Everyone has traditions during the holidays, especially when it comes to choosing which films will play as the family gathers to celebrate the season.
Sure, It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are classics, but I'm going to play devil's advocate for a second: Instead of going through the motions and watching A Christmas Story for the umpteenth time, invigorate your yuletide viewing habits with some fresh cinematic experiences. Consider the following a starter kit:
Gremlins is one of the great films about the Reagan era, but it's also one of the best subversions of the Christmas-film genre. Hilarious, rambunctious and dangerous, Joe Dante's satire slices through the façade of commercialized Christmas to reveal what's really important: family and tradition, which should be respected instead of perverted by capitalism.
If we're going pure comedy, holiday films don't get much better than Home Alone, still one of the great slapstick acts of cinematic rebellion. Yet, Chris Columbus' mega-hit also confronts the real possibility of isolation and fear during this season of giving.
Still clamoring for a classic? Try Ernst Lubitsch's lovely The Shop Around the Corner, which finds Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan swapping anonymous letters and falling in love under the twinkling sky of Budapest in winter.
But the pièce de résistance of holiday films is John McTiernan's action extravaganza, Die Hard. Nothing says Christmas cheer like a smart-ass cop from New York City taking down a squad of European baddies on the eve of Jesus' birth. My family has been watching it for years, and, let me tell you, it never gets old.
But wait. Maybe I need to start practicing what I preach. Dear reader, do you have a few new holiday-film recommendations to share with this hypocritical film writer? Some new discoveries would be a present indeed.
20 Feet from Stardom: Backup singers for today’s superstars finally take center stage in this music documentary featuring a range of inspirational stories about artistic endurance and passion. This is a return engagement at the Ken Cinema.
Hours: The late Paul Walker stars as a conflicted father who attempts to wait out Hurricane Katrina in a city hospital while protecting his newborn daughter, who’s breathing with the help of a ventilator. Screens at AMC Plaza Bonita in Chula Vista.
Paradise: Love: The first segment in Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy, the film follows a middle-aged woman who travels to Kenya to partake in sex tourism. Screens Dec. 13 through 18 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Paradise: Faith: Religion and repression form the central struggle at the heart of Ulrich Seidl’s second film in the Austrian director’s trilogy of modern-day emotional angst. Screens Dec. 14 through 19 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Paradise: Hope: Set at a camp for overweight teens, the third film in the Austrian auteur’s trilogy concerns a 13-year-old who falls in love during a summer of emotional revelation. Screens Dec. 14 through 18 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), please meet Smaug, fire-breathing dragon and protector of all things gold. Have a nice three hours together.
The Last Days on Mars: Sci-fi film about a disobedient scientist who leaves his team of astronauts on a Mars mission in order to follow a lead that could potentially reveal an astounding discovery. Screens through Dec. 19 at the Ken Cinema.
Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas: Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s wildly popular fictional creation, the titular massive and sassy grandma, wreaks havoc on a small rural town during the holiday season.
One Time Only
Prince Avalanche: Two men (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) escape the hustle and bustle of the city, living for a summer in rural Texas and repaving roads after a devastating wildfire. Screens at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the Mission Valley Library.
Elf: Everybody’s favorite elf, Buddy (Will Ferrell), gets a rude awakening when he escapes to New York City and realizes not everyone loves Christmas in quite the same way. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Love Actually: Eight couples in varying stages of romantic entanglement navigate the holidays in different ways. The glimmering lights of London at Christmas provide a cheery backdrop to the flirtatious shenanigans. Screens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at Arclight La Jolla and Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13 and 14, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
The Room: Tommy Wissau’s film is supposedly the worst film ever made, a multi-million-dollar disaster you have to see to believe. So see it. Screens at midnight Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Ken Cinema.
Meet Me in St. Louis: Vincent Minelli’s masterpiece is a brilliant Technicolor gem about four sisters who encounter lessons of love as they prepare to move to New York City from their hometown of St. Louis one year before the 1904 World’s Fair. Screens at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at Arclight La Jolla.
Beginners Guide to Endings: Three brothers find out they have only a few days left to live and decide to make amends with all the people they’ve wronged. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 16, at the San Diego Public Library in East Village.
The Willow Tree: Majid Majidi’s 2005 drama follows a blind professor who’s diagnosed with a fatal disease and travels to France for treatment. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at the Scripps Ranch Library.
Christmas Vacation: Join the Griswald family as they try to survive multiple pitfalls during the holiday season. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
August. Eighth: Reality and fantasy clash in this war film about a single mother trying to find her son during the South Ossetia conflict between Russia and Georgia. Screens at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Bettie Page Reveals All!: Sit down with the world’s greatest pinup model in this doc featuring found footage and interviews. Ends Dec. 12 at the Ken Cinema.
Geography Club: In this comedy based on the best-selling book, an after-school meet-up group is formed so that students of varying sexual orientation can discretely share their feelings, concerns and plans for the future. Ends Dec. 12 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Narco Cultura: The rise of corridos, folk songs that celebrate narco culture and violence, is juxtaposed with the real-world consequences of the bloody drug war in Mexico. Screens at AMC Palm Promenade in Ocean Crest.
Out of the Furnace: The hills of Appalachia are alive with the sound of violence in this mountain noir starring Christian Bale as a blue-collar worker attempting to find his kidnapped brother (Casey Affleck), who’s being held by a local gangster (Woody Harrelson).
The Punk Singer: This music documentary about punk-rock icon and activist Kathleen Hanna, who formed the band Bikini Kill and pioneered the “riot grrrl” movement in the 1990s, contains archival footage and rare interviews. Screens through Dec. 12 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Black Nativity: Angela Basset and Forest Whitaker lead this ensemble dramedy about a young man who visits his estranged relatives for the holidays, only to discover a newfound sense of family and inspiration.
The Book Thief: A young girl faced with the horrors of Nazi Germany steals books as an act of defiance and begins sharing them with Jewish refugees. Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel comes to the big screen in this adaptation starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Homefront: Jason Statham plays a former DEA agent who retires to a backwoods town only to find more trouble in the form of a country gangster (James Franco!) looking to protect his drug operations.
Nebraska: Aged retiree Woody (Bruce Dern) is determined to collect his winnings after receiving a phony sweepstakes letter, eventually dragging his reluctant son (Will Forte) on a road trip that’ll change both of their lives. Alexander Payne’s latest is a melancholic ode to family and the Midwest.
Oldboy: Spike Lee’s remake of the brutal Korean revenge saga stars Josh Brolin as a man imprisoned for 20 years by an unknown captor, only to be suddenly released without explanation and taunted by a madman.
Philomena: Comedian Steve Coogan takes on a more serious role as a cynical journalist who ends up helping an elderly woman (Judi Dench) search for her long lost son. Oscar nominations are a certainty.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself once again fighting to survive the titular death match that has become a necessary evil in the dystopic future.
Delivery Man: Vince Vaughn’s man-child finds out he has fathered 533 children after donating to a sperm bank for decades. Hollywood at its finest.
Blue is the Warmest Color: A high-school student discovering her burgeoning sexuality falls for a blue-haired art student in this French epic that won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Best Man Holiday: A collection of college friends reunite for the holidays after 15 years, revealing a host of grudges and romantic intentions that have been simmering under the surface for years.
Dallas Buyers Club: In 1985, a drunken rodeo clown Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughy) learns he has HIV. Seeing an opportunity to stave off his own death and make some money, he begins smuggling unapproved drugs in from Mexico.
Mysteries of the Unseen World: This amazing documentary uses high-speed and time-lapse photography to focus on things that are either too fast or two slow for the eye to see. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Thor: The Dark World: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) once again brings the hammer down on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to save the human race and sustain the fragile balance of his own kingdom.
12 Years a Slave: Abducted and forced to work on a Southern plantation, free man Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejifor) experiences the horrors of slavery in Steve McQueen’s stirring period-piece drama.
About Time: In Richard Curtis’ (Love Actually) charming modern fable co-starring Rachel McAdams, a young man discovers he can travel through time and seeks to use his power to find his soul mate.
Ender’s Game: Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel about a young pilot fending off an alien threat finally gets adapted for the big screen, surely angering fans everywhere. Harrison Ford co-stars as a growling general.
Free Birds: This animated film follows two combative turkeys (voiced by Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson) as they try to get the gobbler off the holiday menu by traveling back in time.
Last Vegas: A foursome of aging Oscar-winning actors (Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert De Niro) play seniors who head to Las Vegas for one final hurrah of debauchery and camaraderie.
All is Lost: A nameless Man (Robert Redford) battles extreme weather and technology failure to keep his small sailboat afloat in this thrilling tale of survival from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call).
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: After grossing out America in 3-D, Johnny Knoxville gives his grumpy, ill-mannered, senior-citizen sketch character a feature-film platform.
Captain Phillips: Based on actual events, this thriller by director Paul Greengrass tells the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama and its leader, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), who was kidnapped by Somali pirates during a voyage in 2009.
Deep Sea: A glorious ocean exploration with Del Mar’s own veteran underwater filmmakers and explorers, Howard and Michele Hall. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Gravity: Sandra Bullock plays a marooned astronaut struggling to survive an epic space disaster in Alfonso Cuarón’s breathless adventure film.
Cosmic Collisions: So, that asteroid that might smash into Earth in 20 years is much bigger than previously thought? Awesome. This new IMAX movie at the Reuben H. Fleet looks at what happens when things bash into each other in outer space. On the bright side, if we go the way of the dinosaurs, at least future species will have a new source of fossil fuels.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.