The name Steven Spielberg has become synonymous with "epic cinematic masterpiece," and with good reason. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Spielberg has made movies that have defined entire genres, explored dark corners of history, and created cultural moments shared by entire generations. Here are the ones you need to see first.
"Jaws" terrified audiences with its perfect villain -- a great white shark with a vendetta. Aside from the suspenseful pace and artful cinematography, "Jaws" also changed movie-studio history. At the time, a big-budget summer horror movie was a gamble -- particularly one that took place mostly in the ocean. But the career-defining performances from all three of its leads (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw) and the terrifying ending made "Jaws" the most profitable movie ever in 1975, ultimately creating the summer blockbuster phenomenon. In fact, "Jaws" had such an impact on its audience that vacationers stayed away from beaches for years afterward, ultimately hurting the East Coast tourism industry -- and its two-note musical theme still gives people the creeps, even decades later.
'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981)
The first entry in the Indiana Jones franchise, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" established the look, feel, and tone for the entire series, all while delighting audiences with Harrison Ford's performance as the archaeologist-turned-adventurer. "Raiders" is a classic for many reasons -- its Capra-style romance, its trope-defining reluctant hero -- but above all, it's a fun ride. Although it spawned three sequels (not including the recently announced fifth installment) and a TV series, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" remains the best of them all: Who can forget his escape from a giant boulder, or the final warehouse shot?
"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," Spielberg's classic movie about a lost alien who finds refuge with the children of a suburban family, defined '80s movies for a generation. "E.T." had it all: children outsmarting adults, a heartwarming alien who just wanted to get home, and an unforgettable score by John Williams. It was also where Spielberg perfected his ability to tell stories for and about kids -- starting a theme he would further explore as a developer of the story behind "The Goonies." And while Spielberg continued to tread the cinematic ground established by "E.T." throughout his career -- including the lens flare technique J.J. Abrams so frequently borrows -- he really got it all right the first time.
'The Color Purple' (1985)
"The Color Purple" marked the start of Spielberg's forays into historical fiction, as well as the acting career of then-unknown Oprah Winfrey. With its all-star cast (including Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Laurence Fishburne), "The Color Purple" explored the difficult, and often tragic, history of African Americans in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Although it was a far cry from Spielberg's typical adventure movies, audiences responded overwhelmingly positively to "The Color Purple," placing it alongside other important historical works such as "Roots." Social impact aside, "The Color Purple" was a moving and beautiful story, and demonstrated a new emotional depth for the director.
'Schindler's List' (1993)
"Schindler's List" found Spielberg exploring his own Jewish heritage, telling the true story of Oskar Schindler, a businessman secretly responsible for rescuing hundreds of Jewish refugees from the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. The movie -- mostly shot in black and white -- again found Spielberg shining a light on a dark era of world history, and is notable as the most historically accurate of Spielberg's work. Bring tissues for this one: Liam Neeson's performance is nothing short of powerful.