War of the Worlds (2005)


Divorced stevedore Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two kids have to go on the run when huge, three-legged alien machines burst out of the ground and start killing people…

Seen before? Once, on BBC Three a few years ago.

Best performance: Dakota Fanning (playing Ray’s daughter) is astonishingly naturalistic for a 10-year-old. She’s equally terrific in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first appearance of an alien machine is brilliant – it’s a heady, seamless blend of practical effects, stunts, pyrotechnics and really good CGI. A few minutes later it’s topped by a scene in a speeding car, which is (on the face of it) all one extraordinary long take. Check it out here:


Review: Enjoyable for the most part. There are lots of wonderfully staged scenes and the first 90 minutes of the movie have an energetic momentum – both are necessary as the story is paper-thin. Once Tim Robbins turns up (part plot device, part Basil Exposition), it loses its way somewhat and the climax is a bit flat.

Seven crashed Boeing 747s out of 10.

The Terminal (2004)


Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks in his third Spielberg role) is from Krakozhia but gets stranded at JFK Airport when his country’s government is overthrown and his passport becomes invalid…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Stanley Tucci, an always classy actor who I passed in the street outside my office last week, plays airport boss Frank Dixon. (Catherine Zeta-Jones is in it too. Blimey, she’s an attractive woman, isn’t she?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The breezy montage where, so he can help his new pal Enrique, Victor’s trying to get information about customs official Dolores. She’s played by Zoë Saldana and – cutely, given Saldana’s later career – is a Star Trek fan.

Review: The Terminal is based on a true story (see Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s Wikipedia page) yet it still smacks of contrivance and implausibility. It’s whimsy, with a blunt rom-com thrown in seemingly as an afterthought. It’s not a disaster, by any means. Some of the humour works well (I liked the running gag about the janitor who enjoys watching people slip on his recently cleaned floors) and it does have some charm. But Spielberg movies are rarely dull, and this gets very close to joining Sugarland Express, Hook and The Lost World in that category. Perhaps it needed a more quirky approach – what would Wes Anderson or Terry Gilliam have done with this story? Something much more interesting, I’d wager.

Five prominently placed Burger King logos out of 10.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)


Frank Abagnale Jnr is a conman who defrauds banks and poses as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, all the while trying to evade FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Leonardo DiCaprio. I can’t buy him playing a 17-year-old, but then again few of the other characters believe he’s that young either.

Best scene/moment/sequence: When Hanratty tracks down Frank in an LA hotel… and Frank brazenly pretends to be a Secret Service agent.

Review: I liked this straight away – the Saul Bass-style titles, John Williams’s jazz score, the playful game-show opening scene. It’s exuberant stuff and it doesn’t let up. There’s also lots of lovely 1960s production design and a very funny James Bond gag. It really struck me how similar this film is to last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street. In both, DiCaprio plays a conman from a humble background who uses charm, smarts and dirty tricks to build himself an exciting, millionaire lifestyle. Catch Me If You Can, however, is far more successful – more vibrant, more dynamic, more fun and more likeable. Of all the #SpielbergWatch movies so far that I hadn’t previously seen, I enjoyed this one the most.

Nine Jennifer Garner cameos out of 10.

Minority Report (2002)


In 2054, pre-crime cop John Anderton – a policeman who uses psychics to predict when people will commit murder – is himself implicated in a crime he’s investigating…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Tom Cruise plays an honourable, upstanding man who fights for what he believes in but isn’t afraid to bend the rules and who has an inner darkness due to a tragedy in his past. There *might* be cliché at work here. Colin Farrell is very irritating, but at least for once he’s meant to be.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The plot lurches into a higher, more interesting gear when Anderton realises he’s seeing a future projection of himself committing a murder.

Review: Spielberg’s second sci-fi in a row. But whereas AI was beautifully clear, clean and precise, this is all washed-out photography, dirty handheld camerawork and harsh lighting. The presentation of a convincing futuristic world is probably the movie’s most successful aspect. Part dystopian, part neo-noir, with flashes of Blade Runner, Clockwork Orange and Total Recall, it feels palpable and interesting. However, I find the film’s plotting – a lead character with a dead son, an avuncular mentor who turns out to be evil, a kooky character who turns up halfway through and fills in the backstory – a bit mechanical. It also runs out of steam after Anderton catches up with his vision. The final section is very dreary. There’s a theory that the film’s ending is actually all in Anderton’s imagination: I’m not convinced by that. But it is fun clocking just how many references there are in the dialogue to eyes, seeing, watching, eyeballs, blindness…

Seven interactive Gap adverts out of 10.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)


A new type of robot, a child capable of love, is adopted by a couple – but the robot, David, soon finds himself alone and on the run…

Seen before? Yes, on 26 September 2001 at the UCI Derby.

Best performance: David is played by Haley Joel Osment (the best Anakin Skywalker we never got). He’s simultaneously innocent and creepy, adorable and unsettling, familiar and unusual. And he never at any point blinks.

Best scene/moment/sequence: “I love you, David.”

Review: The look of this film is simply stunning – freeze-frame any random moment and you could hang the resulting image in a gallery. It’s Spielberg letting his peerless imagination loose with camera, lights, filters, smoke, shadows and budget. Wonderful production design and cinematography lead us through the film’s three discrete sections: a cold, clinical, quiet and airy opening (childhood); a grimy, gritty, seedy and almost post-apoc middle (growing up); and a lyrical, fairy-tale ending (death). Each one is, in its own way, *entrancing*. There’s real emotional substance here. It’s a film about some heavy subjects – love, identity, innocence, guilt, motherhood, belonging, human rights, cruelty… It has one of the best juvenile leads in cinema history. It’s challenging and demanding and emotional. It’s probably Spielberg’s strangest film. It’s certainly his most underrated.

Ten blue fairies out of 10.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)


When a soldier’s three brothers are all killed in action during the Second World War, the US army sends a team into France to locate him…

Seen before? Yes, at the flicks in 1998.

Best performance: What struck me most about the cast was just how many faces there are that I recognise from other things. As well as Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Ted Danson, there’s Tom Sizemore (Heat, True Romance), Barry Pepper (Enemy of the State), Adam Goldberg (Chandler’s bonkers flatmate in Friends and also recently Fargo), Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious), Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe’s brother in Friends), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Paul Giamatti (Downton Abbey), Dennis Farina (Out of Sight), Corey Johnson (Doctor Who), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Leland Orser (Seven), Bryan Cranston (Seinfeld)…

Best scene/moment/sequence: The final battle to defend the bridge. It’s 26 minutes of sustained action, tension and horror.

Review: When Saving Private Ryan was released, I was just starting my degree in Film and Television Studies – so, given my mindset at the time, perhaps I’ll always view it in terms of its cinematic techniques. And I think they are the film’s biggest success. There are numerous long, handheld takes; shutter speeds and lens sizes are cleverly varied to help sell the reality/immediacy of war; and – if you’ll allow me to use a pretentious analytical phrase – the mise-en-scène is *constantly* interesting, inventive and illuminating. The storytelling is stunningly, winningly precise. It does get rather sentimental at times – Captain Miller’s stories about his life back in America are twee, for example – but it’s also not afraid to show dubious behaviour on both sides of the war.

Eight FUBARs out of 10.

Amistad (1998)


African slaves overpower their captors and head home, but are soon arrested, taken to America and charged with murder. Their trial becomes a cause célèbre…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: In the second half of the film, Anthony Hopkins gets plenty of fruity screen time playing former president John Quincy Adams. Peter Firth is also worth mentioning for his small but enjoyably deadpan role as a Royal Navy officer.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening five minutes – Cinqué and others breaking free and taking over the slave ship – is the movie’s most cinematic sequence. Set at night, with little dialogue, it grabs your attention straight away.

Review: Involving stuff – part historical epic, part courtroom drama. The religious symbolism perhaps gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but on the whole it’s a very entertaining movie.

Eight Matthew McConaugheys out of 10.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)


Wait, what? There was *another* island with dinosaurs on it?! Shit!

Seen before? Just the once, at the cinema in 1997.

Best performance: One of my favourite actors, Richard Schiff, plays laconic team member Eddie Carr. He’s beardless in this, unlike everything else I’ve seen him in. (By the way, who in their right mind thinks Vince Vaughn being in a film is a good idea?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: Like the first movie, it’s the T-Rex attack that impresses the most. Here, it’s while the characters are hiding in their multi-unit techno-trailer, which ends up dangling off the edge of a cliff.

Review: A big disappointment. Did Spielberg think he had to get to the dinos as quickly as possible? That would explain the film’s fumbled and rushed opening. The plot is based on inelegant ret-conning of the first movie, contrivances and perfunctory set-up. Characters almost turn to the camera and whisper, “Don’t ask. Just go with it.” Early on, we also get camoes from Jurassic Park characters John Hammond (there solely to give us exposition) and his grandkids (totally pointless). There are, it must be said, flashes of Spielberg brilliance throughout – some deaths are inventively staged, for example, while dinosaurs stalking their prey in the long grass is a great image. Watching this, I had what I thought was a revolutionary idea. I realised it’s basically a remake of King Kong: loosely the same story, the same structure, and a very similar final act in a US city. There’s even a character intent on filming the creature/s in situ. Did Spielberg actually want to make his version of Kong, but couldn’t get the rights so did this instead? (Peter Jackson was in pre-production on an aborted attempt in 1996/97.) Of course, one Google later, and I see that every single person ever has already spotted these similarities. But that final half-hour in San Diego did make me wish the whole film had been like that – it’s playful, tongue-in-cheek and bonkers, and much more fun than the tepid, lifeless retread of the first movie we get for 90 minutes.

Six shoehorned-in lines of dialogue about the little girl being a gymnast in order to set up a scene later on when she uses her parallel-bar skills to kick a dinosaur’s arse… out of 10.

Schindler’s List (1993)


A German profiteer opens a factory during the Second World War and uses his position to protect Jews in Nazi-controlled Poland and Czechoslovakia…

Seen before? Yes, at the cinema in 1993. I was a year too young for a ‘15’, so lied about my age to get in.

Best performance: Has there ever been a more chilling portrayal of pure evil than Ralph Fiennes’s turn as Nazi cunt Amon Goeth?

Best scene/moment/sequence: The ‘liquidisation of the ghettos’. It’s a huge sequence, covering hundreds of characters and a massive area of a town, but it’s the personal moments that especially hit you in the gut: most famously, Oskar Schindler’s dreadful epiphany when he spots a young girl in the mayhem.

Review: It’s a tough watch, but a necessary one. The terror rises inexorably over the first half. At first, the cruelty and violence are shocking and sudden; then they become sickeningly commonplace. Spielberg’s direction – for which he finally won an Oscar – is controlled, unshowy, focused. Liam Neeson is excellent in the lead role. Some say the ending gets too sentimental; I don’t agree.

10 red coats out of 10.

Jurassic Park (1993)


Two paleontologists and a mathematician are given a preview of a unique new theme park, to see whether it’s viable. Things go wrong when the exhibits – cloned dinosaurs – start to escape…

Seen before? Yes, three or four times now. I first saw it at the cinema when it came out, having accepted and completed my mum’s challenge to read the novel in the week before we went to the flicks.

Best performance: Jeff Goldblum plays chaotician Ian Malcolm: it’s very possibly the most Jeff Goldblum-appropriate bit of casting imaginable.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The T-Rex attack, which comes about halfway through the film, is a stunning action sequence. It begins with the now famous rumbles of sound and shaking glasses of water. It’s tense and scary. And it features one of the best ever combinations of CGI and real photography (seriously: even after 21 years it’s seamless). Superb stuff.

Review: I fear familiarity may have dulled a) what a killer idea for an adventure film this is – what a great twist on the disaster-movie format – and b) just how mind-bogglingly impressive the special effects are (both CGI and practical). When Jurassic Park came out, it felt revolutionary. It still does. In 2014, when there are countless CGI-heavy films available, few (if any) are as crafted, integrated and classy as this. In Spielberg’s hands, photo-real dinosaurs are simultaneously a tool for telling story *and* a spectacle within themselves – as characters look up in awe at a Brachiosaurus, so do we; as they flee for their lives from Velociraptors, our heartbeat goes mental. His sense of endless wonder is very evident throughout. The story is simple, but we’re in the company of a likeable cast – even the two brats aren’t too bad. And there are good, know-what-they’re-doing actors in supporting roles (Wayne Knight, Samuel L Jackson, Bob Peck). This is a blockbuster of a B-movie. Sensationally entertaining.

10 mosquitoes incased in amber out of 10.