Happy summer everyone! I hope you all had an enjoyable Father’s Day and Summer Solstice weekend. You may have spent two hours of it watching my favorite film that I praised once again in last week’s post. I’m still buzzing from the real start of Hollywood’s blockbuster season (and I’m not the only one according to Jurassic World‘s financial gains), so today I’ve assembled a list that focuses on the best part of a movie from the best line of work from the best filmmaker today. I’ve got a lot of favorite movies and movie makers, but it’s hard to argue against the incredible career of Steven Spielberg who sits atop them all in my mind, and I’m not the only one of that opinion either. So in honor of the man who has influenced so many aspects of cinema from special effects to casting to product placement to sticking with a good thing when you’ve got it (good luck finding many of his films not scored by John Williams, not edited by Michael Kahn, and not utilizing the effects team at ILM) I have compiled a top ten list of the best climactic scenes in movies directed by Spielberg. These aren’t my ten favorite Spielberg films, but my ten favorite scenes from the climax of one of his movies. I’m focusing on the climax – the fun part when the action ramps up and the story comes together at the end, i.e. the orgasm of the movie – because it’s the most critical part of the movie, and my favorite. Likewise, I’m looking at films that Spielberg has directed, not produced (unless he also directed it, which he frequently does) because directing is his favorite part of making movies. This means that Jurassic World will not be featured as Spielberg was an executive producer, but handed off directing duties to Colin Trevorrow, who did a bang-up job and featured a finale I would certainly place on this list for the sheer fun of it if I were including every project Spielberg has had a hand in. Finally, this list, which I will present in reverse order from #10-#1, represents my favorites, so if it doesn’t match yours don’t get mad, write your own blog. Oh, and I’ll do my best not to spoil anything, but considering I’ll be discussing the most critical juncture in these films you may want to refrain from reading about any you may not have seen.
10.) Minority Report (2002)
This science-fiction noir film was based on a story by sci-fi writing legend Philip K. Dick. Though not as good as Blade Runner, which also fits that criteria, the core of Minority Report is a refreshingly original concept and its cast, and of course direction, are superb. Set in a future where major crimes have been eliminated thanks to psychics who predict them before they happen, Minority Report features Tom Cruise as John Anderton, a detective in the pre-crime unit that enforces the law before it’s broken. Things gets hairy when the psychics, called pre-cogs, foresee Anderton killing a man, forcing him to go on the lam in a race to prove his innocence before his fellow officers can arrest him.
Anderton gets to the bottom of the mystery and realizes his friend and colleague Director Lamar Burgess (played perfectly by Max von Sydow) has framed him. In the scene below we see the moment where Anderton confronts Burgess and gives him the ballsy ultimatum to kill him or have the pre-crime system he runs exposed as imperfect. As it happens, one of the pre-cogs has a premonition of this showdown and it doesn’t end well for Anderton. Spielberg does a great job of zooming in on the action to keep us from seeing exactly what Burgess is doing with his pistol (ugh, sounds dirty).
9.) E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg loves his aliens and his horror, and he planned to put the two together when he first began working on E.T. He had already crafted a classic with benevolent aliens as the subject matter (we’ll get back to that), so the next step was a darker vision with scarier looking visitors from the stars terrorizing a suburban family. Originally called Night Skies, Spielberg even commissioned Rick Baker the monster maker to create a line of creatures for the film. However, he opted to split the project into two and shifted almost all the horror elements to a script called Poltergeist he worked with director Tobe Hooper on, while the alien visitor got his full attention and became more of a boy’s tale of growing up in modern society without a father or many friends.
Children like protagonist Elliott are more mature out of the necessity of their circumstances, and adults like his mother and the veritable hordes of scientists and government agents have less guidance and knowledge than they act like they do and are looking for answers in all the wrong ways. Newsflash authority figures: love is the key. And John Williams’ terrific score is the key to making the bike chase to the hills so memorable. The score enhances the childlike wonder we’re struck with at the sight of E.T. and all that he does. It really hits home during the heartfelt goodbye between the main characters who have bonded before us like few pairs in film have.
It took some digging, but I managed to find a clip from the original version with the shotguns.
8.) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
As I previously mentioned just a few paragraphs ago, Spielberg put together a film that focused on the nice guy aliens who don’t steal people away in the dark of night to probe (although they totally did steal some people away; some for a very long time!). Instead, these aliens captivate a number of people who chance a glance at their flying saucers and are left with a mental image of Devils Tower where they rush to find a government installation (also nice in this movie compared to E.T. and other films) set up to communicate with the aliens. After a jam session with the mothership (consult clip 1), a number of human volunteers go up, up, and away with their new friends to learn more about he mysteries of the universe.
Special effects abound in this magnificent spectacle for the eyes, and one of the most important and impressive scores in film to the film itself rings its melody through our ears in pleasant greeting. This score also marked the rare occasion where John Williams composed the music first and Spielberg shot scenes to fit it. Many directors who have had the pleasure of having Williams score their films have complimented him on his ability to match the music to the scene so that it feels like the music was made first, but in this case it actually was! Williams and Spielberg also happened to really like the five key “Hello” tone that they used in the final cut out of supposedly hundreds of tone orchestrations.
Hey! Those notes at the end sound like Williams’ score for the film Spielberg directed two years earlier!
7.) Amistad (1997)
This film was lost among the shuffle of late-90s Spielberg success. Sandwiched between The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, it is easily missed, but it should not be. Amistad tells the artistic-liberties-taken tale based on a real historical event in American history in the 1830s. Amistad is the name of a slave ship that is overtaken by its captives, men from the Mende tribe of present-day Sierra Leone. They sail on and land in the United States where they are imprisoned as escaped slaves. Fortunately for them, a team of abolitionists take their case to court, but it soon grows beyond their means and they seek help from a man more experienced in higher government. They find such a man in John Quincy Adams, the former President who is the son of America’s second President and Founding Father, John Adams. Played excellently by Anthony Hopkins, Adams gives the closing argument calling for the freedom of the enslaved people and delves into the human rights granted to all in America, even going so far as to say that if they cannot be granted then we must have a civil war for the last battle of the revolution. All the while, he discusses the importance of looking back to our Founding Fathers and our earlier, nobler selves, both of which are especially meaningful to Adams. I’ve included the speech which is split in these two clips. Fun fact: Anthony Hopkins did this in one take!
6.) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The second best of the Indiana Jones franchise, otherwise known as the only other really good one besides Raiders. Sean Connery joins the team as Indy’s father (despite only being 12 years older than Harrison Ford) who is searching for the fabled Holy Grail. Since this is an Indiana Jones movie, they find it, but they have to thwart the Nazis attempts to collect it. Indy is forced to work his way past the three trials which demand his best physical and mental sharpness, as well as faith. He succeeds and comes to this chamber:
The knight was meant to be played by Laurence Olivier, but he was sick at the time and couldn’t film. How sweet would that have been?! Nevertheless, the Grail guardian was a pretty cool dude and inspired my favorite high school English teacher to constantly repeat his solemn phrase, “He chose…poorly.”
5.) Schindler’s List (1993)
Without a doubt the most emotionally impactful film I’ve seen done by Spielberg or any filmmaker, it lays claim to the most emotionally gripping scene in this list. Based on the real-life exploits of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who used Polish Jews for cheap labor in his enamelware factory, yet eventually he made it his mission to employ them in order to save as many as possible from the death and horrors of concentration camps.
Here we see Schindler and his wife about to depart his factory to escape prosecution from the Soviets while his workers are gathered around him to give thanks. Schindler has trouble – to say the least – atoning for his lack of effort to give every last thing he owned away for the chance to save more.
4.) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
After racing the powers of evil that are the Nazis around the globe to get the Ark of the Covenant, Indiana Jones has seen better days. Tied to a pole with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Marion, he finds himself helpless to stop the bad guys from peeking inside the Ark and trying to channel the power of God to their will for world domination. Fortunately, it seems that God has other plans… and is quite angry, as well.
Bonus points for this closing scene that pays homage to Citizen Kane.
3.) Jaws (1975)
That’s right! I’m putting my favorite movie’s climax at #3! When you see the top two you’ll understand. And when you watch Jaws you’ll understand, as Spielberg did when he told it to novel author and screenwriter Peter Benchley, when you have the audience on the edge of their seat for two hours, you can do whatever you want with the last two minutes. This scene is also very well foreshadowed a few times.
2.) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg won his second Best Director Oscar (the first was for Schindler’s List) for this epic war film set amidst the invasion of Normandy and the aftermath. After D-Day, Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks in probably his best ever performance; definitely my favorite) is tasked with taking a small team in search of the last surviving of a group of four brothers all fighting in World War II. Much happens along the way, but when they finally find Private Ryan he doesn’t want to be saved and requests to stay and fight alongside his new band of brothers in the army. Captain Miller and the gang offer to help what’s left of Private Ryan’s depleted platoon hold back the advance of a German regiment rolling along with some tanks so long as Ryan stays out of the fighting enough to make it home to mom. The final battle in the broken town is on par with the intense opening on Omaha Beach, but the moment that seals it for me is when Miller makes his move to blow the bridge they’ve fallen back onto for the last stand. He does everything in his power to stop the tank from crossing the river, and when it is finally halted it seems miraculous. Classic Spielberg. It’s also great to see Corporal Upham (the sheepish translator) grow up. The second clip is the continuation of the end of the battle when Miller demands Ryan make the most of his life.
The first clip features the whole half hour battle, but you can skip to the part I’m talking about here.
1.) Jurassic Park (1993)
Trust me; I’m not just drunk off of Jurassic World when I declare this to be the best from a Spielberg climax. There is so much build-up of the majesty of the T. rex throughout the movie with well-timed reminders of her presence and power from the first sighting of her on-screen, so there has to be climax with her as the star of the show. What we get is that and so much more. The velociraptors have our human heroes trapped between the two of them after a lengthy chase that is starting to look like it was made in vain. But wait! Just as a raptor moves in for the leaping kill she is caught in the jaws of the tremendous tyrannosaur that arrives in the nick of time from out of seemingly nowhere! (Wait a minute! Was that wall always missing?) The again excellent John Williams score rouses up in grandeur that an animal named Rex deserves, and as the humans slip out and the other raptor attacks, she sets up the most memorable roar in film history. Why Universal didn’t make the roaring T. rex its opening logo as a “fuck you and your puny lion” to MGM, I’ll never know, but I do know that not just anyone can craft a shot like that with the banner rippling down. Thank you Spielberg and everyone involved in making that scene, that movie, and that magic.
Thanks for reading and watching! I hope you enjoyed the list and the films on it. Be sure to come back next week for a topic that even I don’t know what it is yet! In the meantime, direct your questions, comments, and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, happy birthday to Bruce Campbell! Thank you for some of the best one-liners and classic delivery. You truly are groovy.