Tuesday, December 7, 2010

10 FAVORITES (14) - Holidays PART I: Christmas Films

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! And in honor of the season, I am devoting the entire month's 10 FAVORITES lists to the Holidays (Christmas, New Year's, etc.). Everything from Movies to TV Specials to Songs to Traditions will be covered this month. Today, we will look at the best Christmas movies. Now, these are movies that the Holidays just wouldn't be the same without them. As I discussed earlier when I talked about my 100 FAVORITE FILMS of all-time, It's a Wonderful Life was listed at #38. To many, myself included, this is the ultimate Christmas movie. So therefore, today's list WILL NOT include an Honorable Mention, since It's a Wonderful Life would most assuredly be #1 (but I already discussed it, so there is no need to rehash that). Today's list will be a TOP 10, but just move everything down one when you add the Frank Capra-Jimmy Stewart classic.


Prancer (1989)
This would be the Honorable Mention spot with It's a Wonderful Life on the list. It has been a long time since I have seen this movie, so I don't remember everything about it, but I do remember really loving it. It's a hokey story about Santa's titular reindeer who gets injured and a bunch of young kids have to protect him and help him make his way to the North Pole. In a way, I guess it is like a Christmas version of E. T., which is another of my Favorite movies. I also remember charming performances from Sam Elliott and the great Cloris Leachman, both of whom make the very worst movies better.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
I know this film does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Christmas movies, but this formulaic 1990's rom-com (one of the better ones of the genre) does use Christmas (and New Year's) as a good backdrop to the simple story. Sandra Bullock, who at the time was becoming the ultimate "Girl Next Door," gives a very charming and lovely performance as Lucy. Lucy is a lonely subway booth worker who (through various misunderstandings!) becomes part of a family at a time when she needs it most and (of course!) falls in love in the process.

White Christmas (1954)
For those screaming "WHY?!?" about now, this one we can blame on my mother and grandmother. They really liked this film and, therefore, I grew to like it. Although it is not the strongest story (it is, after all, a film built around the popularity of the great Irving Berlin song), it has fantastic Irving Berlin musical numbers and charming performances from the leads (especially Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who was a favorite of my mother). But even the simplistic and formulaic story (the ol' "Let's put on a show!" game) has a way of making me smile and becomes quite enjoyable after yearly viewings.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens' brilliant and classic novella is one of the most frequently adapted stories in media history. And there ARE several film versions to choose from when compiling a list like this (I chose two, the other one is in a bit). When looking at Christmas Carol adaptations, I have great respect for the filmmakers who do their best to stick to the world Dickens himself lived in. Check out the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim or the 1984 TV film version starring George C. Scott for the best straight Dickensian adaptations. But this one adds an element that I absolutely love (and anyone who knows me, understands): MUPPETS!!! Michael Caine brilliantly plays Scrooge surrounded by Kermit and company inhabiting several classic Dickens characters. This film also means something as it was the first Muppet project worked on after the death of their ingenious founder Jim Henson (and it was directed by his son, Brian).

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, the use of stop-motion animation is a technical wonder in and of itself. Burton used it again 10 years later on Corpse Bride and Selick used it fairly recently on Coraline (both of which were good, but not as good as this brilliant musical marvel). In this story, Holidays are separate villages that reside in hollow trees in a secluded wood. And in the town of Halloween, the Pumpkin King Jack Skellington is growing dissatisfied with his yearly scares and happens upon the village known as Christmas Town. He devises that he, too, can have this wondrous thing called Christmas and proceeds to take it over with the help of his Halloween pals. The film is quite enjoyable with plenty of frights and twists on the two different Holidays' traditions. And Danny Elfman's musical score is just as good as a traditional Broadway score (Elfman even provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington).

Home Alone (1990)
There are many reasons to dislike this film (the multiple sequels, the annoying catchphrases, Macaulay Culkin's rise to stardom, etc.), but this movie is a really fun film to watch (especially if you're a kid!). I mean, what kid doesn't want to be left at home for a day or two by themselves. It's a like a kid's wish come true. Culkin's role as Kevin McAllister is charming (even though irritating at times) and he fights off the burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) with pluck and ingenuity (a little too much for an 8-year-old in 1990, but it works). The heart of the film lies in the determined performance of the highly underrated Catherine O'Hara as Kevin's mother. When she realizes she has left her 8-year-old son at home alone, she does everything she can to make her way home to Chicago. And no one gets in between a determined mother and her child, not even terrorists!

Scrooged (1988)
This is the second Christmas Carol adaptation to make the list and this one represents the best of the modern adaptations (where they take Dickens' characters and transplant them into an updated setting). Here, Bill Murray plays TV executive Frank Drebin, a very Scrooge-like boss who goes on a wild adventure through his past, present and future. Murray is his usual comic delight but the supporting performances help make this film more enjoyable especially Alfre Woodard (as Murray's Cratchit-like assistant), Carol Kane (as the flighty and violent Ghost of Christmas Present) and Karen Allen (as Murray's do-good, former love-interest).

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This film (the original and NOT the sappy 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough) is the one that makes me want to believe in Santa Claus. It is another classic Christmas film, much in the same vein as It's a Wonderful Life. Kris Kringle (played to Oscar-winning delight by Edmund Gwenn) takes the Santa job at Macy's to help out during the Christmas rush. To the consternation of many who don't like the fact that he keeps telling people he is the real Santa, they want to put him on trial (OH NO, Santa Claus on trial!!!). It is a charming film with real heart and features great performances from Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and a young Natalie Wood (as O'Hara's daughter).

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Ah, there is nothing like family at Christmastime! And there is no family quite like the Griswold family. Chevy Chase and ensemble make this chaotic Christmas so hilarious to watch that you might feel slightly better about seeing your own family around the holidays. Plus, its great to see Randy Quaid before he went all crazy-nuts (at least, I think it was before!).

A Christmas Story (1983)
This is just a great, great film. It has so many moments in it that are so enjoyable that I look forward to seeing them every year. Based on journalist Jean Shepherd's anecdotes about his childhood, young Ralphie (charmingly played by Peter Billingsley) is a typical kid in the Mid-West in the early 1940's and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder beebee gun. The story follows Ralphie through his days (and daydreams!) leading up to Christmas as he yearns for that gun and begs his parents (played perfectly by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin). If you have not seen it, it is a must-watch.

Now, many of you may be crying foul that I did not mention films like Elf or The Polar Express or The Santa Clause. And, to be perfectly honest, these were decent Christmas movies I just did not care for. But I do recognize that when it comes to the aforementioned films, I may be in the critical minority. Also, others may be offended that I failed to talk about Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, both of which are great action films that make good use of the Christmas backdrop. But, there is a reason. Action films and Christmas movies, for me, just don't automatically go together (which is probably why those films were able to use the backdrop so well), so they did not make MY list. I probably have mentioned enough films here for a rival blog (or one of my friends) to make a list of "Christmas Movies I SHOULD have on the list!" But I will leave that up to them. Next week, I will talk about my favorite Christmas TV specials. Enjoy and...


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