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On the Set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

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The best Steven Spielberg movies, according to us

Jaws? E.T.? Indiana Jones? The Fabelmans? There is no right answer, so here’s all of them

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The best movies of a given year, ranking every Marvel movie, the greatest Steven Universe episodes… We can definitively land on those as a group. But when the Polygon staff started talking about the legend of movie director legends, Steven Spielberg, it was immediately clear there was no way we’d embark on the quest of list-making and live to tell the tale. Spielberg has dipped into every genre, flexed every cinematic muscle, and made too many classics for too many varying tastes. When folks start wondering if a guy’s pre-movie-career Columbo episode should be in consideration for the upper echelon of a ranking, that’s trouble. That’s an S-tier career, but it’s trouble.

So instead of losing sleep over constructing a monolithic Spielberg ranking, we decided to just file our ballots — and let Polygon readers weigh in with their own. With The Fabelmans bringing Spielberg’s entire filmography into focus, and with the 2023 Oscars looming, now felt like the right time to wade through a 50-plus-year run and pick our favorites. For your consideration, here are the best Steven Spielberg movies, according to whoever was prepared to get yelled at for having favorite Steven Spielberg movies.

Indiana Jones stands by a muddy river and jungle staring offscreen while shrouded in shadow in Raiders of the Lost Ark Image: Paramount Pictures

Austen Goslin

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. Jurassic Park
  3. Jaws
  4. Minority Report
  5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg has made a lot of great movies in his career and three absolutely perfect ones, which are the three at the top of this list. Raiders is the greatest adventure movie ever made, a beautiful film shot by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe with a pitch-perfect lead performance so well realized that it created a rogue archetype that to this day no one else has managed to capture. Somehow one of the only blockbusters to ever rival Raiders in terms of pure fun, energy, and entertainment is Jurassic Park, which is reason enough on its own to justify its position on this list. Jaws is a film that speaks for itself, and failing that will likely get plenty of time elsewhere on this list, while Minority Report remains one of the strangest blockbusters and star vehicles ever made in the best way possible. Finally, Close Encounters is the top among Spielberg’s more “personal” films, if only because it’s the one that best marries how deeply he feels the story (which has elements that closely mirror his own childhood) with the kind of spectacle that no other director has ever matched him on.

A crowd of scientists behold a glowing spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind Image: Columbia Pictures

Chris Plante

  1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  2. Jaws
  3. Jurassic Park
  4. The Fabelmans
  5. Raiders of the Lost Ark

I assumed A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can would make this list. I adore those films and revisit them every few years. But every time I tried to make room, it meant cutting a stone-cold classic that did many of the same things, just a bit better. Close Encounters is A.I. with better pacing, timeless effect, and a more compelling read on humanity. Jurassic Park is popcorn sci-fi because it treats the text of Michael Crichton with the gravitas owed to Phillip K. Dick, rather than the other way around. And Catch Me If You Can was Spielberg’s best dramatization of his urge to outrun his childhood domestic traumas… until he made a movie literally about his childhood domestic traumas. That’s the thing about Spielberg and most creators: He circles the same ideas over and over again in the hopes that this time might uncover something even more remarkable than the last. Considering his most recent film is one of his best, the strategy continues to work just fine.

A T-Rex drenched in blue light looks in the window of a jeep at a scared blonde girl in Jurassic Park Image: Universal Pictures

Joshua Rivera

  1. Jurassic Park
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Minority Report
  4. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
  5. West Side Story

A good Steven Spielberg movie makes you feel like you’re seeing something for the first time. It could be your first viewing or your 100th, but it always hits the same: the wonder of a brachiosaur, the peril of a forgotten tomb, the invasive horror of a surveillance state, the haunting yearning of artificial life, or a revival of a musical you know by heart. This is what Spielberg does best: He remembers. He bottles up the feeling of the biggest or smallest moments of your life and juxtaposes them with something equally beautiful, terrifying, or mundane. My picks aren’t in any particular order, and you could swap out any of these movies with several others that fit this bill: E.T. easily, Catch Me If You Can if you think about it a bit, and even Ready Player One (which I despise, but not as much as the source material). Spielberg’s films are gifts because they’re pleas to remember things in a world that is constantly forgetting. Those who don’t remember have little to keep them from becoming a villain.

ET hugs Elliot in his red sweatshirt while standing in front of his spaceship Image: Universal Pictures

Matt Patches

  1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Catch Me If You Can
  4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  5. Lincoln

Did I eat too many Reese’s Pieces, or have my colleagues gone completely mad overlooking E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Maybe The Fabelmans undoes a bit of the family drama of E.T. by pulling the curtain back on Spielberg’s life (in spectacular fashion — I was considering it for this list, but it felt like recency bias), but E.T. is the basin in which Spielberg poured out his heart, his brain, and his inner demons. After completely losing himself to the grand what-ifs of Close Encounters — a tough movie about being a bad dad who can’t say no to his obsessions! — Spielberg asked the brilliant Melissa Mathison to write him a fairy tale. There is no one who captures the perspective of young people like Spielberg, and despite movie stars showing up doing movie-star work throughout his filmography, his work with Henry Thomas tops them all. It’s the performance of the director’s career. And I’ll just say: We all know E.T. is the top Spielberg movie of all time because when he digitally removed the guns from his federal agent baddies’ hands in a home video release, we all got mad and he felt dumb and undid it. The movie was perfect, now, then, and forever.

Now for some hot-take chum:

  • Tony Kushner has been a godsend to Spielberg’s late career and should co-own Munich, West Side Story, The Fabelmans, and their crowning achievement, Lincoln.
  • The Post is what happens when Spielberg reads the paper and blogs — disaster.
  • Schindler’s List is about an extremely important topic, it’s crafted with diligent docudrama filmmaking, it would only get made with Spielberg’s cred, so thankfully he did, but narratively, it’s not a great movie. A tough thing to admit (but it’s absolutely worth a rewatch in our present moment).
  • Good for Stevie for never being too precious, and making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, and Ready Player One! We laud him for the classics, but we need to appreciate him for bending Hollywood to his experimental will. Now he just needs to pay it forward and give other new, diverse voices the chance to gamble. What does E.T. look like in a different neighborhood? What is the Indiana Jones retro adventure movie for a kid who grew up in the early 2000s? Spielberg should help get those movies made at a time when it’s harder than ever to get his kind of original popcorn movies made.
  • The best John Williams scores in Spielberg movies almost line up with my top five Spielberg movies, but I’d swap Catch Me If You Can and Lincoln out for Schindler’s and Empire of the Sun.

Roy Scheider as Hooper wearing big glasses and smoking a cigarette, stares in shock at the backend of a boat in Jaws Image: Universal Pictures

Mike Mahardy

  1. Jaws
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Jurassic Park
  4. Catch Me If You Can
  5. Lincoln

The top spot on my ballot was never in doubt: I will be watching Jaws once a year, maybe more, for the rest of my life. It is at once a thrilling monster movie, a buddy comedy, a virtuosic blockbuster, a potent examination of small-town politics, and a character study of two people convinced of a truth that nobody else around them is able, or willing, to see. I didn’t mean to take up all of my space here writing about Jaws, but it’s just that layered — I have never come away from a viewing with the same read twice. Apart from Catch Me If You Can (which I adore as a master class in script writing and editing momentum), each movie on my list represents Spielberg at the height of his “big ideas, intimate story” approach to filmmaking. Jaws remains his magnum opus in that regard.

David (Haley Joel Osment) holds a teddy bear in front of glowing neon signs in A.I. Artificial Intelligence Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Pete Volk

  1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  2. Lincoln
  3. The Fabelmans
  4. Minority Report
  5. Raiders of the Lost Ark

For a long time, I found Spielberg’s sincerity off-putting. Then I grew up. Now I love so many of his movies, and I’m astounded by the way he can switch between pop blockbuster fare and grounded character portraits. The man literally invented and reinvented the modern blockbuster twice with Jaws and Jurassic Park, and yet neither made my list (through no fault of theirs, as they both rule — the man has just made too many hits). I think the top three on here are legitimate masterpieces — The Fabelmans moved me very deeply — and my final two picks are the blockbustery Spielbergs that I find the most fun. As a Columbo superfan, I am also obligated to note I would include the Spielberg-directed pilot episode of Columbo if it counted as a movie.

Jamie (a young Christian Bale)sits caked in mud on a bed staring at the ceiling in Empire of the Sun Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Tasha Robinson

  1. Jaws
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Jurassic Park
  4. Empire of the Sun
  5. Minority Report

For me, the ranking doesn’t even get difficult until No. 5. The first four on this list are just unimpeachable classics, with Jaws in particular revealing deeper depths of characterization and symbolism every time I rewatch it. For slot 5, it’s a close call between Minority Report, Bridge of Spies, and Catch Me If You Can in terms of tight, taut adventure-thrillers, with A.I. Artificial Intelligence also in the running as a more ambitious and densely thoughtful movie, although it’s also more scattershot and sprawling. Minority Report gets a slight edge and makes my list for being so streamlined and purely entertaining, while also delving into some thoughtful areas adjacent to broken-windows policing and racial profiling. You can sure tell from this list that I prefer Spielberg in blockbuster entertainment mode over political/historical mode most of the time, but I’ll make an exception for the unusually raw and personal story in Empire of the Sun.

Tom Cruise’s John Anderton holds up the female precog as they embrace and look in different directions in profile in Minority Report Image: 20th Century Studios

Toussaint Egan

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. Jurassic Park
  3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  4. Minority Report
  5. War of the Worlds

As a kid, I wanted to be three things when I grew up: a cartoonist, a paranormal investigator, and an archaeologist who ran away from giant boulders and punched Nazis in the face. Bear in mind, at 6 years old I hadn’t the faintest idea of what the hell a Nazi was or what they believed in, but if Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr. hated them, that was good enough for me.

Steven Spielberg is a director whose films formed an integral part of my life even before I knew who he was. He is the rarest of directors, one whose movies I have seen and enjoyed countless times over the years, yet whose works I nonetheless feel self-conscious in attempting to categorize — let alone rank. To be clear: My ballot is not what I myself would describe as a ranking of “the best movies Steven Spielberg has ever directed,” but rather could be better described as “a list of Steven Spielberg movies that have left an impact on my life.” Science fiction is one of my favorite genres of all time, if not my favorite. It’s one I grew to love having grown up on a steady diet of some of the best stories and films the genre had to offer — many of which were directed by Spielberg. As a comedian I admired once said, “The mark of greatness is when everything before you is obsolete, and everything after you bears your mark.” I can think of no better way of describing Steven Spielberg and his indelible contributions to the whole of cinema.

A man washed up on the beach during D Day while boats burn in the background in Saving Private Ryan Image: Paramount Pictures

Samit Sarkar

  1. Jurassic Park
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Jaws
  4. Saving Private Ryan
  5. Catch Me If You Can

It really says something that most of us have the same three films, in some order, at the top of our lists. When your filmography is as long, varied, influential, and popular as Steven Spielberg’s — or perhaps I should say close to it, since no one has had a career like his — it’s impressive that we can pretty much agree on the best work.

I hate to admit it, but I might not actually have put Jaws this high on my list had I not rewatched it last year on 4K Blu-ray, but the 4K restoration that was conducted in 2012 is stunning — as Spielberg himself said in a featurette, this version “looks better than the film looked when first projected in 1975.” Oh, and the movie itself owns, too.

But both Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark are sentimental picks for me. The former, which was probably my first theatrical blockbuster (I was not yet 7 at the time), is the reason that every kid in my generation wanted to be a paleontologist when they grew up. That career choice changed to archaeologist once I saw Raiders. Like those two movies, Saving Private Ryan is on my list partly because of when I came to it; it was one of the first war films I saw, and it still sticks in my mind as a filmmaking achievement with a stirring story whose sentimentality doesn’t undercut the horrors depicted. As for Catch Me If You Can, it’s a great demonstration of Spielberg’s range — he’s best known for blockbusters and historical dramas, but he can be funny when he wants to!

Tinkerbell pokes Captain Hook on the nose in Steven Spielberg’s live-action Hook Image: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Susana Polo

  1. Jurassic Park
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  4. Hook
  5. Empire of the Sun

Look. The heart wants what the heart wants. Has Spielberg directed weightier fare? Absolutely. Has he made bigger swings? Most assuredly. But the work he’s done in the realm of big-concept action is sublime. Jurassic Park is a near-perfect movie. I’ve seen Empire of the Sun only once, and images from it will live in my mind forever. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a treatise on how the so-called lowbrow doesn’t need elevating — it just needs to be taken seriously and earnestly. Last Crusade and Hook... Look. The heart wants.