Ranking Steven Spielberg’s Greatest Movies

Published 11 months ago -

Quinn Ryan
Math and Education Major 

With the 94th annual Academy Awards fast approaching, one of my favorite story lines revolves around one of my favorite directors. Steven Spielberg has made history by becoming the first director nominated for the best director award in six consecutive decades. I wanted to find a way to honor this historic achievement while also reflecting on his long and fruitful career. What I landed on was a ranking of his decades of work, which is a task that can only be performed for a handful of directors. The goal is to rank his decades from worst to first and discuss his notable achievements in each decade as the article progresses. So, without further ado, let’s start ranking! 

To call the 2020’s his ‘worst’ decade feels a little like a cop out, but it is also an easy place to start on such a hard list. He has only released one movie so far this decade, which was West Side Story, the film that earned him a nomination for the best picture and best director Oscars. Who knows what the next eight years look like for Spielberg, I know he is set to release another movie called the Fablemans later this year, and maybe the 2020’s will end up becoming one of his best decades. But since there is only one movie to go off of, it is easy to slot this decade as his worst. West Side Story was really fun and well shot, and he is certainly deserving of his nominations for it, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the decade has in store for him. 

That leaves the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s 2000’s, and 2010’s left to rank, so for his fifth best decade, let’s go with the 2010’s. Now, it is important for me to note that there are no bad decades that I am going to list, and there are great movies in every decade on this list. I am simply comparing the quality of work of the entire decade compared to the rest. The 2010’s saw the 

release of some very fun and very touching movies from Spielberg, there was just a little something missing compared to the others. If for nothing else, Spielberg is known for making very good and very entertaining movies, and that was certainly the case for many of his movies in the 2010’s. In order of release, we have The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, and Ready Player One. There are a lot of really good films here, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies in particular. Both of which are very hard-hitting historical dramas with big stakes and great performances by their lead actors, Daniel De Lewis and Tom Hanks respectively. We also have some fun and purely enjoyable movies here that are accessible at any age, like The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG. Spielberg’s childlike wonder and ability to create beautiful imagery are unlike anyone else, but it feels to me that these movies are less beloved than ones from other decades, which is why I have the 2010’s ranked fifth overall. 

This is where making this list starts to get hard. It is a toss-up for me between the next four decades because I love so many of the movies that are left, but when I start a task, I intend to finish it. That is why I am going to slot the 80’s as his fourth best decade. This really pains me to do, especially because he started the 80’s with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial back-to-back. To me though, even though those two movies are incredible, the rest of the decade just does not stack up. The rest of the decade, he released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Always. None of these movies can be classified as bad, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade probably being his worst of the decade but also enjoyable. The Color Purple was an adaptation of the Alice Walker novel by the same name and had a lot of good performances by big stars at the time, and addressed some very serious themes. 

The reason that this decade is not slotted higher is because Spielberg leaned into more non-movie projects like a TV mini-series and a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie which I think ultimately distracted from his time to make another great movie or two. Overall, I’d say that both Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are two movies that are both in my top 10 Spielberg films, but as a whole I think that the 80’s was his fourth best decade. 

Now, we are in the top 3 decades, and to be honest, I have changed the order of these about 5 times before finalizing it in this article. These could really go anywhere justifiably, but since this article is all subjective, I have the 2000’s as his third best decade. In order of release, we got A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spielberg was definitely in his Sci-Fi groove at this point, with three of these seven movies being in that genre. This decade is marked by some intense movies that make the best of their action sequences as well as their messages. Minority Report for example, has Tom Cruise in an action Sci-Fi movie, which is always fun, but also has a lot to say about free will and the role of the government in punishing crime. Also, War of the Worlds is marked in a lot of ways by the tragedy of 9/11 and examining the role of protection versus freedom characterized by an alien invasion. It seems like in this decade Spielberg was really going for it in terms of the messages he was trying to promote, and in the process, he made some intense and extremely entertaining movies. Also, a special shout out to Catch Me If You Can, which is one of my all-time favorites and features Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his best roles. 

Let’s just get right into it, for his second-best decade I am going to put the 70’s. The 70’s was really the start of Spielberg’s directing career and boy did he start with a bang. He released 

four movies this decade, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 1941. I know that a lack of movies hurt his 2020 ranking, so some may be thinking, how can a decade with only four movies be his second best? Well, I will tell you why. Even if you take away The Sugarland Express and 1941, this decade would still be his second best. Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are arguably his two best movies, and they came out two years apart in the mid 70’s. To start, Jaws is cited as the movie that single handedly changed movies forever. He essentially invented the summer blockbuster, where it was almost seen as taboo if you hadn’t seen the movie. It is a wildly entertaining and suspenseful movie and is a masterclass in storytelling. Jaws is my favorite Spielberg movie, and one of my favorites of all time. Also, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps one of the best examples of what makes Spielberg great, his mastery of special effects. Even going back and watching now the special effects hold up and you really get the feeling that the events are taking place on screen. More than any other director of his time, Spielberg had the unique ability to use creativity and ingenuity to convince viewers that what they were seeing on screen was actually possible. Now, in the age of computer-generated imagery, it is easy to go back five or ten years and discover very noticeable flaws in special effects that seemed perfect when they were released. But with Spielberg, it is just as much about what he decided not to show as what he does. He is the Master of Special effects, and Close Encounters is a prime example of this. 

For all of you who are adept in using the process of elimination, you know that I believe that Spielberg’s best decade was the 1990’s. The 90’s saw the release of so many amazing films from Spielberg, and to me, was his most consistently great decade. In order of release, the 90’s brought us Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. Up to this point, there was this attitude about Spielberg that although he 

was a technical master, he was a bit juvenile in his storytelling and could not handle more serious subject matter. The movies that we got up to this point were filled with action adventures, and Sci-Fi thrillers, but nothing that left very many serious impressions on the audience as far as themes or messages were concerned. And then, even at the start of the 90’s we get Hook and Jurassic Park, which are both thrill rides that look beautiful but lack a deeper layer. Don’t get me wrong, Jurassic Park is incredibly entertaining and started my childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and to this day it brings back the childlike wonder of considering the possibility of creating dinosaurs in the modern times, but it is more theme park than it is a best picture Oscar winner. But then, Spielberg proves the world wrong with Schindler’s List, a very serious and important movie about the Holocaust and the tragedies of concentration camps. The most notable part of this was that in order to prove that he could handle this serious subject, he did not have to abandon his unique style and approach to movie making. The imagery in Schindler’s List, and in all of his movies for the 90’s is still incredible and enticing, while also aiding the narrative structure of the films. We then got Amistad, which features chilling scenes aboard a slave ship heading to the Americas and Saving Private Ryan which features some of the most realistic and intense portrayals of what it’s like to be in the heat of battle during war. Spielberg was able to transfer his mastery of special effects and shot selection to tell much larger and important stories. Without his work in the 90’s, we don’t get Lincoln, or Bridge of Spies, or even War of the Worlds. The 90’s for Spielberg was the point where a great director became even greater, and that is why I consider it to be his best decade. Looking back to the present, I do not predict much success for Spielberg in this year’s Oscars, but the fact that he is being recognized yet again by the Academy Awards is a testament to his sustained greatness, and further shows why he is one of the most important and influential directors in movie history. 

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