Light the way: The holiday season offers films for all tastes as distributors race to the awards-season finish line. (Photo: Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox")

Feast Your Eyes: A Holiday Film Preview

Dennis Harvey November 25, 2009

I don’t know about you, but I know what I want for Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, for that matter): Some decent movies. Hope springs eternal, especially at this time of year. It’s Hollywood custom now to reserve the majority of its prestige titles for an annual late onslaught, the idea being that award-bestowing organizations’ voters naturally gravitate toward whatever is freshest in their memories. In the indie sector, too, there are some goodies timed for holiday gifting.

So, here’s a glancing, far-from-exhaustive preview of what we’ve got to look forward to between now and New Year’s Day. Keep in mind that many films—particularly foreign titles—likely to receive 2009 kudos from national organizations won’t actually open in the Bay Area until early 2010. (That includes Haneke’s German-language The White Ribbon, Andrea Arnold’s U.K. Fish Tank, the Romanian Police, Adjective and French prison epic A Prophet.)

I’ve left out a few things (Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New, the Silent Film Fest’s Winter Event, etc.) that will be covered at greater length on SF360 in coming weeks. And of course we’re skipping some mainstream releases just too painful to think about, like Guy Ritchie’s über-flashy assault on Sherlock Holmes, several routine-looking comedies and anything within hurling distance of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Three big ones opened yesterday, so we’ll mention them just briefly: John Woo’s return to Chinese-language cinema, the period action epic Red Cliff, is sure to be spectacular—although there’s been some understandable grousing about the length of time it took to get here, not to mention the fact that we’re getting a two and one-half hour condensation of the original five-hour, two-part version Asian audiences saw. John Hillcoat’s The Road is a long, bleak, faithful version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, worthy yet somehow uninspired. Wes Anderson’s improbable entree into animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (which premiered here at the San Francisco International Animation Festival), turns Roald Dahl’s typically cheeky kids’ book into a very Anderson-esque exercise, with Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman (plus George Clooney and Meryl Streep) playing critters with very human problems. Like many of this year’s best animated features, Mr. Fox should amuse most children—while absolutely delighting many adults.

Apart from series and special events, dates listed are for the films’ local commercial opening.

Sing-a-Long Sound of Music (11/27-29 at the Castro) Because some of you just can’t live without sharing "The Lonely Goatherd" with several hundred of your closest friends, can you? Appropriate costuming (!) is encouraged.

Christmas with Walt Disney (11/27-1/4 at Walt Disney Family Museum) A charming hour-long compilation of Disney holiday-themed materials during Walt’s life, including cartoons, live action features, TV shows and live public events. (Did you know he produced the pageantry aspects of the 1960 Winter Olympics?)

Samuel Goldwyn Presents (12/2-10 at the Castro) Famed for his malapropisms ("Include me out"), the Polish emigre producer was nonetheless also a savvy businessman with an aggressive (if erratic) instinct for quality. This retrospective showcases a few of his career highlights, from classics like The Little Foxes, Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of Our Lives to lesser-remembered Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor vehicles.

The Joy of Life (Dec. 3-20) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ holiday gift to you is this series of movies linked only by the fact that they’re pure viewing pleasure. The menu includes Jacques Tati (Parade), W.C. Fields (It’s a Gift), Bollywood (Om Shanti Om), all-singing, all-dancing (That’s Entertainment III), vintage non-Disney animation (Hoppity Goes to Town), Muppets (Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas), ’70s S.F. silliness and smut (via a program of the late Curt McDowell’s wonderful shorts), and a "free surprise screening" on the 19th.

Up in the Air (12/4) OK, The Men Who Stare at Goats was not so hot. But this latest Clooney-starring satire, directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) has gotten nothing but acclaim since its Telluride premiere. George plays a master corporate downsizer (he flies in, he fires everybody, he hops the next plane while they’re still too stunned to protest) whose own day of employment reckoning finally arrives. Trivia note: Aside from the few professional-actor leads, all cast members are real-world "downsizing" casualties.

Collapse (12/4) Documentarian Chris Smith’s (American Movie) movie provides a forum for Michael Ruppert, a very complicated guy concerned about "the speed with which things are falling apart"—and his theories on that are frighteningly conspiritorial, detailed, apocalyptic, and plausible.

Brothers and Everything’s Fine (12/4) When in doubt, re-make. Still, these two English-language do-overs of acclaimed foreign films involve enough major talent to suggest they’ll be more than just watering-downs of the originals. Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) directs Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and others in an Americanized spin on Suzanne Bier’s 2004 Danish dysfunctional-family drama. Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 film is now a seriocomic vehicle for Robert DeNiro as a widower unpleasantly reunited with offspring Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell. Kirk Jones of Waking Ned Divine and (the divine) Nanny McPhee directs.

8mm Films of George & Mike Kuchar (12/10 at SFMOMA) The brothers Kooch were still Bronx teenagers as yet undiscovered by the Manhattan avant-garde when they commenced making gloriously lurid (and senseless) potboilers in the late 1950s. The four newly restored shorts showcased in this program commence with the telltale 1961 title Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof.

The Lovely Bones (12/11) A mix of real-world emotional pain and next-world fantasy could very well return Peter Jackson to the brilliant pre-*Lord of the Rings* terrain of Heavenly Creatures. For which we would readily forgive his massive fanboy self-indulgence on that endless King Kong.

Ladies of the ’80s (12/11 at the Castro) Midnight for Maniacs’ latest triple-bill assault on your nostalgic brain cells encompasses Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a 1986 first feature showcase for Whoopi Goldberg as star and Penny Marshall as director; the prior year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, which delightfully entangled Rosanna Arquette and Madonna (making her first/arguably last impact as a viable screen actress) in Susan Seidelman’s modern screwball comedy; and at midnight, Slava Tsuckerman’s druggy 1982 bisexual New Wave sci-fi midnight classic Liquid Sky, shown in its only surviving 35mm print. Some of the latter’s main collaborators will be present at this now-rare revival screening.

A Single Man (12/11) There have been a number of films made by people significantly involved in the fashion industry, and frankly most of them have been horrible in the most stereotypical way—flashy, shallow, slumming pseudo-"art" by/for the over-rich and privileged. But designer Tom Ford (credited with singlehandedly rescuing the Gucci brand) has won kudos for this debut feature, a Christopher Isherwood-adapted period piece with Colin Firth as a grieving gay man and Julianne Moore as his best friend.

Invictus (12/11) Clint Eastwood is 79, an age at which I hope to be…well, alive, but also doing little more than kicking back catching up on those (by then) classic HBO series and attempting Proust yet again. Clint has another movie (or two) arriving just in time to be Oscar bait. This latest stars Matt Damon as a real-life South African rugby star who helps Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) finagle their country into the post-Apartheid era.

Me and Orson Welles (12/11) Though it’s taken its time finding distribution, this cheerful nostalgia piece is starting to build some awards buzz for an apparently awesome impersonation of Welles himself by Christian McKay. Besides, has Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise et al.) ever made a bad movie? (Well, we didn’t see that Bad News Bears remake.) Possible qualifier: High School Musical’s Zac Efron has the real lead, as a youth cast in Welles’ legendary 1937 stage production of Julius Ceasar.)

Uncertainty (12/11) After going more mainstream with Bee Season, the Bay Area-linked directorial team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) are back in art-puzzle territory of their debut Suture. Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play a young couple who decide to flip a coin over their future together—and the movie (making its local premiere at the Roxie) follows two very different trajectories imagining both outcomes.

Incredibly Strange Religion (12/12 at Artists’ Television Access) Because there would be no Christmas without Christ—it would still be pagan Winter Solstice—this Other Cinema Show offers Michael Gitlin’s new documentary The Earth Is Young, which gives voice to Young Earth Creationists who claim geological evidence confirming a six-day creation of Everything about 6,000 years ago. The bill will also include various "kooky cult" clips. Unarius, please!

Hitch for the Holidays (12/16-23 at the Castro) Was there ever a Christmas scene in a Hitchcock movie? If so, it was surely an ironic backdrop for mortal peril. Still, there’s always something oddly cheering about his mayhem. You’ll get an unlucky 13 examples of it in this mini-retrospective, which includes many of the usual suspects (Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Notorious, North by Northwest, etc.) as well as the less frequently revived likes of Marnie, The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 edition, with Doris Day singing "Que Sera, Sera").

In Search of Beethoven (12/18) Has he been lost? Well, no—but after the nearly two and one-half hours of Phil Grabsky’s documentary, you will surely know Ludwig better than before. Historical and biographical errata, performances and interviews mix in this acclaimed study, which opens a theatrical run at the Roxie.

The Young Victoria (12/18) In the wake of The Tudors, no zaftig English history figurehead remains immune from being sexed-up (and slimmed down) for entertainment’s sake. Emily Blunt plays the long-reigning monarch at an early, marriageable point in this favorably reviewed costume piece by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (CRAZY) and Gosford Park scenarist Julian Fellowes.

Avatar (12/18) Stop! Please stop the noises inside my head! Oh wait: It’s just the incessant mounting drum-beat of hype behind James Cameron’s first feature since grotesquely over-everything (commercially successful, poorly written, hokey, et al.) triumph Titantic 12 years ago. He’s so perfectionist he required technology this long to catch up to his imagination? Oh please. His narrative ideas never outstripped technology before. Will this 3-D, partly motion-capture feature prove otherwise?

35 Shots of Rum (12/18) This latest from the ever-unpredictable Claire Denis superficially sounds, well, unusually usual (for her): It’s a Parisian ensemble piece about a problematic yet somehow functional family and their closely entangled friends. But Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve are nowhere to be found in a slowly paced, warmly felt story that emphasizes the City of Light’s increasingly multicultural character.

Broken Embraces (12/25) Ah, remember the days when each new movie by Fellini, Bergman or Antonioni was an international event? Oh course you don’t! Those days are long gone. But thankfully there is one European auteur who still creates major anticipation everytime he drops a new ‘un. Pedro Almodovar’s latest stars current muse Penelope Cruz in a noirish tale of dangerous passions and eye-popping art direction.

It’s Complicated (12/25) Yes it is complicated: We automatically lean forward at the thought of a comedy starring Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep, two great actors recently treasured anew for their hitherto underappreciated comic chops. (Even in Doubt, Streep was often hilarious.) Steve Martin is the other third of the triangle, and that’s OK.

The Missing Person (12/25) Michael Shannon had been making an impression here and there for years in generally underseen films (like Let’s Go to Prison and Shotgun Stories). But his startling turn as a mentally unstable man who nonetheless sees right through the central shaky marriage in last year’s Revolutionary Road*—a movie full of fine performances—really made critics and viewers alike say “Who is this guy?â€? Well, now that guy has graduated to leading roles, the first out being this modern noir costarring the equally, unconventionally almost-a-star Amy Ryan (*Gone Baby Gone). It got a mixed reception at Sundance, but those two performers alone are enough to get us lining up.

Crazy Heart (12/25) A first feature by writer-director Scott Cooper, who adapted Thomas Cobb’s novel, this drama stars Jeff Bridges as a craggy, boozy, fading country music star who gets one last shot at redemption. That wouldn’t sound incredibly promising—but for the rumor that Bridges might at last have a role winning him the Oscar he earned long ago. (He’s only been nominated as Best Actor once—for 1985’s Starman!)

Nine (12/25) The original Broadway musical wasn’t very good (despite its near-irresistible basis in Fellini’s 8 1/2) but succeeded due to sheer star power. One might well predict the same results from this belated film translation by Rob Marshall (who made Chicago a popular success via wrongheaded casting and sentimentalization of cynical source material). Daniel Day-Lewis, an inspired choice, could well be genius as the womanizing director-antihero. But will fellow famous (but not for their singing) costars including Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard fare as well? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Bicycle Thief (12/25 at the Roxie) Experiencing holiday depression? Well why not roll with it by revisiting Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 ultra-downer about a poor Roman father and son for whom things get even worse when the bike dad depends on for his job (plastering glamourous film posters) is stolen. This neo-realist classic, shown in a newly struck 35mm print, is sure to make your own troubles seem less wrist-slitting.

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