Top Ten Holiday Movies

I bemoaned on Facebook perhaps two weeks ago that I wasn’t ready for Christmas. More specifically, that it still seemed too early for department stores to be decked out in Christmas-y color. A 30-foot artificial Christmas tree in a shopping mall atrium next to a real, year-round palm tree…and Halloween (at the time my comment was posted) was barely two weeks old?! Shudder.

But temperatures have been getting cold – a few days last week were Chicago-esque, almost. I called my parents a week ago and heard my dad listening to Christmas music in the background. The weather – and dad’s “muzak” choices – cold-cocked me into reality: Christmas is less than a month away. And for that matter, Thanksgiving is tomorrow! The next four weeks will seemingly pass in the blink of an eye, but it is a given that even down here, at least one of those weekends will be spent re-watching one of the same old holiday movies that I’ve no doubt seen two dozen times already.

Here, Loyal Reader, for curiosity and for what I hope will prompt a fun discussion, are my top ten favorite holiday movies.

Top Ten Holiday Movies

1)       It’s a Wonderful Life: I hate to start off my list with a cliché, but even if you’re aren’t a fan of old movies in general, it’s pretty hard to find fault with this seminal 1946 classic, the very definition of Capra-esque. Who can’t identify with Bedford Falls family man George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart in his most iconic role)? He is a likeable guy with a beautiful wife (the lovely Donna Reed) and four children, including the precocious Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes), but he just can’t seem to get a break, and he’s tired of helping others at the expense of his own happiness. In an alcohol-fueled fit of despair, George contemplates suicide, but is stopped by an “Angel Second Class” (the memorable Henry Travers), who warns George of how different the world would be if George was never born. (At the very least, the small town that so asphyxiates him will change to a bankrupt cesspool of evil, renamed “Pottersville” after the scheming bank tycoon (Lionel Barrymore) who subsequently drives it into the ground.) This is an interesting film. It is filled with great performances and memorable scenes, but for much of its running time it doesn’t seem like a Christmas movie at all. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is dark, dark, dark!  Until the end, that is, when George sees the error of his ways and rushes home to hug his family, just as a certain angel presumably (off-screen) earns his wings. Powerful stuff. I need to see this again.

2)      Planes, Trains & Automobiles: I can’t put as #1 a movie that takes place over Thanksgiving and not Christmas, but as I compiled my list I realized that “Plane, Trains & Automobiles” may just be my favorite holiday movie. And for good reason. If you haven’t seen it, know that it’s a road movie about the odd-couple travails experienced by cranky businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) and overbearing shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) as they experiences every weather and vehicular delay possible trying to get home to Chicago, where Del’s wife awaits and where Neal’s daughter is preparing for her school’s Thanksgiving pageant. Some great lines in this holiday gem. I am thinking of Del’s LaGuardia Airport declaration: “We’d have better luck playing pick-up sticks with our buttcheeks than we would getting a flight out of here before daybreak.” I am thinking of Neal’s R-rated breakdown in front of a car rental company clerk (John Hughes regular Edie McClurg.) But mostly, I am thinking – and you are, too – of this line, which if you’ve seen the movie needs no setting up: “Those aren’t pillows!” Martin and Candy are in top form here, and in fact I’d say Candy was never better – especially in the gut-punching revelation <SPOILER ALERT!!!> that the wife he longs to get home to, Marie, has long since passed away. As I wrote earlier, this is a movie about Thanksgiving travel travails. Nevertheless, let’s not kid ourselves: that final shot of a snowy Chicago suburb – not to mention the hoary there’s-no-place-like-home-for-the-holidays message – is the stuff Christmas movies are made of.

3)      National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Poor Chevy Chase. His showbiz career has seen better days. His promising career as a stand-up comedian essentially ended when a Gerald Ford-spoofing pratfall backfired, getting the SNL alumnus addicted to Percoset and possibly killing off a few brain cells in the process. I like the guy, but I’d be hard pressed to name ten great movies he was a part of. Or five, for that matter. But “Christmas Vacation,” by far the best of the “Vacation” series of “National Lampoon”-produced films, would rank at – or close to – the top of that (short) list. Clark W. Griswold, Chicagoland’s most over-compensating dad, is perhaps the role Chase was born to play. This time, following a disastrous road trip to Wally World and a ridiculous European vacation – the high point of which found Clark about to brush his teeth from a bed pan – Clark stays home and caters to a rash of relatives nearly as accident-prone as he is. The whole ordeal is almost too much for Clark, but it takes an act of (questionable) heroism by slovenly Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, that Adonis) to remind Clark that the lights, decorations, and turkey dinner matter much less than just being together as a family. Yeah, I’d be very surprised if this mainstay didn’t make everyone’s top ten holiday movies list.

4)      Die Hard: Every man on earth proclaims “Die Hard” to be his favorite action movie of all time. Every man except one – my dad. His vote is for “The Guns of Navarone.” But I digress. “Die Hard,” released in 1988, is a fun, fun, fun one-man-against-the-terrorists movie.  The original one-man-against-the-terrorists movie, in many ways. As a Christmas movie, there’s no way it’s number one…but it merits inclusion on this list anyway, simply for general awesomeness. Bruce Willis has been in more turds than Andy Dick’s dong, but Willis’s first turn as Detective John McClane – weary from a long plane ride and nervous about his estranged marriage, to say nothing of the European terrorists that have taken over his wife’s office tower – is a breath of fresh air and a revelation that his work on TV’s “Moonlighting” was no fluke. Indeed, this film may be his career high note. The first sequel is pretty good, too. Great Christmas reference #1: Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” Great Christmas reference #2 (as said by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber): “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.”

5)      Miracle on 34th Street: Like the aforementioned “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this is another black-and-white classic. There are a surprisingly large number of characters for such an old movie but the basic plot is simple: The new Macy’s department store Santa is so convincing in his role that he makes a believer out of second grader Susan (a young Natalie Wood), but a skeptic out of an overzealous lawyer, who has “Kris Kringle” (Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn) committed and put on trial. Does Kringle/Santa make a believer out of the court? Does driving in snow suck? “Miracle on 34th Street” is a classic in every sense of the word. The film lost the Best Picture Oscar to the anti-Semitism drama “Gentleman’s Agreement,” but which movie do more people remember today? The 1994 remake, starring a well-cast Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, tries hard but simply doesn’t come close. Why does Hollywood even bother?

6)      Home Alone: Another holiday movie mainstay, who doesn’t adore this slapstick family comedy that made young Macaulay Culkin a star? (A star, that is, until the kid’s micro-managing father derailed his son’s career.) As 10-year-old Kevin McCallister, accidentally left behind while his immediate and extended family flies to Paris for the holidays, Culkin is charming. The mix of childish innocence and devilish cantankerousness that he brought to the part propelled the comedy to inclusion on list of top ten highest-grossing films of all time – or at least up to that date (1990). At first, Kevin is thrilled to have his family’s large Winnetka house to himself, but eventually he yearns to have his family back – especially when he begins to suspect that two bumbling petty thieves (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) may be casing the joint. It is a fun movie with a decidedly pro-family message, but what many people forget is that Kevin McCallister begins the movie as kind of a brat. The 1992 sequel, sub-titled “Lost in New York,” is a slapstick hoot as well, if a bit derivative. But that hardly matters. These are fun movies!

7)      Love Actually: I will say it right now: “Love Actually” is not a very good movie. Although it was directed by Richard Curtis of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” fame and starred almost every well-known British thespian, the film remains a mess of clichés and uneven storylines. For example, we spent a lot of time getting to know the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and the office maid (Martine McCutcheon) whom he fancied, yet we learned nothing of how the nitwit was ever elected PM in the first place. Future mega-stars Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor played London newlyweds, while future zombie hunter Andrew Lincoln played Ejiofor’s best mate, who loved Keira secretly and from a distance…but this entire storyline received barely ten minutes of screen time! None of this matters much, though, as the movie – a guilty pleasure of mine – is somehow very funny and manages not to hit viewers over the head with too much cheesiness…although there is this line, spoken by one porn star body double (Joanna Page) to another (“The Hobbit’s” Martin Freeman), that is especially eyeball-rolling: “All I want for Christmas…is you!” GROAN.

8)      A Midnight Clear: I thought I’d throw an obscure one on here; a doozy of a film.  “A Midnight Clear” was released as an indie in 1992 and features pre-superstardom Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon, and Gary Sinise as three members of a U.S. Army squad somewhere in post-D-Day France. They negotiate a Christmas Eve cease-fire with the war-weary German platoon across the battlefield. The plan is for the Germans to “surrender” and be taken into custody. In exchange, everyone gets to survive. Anyone who has seen his or her share of war movies knows it’s not a spoiler to say that things don’t go according to plan. “A Midnight Clear” never found much of an audience, and that’s a shame. If you feel like a Grinch – or if you simply like a bit of WWII violence in your holiday movies, this is the one for you. (You could also rent “Joyeux Noël,” a 2005 French film with a similar storyline, though set in WWI.)

9)      How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Speaking of Grinches, this movie also makes the cut. Ron Howard, everyone’s favorite red-haired childhood TV star-turned-Oscar-winning director, has a rather schizophrenic film resume. His movies cover a range of genres, and with the possible exception of Tom Hanks (not to mention Ron’s brothers Clint and Rance), he rarely works with the same actors twice. His single collaboration with funnyman Jim Carrey was this live-action adaptation of the annual Dr. Seuss holiday children’s book. You will seldom find Howard’s “Grinch” spoken of with the same reverence as, say, “Apollo 13” or “A Beautiful Mind,” but I’m one of the film’s defenders.  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is, I think, brilliant. Much of that credit goes to Carrey, of course, but the script deserves a shout-out as well. Lots of fun lines and silly FX. There is really just one false note, and that is the awkward flashback scene (not part of the original book) that tries – weakly – to explain why the Grinch hates Christmas – and Whoville – so very, very much. A bit of trivia: Howard’s film is the second-highest grossing Christmas movie of all time (after “Home Alone,” listed above at #6.)

10)   Scrooged: This bizarre 1988 comedy received lots of mentions when I polled my FB friends about their favorite holiday movies. I almost put “A Christmas Story” in the #10 spot, but “Scrooged” won out.  The film is maniacally clever, occasionally sad, sometimes dark, often weird, and frequently hilarious. If someone were to come up with a “Top Ten Bill Murray Movies” list, this one would almost certainly make the cut. As Frank Cross, Murray has seldom been better. He is both sardonic and sympathetic as the work-a-holic network TV executive who bears more than a passing resemblance to one Ebeneezer Scrooge – this while his network is recording a live broadcast of “A Christmas Carol,” starring John Houseman (!) as the Narrator, Charles Dickens. I suppose “Scrooged” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve seen it perhaps a dozen times – far more often than I’ve seen “A Christmas Story” or even #1 pick “It’s a Wonderful Life” – and it never gets old. My favorite characters: Carol Kane as the slap-happy Ghost of Christmas Present, and Bobcat Goldthwait as a newly-unemployed, shotgun-toting former TV executive. Hey, I told you it was weird. 🙂

Thanks for humoring me by reading my top ten list.  Your own list will no doubt vary by at least a couple of films. My Facebook poll featured several mentions of “A Christmas Story” and “Bad Santa,” among others, and I couldn’t quite fit them in the top ten, even if both comedies are far more re-watchable than, say “A Midnight Clear.” Who can forget “A Christmas Story’s” dad (Darren McGavin), cursing indecipherably (off-screen) as he toils away in the basement, fixing an unreliable furnace? Or the sight of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, now an accomplished television director) reluctantly modeling a pair of pink bunny pajamas? And how about “Bad Santa’s” adorable Lauren Graham, straddling Billy Bob Thornton in a hot tub while…well I might have younger readers, so I’ll stop there. But you know the scene, yes?

While you’re likely scratching your head over a few of my choices (I am sure I’ll get flamed for my #9 pick, if nothing else), why not comment with your own list? I would love to get a good discussion going here. I will have more Mexico-themed blog entries up soon enough; in the meantime, let’s talk holiday movies!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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