1. For me, Christmas tradition is synonymous with It’s a Wonderful Life. My husband and I know the one thing we’ll absolutely make time for is this movie. For the Frank Capra film that initially opened to mixed reviews, Life has enjoyed a long ‘life’ in the video after-market, and of course the twice a year network airing on television.
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this movie, but I do see new things each time. There’s a lot of subtle humor, such as when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is out doing his air raid warden shtick. (He couldn’t enlist because of his partial deafness). In an attempt to overcome feelings of emasculation, George spits, only to have the spittle just hang off his mouth, instead of completing a manly trajectory to the ground. Also when George and his two pals, Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver, encounter a saucy and sexy Violet Bic on the street, their ensuing dialogue is cleverly naughty.
What makes this movie work so well is the absolute humanness of George Bailey. He’s undoubtedly the good guy, but his frustrations with life’s inequities show themselves, either by shaking his sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) by the shoulders, or blasting his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), demanding to know where the missing eight thousand dollars went, or wondering “why did we have to have all these children?”
2. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. This one has so much to offer. “Oh, Eddie…If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am right now” is one of my favorite quotes to use all time of year. As a matter of fact, this film is full of the irreverent, the silly, and those scenes you’ll never forget: The family crunching their way through the most overdone, driest turkey ever, Cousin Eddie’s (Randy Quaid) ‘package’ showing in his tight polyester pants, Clark (Chevy Chase) zipping out into orbit on the snow disk thing, after he greased it with some sort of fancy lubricant his company developed, Clark making googly eyes at the lingerie counter clerk, and getting caught by Rusty, Clark playing chicken with the ginormous trucks while out getting the “Griswold Family Old Fashion Christmas Tree.”
In the years following the Griswold franchise, Chevy Chase has proven himself to be a talented actor. But his put-upon but optimistic Clark Griswold will be remembered for ages to come.
3. If it had to be done, I’d say it was done right. Fans of the Chris Van Allsburg story should absolutely experience the Robert Zemeckis version of The Polar Express. Having Tom Hanks attached to a project doesn’t hurt either. Unless it shows again on an IMAX screen, home viewing is best when you have surround sound. The sound editing was outstanding. No wonder that of the three Academy awards that Polar Express was nominated for, two of them were for Best Achievement in Sound, and Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
4. The Bishop’s Wife. Okay, the 1996 remake (The Preacher’s Wife) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, was serviceable. Denzel is always welcome in my home to be sure, but the 1947 version with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven was something to keep the attention of a then thirty-something couple. For probably as long as we’ve been married we’ve been ending up doing the majority of our wrapping on Christmas Eve, staying up too late to accommodate the early hour at which our kids arose. This was before the 1993 action to stop the It’s A Wonderful Life from being shown on multiple channels – so after finishing with that classic late at night, we channel surfed and found this Bishop’s Wife. We had never heard of it before, and we were captivated.
5. I’ve seen this mentioned on others’ holiday lists and why not add it here. Aside from being set at Christmas time, Die Hard pretty much doesn’t have anything to do with the Nativity story, and it takes place in L.A. of all non-Christmassy places. But it’s a fun flick, and a definite classic in the action film category. At the risk of spoiling, (although I’d be amazed to find someone who hasn’t seen it) all I’ll say is that it actually has a feel good ending – and isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
6. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Oh, this one goes in the priceless category. Though it’s not a feature length film, it has to be seen. Fellow Blogcritic Allesandro Nicolo nailed it last year when he said that Linus gives an Oscar-worthy monologue – riffing on the real meaning of Christmas. That moment alone is worth the price of admission. My second favorite part is at the end, when all the kids sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and their little faces lift up to the heavens.
7. Another classic of course, is Miracle on 34th Street. There have been a couple of these done since the 1947 original starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and a wee Natalie Wood. 1994’s offering with Sir Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson had an attractive and somewhat talented cast, but didn’t give me the sense of wonder and awe that the original did.
I vaguely remember an effort in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot in the Kris Kringle role. I am pretty sure I liked it – but something about that ’47 original was pure. I’ll never forget that thrill when Mr. Gailey the lawyer flooded the courtroom with sack after sack of ‘Letters to Santa’. I guess the fact that I was watching it for the first time in a new crush’s dorm room might have made it seem even more special.
8. I’ve never seen this on anyone’s favorite Holiday viewing list, but We’re No Angels from 1955 is super. Humphrey Bogart is one of a trio of escaped convicts from Devil’s Island who take refuge in a nearby general store. Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray are his comrades, and the three of them need to forge some papers to continue their escape, so the store is a convenient place to pick up a few supplies ‘on credit’ and perhaps work a con or two on the shop owner and his family before leaving town. However, as the convicts begin to realize that a relative is already swindling the shop owner, they decide to help them out, giving them an unforgettable Christmas, angels or no angels.
9. Romance flicks are not for everyone, and when they are combined with Christmas, tend to get a bit too treacly. But Love Actually is a great exception to that rule. Not just one simple ‘boy meets girl and they might fancy each other’ story, Love Actually is a celebration of all kinds of emotions and relationships. True romantic love, painful unrequited love, illicit love, puppy love, and even pure idealized lust are woven together as a group of Londoners make their way through the holiday season.
I daresay one need not be an Anglophile to enjoy the film, but it doesn’t hurt. Even when it portrays the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) in a poor light, us Yanks cheer anyway. And the soundtrack is lovely, as is the cast (Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Kiera Knightley, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, and Bill Nighy).
10. Just like the character that Will Ferrell so aptly plays, Elf is a big goofy movie. It has too many over-the-top moments, like when Buddy the Elf (Ferrell) displays his burping prowess to his newly found half-brother Michael, or when he whirls himself through the revolving door again and again, or when his friend Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) gets a large crowd of jaded New Yorkers to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
But it’s so damn charming. Between Ferrell’s comic genius, and Jon Favreau’s directing, you can’t help but be won over. You just might find yourself outside making snow angels with Buddy.
11. A Christmas Story. Jean Shepherd’s wonderfully skewed take on Christmas and family life in 1940 Middle America was released in 1983 to so-so reviews. But the movie has grown into a marathon phenomenon in the last 20 years. It really is something the whole family can enjoy, with enough wit for adults, and also quite touching. In the scene were Ralphie reaches his limit with the bullying Scut Farkus, he ends up beating the crap out of the poor kid, and his childish rage and confusion is palpable.
12. One of the finest stories of the true meaning and spirit(s) of Christmas is the Dickens’ tale, A Christmas Carol. Everyone has their favorite version of the story of the mean ol' cuss who was visited by spirits or angels or his own conscience to inspire him to open his eyes and his heart to his family and community. From George C. Scott, to Alastair Sim, to Patrick Stewart, all bring great things to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Personally, I have a soft spot for The Muppet Christmas Carol, even with the extra songs. Evidently 2009 will bring us a Robert Zemeckis 3-D version, with Jim Carrey playing not only Scrooge, but perhaps a few of the ghosts as well. Rumored for other spots are Tom Hanks as Bob Cratchit, Michael J. Fox as Tiny Tim, and Bob Hoskins as Mr. Fezziwig.