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The 11 best Steven Spielberg movies, ranked

These timeless classics are by the master movie director himself

Steven Spielberg in the mouth of Jaws
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There are certain people who are instantly tied to their profession when you hear their name. When you think about your favorite memories at the cinema, Steven Spielberg is as synonymous with success as Michael Jordan is with basketball. The visionary director of such classics as Jaws, Indiana Jones, and E.T., Spielberg is quite possibly the most popular and influential filmmaker since the dawn of contemporary American cinema.

Born in 1946, Spielberg was always fascinated by cinema and the magic it creates. From a very young age, he was creating short films and imagining grand set designs for his ideas. In 1969, he got his first real chance with a seven-year contract as a director, and he was the youngest director to be signed to a major Hollywood company. Due to his dedication and hard work, Spielberg rose to national acclaim just eight years later with the release of Jaws.

Being so popular and successful comes a long way, but it helps to have the assistance of so many other talents on your side. Spielberg has worked with many who made his film resume that much stronger, some of which include George Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Kathleen Kennedy, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, and most notably, composer John Williams.

Spielberg and Williams have worked together in 27 films over 40 years — Spielberg stating that Williams has been “… {B}reathing life into every movie we have made.” The two have always worked together to create movie magic for decades, sharing a vision and seeing it through to the sometimes bitter end. For Spielberg, one is not without the other, as Spielberg once said, “… if movies are like lightning, then the musical score for me is like thunder. It can shake things up for years.” Due to this, I had to dedicate this to Williams as well.

So now, without further ado, let’s rank the top 10 Steven Spielberg movies and show you his directorial history.

11. The Color Purple (1985)

11. The Color Purple
Genre Drama, History
Stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s picture on race relations starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey doesn’t look like a lot of his other movies. It’s not going to wow with special effects or science-fiction plotlines, but it will make you think and cry about the atrocities of American slavery as you follow the life of one strong-willed woman in Georgia.

10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
90 %
pg 137m
Genre Science Fiction, Drama
Stars Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Following his big Hollywood release of Jaws, Spielberg set his sights on space. Inspired by actual UFO research over the years, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a sci-fi fantasy that brings the myth to life in a fantastic way. When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) witnesses a UFO, he is struck with a mental image of a large pillar that he can’t shake, driving him to alienate his family and his neighbors. Like other directors of his time — George Lucas, James Cameron, Ridley Scott — Spielberg dreamed of making his galactic fantasy come true and being able to show it to others. With limited technology, these directors’ versions of sci-fi were magical and mysterious concepts that were very difficult to bring to the screen, requiring a vast imagination and meticulous set designs. If anyone could do it, it’s Spielberg.

9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

9. Saving Private Ryan
91 %
r 169m
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg, being the creative and ambitious director he is, set his sights on a big-budget war movie that focused on action and the soldiers in it, rather than his other films like Schindler’s List or Empire of the Sun that focused primarily on the impact of war on civilians. Featuring the most jarring opening scene on this list, Saving Private Ryan begins the story on the bloody beaches of Normandy, immediately informing the audience what they are in for. When Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is given a mission to relieve a certain Private Ryan (whose 3 brothers had been killed in combat) from duty, he must take his soldiers behind enemy lines and brave the bulk of German forces. A film about war, brotherhood, and the frailty of the soul, this is a great commentary on what effects war can have on a person and what they will do to survive. This movie is an incredible story based on true events and is one of the best war movies of all time.

8. Minority Report (2002)

8. Minority Report
80 %
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction, Mystery
Stars Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Staying in the sci-fi genre, Spielberg teams up with action superstar Tom Cruise for a futuristic action drama that blows audiences away. Set in futuristic 2054 Washington D.C., the police force employs psychic technology to see and stop crime before it even happens. By this time Spielberg has been making cinema magic for almost 20 years, so this sci-fi story with a $100 million budget allowed for much more technological freedom in special effects. As such, the visual effects were astoundingly on point, matching with its theater-shaking sound editing and another epic score from John Williams. Any fan of sci-fi should check this movie out if you also enjoy seeing Tom Cruise kick some ass and do all his own stunts, mixed with the smooth sci-fi visual effects that make it into a spectacle for its time.

7. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

7. Catch Me If You Can
75 %
pg-13 141m
Genre Drama, Crime
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Based on the very real exploits of former con-man Frank Abagnale Jr., Catch Me If You Can is a crime drama that details the early life and causes of this mischief. Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is neither a doctor, a pilot, nor a lawyer, but it makes the forged checks he cashes all over the country that much more believable. Fun and charming are two words that could be used to describe this film, but the performances are what really make it worthwhile. Featuring Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a slew of young actresses that would later become hugely successful themselves, a great story is always better told by actors who truly believe in it. This is yet another film that features the scoring genius of John Williams, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this film.

6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
91 %
pg 115m
Genre Science Fiction, Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Stars Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Inspired by touching the surface of galactic sci-fi in Close Encounters, Spielberg dug deeper and decided to create the much more personal and family-oriented film: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. When young Elliott (Henry Thomas) discovers an alien in his barn, he decides to shelter it from harm and become friends with it. Utilizing the practical effect of puppeteering, Spielberg and his team created a charmingly strange-looking alien that “…only a mother could love.” Hinging on its performances from young Henry Thomas and a very young Drew Barrymore, this film became an instant family classic for generations to come. As usual, John Williams composed the — this time Oscar-winning — score, one that can be recognized by many to this day. Spielberg has always been a pioneer of genre-mixing, but this instant classic put him in the running for creative and heartfelt films that lasted his lifetime.

5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
65 %
pg-13 127m
Genre Adventure, Action
Stars Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott
Directed by Steven Spielberg
In the final installment to the epic Lucas/Spielberg trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took everything we know and love about the character and fully fleshed it out. Going back to his roots, Dr. Jones discovers his long-lost father (Sean Connery) is alive and well but has been captured by the Nazis. Fearing for the fate of the world and the sacred nature of archaeology, Indiana must once again beat the fascist forces to another biblical and mythical artifact: The Holy Grail. Some dismiss this film as a simple remake of the original, claiming that the plotline too similarly resembles it and simply adds a big-name actor to spice things up. I wholly disagree. I think the addition of his father is a fantastic way to truly discover the character of the seemingly flawless Indiana Jones, showing that he’s got a real soft spot for his father that could affect his work.

4. Jurassic Park (1993)

4. Jurassic Park
68 %
pg-13 127m
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Yet another timeless classic on Spielberg’s resume, Jurassic Park is a sci-fi action-adventure quite unlike any other. When a billionaire developer obsessed with dinosaurs creates an island theme park with real dinosaurs, everything seems to be fine until the power goes out and the dinosaurs escape. Beautiful and wondrous as Close Encounters — in a sense — but thrilling and terrifying as Jaws, this prehistoric thriller sits comfortably in the ranks of box office gold. Reminiscent of Jaws and despite having access to it, Spielberg and his team decided to use very little CGI, relying primarily on clay and fiberglass painted models for a cheaper budget and more practical effect. Many who have seen the film still remember the terrifying image of the T-Rex glaring into the jeep window as the rain runs off its shimmering scales, proving that these effects still hold up to this day. Not surprisingly, John Williams also composed this score that made the images so much more powerful.

3. Schindler's List (1993)

3. Schindler's List
94 %
r 195m
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Steven Spielberg
In our next film on the list, we take the darkest of turns, detailing the strife and desolation of the Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film focuses on an Industrialist (Liam Neeson) who moves to Krakow to pursue a promising career and begins to witness the extermination of the Jewish people in the city, prompting him to shelter his employees who are targets of the Nazi forces. Produced entirely in black and white (save some selective, symbolic red coloring throughout the film), this historic tragedy is emphasized by the absolute hopelessness communicated through cinematography artistry. Based on a true story, Oskar Schindler is said to have saved the lives of 1,200 Jewish people by employing them in his munitions factories. Winner of 7 Oscars including best score (John Williams), Best Director, and Best Picture, Schindler’s List is easily one of Spielberg’s most powerful and historic films of all time.

2. Jaws (1975)

2. Jaws
87 %
pg 124m
Genre Horror, Thriller, Adventure
Stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The “first summer blockbuster,” and Spielberg’s initial claim to fame, Jaws is a classic horror film that launched Spielberg’s career to new heights of popularity. When a giant shark terrorizes a small beach town, the responsibility falls on a sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old sailor to hunt and kill the vicious beast. Masterfully making use of cinematography, music, and limited technology, this film changed the landscape of filmmaking forever. As largely anticipated films were typically expected to release around Christmas, this film was released deliberately at the beginning of summer (June 20th) when the audience will be vacationing to their beaches. This plan was conceived after production had been delayed by months upon months. Filming on the water, Spielberg would find, is a much greater feat of patience than anyone had imagined, pushing back the expected release date that was originally during the Christmas season. Despite being the first film to ever top $100 million in the box office, Spielberg would later say that “Jaws should never have been made — it was an impossible effort.”

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
85 %
pg 115m
Genre Adventure, Action
Stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The incredible beginning of the enduring classic, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film of monumental proportions and one of the best Steven Spielberg movies. Archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has been hired by the U.S. government to find the mythical Ark of the Covenant, attempting to stop Hitler’s supernatural Nazi forces from recovering it first. Teaming up the efforts of incredible artists like writers George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, of course, John Williams behind the music, and Spielberg at the helm, Harrison Ford was the cherry on top to fully realize the fearless, whip-toting crusader. Spielberg later said he had “one of the best times of my life on this picture”, getting to work with the stars and creators behind it. As the next film after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg had become a well-known and comfortable director in the film world, allowing him to relax a bit and have fun with his productions. Filming on a tighter-than-expected schedule, one of the best things about this film is how much he and Ford went back and forth changing small things about the plot to save time and money. Most famous of which is the scene where Ford (struggling with dysentery) chose to improvise a tactical fight scene by simply shooting the big bastard.

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Movie images and data from:
Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek,, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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