Saturday, August 31, 2013

Best Spielberg Produced Movies

Steven Spielberg is best known as a director, but he has had a career that is just as good if not better as a producer.  Since the early eighties the master filmmaker has been a producer or executive producer on many movies that he did not direct.  Spielberg gave his star power and experience to many up and coming directors who benefitted from his guidance and good name.  Many of these movies seem inspired by his own movies featuring the same heart, adventure and fantasy as well as themes of childhood and positive uses of special effects.  There are still movies Spielberg has produced I have yet to see (Letters from Iwo Jima being the one I haven't that would probably make this list), but here are twenty great ones that every one should watch or watch again.

20. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990, directed by John Patrick Shanley)
I have only seen this one once and do not remember a whole lot from it, but I would like to view it again.  This movie was polarizing to some and not very successful, but it has grown a large following and the late Roger Ebert was very passionate about it.  This is one of Tom Hanks' early dramatic leading roles and Meg Ryan does very well playing three characters.  Very different from what we usually associate with Spielberg, but still a good movie with his name on it. 

19. Monster House (2006, directed by Gil Kenan)
Much better than Cars or Happy Feet (which beat this fun movie at the Oscars).  This motion capture feature was produced by Robert Zemeckis (who pushed the technique with Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol) and of course Steven Spielberg (who later used mocap to create the sadly forgettable The Adventures of Tintin).  This is my favorite motion capture movie because the creepy look of the technology fits a children's ghost story.  The human characters who live in an eerie suburbia don't look quite right and that is to the film's advantage.  The atmosphere and the animation on the house makes this a great scary movie suitable for younger audiences but also enjoyable to older ones.

18. Super 8 (2008, directed by J.J. Abrams)
A friend of mine explained this movie as a fun throwback that can't be as good as the real thing.  This is a loving homage to early eighties Spielberg but lacks the ambition of his early films.  Abrams still does a good job and the father and son relationship in the movie is very touching.  Kyle Chandler gives a stand-out performance that is unfortunately overlooked.  The film, while enjoyable, falters a bit as it takes a movie very much about a boy and switches the focus to a less interesting alien.

17. Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (1992)
This was direct-to-video but I am including it since I am not listing Spielberg's television productions (which would include the excellent Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain and Freakazoid!.).  Spielberg has had a hand in producing many influential cartoons (as evidenced by this list) and helped to bring back Warner Bros. animation with their superb early nineties cartoons.  This spin-off of Tiny Toons keeps the fun and energy of the series and uses the feature length format to include more gags.

16. Road to Perdition (2002, directed by Sam Mendes)
This is one of a few films that Spielberg was an uncredited producer on, I am unsure how involved he was or if that was just a formality for some movies that Dreamworks SKG made.  I will include it anyway because I like the movie and it tells one of the most unconventional father-son stories in a Spielberg film.  The father being Tom Hanks (playing beautifully against his likable type as a hitman).  This was also the last great role of the late Paul Newman who earned a deserved final Oscar nomination.

15. Real Steel (2011, directed by Shawn Levy)
People I knew hated this movie when they heard about it.  My response was, "how is Hugh Jackman and a kid teaching a robot to box not going to be awesome?"  The movie works better than you would expect because first and foremost it is the story of a deadbeat dad making good, secondly it is the story of a washed up athlete and finally it is awesome special effects.  This is one of Hugh Jackman's best performances and Shawn Levy does a surprisingly good job at directing.  This is one of my favorite recent uses of special effects as the practical effects and computer generated ones complement each other seamlessly.  The robots feel real and do not come across as excessive or forced as most modern special effects movies do.  I would urge you to give this one a chance, it really surprised me and I have loved it every time I've watched it.  I mean it features a kid teaching a robot how to dance.  Your first cynical adult instinct may be to think that is corny and terrible, but deep inside you know that sounds awesome.

14. Balto (1995, directed by Simon Wells)
A sadly forgotten animated movie from the early nineties.  After Don Bluth and Disney proved that the animated feature could be wildly successful every studio in Hollywood tried to jump on the bandwagon, often to little critical and commercial success.  This is the best film from Spielberg's short-lived Amblimation studio (the other movies being Fievel Goes West and We're Back!:  A Dinosaur's Story).  Just a terrific underdog (pun partially intended) story with a lot of heart and exciting adventure.  Not quite a cult classic, but very deserving of that status.

13. Mask of Zorro (1998, directed by Martin Campbell)
One of the best adventure movies of the past few decades.  Martin Campbell directs an exciting and funny film featuring a charming Antonio Banderas, stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones and a surprisingly unoffensive Anthony Hopkins.  The fight choreography is creative and well shot and edited.  And the film features one of the sexiest meet-cutes in film history.  It is a shame that the sequel Legend of Zorro did not fare nearly as well, because there are too few movies as lively and entertaining as this swashbuckler.

12. An American Tail (1986, directed by Don Bluth)
Don Bluth's first animated feature Secret of NIMH was a huge step forward in animation but failed because of competition with E.T.  But as fate would have it Spielberg loved the film and put his name and producing power behind Bluth's next feature.  This cartoon really pushed the industry forward and proved that an animated feature not made by Disney could find an audience.  The story still tugs on heartstrings and is remembered fondly by the many children who grew up with it.

11. Men in Black (1997, directed by Barry Sonnefeld)
Like a lot of these movies this film clearly owes a lot to Spielberg's earlier work but MiB works as it really tapped into the sensibilities of the nineties.  The special effects hold up and the look of the movie is unmistakable.  The leads are cast perfectly with Will Smith solidifying his leading man power and Tommy Lee Jones giving an underrated understated comedic performance.  The script is smart and the comedy is handled sincerely.  I am one of the few who also likes Men in Black 2, although I was extremely let down by last year's Men in Black 3.

10. Goonies (1995, directed by Richard Donner)
A great child's adventure story.  Everything about the settings and the logic of this movie seems to come right out of a child's imagination and the dynamics of the cast with the world and each other are very natural.  The honesty and fun of the film makes it play with audiences of all ages.  Just a one of a kind family movie that is difficult to replicate.

9. Cape Fear (1991, directed by Martin Scorsese)
Not Scorsese's best, but I still really love it.  Originally Spielberg was set to direct this remake while Marty was set to make Schindler's List.  Scorsese felt that the film required a Jewish director so they switched projects and Spielberg stayed on as a producer.  Cape Fear works well with Scorsese's sensibilities and is one of the last truly great Robert De Niro roles.

8. Gremlins (1984, directed by Joe Dante)
The perfect balance between scary and funny.  It does not take the frights too seriously, but it also does not play the comedy too loosely.  The movie has elements of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Chris Columbus all working together perfectly to create a very unique, memorable film.  It is really dark but still really absurd.  Can't imagine anyone else making this movie work or even attempting to.  Where else are you going to find movie monsters stuck in cartoony gags and a sympathetic lead character telling a messed up story about Christmas?  It is for adults, but adults really need to think like kids to enjoy it.  Also the puppeteering on the Gremlins is perfect.

7. True Grit (2010, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
In some ways this is one of the best recent movies for family audiences.  Definitely use discretion in showing this to a child (I mean someone's fingers gets cut off).  But just like the best in family entertainment it features a strong child character interacting with adults.  The Coen Brothers wrote an amazing script for their adaptation and low key western which is executed beautifully by Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and especially Josh Brolin.  The former Goonie gives one of my favorite performances of all time as the villain in a small, but vital role.  This movie gets better every time I see it and although it does not seem like a Spielberg movie it does make sense that his name is associated with this child's adventure.

6. Prince of Egypt (2008, directed by Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells and Steve Hickner)
This was Jeffery Katzenberg's passion project, but Spielberg came up with the idea of animating the Ten Commandments and he was an uncredited producer.  This is really a perfect film that has unfortunately become somewhat forgotten.  The songs are memorable, it is full of action and a lot of drama.  There are stand-out scenes such as the chariot race and Moses' nightmare told by Egyptian paintings.  Ralph Fiennes delivers an incredible vocal performance and this movie just came to Netflix look it up.

5. Land Before Time (1988, directed by Don Bluth)
My personal favorite Don Bluth movie.  Spielberg and his co-producer George Lucas had clashed with Don Bluth on numerous things but they all worked out for the best.  This was the most successful non-Disney animated feature of its time and still holds up.  It is touching, funny and exciting all complemented by beautiful animation and a memorable score.  I grew up with this and many of its sequels, but this is the only movie in the series I really remember or even have an interested in re-watching.  One of the best dinosaur movies ever made.

4. Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper)
This movie knows how to do horror right.  I usually don't like horror because I don't care, jump scares get old and cheap gimmicks are not a good reason to make a movie.  But Poltergeist, which Spielberg had a very strong hand in creating to the point that it is in question how much he directed, takes its time to develop its setting and characters.  We are familiar with the house and it pays off when the horror very gradually starts.  Most of the scares come from basic emotions rather than shock value.  The film also has so many memorable motifs, as simple as static on TV is it is a great theme to build a scary movie around.  This one was so influential and everything about it holds up.

3. Shrek (2001, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson)
Not sure if I should be ranking this so high as Spielberg was uncredited on this film, but Shrek really is a great movie.  It may be easy to forget how good it is because it lead to many movies which tried to copy its adult appeal.  But what its imitators and sequels did not get was its heart and relatability.  Shrek is a sympathetic character that we root and feel for.  This is one of the most influential animated features of all time and it is another example of Spielberg's influence on the film industry even if was not as directly involved in this Dreamworks blockbuster.

2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, directed by Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams)
Just perfect in every possible way.  Visually it never ceases to impress and it remains one of the funniest  comedies ever on film.  This is a perfect storm of talent with Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, the Disney animators, Richard Williams and the perfectly cast Bob Hoskins.  This movie has a feel and energy that has never been truly replicated and it is one of the most ambitious movies ever attempted.

1. Back to the Future (1985, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
An absolute masterpiece and better than most of the movies Spielberg himself has directed.  This tells a great story with perfect elements of sci-fi, comedy, fantasy, teen angst and family drama.  Time travel has never been better on film than when it involves a Delorean.  The cast is perfect with Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas Wilson and of course the main duo of the iconic Christopher Lloyd and enduringly likable Michael J. Fox.  Even though the sequels are not as well loved as the original this is one of the few trilogies that is consistent in quality (Toy Story being the only other comparable series).  Easily the best of the many great Spielberg produced classics.

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