Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Favorite Holiday Movies

Inspired by the first snow of the season.

And, by holiday, I mean the yuletide holiday season. These types of things are very subjective. That goes without saying, opinions on anything are very subjective. When I wrote about Amelie, I wrote about how there is a fine line between earnestness and cloying. The line with holiday movies is even finer, I think. I am sure one of the ones on my list (maybe more than one) would make someone want to throw up candy canes, they find them so corny. But thats the thing about holiday/Christmas movies, particularly older ones. (The charge has been leveled at "It's A Wonderful Life" while I've watched it.) But holiday movies are like kids movies. No matter how bad they are, the motivations behind making them are clear. No one's out to win any awards here. And they bring lots of enjoyment to the people who love them.

And these are the ones I love (in no particular order):

1) Elf

Ah, here we go, right off the bat. I am quite sure this one rubs people the wrong way, and its all in the eye of the beholder. I can see how people can be annoyed by this, but I find the joy behind this infectious. And the cast is not only unusual but pretty awesome. Not only Will Ferrell, but Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Kyle Gass, Andy Richter, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, and James Caan. Sonny Corleone in a Christmas movie? He excels at being grumpy anyway so why not make him a grumpy Dad who needs to be taught the meaning of life and/or Christmas. Oh, and I even forgot Amy Sedaris and Peter Dinklage. All the parts that should have me rolling my eyes into the back of my head actually work for me here: like Will Ferrell dancing in the mailroom, or the people of New York making Santa's sleigh fly because they believed in him. Yeah, I've been know to tear up at the ending, what of it? I'm not a robot.

2) A Christmas Story

Right up there with, "Its A Wonderful Life", probably the king and/or prince of Christmas movies. TNT still runs it for twenty-four hours on Christmas Eve. This is like the "Office Space" of Christmas movies: ignored upon its initial release it has steadily gained momentum over the past 26 years to attain the status it now holds. I actually saw it in the theater when I was six and have loved it ever since. The movie is amazing because it not only manages to capture that sort of guilt and wonder that came along with the season when we were younger, but manages to capture it at a more simple time. I love the narration by the author. And Darren McGavin is amazing as Raphie's father.

3) Bad Santa

This came out the same year as Elf and could actually be seen as the anti-Elf. Which is interesting because as a holiday movie they eventually end up, kind-of in the same place in the end. But Bad Santa gets there in the most gleefully profane way possible. Billy Bob Thornton is good as the mall santa,scumbag, thief at the center of it all. Its definitely not for every taste.

4) The Bishop's Wife

This 1947 is a sideways take on "A Christmas Carol" in that a suave angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant, comes to help a Bishop and his wife (David Niven and Loretta Young) so that they can heal their marriage and reconcile his professional duties. Along the way he helps out various others in enjoying their lives. Its the type of movie people talk about when they talk about old, corny movies, sure, but there is something nice and quiet about the whole affair that worms its way into your heart. You certainly can't go wrong with the cast, either. No one can resist the charms of the suavest angel in the universe with the worst name. If you can seek it out, the short movie they made that became the de facto trailer for the movie, where the stars of the movie walk around on the sets as themselves is awesome too. The wintery scenes outside, particularly the ice skating scene are amazing.

5) Die Hard

"Now I Have a Machine Gun, Ho-Ho-Ho."
Somehow this has become the go-to movie for my Dad on Christmas Eve. If you knew my Dad, you know how funny that actually is. And, I have to agree with him on this one, the greatest Christmas Eve movie as well as the greatest action movie ever made.
"If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year's!"

6) Miracle on 34th Street

1947 was quite a year for Christmas movies. This is the original, of course, with Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and a very young Natalie Wood. You can actually get away with watching this starting around Thanksgiving since it starts at the Macy's parade. Overall, its pretty much like every other Christmas movie in that its about learning to let go, and believe, and live life. But with all these films, its really in the execution. And this is another that can go either way, but I actually find its earnestness charming, no matter how corny it might seem in actuality.
My favorite exchange:
Charles Halloran: All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there's no Santa Claus. It's all over the papers. The kids read it and they don't hang up their stockings. Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that; so they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they're going to adore you for it and they're going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho ho. Henry, you're going to be an awful popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they're taking a fortune. But you go ahead Henry, you do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney's out there.
Judge Henry X. Harper: The District Attorney's a Republican.

7) National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Yet another one that has attained general, classic status in the 20 years since it has been released. Not only is it one of my favorite holiday movies but it is also my favorite "Vacation" movies. It still makes me laugh, and it is eminently quotable. One of the few Christmas movies that is genuinely (I think) funny and also seems to appeal to people across the board. More so than a funny movie like "Bad Santa" might. Its so funny and so good. It also has one of my other secret favorite tropes in a movie, which if done right can be really awesome: a group of people, friends or family, get back together in one house or one town for a weekend or a holiday or whatever. (Other examples: The BIg Chill and Wonder Boys)
Ellen: What are you looking at?
Clark: Oh, the silent majesty of a winter's morn... the clean, cool chill of the holiday air... an asshole in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer...

8) The Shop Around the Corner

Starring the king of small-town earnestness: Jimmy Stewart. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are awesome in the title roles as two gift shop employees who can't stand eachother face-to-face but are falling in love with eachother. Just a quiet, nice movie with some great character moments.

9) Its A Wonderful Life

This might still be the King though. Once again featuring the great Jimmy Stewart. And, once again, actually a flop upon its release and gaining momentum through television showings over the years, to finally attain the classic status it has now achieved. I think a common comment to make about this movie is that everyone remembers the ending and the sequence where Clarence has him erased from existence. But there is a lot more going on there in the early going in the movie, much of which is showing just how much George Bailey has done and sacrificed to help out his community in his life. When it comes down to it, the movie is as much about community, as it is about friendship and "recognizing what we have". Henry Travers is a standout as Clarence the angel, among a great cast of character actors making up the citizens of Bedford Falls. Also, only a sharp tug on my nose hairs will bring me to tears faster then the ending of this movie.

10) Christmas In Connecticut

Barbara Stanwyck is amazing. Good for Christmas and good as a screwball comedy, as Barbara Stanwyck tries to convince her boss that her and her column isn't a total sham is just great stuff.

Just missed:
- A Christmas Carol (1951)
-While You Were Sleeping
-Holiday Affair
-Come To The Stable

I would be remiss in not mentioning my favorite television christmas special. There are some that I watch every year, the Rankin-Bass Rudolph, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas...But there is one that towers over all of them in terms of being the most amazing and the funniest:
Blackadder's Christmas Carol

Holy crap, I just realized that Richard Curtis wrote this. Wow.I remember I caught this by accident, years ago, on PBS and have been a fan ever since. Not only featuring Rowan Atkinson as the titular Ebenezer Blackadder, but a stacked cast including Miranda Richardson, Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, and Jim Broadbent. Just amazingly funny. It takes the idea of the "Christmas Carol' and turns it on its head as the nice Ebenezer Blackadder is inadvertently learns that he might be better off being awful like his various Blackadder ancestors, then the nice and genuine person he is today. Its so much better than how I am describing it.
Ebenezer Blackadder: Baldrick, I want you to go out and buy a turkey so large you'd think it's mother had been rogered by an omnibus.

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