Total Recall

Total Recall: Best Steven Spielberg Productions

With Super 8 hitting theaters, we count down the best movies the great director managed behind the scenes.

by | June 10, 2011 | Comments

Much has been made of the fact that Steven Spielberg produced J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 — and rightly so, given how strongly it seems to evoke memories of Spielberg’s classic past. But even though we think of Spielberg as a director first, he’s also had a very busy (and fairly distinguished) career as a producer — and to show you what we mean, we decided to dedicate this week’s Total Recall to films he didn’t direct. We ended up with a varied list that includes some huge hits, a handful of modern classics, and maybe even a few surprises. Read on!

1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) 97%

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

In the early 1980s, when Spielberg and George Lucas were looking for someone to write them a big check for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paramount chief Michael Eisner didn’t blink — so when Eisner moved to Disney later in the decade and needed help getting a long-gestating live-action/animated noir project off the ground, Spielberg was happy to return the favor. The result was one of the decade’s defining films, a smash hit that blended cutting-edge technology with a well-written script and old-school slapstick — not to mention blink-and-you-missed-’em cameos from dozens of cartoon celebrities. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, in the words of the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, “as cunning as Wile E. Coyote and chipper as a flock of cartoon bluebirds.”

2. Back to the Future (1985) 96%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Even before they worked together on the Back to the Future trilogy, Spielberg had a long history with the writing duo of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale — but until they put Marty McFly behind the wheel of that fateful DeLorean, their partnership was a study in box office futility, producing the commercial duds I Wanna Hold Your Hand1941, and Used Cars. Not wanting to sully their association with Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale resisted bringing him a serious pitch for Back to the Future — until they finally hit paydirt with Romancing the Stone. Suddenly, executives who’d rejected Future were eager to be a part of it, but Zemeckis and Gale gave first dibs to their old friend, and thus was a franchise born — as well as the film that Slant’s Eric Henderson called “one of the rare big-budget entertainments that’s improved with time.”

3. True Grit (2010) 95%

(Photo by Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures)

When the marriage between DreamWorks and Paramount ended in 2008, the studios had to divvy up hundreds of projects in development — and when the dust settled, the Coen brothers’ True Grit remake stayed at Paramount, with Spielberg retaining an executive producer credit. A few Coens fans raised their eyebrows (or freaked out on their favorite Internet film forum) when they spotted Spielberg’s name in the IMDb credits, but ultimately True Grit remained, as cinematographer Roger Deakins promised one concerned commenter, “very much the Coens’ film and nothing else” — in other words, the 10-time Academy Award nominee that MSN’s Glenn Kenny called a “visually and sonically beautiful movie that uses space, distance and time to immerse you in a very particular world of mystery, awe and brutality.”

4. Men in Black (1997) 92%

It seems laughable now, but Men in Black spent a fair amount of time in development hell — until, that is, Spielberg hired writer-producer Walter F. Parkes and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, to head production at Amblin. Parkes, who had been struggling to gain traction with Men in Black at Columbia, saw his new gig as a golden opportunity to jump-start the picture — and he was right. With Spielberg’s name attached, Black found a clear path from the studio lot to the big screen, where the sci-fi buddy comedy racked up nearly $590 million in grosses and raves from critics like David Edelstein, who called it “The smartest, funniest, and best-looking sci-fi comedy since the movies learned to morph.”

5. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) 91%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

When Spielberg decided not to direct Flags of Our Fathers and handed the reins to Clint Eastwood, he wasn’t just altering the course of one World War II drama — he was setting in motion the chain of events that would produce its companion piece. Inspired by his pre-production research, Eastwood came up with the idea to make a film that would present the Japanese side of the battle, and decided to shoot the two projects back-to-back. Letters from Iwo Jima ultimately suffered roughly the same middling commercial fate that befell Flags of Our Fathers, but was far and away the greater critical success, notching three Academy Award nominations and earning the admiration of writers like Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post, who called it “a work of whetted craft and judgment, tempered by Eastwood’s years of life, moviemaking and the potent tango of the two. It is the work of a mature filmmaker willing to entertain the true power of the cinema.”

6. Arachnophobia (1990) 93%

Spielberg’s longtime production partner (and co-founder of Amblin Entertainment) Frank Marshall made his directorial debut with this affectionate, cheerfully creepy tribute to classic Hollywood creature features, in which a deadly breed of spider terrorizes a small town whose residents include a lunatic exterminator (John Goodman) and, of course, a doctor with the titular phobia (Jeff Daniels). “That sound you hear in the background is the ‘ugh!’ heard round the world,” chuckled Janet Maslin of the New York Times, adding, “luckily, Arachnophobia will also be generating its share of boisterous, nervous laughter.”

7. Poltergeist (1982) 87%

(Photo by MGM courtesy Everett Collection)

Unlike a lot of the movies on this list, which benefited from his participation on a more or less ancillary level, Poltergeist was very much a Steven Spielberg production — starting with the script, which he co-wrote, and ending with his almost daily presence on the set, which sparked a DGA investigation and years of rumors about whether the credited director, Tobe Hooper, was merely a stand-in to help Spielberg wriggle out of a contractual agreement that prevented him from helming a film that would end up in direct competition with E.T. Whatever really happened behind the cameras, the result was a huge hit that spawned a franchise and won the unqualified praise of critics like Moviehole’s Clint Morris, who called it “One of the best horror flicks ever…bar none.”

8. Gremlins (1984) 85%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

It earned nearly $150 million at the box office, marked Chris Columbus as a young screenwriter to watch, and resuscitated director Joe Dante’s ailing career — but Gremlins was also part of one of 1984’s biggest Hollywood controversies, sparking concern that the MPAA was giving PG ratings to films that were too intense for a younger audience (such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Spielberg suggested that an overhaul of the ratings system might be in order, and roughly a month after Gremlins‘ release, the PG-13 was born. Parental concerns over gremlin-related violence aside, the film was also a solid critical winner, earning praise from the likes of Roger Ebert, who wrote, “At the level of Serious Film Criticism, it’s a meditation on the myths in our movies: Christmas, families, monsters, retail stores, movies, boogeymen. At the level of Pop Moviegoing, it’s a sophisticated, witty B movie.”

9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) 90%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Somewhat appropriately for a film inspired by the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, this wacky 1978 comedy was a film of debuts — for Robert Zemeckis, notching his first feature-length directorial credit, and for Spielberg, who produced for the first time (under the watchful eye of Universal, who made him promise he’d step in and direct if Zemeckis faltered). Despite the lack of experience, it was smooth sailing for I Wanna Hold Your Hand — at least until the film reached audiences, who ignored it so completely that it couldn’t even earn back its $2.8 million budget. As far as critics were concerned, however, it was the audience’s loss: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand re-creates precisely the excitement the Beatles let loose 14 years ago,” wrote Time’s Frank Rich, adding that “it transports the audience back to the eye of a phenomenal social hurricane.”

10. The Mask of Zorro (1998) 83%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

As executive producer of Martin Campbell’s swashbuckling Zorro reboot, Spielberg may not have had to take much of an active role in the day-to-day development of the film, but he was responsible for at least one key element: the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who caught his eye with her performance in the CBS miniseries The Titanic. It proved a starmaking turn for Zeta-Jones, who upstaged Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins in the film that Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called “A lively, old-fashioned adventure yarn with just a twist of modern attitude” and “the kind of pleasant entertainment that allows the paying customers to have as much fun as the people on screen.”

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