Look, I know this isn’t going to sit well with most people. Or, maybe, you and I just might be in agreement here. In any case, tis the season, eh?
I’ve managed to cull this thing to ten films. It doesn’t include animated specials or Hallmark flicks. If that’s your thing, move on. If you’re still on board, read on. If you have opinions on the ranking or would like to discuss what I’ve missed, hit the comments and, in the words of one of my favorite sports radio hosts, “Holla at ya’ boy”.
10) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
There needed to be a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” here. There didn’t need to be the cringe-worthy Albert Finney version my elders forced me through each year until I was 10 years old. And I wanted to include a version that wasn’t stuffy (everything before sound was introduced into film) or renamed “Scrooge” for some reason (everything else). Bill Murray’s Scrooged was close to being on this list but that movie, while occasionally clever, is insanely uneven and mean-spirited in spots and there’s no real warmth to it. And I’m not gonna mince words here: Robert Zemeckis’s 2009 uncanny valley take is crap. That really leaves us with the end-all, be-all version of the book, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Michael Caine is perfect in the part, taking the role as seriously as one can despite being surrounded by a mostly-Muppet-centric cast. That’s not to say that the proceedings are cheap and silly. This version of the Dickens classic has conviction and is intent on giving you the very best. The surprisingly high production value, well-written musical numbers, excellent characterizations, performances and storytelling produce unexpected emotional moments. The result is a version that is delightful, hitting all the right notes. It’s equal parts traditional and Muppet-style irreverent, with some added flair: Rizzo and Gonzo (who plays “Charles Dickens” much to the skepticism of Rizzo) are your hosts throughout the film, serving as narrators as well as comfort to children who might be scared by the more supernatural aspects of the film. Easily, one of the best versions of the novel.
A scene not found in any modern release of this movie, Scrooge’s duet with his girlfriend called “When Love Is Gone”. For some reason, Jeff Katzenberg thought it would bore children. Brain Henson (son of the late Jim Henson) objected. The scene was cut anyhow and that’s a damn shame. It was one of the most emotional high points of the film, the type that can wring tears from a stone. Just watch it. I did. I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying…
9) Home Alone (1990)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
It’s a silly, convoluted goofball idea made magical via a great cast, spot-on direction from future Harry Potter helmer, Chris Columbus and an incredibly memorable musical score from the great John WIlliams. Wrap that all in Christmas ambiance, and you have yourself the perfect Christmas movie. The premise is that Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) is left home alone after a family member mistakes a neighborhood kid for him during a headcount before they leave for the airport in a rush. Kevin’s helpless as most children — but resourceful in his own way. This helps when two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) show up to rob the house. The movie is mostly Kevin getting in and out of trouble and while you cringe at the bratty, over-privileged behavior on the part of both him and his parents during the first quarter of the movie, everyone ends up becoming sympathetic by virtue of chemistry and because kids and parents can relate with each of the McAllisters. In other words, Home Alone is far better than it has any right to be. (Quick note: I’d shoehorn in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York but that movie is almost a parody of the original and far too cartoonish.)
So many to choose from. I can’t really choose many of the slapstick moments during the defense of the House McAllister because it’s just a lot of crash-bang and it kinda gels together. This one scene, as simplistic as it is, is always in my brain. Whenever I hear The Drifters version of “White Christmas”, there’s no way I don’t think of Kevin lip-syncing the song into the mirror following his daily shower. It’s a welcome pallet-cleanser between the more intense moments in the movie.
8) The Ref (1994)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
Have you ever been to a Christmas dinner with your significant other’s family? And when you get there, a simple conversation erupts and becomes a gigantic argument where nobody can shut up and everyone tries to get the last word? Then you’ll identify with The Ref, a film about a cat burglar named Gus (Denis Leary) who tries to wait out the large police force hunting him in a small town on the East Coast by hiding out with Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey), a married couple who he’s taken hostage in their own home. The problem? They’re an extremely unhappy married couple who can’t stop fighting. And it gets worse: before long, Gus finds himself posing as the couple’s marriage councilor after Lloyd’s unwitting family arrives for an insanely uncomfortable Christmas Eve dinner. Leary is in his element here, playing the part of the exasperated Gus with every fiber of angry, pent-up energy he’s known for in his comedy routine. But the film would be nothing without Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis who not only have great chemistry with Leary, but also with one another. You believe they’re an actual unhappy married couple. Every argument, every potshot, every single moment between them doesn’t feel at all rehearsed. This all might sound unpleasant if only the dialogue wasn’t so sharp. The insults Lloyd and Caroline toss at one another cut like a knife but are incredibly funny. An example of such:
CAROLINE: I had this dream…I’m in this restaurant, and the waiter brings me my entree. It was a salad. It was Lloyd’s head on a plate of spinach with his penis sticking out of his ear. And I said, “I didn’t order this.” And the waiter said, “Oh you must try it, it’s a delicacy. But don’t eat the penis, it’s just garnish.”
DR. WONG: Lloyd, what do you think about the dream?
LLOYD: I think she should stop telling it at dinner parties to all our friends.
Yeah, you could put this movie on the list of “movies that take place during Christmas”, but that would be a gross miscalculation. Christmas isn’t always snowfall, music and gifts. Family strife plays a big part in the lives of people outside your holiday bubble. This movie is the embodiment of that notion.
Gus faces off against the worst of Lloyd’s family in his overbearing mother (played with such seething, shrill evil by the great Glynis Johns) and nearly loses it in the process. It contains two of the greatest lines in the film, found near the end of this clip.
7) Elf (2003)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
I will never understand the absolute vitriol this movie is subjected to in some circles. Elf is everything Christmas was, is, or could be. Maybe it’s the objection to Will Ferrell as “Buddy the Elf”. Maybe it’s the unavoidable awkward feeling that Buddy is a child in a man’s body and that it’s disturbing to see him dating a woman half his age. I really don’t know. Then again, there are those (I’m looking at you, Keith Phipps) who think that Evil Christmas constitutes a spot on any sort of “all-time” list. If that’s your thing, so be it. So, why shit all over Elf? The movie is unbelievably charming, funny and, at times, moving. Buddy is everyone we once were, before we were jaded and corrupted by the rampant cynicism this world serves up like so much ice cream. There’s magic to be had in this film, whether it comes from Buddy’s child-like wonder when shown the famous Rockefeller Christmas Tree for the first time or Santa (Ed Asner for, what, the fifth time?) trying so hard to keep his sleigh in the air because of the lack of that very wonder in the air. It’s a thoughtful film, almost completely void of toilet humor and cheap fart jokes Hollywood defaults to when they can’t come up with something funny. And if none of this sells you, consider the fact that Jim Carrey turned the role of Buddy down so that he could star in the soulless live-action version of The Grinch. And we all know what a masterpiece of special holiday film-making that was.
Santa can’t get his sleigh back into the air due to the outright lack of Christmas Spirit it requires to fly, so Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) decides to take matters into her own hands by leading a large pack of New Yorkers in the singing of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which ends up televised all over the city, inspiring everyone around the city to sing along. This is truly one of the most heart-warming moments in any Christmas film.
6) Love Actually (2003)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
All right, I’ll make you a deal, if you give me a pass on Elf, you can have a pass on Love Actually. Admittedly, this movie grew on me. It took me 13 years for me to open up my cold, cold heart to it and invite it in. A couple years ago, I contributed to an article at The Workprint where I wrote, “Love, Actually is pandering, cloying, terribly stupid (Christ on a crutch, the story about the dumb, toothy British dude somehow roping in three different women in one night…wow…no, that doesn’t happen on this planet or in any dimension), and has some incredibly unbelievable stories. A woman sacrifices a relationship with the man she’s been obsessing over for YEARS in order to take care of her mentally ill brother? C’mon.” And…yeah. Those stories are still ridiculous in my eyes. In fact, most, if not all, of these stories are downright silly because of the execution of the concept: it feels like you’re watching a series of really long coffee commercials. Everything witnessed is a fantasy. Nothing seems real. Everything is an exaggeration of the truth. And, perhaps, that’s where the magic lies. Because some of us have been in a broken marriage or relationship, most of us have secretly pined for that man or woman and just can’t let them know how we feel, and all of us, in some way, are lonely and longing for any kind of human connection. When Love Actually falters, it’s eye-rollingly bad. But when it’s good (and this is more often than not), you feel it as deeply as the characters who are experiencing it. And that’s magnified by the fact that it takes place during the time of year when a Christmas song or the sight of decorations can bring you additional warmth or break you in half.
I probably can’t supply certain clips because it would spoil the many stories told in the film…so I’m going with Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) plugging his record on a local BBC pop music show. His line at the end is still priceless.
5) Die Hard (1988)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
You know why it’s on the list. Die Hard is a classic action movie, even all these years later. It’s near-mythical in its status. It’s taut, suspenseful, well-executed, AWESOME. The action sequences and storytelling are top-notch. MORE awesome. It features Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in star-making roles. ULTRA awesome. And it takes place during Christmas. For as many machine gun rounds fired, we also get a Christmas party, complete with music, lights and trees. Willis’s “John McClane” uses Christmas in his mental games with Hans (Rickman) and his crew. Die Hard is one of the reasons screenwriter Shane Black didn’t stop supplying us with a steady stream of action flicks set during Christmas after the success of this and Lethal Weapon, which he wrote. All of this elevates everything and makes the movie feels truly grand. This isn’t up for debate. Die Hard is one of the greatest Christmas films of all-time.
The famous moment where Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman verbally spar over the radio for the first time, setting up a classic game of cat-and-mouse…and we get to hear Willis’s now-classic line at the end of it. Yippie-kai-yai-yay…
4) White Christmas (1954)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
I’d like to welcome back the majority of the people who started this article with #10 and #9 and then thought I went off the deep end starting with #8. Thanks for sticking with me. White Christmas was a film I finally saw in 2012. It’s not wholly remarkable. It’s fluff. But it’s Christmas fluff and I will gladly welcome Christmas fluff into my collection provided it’s not an incompetent mess. Maybe it’s the fact that I was in a bit of a lonely place following the end of a relationship I was in and I needed some old school warmth that reminded me of watching old Christmas movies with my late grandmother. White Christmas is probably one of the best vintage Christmas films I’ve ever seen. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a perfect team, the songs and dance sequences in the film are beautifully shot and the use of color (Paramount’s VistaVision is in play here) is breathtaking. The film has some memorable moments, including the party that opens the film as Crosby and his men say good-bye to their superior officer. Of course you know they’ll meet him later and that it will set up the big finale at the end of the film…but that’s the whole point. That and the easy-going romantic connections made along the way. White Christmas is the movie you watch after something like Die Hard in order to soothe yourself and relax…only to continue your journey through the rest of your Christmas movie list.
Easily, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen’s dance number, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”. This stuff just isn’t seen in Hollywood on a regular basis anymore.
3) Bad Santa (2003)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
Whereas The Ref gave us chaos and strife, it was somewhat manageable chaos. The characters in that film ironed out their differences and became (somewhat) better people. Bad Santa seems to lack that hope, and presents us with a man who is below the bottom of the barrel in Billy Bob Thornton’s “Willie Soke”, a thief who spends each Christmas infiltrating big name department stores by working as the adjoining mall’s Santa Claus, a role he barely inhabits and is apathetic toward the notion of ever doing so. He’s an old, tired alcoholic with deep emotional scars, the result of a hinted-at tumultuous childhood and military service in the 60’s and 70’s. At one point, he wants to end his life and attempts suicide — but is pulled out of it because the kid he’s partially looking after got bullied and, goddammit, those bullies are gonna get the shit kicked out of them for ever doing something like that to a kid. I’m not even gonna kid myself. You’re like, “This isn’t a Christmas movie” or you’re asking me “Why would anyone watch this?” to which I answer “I don’t care what you think” and “because it’s the epitome of Christmas”. For every happy soul at the mall buying gifts for loved ones, listening to Christmas music, decorating the house, baking pies or spending time with family…there’s always somebody on the opposite end, wallowing in their own self-imposed emotional prison. As hilarious as this movie can be, Thornton’s portrayal of Soke is representative of the thousands of people who struggle with their own personal demons during the holidays. Thornton gives us an anti-hero who simultaneously disgusts you and makes you feel empathy simply because, at some point, you’ve been him in some small way. Chevy Chase’s “Clark Griswold” has been close to visiting that place inside him. But he’s never actually been there. For the first time, we get to see what it’s like to be “that guy” during the holidays. It’s equal parts beautiful, reprehensible and sad. In anyone else’s hands, Bad Santa would have been a total disaster but director Terry Zwigoff’s casting of Thornton is a stroke of genius and not only gives us one of his greatest performances ever, but one of the more memorable Christmas movie characters in history.
Willie working his “magic” as Santa…
2) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has earned its spot on this list and on many lists precisely because, like It’s a Wonderful Life before it (a movie this film pays homage to in more ways than one), the protagonist is an easily relatable everyman put into situations that every single mother and father have been through. In past entries of the Vacation series, Clark Griswold was little more than a cartoon character, superhuman in his attempts to get from point A to point B, sacrificing his sanity and goodwill for the sake of pleasing his family who thinks he’s insane anyhow.
Here, Griswold has been reduced to a real human being. He’s no longer SuperDad. He works hard for a demanding boss who, unbeknownst to Clark and his workmates, has decided to eliminate his staff’s holy grail: the Christmas bonus. And that’s the main course, served up later, following a multi-course meal of smaller disasters whether it’s Clark’s eternal struggle with getting his Christmas lights to work or to understand and deal with his wayward brother. Forget the notion of putting in a pool. There are much larger things at play here.
One of the brilliant things about the movie is that it does give you the requisite happy ending — but it feels so surreal. Is it really the “happy” ending or is it a fever dream? We know damn well the elimination of a Christmas bonus would end in tears, sorrow and the consumption of enough whiskey to fuel a rocket. Christmas Vacation is a film that doesn’t show us what Christmas is, it shows us what we wish it was. it’s no longer Clark Griswold taking on a Moose or parts of Europe. It’s Clark Griswold facing off against the forces of fate and the very universe itself. And it’s a joy to watch each year.
Clark gets the bad news about his assumed “Christmas bonus”…it doesn’t go well and his tantrum is a thing of beauty, inducing both tears and belly laughs.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
You know the score. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) builds a rapport over time with the citizens of Bedford Falls, bailing them out of their various personal versions of hell until George becomes one of them and experiences their plight, first-hand. This movie is remarkable in that maybe the last quarter of it actually takes place during Christmas — thus, it may not actually be a Christmas film. So, why is It’s a Wonderful Life here? Because it’s a movie that that demands to be seen during Christmas.
The difference between Christmas Vacation and It’s a Wonderful Life is a matter of personality. Whereas Griswold is all about taking care of his family, he does it for pride. He does it for the admiration. Bailey saves people because he truly can’t imagine what life might be like if they suffer. Bailey takes care of his own. The lesson sounds heavy-handed but it’s something to think about if you’ve ever thought material gifts took precedence over the people you love. And what better time to meditate on that than Christmas?
It’s that lesson that not only spans every season in a given year, but entire generations.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas film of all-time.
George talks about tying up the moon and bringing it down so that he can give it to his beloved Mary…
Olive, the Other Reindeer – A wonderful little cartoon by Matt Groening that has the same quick-witted humor found on The Simpsons. The voice-work is outstanding, starring Drew Barrymore in the titular role.
The Santa Clause – The writing isn’t as good as you want it to be. It’s Disney-safe but there’s still some magic to be had in the tale of a man who assumes Kris Kringle’s identity.
Lethal Weapon – The movie that started the modern “Christmas as a backdrop” thing. Shane Black wrote this sucker and this wouldn’t be his last Christmas script.
The Long Kiss Goodnight – Shane Black strikes again with another buddy action comedy with Geena Daivs and Samuel L. Jackson as a super spy and the man trying to investigate why she vanished and reappeared.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – Yet another Shane Black piece. A Neo-Noir piece starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer as two unlikely partners involved in a mess of dead bodies and Hollywood politics.
Miracle on 34th Street – I’ve seen this movie twice. For some reason, it doesn’t really get to me the way it gets to others because of the predictability of simplicity of it all. Still a wonderful movie.
The Nightmare Before Christmas – Absolutely brilliant film on so many levels…but, for some reason, this movie fits better during Halloween.
A Christmas Story – I never truly understood the appeal of this film, though it’s funny in spots.
Scrooged – I love this movie, though it’s pretty dark and mean-spirited.
Jingle All the Way – A hilarious look at how far a parent will go to please his kid…it’s just too bad the characters are unappealing.
Do you agree or disagree? Sound off in chat!