5 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan, a gritty, honest WWII film was somehow robbed for Best Picture by the fey likes of Shakespeare In Love, but it nevertheless stands as one of Spielberg’s best. The film opens with an incredible recreation of D-Day, which, for those sorely in need of a history lesson, was the Allied storming of the beach at Normandy, France. From there it tells the story of a captain (Tom Hanks) charged with locating and sending home the young private of the title (Matt Damon), who is the last survivor of a group of four enlisted brothers. The movie became the highest domestic grosser of the year, and earned Spielberg his second Best Director win.
4 The Color Purple (1985)
This adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel is a harrowing, funny, painful, lively and ultimately triumphant look at black female life in the early 20th century South. Richly detailed in its period setting and packed with great performances, including Whoopie Goldberg as the put upon main character/narrator Celie, Oprah Winfrey as the headstrong Sofia, Danny Glover as abusive husband Albert, Margaret Avery as Shug and Desreta Jackson as Young Celie, who is sold by her own father (who previously impregnated her) into marriage with Glover as a teenage girl. A film that shifts in tone as smoothly and deftly touches upon as many issues as this one does is unmistakably the work of a master director.
3 Schindler’s List (1993)
Spielberg released this appropriately heart-wrenching and epic Holocaust film to universal critical acclaim and tons of awards. Liam Neeson stars as German profiteer Oskar Schindler, who uses his position to save a thousand Polish Jews from extermination. Shot primarily in black and white, to plant one firmly in the world of archival photos and footage so they can witness the full, moving, speaking horror of the events, this is a film unlike any other Spielberg had done up to that point, and marked the beginning of his later career forays into darker, more realistic subject matter. As powerful as any film regarding this subject should be, and more beautiful than it has a right to be.
2 Jaws (1975)
This smash hit became the highest grossing film in history at the time of its release, and watching this taut tale of maritime horror today, it’s not hard to see why. Featuring some great dialogue that is spoken by some great performers inhabiting some great characters, Jaws tells the story of a New England resort town’s terrorizing at the hands of a Great White Shark. The police chief (Roy Scheider) goes out to sea to put the beast down along with a plucky marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a crusty master seaman (Robert Shaw, pitch-perfect). The ultimate battle between the three men and their terrifying opponent is still a pulse-pounding and flawlessly realized spectacle, and Jaws, as a whole, shines as mainstream Hollywood at its best.
1 Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
This boulder-fleeing, Nazi-punching, Wrath Of God-releasing, masterwork is quite simply why movies are made. Harrison Ford stars as everyone’s favorite ophidiophobic archeologist, who races Third Reich scoundrels for the Ark of the Covenant. One expertly filmed action sequence follows another, as Ford makes cracks with both whip and wit and yet another iconic score by John William’s thunders along. This gleefully old-fashioned adventure was originally conceived by producer George Lucas, and like his own Star Wars, became a cultural phenomenon that bred a successful, beloved (and later tarnished) franchise.