To assert that Steven Spielberg made his best movies in the 2000s would no longer qualify as trolling. As visceral as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — they top my list — I’m struck these days by the casual mastery of most of Spielberg’s films since A.I. Artificial Intelligence. 2005 was a new peak. His late pictures have been fascinating even when they don’t fully succeed. For sustained terror, two-thirds of War of the Worlds is unmatched by anything in his filmography, including Jaws; and Munich includes fatuous mythmaking (the Spielberg leitmotif, for better or worse) and sequences like the one in the French countryside with Michel Londsdale and Eric Bana that tonally are unlike anything else hes done (were I programming an art house series on geopolitical terror, I’d run Munich and Carlos). But he still pisses people off for being the most commercially successful director in history and attempting art. In an Indiewire discussion a few years ago, Matt Zoller Seitz made essential points about Spielberg’s strengths and weaknesses:
Where Spielberg excels is where narrative cinema itself excels: at helping you understand the physical, visceral experience of going through something, whether it’s a mundane contemporary moment or some grand historical turning point. Where Spielberg flounders, I think, is when his films are trying to hard to put things in perspective, to put a frame around it. The strongest section of Amistad for me is that flashback to the Middle Passage, which conveys the full physical as well as moral (immoral) reality of the slave trade better than any mainstream American film or TV production ever had. The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan, although that film’s “men on a mission” template tends to turn a story with Apocalypse Now/Dr. Strangelove absurdist aspects into something that feels, or plays, much more conventionally.
In the last sixteen years he’s put his wizardry at filming men in movement into stranger (for him) contexts: think Jude Law’s polymorphous, polyamorous android in A.I. or Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can. Remember the way Janusz Kamiński’s camera follows Abraham Lincoln through musty, dark rooms as this master schemer approves bribes and sweetheart deals in exchange for votes but aware of what we’d call today “deniability.” These men are often chilly fathers, indifferent to their children: Lincoln, of course, also Tom Hanks’ super lawyer in the okay Bridge of Spies. At the same time, Spielberg, like his idol François Truffaut has been a superb director of children; I could argue that Christian Bale and Henry Thomas give the best male lead performances in any of his films, and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds gives a lived and empathetic portrayal of daughter love.
Part of being a commercial filmmaker is creating misbegotten films that are a result of a failed anticipation of audience sentiment and of a reliance on tricks with which the filmmaker has extricated himself in the past. Spielberg has tried extricating himself for several years now, pulling and tugging, and the resultant churn is often just as fascinating.
1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
3. War of the Worlds
5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
6. Schindler’s List
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark
10. Empire of the Sun
11. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
12. Saving Private Ryan
13. The Sugarland Express
14. Catch Me If You Can
16. Jurassic Park
17. Minority Report
19. War Horse