29. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 9 min.
Pitch: Four years after John Hammond’s great dinosaur experiment went to hell on Isla Nublar, Dr. Ian Malcolm is drawn back to a different island full of dinosaurs, one that InGen used to breed various species for Jurassic Park. When Ian finds out that a corporate team wants to bring even wilder dinosaurs to the mainland, he’s forced to intervene. Also, he’s there to save his girlfriend. And his kid!
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, and Richard Schiff
Amblin’ Man: We’ll get to that ending in just a minute, but you can’t say that the image of a T. Rex wreaking havoc on downtown San Diego isn’t within Spielberg’s grasp. Also, the entire film is predicated on a man trying to save his semi-distant familiars, so there’s your other, more classic connection.
Williams’ Wonder: Credit where credit is due, here. Williams could have easily reprised his iconic themes from Jurassic Park in a different context and probably called it a day, but instead tries to fit the second film’s more action-packed tone. As such, and much like the film it’s in, the score’s appropriately hard-charging without leaving a lasting impression. The only major change is that various bongo and other drum sounds are added in, because islands.
From Humble Beginnings: The Lost World is only famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s second outing with Spielberg, after Schindler’s List. And it’s not exactly among the more memorable work the two have done together over the years. Much of the film is shot in murky blues, blacks, and grays, with more than one key action sequence taking place in the dark. There’s little of the striking natural light or magic-hour aesthetic that’s come to define Kaminski’s work here.
Too Good for Dinosaurs: The Lost World marked the second attempt in a row on Spielberg’s part to cast Juliette Binoche in one of the Jurassic Park films. She was offered Moore’s role, after also turning down Dr. Ellie Sattler in the first film. But eventually the venerated actress would find her way into a film with giant monsters, when she was fridged in the opening minutes of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. You know that old Hollywood adage: They all get killed by lizards in the end.
Analysis: The Lost World was a bona fide event when it debuted on Memorial Day weekend in 1997. It was the sequel to one of the most beloved films of the ‘90s, ended a multi-year production sabbatical for Spielberg, and held the all-time record for opening-weekend box office for over four years until Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone bested it. It was the continuation of what was widely assumed to be the industry’s next monster franchise. It had the Goldblum. It had everything going for it.
And then, it just wasn’t that good.
It’s not that The Lost World is outright awful. Hell, it’s still somehow the second-best installment of the Jurassic series. It’s just a film distinctly of its time, one more given to excessive, trailer-friendly bombast than to Spielberg’s particular brand of the same. It’s loud, it’s full of ultimately disposable side characters, and it more or less peaks with its terrifying “compy” opening; even that last sequence loses some of its heft when it’s revealed that the little girl isn’t actually killed by dinosaurs. After that introduction, which suggests a darker and more menacing film, The Lost World goes on to include a young girl overcoming dinosaur attacks with gymnastics.
Then there’s that ending. For a kid at the time, the image of a T. Rex going wild on San Diego as Goldblum races to avoid flying debris and a 76 ball was the coolest thing in the world. In reality, it’s maybe the silliest thing that’s ever happened in a series that also includes a talking velociraptor on an airplane and the entirety of Jurassic World. It’s the exact point when the series loses the magic of discovery that makes the first installment such a classic, and turns it into a multi-film treatise on the coolness of dinosaurs breaking stuff. And to be fair, dinosaurs breaking stuff is pretty fun. You just expect a little more from Spielberg.
28. Hook (1991)
Runtime: 2 hr. 22 min.
Pitch: In this Spielbergian riff on the classic fairy tale, Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has grown up to become a corporate lawyer with no time for his two children. When the dreaded Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) returns to kidnap young Jack and Maggie, Peter must return to Neverland and, in typical Spielberg fashion, rediscover his childlike sense of wonder.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, and Maggie Smith
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg has always had a flair for the magical moment — the bicycle taking off into the sky, the brontosaurus rearing up on its hind legs, and, of course, Peter Pan rising up into the sky and reclaiming leadership of the Lost Boys. It’s hard not to get butterflies at the sight of the Notorious P.A.N. swooping down over the Boys’ ramshackle village and reclaiming his sword from Rufio. Nah, that’s not a tear in my eye. That’s just some pixie dust.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams worked his typical magic here, delivering yet another memorable score to add to Spielberg’s canon. The score’s crowning moment is the original song “We Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, a bouncy and appropriately youthful tune sung by a children’s choir. It’s a glimpse into what might have been, as Spielberg initially considered making the film a musical (with Williams’ help, of course).
Food Fight!: Hook never really gels as a movie, but some of the individual scenes in the Lost Boys’ village really let Spielberg and his pals at Industrial Light and Magic have some fun. One of the most colorful and visually inventive scenes in the director’s body of work comes during the “imaginary” food fight, which finds Robin Williams at his childlike best.
Crocodile Flop: One thing that really sucks about Hook is the action-sequence choreography, and there’s no more egregious offender than the scene in which Hook is eaten by his stuffed crocodile clock thingy. He has roughly 30 seconds to get out of the way before the thing falls on him, but he just keeps putzing about and tripping over his cape because — oh, yeah, lazy filmmaking.
Analysis: Hook may not rank among Spielberg’s best output, but it still has the look and feel of a classic for the most part. John Williams obviously has a lot to do with this, but Spielberg is playing firmly within his wheelhouse here; turn to the entry for “childlike sense of wonder” in the film dictionary, and you’ll probably see the director’s grinning face. If anything, Hook goes too far with the sap and the sentimentality, and not far enough in terms of taking the Peter Pan story to a more interesting Neverland.
27. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
Runtime: 1 hr. 47 min.
Pitch: Adapted from the iconic French comic strip, The Adventures of Tintin follows the titular reporter and his beloved dog, Snowy, as they solve the mystery of a lost pirate ship, the Unicorn, and help drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) settle a score against the evil Red Rackham. Many Indiana Jones-esque antics ensue.
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Daniel Mays, Mackenzie Crook, Toby Jones, and Gad Elmaleh
Amblin’ Man: If there’s a single shot you should see in Tintin, it has to be the four-minute, uninterrupted tracking shot that follows Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock chasing Red Rackham through the streets of Bagghar after one of the scrolls that leads to the treasure. The whole affair is a masterpiece of action choreography, as Tintin dodges missiles, ziplines down clothing lines, and fights off Rackham’s goons on land, air, and sea – all in a single “take.” It’s the kind of ambitious shot that Spielberg wishes he could pull off in a live-action Indy film.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams’ Tintin theme is a quirky, harpsichord-centric tune that’s a bit of a departure from his more bombastic work. Tintin’s far more mischievous than the Big Damn Hero that is Indiana Jones, so giving him a suitably sneaky melody fits quite nicely.
Thompson and Thompson: Edgar Wright co-wrote the screenplay (along with Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish and Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat), so naturally they found a place to put Wright’s buddies Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. As the identical (but unrelated) detectives Thompson and Thompson, Frost and Pegg dust off their razor-sharp repartee to great effect.
The Serkis Is in Town: Why, it just wouldn’t be a motion-capture film without Andy Serkis playing a part! Luckily, the ubiquitous mo-cap master is wonderful as Captain Haddock, offering a Chaplinesque physicality that allows him to be the butt of the drunken joke without becoming irritating. His Haddock is nowhere near the heights of Caesar or Gollum, but it’s an effective performance nonetheless.
Analysis: Spielberg’s love of the old Tintin comics is a matter of long-standing public record (we wouldn’t have Indy films without them, frankly), so it would stand to reason that he’d want to adapt them to the big screen. While The Adventures of Tintin is no great shakes, there’s still plenty to love about it, from the eye-catching CG to the realistically rendered character models and more.
Watching Tintin is like seeing Spielberg get to direct a fifth Indy movie, but this time with limitless ability to place and move the camera, resulting in an over-the-top adventure that’s just ambitious enough to work. Where Tintin falters is the story and pacing, which follow the comic’s limited vocabulary a bit too much. In the end, it becomes too formulaic to put it above the crackerjack storytelling of these other entries.
26. War of the Worlds (2005)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Pitch: Spielberg! Aliens! Has there ever been a more natural pairing? The E.T.s in this Orson Welles adaptation are out for more than Reese’s Pieces, though. These tripod assholes emerge from underground to wreck havoc on the life of divorced crane operator Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two estranged children. Their only weakness? Ah, come on, no spoilers!
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, and Tim Robbins
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg’s scariest film since Jurassic Park proved once again that he’s a master at making huge, hulking monsters seem like … well, huge, hulking monsters. When the first tripod emerges from underground and starts zapping people, it feels like a real callback to the famous T. Rex scene from a decade earlier. The first deaths we see come via a camcorder that some poor soul has dropped on the ground. This kind of framing trick is vintage Spielberg.
Williams’ Wonder: Not one of Williams’ most memorable scores, but it has a few interesting points. The composer used some weirdly chilling vocal elements — female shrieks and low, throaty male singing — to heighten the scare factor, and it’s probably why War of the Worlds scans more as a traditional “horror” film than Jurassic Park, which favored epic orchestral music.
Echoes of 9/11: Of course, there’s another reason the film might’ve been so scary at the time. Arriving in theaters just a few years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, War of the Worlds doesn’t hold back on imagery that evokes that chaotic day. The fact that it came out on Independence Day weekend only strengthened the connection in viewers’ minds.
Dino Déjà Vu: Not to harp on the Jurassic Park connection too much, but Spielberg definitely reuses a ton of his old tricks here. That basement scene with the probe? Beat by beat, it’s nearly a carbon copy of the scene with the raptors in the kitchen. It does feature crazy Tim Robbins with an axe, though, so points for that.
Analysis: This one’s a bit too derivative to rank as a classic in its own right, and Spielberg doesn’t do anything here that he hadn’t already done better elsewhere. Having just breathed new life into the sci-fi genre with 2002’s fantastic Minority Report, he seems like he’s stuck on auto-pilot, though Spielberg auto-pilot is still better than what most filmmakers bring to the table. War of the Worlds does feature some of the best special effects of any Spielberg film (thanks again, Industrial Light & Magic) and the Doug Chiang-designed tripods are a subtle stroke of genius.
25. War Horse (2011)
Runtime: 2 hr. 26 min.
Pitch: War Horse, adapted from the novel of the same name, follows a young man (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved colt as they endure the horrors of World War I. After the two are separated, the colt is passed from owner to owner, seeing the devastation of modern armed conflict from a plethora of angles, all the while hoping to survive and make it back home.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Niels Arestrup, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, and Peter Mullan
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg’s depiction of the chaos of war in World War II was already the stuff of legend after Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse’s trench warfare feels like the World War I equivalent. Rather than going for the intimacy of hand-held close-ups, however, Spielberg hangs back, capturing the vast scale of these trench battles with huge wides and dolly shots, going big where he once went small. It’s an interesting inversion of the style he made so famous.
Williams’ Wonder: Given the more sweeping, picturesque visuals of War Horse and the essential tranquility of the pastoral farmland that bookends the film, it makes sense that Williams’ work is a bit more adagio at times..
Unbridled Beauty: War Horse’s production took them all over the UK, from the roving hills of Devon to the stone roofs of Wiltshire. As a result, the film teems with a sense of history and authenticity, and the rare beauty of the English landscapes offer an immediate sense of awe.
I’m Ready for My Closeup, Mr. Ed: Joey, the titular war horse, was played by 14 different horses over the course of the film, and he and the other horses had a phalanx of experts on hand to help them throughout. They kept a farrier on set to get horseshoes back on the horses if they got stuck in the mud, and the horses were given a special makeup team to ensure that the colt looked as fine as an equine could be.
Analysis: Yet another of Spielberg’s crowd-pleasing, youth-in-war films, War Horse features some of the most beautiful imagery ever committed to film. It’s clear that Spielberg challenged Kaminski to break out of the plasticky sheen of many of his previous collaborations, creating a daguerreotype look that differed from the dirt and grit of Saving Private Ryan.
Overall, War Horse offers little that we haven’t seen before about the cruelty and randomness of war and the loss of innocence in the face of such devastation. Still, as with most late-period Spielberg works, it’s a good one to take your mom to – its emotional core is uncomplicated but effective.
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Pitch: In 1971, a bombshell study alleging that the United States was well aware of the non-viability and likely casualties of the Vietnam War came into the possession of The New York Times. When the Times was blacklisted by the federal government from making the study public, the then-struggling Washington Post found itself at the center of a cultural firestorm, as its management had to decide whether the truth was worth the overwhelming risks involved.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg finds his customary sense of wonder in the smaller details this time around. You’ve never seen the revving up of a printing press visualized with such awe, or the bustle of an early ‘70s newsroom floor visualized with such starry eyes. It’s a heroic fantasy about banal, everyday journalism, which is every bit as valuable in its own way given the climate in which The Post has been released.
Williams’ Wonder: In keeping with the film’s straightforward subject matter and hardworking cast of characters, Williams delivers something eloquent and yet a bit more subdued this time around. There’s an anxious tremble to most of his compositions, and if it’s still very much a Williams score, he ably captures the constantly escalating panic within the film in a way that elevates furtive closed-room debates over the publication of a piece of writing to the dramatic impact of a triumphant final battle.
It’s Bob and David!: During one early scene, Spielberg frames Odenkirk and Cross shoulder-to-shoulder, which could just be a character moment, but it’s one we choose to interpret as a sly indication that the venerable filmmaker is as big a fan of Mr. Show as we are.
Spielberg’s MVP: The Post marks the fifth collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks, making Hanks the director’s most frequently utilized performer. This somehow feels appropriate, given that it’s hard to think of two names more synonymous with great modern American films.
Analysis: The Post catches Spielberg near his most idealistic, and as far as the director’s “message movies” go, it’s among his most unabashedly hopeful. That Spielberg would happen to release a film of this nature right as the most media-hostile sitting president since Nixon is hardly an accident; if anything, The Post puts too fine a point on the allegorical implications of its story, right around the time when it inadvertently appears to tease some sort of Nixon Extended Universe in its final moments.
Yet what’s most powerful and lasting about the director’s ode to the absolute importance of an unbiased, hard-charging free press is the way in which he busies himself with the tiring-yet-pivotal details of releasing a piece of journalism as pivotal as the Pentagon Papers. Through Meryl Streep (in one of her best recent turns) and Tom Hanks, Spielberg envisions the heroism of the press as a conflicted kind, lingering over the endless debates and fact-checking and legal wrangling of running any kind of good journalism, something that’s been too often swept under the rug in the era of the click economy.
There was a substantial risk in publishing the Pentagon Papers, not only because of the ways in which it implicated the federal government as largely responsible for the staggering death toll in Vietnam on both sides, but because it would prove that not even the most powerful governments in the world can hide their secrets forever. Spielberg understands this every bit as well as he does the importance of their eventual release, and if The Post is blunt in its celebration, it nevertheless speaks to subjects that have become unpleasantly relevant once again in our own time. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer