- BAD SANTA (2003)
Bad Santa is one of those I like to watch every couple years. There’s enough robust profanity, raunch, and unlikeable characters to slake my thirst for uncompromising low-brow humor, but the holiday spirit legitimately courses in the threads of this weird and sincerely unimportant movie. The main kid, whose almost-too-on-the-nose portrayal of a moderately insane and emotionally abandoned young sociopath, dishes memorable lines with Billy Bob Thornton, and between the two of them, they exchange a bit of the right and wrong lessons of both life and Christmas. Kudos to the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter for taking small parts and chewing up every morsel. I think I laugh at Bernie Mac more than any other character. Half. Huh-alllve. (mouths “half”).
- ELF (2003)
A lot of robustly insincere movies come out nearly annually that are desperately driven to become annual Christmas staples. Some land their punches better than others, but almost none of them feel like the director and producers were overly interested in making something legitimately embracing of the Christmas vibe. Elf has a few moments that try a bit too hard to pull the heartstrings, but thankfully everybody from the cast to Jon Favreau’s directon is very delicate not to take anything too seriously. When I think about Elf, the word “heartfelt” comes to mind. It’s so light and sweet of a concept that Will Ferrell didn’t necessarily need to be the star, but he never ventures into the overly improvisational, “try to make this actor/actress break character” stuff he’s known for. This is also arguably Zooey Deschanel’s best performance, depending on where Almost Famous falls in your personal movie heirarchy. I don’t know how much I buy her and Will Ferrell as an item, but her skepticism is a binding agent of the story.
- LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
Good lord, 2003 was quite the year for Christmas movies. It took me a good while to watch Love Actually, and some may argue intensely that this isn’t a Christmas movie. The movie is a handful of romance plots that all interweave, leaving a few of them heartbroken, a few bittersweet, and a few bursting from the seams with love and appreciation, but this movie would not be worth its salt if the cast was differerrent. The ensemble cast takes their performances quite seriously, and you earnestly are rooting for many of them by the end. It’s particularly interesting to watch Liam Neeson portray a widower only a couple years before his real-world wife died. There’s no question that Bill Nighy had the most fun of anyone in the cast, and without him this movie probably wouldn’t be on this list. He seems to have such a grand time playing the fallen-off Billy Mack, pathetically hawking a Christmas cover of one of his former hits. Hugh Grant’s part in all of this seems somewhat forgettable, but his performance is, as always, charming and welcome. There’s parts big and small across the whole spectrum of the cast that were nailed by their casting director, and sandwich that between clips of people flying home for Christmas and you’ve got an annual tearjerker. Plus the romance between the two Hogwarts professors in Muggle form is a nice touch.
- THE SANTA CLAUSE (1994)
Tim Allen is not a great Santa Claus. I don’t particularly care for him once he reaches full adoption of the Santa persona later in the story, but all the events crossfading Scott Calvin into Santa Claus are great. Tim Allen was on fire in 1994, and he gets to be Tim the tool man Taylor for much of the first half of the story, to my delight. A good deal of this movie is a total 1990’s time capsule for both movie styles, limited CG options, and practical effects. If this movie gets remade, which it will with 100% certainty, the elves, reindeer, and likely entirety of the North Pole set will be green screen and CG’d out the ass. Thankfully we always will have this slice of 90’s Nickelodeon Gak holiday pie to serve up when we’re jonesing to see Tim Allen ham it up in his prime.
- NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)
It’s easy to have mixed feelings about Christmas Vacation in retrospect. Chevy Chase is/was such an unlikable, egomaniacal asshole that he sabotaged his career several times over, and Randy Quaid is a legitimate psychopath whose latest feat has been making a sex tape with his wife as she wears a Rupert Murdoch mask, all while he mutters conspiracies that would make the unabomber blush. If you can shelve the real-world stuff for 90 minutes or so, Christmas Vacation is a lot of fun, with Chevy Chase’s performance as a stress-bottling everyman being tested by the onset of his mostly-miserable family. Strangely my favorite parts in this whole thing are Chase starting his day in a then-home custom Blackhawks sweater and when he feigns being a psycho killer with the chainsaw to freak out his neighbors. That stuff feels relatively authentic, at least it’s absolutely stuff I would do.
- THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004)
One particular friend of mine loves Polar Express so much that he’s either celebrating that it’s so high up on my list as he reads this, or he’s plotting how best to kill me for my insolence to rank it so low. Polar Express has a few downfalls, mostly regarding the CG’s limitations for the time period (it’s become a common reference for the dead-eye effect of the Uncanny Valley), but it has an enormous amount of charm and, naturally, a wollop of Christmases-gone-by romance. There’s definitely a couple parts the movie didn’t need – the journey through Santa’s factory runs a bit long and the roller coaster ride portions of the journey north are pretty tacky/blatant filler – but it doesn’t take away from the excellent music, ideal Christmas decor in every nook and cranny of the screen at all times, and for a movie that could’ve been a soulless void of product placement and anachronisms, the only cardinal sin committed was having an Aerosmith elf band perform in Santa’s town square. The rest is an appropriately snowy adventure that any kid growing up who doubted Santa can relate to. The Christmas Ghost on the train is definitely my favorite character.
- WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)
There’s something magical about this era of movies and Christmastime that had a rare bit of overlap, both bringing the best out of each other when executed well. The story of White Christmas is about as unoriginal as it gets, but that’s the point. It’s a comforting, simple story that celebrates the dinner-and-a-show, triple threat era of cinema, weaves in some of the still-lingering sentiments of World War 2, and ultimately wraps it all in a big red bow. Bing Crosby, mercifully remembered for this movie and not Holiday Inn, has a jolly old time with Danny Kaye, one trading off an incredible singing voice, the other chopping it up with laughs and dance. Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen do the same. It’s sappy as all get out, fun, touching, dated, and festive, all in a couple hour flick that lets us remember Christmas from a bygone era.
- A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984)
Everybody’s got their favorite interpretation of this story, whether it’s a silver-screen version from 1938 or 1951; or a more modern take with Jim Carrey, Patrick Stewart, or Guy Pearce. A lot of it really depends on how you like your Scrooge and how dark you prefer the story to be executed. A great many probably prefer Michael Caine’s take on the character from A Muppet Christmas Carol, but I myself have become extremely fond of George C. Scott’s portrayal in the 1984 version. Reginald Owen’s 1938 Scrooge was merely grouchy; Alastair Sim’s 1951 too somber. Scott is in my mind the ideal Scrooge because he comes off as a genuinely despicable, intimidating miser. He seems to be in authentic need of retribution, and merits the visits from the spirits that Christmas Eve. It is as true an execution of Dickens’ tale as any Christmas Carol you’ll see, but is probably too scary at parts for young children. The shrieks of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are haunting, piercing sounds that I secretly feel inspired the protrayal of the Nazgul in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series.
- HOME ALONE/HOME ALONE 2 (1990,1992)
I’ve merged these two films together, since the sequel is a virtual clone of the original, only markedly more void of nutritional value. I remember sitting on my mom’s lap in a sold-out movie theater the first time I saw Home Alone (I’ll have to ask her if this actually happened or if it was a misremembered thing), and it became annual viewing every year thereafter. Like so many Christmas films, it’s not necessarily the movie itself that churns up the nostalgia rush so much as the sensory experiences of hearing a particular line or song that puts me right back in my early 90s home, the ragged VHS cover on the floor next to the wood-vinyl-covered black plastic tape holder under a TV with the channel up/down buttons missing (thus requiring me to use a pencil to poke inwardly at the tiny button to make it work; phrasing). The sequel was watched virtually on loop at my childhood babysitter’s house. In recent years, one of my best pals and former roommates and I would order a plain cheese pizza and enjoy Home Alone, and it pleases me he’s brought that tradition into his house with his wife. It’s infinitely quotable, smartly cast, and a time capsule of a Christmas film. Can’t imagine the holiday season without it.
- A MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)
Much like I how view George C. Scott’s portrayal of Scrooge as the definitive example, Edmund Gwenn is THE actor for Santa Claus. In over 60 years, nobody has cast a better Kris Kringle, and in all that time the original picture has endured without much bother. There was a poorly thought out remake in the 1990s that has been long forgotten, and if anything it merely increased awareness of and appreciation for the 1947 version. Is your favorite scene when Santa speaks Dutch to the orphan, or teaches Susan the pretend game, or maybe cracking Dr. Sawyer’s noggin with a cane? Or is it when the Macy’s and Gimbal’s owners vie against one another for who can be the bigger distributor of goodwill? It’s an all-timer of Christmas cheer from beginning to end.
- IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
There’s a bit of a conflict here, as I’d normally put It’s a Wonderful Life in my top 10 movies of all time, but in terms of just Christmas movies, there’s only one I’d list above it. Thus, IAWL will reside contentedly here in the second spot, if only by the slimmest of margins. There’s few better stories on film I’ve seen than that of George Bailey’s battle against the small town life of Bedford Falls and Mr. Potter, wrapped up in a bow with being lovestruck and navigating the waters of what real fulfillment is. Almost everyone can relate to that in some form or another – we all want to be big deals, breaking the bonds of where we’re from and what we’re born into to become something more – whatever the case may be. Inevitably most people don’t catch the dreams they once chased, but there is no reason to despair if you can see the forest through the trees and be blessed by the true gifts of friendship, family, and love. George needed a little more help than most to see and eternally value the impact and value of his own life within his community, and if we each had our own version of Clarence, maybe our shortcomings would be infinitely easier to take in stride. In the meantime, we’ll have to content ourselves with an annual reminder from this gem of a film that no man is a failure who has friends.
- A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
This movie is, to me, Christmas. I feel like we all apply our own parents to Ralphie’s, whether it’s the Old Man painting a masterpiece in obscenity during a furnace clinker or Ralphie’s mom waging a cold war upon the tacky sex lamp. In some ways, all of us grew up like Ralphie, sorting through seasonal catalogs to identify prospective treasures, putting school on the backburner while counting down the seconds to Christmas, and in the interim dealing with bullies making the life of being a kid needlessly difficult. As a kid I saw the Christmas Day present openings as the ultimate experience of the holiday, but in recent years the scene I yearn for with my full heart is the Christmas toast between the parents that evening, listening to “Silent Night” on the radio, nestled in the glow of the tree lights, the snow falling quietly through the frosty windowpane.