I know that this time of year always brings out the sappy in people.
And we all hate that.
But that’s just too bad. I get a little sappy, too. I also make the same list that everyone else makes…sometimes even with the same movies.
It’s just that these movies are so good that it’s hard to believe that there are better movies out there. It’s like making a Top 10 Best Movies Of All Time list and being disappointed that it has Citizen Kane on it.
My question would be “Why the hell is Kane not on here?!”
So, here it is. This is my “Best Christmas Movies” list. Just straight up. No jokes. No twist. Just five Christmas movies that I make it a point to watch every December.
PS—I’ve already written about The Lion In Winter twice. I’ll keep that one off of this list…this time.
But rest assured. It would be on here otherwise. I love that movie and it’s a great movie for those of us who need to get away from the family at some point during Christmas.
Yeah, I’m just gonna get this one out of the way right up top. It’s a classic. We all know it. Now. For about 40 years, though, it was nearly forgotten. It bombed when it came out and then people just stopped watching it. Then something happened with the copyright. I don’t fully understand it all, but suffice it to say that everyone and their dog’s tv station started playing this movie every Christmas. Not only did they play it, but they played the hell out of it. So much so that people actually watched it.
And they all came to the same conclusion: they all realized just how perfect this movie truly is.
Of course it revolves around George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) thinking that the world would be better off if he had never been born. Little does he know that a clumsy guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is watching over him. Clarence comes down, saves his life and then shows him exactly how bad off the world (or at least, Bedford Falls) would be without George Bailey to save it.
Eyes are opened. Tears are shed. Love is born. All war is ended. Cthulu is destroyed. The message of the film is certainly positive (“Don’t kill yourself!”), but this is a dark freakin’ movie considering the time. World War II had just ended and everyone thought that nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the moooooooorning.
But Capra and Stewart knew better. They had both been in that war. And they saw things that you can’t unsee. Stewart swore that he would never be in another war film. Capra knew that not everything was light and happy anymore. The world of Potterville (the anti-Bedford Falls that’s created when George doesn’t exist) is how they actually saw the world. In 1946, no one wanted to see that.
In 1989, however, when Back To The Future II took part of its plot from IAWL, people were more into it. People were more into it a little earlier, too, when the movie started to really be shown on TV. Then there were the 24 hour marathons.
This is absolutely the best Christmas movie of all time. Bar none. Even after all of the times that I’ve seen it, it still gets me when he finds Zuzu’s petals.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)
Directed by Jeremiah S Chechik
Written by John Hughes
After the success of the first movie about the Grizwolds, everyone had to know that there would be a sequel.
Or…maybe they didn’t.
It was made in 1983, not 2010. Anyway, there was a sequel and it was…not so good.
European Vacation paled in comparison to the first. It definitely had its moments, but it was definitely a National Lampoon movie, whereas the first one rose above that above the title crew.
Everyone thought that the Griswolds were dead. But then four years later, National Lampoon and John Hughes decided that enough wasn’t enough.
It was time to see Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) home and how he treated the Christmas season. And he was right.
Clark is, as one co-worker puts it, “the last family man.” All he wants is for his family’s Christmas to be perfect…and a bonus big enough to make a down payment on a pool. Then his folks and the in-laws come over. Then his boss (the always great Brian Doyle-Murray) doesn’t give him his bonus. Then Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up unannounced. Things just go downhill from there.
Filled with broad comedy, it also has a pretty surprising heart. You get the exploding cat and the yuppie next door neighbors (played by Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but you also get an actually heartwarming montage of home movies set to Ray Charles.
Of course, you also get future stars Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis as Rusty and Audrey Griswold.
It’s a hilarious movie that is the last entry in the Vacation series that’s worth watching. The rest have had nothing to do with National Lampoon (for better or worse) and mean nothing to anyone. The first movie and this one are worth their weight in whatever is better than gold these days.
Watch for the quick homage to It’s A Wonderful Life.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Jean Shepherd/Leigh Brown/Bob Clark
Based on a story by Jean Shepherd
This is another perennial that is shown in marathons that is absolutely every bit as good as those marathons seem to warrant. It’s totally nostalgic without being cloying, touching without being stupid and satirical without being mean-spirited. And to think: this comes from the writer/director of such horror films as Black Christmas and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and a little T&A flick called Porky’s. (Then again, Porky’s had its own brand of nostalgia for a time period not much after this movie takes place. And it has a surprising heart buried in all of the boobs flying around.)
Ralphie (future Iron Man producer Peter Billingsley) is a kid in the early 40s just on the verge of trying to grow up. But he’s still enamored of Christmas. It’s a time for joy, magic and, of course, presents. He really wants an “official Red Ryder, carbine action, two hundred shot range model air rifle!” But he’ll shoot his eye out, so he’s NOT getting that. Maybe a nice football!
Meanwhile, he has to deal with awful teachers, essays about what he wants for Christmas and bullies with yellow eyes. Oh, and Major Awards. All of this makes Ralphie a hero for the ages. We can all identify with just about everything he goes through, even though most of us didn’t grow up in the 40s. Peter keeps his eyes wide, but with a wink of “can you believe this guy” every once in a while.
Grown up Ralphie’s voice over (by the author) keeps that wink and, amazingly, the wide eyed wonder of young Ralphie.
Even if you’ve seen this movie hundreds of time, watch it again this season. It gets those marathons for a reason.
Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mitch Glazer/Michael O’Donohue
Based on a novel by Charles Dickens
Bill Murray is one of my favorite people on the planet right now. Not only was he in one of my favorite movies of all time (see my Thanksgiving list), but he’s just a weird and amazing man. And then there’s his run of movies in the 80s and early 90s. It’s pretty hard to touch it.
Scrooged is his entry in the Christmas “genre” and it’s quite the dark, twisted affair. We’re all used to the story of A Christmas Carol by now.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a horrible man who is visited by three ghosts to show him how good and how terrible the world really can be. He changes his ways and becomes a giving, noble man that everyone loves, blah, blah, blah, amen.
Leave it to Saturday Night Live’s darkest writer to come up with a way to make this story take a turn for the crazy.
This time, Frank Cross (Murray) is the head of a popular television station. He’s all about violence and blowing stuff up. He’s the epitome of “if it bleeds, it leads.” (Although, his station seems to be all about entertainment and not news.) He also doesn’t care if his crew (including his assistant played by Alfre Woodard) has to work on Christmas. Screw ‘em. If they want the day off, they’re fired just like Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait).
Enter the ghosts, played by David Johansen and Carol Kane…with all of the craziness that those two can muster. And they can muster a lot of craziness. So much toaster a taxi craziness.
Complete with attempted murder/suicide, this is probably the darkest Christmas comedy ever made.
And I love every minute of it.
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)
Directed by George Seaton
Written by George Seaton/Valentine Davies
This could also be called, “Yes, Virginia. There Is A Santa Claus: The Later Years.” Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is definitely a non-believer. She’s even brought her little girl, Susan (Natalie Wood in one of her first roles), to not believe in “nonsense” like Santa Claus.
That is, until a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) shows up to be a store Santa at Macy’s where Doris works as the special events director. He claims to be the real Santa. But he can’t be…can he? The whole thing culminates in a court case that is surprisingly not dry and boring.
The movie is manages to be completely magical without making you sick. By the end, you can almost believe that this old man who is “as old as his tongue and a little bit older than his teeth” really could be Santa. (By the way, I’ve been using that line for years. It’s kind of amazing.)
This is actually the movie that I’ve seen the least on this list, but it’s one that’s stuck with me ever since the first time I saw it many years ago. I stopped believing in Santa Claus pretty early on (because I’ve always been cynical), but this movie told me that, even if he’s not a real guy, Santa is a part of all of us. Anyone can be Santa.
And, because this is Christmas, I’m going to give you a bonus TV special.
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966)
Directed by Chuck Jones/Ben Washam
Written by Irv Spector/Bob Ogle
Based on a story by Dr. Seuss
I almost put Rudolph on here…but The Grinch wins by a Chuck Jones.
As we all know, the Grinch is an awful creature who hates everything to do with happiness and joy…including Christmas. He also hates every Who in Whoville. That’s why he steals every bit of Christmas from them, hoping that it will stop the joy. Is he right?
With great narration by Boris Karloff and a song that lives forever in “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” this blows away every other TV Christmas special ever made (except for possibly Rudolph). Even with all of that awesomeness just mentioned, and the great Chuck Jones to boot, there is one thing that pushes the Grinch over the edge into perfection: Max.
Max is the character that we’ve all felt like at some point. We know something is going off the rails and we see it looming over us, but we just can’t stop it. We can only hope that its heart grows three times its size and doesn’t topple over on top of us.
I wasn’t raised on Dr. Seuss like most people of my generation, but the Grinch was mine. I’ve always loved this show. It certainly beats the pants off of the Peanuts Christmas Special. Have you seen that recently? It just doesn’t work like it used to. I understand why Charles Schulz hated it so much.
Also, stay away from the live-action movie. It’s just not worth it. You just might lose your memory of the perfection of Chuck Jones’ short.