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The Holiday Movie Junket: A Guide

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We have a recently established tradition in my family, in which we make a trip to go see movies during the Christmas Holiday.  I jokingly refer to it as the Van Arsdale Film Festival (VAFF), but we’ve had a very good track record of picking films and getting a leg up on cinematic offerings that are always a bit better this time of year.  Today, I’d like to give you a look at how to plan and execute your own movie junket, based on the strategies we’ve developed over the past several years.  This guide isn’t for everyone, being focused on adults with the patience and time to spend many hours in theaters over a few days.  Much of this guide assumes you’re traveling to an urban center of some sort to get access to limited release films.  For my family, it normally is Denver, CO but the advice should apply most cities besides LA and NYC.

A good movie junket consists of several elements coming together:

Film Selection

It’s essential to do some research and select films that are of best quality and of a type you and your group will enjoy.  The more movies you watch, the better your odds of finding real gems, but you don’t want to spend too many hours wishing for the next movie.

During the end of the year, things are tilted in your favor especially if you’re into films made for adults as opposed to the teen-age multiplex fare.  That’s because all the producers want their prestige projects on the release calendar at the best possible moment for awards consideration.  On the other hand, a large number of award nominations does not mean a film will be entertaining.  Not all nominations are equivalent:  I generally ignore actor’s nominations and pay attention to screenplay and direction as indicators of potential entertainment value.

The critics will also be a great help, and you have access to more critical input today than ever before.  It’s important you vet your critics, by reading their reviews and seeing how their preferences line up with your own.  It’s less important that they have some sort of stature than it is that they like the same sorts of things you do and can explain why.  Be especially wary of internet critics who are unable to go into detail.  Also on the critical front, it’s very helpful to use an aggregation service (see the tool-box below) to filter out problematic films.

Also, I want to remind you that you should have a sense of what your other junket participants like.  My father and I are often on the same exact page in our preferences, but I like to make sure that I select films for my mother that she’s likely to enjoy.  For example, I know she likes happy endings and Brittish costume dramas.  This has lead us to films that everyone has enjoyed in the past several seasons, like Young Victoria, Slumdog Millionaire, and An Education.  You can’t get to know what your friends and family like without talking to them about the movies, and I’ll come back to that later.

Finally, don’t get suckered into over-using actor billing as a tool for selection.  Casual viewers always place too much credibility to the presence of an actor and movie producers know this.  If you want a different indication of what to expect from a film, look at the director.  Directors are much more consistent in my experience.  If you like a director’s film from last year, odds are pretty good that you’ll enjoy their newest film.  Using IMDB to explore a director’s work is time well-spent.


If you don’t know your way to all the theaters, go ahead and buy a GPS navigator right now.  Enter the theater addresses ahead of time so you don’t waste time between movies trying to figure out where you are going.

We start at the earliest matinee showing (11 AM), because we’ll often be taking in three or sometimes even four movies in a day.  I’ve found the nine and later showings really wipe you out for the next day, so I like to avoid them.   Among your notes, you should have run times and show times for the films you’re interested in.  I suggest starting with the earliest showing of any film on your radar, instead of prioritizing by what you think you’ll like.  That way, you’ll be giving yourself more time to make it to the next showing.  Since show times tend to be grouped around early matinee (11am-1pm), afternoon matinee (2pm-4p), evening (5pm-7pm), and night (after 9pm), you might miss a slot if you don’t plan ahead.  For example, a film that starts at 12:45 may run long enough that you’ll miss the start of another film at another theater in the afternoon matinee.

Food can be tricky.  It’s best to eat a hearty breakfast.  Normally it’s not too hard to find a nice time for dinner.  Lunch might not happen at all, but theaters will love to sell you snacks. If you’re lucky enough to be at a Landmark Theater, I recommend the Bagel Dog for a substantial snack.  Yes, it’s a bagel and a hot dog together.  It is delicious.

This is a junket, which suggests that we’re talking about an common experience that you and your friends will remember.  Don’t shortchange your junket by being cheap.  These days you can easily burn through $50-$60 at the theaters per person per day for admissions and snacks, so remember to have sufficient funds on hand.  It might seem extravagant to eat from theater concessions, but I’m convinced the experience and memories are worthwhile.

We like to spend at least one night in Denver in order to extend our movie junket.  Hotel deals are pretty good around the holidays, if you look for hotels that cater to business travel.  It can be difficult to face a lengthy drive home after watching three for four movies.


A successful junket is all about enjoying your time with your friends and family.  During screenings, you won’t be able to talk much with your friends and family, but you’ll have so much to talk about in between!  Good planning will free you to join the conversation.

A good-natured argument about a movie can be fun.  Try to encourage people to be specific about what they did or didn’t like about a movie you’ve seen.  I like to remind people that movies are built to elicit emotional responses, so there isn’t really one right answer as to why people like or dislike something.  Everyone experiences the same movie slightly differently.  I love to hear what people think, and even if I don’t agree with them it’s important to show them you appreciate their opinion.

You might try a vote to determine the favorite film of the junket, creating an impromptu film festival.  It can be as simple as a straight vote for best film, or a full Academy-Award style list of categories.  If you’re able to print out ballots ahead of time with space for notes, you’ll have a nice keepsake.

Here are some other conversation starters:

  • Ask people about their favorite movie of a certain type.  It’s very hard to pick one great film, but easier to talk about one’s favorite romantic comedy, or science fiction film.
  • Ask which films they’ve seen this year and think will do well in the awards season.  Perhaps you’ll get into a discussion about why film awards do or do not fit your personal preferences.
  • Name an important film you’re embarrassed to admit you haven’t seen.

The Toolbox

Film selection:

  • IMDB’s release calendar:  This is how you know what’s coming up and what type of distribution it’s going to get (wide vs. limited).  Also it is a simple thing to click through and view the trailers for films that you’re interested in.
  • MetaCritic:  I use Metacritic to eliminate under-performers.  It’s not a very good indication of upper-end quality, because of the disproportionate manner of film releasing.  A mid-sixties score may be a very good film in wide release, but a tepid limited release reviewed by far less people.  Be aware that childrens films appear to be universally rated on a different scale from adult fare.
  • Directors I like working right now:  The Coen Brothers, Danny Boyle, Jason Reitman, and Wes Anderson.  I tend to favor the quirky directors with a sense of humor.  You may have other preferences.
  • Early film award nominations on IMDB:  Golden Globes, SAG, Critic’s Choice, and Spirit Awards.  None of these accurately account for quality, but it’s helpful to see where the early award buzz is centered.
  • See my 2010 Blind Picks List below for what we’ll be looking for on our family junket.


  • Moviefone for show times.  There are other options for getting show times, but I’ve found Moviefone to be reliable and not too annoying to use.  I also appreciate the easily-located street addresses for theaters.
  • Diners Drive-ins and Dives episode & restaurant list.  A nice way to locate a modestly-priced restaurant that will serve up something out of the usual.
  • Landmark Cinemas.  If you happen to have Landmark operating at your destination, you have a nice option for art theaters.  They often restore older theaters that have a sort of charm you’ll never find at the Mall Cinemaplex.  If you’re in Denver, check out my favorite theater in town, the Mayan, which is an Art Deco masterpiece.
  • The Movie Map.  The data set looks a bit sparse, but it’s a great idea to use Google maps and iPhone apps to help people find filming locations.  Maybe you’ll have time for a side trip to a place made famous in the movies.


  • A blank movie journal page.  A holiday gift for you from Digital Monkeyshines, you’re welcome to print this off to make junket journals or programs.  Print double-sided on letter, half fold, and staple to make a simple paper booklet.  Nice to combine with a construction paper cover.

Bill’s Blind Picks for 2010

The following is a breakdown of what I think we’ll be looking for on our 2010 movie junket in Omaha, Nebraska. I have not seen any of these films.  This is merely the product of the research process I’ve describe above.

Limited Release Pick:  The King’s Speech

It’s an easy one this year.  My mother is a big Colin Firth fan, Tom Hooper has a pretty good track record in recent years, including John Adams and The Damned United.  I’m encouraged by the bio-pic format with a triumphant tone.  Early nominations are indicating this will be a likely Oscar contender.  I’m hoping it’s into wider release right after Christmas.

Wide Release Pick:  True Grit

I expect this will be the most successful Coen brothers film of all time, simply because it carries a PG-13 rating.  Ignore the Wayne purists who aren’t happy with tinkering with a classic.  The novel is amazing, and it appears that the Coens will have more license to address its darker, comic aspects.  Awards nominations have been hit-or-miss, but early critical scores are very good.

Animated Pick:  The Illusionist

I’m afraid this might be a particularly difficult film to find, but I hope we have the opportunity.  It’s an animated treatment of an undeveloped Jacques Tati script.  With films like M. Hulot’s Holiday, Jacques Tati paved the road for silent clowns like Rowan Atkinson.  I’m mostly sold because of the presence of Sylvain Chomet, whose The Triplets of Belleville is probably the best animated film made in the past twenty years.

Written by Bill

December 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Posted in Movies

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