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Boulders, bicycles, and bigger boats: Steven Spielberg's 21 greatest movie moments, ranked

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Jun 10, 2021, 3:54 PM EDT

In 1981, Steven Spielberg needed Raiders of the Lost Ark just as much as its hero, Indiana Jones, needed the director. 

Still feeling the sting from his first box office disappointment, the over-budgeted World War II farce 1941, Spielberg partnered with pal George Lucas on a mission to realign his creative and filmmaking instincts with a studio project that could prove just as much to himself as to Hollywood that he could make a film on schedule and without breaking the bank. The end result was an instant classic, featuring an unforgettable hero — the always intrepid and often in-over-his head archeologist, Indiana Jones — who came out of the projector and onto the silver screen fully formed in his first few moments, thanks to Spielberg and his fellow creatives’ efforts. 

Raiders’ riveting, globe-trotting adventure inspired by old-timely pulp serials capped the first act of Spielberg’s career with a movie that deserves its own wing in the museum of film history. If such a place existed, the film — which turns 40 this week — would be competing for space opposite some of the director’s other works that, like the first Indiana Jones adventure, are also teeming with iconic lines and sequences that have helped pack multiplexes for more than half a century.

To celebrate Raiders of the Lost Ark’s 40th anniversary, we have mined Spielberg’s filmography to rank and file his 21 most memorable movie moments. 

Amistad (1/8) Movie CLIP - Mutiny Aboard La Amistad (1997) HD

The Mutiny from ‘Amistad’

Spielberg’s ability to rely on pure visual storytelling has never been more focused or haunting than in the violent opening moments of Amistad

This underrated film (at least as far as Oscar-nominated pictures can be underrated) tells the story of the real-life slave uprising aboard the titular slave ship and begins with the chained Cinque (the exceptional Djimon Hounsou) clawing a nail out of a floor plank with his bloody finger. In between lightning flashes during a storm at sea, a fierce and determined Cinque unlocks his and his fellow slaves’ chains, wields a cutlass, and escapes to regain that which was taken from him: freedom.

The effort is a bloody and chilling one, but never exploitative or violent for violence’s sake. It sets the tone for a story that the rest of the movie never really matches or successfully follows through on, which may explain why most audiences seem to have all but forgotten that this movie was on Spielberg’s resume. But it’s hard to forget the gut punch Amistad packs in its opening sequence.

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The spiders sequence from ‘Minority Report’

Minority Report arguably marks the last great Spielberg blockbuster (at least until West Side Story comes out). A mix of summer movie spectacle wrapped in thought-provoking (and, at times, genuinely weird) five-minutes-into-the-future science fiction, Minority Report elevates both the Philip K. Dick source material and Spielberg’s game to deliver a momentum-fueled chase movie that’s as riveting as it is poignant. (Tonally, think The Fugitive but with a strong dose of Ray Bradbury.)

And the best argument for why only Spielberg could tell this riveting story, which centers on D.C. Precrime cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) on the run for a crime he has yet to commit, occurs during the Spider sequence. The film peaks during this fantastic midpoint set piece, which radiates tension as John takes refuge in a tub full of ice water to avoid detection of palm-sized robots hellbent on finding John. Armed with “eye-dentification” scanners that will retina ID their target, the Spiders slink under and through the paint-peeled walls of a slumlord’s building.

Spielberg charts their path with white-knuckle tension via an intricate tracking shot that looks down into various apartments as PDI’s CG Spiders converge on John. Unable to find him, the Spiders retreat — until a submerged John releases a single air bubble from his nose to the bathtub’s surface. The way Spielberg milks the tension here would make Hitchcock envious. 

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The Tripods’ first attack in ‘War of the Worlds’

In order to distinguish his War of the Worlds from the 1953 original, Spielberg enlisted Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp to execute his mandate that the Martian invaders would already be on Earth, and that they have been underground for many, many years. Their deadly emergence is heralded by an almost supernatural lightning storm that sends alien operators into and behind the controls of Tripods lurking under a New Jersey street. Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier runs and screams with the rest of the population as the Tripods crack through the asphalt and vaporize humans as their telescoping legs stomp away from ground zero and into more densely populated areas. 

This incredible sequence glides like dance choreography and is full of only-in-a-Spielberg movie visual touches: The viewfinder of a fallen video camera showing us the carnage, or Ray getting doused in the ashes of the vaporized while sprinting in a oner through a storefront and into hiding. 

John and Agatha’s embrace from ‘Minority Report’

This iconic two-shot from Minority Report has its own oral history. Roger Ebert’s 2002 review devoted an entire paragraph to this “virtuoso” shot. Hell, even Spielberg himself was impressed with how he pulled off this image. And for good reason.

John’s search for his future murder victim, with the Precog that predicted the crime in tow, builds to this “picture’s-worth-a-thousand-words” moment. In the lobby of a shady D.C. hotel, John has a choice: Fulfill his predetermined destiny by riding the elevator up to Leo Crow’s room to kill him, or listen to the psychic telling him to turn around.

Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kiminski use noir-y gun-metal greys and blues to enhance the image of these two lost people who find a kind of fleeting purpose in each other. For a cop who spends his off-hours brooding over a past family tragedy, whose job is about stopping future crimes, the only time John lives in the present is when he’s on the run for a crime he has yet to commit. And when confronted with a chance to change his future in favor of one that hasn’t been written yet, John decides to push forward. 

The tension surrounding that choice and the film’s themes governing it collapse into one frame, into this one shot, as Minority Report argues that the only way to escape both our traumatic pasts and our undesirable futures is to take them head on. 

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The tank chase from ‘Last Crusade’

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade injects the reliable franchise with a strong dose of comedy and heart with the addition of Henry Jones Sr. (the late Sean Connery). By building the film’s marketing campaign around the idea of father and son, James Bond and Indiana Jones, gallivanting and bickering from set piece to set piece, Last Crusade helped cement itself as one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences of the last 50 years, especially when “Junior’s” action-packed exploits involve his dad, a deployment of Holy Grail-seeking Nazis, and a tank. 

Trapped in the belly of that steel beast (reference!), Henry uses his wits to defeat his captors as his son rides on horseback through the desert to outsmart, outshoot, and out-punch his frequent adversaries. Like previous Spielberg action scenes, the structure and pacing here click into place like safe tumblers. From the moment Indy hangs precariously off one of the tank’s gun turrets, to when he rides the war machine off a cliff, Spielberg keeps your knuckles white around your armrest. The set piece is a monument to character-driven action, grounded all on the backs of one of the most engaging big-screen duos since Butch and Sundance. 

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The mine car chase from ‘Temple of Doom’

The last 30 minutes or so of Spielberg’s bleak and not-for-kids Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an unrelenting delivery system of thrills that, ironically, puts a young kid, Short Round, in the middle of this decidedly adult set piece involving a desperate Indy careening over and through the rickety tracks of the scariest mine ever. 

A staple of ‘80s cable, Temple of Doom lets Spielberg show off his exceptional grasp of action filmmaking; no matter where and when we are in the story, the director never loses the physical or emotional geography of a scene — especially during the mine car chase. As sword-wielding cult members chase after Indy in mine cars, across split-level tracks built above hell-hot lava, Spielberg and long-time editor Michael Kahn effortlessly build momentum and tension throughout this sequence, which literally spits Indy out onto a narrow cliff edge and into yet more effortlessly thrilling action. 

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“Anything Goes” from ‘Temple of Doom’

Spielberg’s first musical, a remake of West Side Story, is set for release in December 2021, but audiences got their first inkling of the director’s fandom for the genre with the showstopping opening number from Temple of Doom

On the main stage at Shanghai’s Club Obi-Wan, performer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and a troupe of back-up dancers sing their way through “Anything Goes.” In the middle of the scene, the camera seemingly moves out of reality and into Spielberg’s interpretation of a classic MGM musical, as the glittery dancers take to a massive, shiny stage to face each other in a kick-line. It’s an odd and unexpected choice to open an action movie this way, but leave it to Spielberg to make it unforgettable. 

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The truck chase from ‘Raiders’

Raiders of the Lost Ark achieves near Fury Road-esque thrills with this standing-o-worthy truck chase that finds Indy struggling to stop Nazis from making off with the Ark. 

Raiders has imprinted itself among our collective brains mostly by way of quotable lines (“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”) or brief but unforgettable shots/beats (think the way Indy inspects the golden idol from the teaser). But the exception to that rule is this extended, full-throttle action scene that wraps up Indy’s time in Egypt with an impressive feat of practical stunt work and perfectly-paced editing. In a nod to Stagecoach, Indy climbs on, over, and under trucks to commandeer the lead vehicle carrying the only radio for speaking to God. At just shy of ten minutes, the truck chase delivers a whole movie’s worth of thrills and fun.  

Jaws (1975) - Get out of the Water Scene (2/10) | Movieclips

Chief Brody’s dolly zoom from ‘Jaws’

Jaws isn’t the first time Spielberg employed the dolly zoom, a Hitchcockian camera move where you simultaneously zoom in and dolly out on a subject to denote a kind of “my-world-is-forever-upended” feeling. But Jaws marks Spielberg’s most memorable and effective use of the suspenseful shot, which appears during the film’s second shark attack that results in the bloody and horrifying death of a young boy named Alex Kintner. 

Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is the only person not enjoying his time on the beach, watching swimmers with knee-jerk reactions in response to a growing dread that someone’s playful scream or yell could precede another fatal shark attack on the shores of Amity Island. And when the great white does strike, Spielberg’s camera dolly zooms on Brody to put us square in his quaking boots as he helplessly watches the young Knitner boy reduced to a fountain of twisting blood in his killer’s (ahem) jaws. The sequence is full of fear and terror, and it all collapses into this one shot.  

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Indy vs. The Swordsman from ‘Raiders’

Indy’s swift takedown of his towering opponent is as legendary as the scene’s origins. 

The story goes that since Harrison Ford had a mean case of dysentery on the day of the shoot, Spielberg had to scrap the original plan of a choreographed fight scene in favor of Ford’s suggestion to “just shoot the sonovabitch.” The decision, much to the chagrin of the stuntman who trained for months to fight Indy with his sword, led to one of the biggest laughs in the film. It’s also a choice that briefly reveals volumes about who Indy is as a character, serving as just one of many reasons why audiences have invested with Dr. Jones for 40 years. 

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Roy meets the Mothership from ‘Close Encounters’

John Williams’ iconic five-tone score serves as the “voice” for the alien mothership that visits humanity in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a sci-fi fantasy that establishes Spielberg’s predilection toward stories set in mundane suburbia with his ability to infuse those stories with a sense of the extraordinary. In Close Encounters’ case, Spielberg uses first contact with an advanced alien species as a means to help one of our kind, the blue-collar Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), find his place in the world (or, more accurately, in the universe).

With the help of a playful lightshow and the aforementioned music, the finale of Close Encounters tugs on all the heartstrings as Spielberg refreshingly devotes the third act of his film not to an explosion-y set piece full of summer movie destruction but rather to building a bridge through communication between humanity and that which it searches the stars for in truly profound and humbling ways. 

Jaws (1975) - The Indianapolis Speech Scene (7/10) | Movieclips

Quint’s Indianapolis speech from ‘Jaws’

What starts as a semi-drunken chat between two men comparing physical scars turns into a show-stopping monologue from one of those men about the most emotionally traumatic experience he has ever had. 

Jaws is the rare monster movie that puts the human elements first, as Spielberg is more interested in crafting a tale about the poor (but likable) souls charged with dispatching a killer shark than one about their prey. A lull in the search for the latter leads Quint (Robert Shaw) down memory lane, where he recalls a literal nightmare: His experience aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II. Quint’s speech centers on the fate of the ship’s crew after they helped deliver the Hiroshima bomb and found themselves on a sinking boat in the middle of shark-infested waters.

The famous scene was largely written by Shaw himself, and incorporated into Carl Gottlieb’s script. Spielberg wisely lets the scene unfold with the bare minimum of coverage, as Quint paints a picture that transports the audience back to December 1941, and puts them with him in the middle of that blood-stained ocean. 

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“When dinosaurs ruled the Earth” from ‘Jurassic Park’

One of the most memorable shots of Spielberg’s career almost never happened. 

Jurassic Park was originally scripted to end with a helicopter escape from the island and a flock of violent pterodactyls. Budget and scheduling needs derailed that effort in part, and forced Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp to come up with a new (and more achievable) ending. What they came up with acts as a bookend of sorts to the classic film, with Alan Grant, Dr. Sattler, Tim and Lex facing off against the raptors inside the Visitor’s Center where their journey first began.

Before our heroes become raptor chow, the T. rex storms in and fights the murder-sauruses. She celebrates her victory with a triumphant roar as a not-so-subtle banner with the words “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” flutters before her. That shot is the perfect capper to the sequence, one that helped make it impossible for audiences not to think of it whenever they think of Jurassic Park

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E.T.’s goodbye from ‘E.T.'

Even though we don’t want to accept it, we know from the jump that there’s a ticking clock on Elliot and E.T.’s friendship. There’s just no way it ends happily. But what we didn’t know is how much E.T.’s bittersweet departure from Elliot’s life (and our planet) would make us sob. (I’m getting all misty just typing about it.)

John Williams’ resonant theme, coupled with Spielberg’s magical-like ability to conjure a fully-realized and complex performance from child actor Henry Thomas, work to bring to life one of the most emotional scenes in film history. Using only the words “Go,” “Stay,” and “Ouch,” E.T. tugs on every one of our tender heartstrings.

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The T. rex attack from ‘Jurassic Park’

Jurassic Park makes it really difficult to single out iconic moments, since the movie is mostly made out of scenes and imagery and dialogue that has spent nearly 30 years living inside an Isla Nublar-sized area of our brains. A standout for fans, and for moviemaking as a whole, is the T. rex’s first attack on Lex and Tim’s tour vehicle as a helpless and worried Dr. Grant and Ian Malcolm look on.

The sequence’s slow-burn tension builds to the reveal of the dinosaur in all its CG and animatronic glory. Starting with the most foreboding ripples in a water glass ever, followed by the missing goat bait and the T. rex using its tepid claw to test its paddock’s electronic fencing, the attack builds in a way that puts audiences at the edge of their seats, in terrified awe, of the dino’s reveal. (The practical choice of setting it at night, during a rainstorm, to help hide the T. rex’s CG seams only makes us squeeze our armrests even more.) The reveal and subsequent attack on the screaming children as Grant tries to distract the monster with a flare serves as a microcosm of the film’s “man vs. nature” themes in the form of a set piece that further proves that no one does clean, character-first action like Spielberg can.

Jaws (1975) - You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat Scene (4/10) | Movieclips

“Gonna need a bigger boat” from ‘Jaws’

Often quoted and parodied, Roy Scheider’s unforgettable ad-lib has been a pop-culture staple for almost 50 years.

According to Jaws screenwriter and co-star Carl Gottlieb, the line originated in an “overlap of a real-life problem combined with the dilemma of the characters onscreen.” The real-life problem the production faced was the “S.S. Garage Sale,” a barge that carried production equipment and craft services. A smaller support boat was charged with steadying the barge, but it was too tiny to accomplish the task. Gottlieb recalls: “[Richard] Zanuck and [David] Brown were very stingy producers, so everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’" It became a catchphrase for anytime anything went wrong. Scheider would ad-lib the line throughout scenes during the production and the one that made it into the final cut was when Brody gets his first (and very unsettling) close look at the shark. 

Spielberg, as he often does, punctuates the tension of this reveal with a funny aside in the form of the classic line. Here, Brody slowly backs up into the Orca’s main area after glimpsing the great white and makes the “bigger boat” aside to Quint in a way that endears the character even more to the audience. The line delivery also acts almost as a harbinger for Quint’s bloody fate late in the film, when his prey likely makes him wish he had a larger boat once the shark turns him into dinner.

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The girl in the red coat from ‘Schindler’s List’

Schindler’s List is Spielberg at his most restrained and also at his most vulnerable. The director’s haunting, black-and-white Holocaust drama sheds light on this dark chapter of World War II, with the muted reds of a girl’s red coat first glimpsed as a way to make it impossible for Schindler (Liam Neeson) to continue to ignore (or glad-hand his way past) the suffering, hate and death that he is in the middle of. 

This little girl’s naive face, and her red coat, appear throughout the film to pull on both our heartstrings and Schindler’s. While some critics argue this is Spielberg the Manipulator at work, the motif is a totally necessary one. Fueled by the film’s central theme — he who can save one life can show the world how to save us all — Spielberg uses the red coat as means to put a specific face on a genocide that took millions of lives. And when we see that red coat again, this time among the dead, it serves as the director’s way to remind us to never look away from atrocities no one should ever have to see. 

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The D-Day invasion from ‘Saving Private Ryan’

The 20-minute D-Day invasion from Saving Private Ryan is arguably a microcosm of Spielberg’s exceptional skillset as a filmmaker. Punctuating this bloody tentpole of the second World War with small bursts of the cost humanity paid to fight it — from a dazed soldier strolling the beach in search of his severed arm, to Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller shell-shocked at the carnage that resonates in his ears like white noise — this harrowing sequence puts viewers on the beach with the soldiers in a way that makes it so every panicked breath they take or tiny victory they earn feels like one of our own.

The sequence is a mini-movie within this World War II epic, built out of mini-threats that Miller’s platoon must overcome to be victorious on the beach. Some 23 years after Private Ryan’s release, it’s still the first thing anyone thinks of at the mere mention of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning achievement. 

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The opening shark attack from ‘Jaws’

Shot mostly day-for-night by Spielberg and his DP Bill Butler, Jaws opens with one of the most unnerving and terrifying scenes in the history of blockbuster movies. Amity Island’s twentysomething Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) leaves a beach campfire to go skinny dipping. Her drunken friend follows her but ends up half-asleep on the shore, unaware of the unseen shark that attacks Chrissie — or her screams as it feeds on her.

Scored only to John Williams’ iconic two-tone theme, Chrissie’s fatal encounter is the stuff of nightmare fuel; an intentionally-minimalist intro to the world of Jaws that has spent the last 46 years making audiences scared of ever going into the water. 

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The boulder sequence from ‘Raiders’

Raiders of the Lost Ark’s opening sequence makes it very easy to latch onto its hero, Indiana Jones. 

With a near-mythic introduction, featuring short shots of the character’s iconography like his whip and fedora as he advances through a menacing jungle, Indy slowly steps out of the shadows and into film history. From there, the sequence lets us into Indy’s world of “fortune and glory” as he (paired with Alfred Molina’s traitorous guide) carefully advances through ancient booby traps to an altar home to the golden idol Indy seeks. Indy swaps out the idol for a bag of sand but it doesn’t work.

Soon, Indy races through a gauntlet of poisoned darts whizzing past him and outruns an extra-large boulder before leaping out of the spider web-covered entrance of his would-be tomb. As character introductions go, they don’t get much more thrilling than this one. But what makes it truly stick are Spielberg and Ford’s commitment to making Indy a fallible, relatable hero audiences can’t help but root for. 

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E.T. flies a bike from 'E.T.'

One of the most iconic sequences in cinema history gives Spielberg his most iconic shot — and the logo for his production company, Amblin. 

Halfway through E.T., Elliot and his new alien pal hop on a bike and race away from Peter Coyote and the rest of his government suits. Before the young boy and his heartlight-powered friend are captured, E.T. somehow propels the bike into the air, over trees, and past the moon. This soaring sequence culminates with the two and their bike in silhouette before a low-hanging full moon, with the shot becoming the defining image of both the film and arguably of Spielberg’s entire impressive career — one that is full of iconic visuals. This shot still inspires the same awe and misty-eyed sentimentality it did when audiences first experienced it almost 40 years ago. Leave it to Spielberg to use a story about an alien to give humanity an all-timer of a formative experience.