Steven Spielberg

it doesn't get any cooler than this - Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

it doesn't get any cooler than this - Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

  • Born:  1946
  • Rank:  3
  • Score:  928.70
  • Awards:  2 Oscars / 3 DGA / BAFTA / 2 Golden Globes / 2 LAFC / 2 NSFC / NBR / 3 BSFC / CFC / 2 BFCA
  • Nominations:  6 Oscars / 10 DGA / 4 BAFTA / 10 Golden Globes / 3 BFCA / 3 CFC
  • Feature Films:  25
  • Best:  Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Worst:  1941

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981
  2. Schindler’s List – 1993
  3. Munich – 2005
  4. Jaws – 1975
  5. Minority Report – 2002
  6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977
  7. Saving Private Ryan – 1998
  8. Empire of the Sun – 1987
  9. Amistad – 1997
  10. A.I. – 2001

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1975 – 1st – Jaws
  • 1977 – 3rd – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 1981 – 1st – Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • 1982 – 4th – E.T.
  • 1985 – 6th – The Color Purple
  • 1987 – 1st – Empire of the Sun
  • 1993 – 1st – Schindler’s List
  • 1997 – 5th – Amistad
  • 1998 – 1st – Saving Private Ryan
  • 2001 – 9th – A.I.
  • 2002 – 4th – Minority Report
  • 2005 – 1st – Munich

Steven Spielberg holds a unique place in film; the complete confluence of critical appeal and commercial success.  On the one hand, he is the highest grossing director in history.  No one else even comes close.  His films have grossed a cumulative $3.7 billion, more than twice any other director.  He has not only held the all-time box office record, but has done it with three different films.  At one point he had directed three of the four biggest films ever made.  But he has balanced that with critical success.  In the point scale he has more points than any other director in the history of film.  He is on top of the list for both the DGA and the Golden Globes and no one is even close to him in either category.  In spite of twice getting overlooked for Best Director when his film was nominated for Best Picture (once when he actually won the DGA — the first time it had ever happened), he now has 6 Oscar nominations and 2 Oscars.

Yet there are so many out there who refuse to give Spielberg his due.  The reasons above don’t sway them.  In fact, both parts of the formula above are precisely why they criticize him.  They cannot believe that someone who is so widely successful, who has helped to usher in the era of the summer blockbuster can ever truly be taken seriously.  There is no question that this was part of the problem during the early years.  Jaws was a runaway success, the biggest moneymaker of all-time when it was released, but Spielberg was considered a kid (not yet thirty) and it was a big hit during the summer and critics couldn’t quite take it seriously.  It earned a Best Picture nomination, yet, in spite of being such a director driven film, it somehow didn’t earn a Best Director nomination for Spielberg (the same thing happened the next year when Scorsese was denied a Best Director nomination for the director driven Taxi Driver).  Two years later, the Academy seemed to apologize by nominating Spielberg for Close Encounters, but the film wasn’t nominated, and Herbert Ross had two nominated films and the rules at the time wouldn’t allow him to be nominated twice, so a spot opened up.  Then came the epic failure of 1941 (critical and commercial).  But Spielberg bounced back from that big time.

Spielberg began the eighties with Raiders of the Lost Ark and managed to score both Best Picture and Best Director nominations to go along with what was then the third biggest film of all-time.  But he topped it with E.T., again scoring both nominations (and several critics awards) and this time he topped Jaws (and Star Wars) and had the biggest film of all-time.  After another Indiana Jones film, he returned with The Color Purple and he found something new; he still wasn’t being taken seriously.  Many critics didn’t feel that he was the right director to tackle such an intense depiction of African-American life and while he would win the DGA and the film would be nominated for Best Picture, it would also lose all 11 of its nominations and he would fail to gain a nomination himself.  Critics began to complain that Spielberg was too successful, that he really hadn’t paid his dues, that his films were getting a free pass because they were warm and fuzzy and people (gasp) liked them!

He would follow that up with Empire of the Sun, a film that really began to explore his theme of the alienated child searching for a father.  The film earned strong reviews and another DGA nomination (even if it was the weakest grossing Spielberg film since his debut feature, Sugarland Express).  It became the third Spielberg film (two more would follow) to be so technically brilliant as to earn all five major technical Oscar nominations (Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction), yet also the first film since his own Close Encounters ten years before to due so without a Best Picture nomination (only three other directors have even done this more than once and only David Lean with three has done it more than twice, yet Spielberg has done it five times).

1989 began a new theme for Spielberg.  He released a big summer blockbuster, then, close to Christmas, released a more serious film aimed more at critical and Oscar attention than big box office.  He has done this five different times now.  Four of the times, his summer film was a huge success and one of the biggest box office hits of the year (the other time was Minority Report, ironically the best of all these summer hits and yet by far the least financially successful).  Twice the fall film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.  The first time it was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it became the second biggest hit of the year (not expected to do any better in 1989, the summer of Batman).  But Always did not do much in the way of box office and was completely ignored at awards time.  With the failure of Always and the critical flop of Hook in 1991 (though still a big box office hit), people began to talk derisively of Spielberg.

But then came the double whammy of 1993 and no director has ever owned a year like Spielberg did.  He first destroyed everyone else at the summer box office with Jurassic Park nearly doubling any other film and taking the box office crown from E.T. (who would later regain it).  Then came Oscar season and Schindler’s List did what no film had done since the arrival of the National Society of Film Critics in 1966 (making a third critics group to go along with the NYFC and the NBR): it would sweep Best Picture.  Six different critics groups (NYFC, LAFC, NSFC, BSFC, NBR, CFC) and four different awards groups (Oscars, BAFTA, PGA, Golden Globes) would convene and every time Schindler was the winner.  In the years, since even with the addition of the BFCA, no film would win more than 7 and only L.A. Confidential would win more than 4 of the 6 critics groups in any one year.  There are those detractors who say that Schindler’s List is too hopeful, that it doesn’t convey the true horror of the Holocaust, that it’s too much Spielberg, but the fact of the matter is that it was hailed in a way no film ever had been or has been since.  It was the only film made in my lifetime to make the top 10 on AFI’s original list, when it was only five years old and one of only two films (Raging Bull is the other) to make it on the more recent list (when it had actually moved one spot up, from #9 to #8).  It allowed Spielberg to finally break through and add complete critical acclaim to his already established position as the most commercially successful director of all-time.

He then went away for three years so that he could spend some time with his family and help to found Dreamworks.  He returned in 1997 with another double whammy that wasn’t quite as successful.  His summer film was Lost World, his worst film since 1941, and his awards season release, Amistad, didn’t score as high with the Academy as he hoped (4 nominations, but no Picture or Director).  But in 1998, Spielberg proved that you can make a bloody, violent war film and somehow make it palatable for the masses and the critics.  Saving Private Ryan, in spite of thirty of the most harrowing minutes ever put on film, ended up as the highest grossing film of the year and won Spielberg a second Best Director Oscar (and if not for heavy Oscar chasing by Miramax, perhaps would have landed a second Best Picture win).  Then after another three year absence, Spielberg returned with A.I. a film that opened with a box office similar to Ryan, but in the end, barely made a third of what Ryan had and divided the critics.  It was a different kind of film for Spielberg, and his first writing credit since Close Encounters and people couldn’t decide if they didn’t like the Kubrick influence on the film (and the ending) or if Spielberg had ruined the brilliant film that Kubrick could have made had he not died.  Either way, people stayed away after that first weekend and very little awards attention went its way.

The next year was supposed to be another double whammy.  After all, he had Tom Cruise for his big summer blockbuster, a brilliant Science-Fiction film from the mind of Philip K. Dick, and was following it up with a Christmas release starring both Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Yet, it was the fall release that had bigger numbers and neither did well during awards season.  Then Spielberg’s next film was a lackluster Tom Hanks film that couldn’t decide if it was a Drama or a Comedy and wasn’t what summer fans were looking for.  But 2005 brought the numbers back as War of the Worlds was the second biggest hit of the summer behind the final Star Wars (and fourth biggest of the year) and Munich landed him back among the Oscar nominees for the first time in seven years (and in fact if you go here you can see me make the argument that it was the best film of 2005).  Then came more time off and another summer return, this time with the long awaited fourth Indiana Jones film, a film that didn’t quite live up to critical expectations while it was one of the biggest hits of the year.

So what can we expect next from Spielberg?  It’s always hard to say.  The IMdB currently lists 3 films in production and an astounding 15 in development, but it is unclear how many of those will ever get made and how many of them Spielberg will produce rather than direct (he’s just as successful as a producer, with cumulative grosses over $5 billion and another Best Picture nominee to his credit – Letters from Iwo Jima).  He’s finishing up the first Tintin film (YES!!!!) and then he might finally make the Lincoln biopic or he might re-make Oldboy or Harvey.  Whatever it is, it’s likely to be a success.  There isn’t anyone more so in film history.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – #1 film of 1981

I get asked at times what my favorite film is.  When I was little, the answer was always Star Wars.  Later, I would bounce between Star Wars and Watership Down.  There was a stretch in high school when Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society were both in the mix.  But as I got into college and started watching the same three films over and over and over, it became clear what my favorite film was: a three-way tie between Star Wars, The Princess Bride and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  When Return of the King finally came out, it joined the other three instantly.  I would venture that I have seen each of the first three at least fifty times and ROTK is making its way there.

I said in the John Huston post that I wanted a fedora because of The Maltese Falcon and that is true.  But let’s face it.  Every guy in my generation wants to be Indiana Jones.  He thinks damn fast, he’s a fighter, a lover, a scientist, but yet, he is still human.  He only gets out of the fight with the bald Nazi because of luck.  He has a desperate fear of snakes.  He saves the Ark, but he doesn’t get to examine it.  Not to mention he has the hat (I prefer the black Sam Spade hat, but still . . .), he’s got the jacket, and best of all, he has the whip.

Then there is the story.  Here’s how the legend goes: it’s 1977 and Star Wars has opened and Close Encounters will be opening soon (since Star Wars opened in May and Close Encounters in November, the legend is unclear when during the year this is).  Lucas and Spielberg, good friends already are vacationing in Hawaii, building sand castles.  Lucas describes the story for an old Saturday afternoon serial, the kind of thing they both used to go see as kids.  It’s an adventure story with lots of cliff-hangers, a modern day adventure film, the kind they don’t make anymore.  Spielberg loves the idea.  Lucas says “I’m done with directing,” and offers it to Spielberg.  Thus, the birth of the Indiana Jones franchise (the character really is named after a dog, but it’s Lucas’ dog, the same dog who inspired the character of Chewbacca).

So here we have it, the ultimate adventure film, the single best film of the eighties (yes, I did just rank Raiders above Raging Bull).  What makes it so great?  Well, there are the technical aspects, but you could say that about most Spielberg films.  After all his films have won a combined 27 Oscars out of 76 nominations in the technical categories.  Of course, Raiders (along with Schindler) is the height of this, with amazing Cinematography, fantastic Art Direction, swift, incredible Editing, and most important, the best Score ever written for a film (it’s my ringtone).  Chariots of Fire might have had an iconic Score, but is there anyone who doesn’t recognize the Raiders March?  It’s become a part of much larger culture.

But then there is the acting.  Sadly, neither Harrison Ford nor Karen Allen were nominated for Oscars, though both deserved it.  In the rest of her career, Allen was never as confidant, as sexy, as funny as she is as Marion Ravenwood.  Ford would eventually get one nomination (for Witness), but this role, even more so than as Han Solo, seems to define him.  And this wasn’t just an extension of Han Solo as many people assume.  Han yells at Leia “I had everything under control till you brought us down here.” whereas when Indy goes after the truck and is asked how he replies “I don’t know.  I’m making this up as I go along.”  We never have any doubt about Han and his ability to succeed.  But in the end, Indy doesn’t succeed.  He makes it through on dumb luck, sheer force of will and the knowledge that there are some things we’re not supposed to see.  And in the end, he doesn’t have the Ark and never gets to examine it.

This is Spielberg’s touch, as are the Nazis.  The Nazis might seem like a kind of perfect cartoon villain, but they represent a pure force of evil that everyone can recognize.  It echoes in the quote from Last Crusade where we are told “The quest for Grail is not archeology.  It’s a race against evil.”  And perhaps using the more mild version of the Nazis as the warm-up is what helped prepare Spielberg for the triumphant achievement that would be Schindler’s List.

And one last word about the Visual Effects.  Many people lump Raiders in with later Visual Effects heavy films.  But most of the effects in Raiders are with the final opening of the Ark.  The truly great scenes, the ones that people remember the most are good old fashioned tricks and stunts.  And every guy in my generation watches it and thinks, yeah, I could outrace that boulder.  I could hang on to the whip being dragged behind that truck.  But you couldn’t.  You’re not Indiana Jones.