The Spielberg Canon: Ranked Best to Worst

One Month. 35 Movies. 30 Days (plus). Now updated with a 36th.

1 Incomparable Filmmaker.

I’ve written about each and every feature film (plus one short) that Steven Spielberg has ever made. And now I rank them.

To the extent that any list like this can have a logic to it, here’s mine. I factor in three criteria, in no particular order:

  • Historical impact, both on the industry (from box office to cinematic influence) and the culture.
  • My opinion of its cinematic merits, regardless of my personal feelings or affections toward it.
  • My personal feelings or affections toward it.

Each choice represents some undefinable combination of those three considerations.

Needless to say, some rankings could’ve gone either way. At times, there were tough calls on which choice should top another. In those instances, I allowed the second factor – cinematic merits alone – to trump the other two. A great example: Numbers 6 and 7 over 8.

Given where some films placed, particularly in the lower half, a reader could be left with the impression that I’m ambivalent about more of these movies than I actually am. Truth be told, I’d give all of his films from #22 on up either a 3 1/2 or 4 star rating. 23 through 29 are 3-star entries (some more solid than others), 30 to 32 more mixed, with only the bottom four being unqualified duds (although I’d even say there’s a steep drop off between 33 and 34).

So as you go through this list, those important qualifiers should give you a better bearing on how I feel about each of these films, as should the brief responses I add. By and large, Steven Spielberg has made good-to-great movies, with a few unqualified masterpieces.

And so, listed in ascending order from Worst to Best, here is The Spielberg Canon, ranked. (UPDATED: December 11, 2021 to include West Side Story)

The Films of Steven Spielberg

36. Something Evil (1972) – this early TV movie is something awful.

35. The Terminal (2004) – an avalanche of schmaltz that goes from eye-rolling to insufferable.

34. The Post (2017) – Normally I’m a Spielberg apologist, but he’s the one who should be apologizing for rushing this into production.

33. The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – shockingly dull. Would’ve been better as a live-action thrill ride.

32. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – first forty minutes, great. The rest, not so much.

31. Savage (1973) – Spielberg shows a lot of promise in this political thriller, his final Made-for-TV movie.

30. 1941 (1979) – unfocused, but fun & very well made. Better than its reputation.

29. The BFG (2016) – a big budget bedtime story that’s as sweet and tender as its Roald Dahl source.

28. Ready Player One (2018) – eye candy spectacle. Spielberg’s best pure entertainment in a generation, giving Ernest Cline’s VR world unexpected heart and humanity.

27. Amblin’ (1968) – the original 26-minute short film that revealed so many possibilities.

26. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) – a total blast of an old school monster movie.

25. War of the Worlds (2005) – elevates blockbuster thrills with potent 9/11 metaphor.

24. Amistad (1997) – the absolute best and worst of Spielberg, the filmmaker at his most bipolar.

23. Empire of the Sun (1987) – gets a bit on-the-nose, but beautifully and poignantly told.

22. The Sugarland Express (1974) – Spielberg’s feature-film theatrical debut, filled with Spielbergisms that are still seen to this day.

21. Duel (1971) – the TV movie that made Spielberg the most sought-after new director of his generation. It’s what got him the Jaws gig.

20. Bridge of Spies (2015) – first rate “minor” Spielberg.

19. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – spotty “major” Spielberg.

18. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – classy, sophisticated movie-making. Both charismatically frivolous and effectively poignant.

17. Always (1989) – a soul-searching romance in the grand tradition of Old Hollywood. This is light years better than any romance being made by Hollywood today.

16. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – would’ve made for a perfect end to the saga.

15. Minority Report (2002) – an insanely high degree of difficulty on all fronts, and Spielberg sticks the landing.

14. Hook (1991) – no Spielberg film has aged better.

13. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – the quintessential popcorn movie.

12. Lincoln (2012) – a towering portrait of a towering President at his most consequential moment.

11. War Horse (2011) – would stand equal to the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

10. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) – it’s the Kubrick that haunts us here, but Spielberg made it resonate. His most underrated film.

9. West Side Story (2021) – Spielberg turns a remake nobody was asking for into one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, and adds another masterpiece to the top tier of his own canon.

8. Jurassic Park (1993) – revolutionary in its time (in a number of ways), and endlessly watchable since.

7. Munich (2005) – philosophically, the definitive terrorism film of our time.

6. The Color Purple (1985) – the most unlikely marriage of source material and filmmaker, yet it flirts with being a masterpiece.

5. Jaws (1975) – the film that changed movies forever. As close to a B.C./A.D. historical marker as you’ll find in movie history.

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – never fails to take me through the emotional ringer in the most edifying way.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it captures the best of cinema from its entire history, all in 120 minutes. My favorite movie of all time.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – the Spielberg movie that moved up the most in my own personal estimation. At the heart of this sci-fi wonder is a profound spiritual journey.

1. Schindler’s List (1993) – the best movie Spielberg will ever make, and among the best ever made.

In this video clip from 1995, Steven Spielberg accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. He was the youngest to do so at age 48. Seven years later in 2002, Tom Hanks would receive the honor at age 46.


And for a more streamlined glance from Best to Worst:

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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

5. Jaws (1975)

6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

7. Munich (2005)

8. The Color Purple (1985)

9. Jurassic Park (1993)

10. War Horse (2011)

11. Lincoln (2012)

12. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

13. Hook (1991)

14. Minority Report (2002)

15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

16. Always (1989)

17. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

19. Bridge of Spies (2015)

20. Duel (1971)

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

22. Empire of the Sun (1987)

23. Amistad (1997)

24. Ready Player One (2018)

25. The BFG (2016)

26. Amblin’ (1968)

27. War of the Worlds (2005)

28. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

29. 1941 (1979)

30. Savage (1973)

31. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

32. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

33. The Post (2017)

34. The Terminal (2004)

       35. Something Evil (1972)


2 thoughts on “The Spielberg Canon: Ranked Best to Worst

  1. I’ve had such a good time reading these reviews. I’m shocked at some of the rankings – by which I mean I need to go back and rewatch almost all of them (I’ll skip The Terminal).
    Best quote: “Spielberg at his most bipolar.”

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