Ask anyone what their favorite Steven Spielberg movie is, and few will say Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But ask them what their top five Spielberg films are, and most people would likely find room for it. It’s as strong a film as he’s ever made — an early sign that he could do far more than just scare people with Jaws — and while it occupies a curious nether region among his masterpieces, none would question its placement among them. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.
There were two other films fighting for the pole position, and the one that just missed out is Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows: one of the brightest lights in the French New Wave and certainly one of the most heartfelt as well. The autobiographical tale covers the unhappy childhood of a young Parisian boy, ignored by his parents and tormented at school. It was shot on location and highlights the perceived authenticity championed by the New Wave without the attendant showiness. It opened in the United States today in 1959.
The third film vying for the podium never quite had a shot, but considering it kicked off one of the biggest franchises of all time, it certainly makes an effort. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was hobbled by the reality of having to establish an entire universe all by its lonesome. It takes care of the heavy lifting so the rest of the saga can get down to business. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened today in 2001.
And on a much slighter, but definitely crowd-pleasing note, today was the day Macaulay Culkin sent those pesky burglars packing in the original Home Alone. I’m not a huge fan, but for slapstick fun, it’s hard to knock it, and it’s earned its status as a holiday staple. It opened today in 1990.
I’m going to close with a pair of personal favorites. The first, Heavenly Creatures, was a calling card from director Peter Jackson, previously best known for some truly weird genre films coming out of New Zealand. This one — about an infamous murder case in which a pair of girls bludgeoned one of their mothers to death with a brick — displayed a poise and maturity that caught the world’s eye and set the stage for the director’s eventual triumph with The Lord of the Rings. (It also marked the feature film debut of one Kate Winslet). It opened in the U.S. today in 1995.
The second, Night of the Comet, is an odd bit of post-apocalyptic zaniness from the Reagan era, in which a comet wipes out almost all life on earth… except for a couple of Valley girls, a nice Hispanic due, and a whole lot of zombies who chase the three of them through LA. It opened today in 1984.