Retaining My Capacity for Astonishment: My 10 Favorite Spielberg Movies

These mega-marathons are wonderful. I just might make an annual habit of them. Last year, of course, was Disney animation, and now I’ve seen all the feature films Steven Spielberg has directed. Those two Hollywood juggernauts make for a sort of rite of passage into adult cinephilia. I felt like I needed to have them both under my belt before I could really dive into art cinema. The seventy-fifth anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was my motivation last year, and this time around I took my cue from the twentieth anniversary of the pinnacle of Spielberg’s professional life (if the record-breaking profits of Jurassic Park and the seven Oscars of Schindler’s List are any measure of that). The other motivating factor was my newest social media account. Letterboxd is wonderful for list-making. When I saw that people on the site were ranking the films of individual directors, I decided to join in, limiting myself to directors whose every film I’d seen. I’ve made fourteen such lists now, and I feel like that’s still a puny number. So many movies to see, but I keep reminding myself I can only see one at a time.

The title of this post is taken from Spielberg’s twenty-eighth feature film. Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is speaking to his fellow Abolitionists:

Lincoln the inveterate dawdler, Lincoln the Southerner, Lincoln the capitulating compromiser; our adversary and leader of the God-forsaken Republican party — our party. Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery in America. Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.

I feel like the sentiment applies to Spielberg as well. One might substitute phrases like “entitled, deluded megalomaniac” or “adolescently obsequious.” Spielberg has his defenders among critics, but it’s easy to blame his success for the current Hollywood business model: “tentpole” films made for teenagers crowding out smaller films made for adults. Every good filmmaker has imitators who don’t measure up, though, and Hollywood has always encouraged imitation as the quickest way to turn a profit. It’s my humble opinion that Spielberg-hating is a phase some young cinephiles go through to make themselves seem more mature. He is absolutely an auteur, and he just happens to be an extraordinarily successful businessman on top of that. He’s made some bad movies, to be sure, but he’s also made some of my favorites. Here’s my top ten.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

It’s an undeniably brilliant piece of fantasy, but the reason it isn’t ranked higher is that I still feel a little distant from it. The protagonist is unhinged and possibly under the control of a higher intelligence. While it was a brave decision to complicate our sympathy for the man in this way, ultimately I think it renders the ending less satisfying. Even so, Spielberg deserves credit for picking up where Kubrick left off and spinning similar ideas into something personal and unique.

Minority Report9. Minority Report (2002)

The summer of 2013 didn’t see anything remotely this good, a thriller that matches kinetic excitement with ethical quandaries. The theme only seems to get more relevant with passing years, thanks to NSA spying, drone attacks, social networking, you name it. Like so many of Spielberg’s films, it’s also a wonder of special effects, with futuristic technology that still looks cool eleven years later — perhaps too cool to ever be real.

Lincoln8. Lincoln (2012)

This is the way to translate both history and biography into film: go small, focus on the minutiae of dialogue and the political process, make it real instead of flashy. The results are telescopic. The film looks at a single month in the history of the U.S. government, focusing on only one bill. But that bill solidified the legacy of America’s greatest president and sparked a societal sea-change the ramifications of which have taken 150 years to play out. This is myth-making.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence7. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

The most uncompromising provocation of Spielberg’s career, and a film that will probably continue to grow on me. Filmmakers seem to agree that the titular technological breakthrough will be the end of us all, but A.I. is the only film I’ve seen that suggests we were already doomed anyway. Robots will replace us — not through conquest, just our own mortality. And our failure as a species can be chalked up to a failure to love. Sentimental, and chilling.

Jaws6. Jaws (1975)

Half horror, half rousing adventure — and the transition is seamless. Humanity puts itself out there, on the beach, on an island, our little feet dangling in the water. Give us your worst, Nature. But Nature gives us more than we were prepared for. This film is an elemental thrill, and it wouldn’t be the last time Spielberg would suggest we’ve been taking our position at the top of the food chain for granted.

Saving Private Ryan5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I want to believe in the mission, in spite of everything. PR stunt though it may be, a ridiculous waste of soldiers’ lives, a deviation from the greater mission — I still can’t shake the symbolic value. Amid the chaotic destruction, the devolution of human beings into cannon fodder, here is a chance to make a conscious decision for life, for an individual life. I’ll let Spielberg tug at my heartstrings here, because he’s such a virtuoso.

War of the Worlds4. War of the Worlds (2005)

Speaking of the doomed human race… Here the annihilating force is more fanciful than in A.I., but the terror of this film shakes my bones. The film’s greatest resonance is in its analogy of a post-9/11 world, particularly the deftness with which it flips the script to make a (potential) suicide bomber of our hero. Terrorism/aliens shake our sense of invulnerability. The great twenty-first century question is: what if America falls?

Schindler's List3. Schindler’s List (1993)

The artistry rises to the occasion of the film’s “importance.” Like Lincoln, it narrows the focus in order to portray history by means of a simple narrative. But unlike Lincoln, which never delved into the specific evils of slavery, this film shows us the broad dark sweep of the Holocaust, taking us almost all the way before stepping back and letting the unfathomable remain shrouded in smoke. It’s also a story of hope and heroism to stand with Hollywood’s greatest.

Raiders of the Lost Ark2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Two hours of perfectly staged and executed action, filmed with humor and contagious vitality, with a story that takes place at the intersection of archaeology, religion, and global politics. The beginning and ending, in particular, will never be improved upon — the opening a marvel of both pulse-pounding excitement and character development, the final image a jaw-dropper that allows this Saturday matinee trifle to be mentioned in the same breath with none other than Citizen Kane.

(See also my discussion of the film with my good friend Daniel Robison over at Gaffer MacGuffin’s Movie House.)

Jurassic Park1. Jurassic Park (1993)

I was almost hoping that this marathon would topple Jurassic Park. It had always been my favorite of Spielberg’s (dating back to before I’d even consider ranking the films of a director). Intellectually, I understand that there’s no way this is his best work. But at this point in my life I have to set that understanding aside and acknowledge that I still love this movie more than any of the others on this list. It’s an enthralling summertime entertainment, and Spielberg’s entertainments are his greatest gift to the world. As a child, I first feared, then loved this film. That’s the trajectory of some of Spielberg’s most beloved movies: children facing their fears, and learning to love, for the first time.

5 responses to “Retaining My Capacity for Astonishment: My 10 Favorite Spielberg Movies

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