Friday, August 8, 2014

Top 5 Steven Spielberg Films, Post-1993 Edition

The other day I was randomly thinking about Steven Spielberg's recent career. I don't really remember the context: maybe it had something to do with the upcoming Jurassic World (which Spielberg isn't involved in), or with that terrific social media incident with a set photo from the original Jurassic Park. Or maybe it was just one of those things that happens from time to time (I'm not saying that I have a ton of random movie thoughts every day, but…yeah, that's actually exactly what I'm saying).

Anyway, I was thinking about how you could bifurcate Spielberg's career around the year 1993, when he released the double-whammy of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. The former was a huge box-office hit and near-perfect work of entertainment, while the latter was a personal film about a man who helped save Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust, which also won the director his first Best Director Oscar and became his only Best Picture winner. It was a remarkable year for him, but it marked a significant change in his career: after 1993, Spielberg has more or less alternated between blockbuster entertainment and "important" prestige films.

This isn't to say that he hasn't always hopped around between genres - after all, the man pretty much invented the modern blockbuster - but there's been more of an established pattern after 1993. In fact, he's replicated the "one for them, one for me" strategy in four different years: 1997 (Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad), 2002 (Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can), 2005 (War of the Worlds and Munich), and 2011 (The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse). And he doesn't seem intent on deviating from this pattern, with The BFG and his upcoming Cold War film on the horizon.

So, anyway, to get to the purpose of this article, here are the five best films Spielberg has made since 1993…after the jump, naturally.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. is an anomaly in Spielberg's filmography in that it didn't begin life with his involvement: it was originally developed by Stanley Kubrick in the late 1970s, with Spielberg taking over in 1995 and finally getting production started after Kubrick's death in 1999. But there's no denying that this is one of the director's more curious works, pairing chilly visions of the future with an ironically warm heart, as the film follows a robot boy's (Haley Joel Osment, proving The Sixth Sense wasn't a fluke) quest to be loved and wanted. Jude Law steals the show as robotic Gigolo Joe, but the whole film has a mix of darkness and warmth that makes for a fascinating future. This was a film where the director was pushing his own limits, and the result is both ambitious and rewarding.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

This film, which won Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar (and was famously beaten in Best Picture by Shakespeare in Love), would have made this list solely on the strength of the opening D-Day sequence alone. The sheer scale and brutality of that half-hour evokes a sense of awe and horror, an encapsulation of the destructive power of man that very few other war films can claim. But the film goes on for two more hours after that, and it's equally riveting. Spielberg wisely shifts the film's focus to  brotherhood and cooperation, exploring how even the worst of humanity can bring out the best in individuals. Having a remarkably stacked cast - led by Tom Hanks - certainly doesn't hurt either. Spielberg would make other war films, but none have come close to Saving Private Ryan.

3. War of the Worlds (2005)

The world didn't exactly need another adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic alien-invasion novel; there had even been a (very) loose adaptation just nine years prior (Independence Day). But Spielberg had a reputation for benevolent aliens (E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), so it seemed only right that he made a film where they were out to destroy us. Tom Cruise is perfectly cast as the film's everyguy hero, though Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins steal the film as his screaming daughter and an unhinged nutjob, respectively. Sure, this is 100% a popcorn movie, and Spielberg does a terrific job at staging thrilling, tense action sequences (the ferry sequence immediately jumps to mind). Yet what sets War of the Worlds apart is how he subtly integrates post-9/11 anxiety into the century-old story, making this a blockbuster that stays with you long after the credits roll.

2. Lincoln (2012)

As with Saving Private Ryan, this film could have landed on this list solely on the fantastic performance that Daniel Day-Lewis gives as President Abraham Lincoln, one of the best in a career that is already an embarrassment of riches. But there's so much more to this film: Tony Kushner's incredible screenplay narrows the focus solely on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment through a Congress that is as sharply divided as the Civil War-torn nation. By doing so, Spielberg presents a glimpse of Lincoln the negotiator and orator, presenting his defenses for the abolition of slavery while avoiding coming across as "too extreme" (i.e. advocating for full and equal rights for free blacks, as Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens does). There's not a dull moment in the film, and Spielberg's direction is expertly restrained, letting the actors and the text do the heavy lifting. Lincoln is easily one of the best portraits of an American president ever produced.

1. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report may be the perfect encapsulation of the Spielberg brand: a smart and thoughtful film delivered in the package of a mindless action movie. Tom Cruise stars as a detective in a future Washington, D.C., where psychics known as "pre-cogs" predict crimes before they happen. When the pre-cogs foresee him committing murder, he's on the run in a race to prevent the crime from happening. There's no denying that Spielberg delivers the thrills, but there's an additional question of the existence of free will running through the film that proves equally compelling. It also contains some of Spielberg's darkest material, yet it never devolves into nihilism nor does it distract from the action. In fact, it never drags, miraculously juggling these heavy philosophical themes without slowing down the pace of the narrative. Minority Report is hands-down Spielberg's most underrated film.

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