• Gremlins

Chicago moviegoing has been overrun by the inevitable glut of holiday fare that arrives this time each year. The city’s theaters have Christmas options aplenty, including the Music Box’s Annual Christmas Show, the Logan’s typical programming of such standards as Home Alone and A Christmas Story, and a smattering of other offerings from virtually every venue in town. The Pilsen espresso joint Nitecap Coffee Bar, which recently started a DVD screening series of its own, throws its hat into the ring with perhaps the only Christmas movie I enjoy watching: Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which, admittedly, is as much about Christmas as Animal Farm is about agriculture.

Dante is one of our great cult stylists, a proponent of irreverent and kinetic cinema. Despite having substantial proponents in Jonathan Rosenbaum and others, he’s still in a marginalized position overall, but I think that suits him. After all, even his most mainstream work takes its cues from the lowest rungs of the genre ladder, a place few directors willingly go. But that’s precisely what makes Dante so valuable as a filmmaker. While lesser B-movie fetishists bother themselves with legitimizing traditionally unappreciated genres, Dante embraces even the lowliest of material, mutating it until it resembles the stuff of pure cinema. In other words, he’s not out to class up the joint, and we’re all the better for it. You can catch my five favorite Dante films after the jump.

5. Matinee (1993) Part B-movie homage, part critical essay on moving image consumption, and all ridiculous—in the best way possible. Pop culture references abound, but the various allusions to early 60s movies iconography are more than just nostalgic nods to Dante’s cinephile past. Rather, they contrast and contextualize the film’s JFK-era Cold War milieu, whose apocalyptic implications often felt like the stuff of movies.

4. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) Because of the way he applies cartoon aesthetics to “realistic” film form, Dante is something of a disciple of Frank Tashlin, so it makes perfect (almost divine) sense that he’d direct a Looney Tunes film. Dante deeply understands and takes obvious joy in the anarchic qualities of Looney Tunes, so the film is very entertaining, but its most valued attributes are found in the transcendent symbolism of Dante’s live-action/animation hybrid images.

3. The Howling (1981) Like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and a slew of other successful filmmakers, Dante owes much of his career to cult cinema icon Roger Corman. Among these famous filmmakers, Dante’s one of only a few who took Corman seriously as an artist. In fact, one of Dante’s earliest films is essentially a series of clips from Corman’s oeuvre. True, this was mostly a budgetary decision—the movie is the result of a bet made between Corman and producer Jon Davison that Davison couldn’t make a film for cheaper than those made at New World Pictures—but there’s a reverential quality in the way Dante presents each clip. The Howling, a giddy horror gem, is the most Cormanesque thing Dante’s made, and easily his best early film.

2. The ‘Burbs (1989) Dante’s hilarious riff on Rear Window. Bored suburbanites suspect their new neighbors, the Klopecs, of foul play and begin to spy on them; in the film’s famous conceit, Dante gradually flips the switch so that the “normal” suburbanites are revealed to be the true weirdos, driven to paranoia by sheer boredom. Indeed, the crusade against the Klopecs is less a civic undertaking and more an unconscious reaction to a collective existential dilemma. The whole film transpires on a single street in the fictionalized suburb of Hinkley Hills, the whole of existence for its eccentric inhabitants, as Dante implies in the film’s ingenious opening shot.

1. Gremlins (1984) His most successful work, and, as times goes on, maybe his most misunderstood. A nostalgic lens gives Gremlins a Spielbergesque sheen, and while that’s not exactly an inapt comparison, Dante’s sense of adventure and spectacle is nowhere near as sentimental as Spielberg’s. For starters, Gremlins is a work of satire, a knowing mockery of the holiday season and its customs. It’s also deliberately artificial, self-aware, and often switches genres, assuming the role of noir, Christmas film, fantasy adventure, B-movie serial, ’50s monster cheapie, and seemingly a dozen others. In their work, Dante and Spielberg both explore ideas of what makes a movie a movie, but where Spielberg usually answers with “magic,” Dante answers with “perspective.” As Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote, “it’s the morals of spectatorship that ultimately concern him the most.”