Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Essential Christmas Movies According to an Expert

The Classics

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a single city girl and journalist who lives in Manhattan and writes a column about the perfect home life in which she pretends she is actually a young married mother of one who lives in Connecticut. When she has to be interviewed for the holidays, she borrows a Connecticut home, a husband and a baby. Hilarity ensues and a little romance as well. This movie is laugh out loud funny (the baby comes and goes) and way ahead of its time (as are most Barbara Stanwyck movies...cross-reference with The Holiday below where we are told that Stanwyck is the Hollywood star with the most gumption  in her films).

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Although it often bothers me that this is the movie that most of America knows Mr. Jimmy Stewart for (ahem...Vertigo? Rope? Rear Window?), I still enjoy watching it at least once every Christmas. The movie serves as a reminder that it really is a wonderful life (a corny yet true sentiment and a message that is universally overlooked) and the "lasso the moon" scene is one of the most adorably romantic scenes in cinematic history. 

Meet me in St. Louis (1944)

I placed this movie in my "Comfort Cinema" post and it shows up here again. There are Halloween scenes and summer scenes as well but the climactic point of the movie occurs at Christmastime. This movie is, after all, a movie about the importance of home and family. The Smith family builds a family of snow people in the backyard of their St. Louis home and it is the fact that those snow people will be left behind to melt alone when they move to their New York City apartment a few days later that causes the Smith daughters to realize the enormity of their move. Also, several of the elder Smith girls get long-awaited marriage proposals at Christmas, Judy Garland wears a gorgeous red dress and we get our happy Christmas ending wrapped up in a bow. Perhaps the best part of the Christmas scenes? Judy Garland debuted Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas  which thereafter became the classic Christmas melody we all know and love today.

Holiday Inn (1942)

Bing Crosby + Fred Astaire + Irving Berlin=Christmas

The song White Christmas was written expressly for the film and the movie is worth watching just to hear Crosby belt out those notes as smoothly as freshly fallen snow. 

White Christmas (1954)

Irving & Bing are back with White Christmas, the story of a successful song and dance team that partners with two sisters (including Rosemary Clooney) in order to save a failing Vermont inn at Christmastime with their Christmas revue. Of course, they sing White Christmas, the movie's namesake and the song introduced by the earlier Berlin/Crosby partnership, but my favorite song in the entire movie is Snow (as in "I'm gonna wash my hair, my face, my hands with snow!"). 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

The original Miracle on 34th Street has without a doubt stood the test of time. Natalie Wood plays the little girl and the parade is the actual Macy's parade (instead of the Cole's parade that appears in the later film). The film won several Academy Awards including Best Original Story and Best Writing but just missed out on Best Picture which went to Gentleman's Agreement.

The Year without a Santa Claus (1974)

Did you ever hear of that terrible year, way back before you were born...when Santa Claus took a holiday on the night before Christmas morn...

So starts The Year without a Santa Claus, a story that is part of the Rankin/Bass stop animation family. We learn that Santa Claus is sick and fed up with the lack of Christmas spirit and he declares that he will not be delivering presents for Christmas. Two elves, Jingle & Jangle, join forces with a new reindeer and Mrs. Claus to rouse up some Christmas spirit in Southtown U.S.A. and try  save the holiday. Heat Meiser and Snow Meiser, the two sons of Mother Nature, make brief and entertaining appearances and these two original characters are some of the best created in a Christmas tale.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

Another favorite of the Rankin/Bass film repertoire is this origin story of Santa Claus or Kris Kringle. The movie covers Santa's story from his early days as an orphan, to his career as an outlaw and eventually his status as legendary figure. Fred Astaire narrates. Mickey Rooney is the voice of Kris Kringle.

Contemporary Classics

Elf (2003)

The childlike naivete of thirty-year-old Buddy the elf, an individual who was born human but raised as an elf by Bob Newhart (here known as "Papa Elf") is endearing from the get go.  He eats spaghetti with maple syrup, makes paper snowflakes, throws a mean snowball and joins his love interest in a rousing rendition of "Baby it's Cold Outside" without feeling any awkwardness that he is standing just outside of her shower. Although the Christmas feel-good messages of the importance of family as priority, caring for others and Christmas spirit generally are the same as so many other Christmas tales, this movie gives those themes a fresh spin and Will Farrell is perfection as the clueless but lovable Buddy the Elf.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

 The animated version of this movie is great as well but is more suited for small children. The version starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch and Taylor Momson as a pre-eyeliner/hooker boot Cindy Lou Who (that's a description of Momson's later path...not Cindy) weaves the solid Dr. Seuss fable with a few adult jokes and some dazzling Who-ville set design. My favorite character is Martha May Whovier, mostly because every single time Christine Baranski is on screen as this character she does more than steal the show....she takes it to the top of Mount Krumpet and beyond.

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Usually I dislike remakes, but I love this version of Miracle on 34th Street. The movie itself is beautiful: the Santa suit, Susan's dresses, Dorey's crisp coats and leather gloves, and Dylan McDermott in a turtleneck. The story still resonates as well. I still tear up every time I see the scene where young Susan hands the judge a Christmas card with a dollar bill, causing the judge to realize that he can in fact rule in favor of Santa Claus (and save Christmas!).

Home Alone (1 & 2) (1990 and 1992)

 Most of my friends prefer the original to the sequel where Kevin is lost in New York City. I prefer the latter because nowhere is more beautiful than New York at Christmas and I always fondly recall the scene where his mother finds him at Rockefeller Center in front of the tree when I am walking to work at Rockefeller Center.

Little Women (1994) 

Again, this movie made my Comfort Cinema post as well. The holiday season is about moments spent with family and there is simply no better family to spend it with than the March family (except, perhaps, your OWN family but you will have to turn to home movies/real life for that one). The opening scene in the snow where the girls are caroling always puts me in the holiday spirit. 

Childhood Favorites that Transcend Childhood

Flinstone Christmas Carol

Fred plays Scrooge in the local Bedrock production and it goes to his head. As a result of his method acting he becomes a real-life Scrooge. Predictable but enjoyable...

Muppet Family Christmas

The Muppets gather with their friends from Sesame Street (and Fraggle Rock, children of the 1980s and early 1990s) and spend the holidays at Fozzie Bear's family farm. Heartwarming and the jokes are sharp enough to entertain adults as well as children (at least this adult).

Beauty & the Beast's Enchanted Christmas

A Beast in a forest of evergreen trees, a staff that can throw together an elaborate party at a moments notice, and a story about a hideous creature who turns out to have a heart of gold create the perfect foundation for a holiday tale. The story is told through flashbacks back to the first Christmas Belle and the Beast spent together. An enchanting movie for Disney fans, it elaborates on the original instead of deviating from the traditional story (ahem, Cinderella sequels).

Christmas Movies for Adults

Bad Santa

This movie does not start as your typical holiday fare (Billy Bob Thornton is in it, after all). He plays a man who poses as a mall Santa Claus during the Christmas season and then steals from the store once the season ends. An alcoholic and a generally not nice person, Billy Bob finds his heart when a little boy with a particular love for advent calendars and sandwiches takes him into his home and shows him a little unconditional love. Few movies can as effectively transition from heartless to heartwarming.

Love Actually

Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant and a few of our other favorite Brits star in this multi-story tale about finding love at Christmas time. The movie achieves the impossible in making us care about each of the storylines. You will be rooting for each of these couples in the end. Be sure to look out for January Jones in her bit part as a girl in a Midwestern bar enamored with a young British tourist and his accent.

The Holiday

I could talk endlessly about Cameron Diaz's outfits, Cameron Diaz's house, Ed Burns and Jude Law. There is also an endearing story here and a little Kate Winslet as well (although the casting of Ms. Winslet as the dowdy Iris challenges believability). If you are planning a ski vacation or simply want to feel as though you are on one, check it out for ski chalet clothing inspiration. Absent the sartorial splendor and architectural porn, The Holiday succeeds most at offering a warm holiday tale that delivers a happy ending with the unparalleled style that we have come to expect from a Nancy Myers film.

The Family Stone

A quirky and tight knit Massachusetts family (ruled by matriarch Diane Keaton and that guy from the TV show Coach) meets their son's uptight Manhattan (works in finance) girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker). Unexpected hijinks ensue (and unexpected is hard to come by in most holiday fare). The entire cast of characters is entertaining and you will end up wanting to spend Christmas around their dinner table or at least wanting to spend a little longer watching their antics on screen.

A Category of Its Own

Muppet Christmas Carol

Greatest Christmas movie ever...and I am not alone in my praise. Top publications often include this movie as one of the best film interpretations of the Dickens classic. Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog star as Scrooge and Bob Cratchit respectively. People who are wary that it is (a) a children's movie and (b) a too often told tale always come away from this movie confirming that I am, in fact, right in my belief that this film is utterly fantastic and the best way to inspire a little holiday spirit.

Happy Holidays!

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