Make a Day of It with Spielberg Films at TIFF Bell Lightbox

by Andrew Parker

Although Steven Spielberg is the undisputed king of blockbuster filmmaking, he’s never been the recipient of a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective until now, and there might not be a better time to spend an entire day taking in some some of his most celebrated, successful, and beloved works on the big screen than over the holidays.

From Friday, December 21 until Thursday, January 10, TIFF Bell Lightbox will pay host to Close Encounters: The Cinema of Steven Spielberg, a retrospective that runs through many notable films in the career of one of the world’s best known directors and producers. While it isn’t an overwhelmingly comprehensive retrospective (you won’t find the likes of Hook, 1941, or Always here; ditto more recent efforts like The Adventures of Tintin, Lincoln, or Bridge of Spies), it’s a well curated selection of some of Spielberg’s most popular, interesting, seminal, or award winning works as a director or producer, with multiple films in the series screening daily across the holiday season.

So with multiple films screening daily and no shortage of selections to choose from (and because you’re bound to have at least one or two days off from work this holiday season), why not make a day of it and just binge Spielberg’s works on the big screen? Sure, you could just see one or two movies in a day, but why not three or four? Keeping that in mind, here are five days where you might want to pay a visit to TIFF Bell Lightbox to immerse yourself in the works of one of the highest grossing and, simultaneously, critically underrated filmmakers of all time.

December 24th – Nothing but the Hits

1:00 pm – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

3:30 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

6:30 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

9:10 – Poltergeist

In what might be a nice respite for many the day before Christmas, TIFF Bell Lightbox is showcasing four of Steven Spielberg’s greatest hits throughout the day, starting with the family and crowd pleasing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (screening on 35mm and also playing on December 27, 28, and January 5), then taking a turn into headier alien territory with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which will be screened as the Director’s Cut from a few years back, and also plays on December 28, 31, and January 3), back into overt blockbuster territory with Raiders of the Lost Ark (screening on 35mm, and which I’ll get back to in a moment), and closing out the day with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (screening on 35mm on this night only), a truly terrifying motion picture that some speculate producer Spielberg ghost directed.

This day showcases more or less the best and biggest that Spielberg had to offer in his career immediately post-Jaws and before he was a perennial Oscar favourite. E.T. is a shining example of Spielberg using cinema as a tool for both populist entertainment and the generation of social empathy. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first film in Spielberg’s career to position the still young director as a keen intellect capable of more than special effects. Raiders of the Lost Ark (which was made right after the debacle of 1941) is Spielberg at his crowd rousing best, and Poltergeist is a great example of the types of darker, stranger, and nastier blockbusters that he would happily produce, but decline to direct (see also: Gremlins, which appropriately has its single screening in this retrospective, on 35mm, on Christmas Day at 4:30pm). But if this blend proves to be too much thematic whiplash for you, there’s always Boxing Day…

December 26 – The Indies

1:00 pm – Raiders of the Lost Ark

3:40 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

6:25 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

9:15 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

No, Spielberg never dabbled in independent cinema once his career was fully established, but he did direct one of the most successful franchises in history. It’s debatable which character in the career of Harrison Ford was more iconic – swashbuckling, snake hating anthropologist Indiana Jones or the roguish, ruggedly handsome Han Solo from Indy writer George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise – but the actor teamed with Spielberg multiple times to keep the fedora wearing, whip cracking hero traversing the globe for various artifacts and relics. It’s strange to think about, but Indiana Jones remains the only franchise that Spielberg has had a directorial hand in from its inception to the present, with another entry reportedly in the works.

While Raiders of the Lost Ark, as mentioned before, screens additionally on December 24, 29, January 1, and 8, this Boxing Day marathon of the franchise will be Lightbox patrons’ only chances to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (screening digitally), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (screening digitally), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (screening on 35mm). As such, TIFF Bell Lightbox is offering a special, but limited number of day passes, where attendees can see all four films for the price of three. Even though I’m openly advocating for attendees to spend entire days at TIFF Bell Lightbox, this is the only case where special pricing is in effect, and it definitely makes the most sense.

And I know what many of you are thinking: “So that means I could just buy tickets for the first three and then leave when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes on for the same price.” Well, yes, you could do that, but I implore you to give the most recent and most unjustly maligned Indiana Jones outing a second pass with fresh eyes because it honestly isn’t that bad. Nothing that happens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is any more ridiculous than anything that happens in Temple of Doom. Actually, I’ll even go on the record here as saying that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a better film in nearly every way than the mean spirited, shrill and borderline idiotic Temple of Doom. There. I said it. I feel much better now. At any rate, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are more agreeable and unassailable classics of mainstream, blockbuster cinema.

December 30 – The Arrival and The Arrival

1:00 pm – The Color Purple

4:15 – Empire of the Sun

7:20 – Jaws

It’s somewhat surprising that it has taken me this long to come around to talking about a day when TIFF Bell Lightbox was screening Spielberg’s first smash success, Jaws (which also plays digitally on December 23, 27, and January 2), but the most interesting day where one could take in a screening of the surprise 1975 hit would be opposite his first two attempts as more serious, award worthy filmmaking.

Spielberg turned a lot of heads when it was announced that he would be helming an adaptation of novelist Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (screening on 35mm, and also showing on January 3), a story of black women living in the early 20th century. The Color Purple was not only an unlikely box office success – in typical Spielberg fashion – but also racked up 11 Oscar nominations. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the time, Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Best Director, although he had been nominated in the past for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Two years later, Spielberg’s desire to be taken more seriously continued with the disarmingly moving World War II epic Empire of the Sun (screening on 35mm, and also playing on December 28), an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical memoirs about growing up in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, with a young Christian Bale taking on the lead role. The film, which Spielberg took over after intended director David Lean opted out, crashed and burned at the domestic box office, only making its money back years after release. In terms of awards recognition, Empire of the Sun picked up Oscar nods in technical categories, but didn’t win a single one of them. Just like with The Color Purple, it looked like Spielberg would have to wait longer to be taken as a serious director capable of winning some of Hollywood’s top prizes, and a Best Director Oscar wouldn’t come until 1994 with Schindler’s List (screening digitally on December 25 and January 5), with his only other win to date in the category coming with the release of Saving Private Ryan (screening on 35mm December 29 and January 6) in 1998.

Today, both The Color Purple and especially the reappraised Empire of the Sun have become two of the most critically and widely beloved efforts of Spielberg’s career. With that in mind, it’s almost totally appropriate to follow both of these film up with Jaws, a massive feat of direction that similarly went unremarked upon despite its box office receipts and glowing reviews. Watching all three of these films in the same day will give viewers an exceptional idea of his varied and previously undervalued talents as a director. If someone can make a killer shark movie where no one sees the beast for three quarters of the film into something terrifying, there’s a good chance they could do anything they put their mind to.

January 1 – Destruction and Spectacle

1:00pm – Jurassic Park

3:45 – The Lost World: Jurassic Park

6:40 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

9:20 – Twister

On New Year’s Day, those who might’ve imbibed a bit too much the night before can treat themselves to a day full of expertly made comfort food, starting with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park (screening on 35mm, also showing on December 25 and 28) and its lesser, meaner, but still fascinating and entertaining sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (screening on 35mm and also showing opposite its predecessor on the December 25).

The highest grossing motion picture of all time until Titanic came along, Jurassic Park (which came out the same year as Schindler’s List, to give you an idea of how quickly and prolifically he works) remains one of Spielberg’s crowning achievements. Using a Spielbergian staple B-movie plot and combining it with jaw-droppingly realistic A-list visual effects, Jurassic Park was, much like Jaws a couple of decades prior, the summer blockbuster everyone had secretly craving. And while it’s decidedly a lesser film in every way and a good example of why Spielberg rarely does sequels that don’t involve Indiana Jones, The Lost World deserves somewhat of a reassessment, as its story of corporate deception and environmental conservation has aged better than the plots of most cash-in sequels.

After the Jurassic Park films, viewers can settle into a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, if they haven’t seen it already during the retrospective, and follow it up with the riotously entertaining, Spielberg produced disaster movie Twister. Directed by cinematographer turned big budget director Jan de Bont (Speed) on what was, by most accounts, a hellish set, Twister is not only one of the best disaster movies of a decade ram-packed with wantonly destructive spectacle, but also one of the best films to never have a sequel. Compare Twister to the work displayed in Jurassic Park and The Lost World, and you’ll be able to see that some films are just fine on their own.

January 2 – The Grab Bag

1:00 pm – Catch Me If You Can

3:50 – Super 8

6:15 – Jaws

9:15 – Minority Report

In a nice reflection of Spielberg’s vast and varied career as a director and producer, not every day of bingeable programming at TIFF Bell Lightbox is going to have a distinct throughline with easily gleaned connections. The line-up that TIFF Cinematheque has chosen for January 2 doesn’t have much of one, but it’s a resoundingly satisfying one that offers up a sampler platter of sorts from Spielberg’s ouvre.

This day’s cinematic festivities begin with Catch Me If You Can (screening in 4K digital, and playing again on January 4), one of Spielberg’s best dramas and most curiously unremarked upon films. Based on a true story, this good natured cat and mouse game that unfolds between a young and prolific forger (Leonardo DiCaprio, at his absolute best) and a hardened, but sympathetic FBI agent (Tom Hanks, who’s perfect aside from a distracting Boston accent) almost stands as a metaphor for the two halves of Spielberg’s career: one where he drew upon his inspirations to great success and one where he tried desperately to be taken seriously, only to be treated like a fraud. Even if I might be reading into Catch Me If You Can too much for the sake of this piece, it’s still one of Spielberg’s most entertaining pictures, and next to Munich (equally underrated and screening on 35mm December 27 and January 6) and another film that I’ll be talking about in a moment, it’s one of the few crime pictures in Spielberg’s canon.

Following that is a Spielberg produced effort from one of the director’s modernist heir apparents, J.J. Abrams. Super 8 (screening digitally only on this day) is both an homage to Spielberg and one of the few motion pictures of this decade to properly incorporate nostalgia for the famous director’s stories properly into the fabric of its own ideas and ideals. It’s exactly the kind of kids versus alien beings fodder that Spielberg would’ve killed with back in the 1970s and 80s, and proof that if the man behind some of the most immediately identifiable blockbusters of all time ever wanted to cede his mantle, Abrams (who’s doing just fine at the moment working on the Star Wars franchise) is more than ready to take over.

The only shame about Super 8 showing on this day is that it isn’t screening back to back with Spielberg’s thoughtful, terrifying, and shockingly dark remake of War of the Worlds (which screens only once, digitally, on January 3), but the next film in line that day is Jaws, which is still an excellent movie to place into any line-up.

The most interesting film screening on the 2nd, and one that ties in nicely to Catch Me If You Can, is Spielberg’s dazzling and philosophically fascinating Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report (screening on 35mm and playing again on January 4). Working from one of the best stories he’s ever been handed (much like Catch Me If You Can), Spielberg delivers the most action packed and twisty film of his career, and one of his most thoughtfully mounted sci-fi efforts, with this tale of cops who can predict crimes before they actually happen. Upon its release in 2002, people were already wary about government interference in their lives, and Minority Report has only grown scarier and more prescient as time goes on, which is precisely the point of great sci-fi. All four films are highly entertaining in their own ways, but Minority Report ends this day with one heck of a bang.

For a full list of films screening as part of Close Encounters: The Cinema of Steven Spielberg – running at TIFF Bell Lightbox from December 21 to January 6 – check out the TIFF website.

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