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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in Steven Spielberg's upcoming "Lincoln."

The best of Spielberg


I'll be honest straight off the bat: I'm not looking forward to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." It looks great, and the cast's pedigree is outstanding (plus, it has to be better than "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), but every time I see a commercial or trailer, all I see is Oscar bait schmaltz.

When have I felt this sensation before? That's right; it was just last year when Spielberg's "War Horse" spawned the same feelings of overly sentimental goop. A little goes a long way, but with his last two features, the director's trademark sweetness has become a cloyingly saccharine syrup, drowning whatever genuine emotion the audience could feel.

Alas, maybe I'm being too cynical. Considering Spielberg's legendary resume is packed with blockbusters, family favorites, cinematic classics and challenging dramas, I should probably give him – and "Lincoln" – the benefit of the doubt. In fact, let's restore my faith in Spielberg by looking back at his five best films.

5. "Jaws"

I really wanted to put 2002's "Minority Report" in this spot. Spielberg's remarkably timely adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story is pretty close to exactly what I want from a science fiction movie: interesting ideas, intense action and unique visuals all placed in a universe that feels all too plausible.

You don't reinvent the summer blockbuster like "Jaws" did, however, and get left off this list. It's a historically significant film, but it also holds up incredibly well. The performances are great, the characters are memorable and it's still pretty scary, even when the roaring hunk of malfunctioning machinery finally shows its ugly face.

Plus, unlike a classic horror film like "The Exorcist," no other movies have been able to steal "Jaws"' thunder. While the barrage of exorcism and horror parody films have taken the shock out of Friedkin's supernatural battle of good versus evil, no movie has been able to really replicate "Jaws." Just ask its three sequels and its hilarious knock-offs (namely "Orca").

I may love "Minority Report," but thanks to its longevity and cultural importance, "Jaws"' toothy grin just barely beats out Tom Cruise's.

4. "Jurassic Park"

I may not be a seven-year-old anymore, but dinosaurs are still awesome. They're like fantasy creatures come to life, save for the fact that they were actually real. 1993's "Jurassic Park" does the seemingly impossible and brings the once mighty reptiles to life, making them just as majestic and spellbinding as they are terrifying and dangerous.

What's even more impressive, however, is how good and lifelike the dinosaurs look almost 20 years after its original release. The combination of animatronic puppets and (at the time) groundbreaking computer graphics seamlessly makes it seem like the dinosaurs are right there. It works as an advertisement for practical effects in this ever-expanding digital effects world, but most importantly, as a pitch-perfect example of Spielberg's wildly entertaining sense of adventure.

3. "Saving Private Ryan"

There were anti-war films before 1998's "Saving Private Ryan." Heck, "All Quiet on the Western Front" was released all the way back in 1930. Very few movies, however, took the varnish and glory off of warfare as memorably as Spielberg's WWII epic. From its now infamously unflinching 27-minute depiction of D-Day to its final massive showdown in Ramelle, Spielberg places the audience right in the middle of the ugliness and tragic chaos that is war.

No one gets a satisfying hero's death. Each horrid casualty (Hanks' heartbreakingly feeble attempt to shoot away a Nazi tank, another Nazi's slow stabbing of Adam Goldberg while Jeremy Davies cowers in fear a room away) hits the audience with a soul-sickening thud. Spielberg would later do the same thing in "Munich" with even less redemption at the end, but it's "Saving Private Ryan" that still serves as the ultimate cinematic punch to the gut of humanity.

2. "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is pure cinema. No, it's not a particularly complicated or complex movie, but as an action adventure movie with a fun character and great set-piece moments, it's timeless.

I suppose the best way to describe what's right with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is to talk about what's wrong with "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Instead of CGI, Spielberg's 1981 classic looks and feels like it's actually entering lost caves and ancient ruins (it really is amazing what a set can add to a movie, and what a green screen can take away). The action is just on the right side of ridiculous, the actors' performances feel fresh instead of rehashed and the adventure itself is the kind of fun, invigorating mystery that can keep you intrigued even after watching it for the 25th time. They just don't make adventure movies this genuine anymore. Well, they did once: "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

1. "Schindler's List"

It's strange that the movie that would appear on the topic spot on this list is also the only Spielberg film that I'd never want to see again. With its over-three-hour-long running time and impossibly sad subject matter, it's certainly not a film that instantly inspires multiple screenings. However, "Schindler's List" is a film that demands to be seen, and singes itself into the minds of those who sit through it. Watching it isn't like watching a film; it's like watching a chapter of history (albeit one of the worst chapters) unfold right before your eyes.

Spielberg's ultra-realistic newsreel-esque direction is anchored by two magnificent performances on both sides of the spectrum. Liam Neeson (whose stoic poise made for some great roles before he became an action hero) and Ralph Fiennes are terrific, magnetically playing good and evil respectively. They help ground a movie that's already remarkably grounded in the tragic reality that was the Holocaust. It's by no means a pleasant movie to watch, but as a brave, unblinking window into a horrible part of history, it is unmatched.

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