A stocking full of holiday flicks
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.
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.