A stock­ing full of hol­i­day flicks

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - By G. Allen John­son G. Allen John­son is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: ajohn­[email protected]­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @BR­film­sAllen

Christ­mas movies have been a Hol­ly­wood sta­ple for gen­er­a­tions, from “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” to “White Christ­mas” to “A Christ­mas Story” and be­yond.

Given that rich his­tory, which was the great­est year for Christ­mas movies?

For your con­sid­er­a­tion: 2003.

You re­mem­ber 2003: That by­gone era be­fore smart­phones, when you could still hop from JFK to Paris on the Con­corde, a gal­lon of gas av­er­aged $1.54 and Jeff Gar­cia was the 49ers’ quar­ter­back.

In Novem­ber of that year, three very dif­fer­ent vi­sions of Christ­mas opened across Bay Area screens: The sweet, ir­re­sistible en­sem­ble piece “Love Ac­tu­ally,” the silly Will Fer­rell com­edy “Elf ” and a dose of yule­tide ar­senic from Terry Zwigoff, “Bad Santa.”

Those films dom­i­nate the reper­tory houses across the Bay Area this month, where nine venues will show some 18 Christ­mas movies.

The coolest way to see “Love Ac­tu­ally” is at Davies Hall, where the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony will bring Craig Arm­strong’s score to life on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day, Dec. 11-12. But for those who can’t get tick­ets (both shows are near a sell­out), the English rom-com star­ring Hugh Grant, Keira Knight­ley, Colin Firth, Alan Rick­man, Liam Nee­son, Emma Thomp­son and Chi­we­tel Ejio­for also plays at 7 p.m Thurs­day, Dec. 6, at the Rialto Cin­e­mas Cer­rito; and 3:30 p.m. Tues­day, Dec. 11, at the Alamo Draft­house’s New Mis­sion the­ater (a 7 p.m. show is al­ready sold out).

"Elf,” though, proves to be the most pop­u­lar. It wraps up sev­eral “movie party” screen­ings that in­clude a live snow­ball fight at the Alamo Draft­house at 1 p.m. Satur­day, Dec. 8; shows up as part of a dou­ble fea­ture with “Home Alone” at the Cas­tro The­atre on Dec. 14, and screens at the New Park­way in Oak­land on Dec. 20.

Why so pop­u­lar? Is it that “Elf ” (2003), with Fer­rell as an over­size Santa’s helper cut­ting loose in Man­hat­tan, might be Fer­rell’s finest hour? Or that the movie has stars from many gen­er­a­tions — Zooey Deschanel, Ed As­ner, Pe­ter Din­klage, Mary Steen­bur­gen, Bob Ne­whart, James Caan, the voices of Leon Red­bone and Ray Har­ry­hausen, and an­i­mated char­ac­ters that hark back to the days of Rankin/Bass?

"Bad Santa,” with Billy Bob Thornton as a foul-mouthed, al­co­holic de­part­ment store Santa who uses his Santa suit as a front for crime, was to get a bizarre show­ing Wed­nes­day, Dec. 5, at the Bal­boa The­ater pro­jected from a VHS tape.

One thing for sure, these hol­i­day movies look even bet­ter 15 years down the pike. In other Christ­mas movie high­lights: “It’s a Won­der­ful Life”: The Frank Capra-James Ste­wart col­lab­o­ra­tion, what most con­sider the great­est Christ­mas movie of all time, an­nu­ally screens most promi­nently on Christ­mas Eve at the Stan­ford The­atre in Palo Alto, and it’s al­ways a sell­out. Ad­vance tick­ets go on sale at 5 p.m. Dec. 14. The clas­sic also screens Dec. 22 at the Cas­tro The­atre on a dou­ble fea­ture with “A Christ­mas Story,” and Dec. 23 at the New Park­way.

“It’s a Won­der­ful Life” caps a month­long clas­sic Christ­mas movie se­ries at the Stan­ford. Lau­rel and Hardy’s ver­sion of “Babes in Toy­land” screens at 7:30 p.m. Fri­day through Sun­day, Dec. 7-9 (and 4:40 p.m. Satur­day-Sun­day); fol­lowed by the dou­ble fea­tures of “Mir­a­cle on 34th Street” and “The Bishop’s Wife” (Dec. 14-16) and “The Shop Around the Cor­ner” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Dec. 21-13). Noir City Xmas: “Night of the Hunter,” Charles Laughton’s master­piece star­ring Robert Mitchum as a preacher who ter­ror­izes a small-town fam­ily, isn’t usu­ally thought of as a Christ­mas movie. That’s be­cause it isn’t. But it does end on Christ­mas Day, so that counts for the an­nual event at the Cas­tro in which the pro­gram for Jan­uary’s Noir City film fes­ti­val is re­vealed and some hol­i­day shop­ping can be done with noir-themed mer­chan­dise on sale on the mez­za­nine. “Grem­lins”: The 1980s were a pretty good decade for hol­i­day movies as well, and aside from “A Christ­mas Story,” none res­onate more than “Grem­lins,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween di­rec­tor Joe Dante and writer Chris Colum­bus. Star­ring Zack Gal­li­gan and Phoebe Cates, with Howie Man­del as the voice of Gizmo, the most de­struc­tive Christ­mas present ever, it will have four “movie party” screen­ings at the Alamo Draft­house (1 and 6 p.m. Fri­day, Dec. 7; 6 p.m. Satur­day, Dec. 8; and 7 p.m. Mon­day, Dec. 10) as well as at the Bal­boa The­atre at 7:30 p.m. Fri­day, Dec. 7, and at the New Park­way on Dec. 16. Most un­usual pro­gram­ming: Gonna go with “Christ­mas Evil,” a 1980 cult slasher film about a toy fac­tory worker who dresses as Santa and goes on a killing spree. Ho-ho-huh? Screen­ing Dec. 18 at the Alamo Draft­house (part of its Ter­ror Tues­day se­ries), it stars Bran­don Mag­gart, an ac­tor, writer and artist (www.bran­don­mag­gart.com) who is the fa­ther of singer Fiona Ap­ple. Coolest pro­gram­ming: The late great “Tokyo God­fa­thers” is a 2003 anime that reimag­ines the Three Wise Men (the Magi) para­ble in mod­ern-day Ja­pan. It is also a tribute to “3 God­fa­thers,” John Ford’s 1948 Western ver­sion of the story that starred John Wayne. No film screen­ing this Christ­mas sea­son bet­ter en­cap­su­lates the real mean­ing of the sea­son. Worth mak­ing last-minute plans for, as it screens at 9:30 p.m. Thurs­day, Dec. 6, at the New Park­way in Oak­land.

Honor­able men­tion goes to “The Mup­pet Christ­mas Carol,” with Michael Caine as Scrooge and Ker­mit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, which is fun for the whole fam­ily. The 1992 movie screens Dec. 23 at the Roxie The­ater. “Bit­ter Melon”: Fi­nally, a shout-out to the San Fran­cisco shot in­die film by H.P. Men­doza that isn’t as scary as “Christ­mas Evil,” but the dark side of the hol­i­day is present in this in­trigu­ing, ab­sorb­ing tragi­com­edy that opens Fri­day, Dec. 7, for a reg­u­lar run at the AMC Van Ness. Set in the Ex­cel­sior district, it is about a young gay man who vis­its his Filipino Amer­i­can fam­ily for Christ­mas and con­fronts the fam­ily’s dark un­der­cur­rent of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. The film changes tone in the sec­ond half, with sev­eral twists and turns. It’s pretty good.

Pe­ter Moun­tain / As­so­ci­ated Press 2003

Laura Lin­ney and Colin Firth are part of the all-star cast of “Love Ac­tu­ally,” one of three mem­o­rable Christ­mas-themed movies from 2003. The San Fran­cisco Sym­phony will per­form the score live for two screen­ings next week.

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