Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ho-ho-ho: The best Christmas movies of all time (plus some turkeys!)

By Derrick Bang

Next to Thanksgiving, Christmas remains the most popular time to gather friends and family members, surround yourself with food and enjoy a holiday-themed movie or two ... or three or six, depending on your level of commitment.

Far too often, though, the roster of movies for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day suffers from an acute lack of imagination. Everybody can rattle off It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Home Alone, but where do we go from there?

While you'll find all three of those films cited below, I worked hard not to simply state the obvious.

To a degree, the challenge becomes harder every year, because — with a few exceptions — most of the best Christmas-themed films are decades and decades old. Many are in black-and-white, but try to be patient; I promise, the absence of color won't kill you. After all, story rules everything else; you might be surprised, halfway through one or more of these selections, that you're so wrapped up in the characters that you've completed forgotten about trivialities such as film stock.

As is true of any potentially significant historical event, one cannot truly judge a film's impact until it has been given a chance to stand the test of time. Hence, you won't find anything on the "classics" list newer than 1993.

That said, I still wonder where our modern holiday classics-in-the-making are hiding. Has Hollywood lost its ability to produce a poignant, well-made Christmas movie? Is trash such as Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus and Four Christmases really the best they can do?

The following lists are divided into four categories:

The Bestest — Undeniable classics all, these are the most satisfying "traditional" Christmas films ever made ... which is to say, the sort of movie one generally thinks of, when asked to name a Christmas film. While most will be immediately familiar, at least two of them should be new to you. Near misses: A Christmas Carol (1984, the George C. Scott version), Christmas in July (1940), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), One Magic Christmas (1985), The Polar Express (2004), Prancer (1989) and The Santa Clause (1994).

• Alternative Fare — Although usually not associated with the holidays, or perhaps blessed with a cruel or darkly comic tone, all of these films nonetheless quite strongly concern Christmas. In many ways, they're likely to be better choices than the films in the first list, because you're less likely to recognize them as seasonal movies. Near misses: Die Hard (1988), The Family Man (2002) and Gremlins (1984).

• The Worst — Feeling masochistic? Looking to drive some unwanted relations out of the house? Pop one of these holiday turkeys into the VCR or DVD player. (Just don't admit to having made the choice.)

• Quintessential TV — Those born since the 1960s have their own holiday memories, often informed by television specials or the occasional holiday-themed episode of an ongoing series.

Although each of these four lists is 10 entries long, I've cheated here and there, always with good reason. And, unlike traditional best-of-the-year lists, these titles are not ranked from top to bottom; the arrangement is merely alphabetical. That'll save me having to argue with purists who want to know why I prefer A Christmas Story to It's a Wonderful Life. (For the record, I don't; I adore both for entirely different reasons.)

So: On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...


• The Bishop's Wife (1947): An uncredited Billy Wilder and frequent writing partner Charles Brackett fined-tuned this script, which explains a lot; director Henry Koster's charming fantasy is unexpectedly dense, its primary and secondary characters experiencing epiphanies large and small. Cary Grant is charm personified as Dudley, the earth-bound angel who falls in love with effervescent Loretta Young's title character, while actually trying to help her husband (David Niven) regain his faith. The primary story aside, you'll most remember this film's smaller, subtler touches: Monty Woolley's sage observations (obviously where Wilder and Brackett did their finest work), the cab driver who joins Grant and Young for a session of ice-skating, and Elsa Lanchester's bubbly performance as the bishop's housekeeper. (Avoid 1996's The Preacher's Wife, which destroys the story's subtlety by re-casting it as a vehicle for Whitney Houston.)

• The Cheaters (1945): Here's one you don't know ... and won't find easily, since the DVD is out of print. Director Joseph Kane's handling of Frances Hyland's story can be regarded as a poignant, intriguing blend of Dickens and Frank Capra's 1938 comedy hit, You Can't Take It With You. This is perhaps the best post-Dickens Christmas come-uppance story ever filmed, with a moral that gently reminds us of the true spirit of the season. Materialistic J.C. Pidgeon (Eugene Pallette) and his airhead wife (Billie Burke) ride herd over an eccentric extended family that expects the best Christmas ever, thanks to an anticipated inheritance from a recently deceased rich uncle ... which goes south when they learn that he left all his money to a down-on-her-luck stage actress (Ona Munson). The greedy family attempts to cheat the will by finding and "hiding" the actress from pursuing attorneys; additional melodrama is supplied by the family's token seasonal "charity case," an unemployed, alcoholic but still dignified stage actor (Joseph Schildkraut, the film's actual star). Trust me, this one's worth combing through cable and satellite listings.

• A Christmas Story (1983): For anybody born after, say, 1975, this is the Christmas film of record. Thank (or blame) TNT's annual 24-hour marathon cablecast, which helped resurrect it much the way incessant TV broadcasts made a hit of It's a Wonderful Life when that one accidentally fell out of copyright. Believe it or not, A Christmas Story was a flop upon initial release, and it became our now-beloved seasonal favorite only after video release. Director/co-scripter Bob Clark really nailed raconteur/essayist Jean Shepherd's Midwestern childhood memories, amplified into a marvelous collection of shaggy-dog stories honed to perfection after repeated re-tellings during the 1950s and '60s heyday of Shepherd's talk-show radio career.

• Holiday Affair (1949): If you're tired of Christmas movies about characters who have more money than God, give this gentle romantic comedy a try. Connie (Janet Leigh), a war widow trying to make the most of the season for the benefit of her young son (Gordon Gebert), "meets cute" with department store toy counter clerk Robert Mitchum, who of course falls in love with her; Connie, alas, already has a boyfriend in the form of nice guy Carl (Wendell Corey). Isobel Lennart's screenplay is amusing without being stupid, and the various plot bumps that keep separating Leigh and Mitchum are poignant enough to avoid feeling contrived. (Beware the 1996 Cynthia Gibb remake.)

• Holiday Inn (1942)/White Christmas (1954): Holiday Inn is the better film, but it's not just about Christmas; White Christmas is wholly devoted to the titular holiday. Holiday Inn has Fred Astaire, whose co-starring performance is superior to Danny Kaye's work in White Christmas ... but (big but) ... the latter boasts Rosemary Clooney, whereas the earlier film really doesn't have a strong female lead. White Christmas is the more visually impressive film, made both in color and wide-screen VistaVision, but the latter won't mean much unless you have a huge letter-box screen at home. Both films feature star Bing Crosby singing his signature song, so what else could you need? Watch 'em as a double-feature.

• Home Alone (1990): Everybody remembers young Kevin McCallister's third-act battle against "wet bandits" Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, but that's not what made this film the most successful comedy of all time. No, this first Home Alone earns its place here because of the subtler, more poignant touches in John Hughes' marvelous script, and the often heartbreaking ways in which Kevin keeps himself amused, while wondering if his family really has forgotten all about him. I remember the quieter, more realistic moments, as when Kevin struggles to drag some groceries home, and the bag breaks before he makes it inside the house. Then, too, considerable credit belongs to composer John Williams, who in addition to delivering a wonderful underscore, contributes a song — "Somewhere in My Memory" — that is guaranteed to achieve top-level status alongside familiar secular carols such as "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Frosty the Snowman."

• It's a Wonderful Life (1946): If A Christmas Story is the baby-boomer's seasonal ritual, this film remains the ne plus ultra for all earlier generations. Director/co-scripter Frank Capra's surprisingly bleak Christmas fable, often derided for being "too corny," actually is anything but; those who dismiss it as "Capra-corn" haven't watched it recently. The script, based on Philip Van Doren Stern's "The Greatest Gift," becomes cruelly tragic as poor George Bailey's world collapses around him; Capra really tightens the screws. The alternate world that George is privileged to view, where he learns what life would have been like without him, is equally grim ... while at the same time is a telling reminder of how small acts can have huge consequences. Snickering about this film has become a spectator sport, but I've learned something over the years: Some of the loudest naysayers haven't ever seen it.

• Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Edmund Gwenn's masterful performance as Kris Kringle is just one of this film's delights; the strong cast also includes Maureen O'Hara as the cynical Macy's department store personnel director, and young Natalie Wood as her achingly dour little girl. The best Christmas films turn on the nature of faith and belief, and George Seaton's Oscar-winning script, adapted from a short story by Valentine Davies (who also won an Oscar), reminds us that we smug citizens of the 21st century certainly don't have an exclusive on cynicism. Those who haven't seen this film can't help but be touched by the eleventh-hour twist that finally "proves" the existence of Santa Claus, and this climax — delivered with the subtle whimsy that highlights the entire script — works no matter how many times I've seen it. (For the record, the 1994 remake isn't bad, but this version is better.)

• The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): Fairness demands that I admit having been mildly put off by this film on first viewing, but it has grown on me. The stylized, extremely painstaking "replacement animation" wasn't the trouble, as much as composer Danny Elfman's wall-to-wall operatic score, which I initially found distracting. (I can only assume I was in a bad mood that day; Elfman's work is brilliant.) Repeated viewings are essential to fully appreciate the subtle magic of writer/producer Tim Burton's macabre holiday fantasy, which revolves around a petulant Halloween phantasm, Jack Skellington, who decides to kidnap Santa Claus in order to bring his own unique vision to Christmas.

• Scrooge (1951): This British drama is the best version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol ever made, thanks in great part to Alastair Sim's ferociously, malevolently sarcastic performance as the Ebenezer Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the tale. Noel Langley's script is more faithful to Dickens' original prose than most versions, and Sim thoroughly enjoys hurling some of Ebenezer's meaner ripostes. The first act aside, though, the superior adaptations of A Christmas Carol rise or fall on the strength of Scrooge's conversion, and Sim does not overplay the transformation; even more so than his reconciliation with Bob Cratchit and family, Scrooge's humble request to share Christmas dinner with his nephew Fred is a masterpiece of poignance.


• The Apartment (1960): Although generally remembered as one of director/producer/co-scripter Billy Wilder's finest romantic comedies — albeit one with the sting of a scorpion — this Academy Award-winning Best Picture is set during the holidays. Dedicated insurance company drone C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), in an effort to "get ahead" with his superiors, has been loaning his apartment to various male co-workers with extra-marital assignations on their mind. The arrangement explodes when elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), finally perceiving that her relationship with very-married big boss Fred MacMurray is going nowhere, tries to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills on Christmas Eve ... in Baxter's apartment. Baxter, who always has been sweet on Fran, finds her just in time ... thus setting the stage for an unexpected resolution, which arrives with the New Year. In addition to its many other virtues, this film boasts a truly perfect final scene.

• Bad Santa (2003): Neither for the faint of heart nor the easily offended, but a hoot 'n' a holler for the rest of us. Working from a story by Joel and Ethan Coen, director Terry Zwigoff's outrageously profane and tasteless dark comedy stars Billy Bob Thornton as a career hustler whose annual con involves casing a department store while posing as its in-house Santa Claus. Trouble is, the frequently drunk and sexually frisky Thornton (excellent casting, it must be noted) meets his match after encountering an overweight, socially helpless 8-year-old (the suitably tragic Brett Kelly) who decides, against all sanity, that this red-garbed bum must be the actual Santa. If you're feeling especially brave, get the "badder" (unrated) DVD version; it's even nastier.

• Christmas Holiday (1944): Despite its innocuous title, this grim drama is a marvelous early example of vintage Hollywood film noir, as further evidenced by the involvement of director Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror), and the fact that it's adapted from an extremely gritty novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Deanna Durbin, a huge "youth star" since 1936 looking to toughen up her image with this first adult role, plays a young woman recently moved to New Orleans, who meets and marries a charming ne-er-do-well (Gene Kelly, in his meanest-ever screen role). The relationship goes horribly awry: Kelly winds up in prison, and Durbin becomes a roadhouse "hostess" (read: prostitute) whose life then hits a crisis when a compassionate Army lieutenant takes her to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Sadly, this one's DVD is out of print, so you'll have to look for it in TV listings.

• Dead of Night (1945)/O. Henry's Full House (1952): Once upon a time, Hollywood was willing to release anthology films composed of three to five short dramas. These two are included as a composite entry, because each features one Christmas-themed segment. The overtly horror-laden Dead of Night includes "The Christmas Story," shared by Sally Ann Howes to a group of people, who hang on her tale of a Christmas party she attended as a child, where she learned that a horrible murder took place years earlier in that very house. O. Henry's Full House includes an adaptation of the famed writer's best remembered story, "The Gift of the Magi," starring Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain as the poor young couple determined to make Christmas special for each other.

• Edward Scissorhands (1990): Very few filmmakers are mentioned twice in my Top 20; Billy Wilder's one, and Tim Burton is another. This sweetly warped and surreal holiday fantasy will only gain prominence with time; I like it better every time I see it. Johnny Depp, in one of his first misfit roles, plays the title character: an artificial boy with no true hands, created but left unfinished by kind but eccentric scientist Vincent Price. When this father-figure dies unexpectedly, Edward is embraced by the hilariously wholesome Boggs family, where he falls in love with their teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), a relationship that becomes sweet, heartbreaking and tragic by turns. Everything climaxes at Christmas, leading to a hauntingly melancholy resolution. Also one of soundtrack composer Danny Elfman's finest hours.

• Love Actually (2003): Writer/director Richard Curtis' romantic charmer — a valentine to love in all its happy, crazy, sloppy, spontaneous, ill-timed and poignant complexity — also is an ode to England at its most disarmingly captivating, and (cherry on top) a joyous and funny Christmas movie to boot. This frothy roundelay features 22 leading characters, most of them tied by family, marriage or friendship, and all trapped by various whirlwinds of passion and destiny. The multiple-storyline concept is an astonishing tightwire act, all held together with finesse by Curtis and editor Nick Moore, with everything climaxing (for better or worse) during a particularly joyous Christmas season.

• A Midnight Clear (1992): Although essentially ignored during its theatrical release, director Keith Gordon's adaptation of a novel by William Wharton (Birdy) is both a powerful anti-war statement and an achingly melancholy Christmas film. Set during December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest along the French/German border, during the waning days of World War II, the story concerns a battle-weary intelligence and rescue squad (the cast includes Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg and Kevin Dillon) sent to occupy an abandoned chateau. Our heroes encounter a group of equally disheartened German soldiers; mutually tentative efforts to set aside battlefield differences while acknowledging the holidays take an unexpected and unforgettable turn.

• The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944): Writer/director Preston Sturgess made some of the most bitingly funny screwball comedies ever unleashed by Hollywood, and this one's no exception: Betty Hutton stars in this WWII-era story as a cheerfully patriotic young woman improbably named Trudy Kockenlocker, who attends a series of parties one night and winds up pregnant ... apparently thanks to a mysterious soldier whose name she cannot remember. Despite the mounting shame and social ostracism, faithful boyfriend Eddie Bracken stands by her, and events climax when her "blessed arrival" — Sturgess' thinly veiled nod toward the season's far more famous "virgin birth" — takes place on Christmas morning.

• The Shop Around the Corner (1940): The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You've Got Mail has its charms, but director/co-scripter Nora Ephron screwed up the ending, and the result is a pale shadow of this vastly superior Ernst Lubitsch effort. James Stewart stars as one of many middle-class employees at a leather-goods shop in Budapest, where times have become tough despite shop owner Frank Morgan's efforts to maintain good cheer. This little family grows by one when Margaret Sullavan becomes a new counter clerk; although she and Stewart forever rub each other the wrong way during working hours, they're unknown mutual correspondents after hours, exchanging notes via Box 237 at the Post Office. As is typical of Lubitsch, things turn melodramatically grim, leading to a swooningly romantic climax at Christmastime.

• Three Godfathers (1948): Peter B. Kyne's Western-hued Christmas allegory has been filmed many times since its short story debut as "Bronco Billy and the Baby" in a 1910 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Today, the best-remembered version is director John Ford's 1948 adaptation with John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr., but — although it remains the most family-friendly adaptation — it's a bit too soggily sentimental for my taste. Kyne's original story had teeth, and you'll find a better example of that tone in director William Wyler's 1930 version, an early talkie titled Hell's Heroes that starred Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler. The story's central theme of redemption only works if the three villainous leads are truly unpleasant, and that's certainly the case with the earlier film. Ford's Three Godfathers is available on DVD, but you'll have to searching TV listings for Hell's Heroes.


• Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Although often turning up on lists of Christmas classics, time has not been kind to this insufferably broad farce, which plays like a bad TV sitcom. Country living and cooking columnist Barbara Stanwyck, forced by a publicity stunt to entertain war hero Dennis Morgan for the holidays, faces a crisis because she's a liar; her Suzie Homemaker image is a complete fabrication. Slapstick and contrivance build to truly absurd degrees, at which point we get the "a woman isn't whole without a man" finale. Ugh.

• Ernest Saves Christmas (1988): Jim Varney made a series of hilarious TV commercials, but I never agreed with the decision to bring his doofus character to the big screen ... and this holiday outing wears thin 10 minutes into its changing-of-the-guard theme that eventually would be worked to far greater success in The Santa Clause. Mercifully, Varney's Ernest movies quickly went the way of Paulie Shore.

• Home Alone 2 (1992): Those who imagined that the slapstick comedy was the only successful element in the 1990 original saw the error of this belief when this dreadful sequel came out, as crassly commercial and insufferably manipulative as the first one was sweet-natured and droll. (2002's made-for-TV Home Alone 4 is even worse, and 1997's Home Alone 3 isn't a Christmas movie.)

• Horrors: A catch-all entry intended to indict all the morons involved with the grotesquely violent gore-flicks affiliated with this holiday, from Silent Night, Bloody Night (1973) and Elves (1989) to Jack Frost (1996) and all five entries in the disgusting Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-92). They're all dreadful, and we can thank director Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, no less) for starting the cycle with 1974's Black Christmas.

• Jingle All the Way (1996): Here's a comedy that panders to materialistic Christmas greed at its worst, as two fathers (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad) battle each other to get the last known Turbo Man action figure for their respective sons. Tired, predictable and yet another reminder that California's current governor can't do comedy to save his life.

• The Ref (1994): Denis Leary's demented holiday comedy is an endurance test, even for those who like contrived, shrieking farces where characters don't talk when they can yell and scream instead. Hapless cat-burglar Leary, hoping for an easy Christmastime score, instead winds up taking Connecticut couple Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis hostage ... along with an ever-growing number of extended family members.

• Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): A low-budget howler frequently included on lists of the worst movies ever made, with John Call's Kris Kringle kidnapped by evil Martians who get their just desserts when Santa's jovial magic proves irresistible to the green-skinned Martian kiddies (one of whom is played by a very young Pia Zadora ... and she couldn't act then, either). Jaw-droppingly dreadful.

• Santa Claus: The Movie (1985): Fresh from making us believe a man could fly with their Superman movies, producer Ilya Salkind tried to concoct "the ultimate Santa Claus movie" and fell flat on his face. Badly dated special effects and stunt casting (Dudley Moore as an elf) were deemed more important than a coherent story, and the whole cynical enterprise deserved its box-office crash.

• Surviving Christmas (2004): Another big-budget disaster, and another mid-career flop for star Ben Affleck, who (at the time) truly had the worst taste in Hollywood. Cast as an arrogant single guy who decides to buy his way into a cheery family Christmas, Affleck meets his match in reluctant father figure James Gandolfini, who has the intelligence to look embarrassed throughout this bomb.

• Trapped in Paradise (1994): Yes, Nicolas Cage's many bad movies include a holiday entry. After he and brothers Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz rob a small-town bank, they're trapped by a snowstorm and the incessantly kind townsfolk, who, not knowing of the heist, jes' wanna make these "nice boys" feel right at home with their homespun brand of small-town Christmas spirit. Sounds like it should work ... but it doesn't.


• Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean (1992): A pair of classics (and classic characters) from England's Rowan Atkinson. In the first, kind-hearted Ebenezer Blackadder is encouraged by visiting spirits to be more evil; in the second, the all but mute Mr. Bean navigates Christmas trees, Christmas gifts and a Christmas dinner in an effort to please long-suffering girlfriend Irma Gobb (Matilda Ziegler).

• A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): The standard-bearer. Filled with memorable moments, whether it's when Charlie Brown and Linus first confront aluminum Christmas trees, or when Schroeder attempts to placate Lucy's desire for a rendition of plain ol' "Jingle Bells." But the best scene is, of course, Linus' description of "the true meaning of Christmas." (Canadian Broadcast Company interview with Derrick Bang, on the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

• A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987): Everybody remembers this special for The California Raisins' Motown cover of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but in fact claymation animator Will Vinton packs a lot more into this short special. Other highlights include two walruses ice-skating to "Angels We Have Heard on High" and the truly hilarious "Carol of the Bells."

• How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966): Forget Jim Carrey's live-action abomination; this twisted animated Christmas card remains one of genius animator Chuck Jones' shining moments (working from the book by Dr. Seuss, of course). Jones' comic timing never has been better, and how can you beat getting both Boris Karloff (narrator) and Thurl Ravenscroft (the deep-voiced vocalist on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch")?

• Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962): Despite its age, this animated treat holds up remarkably well, but be sure to watch it on video, rather than enduring the horribly hacked-up version that shows on network TV. The story is surprisingly faithful to the Dickens original, and the Jule Styne songs are lively and unexpectedly poignant, particularly "All Alone in the World."

• "Night of the Meek" (1960): Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling's uncharacteristically tender holiday episode — broadcast just two days before Christmas during the show's second season — stars Art Carney as a department store Santa Claus who wishes he could bring some genuine seasonal magic to some young friends ... and discovers that, at Christmastime, wishes are taken seriously.

• The Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988): This Christmas show remains one of the best episodes of a truly warped series: a demented outing laden with guest stars — you've gotta give props to a program that books Grace Jones, k.d. lang and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello — and great sight gags ... not to mention Santa's request that Pee-Wee shorten his Christmas list, so that a few other children on the planet might be able to get some stuff!

• Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): This Jules Bass/Arthur Rankin puppet-animated special is slowly being surpassed by more modern fare — I came close to replacing it with the much edgier 1999 British special, Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire — but I can't deny its charm, or the exceptional use of narrator Burl Ives. Besides, two of this show's songs — "Silver and Gold" and "Holly Jolly Christmas" — have become holiday standards, and who can ignore that?

• A Wish for Wings That Work (1991): Most people don't even realize that Bloom County's Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat starred in a Christmas special; it only aired once or twice, and only recently became available on DVD. That's a shame; it's a supremely funny and unexpectedly tender story about Opus' letter to Santa Claus, as our big-nosed hero pleads with the Jolly Red Elf for the ability to fly.

• Ziggy's Gift (1982): Tom Wilson's short, mostly silent Everyman navigates bad luck, bogus Santas, an aggressive police officer and a sly pick-pocket while never losing his signature innocence and optimism in this Emmy Award-winning, too-captivating-for-words holiday special. Only Wilson could blend the above with a stray kitten, orphans, a gaggle of gobblers and more than a little Christmas magic to make one of the best aw-shucks half-hour shows ever produced.

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