This image was taken from the official trailer for “The Fabelmans,” distributed by Universal Pictures.

Steven Spielberg has to be in contention for the greatest American artist, in any medium. In complete control of his craft from his first feature, “The Sugarland Express” — or as “The Fabelmans” contends, from the moment he first picked up a camera — Spielberg has created masterpieces for six decades, including some of the most beloved films of all time. Following his masterful adaptation of “West Side Story” last year, Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner (“West Side Story”) turn to something more personal — Spielberg’s childhood.

The memoiristic film has been a growing subgenre in recent years — think Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed “Roma” in 2018 and Kenneth Branaugh’s crowd-pleaser “Belfast,” which was up for a number of Oscars last year. But none have done this subgenre as well as Spielberg does with “The Fabelmans.” No one can combine technical brilliance, crowd-pleasing storytelling and personal reflection like him.

The best childhood memory films don’t revel in nostalgia and instead explore deeper, painful truths about their subject (typically the filmmaker’s proxy). In “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg explores how filmmaking helped him find himself, as his family life crumbled around him. Though Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, “The Predator”) is the point of view character, the film’s most raw, emotional drama surrounds his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams, “Venom”) and Burt (Paul Dano, “The Batman”). Though not particularly naturalistic, Dano and Williams’s melodramatic performances — a perfect match for Spielberg’s classical Hollywood directorial style — give the relatively small stakes the weight they need to generate a big emotional response from the audience. There’s an innocence in the portrayal of Burt and Mitzi’s relationship from Sammy’s point of view that keeps it from being too nasty when everyone is together, but Sammy’s camera captures everything. Spielberg, a master of visual storytelling, knows better than anyone how much more powerful images can be than words. 

In an episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” host James Lipton asks Steven Spielberg (in reference to his film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), “Your father was a computer scientist. Your mother was a musician. When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate?” In that film, Lipton found the easy solution to be “They make music on their computers, and they are able to speak to each other.” But in “The Fabelmans,” where Spielberg tries to reckon with the darker reality of his parents’ dying relationship, the answer is not so easy to find. That push and pull between science and art becomes a source of conflict, not just in the ability of Sammy’s parents to understand each other, but in their ability to relate to and connect with their son. 

Burt constantly puts down Sammy’s obsession with and prodigious ability in filmmaking, calling it a hobby — something he will give up when he goes to college for a more serious, scientific profession. Mitzi is far more supportive and understanding of Sammy’s dreams and desires. A musician herself, she knows this is no mere hobby, but something important to Sammy and to the world. This makes the betrayal Sammy feels when his mother cheats on his father hit harder — the one person who understood him, and who he felt he understood, wasn’t who he thought she was. Movies were the way Sammy communicated with his mother, and in the wake of learning about her affair, he stops making them and severs nearly all remaining connection to her. Sammy eventually comes back around, but he returns to filmmaking on his own, and by then it is more a means of self-expression than communication. Sammy finds himself again, but his relationship with his mother never recovers.

In the final sequence of “The Fabelmans,” Sammy, now working in the film industry, gets the chance to meet his idol, director John Ford (“The Searchers”) — portrayed hilariously by director David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”). In a very “don’t meet your heroes” situation, Ford is crude and treats Sammy with little respect — he spends about half the time lighting up a giant cigar — but he offers some valuable advice: “If the horizon’s at the bottom of the frame, it’s interesting. If the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. If the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit.” According to Spielberg, this encounter actually occurred, and looking back on his filmography, it’s clear how much he took this idea to heart. Spielberg films can never be criticized for looking boring; he always finds the most interesting shot — whether that’s achieved with framing, blocking of actors or dynamic camera movement. The film ends with a funny, heartfelt moment — Sammy walks off into the sunset, and the camera jerks to change the framing of the horizon from the center to the bottom.

Spielberg is in the midst of yet another hot streak. For the second straight year, he has given us the best film of the year, a masterpiece that ranks among the legendary director’s very best. He remains one of the few filmmakers who can still manage to make great art in the shackles of the increasingly creatively bankrupt Hollywood studio system. Despite numerous imitators trying to capture the same magic in their big budget blockbusters, they all lack that something that makes Spielberg’s films special. It’s unclear what that something is, but if “The Fabelmans” is to be believed, perhaps it’s an innate ability that only he will ever have. If so, we’re lucky to witness Spielberg’s greatness with every new film.

Film Beat Editor Mitchel Green can be reached at