Flip on the television or head to the movies any time, and you’ll find a wide array of competent directing. But to be a great director you need to have something that really sets you apart. Quentin Tarantino has his reference-a-rama, Terrence Malick has his slyly edited nature documentary footage shoe-horned into big-budget features, and Steven Spielberg has his magic moments.
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly it is that makes his moments different from the ones in everyone else’s movies. But it’s there nonetheless, and because of this, individual parts of his movies tend to stick with you, even when the rest of it isn’t necessarily his best work. So rather than making a list of our favorite Spielberg movies, which you can probably do yourself with less than two minutes thought, we decided to highlight some of his movies' most unforgettable moments.
The Sugarland Express (1974)
“Low-speed chase becomes no-speed chase.”
The Sugarland Express wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s first movie, but it’s his first that had the type of characters and situations that really felt like his. The movie focuses on a couple running from the cops before their son is placed in a foster home. Much of the movie takes place in a low-speed chase. This chase gets even slower when they inevitably run out of gas. This is only a minor setback, though, as they soon have the very captain in charge of subduing them push their car along until it gets to the next gas station.
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Even with all of its technical complications, Steven Spielberg managed to make Jaws into one of the best thrillers ever made. What really sticks with you, though, is its simplicity: the director needs little more than John Williams great theme music and characters looking out at the ocean. There are more exciting parts of the movie and more stunning visuals, but none of them stick with you like the simple revelation of how afraid these expert shark catchers are when finally face-to-face with the monster.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
“Why guns are better than swords.”
Sure, there’s the boulder scene at the beginning and the face-melting at the end, but there may be no moment that better illustrates his brilliance than this moment from the first Indiana Jones movie. For one thing, it wasn’t in the original script. Harrison Ford was supposed to use his whip to get the sword from his attackers’s hands, but he was suffering from food poisoning. After a few failures, someone suggested he just shoot the man and Spielberg knew a good idea when he heard one.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
“Fly me to the moon.”
There’s a reason why Spielberg’s logo has a bike flying across the moon, and it’s because this may be the most Spielberg-y moment in his entire filmography. Sure, it’s a cliché. Flying’s one of his obsessions and it doesn’t look as good today, in our world of ubiquitous CGI, as it once did. But if you watched it as a kid, this is the moment you can’t forget. That you knew it would be on this list from the get-go is just an indication of how spectacular it is.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Like our other Indiana Jones moment, this one has the perfect mix of violence and humor. It’s what puts Jones ahead of his inspiration James Bond in our opinion—they’re both great heroes, but only one of them is self-aware enough to realize how crazy his methods really are.
"Imaginary food fight."
While critics didn’t get Hook, anyone who was actually part of its intended audience knows how well it captured the fun of being a child. This comes across best when an insult competition soon becomes a food fight with non-existent food. But with imagination, it becomes real... as does the mess. Bangarang!
Schindler's List (1993)
Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s most emotional picture, and in many respects its darkest. But throughout all of its struggles and misery, it’s a movie about hope and the essential kindness of the human spirit, and this comes across strongest in the movie’s shower scene. Here, many Jewish people have been led to believe they’ll be subjected to the poison showers of the Nazis, and the relief they feel upon being given real showers is magical.
Jurassic Park (1993)
"The crazy son-of-a-bitch did it."
Like the park it’s named after, Jurassic Park the movie is built like a ride, with many memorable thrills. Still, nothing matches the magic that comes from the first time its characters, and thus the audience, see that its dinosaurs are real with John Williams music swelling in the background.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
"He prayed for 2000 years."
A.I. has the distinction of being one of Spielberg’s strangest, least characteristic movies. But its haunting tone finds its fullest expression at the end of the movie, when we learn that child robot David remained faithful to the blue faerie he loves even past the end of humanity. It’s an elegiac, beautiful, and above all sad end that makes the rest of the sometimes interminably slow movie well worth watching.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
To end things on a much happier note, in case you haven’t noticed it by now part of Spielberg’s magic is the way he can create special moments whatever the tone. Perhaps the most pure fun thing that’s ever appeared in any of his movies is actually something that appeared right before one, the opening credits of Catch Me if You Can. An animated tribute to the works of Saul Bass, it’s a wonderful short film in and of itself that goes through the movie’s entire plot before the main feature even gets started.
Have you got a favorite Spielberg movie moment? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.