilot Gary Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Who do the Soviets want in exchange? The captured spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) captured and being held for trial by the Americans. When Donovan is appointed lawyer to Abel, he finds himself torn by the fact the man deserves a committed defense, despite his being a spy for the Soviets. The relationship is further complicated when Donovan grows to like the man, who is intelligent and well spoken. Beautifully written, acted with honesty and integrity by its cast, specifically Hanks and Rylance, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, but not Best Director. Rylance won Best Supporting Actor, the second actor to win an Oscar under Spielberg’s guidance. A literate, powerful film. The placement of the film on this list might be higher in years to come.
14. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
A bouncy, colourful, and frothy biography of professional fraud artist Frank Abagnale, a charismatic young man who defrauded more than two million dollars before being caught by the FBI, and then hired to help detect fraud. It is wonderfully acted film from top to bottom. Leonardo Di Caprio gave his first performance as an adult here, moving through his teenage years into adulthood on the run from the FBI Agent Hanratty, portrayed beautifully by Tom Hanks as almost fatherly. Damaged by the divorce of his parents, young Frank sets off on his own to help his father, portrayed by Christopher Walken, and discovers he is a master of fraud. Posing at various times as an airline pilot, a lawyer (even passing the bar!) and doctor, he was every bit as good at disguise as he was fraud. The steady parade of women in his life was a side benefit of his charm, but it was fraud that made him happiest. There is a wonderful encounter between him and Hanratty in a hotel room in which the kid convinces the Agent he is FBI and he slips right through the Agent’s fingers. The Academy ignored Spielberg in 2002 despite two of the best films of the year, this and Minority Report. DiCaprio stepped on the path to greatness with this. Just two Oscar nominations for the film—Christopher Walken as Supporting Actor and the bouncy score, but it deserved at least nine.
13. AMISTAD (1997)
After the debacle that became The Color Purple (sorry no apologies), Spielberg again explores the African American experience, this time the famous story of the Amistad slave ship which, though bound for Spain ended up in America. The slaves, plucked from their homes in Africa, would fight for their freedom, eventually represented by former United States President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) in the Supreme Court. In an extraordinary film debut, former model Djimon Honsou is magnificent as Cinque, the towering African put in an impossible situation and is longing for his home. The scenes between him and Hopkins have a near lyrical magic, as we watch each begin to trust the other man. Watch the look of surprise on Cinque’s face when he is given an African violet to smell, and he at once swept home, just a mesmerizing performance. Strong work from Matthew McConaughey lends depth to the cast, though Morgan Freeman is wasted in a near cameo with little to say. Spielberg was a DGA nominee, deserved, but the Academy nominated the film for just four awards.
12. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)
It starts with the winning combination of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and the great Sean Connery as his father Henry Jones. The two had remarkable chemistry that leaped right off the screen and into the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere. Once again doing battle with Nazis who have taken his father hostage as leverage for their search for the Holy Grail, another holy relic Hitler covets. And thus, the adventure launches, or I suppose continues. Extraordinary chase sequences, the two Joneses proving resourceful about getting in and out of trouble, making their way to the chamber that holds the holy grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper. Wildly entertaining, the second best of the Indiana Jones films and one of Spielberg’s best films for pure entertainment value.
11. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)
Though I mourn this masterful film being outside the top ten of Spielberg’s career, I maintain it was the finest film of 1987 and deserved that Best Director Oscar. Alas, he would have to wait five more years. Based on the true story of writer J. G. Ballard, who was a child when he landed in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, fighting and scamming his way, trying to stay alive. Portrayed, brilliantly by a young Christian Bale in the film, it explores his transition from entitled, wealthy and spoiled English lad living in Shang Hai to a filthy, feral young teen nearly unrecognizable to his own parents. By the time they find him at the end of the film, he is an old soul, having seen and experienced things no child should ever endure. The film contains some of the finest direction in any film from Spielberg, stunning cinematography, a superb production design and a haunting score you will never forget. The director opens and closes the film with startling imagery and fills the screen with the wonderment of a child during a time of war. Though nominated by the DGA, and by the Academy for six Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Director were not among them. This was the best film I saw in 1987, by far.
10. MINORITY REPORT (2002)
Beautifully made science fiction thriller with Tom Cruise as futuristic cop Anderton in a society where murders can be predicted in a strange and unique way. Cruise delivers one of his finest performances as a damaged cop who lost his son years before and has never gotten over it. The child was abducted in a public place. His father now sees every killer as a possible child killer. When the three seers, the “pre-cogs”, predict Anderton will commit the next murder, he is soon on the run to escape the police. Knowing everything about their methods, he has an advantage. He takes with him Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the seers, who knows something about a killing years before. Colin Farrell is terrific in a supporting role, and Max Von Sydow insidious as the head of the police department, a truly vile man. The futuristic production design and props look plausible, and the cars, zipping across highways and over buildings, are extraordinary. Roger Ebert named this the best film of the year, and he was not far off. Why the Academy almost completely ignored the film, I do not know.
9. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
My first impression of this film was that it had more action and thrills crammed into the first 15 minutes than most films have in their entire running time. I was breathless watching Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) jump, run, duck and crack his bull whip to get himself out of the most impossible situations. After the debacle of 1941, Spielberg went to work for his friend George Lucas and learned a lot about movie making, particularly how to save money on films, because this time the money was not that of the studio but Lucas himself. Using miniatures, stock footage, inventive visual effects, Spielberg created an absolute knockout adventure film in which Jones goes after the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to find it before Hitler and his Nazis do. Karen Allen was an absolute delight as the love interest Marion, but Ford owns the film, from the first minute we see him through to the final images. It ended up with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best director and Best Film, with four wins for technical categories.
8. A.I. – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)
Stanley Kubrick had been toying with this film for years when he died in 1999. Spielberg, in tribute to his good friend, decided to honour him in making the film, and making it the way Kubrick would have. An astonishing film that failed with audiences when it opened in 2001 but has gradually earned a reputation through the years, making it one of the finest science fictions ever made and among Spielberg’s most daring works. It is a dark film, dealing with a little boy abandoned by his mother in the woods and left to make his way in a strange and cruel world. Life is especially hard for boys like him, because he is not actually human—he is a mecha, and mankind has grown to hate the mechas. Portrayed by Haley Joel Osment just after his work in The Sixth Sense (1999), the performance is a wonder, earning the boy an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This dystopian world is haunting in its neon and false beauty, as we see the underside of the nightmare too, like Nazi Germany in its heyday. Jude Law is superb as Gigolo Joe, a sex-mecha created to give human women and men pleasure, and he takes his job very seriously. The ending of the film is often misunderstood, so pay attention. Those are not aliens the boy encounters thousands of years in earths’ future. Masterful.
7. MUNICH (2005)
Again, a dark, visceral film that was immediate in its power. In 1972, a group of terrorists made their way in the Olympic Village, killed some of the Israeli athletes in their room, took the rest hostage, and then in a botched escape, murdered the rest of them on the tarmac. “They’re all gone” reported a network sports reporter, his words turning your blood to ice. Nothing was ever the same. In a secret revenge meeting, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered a squad of soldiers to execute the men responsible for the Olympic murders. Eric Bana leads the squad of executioners, all experts in their various murderous ways, as they travel around Europe, finding their prey and terminating them.
6. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
A dreamscape of a film, a stunner and the one film that dates him as a filmmaker. He claims as a father he would never leave his family behind as Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) does. When mankind is visited by aliens, those who witness are implanted with a vision of a mountain they cannot place. They draw it, sculpt it, make a mashed potato mountain out of it but cannot figure it out. A musical piece of five notes was implanted in some of them as well. Spielberg’s majestic film follows an electrical plant worker, Roy, and a young mother and her child Barry, as they move towards contact with an alien race. The final 45 minutes make up one of most extraordinary sequences in the history of the cinema as mankind comes face to face with an alien race for the first time. The mountain they see is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and the government and United Nations has built a station on the other side of the mountain awaiting the arrival of the aliens. And do they arrive. A magnificent mother ship rises high above the mountain and contact is made, as the ship responds to the musical notes before the aliens exit the ship. Ethereal, haunting, yet oddly familiar, it is an astonishing sequence, beautifully directed by Spielberg. Nominated for eight Academy Awards but incredibly not Best Picture, despite being by far the finest film of the year. Spielberg received his first nod for Best Director after being snubbed for Jaws (1975). A breathtaking work of art.
5. JAWS (1975)
This might be the greatest horror film ever made, and the director was just 26 years old when he made it. With an astute understanding of the language of the cinema and a vivid imagination, Spielberg was the perfect choice to direct Jaws. When an eight-meter great white shark begins feasting on bathers off the Eastern seaboard, three very different men set out to kill it. The trio is made up of Brody (Roy Scheider), the misplaced New York cop afraid of the water, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the wise cracking rich scientist, an expert on sharks and Quint (Robert Shaw), the shark-hating, Ahab-like man obsessed with getting this shark. Mechanical sharks were built for the film, one sunk to the bottom of the sea, the other malfunctioned and the one that worked was used sparingly. Having to think on the fly, Spielberg decided the less the shark was shown the better—let the imaginations of the audience run wild. It was brilliant direction. From the terrifying opening when the shark tears a young woman apart in the ocean, to the electrifying scene when Quint is bitten in half by the monster, the director found ingenious ways not to show the shark. He used the barrels meant to bring the shark to the surface, that fin, and the geysers of blood that erupted when a person was attacked. The performances were perfect, especially Shaw, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In all the film was nominated for a measly four Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Musical Score, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. No Best Director, Screenplay Adaptation, Cinematography or Visual Effects. There were howls of protest when Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director, Universal Pictures lashed back with ads in the trade papers shaming the Academy. Jaws won four of its nominations, losing only Best Picture. It remains one of the most terrifying films ever made and still stands up to scrutiny.
4. LINCOLN (2012)
Lincoln is the most literate and beautifully written film Spielberg has ever made. An astonishing study of President Lincoln and his fight to abolish slavery. In the first five minutes of the film, we see two young soldiers speaking to President Lincoln, who we first see from behind. When the camera settles on him, he speaks in an unexpected high reedy voice, the result of research from actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who spent more than a year reading everything written about Lincoln. For years in development, Liam Neeson was going to play the role, but withdrew after the long wait aged him out of the part. Day-Lewis stepped in and within seconds convinces us we are watching and listening to Abraham Lincoln and not an actor. The film, superbly written by Tony Kushner explores the wheeling and dealing Lincoln did to get the bill abolishing slavery passed. Seems corruption in politics has never really changed, but this was different, this was about humanity and the future of the United States. Bathed in melancholy and sadness, Lincoln is quick with a folksy story, and his intellect is apparent in every shot as Day-Lewis slips under the skin of this great man and inhabits him in every way. Sally Field is equally great as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman of fragile mind but always aware when her husband was being disparaged and who was doing it. She fiercely defended him every chance she got. A masterpiece that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture and Director. Criminally under appreciated by the fickle Academy.
3. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Though flawed, there is enough genius to make this the third best film of Spielberg’s career. No one else brought combat to the screen with such staggering realism and brutality. Visceral and raw, the images are seething with violence and rage. Veterans of the Second World War wept, one said to me the only sense missing was smell, you could not smell the death, the gun powder, smoke, and blood. The first battle scene on the beach is a stunning work of craftsmanship and command of the art form. With each cut, Spielberg takes us deeper into the war, showing death, sometimes brutal, other times swift, but dead just the same. Bodies are blown apart, brains are spilled onto the beach and yet waves of men continue to arrive edging up the beach, closer to the German gun nests on the top of the hill. Tom Hanks is superb as Millar, the tortured Captain who takes the death of every man in his squad personally, and when tasked with finding a Private Ryan, whose four brothers have been killed, he bravely takes the mission. Moving across the French countryside we encounter his squad, made up of a cross section of Americans and every war movie cliché in every war movie ever made. Yet then Spielberg slammed us home with a shocking death, or that final combat scene, as realistic and chilling as the opening. The film contains superb performances from Hanks, Matt Damon as Ryan, Jeremy Davies as the terrified coward, Tom Sizemore as Hanks’ number one, Ed Burns as the arrogant New Yorker, and Vin Diesel as the doomed soldier who tries to help a child and pays with his life. Spielberg’s direction displays magnificent command of all the technical aspects of cinema. He is untouchable in this regard. How does a film nominated for eleven Academy Awards, win best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Director but lose Best Picture? It should have won, it is a film for the ages, but Harvey Weinstein worked his sinister magic behind the scenes. It lost Best Picture to an inferior movie, we all know that. Exiting the screening I wondered aloud if we had just seen the greatest war movie ever made? Certainly, it is the most realistic. The flaw: the old man in the cemetery at the beginning of the film we assume is Millar (Tom Hanks) because the camera, which never lies, cuts from the old man’s face directly to Hanks on a boat headed for the beach, his hands shaking in fear. But then at the end of the film, after Millar has died, the camera closes in on Ryan (Damon) and he morph ages into the old man. OK, fine, only how can his memories of the beach be those ones that aren’t his. Ryan was never there! Now sure, he might have been remembering what he was told, but the fact is, that camera closes in on the old man. We cut directly to Hanks which means in the language of the cinema, we are seeing his memories. But we never were. Still a masterpiece, still a staggering work of art.
2. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
One of the most beautiful, emotional films ever made. I wept openly when I first saw the film in 1982 and have wept every time since. I remember looking around and seeing grown men weeping, tears cascading down their cheeks at the film. My roommate had not yet seen the film by late August so I took him one night after a bad break up with his girlfriend. I watched him more than the movie, and it was like seeing the film for the first time again as he wept at the same places I did, gasped where I had, and was weeping yet smiling at the end of the film. E.T. was a dreamscape of a film, a fantasy. Should something like this ever happen, I hope it unfolds like this. A soaring testament to the human spirit, to the inherent goodness mankind is capable of, E.T. is an absolute masterpiece and was by far the finest film of the year and the decade. We see a group of alien botanists gathering plant life when they are discovered. One of them is accidentally left behind, and found by a 10-year-old boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas). “I’m keeping him,” he naively he tells his brother and sister, and all of them proceed to protect and hide the little alien. Elliott teaches E.T to speak and educates the creature in the ways of humans, and the alien sees the world through the honest eyes of children. The government of course knows the aliens have been on earth and believe one has been left behind and are closing in on Elliott. So many stunning images highlight the narrative, the magical flight across the moon and through the forest, E.T. taking Elliott high into the sky on his bicycle, E.T. dying while in the care of the government, but then, Christ-like comes back to life as his people are coming for him. That magical escape by the boys into the forest where the alien ship lands, and the kids must say farewell to the little alien they have come to love is unforgettable. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) goes first, then Mike (Robert McNaughton) and finally Elliott. There was not a dry eye in the house. Heartbreaking. Henry Thomas deserved an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance as Elliott, but sadly was snubbed. His remains the greatest performance by a child I have ever seen. And people forget the entire film was built around a special effect! E.T. was a big chunk of latex and rubber, made into an alien with the eyes of Albert Einstein and run by men at the other end of the cables bringing him to life. Thomas gave that exquisite performance in most scenes with a visual effect! With magnificent cinematography, a sweeping musical score, a deep connection between the boy and the alien, and Christ allegories all through the film, this is an American masterpiece, and by far, the greatest film of its year and the 80s.
1. Schindler’s List
What else? Schindler’s List is forever the masterpiece that made Spielberg a director for the ages. Although his other works were brilliant, this one stepped up the artistry to the level of the masters, including Scorsese. Here was an unforgiving film about a man who saved the lives of 1100 Jews for no apparent reason other than he despised what the Nazis and SS were doing. Choosing black and white, with none of his trademark sweeping crane shots, Spielberg shot the film like a documentary, with hand-held cameras to capture the horror of what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler was a war profiteer, hoping to get rich using Jewish investments to do so. He hires Jews to do the factory work, protecting them without at first realizing it, but gradually comes to understand he CAN protect them in his factory. What he sees happening in the Ghetto changes him, alters him in some way and turns him against what the Nazis are doing. Knowing that they will be safe while working in his factory, he deals with a corrupt horror show of a man in Amon Goethe (Ralph Fiennes), a poster boy for Nazism. Shooting them dead from his villa high above the camp, he feels nothing for them. Liam Neeson is spectacular as Schindler, the man with little motive to take such risks except that it was the right thing to do. There were some complaints about his final scenes, the breakdown outside the factory, but I think it works. Ben Kingsley was outstanding as his accountant and friend Stern, while Fiennes was extraordinary as the madman Goethe. Using Nazism and the hatred of the Jews as his justification for murder, he is a monster, but icily cool. The film was met with rave reviews from the earliest screenings, and it was clear Spielberg had gone to another level as a filmmaker. The film was grimly realistic, but the killing was not front and centre, making it all the more frightening because it took on a matter of factness. Schindler’s List began its sweep of the year end awards with LA Film Critics Awards, winning Best Film, Director and Best Supporting Actor as well as best Cinematography. On the other side of the country, the New York Film Critics voted the movie Best Picture and honoured Ralph Fiennes as Best Supporting Actor. The National Society of Film Critics mirrored the LA Film Critic Awards, and the Directors Guild of America honoured Spielberg as the year’s Best Director. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, it would win seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score and Best Production Design. The Oscars that year were dominated by Spielberg as his other film, Jurassic Park won awards for Sound, Sound Editing and Visual Effects. The impact of Schindler’s List has been astonishing, the dirty little secret being it was a towering box office hit. Costing just $25 million, the film made $322 million at the box office. Spielberg used his share to create the Shoah Foundation where thousands of stories were told about the Holocaust and those who survived. There was criticism about the final scene in Schindler’s List, where the real-life survivors come with the actors who portrayed them in the film to the grave of Oskar Schindler. Each place a stone on his grave, a Jewish custom. Some said it was Spielberg’s way of finding a happy ending to a Holocaust film. Can there ever be a happy ending to a film about Holocaust? But perhaps, through the horror, the ashes, and the stench of death, we can recognize the power of human spirit, the ability of a man to risk his life to save those around him from certain death. For doing what others should have done. No happy ending, but the recognition that one man did the right thing and saved 1100 people. In his ring from the prisoners was scripted, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” Indeed. Spielberg’s greatest film is also one of the greatest films ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.