From Day For Night (1973) to Seven Samurai (1954), here are 10 favorite Steven Spielberg movies.
Call him the Imagination Magician. Or the King of the Action-Adventure. Whichever moniker, one fact remains: few directors tap into the modern cultural zeitgeist like Steven Spielberg. He was one of the hottest New Hollywood directors to enter the scene in the 1970s. Spielberg’s movies have captured our heart, soul, and sometimes even our body. (Cue the super-fan glued to his couch enjoying an all-day binge-watch.)
Aside from being the most commercially successful director in all of moviedom (i.e., the most lucrative), Spielberg’s 40+ year career has always stood for quality. He’s won three Oscars – Best Director and Best Picture for 1993’s Schindler’s List, and Best Director for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. He’s directed blockbusters like Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and the Indiana Jones franchise (1981-2008). So, what movies helped make Spielberg into the amazing storyteller that he is? Like many filmmakers, he’s a lover of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, a film that has been cited as a main inspiration for him to start making movies. Meanwhile, here are 10 other Spielberg’s favorite films.
1. Dumbo (1941)
No surprise that the highly imaginative Spielberg would choose a Disney cartoon classic as a favorite film. Cartoons are just for kids? Not so, says Spielberg. Dumbo, the story of a little circus elephant named Jumbo Junior who’s born with over-sized ears, is a heartwarming tale. Though like any good drama, cartoon or otherwise, it’s not without its conflict. There’s the bullying by others about Jumbo Junior’s large ears. There’s also the separation between Mom and Jumbo Junior. This film is a colorful circus rollercoaster ride (pun intended). It pulls at our heartstrings in the most expert way. Bonus, the sweet illustrated rendering of these animated characters is masterful – for a 1940s cartoon or even a 2022 one. Many a heart has been melted by the big droopy-eared and sad-eyed Jumbo Junior, who was cruelly nicknamed Dumbo. No major spoilers, but Dumbo, like many Disney cartoons, has a happy ending. So “all’s well that ends well” in the land of baby elephants. Phew!
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
Taking a hard turn from the cartoon fantasy of Dumbo, here’s a grown-up film of epic proportions. Calling all Orson Welles lovers. Citizen Kane is a film that consistently tops “Best Films” lists everywhere. It’s in the ranks of Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942). Orson Welles co-wrote the script, produced and directed the film, and starred in it. The result is a masterpiece in storytelling, narrative structure, and cinematography technique. (Cue the exciting “deep focus” technique.) Behold the mystery behind an elderly publishing tycoon named Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and his final word – “Rosebud.” What does it mean? And why is he uttering it on his deathbed?
Thoroughly engrossing, Citizen Kane takes us alongside the folks that captured this famous publisher’s final word, as they attempt to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” There are superb twists and turns, reminding us at every juncture just how complex each individual is, and most especially a prominent tycoon.
3. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey, a successful small-town businessman and family man, doubts his success. He becomes distraught to the point of suicide. But with the help of an angel one snowy Christmas, he learns through a dream just how precious and valuable his life actually is. Yes, it’s one of the most uplifting Christmas stories of all time, and one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time. But, it’s also just a brilliant film in its own right. In fact, the American Film Institute has named this film #1 in its ranking of the most inspirational American films of all time. No wonder Spielberg is a big-time fan.
Spielberg has “brought the inspo” consistently in his films. His movies like The Color Purple (1985) and Always (1989) definitely come to mind when pondering Spielberg’s love of It’s a Wonderful Life. This film takes its time, and unfolds poignantly. Grab the tissues!
4. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
This film reminds us of Spielberg’s two Oscar-winning movies (1993’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan), both of which are World War II dramas. Here, we have a story about what happens “after” World War II has ended. It’s a touching human drama about three veterans returning home to the USA from war overseas, and learning to adjust to their family, friends, and community again. Though Spielberg is the master at “imaginative action-adventure” evidenced by Jaws (1975), the Indiana Jones franchise (1981 -2008), and other films, it can’t be overlooked that his most critically acclaimed work has been in “realism.”And The Best Years of Our Lives is a great example of realism. Beautifully and delicately acted by stars Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Myrna Loy, this one is a must-see. It was Hollywood’s highest grossing film since Gone With the Wind in 1939.
5. Seven Samurai (1954)
Call it the best movie in legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s illustrious career. It’s easy to understand why Spielberg would choose any Akira Kurosawa film as a fave. At face value, Seven Samurai, set in feudal Japan (roughly 1200-1600 AD), is about a poor farming village that enlists the help of samurai to stave off threatening bandits. But the brilliance of Seven Samurai lies in all its nuance, philosophy, and character revelations. There’s even deep symbolism with the weather. Yes, think rain and wind. Seven Samurai is full of ambiance and heart. It’s a rich story which Akira Kurosawa delivers gorgeously on-screen. Factoid – Seven Samurai was the inspiration for Hollywood’s Magnificent Seven film in 1960. Hollywood paid high respect to this classic Japanese director and his brilliant 1954 film. So, too, does Spielberg.
6. Psycho (1960)
Every great director has a favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. By all accounts, this is Spielberg’s. Arguably a bit dark (understatement) for Spielberg’s renowned optimism, Psycho is still unquestionably one of cinema’s all-time best films. A story about an on-the-run woman who stops off one rainy night at a motel, and then encounters its truly odd “innkeeper,” Psycho has been eliciting blood-curdling screams from its audience for decades. It’s a beautifully shot black and white film – so much so that its audience, were it not for all the brilliant horror in this movie, would undoubtedly be piping up about its quality light and shadow, camera angles, and more.
It’s a genius movie in every sense of the word. Hitchcock, forever the Master of Suspense, is perhaps at his horror best in Psycho. No spoilers, but this movie sneaks up on its audience at multiple times. So be prepared. Both horror and non-horror aficionados beware.
7. West Side Story (1961)
Cue Spielberg’s most recent movie – 2021’s highly successful, Oscar-nominated West Side Story. We all know that Spielberg loves color, energy, and action. And legend has it that West Side Story was Spielberg’s favorite musical growing up. He first fell in love with the album from the 1957 musical stage production, where he vowed to one day make his own film. And there’s a lot to love about Hollywood’s 1961 West Side Story. As mentioned, the color, energy, and action alone are spellbinding.
The song, dance, and even costumes are beyond spirited. Then add in the compelling story of a gang war between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the White Jets, and this modern Romeo & Juliet New York City “street story” becomes next level. West Side Story won 1962’s Best Picture Oscar. To this day, it has loyal legions of fans obsessed with all facets of its radiance.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
We can’t help but get major Spielberg movie vibes when watching this one. Spielberg’s beloved sci-fi alien film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) definitely helps us to understand his love for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Time and time again this movie is referred to as “the ultimate” in sci-fi, and most definitely intergalactic sci-fi. Made in 1968 by director Stanley Kubrick, it seems to have laid out the royal red carpet for all sci-fi that came after it. A story about a big imposing monolith that survives from prehistoric times to the future, and has a mysterious significance to the fate of humanity, this movie is like a psychedelic 1960s LSD drug trip.
It’s a singular viewing experience, with precious little dialogue, a whole lot of classical music, and magnificent mind-blowing visuals. This movie takes us across space and time, and leaves us with a multitude of mind-bending questions that are deep and poetic. Nothing like this film. Factoid – acclaimed director Martin Scorsese is also a big fan.
9. The Godfather (1972)
A movie that burst on to the New Hollywood scene around the same time as Spielberg was coming up, The Godfather is fellow New Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola’s crowning jewel. It won 1973’s Best Picture Oscar, and has topped “Best Films” lists year after year. What’s more, its sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part II, stands as the first sequel in all of movie history to win the Best Picture Oscar. Unbelievably high honor. Starring Old Hollywood great Marlon Brando in the title role, Brando’s character essentially passes the Italian Mafia “organized crime” torch on to his son Michael Corleone, played by New Hollywood up-and-comer Al Pacino.
Yes, this movie is symbolically significant both on and off-screen. It’s a long movie, a complex one. It’s dramatic and violent. But, it’s undoubtedly one of the finest movies of all time. The Godfather is the first installment of a film trilogy that has long-stood the test of time.
10. Day For Night (1973)
For cinema lovers who like to peek behind the scenes of moviemaking, this film is for you. It’s a winner with Spielberg, too. Directed by acclaimed French director Francois Truffaut, and Oscar recipient of 1974’s Best Foreign Language Film, Day for Night is a rollicking dramedy. It has a lot to say about human nature as it pertains to movies and fame, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Therein lies its charm. Francois Truffaut stars in the film. He plays a director (good casting choice) who’s trying to make a movie. So, we get to see all the trials, tribulations, quirks, and hang-ups of his delightfully entertaining cast and crew. We’re on the road, on set, and behind closed doors in what’s often referred to as “the best movie about movie making.”
Factoid – Spielberg loved this film and its director so much that he asked Francois Truffaut to act in his own film, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Yes, look for him. He’s there!
There we are! These are some of Spielberg’s favorite films. Exciting in their variety, Steven Spielberg’s favorite movies (and there are more) beg for a binge-watch. From animated fantasy, to poignant drama, psychedelic sci-fi, and more, these movies span the colors of the rainbow. And from them, we get a further glimpse into Spielberg’s dazzling imagination, and what has possibly influenced him in his own superb body of work. Hungry for a movie treat this Saturday night? Delicious dessert is served, compliments of Spielberg.
I was once an exec for a prominent financial magazine. GDP what??? Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.