Every December brings two types of cinematic adventures: a deluge of holiday-themed films (find them all on our holiday film list) and a flood of films with “award season buzz” that the studios save for the end of the year so that they’re fresher in the minds of voters for those various statuettes. As a result, movie-goers have plenty of choices — whether they like their films free of jingle bells or full of ho-ho-hos. So take a break from the holiday shopping and sit for a spell in front of your nearest big screen. Here are the ten best (non-holiday) film events in Denver in December, presented in chronological order:
Opens Friday, December 2
Landmark’s Mayan Theatre
Fifty years ago, a sniper made his way to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began shooting into the crowd, holding the campus and the world in terror for 96 minutes. That violent act left sixteen dead and three dozen wounded, and also left an indelible scar on America’s psyche. Director Keith Maitland’s retelling takes archival footage and new re-creations, but uses rotoscope animation to blend the two realities and tell the stories of the survivors, heroes and witnesses of that harrowing day in America’s history. Get tickets at landmarktheaters.com.
2. Fargo: 20th Anniversary
Saturday, December 3, at 2 p.m.
Twenty years ago, the Coen Brothers gave us a homespun yarn of murder, money and Marge, the charismatic and very pregnant sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota (played to Academy Award-winning perfection by Frances McDormand), who’s just trying to solve three fresh murders in her county while keeping her morning sickness at bay. The Coens created a pitch-perfect black comedy that introduced the world to Midwest accents, attitudes and a harsh winter landscape with its own definition of cold-blooded, which could well have been another planet right in our own back yard. The Sie is screening this neo-noir great on 35mm film, and you can get your tickets at denverfilm.org.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition
Saturday, December 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Last year brought us many great films, but one of the loudest was George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth chapter in his apocalyptic cult story and one that fans had been waiting thirty years to see hit the screen. Hit it did (and punch, blow up and slash), bringing Miller’s penchant for non-CGI effects and stunts to his bloody road race and introducing a new feminist action icon (Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa), who managed to overshadow hero Max (George Hardy filling in for Mel Gibson). A box-office smash, the film even made its way to the Oscars, where it snagged a bunch of technical awards. But Miller still had one surprise up his sleeve: His original vision was to shoot the film in black and white, and although the released version was gorgeously colored, he commissioned a version naked of its hues and full of contrast and brightness instead. Take another spin in this fast ride with a new paint job; get your tickets at denverfilm.org.
4. Actor Martinez
Opens Friday, December 9
A few years ago, filmmakers Mike Ott and Nathan Silver met at the Denver Film Festival and began meshing their individual styles together for a movie. Along the way, they met fest volunteer Arthur Martinez, who seemed the ideal star of their bizarre idea — as long as he played himself. The film’s concept was paper-thin, but the duo left behind their usual locales — L.A. and New York, respectively — and brought the production to the Mile High City. A quick shoot was followed by a fast edit and soon a premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, with a recent homecoming at the 39th Denver Film Festival, where it got tongues wagging over its bold originality. What is it about? Bottom line, it’s about the production of the very film you will be watching and about the ideas that germinate when we meet people and imagine them in a fictional world of our own design. But what is fact and what is fiction, and what is real life and what is cinema? Actor Martinez will have you talking long after the images stop bouncing off the screen (and continue into reality). Get your tickets at denverfilm.org.
5. A Day At The Movies With Rachel Talalay
Sunday, December 11
On The Farm screens at 3:30 p.m. Doctor Who: Hell Bent / Heaven Sent screens at 6:45 p.m.
Back in July, we interviewed director Rachel Talalay (Freddy’s Dead) as she prepared to come to Denver to screen and celebrate Tank Girl, her 1995 cult film, with a clutch of giddy fans. During our chat, she discussed her exile from Hollywood following that film’s poor initial reception and the massive gender gap she encountered in both film and television production. Talalay persevered by remaining creative and headstrong, and constantly hammering away at the glass ceiling while excelling in her direction of huge U.K. shows like Sherlock and Doctor Who. She even found time to direct a new film, On the Farm, following an investigation to solve a series of murders that rocked Vancouver in the ’90s, and as a result finds herself poised to swing back into the big leagues. Talalay is returning to the Alamo to screen On the Farm and two of her episodes of Doctor Who — fan favorites “Hell Bent” and “Heaven Sent” — with proceeds from the Doctor Who screenings going to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union, with On The Farm's proceeds going to the Full Flood Endowment Fund - which goes to the children of the victims whose stories are told in the film - and two TBD local organizations. Between shows, Talalay will participate in a Q&A with the audience and talk about her past, present and rosy new future. Get your tickets at drafthouse.com.
Keep reading for more of December's best film events.
6. La La Land
Opens Friday, December 16
Landmark’s Mayan Theatre
The 39th Denver Film Festival kicked things off right with an opening-night showing of La La Land — and a visit from star Emma Stone — to start the twelve-day filmapalooza. A hard left turn from director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), this modern-movie musical had audiences twirling out of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, and it could duplicate that when it hits local theaters. The film centers on Stone’s Mia, an aspiring actress who crosses paths with moody jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they fall in love, elevate each other’s creativity and then reach a crossroads when they need to decide whose world takes precedence. Taking its inspiration from classic back-lot stompers like Singing in the Rain and positioning Gosling and Stone as a modern-day Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the film lays waste to bad moods and cynicism while maintaining just the right dose of reality to keep it from soft-shoeing right off a cliff of sappiness. Get your tickets at landmarktheaters.com.
Opens Friday, December 16
Landmark's Mayan Theater
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the nation was inundated with televised images, and those images had one star: JFK's regal First Lady, Jackie. There was footage of her perfect pink Chanel suit covered with her husband’s blood, as well as the gently veiled vision of beauty leading her children through a monumental and historic funeral procession. How did she hold herself together after such a cataclysmic blow? Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (NO, Naruda) explores the moments immediately following JFK’s death as the woman who once gave a live TV tour of the exquisitely redecorated White House finds her faith and defines her husband’s legacy under immense emotional pain. Actress Natalie Portman gives a perfect performance as Jackie Kennedy, and the movie — shot on a mixture of 16mm film and digital — paints a dark but gorgeous tapestry of one woman’s true grace under pressure. Get tickets at landmarktheaters.com.
8. Mifune: The Last Samurai
Opens Friday, December 16
Rashomon screens Saturday, December 17, at 2 p.m.
The story of “accidental” actor Toshiro Mifune — and how his relationship with filmmaker Akira Kurosawa led to sixteen amazing films during the golden age of Japanese cinema, inspiring everyone from Clint Eastwood to George Lucas, is chronicled in this bigger-than-life documentary narrated by Keanu Reeves. Chronicling Mifune's origins as a non-actor to his sudden brush with fame and all the trappings (and traps) that come with it, the film includes rare interviews with his co-stars and other cinematic notables to showcase an acting hero who had his own demons to battle off screen as well. As a bonus, the Sie will screen Rashomon on 35mm film, one of the shining examples of the magical art that emerged when Mifune and Kurosawa came together. Get your tickets for both films at denverfilm.org.
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Opens December 21
Denver area theaters
In space, where no one can hear you…fall in love? Hollywood cuties Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) star in this action-sci-fi-rom-com (the first?), the story of a massive spacecraft on a 120-year mission to deliver thousands of sleeping people to a new colony on a distant planet. But then two of the ship’s sleep pods malfunction and awaken Lawrence and Pratt ninety years early. At first they take advantage of their Adam and Eve-style existence among the stars, but nothing lasts forever, and bizarre gravity shifts and other space oddities seem to point to a problematic course being set for the ship and a hard lesson in teamwork for our star-crossed lovers. Find tickets at fandango.com.
Opens Friday, December 23
Landmark's Mayan Theater
Director Paul Verhoeven faced an uphill battle to regain credibility in the film world after his derided and (mostly) misunderstood 1995 Showgirls left him with a creative black eye and accused of being more exploitative than explorative — even though thrillers and action hits like Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and Robocop were the backbone of his canon. Early buzz on new film Elle, though, indicates that he could soon be back in the game. Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as the clever head of a successful business who is raped by an intruder in her home, and decides to throw all of her energy into finding her attacker and making his life a living hell. Huppert has been getting rave reviews for her performance and just received a coveted Gotham Award for her role in this sordid cat-and-mouse game that is sure to have people talking well into 2017. Find tickets at landmarktheatres.com.