Right off the bat, Steven Spielberg was a crowd-pleaser.
He grew up making elaborate home movies and sneaked onto movie sets as a kid, which must have given him enough familiarity to excel the minute he settled into his first director's chair. I haven't seen all of the TV episodes he directed, starting with a "Marcus Welby, M.D." when he was 22. But his "Columbo," which aired in 1971 when he was 24, remains one of the best episodes of that classic series. "Duel," a thriller from the same year, would be on this list of his best movies if it hadn't debuted on TV.
Other directors have different goals, but the sense from Spielberg is that he makes movies he'd like to see. Fortunately, a lot of us have similar taste.
The knock on the director, who's also a prolific producer, is that he may be too eager to please, that he doesn't have a style of his own. He has had big budgets his entire career so he almost always works on a grand scale, although "The Fabelmans," the drama he's currently shooting sounds like an exception. He genre-hops from science fiction ("A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "War of the Worlds") to biopics ("Lincoln") to wayward comedies ("1941") to dramas ("Bridge of Spies") to romances that aren't all that romantic ("Always").
He's never been great at love stories, since his films' strongest relationships are between men and boys. In fact, only one of his 33 movies has a female protagonist — "The Color Purple." That one wasn't great and Spielberg also wasn't the right guy to make "Amistad" or "The Post" (fingers crossed for his first musical, the "West Side Story" reboot coming in December). But he can grab us with Hitchcocky thrillers ("Minority Report"), David Lean-esque epics ("Empire of the Sun") and Stanley Donen-style romps ("Catch Me If You Can").
With all the pleasure he has given us, who can quibble about a director who loves the movies he grew up on so much that he wants to create new ones for the rest of us to grow up on? Here are seven where he did that best.
Yes, Spielberg has done fantastic work with such child performers as Henry Thomas/Drew Barrymore ("E.T.") and Christian Bale ("Empire of the Sun"). But there are naysayers who claim the director is too kid-obsessed forgetting this masterpiece, in which children are nothing but shark chum? "Jaws" still holds up beautifully (it was a drive-in staple last summer) because Spielberg's command of pure movie technique grips us with every edit, reaction shot and bum-bum of John Williams' unnerving score.
It's a good reminder that film is collaborative. Various creators have assisted Spielberg repeatedly during his career, led by composer Williams (for a glimpse at how limply "Jurassic" might play without Williams' soaring score, check out the trailer accompanied by music from "Avatar"). Ads claimed it's "The greatest adventure of all time" and, if that's an overstatement, it's not by much. The suspense is relieved by humor and tender scenes such as Sam Neill trying to keep kids calm while they hide in a tree.
I always thought of this adventure as a gleeful tribute to the movie serials of Spielberg's youth, but that math is wrong. Most serials date to before Spielberg's 1946 birth and "Raiders' " villains, Nazis, had been vanquished by then. So "Raiders," in which an intellectual who has mad whip skills hunts down archaeological treasures while also saving the world, actually is the director's attempt to keep alive a cool thing that vanished before most moviegoers were born.
William Atherton is fine but he doesn't have much personality in this adventure, which is OK because Goldie Hawn has enough for two movies. She's a hoot as an ex-con on a cross-country crime spree, trying to reclaim her baby (the Coen brothers may have been thinking about this one when they wrote "Raising Arizona"). In a career that has been big from the get-go, "Sugarland" may be the only Spielberg movie that's something of a forgotten gem.
Like everyone, I admired it when it was released and like a lot of people, I've had no interest in enduring its rigors again. I did, finally, and realized I had forgotten that the early scenes have a sense of humor, including an improbable image of Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler doing jazz hands. It gets grim fast, but Spielberg's sober filmmaking — which earned him the first of two best director Oscars (the other is for "Saving Private Ryan") — foregrounds the humanity of the people imprisoned in concentration camps. Ben Kingsley is the standout, as a shy man who drives Schindler's shift from canny industrialist to philanthropist.
"I just want to know it's really happening," Richard Dreyfuss says in the thriller about humans awaiting the arrival of crafts from outer space. Spoiler alert: It is. Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and movie legend Francois Truffaut help Spielberg reclaim alien visitors from the they're-out-to-get-us mode of the 1950s. In "Close Encounters," it's all about wonder and love.
Based on a series of comics that means more in Europe than here, this they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to caper deserves to be rediscovered. After a decade in which Spielberg seemed to be striving to prove he could grapple with important subjects, he returned to a playful mode with his only animated movie, a globe-hopping romp about a young man, his clever dog and a mystery wrapped in a mystery.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367