December films can mean a lot of things. For critics, it's a marathon of award contenders, many of which seem important at the time and quickly disappear into the cinematic mists, but many of which catch on and last forever. It can also mean trips to the movies with family, breaks from shopping, ways to get out of the cold, holiday-themed movies, kids' movies, etc. Like the holidays themselves, December movies can conjure up many memories. It's also the last oasis before the January dump comes along (featuring the latest horror remakes, and Martin Lawrence and Larry the Cable Guy films).
1a. The Lord of the Rings (December 17-19, 2001-2003)
This just goes without saying, doesn't it?
1b. The Exorcist (December 26, 1973)
The Exorcist is a perfect Halloween movie, with its colored leaves and chilly autumn winds. But here's a secret: it opened the day after Christmas, 1973. I can only imagine: you and the family are slightly hung over from turkey dinners and an overabundance of gifts. You yawn, put down your empty egg nog mug, step over the discarded wrapping paper, move past the Christmas tree, past Grandpa Fred asleep on the couch, wrap up in scarves and hats, pile in the car, drive down to the movie theater, and buy tickets for... this? For spinning heads and pea-soup vomit? Yet it worked, and it was a huge hit. This was what people wanted to see that winter. Perhaps it was a reflection of those dark times. Just last year, during our own dark times, AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem opened on Christmas Day. I have an AVPR ornament on my tree to prove it.
2. The Godfather Part III (December 25, 1990)
The second film also opened in December of 1974, but this third entry is a personal choice. It was the first time I ever went to the movies on Christmas Day. It was kind of exciting, like sneaking out and doing something naughty. Of course, it was a huge event, a movie that had to live up to an impossible amount of hype. And it has come to rest in the annals of cinema as a great failure -- but I love it. Its only crime is that it's not Godfather I or II, but what is? Instead, it's a deliberately anti-climactic coda to a great saga, autumnal and sad, with the bastard nephew and the suntanned lawyer taking the place of brothers and trusted friends. It even has the courage to go out with a whimper.
3. Million Dollar Baby (December 15, 2004)
Early in December Clint Eastwood's film wasn't even on the radar. Then it just suddenly turned up, as if Warner Bros., unsure of what to do with a strange boxing/life support film, had flipped a coin and decided to gamble on it for Oscar consideration. It screened for my critics group one day before deadline, and most of our jaded, exhausted members didn't bother to show up. (Sideways was our winner instead.) But those who saw it raved about it; some critics saw another great, tough Clint Eastwood movie, set within the dank, sweat-stained walls of the gym, while those who wanted their annual message movie got it, with a controversial cry over the decision to pull the plug.
4. Jackie Brown (December 25, 1997)
The poster was adorned with eight words: "This Christmas, Santa's Got a Brand New Bag." Talk about holiday spirit!
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (December 25, 1962)
Here's another odd one: it takes place in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, with Atticus Finch sauntering to work in the courtroom, never breaking a sweat in his dapper suit, while Scout plays on the tire swing. But, here again, it opened during the holiday season. Despite the setting, however, it's a perfect movie to see during the time of "goodwill toward men." It's the annual message movie, and it's seriously flawed in many ways, but none of that matters because it's soooo good. It even charmed enough Oscar voters to give the more impressive Lawrence of Arabia a run for its money. (To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars as compared to Lawrence's seven.)
6. Rocky Balboa (December 20, 2006)
After sitting through endless, endless message movies and movies that were practically smeared in Oscar polish, this little gem turned up at the screening room just days before the Christmas break. I went to it, awash in curiosity, convinced that it was going to be a hilarious disaster. Instead, I got a surprisingly personal, emotionally risky and moving tale of an aging Rocky (re: Stallone), wondering what to do next. It worked in every way that it was supposed to, and I left very happy. What's more, I even had a movie I could safely recommend to my small town relatives over the holiday.
7. Panic (December 1, 2000)
Another personal choice. This amazing film starred William H. Macy as a married hitman working for his gangster father (Donald Sutherland). Emotionally strung-out, he goes to therapy, meets a young woman (Neve Campbell) in the waiting room and starts an affair with her. It's a great, impeccably made film. But there were problems. To start, "The Sopranos" had just hit the airwaves with roughly the same idea, and then distributor Artisan test marketed the film to Neve Campbell's "Party of Five" fan base. Of course, they hated a film about a man's mid-life crisis and the distributor dumped it. Enter Roxie Releasing, based at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. Years earlier they had similarly rescued John Dahl's Red Rock West and turned it into a smash hit. They press-screened Panic, and I -- in my first two weeks on the job at the local newspaper -- was blown away. I wrote a breathless, four-star review (reprinted here) and hopefully steered a few people toward seeing it. My colleague Rob Blackwelder also championed the film, as did, a few weeks later, Roger Ebert (with his own four-star review). I'm not sure the film ever made its budget back, but today it's considered a classic sleeper. It felt great to end the year as a small part of something good.
Others: Goldfinger (December 22, 1964), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (December 20, 1978), Beverly Hills Cop (December 5, 1984), Dune (December 14, 1984), Naked Lunch (December 27, 1991), Schindler's List (December 15, 1993), Hamlet (December 25, 1996), Titanic (December 19, 1997), etc.