Steven Spielberg is not only the undisputed king of summer movies, he invented them. Films were no longer mere entertainments, they were grand cultural events. The highest compliment one can pay to a picture released between May and August is the declaration that it captures some Spielbergian essence of escapist euphoria. Though the director himself has mellowed in recent years, his fingerprints are still felt throughout the current slate of summertime releases, as evidenced by Colin Trevorrow’s upcoming sequel/reboot, “Jurassic World,” due out June 12th, as well as Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen’s documentary, “Raiders!,” chronicling the fan-produced, shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which recently screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival.
Modern day Hollywood could, of course, learn a thing or two from Spielberg’s approach to blockbusters. To illustrate this principle, Indie Outlook has ranked the director’s best summer movies, some of which technically weren’t released during the summer, but captured the spirit of the season nonetheless.
10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 5/23/1984
Though this second installment in the franchise paying homage to 1930s serials is technically inferior to its 1989 follow-up, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which was bolstered by the droll chemistry between father (Sean Connery) and son (Harrison Ford), “Temple of Doom” is the film I return to more often. For all of its strengths, “Last Crusade” feels fairly flat and routine, particularly during its set-pieces. “Temple of Doom” cheerfully subverts expectations from the very opening, where ditzy damsel Kate Capshaw performs a Mandarin version of “Anything Goes” (a title that surely doubled as Spielberg’s mantra during production), complete with Busby Berkeley-style choreography. Ford and Capshaw are entirely lackluster here, but it’s hard to care in light of the breathless comic invention that causes our heroes to escape a plane in an inflatable raft that dives off a cliff and into churning rapids. Sequences like these pay off on the promise of the more inspired bits in Spielberg’s “1941,” with their full-on embracement of absurdist excess. Sure, the film is a curiosity piece at best, as it jarringly veers from cartoonish pratfalls to violence so gruesome that it inspired the PG-13 rating, but it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from it.
9. Hook 12/11/1991
Released during the prestige months leading up to the Oscars, critics were perhaps expecting a Peter Pan riff from Spielberg with less sentimental hokum than this unabashedly odd fantasy. I’ll admit that the opening act is by far the strongest, as the adult Peter (Robin Williams), now a jaded lawyer, neglects his children until they are mysteriously kidnapped. As his wife, Caroline Goodall delivers a sublime monologue about how Peter’s time-consuming work has caused him to miss out on the best years of his life as a parent. Spielberg deftly builds a deliciously ominous atmosphere as Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith) tenderly tries to jog the memory of her adopted “grandchild,” who began, of course, as her childhood crush. Alas, Neverland itself never quite rises to the level of these early scenes, despite the very funny deadpan banter of Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins as Hook and Smee. And yet, there’s plenty to savor here, thanks in large part to the performance by Williams, which ultimately emerges as one of his most moving. Watching the film after the actor’s untimely death, there are moments that now strike me as unbearably poignant, such as when Peter finally remembers why he chose to grow up: “I wanted to be a father.”
8. Amblin’ 12/18/1968
Spielberg’s first notable directorial effort was shot on 35mm in the summer of ’68 and led to him earning a contract at Universal. People tend to remember it primarily as the movie that inspired the name of Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, yet it is far more than a trivia-worthy novelty. Enhanced immeasurably by Allen Daviau’s evocative cinematography, this wordless character study, clocking in at a brisk 25 minutes, begins as a whimsical vignette and turns into something more haunting. Two young hitchhikers (Richard Levin and Pamela McMyler) meet on a desolate road, much like Roger Thornhill and the local farmer in “North by Northwest.” Surrounding them in all directions is the blinding desert landscape of southern California, as they trek toward the Pacific coast with little to do but smoke weed, take part in an olive-spitting contest and make love in front of a flickering campfire. Daviau beautifully illustrates the evolution of the characters’ bond in how he frames them on their journey, which concludes with a delicately portrayed revelation that will resonate with anyone who has ever been disillusioned by the mirage of romantic projection. “Amblin’” is visual storytelling in its purest form, clearly the work of a born filmmaker.
7. Minority Report 6/21/2002
A year after “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” alienated audiences seeking summer thrills, “Minority Report” won over critics and audiences alike with its brilliantly detailed, dystopian vision of America where “PreCrime” is punished. Though I’ve found the tonally messier and frequently frustrating “A.I.” much more rewarding upon repeat viewings, “Minority Report” was hugely entertaining right out of the gate. Tom Cruise is riveting as the Hitchcockian protagonist who finds himself wrongly accused and ventures out to solve the whodunit plot with the help of a PreCog (the mesmerizing Samantha Morton), one of the psychic beings tasked to predict crimes before they occur. The best scenes in the film are the ones involving Cruise and Morton, as she tells him the precise places to stand in a crowded mall in order to evade the gaze of police. Futuristic technology such as touch screens turned out to be startlingly prophetic, as did the advertisements that customize themselves based on the identity of passerbys—thus extinguishing all anonymity. The nightmarish imagery is made more palatable by a streak of dark humor typified by the moment when Cruise—resembling a wrinkly-faced Harold Lloyd— runs after his eyeballs as they roll along the ground.
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind 12/25/1977
The same year “Star Wars” redefined all-ages entertainment at mainstream multiplexes with its limitless eye candy and wall-to-wall action, Spielberg presented a much different kind of science fiction opus—one that focused on everyday people grappling with what appear to be signs of extraterrestrial life. The fun is in the journey rather than the destination, as Spielberg masterfully guides us through two hours of splendidly prolonged suspense, never allowing us a glimpse of the aliens until the visually rapturous finale. Even as a kid, I never grew impatient with the wait, and savored every moment of it. Looking at it now, the film stands as a refreshing rebuke to our instant-gratification culture. The impeccable cast is led by Richard Dreyfuss and French master of cinema François Truffaut, though the film’s most effective sequence features Melinda Dillon, the definitive movie mom of the ’80s. Shades of “Poltergeist” materialize as Dillon struggles to prevent her son from being abducted by aliens, whose presence is suggested in frighteningly unexpected ways. Spielberg reportedly hadn’t informed Dillon of precisely what would occur during the scene, thus eliciting a genuinely terrified reaction that resulted in her well-deserved Oscar nomination.
5. Duel 11/13/1971
The first great triumph of Spielberg’s career, this TV movie takes the infamous crop-dusting sequence from “North by Northwest” and stretches it to feature-length, replacing the plane with a towering tanker truck that moves at high speeds uphill with the sole purpose of demolishing its prey, providing the monstrous template for the shark in “Jaws.” Dennis Weaver is endearingly vulnerable as the victimized everyman bewildered by the faceless, bloodthirsty driver hell-bent on destroying him. My single favorite shot in the entire picture occurs when Weaver makes a desperate call in a phone booth, as the truck speeds closer and closer toward him in the background, framed much like the crop-duster hurtling toward Cary Grant. One of the more memorable vignettes in Damián Szifrón’s perversely hilarious Argentine-Spanish crowd-pleaser, “Wild Tales,” took “Duel” as its inspiration, pitting a snooty rich man against a blue-collar sociopath. The twist was that neither man was sympathetic, which caused the audience to take delight in their escalating, self-inflicted misfortune. Spielberg’s film is an unambiguous battle between good and evil, amping the tension to nearly excruciating levels in a way that would’ve delighted the Master of Suspense.
4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 6/11/1982
Though the director would go on to make extraordinary films about the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List”), World War II (“Saving Private Ryan”) and our nation’s most beloved president (“Lincoln”), I still believe that “E.T.”—the 1982 original, not the CGI-saturated “special edition”—is the best film of Spielberg’s career. It gets the number 4 slot on this list simply because it’s so much more than a summer movie. Sure, there is awesome spectacle on display, notably the bike-flying scene that includes the signature image of the filmmaker’s career: the silhouettes of Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his otherworldly companion as they sail across the moon. It is the friendship that forms between these two lonely souls that forms the heart of the piece and creates moments of astonishing emotional power, such as when Elliot’s stifled tears of despair morph into cries of elation upon E.T.’s return from certain death. Yet it is the operatic farewell that concludes the film where the director’s craft shines the brightest. In Emilio Audissino’s essential book, John Williams’s Film Music, the iconic composer reveals that Spielberg slightly re-edited the ending “to configure with the musical performance that I felt was more powerful emotionally.” Boy was he right. It’s a tear-jerker for the ages.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark 6/12/1981
What began as a throwback to serial adventures of yore is now seen as an equally nostalgic example of old-fashioned movie magic, filled with the sort of meticulous practical effects that have a vitality and authenticity that cannot be replicated on a computer. That’s one of the chief reasons why Spielberg’s own failed Indiana Jones reboot, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” felt so soulless in comparison. With its exuberant sense of spontaneity, it feels as if the director and his crew are making up “Raiders” as it goes along, throwing in crazy ideas at the last minute and somehow making it work. One of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories has got to be the one where leading man Harrison Ford (as the whip-smart archaeologist) was scheduled to perform an intricate fight scene with a sword-wielding foe. Yet Ford was in bad health that day and couldn’t go through with it, inspiring one of the funniest improvisations in movie history while paying homage to Han Solo’s assertion that “ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” And it must be said that the melting faces of the Nazis during the film’s climax was easily the most singularly horrifying image I encountered as a child. Now the waxy effect has been turned into a candle, courtesy of Firebox.
2. Jurassic Park 6/11/1993
It’s only appropriate that Spielberg’s groundbreaking technological marvel takes place in a theme park, since the picture is as close to a roller coaster ride as cinema gets. The first hour is one long climb up a steep hill of mounting anticipation peppered with awe-inspiring sights and foreboding red flags. Critics complained that the characters were insubstantial, yet Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards and future Apartments.com spokesperson Jeff Goldblum (at his Goldblumiest) are never less than engaging as our heroes, and that’s frankly all that matters. As soon as the T-Rex shows up, the film dives down its first 300-foot drop and never lets up, eliciting pleasurable squeals with its hairpin turns, sudden jolts and adrenaline-pumping pace (“Hold onto your butts,” indeed). I was stunned at just how great the film looked when it was re-released in theaters for its twentieth anniversary, a testament to the transcendent ingenuity of its effects, a near flawless fusion of gargantuan animatronics and cutting-edge animation. Like a coaster settling back into its station, the film ends with its surviving protagonists flying off to safety while finally able to catch their collective breaths, leaving us dazed, shaken and utterly exhilarated.
1. Jaws 6/20/1975
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is the line police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) famously utters to ship captain Quint (Robert Shaw) upon first glimpse of the shark in “Jaws,” the first true summer movie. It also became an indirect message to the film industry as a whole: “If you want to attract big crowds, you have to offer big attractions bristling with thrills and explosions.” “Jaws” offered all that, no question, yet what most people in Hollywood routinely forget is that the movie succeeded first and foremost because it was character-driven. The script by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb allowed ample time for the story to breathe and the characters to get to know one another, thus causing the viewer to become more invested in their plight. It wasn’t the fleeting money shots that made the shark so terrifying, it was the monologue delivered by Shaw that etched an unforgettable portrait of the flesh-chomping creature.
Years ago, I saw the film in a theater full of high schoolers, and the scene that caused them to leap from their seats involved not the shark, but a severed head that glides into frame during the investigation of a downed boat by the wonderfully neurotic oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfess). Spielberg recut the scene with editor Verna Fields after a test audience failed to respond to it, and they came up with one of the most perfectly executed scares in cinema. And I’m willing to bet that every climactic explosion subsequently used throughout film history (including the destruction of the Death Star two years later) was directly inspired by the one in “Jaws.” Yet has there ever been an explosion that has proven as satisfying or has earned more applause that the one Spielberg staged here? (accompanied by the badass quip, “Smile, you son of a b—ch!”) No matter what’s currently playing at the multiplexes this season, “Jaws” will forever remain the greatest summer movie of all time, effortlessly devouring the competition in a single gulp.
“Jaws” celebrates its 40th anniversary on June 20th. I know what I’ll be watching that day.