I love Christmas. Not the race-yourself-to-be-the-first-in-the-door-at-Best-Buy-on-Black-Friday aspect of the holiday, but the childhood nostalgia of time spent with family – dysfunctional or not – mom’s home cooking, carols, egg nog, and the lot. And to top it all off, people (outside of big box stores, that is) actually make a more concerted effort to be nice to each other, however short-lived their kindness might be.
I found myself watching several holiday movies on late night cable TV of late. And why not? Most of these films only show up on broadcast television once a year in November or December, and sometimes not even then.
The best holiday movies celebrate the virtues I mentioned above. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and “Miracle on 34th Street” come to mind. Those are just three very re-watchable classics that made my Top Ten Holiday Movies list from last year. A few friends asked me what movies would come next on the list, and I couldn’t readily answer. I have since given the subject some thought.
Without further ado, here are ten more holiday movies that I like:
11) A Christmas Story (1983): This perennial holiday movie classic is as filled with cringes as it is with laughs. Remember the exploits of young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley, now an accomplished television director)? All he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, even though everyone – including a scary department store Santa – insists that “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Remember his dad, the Old Man (Darren McGavin), who wages a profanity-laden one-man war against the basement furnace? Remember Ralphie’s mom (Melinda Dillon), so mortified by hubby’s new leg lamp? The screenplay is based on writer Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” It makes sense that the film’s events are based on someone’s actual Christmas memories, because so much of what happens seems right out of any viewer’s childhood. The Old Man’s swearing…the neighbor’s dogs…the “triple dog dare”…I could go on and on. The theatrical release poster featured this tagline: “A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas.” I couldn’t put it any better myself.
12) Eyes Wide Shut (1999): To recycle an oft-used cliché, Stanley Kubrick’s movies are like a fine wine – they just get better with age. Ever since he directed 1960’s “Spartacus” and was both frustrated by studio interference and disappointed with the finished product (although it’s a solid movie in most critics’ accounts), Kubrick has insisted on final cut. The end results are movies that often exceed 2.5 hours and throw the normal rules of pacing out the window. His final film, the polarizing “Eyes Wide Shut,” is no exception. But did you know that it’s a Christmas movie? Sort of. Kubrick used only natural light sources when shooting the picture, and the presence of an illuminated Christmas tree in almost every scene (except for the 15-minute masked orgy that is arguably the film’s centerpiece) results in a soft, reddish color palette that is yet another recurring Kubrick touch. The plot, as it were, follows the bizarre odyssey of NYC doctor William Harford – a real “Harrison Ford-type,” according to Kubrick and hence the character’s name – who searches for meaning after his wife confesses to a near-infidelity. A phenomenal film with gobs of subtext, but clearly not one for the kiddies.
13) Gremlins (1984): This fantasy-horror-comedy-holiday movie hybrid was one of the biggest hits of 1984, which to date remains one of the best years for Hollywood cinema. “Gremlins” tells of Gizmo, a “Mogwai” from the Far East who is bought by salesman/inventor Hoyt Axton as a Christmas present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan, and whatever happened to him?!). The lovable furball Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) accidentally gets wet. Gizmo’s soaking spawns several rambunctious siblings, who in turn get fed after midnight, transforming into the destructive title characters. The once-sleepy town of Kingston Falls has no idea what’s about to befall it. Steven Spielberg produced and Joe Dante directed the dark comedy and its even funnier 1990 sequel. I love the wide-eyed innocence of Billy and Gizmo – likeable protagonists both – and I appreciate the underlying satire about the over-commercialization of Christmas (wait until you see what the Gremlins do to a local shopping mall). Unfortunately, the film was maligned for its violence, and was one of three (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Poltergeist” being the others) that prompted creation of the PG-13 rating. Yep, “Gremlins” is a hoot!
14) The Nightmare before Christmas (1993): Jaw-dropping stop-motion animation propels this minor classic from the mind of “Edward Scissorhands” director Tim Burton. Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” (voiced by Chris Sarandon) is top dog in Halloween Town. He is bored, though, and after getting a sneak peak of Christmas Town one interesting night, he hatches a plan to have Santa kidnapped and Christmas taken over by the minions of Halloween Town. (Children the world over receive Christmas presents in the form of pumpkin heads, snakes, and other monstrosities.) His dim-witted townspeople aren’t always equal to the task, and it’s up to rag doll Sally (voiced by “Home Alone” mom Catherine O’Hara!) to stop him. I had always thought of “The Nightmare before Christmas” as a Halloween movie. For one thing, its main character is a skeleton with a jack-o-lantern nose. For another thing, the film’s opening song – the best tune in the movie – is the imaginative “This is Halloween.” But as I was compiling this list, searching for at one least animated movie to include, I decided that this was the worthiest – and most original – candidate for inclusion. It garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, losing to “Jurassic Park” but probably not by many votes.
15) Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992): It is two years later in real time but only one year later in movie time as young “Home Alone” protagonist Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) again gets in trouble with his extended family the night before everyone is supposed to leave on vacation. “The same thing happened last Christmas,” his family members tell him more than once. The circumstances that lead to him being separated from his family are more believable this time around (in a rush, he boards the wrong flight – to New York instead of Miami). He connives his way into the Plaza Hotel and enjoys the Big Apple’s holiday-season bustle…until running afoul of Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the “Wet Bandits” of the 1990 original, escapees from prison now on the lam in NYC. Not one to let the bad guys win, he rigs another elaborate booby trap of falling bricks, slippery ropes, and exploding toilets for the Sticky Bandits (their new name) to contend with if they wish to stop him from alerting the police. Meanwhile, mom Catherine O’Hara tries desperately to get back to her son despite the requisite holiday season travel hurdles. Wow, can we say “derivative?” There is even a reclusive older person (Brenda Fricker taking over for Roberts Blossom) for Kevin to befriend. It doesn’t really matter. “Home Alone 2” is a guilty pleasure sequel that works almost in spite of itself.
16) Bad Santa (2003): If you consider yourself a Grinch, then you probably aren’t reading this list. Too bad, because this is the Christmas movie for you! Billy Bob Thornton has seldom been better than he is here, playing hard-drinking ne’er-do-well Willie T. Stokes, a department store Santa with a talent for cracking safes and a penchant for plus-sized women. It doesn’t stop there – Willie and his “elf” partner, Marcus (an uproarious Tony Cox, who almost steals the movie) – spend each holiday season in character, in a different city each year, putting up with crying, screaming, children who “want” to have their picture taken with Santa. What Willie and Marcus wait for is the night before Christmas and their cue to crack the safe, steal the store’s jewels, and then lay low someplace warm for next 11 months. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t worry. I didn’t spoil anything; that’s just the set-up. I won’t give away the surprising series of plot complications that follow. This very, very R-rated movie is also available in an even raunchier version, “Badder Santa,” if you can believe it. Incidentally, the film features the last silver screen performance by John Ritter, and one of the last by Bernie Mac.
17) Elf (2003): This original comedy coasts on the high-energy charm of Will Ferrell. One Christmas night many years ago, infant Buddy accidentally crawls into Santa’s bag and is unknowingly whisked back to the North Pole. Fast forward 30 years, and the six-foot Buddy (the fearless Ferrell) lives and works among pint-sized real elves at Santa’s Workshop. Buddy towers over his adoptive father figure “Papa Elf” (a well-cast Bob Newhart) and wreaks a fair amount of havoc because of his size. Santa himself (Ed Asner) gets Buddy out of the way one busy holiday season by sending Buddy in search of his real father, a publishing executive and Grinch played by James Caan. In the process, Buddy’s child-like excitement earns him a job at Gimbels department store – a clear homage to “Miracle on 34th Street.” He meets a girl (Zooey Deschanel), enrages an executive with dwarfism (Peter Dinklage), and somehow manages to save Christmas. Cue a sleigh filled with fish-out-of-water belly laughs.
18) White Christmas (1954): Many years ago, I watched the Irving Berlin musical “Holiday Inn,” which featured Berlin’s Oscar-winning song “White Christmas.” I remember enjoying it. I was eager to watch it again, and stayed up late one recent night to see it a second time after learning that it was about to air on AMC. The problem is, the movie I thought was the 1942, black-and-white, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire-starring “Holiday Inn” was actually the 1954, VistaVision, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye-starring “White Christmas.” Both movies feature Berlin’s “White Christmas,” both star Crosby, and both feature the effort to save a struggling mountain hotel as a prominent storyline. So color me confused. Anyway, “White Christmas” – the film – is a delightful piece of fluff. Crosby and Kaye have terrific comedic chemistry as WWII soldiers-turned-entertainers, who recruit a duet of singing “Sisters” (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), then take a train to a Vermont inn that coincidentally is run by Crosby and Kaye’s former boss, a retired Army general (Dean Jagger). It is December when they arrive but there isn’t a drop of snow on the ground. Will they see a white Christmas? Does a bear shit in the woods?
19) Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990): Here’s another sequel – to 1988’s “Die Hard” this time – and another one that also replicates the formula of the original, right down to the Christmastime setting. Sure, the filmmakers changed the location from an LA office tower to a Washington, DC airport…but they also brought back the original film’s overbearing journalist (William Atherton) and its other crusader cop, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). As such, I thought about including 1987’s “Lethal Weapon” instead of this one, but honestly, this is a more entertaining movie. (And with Hanukkah beginning as I write this, does anyone want to be reminded of Mel Gibson?) “Die Hard 2” ups the stakes considerably, and somehow remains a fresh entry despite the criticisms mentioned in the sentences above. The particulars this time around: Police Lieutenant John McClane (Bruce Willis) now lives in LA, but is meeting his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) in DC for a visit with the in-laws. Her plane arrives at the same time as a military plane carrying a drug-running, former Panamanian dictator (Franco Nero) to trial. Terrorists loyal to Nero take control of the airport, with explosive results. And there’s lots of snow.
20) The Santa Clause (1994): Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is an adman and a divorced dad with a son named Charlie (Eric Lloyd) who still believes in Santa Claus, even if dad Scott, mom Laura (Wendy Crewson), and step-dad Neal (Judge Reinhold) don’t. Scott’s life is forever changed after he accidentally surprises Santa Claus as the jolly red man is about to climb down Scott’s chimney. Santa slips, falls off the roof, and perishes (with Charlie as a witness). The fine print on a card inside Santa’s coat pocket names Scott as Santa’s successor, much to Charlie’s delight, to Scott’s resignation, and to his ex-wife’s horror. “The Santa Clause” was Allen’s first movie to capitalize on his success with TV’s “Home Improvement.” Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as funny as it should’ve been (although it does feature farting reindeer, so there’s that). It is cute, however, and I can appreciate that it addresses the logistical issues involving Santa’s ability to deliver so many presents in a single night. Namely, how does he find the time, and what if a home doesn’t have a chimney?
Is something missing from the list? (Remember that these picks are numbers 11-20 on my list of favorites, not 1-10.) Leave a comment below. Otherwise, if you watch one film each night between now (December 14th) and Christmas Eve you should make it through the entire list!