Movie theaters are crammed on Christmas Day, even in years without a Star Wars merchandise tie-in playing on half the screens. The Scrooges among us cackle that people crave an escape from their families for a couple hours, even if it entails riding in the same car and sitting in the same row. Santa’s many helpers, on the other hand, note that the frenetic demands of December allow no time for a break until, well, the 25th day of the month.
Here are five enticements and encouragements to set everything aside and catch a movie before the crunch. If they all hearken to the past, well, remember that January offers ample time to catch up with the new films hoping to vie for Oscars.
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Opening Dec. 4 at the Roxie and Smith Rafael Film Center
The adoration of Janis Joplin had everything to do with the rawness and intensity she brought to the stage and the studio. It was easy to relate to the pain in her voice, and to appreciate the power of those pipes, but it was her gutsy, put-it-all-on-the-line-every-time ethos that galvanized her fans. (And peers like Mama Cass Elliot, caught in open-mouthed amazement in D.A. Pennebaker’s splendid Monterey Pop as Janis rocked out.) Godforsaken Port Arthur, TX gave Janis her fuel and fury, but acid-washed San Francisco welcomed her wild-child spirit and provided collaborators like Big Brother and the Holding Company. That colorful slice of local history is the best part of Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amy Berg’s feature-length documentary.
A Day of Silents
Dec. 5 at the Castro
I’ve spilled a lot of pixels over the years (and man, are they a drag to mop up -- just ask Buster Keaton) alerting the uninitiated to the impeccable presentations of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the contemporary pleasures of pioneering cinema. The fest’s offseason endeavor, A Day of Silents, has something for everyone among its five programs, from Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling across the deck of The Black Pirate to Anna May Wong mesmerizing every male in Piccadilly. Take a trip back in time with the archival compilation “Around China With a Movie Camera,” or savor Harry Houdini slipping his bonds to thwart upper-crust murderers in The Grim Game. Whatever you do, don’t miss the breathtaking production design of The Inhuman Woman (L’Inhumaine), French director Marcel L’Herbier’s saga of a singer stung by scandal.
Dec. 11 at the Castro
Carol Doda’s passing last month reminded everyone with a 415 number that San Francisco characters -- of any age -- are an endangered species. We especially miss filmmaker and sexual rebel Curt McDowell and his mentor, filmmaker and devout eccentric George Kuchar. The perverse and dynamic duo leaps naked and beaming into the spotlight with two shows of the newly-restored director’s cut of their over-the-top underground epic Thundercrack! Drag impresario Peaches Christ is the ringleader for what promises to be a wild and stormy night (you don’t need a weatherman to know the effect of graphic screen sex on Castro audiences) and an only-slightly-less-rambunctious matinee. This revival commemorates the film’s 40th anniversary, as well as Synapse Films’ imminent DVD release.
Noir City Xmas
Dec. 16 at the Castro
Now that we’ve got the '20s, '60s and '70s covered, we turn to the '40s. With Noir City just over the horizon in January, idling like a Plymouth waiting for a gang of bank robbers to make its getaway, Eddie Muller and Co. proffer a cyanide-laced appetizer. Noir City Xmas delivers a double helping of squalid suspense, beginning with extortionist James Mason picking on housewife Joan Bennett in Max Ophuls’ creepy The Reckless Moment. (Local filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel adapted the same source novel for their chilly 2001 thriller, The Deep End). Richard Widmark’s cracked performance as a wacko bird circling the unfortunate pigeon who fingered him to the cops has made Kiss of Death justifiably famous. If a hard rain’s gonna fall this winter, let it be that night.
New Mission Opening
Finally, the long-awaited, long-delayed opening of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse’s San Francisco outpost. A fortuitous collision of the old and the new, the renovated and restored New Mission will offer art house fare buoyed with vintage genre, cult and classics series on weeknights. They did score the Star Wars flick to launch things, but that kind of blockbuster will be the exception rather than the rule. Check out their offbeat programming around the holidays, when the crowds aren’t quite as crazy, and rekindle your movie love for the coming year.