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Peak Decades

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As every decade has its own flavor, its own vibe, I thought it would be interesting to see when some prominent directors/actors were doing their best work. Sometimes its easy- while Francis Ford Coppola has been making movies since the late 60’s, it is clear that the 1970’s were his peak decade (and possibly the best run that any director will ever have- Godfather 1 and 2, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now). There can’t even be an argument there, right?

But what about other artists who have been working for a while?  Was there a particular decade in which they were doing their best work?

The criteria is as follows:

  1. The artist had to have been active in their field for at least three full decades.
  2. Artistic merit only, and by that I mean my opinion of artistic merit.  Not gonna worry about the decade they were most financially successful.  This will change which decade Nicolas Cage did his best work, for instance.
  3. While I will list everything the person has done in each decade, I will compare what I think are the best three.  There will probably be a few I haven’t seen, and will note those as well.
  4. I will only look at complete decades- no “Decades in Progress.”

That’s it.  We’ll start off looking at a biggie, Steven Spielberg.  Steve has been making films since the early 1970’s with the release of Duel, right up through the current date, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, his last directorial effort to date.

Spielberg is obviously a giant, but in what decade did he peak?  Let’s take a lookie.

The 1970s:

Directed: Duel, Sugarland Express, Jaws. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941

Best 3:   Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Worst:  1941

Immediately, I will admit to not having seen Sugarland Express, so if that movie is fantastic, I apologize for not including it.  Originally a Made-for-TV movie, Duel (1971) immediately announced Spielberg’s talent, pitting a weakling driver against a never-seen evil truck driver in a vehicular cat-and-mouse game in the southwest.  Very suspenseful.

Full disclosure- Jaws (1975) is my favorite movie of all time.  It is about as perfect as a movie gets, combining the verisimilitude and naturalistic acting that was a hallmark of the 1970s with the crowd-pleasing popcorn movies that Spielberg would perfect in the 1980s.  Great, great, great.

Close Encounters (1977) began his career-long love affair with all things extra terrestrial.  It still holds up, although it is a bit slow and you do have to like Richard Dreyfuss to fully get on board. Still, it has some of the best set pieces he ever directed, including the arrival of the mother ship and the kidnapping of little Barry.

1941 (1979) was terrible, though. Spielberg’s first (and only) attempt at broad comedy, this recreation of the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor was long, boring, and worst of all, not at all funny.

The 1980s:

Directed: Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun,  Always, Indiana Jones and Last Crusade

Best 3:  Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun

Worst:  Always

Any decade where a director can help to create a character as iconic as Indiana Jones is a good one.  Raiders (1981) is the high water mark of the Indiana Jones series, but Temple of Doom and Last Crusade also deserve mention here. These movies proved that Spielberg was one of the best, if not THE best, action directors out there.  The opening of Raiders is still 15 of the best minutes you’ll see in any movie, ever.

ET (1982) was just as exciting as Raiders, but was clearly closer to Spielberg’s heart.  A barely-disguised movie about friendship in the midst of divorce, ET was a successful creatively as it was financially.  I think this was the first (and one of the few) movie that made me cry.

If you don’t include the Indiana Jones series, Empire of the Sun (1987) was Spielberg’s first foray into World War II.  It was also one of his first “serious” movies, where he began to show that he was capable of more than just summer popcorn fodder. Empire came right on the heels of The Color Purple, but I think it is the stronger movie.  It is also one of his most underrated and under-seen movies. Plus, it gave us Christian Bale in his first performance.

Always (1989) was a re-teaming with Richard Dreyfuss for the first time since Close Encounters. A remake of A Guy Named Joe, it was the story the ghost of a dead pilot who helps his former girlfriend find a new love. I remember seeing this in the theater and realizing that even Spielberg was capable of making DOA movies.  Always just sort of lays there, flat and listless.  Then it ends.

The 1990s:

Directed: Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Amistad, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan

Best 3:  Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan

Worst:  Hook

The 1990s was the decade when Spielberg began to switch up his crowd-pleasers with movies that were more adult-oriented.  In 1993, though, he proved that he could still make a badass summer movie with Jurassic Park.  The special effects were revolutionary, the thrills were thrilling, and… well, come on, dinosaurs come to life!  Of course it was a hit.  Jurassic Park shares some DNA with Jaws, although it lacks the characters of the earlier movie (with the possible exception being Jeff Goldblum, who kinda steals the movie).

If we were picking a year that Spielberg peaked, 1993 should be a contender.  Not only did he prove himself (yet again) at the box office with Jurassic Park, he also won his first directing Oscar with his most personal movie to date, Schindler’s List.  This story of the Holocaust proved that he could handle not only adult-fare, but also some of the touchiest subject matter around.  Equally horrifying and moving, Spielberg made one of those movies that is spoken of in hushed tones.  Hard to list it as a “favorite,” but is undeniably one of his best.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) is like that, too.  I mentioned earlier the opening 15 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark– well, the opening 25 or so minutes of Saving Private Ryan are perhaps the gnarliest, most intense minutes ever committed to film.  Again, not really “enjoyable,” but once seen, never forgotten. The rest of the movie is pretty good, too, although never reaching the heights of what is accomplished at the outset.  It also marked Spielberg’s collaboration with Tom Hanks, which continues to this day (they just co-produced HBO’s The Pacific).

So, the 1990s were a pretty good decade for Spielberg, huh?  Unfortunately, he also made what might be his worst movie, Hook (1991).  A movie that (sort of) answers the question “What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?”, the movie is smug, precious, and ugly.  A shaved-chested Robin Williams stars as Peter and Dustin Hoffman plays his nemesis, Captain Hook; both should be embarrassed.  I wince thinking about this movie.

The 2000s:

Directed: A.I: Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, The Terminal, Munich, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Best 3:  Minority Report, Munich, War of the Worlds

Worst:  A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Was Spielberg in a bad mood during the 2000s?  His movies got much, much darker, as is seen in his three best of the decade. Minority Report (2002), the best movie he directed in the last ten years, was an action movie that was the antithesis of his Indiana Jones movies.  The action here couldn’t really be described as “fun,” although it is exciting. No, this is more thoughtful than that, with Tom Cruise as a flawed anti-hero whose job is to solve crimes before they happen. The look of the movie is saturated, bleached out and ugly.

Munich (2005) explored terrorism through the prism of the 1972 Olympics.  Spielberg asked some difficult questions in this one, and again, a sense of darkness pervades everything. Eric Bana struggles with the job he is tasked with (the assassination of those responsible for the massacre)- does it make him just as guilty as those he is punishing?  This is as suspenseful as anything Spielberg has done, maybe more so because the stakes were real.

Yeah, the end of War of the Worlds (2005) is wack.  Other than that, though, this movie is one of the more relentless and intense of summer movies.  If you thought Spielberg had softened, this was proof-positive that he was still capable of scaring the shit out of you. Echoes of 9/11 are prevalent in this movie- directing both Munich and War of the Worlds in 2005 seem to be Spielberg working out his feelings about terrorism through his art, huh?  Anyway, like Minority Report, this was a bit too intense to be called “fun,” but it was quite a ride.

OK, so Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was a disappointment, some would say of epic proportions. Most would say this was the worst movie of the 2000s, but I hated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) more. I found it creepy, long, and boring.  I agree that Spielberg was trying some interesting things, and it is certainly not as lazy as Crystal Skull.  I just have to go with what I found more enjoyable, and Indy gets a pass there.  Sue me.

So… which decade was Spielberg’s best?  I think it comes down to the 1980s and the 1990s.  He came into his own as a commercial juggernaut in the 1980s, but found himself as an artist in the 1990s.

If we are talking only about his directorial efforts, I would probably give it to the 1990s- what he did in this decade was amazing.  BUT… there is an X-factor that I haven’t mentioned.  And that is what Spielberg did in his capacity as a producer.

He has his fingerprints on some of the most important and iconic movies of all time, and most of these he didn’t even direct.  In the 1980s, Spielberg produced the following:   Used Cars, Continental Divide, Poltergeist,  Gremlins, Back to the Future, Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, American Tail, Money Pit, Batteries Not Included, Harry and the Hendersons, Innerspace, Land Before Time, Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future 2, Dad, Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

Look at some of those titles- PoltergeistGremlinsBack to the FutureGoonies?  Coupled with the movies he actually directed, these movies give the 1980s the edge.

Steven Spielberg’s Peak Decade:  1980s.


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