Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top Christmas Movies of All Time

 This time of year always brings with it, at least it should, a certain magic. Halloween has it's own magic, as I have mentioned before. But Christmas has a different feel, a different magic, and it is, or at least it can be, a wonderful one. The lights, the songs, the food, the sweets, the candy, the presents, friends and family coming together for the holiday, it's all evocative of the better things about life. Not everyone has a "Merry Christmas", of course, and that is unfortunate. In these times, especially, it isn't always possible for some to feel the magic of the season, because life brings many harsh realities. But Christmas is something, I believe, for everyone. To me, it's a "secular" holiday, not a religious one. It isn't just for Christians, who celebrate the birth of Christ (though it allegedly happened in the spring, not December),  nor is it just for Pagans, who celebrate Winter Solstice or Yule (the far older, original holidays Christmas is based on). No, it's a time for everyone, no matter what their beliefs or background happens to be. And that is why I also believe that, hardships and harsh realities of life aside, that it's a season that so many find at least some sort of comfort in. But I digress.

Seeing as I've already done an entry (last year) on television Christmas Specials, and I will likely do one or more on additional specials in the future, as there were so many, with that in mind, this time I'm going to look at something that does not involve the popular, well-known holiday specials. Instead, this time I'm going to look at strictly films about or related to Christmas, that came out in theaters. That certainly shortens the list (as there are far more TV specials than there are theatrical movies that deal with the subject), but that isn't to say that there isn't some truly great material to work with.

As always, this list is composed of my own personal opinions on the matter, made up of what I personally feel are the best Christmas-type movies ever made.  And with that said, let's dive right in!

The coolest poster for the coolest Christmas movie ever filmed.

1. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

My personal favorite, and thus top pick for "Best Christmas Movie Ever Made", is Chevy Chase's "Christmas Vacacion", hands down. Not only is it one of the few movies (as in maybe 20 or so) that I can pretty much sit down and watch any time, but it also happens to be both the best movie Chevy Chase has ever starred in, as well as (at least in my humble opinion), the best Christmas movie that has ever been put to film. For one thing, this movie displays all of the myriad facets of the season: the "magical" spirit of the season, the madness of holiday shopping, the tacky commercial nature of modern day Christmas, the warmth of sharing the holidays with friends and family, the horror of having to be around your family for the holidays, the spirit of giving, the fun (and madness) of holiday decorations, picking out a christmas tree, the nerve racking agony of worrying over holiday finances, etc. etc. etc. It really covers everything, just short of actually showing "Ol' Saint Nick" himself.

The movie is chock full genuinely funny moments, memorable quotes, great characters, and a pervading sense of fun, which is exactly what you want in both a comedy, and a Christmas film. It covers all of it's bases so well, and deserves it's status as "perennial holiday classic".

"Shitter was full!" 

Silly poster, but it does it's job, telling you everything you need to know about the film.

2. Home Alone (1990)

On the surface, "Home Alone" is a silly kid's/family movie about a kid being left alone in his house, and using all kinds of pranks and traps to ward off some burglars. But delving deeper, it is also one of the best holiday/Christmas movies ever made, because like "Christmas Vacation", it too does a great job of encompassing the many facets of the season, including some that the former didn't show, such as the nightmare of holiday travel, the loneliness and sorrow some people have to face in a time of year where so many find happiness, etc. It's actually rather deep in an odd way, and in general is just very well done, as well as being a lot of fun.

It's no coincidence, either, that both Vacation and Home Alone were written and produced by John Hughes. They both have a similar feel, and he seemed to have a grasp of not only telling compelling human stories, but a grasp of the spirit of the holidays as well (which he also displayed, showing Thanksgiving instead of Christmas in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"). 

Is it wrong that I laugh so hard every time I even see a picture of this scene?

My personal favorite adaptation.

3. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993)

The first Muppet movie to be made after Jim Henson's incredibly sad passing in 1990, and the first of many either directed or produced by his son Brian Henson, who admirably (and capably) tried to carry on his father's work, this also happens to be my personal favorite adaptation of arguably the most classic Christmas story of all time (not counting religious material), Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". The story has had so many great adaptions (which I will assuredly get into at a later date), and while I love many of them, this is my hands-down favorite, for many reasons. For one thing, Michael Caine happens to make a fantastic Ebenezer Scrooge, and the fact that he can do so, dramatically, and convincing, all while acting with a mostly Muppet cast, makes his performance all the greater. As for the Muppets themselves, considering this is the first film to portray Kermit the frog after Jim Henson performing/voicing the character himself for 45 years (from early TV appearances all the way through 1990), it's very well done. The "Three Christmas Spirits" are very well done original Muppet creations, and various Muppet characters make a lot of cool cameos, most especially Fozzy in the past flashback as Fozzywig, and the absolute best, Statler and Waldorf as "The Marley Brothers" (the made Marley into "Marley & Marley", specifically so the two characters could play them, which is fine, because they were awesome).

The hecklers almost steal the show as "The Brothers Marley".

A........Christmas movie? Yes. Yes it is.

4. Gremlins (1984)

Now at first glance, most people would likely go "huh?" if anyone, like me, put the 1984 horror/comedy classic "Gremlins" on a list of Christmas films. But I will, and I am, because it is. While it is a "horror" film, in the most basic sense, it's also a comedy, and a family film, and a Christmas film, all rolled into one. As I understand it, it was originally written to be much darker, basically a straight horror movie, like it's contemporary 80s creature feature, "Critters". But you can all thank producer Steven Spielberg, who decided to have it changed to it's present form, which is good, because as a darker, straight up horror film, it would have been a kind of cool, but somewhat silly, and ultimately far less memorable movie. Whereas, as it turned out, it wound up being a surprise hit, and one of THE classic movies of the 1980s (a decade overflowing with now-classic movies). But the elements of Christmas are all here, including the main father and son's obvious love of the holiday, the miserly rich bitch who owns half the town, "Bah-Humbugging" and trying to ruin Christmas for everyone else with her greed, ala Scrooge, you name it. The only thing that could have possibly put this movie over the top as a "Christmas Film", but also would have made it far more ridiculous, would have been Santa himself, showing up at the last moment to kick the tar out of the little bastards with his Christmas magic.

But as it is, "Gremlins" is a amazing movie, a great scary film, but also a great holiday film.


This poster just screams Christmas. Nah, it just screams.

5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

This movie combines three things I love the most: Halloween, Christmas, and stop-motion animation. A creation of Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick, this movie deserves it's status as a holiday classic, and it's the only film or entity at all really, off the top of my head, that actually bridges the Fall/Holiday season, all the way from Halloween to Christmas. Which is awesome. As a kid, I adored the shit out of this movie, for all the reasons mentioned above and more. It was full of magic, and wonder, and monsters, and great music, and captivating visuals, a great story, etc. I always wondered what was behind the other mysterious "Holiday Doors" that Jack finds in those lost woods, like a crazy Easter Town with enough bright pastel colors and cute bunnies to drive you insane, or a Thanksgiving Town where the Turkeys rule everything, and autumn leaves are perpetually falling.

The movie is brilliant from beginning to end, a master work, and the music is so catchy it should be outlawed. But I'm glad it's not, because I hum it to myself often enough.....

Poor Santa.

Speaking of Santa....

6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

It bears mentioning that there is a 1994 remake of this film, that is perfectly good on it's own, and is highlighted by a great performance of Kris Kringle by none other than the late, great Richard Attenborough. But for my money, as with many films and their remakes, the original is, in general, far better. Starring Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, and featuring a fantastic performance by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a man who gets a job as a Macy's store Santa, but actually claims to be the real Santa himself, the movie is a classic for a reason. It tells a great tale, and does all of that "spirit of the season" stuff justice, without getting overly preachy. Santa, to me, is the true embodiment of Christmas, because he's a figure representing what the season and the holiday are supposed to be all about. Beyond religion, beyond semantics and rhetoric and all of peoples' differences, I think Santa is a pretty safe, "Universal" character that anyone can relate to this time of year, regardless of what their personal beliefs or affiliations are. And as far as Santa performances goes, while you can almost always want a bigger, crazier beard (I know I do), Gwenn's turn as St. Nick is awesome, and he really does the character credit. If you want a good Christmas/Santa flick, you really cannot do better than this.

The Holliest, the Jolliest.

The name's Ernest. Ernest P. Worrell.

7. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

One of my favorite childhood/early teen comedy characters was Jim Varney's Ernest P. Worrell. My favorite Ernest film (out of the 9 total in the series), was the first official Ernest movie, "Ernest Goes to Camp". This movie came out a year later, and is probably the second best, at least to me. It's a unique sort of Christmas film, as you'd expect from Ernest, with his unique charm and quirkiness thrown in. This time around, the loveable, well-meaning dumbass, finds himself in charge of helping to save Santa, and thus save Christmas. In this take on the mythos, Santa is actually many different people over the centuries, and Santa is now looking for a new man to take his place, with Ernest's "help". It's a dumb, but dumb in a fun way, kind of movie, and it's got all the laughs and Christmas-ness that you could ask for. KnowhatImean?

One of the underappreicated greats.

Classic, all around.

8. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

I'd be remiss if I didn't include this. I actually, for some crazy reason, never saw this as a kid, and somehow I do believe I even managed to miss out on ever seeing it as a teen. I don't remember sitting down and seeing the whole thing, believe it or not, until last year, 2013. As it turns out, naturally, it is indeed a classic. Directed by the great Frank Capra, and his biggest star, James "Jimmy" Stewart, this movie has some real dark moments, but it also, like many others on this list, encompasses the spectrum of the holidays. And even though it was made in 1946, much of what it portrays is still relevant and relatable today. It tells the story of a man who, overcome with stress and depression over his financial troubles, attempts to take his own life by jumping off of a bridge, but is "saved" by a mysterious man who appears out a nowhere. Turns out he's an angel, and is going to give the man a chance to see what his life, and his town, would be like without him in it for real. It's not a pretty sight, and by the end of his wayward journey, he learns that he really does make a difference, most especially to his family, and not to spoil things, but everything turns out pretty swell overall. If I was given a choice between this, and 1983's "A Christmas Story", seeing as they're two films that people always point to as "the best Christmas movie ever", I would choose this one every single time. I don't DISLIKE "A Christmas Story", but I do think it's overrated, and I've seen it so many times on TV, I'm just over it.

But you can't go wrong with "It's a Wonderful Life", and it is one of those few films I'd argue you really do "need" to see at some point.

Good ol' Jimmy. He really did embody the ideal of the decent Everyman.

Finally, someone besides Rudolf gets a bit of recognition.

9. Prancer (1989)

A neat little film, about a father (played by Sam Eliot) struggling to raise his son and daughter after the death of their mother, with a failing farm and hard financial times ahead. The daughter, Jessica, finds a reindeer in the woods, whom she believes to be the real Prancer, part of the lot who flies through the skies and pulls Santa's magical sleigh every Christmas Eve. The deer has been shot, and so she keeps it in the barn and secretly nurses it back to health. It causes quite a stir in their small town, as she asks a mall Santa to tell the "real Santa" where his missing reindeer is, and the whole town finds out, turning it into a spectacle. It's a great story about the spirit of Christmas, and echoes "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa", in that the little girl almost loses faith in Santa and Christmas, but later has that faith restored. It's a good family film, and if you want some real live reindeer action, then this is your best bet.

Sam Elliot, as always, starring as Sam Elliot.


10. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

So, seeing as I've already gotten to nine whole Christmas films, I might as well make it an even ten. And since I'm going to do that, I figured, you know what, even though it's not actually one of my personal favorite films, why not throw in an obscure, low-budget, crazy little number that most people (if they're even aware of it at all), only remember from a beloved episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". So here I am, and here it is. This, as you can well imagine, is a very weird little movie. But in spite of it's ridiculous nature, it's very low budget, and the major "camp" factor oozing from it's every celluloid pore, I've got to say, it has some good things going for it. For one thing, it's got Santa, and that's already a winning element. For another, it's got a great big, cheesy Sci-Fi robot, and that is also a winning element. Throw in some crazy, hilarious Martians, who want to save their society by improving the moral of their children, and to do that they need Earth's Santa? Well, now you've really got something. I would not go so far as to say this is a GOOD film. But it's also not a BAD film, and it's is certainly interesting, and entertaining enough in it's own way, to justify giving it a look. If nothing else, you can at least say it's arguable the weirdest Christmas movie ever made.

Santa means business, dammit!

And with that, there you now have a nice, rounded "Top Ten" list, full of movies that are all perfectly good choices for you fine folks reading at home, to sit with your friends or family, or hell, even by yourself, and watch on this chilly Christmas season of ours. With the big day itself right around the corner, there is no better time to fire up the ol' "Boob Tube", and really get into the spirit of things with some great holiday flicks. So grab the popcorn, or the cookies, whichever way you prefer to fatten up around this time of year, and don't forget to spread the cheer!