8 Dec 2008

My Favorite Xmas Movies

My friend Cam recently posted his top 10 favorite Xmas movies on his blog here. A good list it was, too. I know he'll forgive me for saying, though, that there were some glaring omissions and a few unworthy inclusions.

Unable to keep shtum for any longer, I bring you my (and therefore the ultimate!) list of festive favorites:

1. Scrooge (1951)
As Cam said, the definitive telling of Dickens' timeless classic. Alistair Sim fully embodies the character and spirit of Dickens' most famous miser, rendering all other portrayals moot. Brian Desmond Hurst captures all the magic (and even the darkness) in the classic tale while the uniformly excellent cast (most of whom had just previously worked together in the classic Tom Brown's Schooldays) help make this the most perfect and famous telling of the most perfect and famous Xmas tale of them all. Un. Beatable.

2. It's a Wonderful Life
What more can be said about this movie? It's not even a Xmas movie, really, until the last half hour and yet it has become the most-loved yuletide story of them all. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, the best director/actor team of the 1940s/50s (with respect to Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder), reached the apotheosis of their collaborations with this stunningly well-told story. A perfect, perfect gem of a movie that never gets old and improves (as we get older and more mature) with each year.

3. The Wizard of Oz
I know, I know, this isn't really a Xmas movie but, growing up in England in the early eighties, before VCRs (let alone DVD players) were common household items, TWOO was shown by the BBC every single Xmas without fail and it was a big event in our house. My older sister and I would get our sleeping bags on the floor and watch Dorothy and friends' journey to Oz while Mom brought us hot chocolate and popcorn. Quite apart from being one of the best movies of Hollywood's "Golden Age," it has been and always will be a true holiday classic for me.

4. Blackadder's Christmas Carol
While not strictly a movie, this 50-minute 1988 Xmas special deviates from the regular, half-hour episodes of one of the greatest comedy shows ever made and is thus included on my list. Like Scrooge and IAWL, this is watched in my house EVERY Xmas. For the uninformed, Blackadder is a UK comedy series that ran for four seasons from 1984-1989 and, like all brilliant, successful and critically-acclaimed British comedy shows, the makers decided not to make anymore at the height of its popularity (think Fawlty Towers, The Office, Gavin and Stacey, etc.). Each season of Blackadder follows the mythical chracter Edmund Blackadder through four different periods in British history. Season one was set in the middle ages, two in Elizabethan England, three during the 18th century and four in the trenches of WWI. This special, set, just like the original Christmas Carol in Victorian England, is a sort of Scrooge-in-reverse tale, with the kindly samaritan Edmund shown his past by a spirit (Robbie Coltrane). Except this time, the kindly Edmund sees how rotten his ancestors were (we get new footage of the Blackadders from the other seasons) and realizes that there's something to be said for being bad. He therefore resolves to change his ways and become a bad guy. The cast includes alumni from all of the other seasons, including Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent. Like every episode of Blackadder, there are too many classic quotes to count, including the immortal

Blackadder: Ha! Got him with my subtle plan
Baldrick (the dummy): I didn't notice any subtle plan.
Blackadder: Baldrick, you wouldn't notice a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord singing "Subtle plans are here again!"

5. A Charlie Brown Christmas
And seeing as we're going with one-off Xmas TV specials, no list would be complete without A Charlie Brown Xmas. Every single thing about it reminds me of Yuletide; the fantastic soundtrack (which, apart from containing some of the most memorable Xmas music ever to come from America, is also a perfect example of the Cool Jazz trio [piano, double bass and drums], in this case immortalised by Vince Guaraldi and crew), the crude animation, the jokes, Snoopy's happy dance, the "true meaning of Xmas" as told by Linus, the Xmas Queen, that rubbish tree, and on and on and on. I don't think anything on this list makes me feel more Christmassy.

6. The Nightmare Before Xmas
This could be a Halloween or a Xmas favorite but for me has always been one for the holidays. I've said in the past that this is my favorite Disney movie of all time and it still holds true today. While Tim Burton's endless (and samey) gothic weirdness can become quite tiresome, this movie is a perfect realisation of his macabre mind. Jack Skellington is one of the greatest characters in all kids' or Christmas movies, combining wonder at the magic of Christmas with kindness, innocence and the desire to do good. The music and songs are, I believe, Danny Elfman's best work and the stop-motion animation is still awe-inspring even today. I hope to see it in IMAX 3D one of these days, but until then, it remains one of the most popular titles in Cate and Dad's Movie Club.

7. Love Actually
While ostensibly being about love in all its permutations, Love Actually is one of the Christmasiest (is that a word?) movies ever. Director Richard Curtis, having written some of the best rom-coms of all time (Four Weddings..., Notting Hill, The Tall Guy, etc.) finally gets his turn in the director's chair, creating, arguably, the best UK rom-com of all time. Several intertwining stories about love and relationships, set against the backdrop of an impossibly snowy English Xmas, Love Actually is one of those films that truly gives you the seasonal warm fuzzies. Great comedy, great acting, great cast (special mention to Bill Nighy's has-been rock star and Emma Thompson's cheated-on wife) and a Xmas setting make Love Actually way better than it had any right to be.

8. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Chevy Chase is hit and miss for me and for many other people. He comes off as a little too pleased with himself most of the time and, if you've ever listened to Howard Stern, you know he's a bit of an arrogant ass. Having said this, on those rare occasions when he's good, he's very good. The first three vacation movies (I'd prefer to forget about Vegas Vacation) and both Fletch movies show how great he can be. This is, without doubt, his best performance in his best film. A Xmas staple for the majority of Americans (and a fair few Brits, too) NLCV is hilarious literally no matter how many times you watch it. I literally cry with laughter on each viewing. For best results, watch Dec. 23rd in the presence of father-in-law, whose constant guffawing throughout is entertainment enough in itself. Oh, and please don't watch NLCV 2 - Cousin Eddie's Island Vacation or something, which is as horrible as it sounds.

9. Elf
When I first saw this movie, I laughed so much I think I peed a little. In my eyes, Will Ferrell is quite simply inherently funny. Even in his shit movies (I'm looking at you, Blades of Glory) all he has to do is walk onto the screen and I'm laughing. Jon Favreau has created a modern classic with this film. Sentimental without ever being sickly, hilarious, wonderfully acted (especially by Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel and, in a cameo, the always-excellent Peter Dinklage) and with a truly funny, heart-warming script, Elf became an instant classic. The acid test came the following year after I first saw it. Would it still be as great and funny? You bet your ass it was (and continues to be).

10. The Snowman
A Xmas special from the mid-80s more famous for the song it spawned than for the actual special itself, The Snowman, based on Raymond Briggs' beloved children's book, is a typically British Xmas tale, full of wonder, magic and melancholy. It has an ending which would never be allowed in America and a conceit (no dialogue whatsoever) which would similarly ensure it never would be aired alongside such faves as Shrek the Halls, etc. The song, Walking in the Air, sung by a then-cherubic Aled Jones, is a Xmas classic which is always in heavy rotation in my house from mid-November through to Boxing Day. The Snowman is known to still make grown men cry and therefore earns its position on my list.

11. A Christmas Story
This may surprise some of you, but I never actually saw A Christmas Story until about six years ago (at the tender age of 28, no less). Growing up in England, where this movie just isn't a Xmas staple, I simply never got around to seeing it. My wife, though, has always loved it and introduced me to the delights of Ralphie and his BB gun. It's so very 80s, so very badly shot (did the celluloid get dunked in dirt and coffee during filming??!! WTF?!), but so very funny and it just FEELS like Xmas when it's on in the background.

12. The Polar Express
Like A Christmas Story, I'm one of the few people who were unfamiliar with this story as a kid. Again, I'll put it down to this book not being particularly popular in the UK, but nearly all of my American friends seem to have read this story as a child. Maybe that was a good thing, though, in that I went into the movie with no preconceived notions or expectations. Let me say that, quite apart from the jaw-dropping special effects, I was really surprised at how good the essential story was. I can see, now, why this has been a classic tale for more than 20 years. Perfectly capturing a child's magical view of Xmas and Santa himself, TPE automatically became a Xmas classic for me when I first saw it only last year.

13. White Christmas
Bing! Danny! Rosemary! Vera! This movie is, at the same time, wonderful and terrible. Corny, cheesy, hokey, badly edited, plot holes the size of Montana, badly colored (using the then-relatively-new Technicolor), poorly written and, last but not least, utterly fabulous! The immortal song "White Christmas," Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen duetting on "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen doing "Sisters." Pure Hollywood magic and a staple!

14. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Controversy alert! I actually prefer the 1994 remake over the original. Don't get me wrong, I like the 1947 original and think that Natalie Wood gave a much better, more natural performance than her '94 counterpart, Mara Wilson. I have a problem, though, with the pacing of the original (too many boring stretches) and with Edmund Gwenn as an annoying, over-acting Santa. I much prefer the elegantly art directed remake with a delightful Richard Attenborough really playing the part seriously, great chemistry between Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott and nasty, boo-hiss villains in the form of the late, great J.T. Walsh and Joss Ackland.

15. Santa Claus: The Movie
Released when I was 10, a few years after I stopped "believing," I remember that the first half of this movie was so good that I wanted to start believing again. I don't think there's ever been a better telling of Santa's story and in David Huddlestone, Alexander and Ilya Salkind (uber-producers and the men behind the Chris Reeve Superman films) found the puh-herrfect St. Nick. The other two great things about the movie are the sets (it's obvious that no expense was spared, resulting in an over-blown budget that never had a chance of making the Salkinds a profit) and John Lithgow (is he ever bad in anything? I mean, really?) as a great pantomime villain in the somewhat-hokey second half of the movie.

Honorable mention:

Die Hard - While not a Xmas movie in the traditional sense, it was set during Xmas, at a Xmas party, with Xmas jokes ("Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho!"), Xmas sets and it just happens to be, arguably, the greatest action movie ever made. I can watch this every Xmas and throughout the year. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!

Scrooged - Great twist on A Christmas Carol. Still funny, but nowhere near as funny as it used to be.

Trading Places - I have an even harder time calling this a Xmas movie than I do with Die Hard, but the best thing Dan Ayckroyd or Eddie Murphy ever did and a classic I can watch any time of year.

Joyeaux Noel - Saw this last year for the first time and was blown away by how good it was. The true story of some French, Scottish and German soldiers in the trenches in WWI who called a ceasefire just on Xmas Eve. Moving, harrowing and rewarding. If it's still as good after a few more years/viewings, I'm sure it'll shoot up my list.

And some crappy christmas movies:

The Grinch - Unbearably boring with Jim Carrey over-acting more than he ever has.

Home Alone 2 - The laziest movie ever made. Almost a complete remake of the first one (which I do like very much, even though it doesn't hold up to repeated viewings).

Jingle All the Way - Do I really need to explain this one?

2 comments:

Cam said...

If I didn't exclude Christmas specials, Charlie Brown and the original Grinch cartoon would definitely be on it.

I'm glad we both agree that the 1951 Scrooge is the superior of all the other serious non-muppet takes of A Christmas Carol. BBC aren't the only ones that play Wizard of Oz during Christmas time. It's on around this time in the States too. I never really understood why it's considered a holiday movie, but I don't really care because it's such a great film.

Never seen Blackadder's. I want to.

Carlos said...

Man, you've gotta see the Blackadders. Take it from me, skip season one (it's not that great) and go directly to season two. You don't have to have seen any of the previous episodes to enjoy each one because they're actually stand-alone seasons. Fuck the unfunny-as-hell Mr. Bean. THIS is Rowan Atkinson's finest hour, taking advantage of his great verbal delivery and the way he wraps his tongue around deliciously good lines from co-writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton (a fact that the mute Mr. Bean phenomenon completely misse).

Seriously, get yourself an account with www.thebox.bz (a torrent site that only lists UK TV shows, and one in which you have to upload as much as you download or they'll ban you from the site!) and download seasons 2-4 plus the Xmas special.

Yeah, 1951 Scrooge is so good. Have you seen Tom Brown's Schooldays? if not, you'd love it.