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Have Yourself A “Black Christmas” (Or Other Weird December Films)

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Varda By Agnes

Want to minimize treacly films from your cinematic December?  Cinemagoers in the S.F. Bay Area craving more offbeat fare are in luck.  This month offers both the new edition of a genre film festival from the S.F. Independent Film Festival folks as well as a twisted Christmas slasher tale from the director of “A Christmas Story.”  But adventurous viewers can also see famed Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman in person, the restoration of a great concert film, and even a low-budget horror film that might turn you off frozen food.  So dive in and take a look!  

December 1-15

Another Hole In The Head Film Festival—The English tell ghost stories around Christmastime.  Here in S.F., we go one better. Those lovable weirdos from the S.F. Independent Film Festival bring eager viewers their annual festival dedicated to genre films and beyond.  Yes, there’s a ghost story here (The Deeper You Dig), as well as such familiar staples as serial killers (Artik) and zombies (Eat Brains Love).   But wilder fare is included as well, such as the story of a masked sex party that turns into a power struggle between the party’s voyeuristic hostess and a burlesque dancer from her past (X) or a documentary about the Canadian city where the commercial bomb “Phantom Of The Paradise” became a local pop culture phenomenon (Phantom Of Winnipeg).  Definitely be sure to make time for: 

Stay Out Stay Alive

Stay Out Stay Alive” (when Yosemite hikers unexpectedly discover a gold mine, they face both their own personal greed and the mine’s vengeful spirits); 

1974: La Posession de Altair” (this take on the found footage genre involves home movies capturing young newlyweds’ being destroyed in part by a possessed young woman); 

Black Circle” (an innocuous 1970s-era hypnotherapy record unleashes the positive aspects of two sisters’ personalities at a sinister cost); 

The Wretched” (a killer tree spirit which can possess people and wipe out memories of loved ones seriously livens a teen’s disciplinary summer); 

and “Senior Love Triangle” (a semi-delusional World War II veteran is determined to save the two elderly women he loves from retirement home isolation…and maintain his sexual relations with them).  (New People Cinema

December 3 

Attack The Block–Before the conclusion of the new “Star Wars” trilogy arrives in theaters, check out new trilogy star John Boyega’s leading role debut.  As an added bonus, see Jodie Whittaker years before she became the new Doctor Who. Joe Cornish directed this amazing action-packed and often funny debut feature.  Its premise is simple: of all the places on Earth to invade, why are extraterrestrials targeting a South London housing project on Guy Fawkes Day? If several such project residents can stay alive, they might find the answer.  These residents include nursing trainee Samantha (Whittaker) and Moses (Boyega), leader of a teenage gang that tried to mug Samantha. Nick Frost also appears as a friendly pothead/pot grower. (Alamo Drafthouse)   

December 4

White Star—Fan of the late Dennis Hopper?  Then you need to check out this restored film never theatrically released in the U.S.  It’s set in the West Berlin musical underground scene of punks and late-night revellers.  Hopper plays with crazy intensity seedy concert promoter Ken Barlow. His new project is helping synth-punk protege Moody hit the top of the rock charts.  But Barlow’s plan to make this happen falls heavily into the “whatever it takes” camp. (Alamo Drafthouse)

December 4, 6-12, 14, & 18

Mr. Klein–In 1942 Nazi-occupied Paris, Catholic art dealer Mr. Klein (Alain Delon) has financially thrived by buying fleeing Jews’ valuable works of art at fire sale prices.  But when a Jewish newspaper lands on Klein’s doorstep, he winds up desperately trying to prove his Aryan heritage. More importantly, he’s looking for the Jewish doppelganger bearing his name. This film was blacklisted director Joseph Losey’s first French film and features a script written in part by Franco Solinas (The Battle Of Algiers) and an uncredited Costa-Gavras.  Needless to say, French audiences definitely didn’t appreciate Losey’s unsparing and historically accurate depiction of French collaboration with the Nazis. (Roxie Theater & Pacific Film Archive)

Mr. Klein

December 5

Duet For Cannibals–The directorial debut of famed New York intellectual Susan Sontag takes a serio-comic look at the shifting emotional relationships among four people.  There’s the exiled arrogant ex-revolutionist German intellectual, his elegant wife, their Swedish student secretary, and the secretary’s bride-to-be. What begins as simple partner swapping soon goes into emotionally uncharted territory.  (Roxie Theater)

December 7

A Day Of Silents–The S.F. Silent Film Festival presents five different silent film programs with live musical accompaniment by such groups as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  Included are the oldest surviving film version of “The Phantom Of The Opera” (starring famed horror actor Lon Chaney in the title role) and half a dozen short films directed by Alice Guy-Blache, one of the first directors of narrative films. (Castro Theatre

Archive Fever–What’s better than finding and preserving odd films from the past?  Sharing those preserved finds with like-minded connoisseurs of weird cinema.  The folks at Other Cinema present a new program of offbeat cinematic archival material including:  1980s Mexican TV commercials, 1970s QSL cards aka “friending” in the Citizen’s Band era, short films shown to treat World War II PTSD patients, and a look at sex-education films about sudden birth. (Artists Television Access)

December 10

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas—Before director Bob Clark made the perennial holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” he directed an equally memorable but far darker Christmas tale.  A trio of sorority sisters (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin) have been targeted for death by a potty-mouthed killer. Can police chief John Saxon save the three young women before their Christmas turns blood red?  For those sickos who need their Christmas celebrations livened by knife murders and death-by-Christmas-ornament, here you go. (Alamo Drafthouse)

December 10 & 11

Lost Landscapes Of San Francisco 14–Rick Prelinger returns with his popular archival clip show of images of San Francisco life and landscapes from the early 20th century to the 1980s.  Each show mixes together popular favorites from previous years along with new archival discoveries made over the past year. Among this year’s unearthed treasures are: footage of the late lamented Sky Tram, 1937 footage of fooling around on the Rainier Beer loading dock, and even intimate footage of Latinx and Japanese families.  So come on by and see images of the San Francisco that once was. (Castro Theatre)

December 11-12

Afterimage: J. Hoberman On Movie Culture In The Age Of Reagan–Legendary movie critic/film historian J. Hoberman appears in person to celebrate the publication of the final book in his Found Illusions trilogy.  He’ll also talk about the connections between Hollywood movies and the Reagan Presidency. Accompanying Hoberman are two films from the period covered by his new book.  First, Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy “The King Of Comedy” concerns Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a would-be standup comedian who becomes dangerously obsessed with successful comedian/TV talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).  Then the quietly horrifying “River’s Edge” is based on the true story of a 16-year-old Milpitas teen who strangles to death his 14-year-old girlfriend…and then brings his friends to gaze at his victim’s naked and unburied corpse. (Pacifiic Film Archive)

River’s Edge

December 13

63 Up—One of the greatest documentary series ever made comes to its possible end.  In 1964, a group of 7-year-olds were interviewed about their dreams and hopes for the future.  Every seven years after, these schoolchildren were interviewed about what changes life had made to their dreams and ambitions.  For viewers around the world, the series provided an opportunity to see these filmed subjects grow up on screen. Now as the Up series’ subjects face the prospect of old age, they have a chance to reflect on the joys and regrets of a life partially lived in front of the world.  (Opera Plaza Cinemas)

The Kingmaker–If you thought Imelda Marcos was political toast after the fall of husband dictator Ferdinad Marcos in 1986, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s new film is here to disabuse you of that notion.  Her documentary follows the former First Lady of the Philippines as she sets about trying to maneuver her children back into the highest levels of Philippine political power. Allegedly stealing $10 billion from the Philippine state treasury does wonders for providing one heck of a stake for starting over.  (Embarcadero Center Cinemas)

Midnight Family

Midnight Family—In Mexico City, the municipal government operates only 45 ambulances to serve a population of nine million.  To take up the slack, private for-hire ambulances also operate on the city’s night-time streets. Film subjects the Ochoa family runs one of the more trustworthy ambulance services around.  But with the twin squeezes of police bribery and cut-throat ambulance competitors, how long can the Ochoa business remain viable? (Roxie Theatre)

December 15

The Bloody Curse–What do you get when you mix “The Evil Dead,” a spectacularly twisted episode of “Robot Chicken,” and a heavy chaser of blatant copyright infringement?  The answer: this Super-8 stop-motion animated oddity filled with tons of gore.  Action figures from a certain science fiction franchise connected to a certain spectacularly humorless entertainment megacorporation are dropped into supernatural battle.  So take this rare chance to see action figures credited as H. Solo and Princess L. fighting Lovecraft-styled monsters. (Alamo Drafthouse)

Out Of The Vault:  The Brink–Want to get a taste of what San Francisco’s Beat poets were about?  Then check out this program of three preserved Beat era short films. The program centerpiece is the titular film from Beat poet ruth weiss, who will appear in person at the screening.  He and She are two argumentative lovers. Their conversation, which is rendered in the film as a mix of poetry and image, offers existential musings on love in the mid-20th century moment the Beats existed in.  weiss’ debut film screens with shorts from her compatriots Paul Beattie and Steven Arnold. (Pacific Film Archive

The Brink

December 17

Dial Code Santa Claus–Ever wish “Home Alone” had more bloodshed and Rambo references?  Then you twisted readers should catch this film which preceded the Macauley Culkin blockbuster by a year!  On Christmas Eve, a computer-loving, game-playing kid is left home alone with his grandfather. However, a bloodthirsty Santa Claus decides to invade the kid’s house.  But this sicko Santa didn’t reckon on dealing with an ingenious and well-armed kid. (Alamo Drafthouse

December 18

The Stuff–Sick of a season dedicated to hyping consumerism?  Then you need a low-budget horror film that might turn you off frozen food.  From the twisted mind of director Larry Cohen comes this tale of an insanely popular frozen food that turns the unwary into killer zombies.  Nothing says celebrating the holiday season more than a film featuring melting faces and the best supermarket rampage ever. (Alamo Drafthouse)

December 19

Chinatown Rising–Back in the 1960s, young activist Harry Chuck used a 16 mm camera and film scraps from a TV station to record what would become major historical events affecting San Francisco’s Chinatown community.  His 10 hours of unreleased footage included the International Hotel eviction and the San Francisco State University strike. Now, 45 years later, this footage along with interviews with Chuck show how young activists of the time shifted Chinese community power away from their more conservative elders.  (Christopher B. Smith Rafael Theatre)

Say Amen, Somebody—Want to know the appeal of 20th-century gospel music?  This highly acclaimed concert documentary from George T. Nierenberg will provide your one stop answer.  Gospel luminaries such as Thomas Dorsey tell their backstories. More importantly, the film is filled with show-stopping performances by such gospel artists as the Barrett Sisters and the O’Neal Twins.  (Roxie Theatre)

December 20-22

My Neighbor Totoro

Miyazaki Mania 2019–For many American viewers, the films of Hayao Miyazaki were their entree into the amazing world of Japanese animation.  This weekend film series presents in both subtitled and/or dubbed versions a half dozen of Miyazaki’s classic films in new screen prints.  Attendees can get lost in the lush animation of such films as My Neighbor Totoro (two sisters discover the forest near their new home is inhabited by amazing magical creatures including the incredibly tall furry being known as Totoro), Nausicaa Of The Valley Of Wind (Princess Nausicaa struggles to restore the balance between humans and nature in a world devastated by the horrific consequences of a thousand-year old war), and Porco Rosso (an ex-Italian Air Force ace cursed with a pig’s face finds himself challenged for local top dog by an arrogant American pilot). (Roxie Theater)   

December 20-21 & 26

Varda By Agnes—This month, Pacific Film Archive begins “Agnes Varda: An Irresistible Force,” a film series dedicated to the late great French New Wave director.  An early highlight is this sneak preview screening of Varda’s last film.  It’s the director’s personal career retrospective as she talks about such career highlights as “Cleo From 5 To 7” and “Faces Places,” discusses such personal interests as photography and architecture, and even reminisces with such collaborators as actress Sandrine Bonnaire.  Also, screening this month at the PFA are such must-see Varda classics as Vagabond and The Gleaners And I.  The SFMOMA will also screen the Varda film series, but their program is not starting up until January.   

December 21, 27, and January 8

Tokyo Twilight–The last black-and-white film of famed Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu gets a digital restoration.  Legendary star Setsuko Hara plays a sister who’s left her unhappy marriage to live with her father and increasingly delinquent younger sister in their old seedy neighborhood.  When the sisters discover their supposedly dead mother is actually alive and living nearby, disasters follow. (Pacific Film Archive

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.