Steven Spielberg is the perfect gateway director for young movie lovers,´ Paste on line magazine suggested in a recent article in which they arranged his entire catalogue into their order of merit. The writer suggested the film-maker´s work is ´both accessible enough to capture the boundless imagination expected of most blockbuster directors, and artful enough to allow subtext and thematic issues to resonate beneath surface-level narrative. It’s how a grade schooler ends up watching the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long slapstick comedy The Money Pit, a movie about the hardships of maintaining home ownership: Spielberg was credited as the executive producer. Spielberg’s, too, is the kind of name recognition that leads to cult classics like Gremlins and Back to the Future. (Personally, Tobe Hooper’s directing credit on the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist led me to check out The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at an alarmingly young age, kick-starting my love for horror.) Through Spielberg’s affection for giants such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, a young cinephile’s knowledge grows. And even though Spielberg was the inception of such adoration, he’s never stopped being an endlessly fascinating and captivating storyteller.
For me, the task of ranking all of Spielberg´s feature film—31 counting this year’s The Fabelmans— would have been a personal ordeal. Fortunately Paste on line magazine set some requisite ground rules: TV episodes or short films he directed are not on this list, so neither is that one Columbo hour he helmed or his short-length remake of the iconic Twilight Zone episode “Kick The Can.” On the other hand, his made-for-TV movie Duel counts, as it was later released theatrically. Even though rumour has it that Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper is still credited, so that one didn´t meet the Paste criteria either. Finally, Spielberg´s first feature, Firelight, is not ranked, mostly because it’s pretty much unavailable.
War Horse was as low as number 27 on the Paste rating, but it made me cry, occasionally laugh and had a satisfactory outcome as peace broke out gloriously on the English countryside after the war. It was, nevertheless, a gritty film, too, with some graphic images of flesh and barbed wire.
Paste, though. saw War Horse (left) as ´a move from one misguided, old-fashioned throwback to another: War Horse, based on the popular play, represents Spielberg’s desire to pay tribute to early 20th century war films, seen through a John Ford-esque lens of wide auburn vistas and rah-rah heroism. The story of an ambitious horse determined to reunite with his BFF, a fresh-faced World War I soldier (Jeremy Irvine), suffers from an episodic structure in which we follow the horse from one adoptive individual/family/war machine to the next. Spielberg appears to be trying to recapture the glory of the martial films on which he grew up, obscuring graphic violence as those movies did, defanging the film’s possible visceral power in the process. What we end up with is a considerable amount of exciting set-pieces and some gorgeous bits of cinematography, which still makes it better than many Oscar-bait prestige projects of its calibre.
I thought the lighting and the camera work were superb. As the story developed the horse that had previously galloped over wide open fields found itself in ever smaller spaces, demonstrated by early panoramic views of wide open vistas, and then increasingly by tight camera shots of small, terrifyingly loud, confined spaces.
The film also made an intriguing compare and contrast with the there production of ´mechanical´horse, and I loved it.
Schindler’s List (1993) didn´t quite make Spielberg´s top three in the Paste rating, having to settle at number four. I had it at second place on my list though my reasoning was probably not as objective as that of xxx
Schindler’s List, (right) said Paste, may be a humourless Academy Awards punchline at this point, but re-watch Spielberg’s epic historical drama on its own merits, and witness its greatness on par with some of the best works by Spielberg’s heroes, like David Lean. Spielberg seemingly gives his all to the story of a selfish businessman (Liam Neeson kicks surprisingly little Nazi ass here) gradually coming to terms with the inhuman atrocities of the Holocaust, putting his life on the line to save as many Jews as he can. Spielberg’s frequent DP, Janusz Kaminski (see also: Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The BFG, Minority Report, Munich, A.I., Tintin, Amistad, War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull, Lost World, The Post, and, of course, Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One) finds untold depth in black and white, working with Spielberg for the first time, from elegant shots borrowed from Hollywood’s Golden Age, to modern handheld camera work that captures the immediacy of the tragedy.
All that though is to ignore the cinematic trope of that splash of red of the little girl´s coat and those hand-held shots of the nazi street-cleaners rounding up old and young Jewish people alike. It has the effect of us hoping and praying for an individual, a notion of the innocence of childhood, even amongst the horrors of a world war.
Although we saw some horrific reminders of those atrocities last year in the Ukraine, employed by Russia even that somehow, like Spielberg´s film somehow still reminds remind us what it is to be human. Of course, over the past month or so we have seen a woman / secretary in her mind-nineties found guilty of war crimes for being an administrator in the death camps. That only serves to makes us think further on what also makes this a great film. The film shows Schindler´s struggle to protect himself as he protected others. The contrast between that and the way the sadistic prison guard, the film´s central villain, seems to force himself to become inhuman to survive is for me the most fascinating part of the film.
My selection of the number one Spielberg film didn´t even reach the top ten in Paste, with Empire of the Sun (1987 left) ) charting as low as number 11,
Speaking only for myself, I would say of the film that it is yet another way of Spielberg showing the art of survival. he somehow shows a grandeur among the relics, and finds forgiveness between gnerations. The musical score is haunting, and there is an energy in this portrayal of a languid fine de ciecle.
Paste put it better, of course.
Empire of the Sun once again captures Spielberg’s unique ability to see life through the prism of childhood and communicate that perspective in an immediately relatable and intimately empathetic way. As opposed to classics like E.T. , where the film’s point-of-view is wrapped around a comfortable coating of science-fiction wonderment, in Empire of the Sun, Spielberg doesn’t pull any punches as he dives headfirst into the horrid ways war can destroy and warp a child’s precious innocence while never losing sight of their resilience, able to find some form of hope in the most desolate of conditions. One of Spielberg’s many remarkable qualities as a director is in the way he seems to extract astoundingly natural performances from child actors. In this case, he here discovers a great actor in the making—a young Christian Bale—as the central kid left to fend for himself in WWII China.
I am sure that by now readers must be asking, where the hell is Indiana Jones when you need him.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989 right) was seventeenth on the list Paste produced but was number one on my list,….well, it was until I realised I had put it on the wrong list even if perhaps for all the right reasons.
It is, undoubtedly my favourite of the Indiana franchose, and my favourite Spielberg film, but favourite does not necessarily make for ´best´´.
I still laugh out loud at Sean Connery´s droll humour, the father and son banter between is characters as Indian´s father nad his screen son.
Some the airial battles are nail bitingly tense, as is the scene in which father and son have been wooing and rueing the same woman.
Paste, of course, are more pragmatic, describing how, after an unfortunately racist turn into dark and gloomy territory with the franchise’s previous installment, Spielberg and Lucas decide to play it safe by going back to the Nazi-punching, ancient-Christian-magic-excavating roots of the original Indiana Jones adventure. There aren’t many surprises this time around, but Spielberg takes full advantage of the success previous films afforded him. Of course the biggest addition is Sean Connery as Indy’s absentee father; the frail relationships between protagonists and their fathers is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s films, and the natural chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery provides the organic support such a relationship needed. Since the Indiana Jones series apparently began with Spielberg’s desire to direct a James Bond movie, the casting of Connery brings the franchise full circle.
I found Paste´s article a revelation on all of Spielberg catalogue. I was surprised how highly placed were the following three films.
West Side Story (2021)as in the top ten, at number nine but my own judgement on that was impaired by the fact that I so loved the Sondheim version and that we only saw this 2021 version in Spanish language (no subtltles) at our local cinema here on Lanzarote.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was third on the on line magazine´s list but apart from a ´phone home´ advert and a cute little alien, it didn´t really work for me-
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) came close, in second place in Paste´s ratings but more subjectively I opted for the Last Crusade.
All good fun, but the truth is that Spielberg´s might be the greater body of cinematic work ever created by one man (and his teams) albeit that we should not forget that the greatest ever Spielberg is possibly yet to come.
The prime source for this article was written by oktay ege kozak and paste staff and their selections and justifications make excellent and thought-provoking reading. The piece was originally published in Paste, an on line magazine that delivers scores of excellent articles on songs and songwriters by expert and enthusiastic writers.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman (right) has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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