Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Harper’s Bazaar, /Film, The Undefeated, Birth.Movies.Death
“E.T.” There is really no other filmmaker who portrays wonder and innocence quite like Spielberg. While he’s done many great movies, “E.T.” not only captures the purity and curiosity of youth, but its beautiful effects and simple observations implore all of us to stop and take notice of the world around us and humanity itself.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
Forget Generation X … as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I very much consider myself part of “Generation Spielberg.” His movies (along with those of George Lucas), defined my early years as a filmgoer. Although I couldn’t stand, for some reason, his then-greatest box-office triumph – the 1982 “E.T.” (and I still don’t like it) – most of his other works gave me the escapist pleasures I craved. My pre-teen favorite was easily the 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” though I am now a little disturbed by its not-so-latent colonialist, not-so-quasi-racist treatment of its characters of color.
Looking back, at present, over the totality of his career (though I have still not seen “The Post”), as much I like and admire films like “Duel” (1971, made for TV), “Jaws” (1975), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Munich” (2005), to name but some of the many, the film I consider his best is “The Sugarland Express” (1974). Starring Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as a young couple on the run from the law, the movie is remarkable for the simplicity of its conceit and panache of its mise-en-scène. While later Spielberg can ruin fine drama with too much maudlin sentiment, here the pathos of the situation is always moving, the action taut with exciting chase scenes and a chilling finale.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Riot Material/Pajiba/Nerdist
It’s “Jaws.” It will always be “Jaws.” It’s masterful horror that uses score and the audience’s anticipation to be more effective than a clunky robo shark named Bruce could ever be. It’s performances that are riveting yet feel lived in, from when Hooper, Quint and Brody are drunkenly singing, to when Brody is quietly playing with his son over the dinner table. It’s a parable about greed that is infuriatingly, endlessly relevant. It’s a movie I’ve watched more times than any other, and yet never tired of, and always jump when that damned decapitated head pops out of the sunken boat’s hull. It’s perfection in pacing and terror, and it’s beautiful besides, from the wide shots of the boat backed by sea and a shooting star sky to the close-ups of panic on Roy Scheider’s face. Factor in its historical importance for shaping blockbuster culture if you like. Regardless, it’s not just Spielberg’s greatest film, it’s one of the greatest films of all time.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
The tricky thing about “Schindler’s List,” which typifies Spielberg’s artistic ethos and towers above the rest of his work, is that this harrowing three-hour Holocaust drama happens to be the most conventionally entertaining film its direct has ever made. In fact, a number of critics and scholars have contended that “Schindler’s List” is too entertaining, that this strangely quotable spectacle reduces genocide to something slick and watchable, and that it does so in the process of privileging a non-Jew’s moral awakening over the deaths of six million people. I respect that perspective, just as I appreciate the continuing conversation about the most “appropriate” way to depict an atrocity, but I can’t help but feel like this was the film that Spielberg was born to make. Told with peerless fluidity and performed to absolute perfection, “Schindler’s List” not only invites viewers to engage in a grim period of history that a disturbing number of people seem eager to forget, it powerfully keys in on the value of a single human life, the theme that would come to define the latter (and best) portion of Spielberg’s career.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
I don’t have a definitive answer to the question, because I haven’t seen all of Steven Spielberg’s films, which is itself a sort of answer. The skill that his movies display, like the emotional world that it realizes, is strong but simplistic; his effort to say something significant is always secondary to his attempt to appear to be saying something significant yet never without obvious entertainment value, which is where things get ridiculous. Rarely does the personal seem so close to being impersonal; he films like a filmmaker without an id, and the movie in which he came nearest to cutting loose, “1941,” is the one that I think of with any enthusiasm at all.
Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture
Despite the appellation “Spielbergian,” which suggests the continual recurrence of similar themes and ideas, there’s incredible diversity to Steven Spielberg’s career – perhaps the greatest range any American film-maker has exhibited since John Ford. So it almost feels impudent to declare that his breakout film, “Jaws,” is still his best. But it is. It’s such an omnipresent part of our cultural fabric that we now usually forget that, well, movies didn’t look like “Jaws” when “Jaws” first premiered. The fluidity of Spielberg’s camera, with even the director going so far as to mount his lens on boats when almost all previous Hollywood directors would have used rear projection, changed the medium entirely – when Alfred Hitchcock saw “Jaws” he remarked of Spielberg, “He’s the first director not to see the proscenium arch.” Meaning that he was the first director to completely disregard the stage as a reference point and think in purely cinematic terms. That’s a debatable, almost certainly wrong, point, of course – but it captures something of the singularity that was “Jaws” when it arrived in 1975.
Spielberg’s technical wizardry is a given, but it would mean nothing if he weren’t a narrative alchemist as well: Peter Benchley’s novel is trash – the man’s prose is virtually unreadable – but Spielberg showed that you can turn pulp into serious, thrilling pop art. His attention to detail is breathtaking: the pages of a book on sharks reflected in Brody’s glasses, the cuts that take place each time someone walks in front of Brody’s field of vision on the beach with the camera getting slightly closer each time, the shooting star over his head after he’s loaded his gun on the boat. All of the hallmarks of later Spielberg films are there, sure: the sensitive exploration of family, humanity’s powerlessness in the face of an overwhelming inhuman force, survivor’s guilt related to World War Two – but with a particular urgency and strangeness. If another survivor’s guilt sufferer in a later Spielberg film frantically asks his wife “Tell me I’ve lived a good life!” the USS Indianapolis survivor Quint seeks to quell his guilt by being devoured by a shark. Everyone has their own way of dealing.
“Jaws” is a Manifest Destiny movie. If “Citizen Kane” is about an American individual’s desire to influence all he can, “Jaws” is about the American drive to inhabit every space, including the oceans, even if it’s merely in the pursuit of recreation. If the people of Amity decided to go yachting instead of swimming in the sea, or chose to bathe in pools instead, we’d have absolutely no movie. But no, instead of giving the shark her space we have to invade her territory and kill her, all in the pursuit of Americans’ inalienable right to get swimmer’s ear. Murray Hamilton’s mayor is someone who’s so determined to see the consumer culture of his community thrive that he’s willing to accept if some of those consumers are themselves consumed. This is why every Fourth of July I make time to watch “Jaws” – to steal from Francis Ford Coppola, it’s not just the great American film, it is America.