Weekly Top Five: Steven Spielberg films



AI: Artificial Intelligence
  • AI: Artificial Intelligence
On Friday, Steven Spielberg's latest film hit theaters. It's a historical biography of Abraham Lincoln and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. (J.R. Jones has got a typically insightful review in this week's issue of the Reader—you best read it!) The film ranks as the best he's made in some time: it's a lean, expertly paced political drama, aided by Daniel Day-Lewis's central performance and airtight script by Tony Kushner.

I'm sure it's no coincidence that Spielberg and his DreamWorks Studios decided to release the film on the Friday after one of the more contentious presidential elections in recent history. As such, I figure now to be the perfect time to share my top five favorite Spielberg films.

5. Minority Report (2002) This sleek neo-noir may feel like a slight genre exercise, but Spielberg's evocation of Phillip K. Dick's themes of free will versus determinism are thoughtfully realized. Additionally, the film's uneasy post-9/11 milieu, which associates "Precrime" with the Patriot Act and seems to anticipate the age of personalized advertising that's become prolific on the Internet, is more artfully conveyed than in his disastrous, 9/11-baiting War of the Worlds remake.

4. Hook (1991) Spielberg at his self-referential best. The film takes his familiar themes of childhood and nostalgia and turns them into an anarchistic romp—the scene where the Lost Boys enjoy an invisible feast plays like a gleeful middle finger to those who doubt the power of imagination. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride posits that it may be Spielberg's most autobiographical film, comparing him to the character of Peter Banning, the business-minded adult Peter Pan who cannot escape his rambunctious roots.

3. The Terminal (2008) If you can look past the buffoonish performance from Tom Hanks, this underrated gem quickly becomes a beguilingly dark comedy about human stasis. In his initial review for the New York Times, A.O. Scott broke down the word "terminal," which really says it all: "Its etymology—termini were the local gods whose shrines served as boundary markers in the ancient Roman world—suggests a frontier between worlds, while its modern medical usage associates the word with mortality. To be trapped indefinitely in a terminal, then, without recourse to either flight or ground transportation, can be imagined as a kind of living death, a nerve-racking state of perpetual limbo."

2. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) Notoriously discredited upon its initial release, this audacious, misunderstood masterwork was, of course, originally the idea of one Stanley Kubrick, who eventually passed his 90-page treatment on to Spielberg. The fundamental and ideological differences between the directors are glaring, but it's this very disharmony that gives the films its uniqueness. It contradicts itself in nearly ever scene, presenting a world that's simultaneously gorgeous and unwelcoming, enthralling and terrifying. Nothing about the film should work, yet the end result poses difficult questions of individualism in the face of technological innovation. As singular as any film made in the last 20 years.

1. Jaws (1975) An obvious choice, but one I can't deny. A grand display of art as spectacle and the infamous creator of the "summer blockbuster," this horror film remains a cornerstone of New Hollywood—it may even be its death knell, reasserting the Hitchcockian thriller as the primary model for cheap entertainment. In many ways, Spielberg's shark is akin to Hitch's birds: various scholarly interpretations have awarded "Bruce" any number of symbolic meanings, from Peter Biskind's post-Watergate theories to Fredric Jameson's Marxist interpretations of the shark as a polysemous icon. The real appeal, though? Spielberg's zest for film form, the likes of which he's rarely, if ever, matched—he directed Jaws like he'd never direct another film again.

Honorable mentions: Lincoln really is quite good, as is Duel, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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