Today in Movie History: December 20

It’s the season for Christmas movies and one of the most beloved of all time hit theaters today. It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s surprisingly dark story about a town held together by one man, and what happens when that man starts to doubt himself, opened today in 1946: giving returning G.I.s and a nation weary of war a chance to celebrate.

Is that all? My goodness no! In fact, this is one of the biggest days in the calendar for notable movies. We’ll start the rest of the list with Harold and Maude, the delightfully quirky cult classic about a strange, morbid young man (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) in love with life. It opened in 1971, the second Hal Ashby film in as many days on our list.

Oliver Stone tends to have the final word when it comes to the Vietnam experience on film, and that includes Born on the 4th of July, his biopic of activist Ron Kovic who lost the use of his legs during the war and became one of its most outspoken critics when he turned home. Stone won his second Best Director Oscar for the effort, and star Tom Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination ever in the lead. The film opened today in 1989.

Two years later, Stone struck again, this time looking at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As history, JFK is a bad joke, floating conspiracy theories that would make Fox Mulder giggle and achieving the kind of overheated rhetoric that would ultimately sink the filmmakers into a malaise of paranoid self-regard. But as a purely cinematic exercise, its power remains undiminished: a hypnotic dive into the differences between perception and reality that still has the power to shake you to the core. The film opened today in 1991.

Among his other brilliant achievements, Akira Kurosawa had a unique knack for adapting Shakespearean tragedy to the world of feudal Japan. That’s why, at the ripe old age of 75, he pulled an amazing rabbit out of his hat with Ran, a new version of King Lear that still ranks among the master’s finest achievements. It opened in the U.S. today in 1985.

Speaking of masters, the legendary Bob Fosse rarely turned his talents to directing, content instead to deploy his masterful choreography to incredible dance scene after incredible dance scene. But when he did direct, the results were usually spectacular. All That Jazz was perfect for him: a thinly veiled warts-and-all biopic of his own life with Roy Scheider standing in for the dancer himself. it opened today in 1979 and, like Fosse’s Cabaret, demonstrated exactly how far this man could push the boundaries of what a musical was supposed to be.

Then there’s Mysterious Island, a bit of fun from Ray Harryhausen and director Cy Endfield. It concerns a group of Union soldiers who escape a Southern prison camp in a hot air balloon and end up in pitched battle with giant crabs and prehistoric chickens on the titular isle. It opened in 1961 and is awesome.

December seems to be the month of shitty James Bond films, and we’ve got one of the worst today: The Man with the Golden Gun, Roger Moore’s second outing as 007 and easily his shakiest (yes, including Moonraker). Granted, it contains a few moments to relish, including one of the most amazing car stunts you’ll ever see. But when you bring on Christopher Lee as the villain — Christopher freaking LEE — and the results are as turgid as this, something has gone seriously wrong. The film opened today in 1974.

We’ll close with Scream, Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the slasher genre that helped make his fortune. I’ll be honest: I hate the film, with its smug condescension for horror movie fans and its bevy of winks and nods that come across more as masturbation than genuine commentary. But never let it be said that Craven — a legitimate cinematic genius whose earlier works were far more compelling — didn’t have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. For better or worse, the movie stands as the flagship for the horror genre in that era. It opened today in 1996.


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