Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
A handful of my favorite directors have directed very few films. Stanley Kubrick, who I looked at last week, has more films than Todd Haynes who I opted not to cover this week having seen less than five of his films so far that I would cite. So, rather than trying to dig for other prominent directors whose films I have enjoyed, I’ve decided to go with a director who has made numerous films in his career and whose work has been largely exceptional if not generally good.
Steven Spielberg is one of those directors who made his name on blockbusters (his first film, Jaws, having coined the phrase), but also dug into pure drama with great success. Spielberg is a director whose new films are always worth checking out, even if the heyday of his 1970s/1980s/1990s output seems largely behind him. While there are several films I could definitely see myself listing, beyond the five specified below, I’m disappointed that I cannot make room for Minority Report, which is ultimately the third best science fiction film he has ever directed.
When it released in 1975, Jaws proved so popular that lines, even in smaller cities, would form around the block, hence the term “blockbuster” being used to highlight any film that was a box office hit. While it’s said that Gone With the Wind received the same kind of reception 44 years earlier, it’s Jaws that holds the distinction as the first modern blockbuster.
On the all-time inflation-adjusted chart of biggest films in history, Spielberg holds two spots, more than any other director. While E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial sits higher at number 4, number 7 Jaws is an ultimately better film. Nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Spielberg was notoriously snubbed for a nomination, but that doesn’t diminish his accomplishment. A film that has become something of a cautionary tale of political ambivalence in our current political climate, Jaws was riveting, forward-thinking, and gave us one of the all-time great scores. It was a class act that no one soon forgets.
It was also another turning point for the horror genre with the parameters of the genre having shifted away from the creature features of old in the last two decades. Jaws swung the pendulum back and redefined how the monster movie or creature feature could be handled and led to a new wave of similar films, even going so far as to include many such films in the last two decades.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Although 1977 saw a different film take the box office by storm, Star Wars was an inferior creation when compared to Spielberg’s fourth big screen directorial effort. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a compelling science fiction feature about first contact and the strange events that precede it.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, legendary French director Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, and Melinda Dillon, the film was a fascinating exploration of truth and lies in the face of strange scientific phenomena. Spielberg’s film is filled with iconic imagery and it ultimately cemented his name as one of the foremost directors in Hollywood. It also earned him his first of seven Oscar nominations for Best Director out of seventeen total nominations to date.
The Color Purple (1985)
Noteworthy more for its status as a major Oscar footnote, The Color Purple was Spielberg’s first attempt in eleven years to tackle a serious subject and his first such film based on an acclaimed novel.
Based on the celebrated novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is set during the south’s Antebellum period as a black woman struggles with her own identity after suffering decades of abuse at the hands of her father. Spielberg not only stepped out of his wheelhouse, he did so with humane sensibilities that were far beyond anything he had done before, including his incredibly sentimental E.T..
The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. It also helped boost the visibility of two if its stars. Best Supporting Actress Oprah Winfrey burst onto the national stage with this performance, which helped her leverage her success to help launch her now vaunted television career. An equally impressive career both on the big screen and later on television, Whoopi Goldberg starred as Miss Celie before finding her way into a prominent feature film career that included several blockbusters and an Academy Award two years later for her performance in Ghost. As to the film’s Oscar footnote? It became the second film in the Academy’s history to earn eleven Oscar nominations and take home none of them, a record it still shares today with The Turning Point.
An even more interesting footnote is that Goldberg herself also became both the first solo black host and the first solo female host of the Academy Awards themselves. And with four hosting jobs to date, she’s hosted more Oscars than all but four others: Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Johnny Carson, and Jack Lemmon who also hosted 4.
Jurassic Park (1993)
1993 was the year that Spielberg showed what he could do with big budget blockbusters and with intimate social dramas all within the span of 6 months. His first foray into the history books was Jurassic Park, a film that soared to over $300 million at the box office and revolutionized the art of visual effects on the big screen.
Based on the popular Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park looks at the scientific progress of cloning techniques as a rich industrialist (Richard Attenborough) decided to put his money into the development of processes that will clone dinosaurs, creatures that had died out several million years before, and then open a theme park that he thought was fool proof. As expected, his lofty goals are put at risk by the machinations of a low-level employee (Wayne Knight) and a jealous competitor (Cameron Thor), which leads to a major incident that permits the dinosaurs to run free and put in peril three scientific minds (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) and his niece (Ariana Richards) and nephew (Joseph Mazzello).
The film thrilled audiences and critics alike and it secured three Oscar nominations, taking all three for the film’s Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects. Well acted and engaging from beginning to end, many thought the film couldn’t be outdone, but they would be mistaken.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Spielberg, having struggled since The Color Purple to tackle heady subjects with much success, turned to the novel Schindler’s list by Thomas Keneally about a German munitions manufacturer and war profiteer who uses his influence and wealth to shield and protected hundreds of Jews from slaughter during the Holocaust.
Starring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler alongside previous Oscar winner Ben Kingsley and newcomer Ralph Fiennes, Spielberg chose to make his film in black-and-white with book-ends set in the present in color and a brief, but powerful moment of a little girl in a pink coat in the middle of the film. Nominated for twelve Academy Awards and winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Directing, Schindler’s List is such a poignant and important film that it immediately vaulted into the list of history’s greatest films.
No one can watch the film and not come away with an extreme sense of horror and loss as the Holocaust takes shape. Ultimately, over a million Jews are slaughtered by an uncaring and immoral government and that sense of loss is keenly felt by watching this film. It’s a film that requires great emotional fortitude to sit through and a cold heart not to feel emotionally gutted, yet ultimately hopeful by the film’s end. Spielberg has not yet surpassed this effort, nor do I think he ever can or would ever even try. This is a film that cemented his place on any list of history’s greatest directors.