Friday, November 19, 2010

Top 258: Holiday Films You Should Know

With Thanksgiving upon us next week and Christmas following closely, it’s time to consider holiday movies. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. For while holidays are some of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of our culture, there seem to be a shortage of significant holiday movies. It’s not as bad as trying to find films about the American Revolution, but it’s pretty close. So let’s call this a Top 8.

What’s interesting about holiday films is how few are actually about the holidays themselves, i.e. few films retell Christmas stories or tell us tales about Pilgrims. That tends to be the domain of television, where you find the likes of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and The Charlie Brown Christmas Special or A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Instead, we seem to consider a movie a holiday film if it takes place during the holidays and it involves “the holiday spirit.”

The holiday spirit consists of a combination of deep sentimentality and some form of redemption. Even the holiday films that aren’t truly sentimental in the strictest sense always end up with a moment near the end where all sins are forgiven, the bad guys are redeemed (as is the misguided hero), the value of family relationships and friendships is extolled, and everything ends happily. Here’s the list:

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946): Directed by Frank Capra and staring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Life is the story of George Bailey, who is prevented from committing suicide when his guardian angel shows him what his family, friends and community would have been like if he had never been born. While this movie flopped when it came out, it’s become the most-loved holiday film and tops almost everyone’s list. “Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.”

2. A Christmas Carol (various): Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol has been made and remade so many times and in so many forms that it’s impossible to pick a single version as the most influential or best. Many people swear by the 1951 British version, while others prefer the 1984 George C. Scott version. Some like Bill Murray’s version in Scrooged. Even It’s A Wonderful Life contains elements of this story. My personal favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). In any form however, this is one of the most well-know stories on the planet, and everyone knows each of its elements. “What day is it?” “Why, it’s Christmas Day, sir.”

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Miracle is the story of a department-store Santa who believes he really is Kris Kringle. When they try to institutionalize this Santa for being insane, a young lawyer defends him by arguing that he is the real Santa. In the process, this film points out that a little faith in good things makes all of our lives better. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”

4. A Christmas Story (1983): Set in small-town America in the 1950s, this tale of a young boy’s quest to get his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun swims in nostalgia and sentimentalism. This is another film that flopped in the theaters, but got a second life on television. By 2007, this film crawled to the top of several “best holiday film” lists. In fact, the film has became so popular that one cable station now airs a 24 hour Christmas Eve marathon each year, during which they run this film over and over. . . and people watch. “I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”

5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): This is possibly the best of the Christmas comedies (see below), and I’ve separated it because this is the one that spawned a generation of holiday movies that took a cynical look at Christmas. Unlike prior, thoroughly-sentimental films, Vacation dug into the love/hate relationship that many people have with the event that is the family Christmas, and it waited until the end before it whipped out the usual sentimentality. “Welcome to our home - what's left of it.”

6. White Christmas (1954): The story of two army buddies who meet their former commander in Vermont amidst a series of romantic mix-ups, this light romantic comedy was based around the song of the same name and was basically a star vehicle for Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. “There's no Christmas in the Army!”

7. The Bishop’s Wife (1947): The story of an angel (Cary Grant) who comes to Earth to help a bishop (David Niven) who has lost focus on what is important in life as he has become obsessed with building a cathedral. On Earth, Grant finds himself falling for Niven’s wife (Loretta Young). “Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.”

8. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1997): Not particularly influential, but very popular, Planes is the only Thanksgiving film on our list.Planes is the story of an advertising executive (Steve Martin) who wants to fly home for Thanksgiving, but finds himself stuck with an obnoxious salesman (John Candy) as a traveling companion. Written by John Hughes in three days, this film went on to gross $50 million and remains a television mainstay today. “Those aren't pillows!”

Christmas comedies: Finally, let’s finish off the list with a group acknowledgement for the holiday comedy. Films like Elf, Ernest Saves Christmas, Jingle All The Way, Bad Santa, Home Alone, and The Santa Clause are standard Hollywood comedies that touch upon Christmas in one way or another. There’s little to these films, and they have even less staying power, but they do tend to make money as star vehicles in the year they are made, and the ones listed here have been entertaining enough to stick around for a little. It's hard to say that any of these films is influential, but the genre itself continues to reflect the cynical side of our views of the holiday season.

There are other holiday films we could list and some that are seen as holiday films despite not having any particular holiday theme (like Babes In Toyland). But none of those films is particularly influential. In fact, even the holiday films listed here were not particularly influential, certainly not as influential as those on the other Top 25 lists. Perhaps this is because our holidays are defined elsewhere in the culture, and these films only reflect what we already know about the holidays rather than trying to make a statement about the holidays? Or, said differently, maybe we don’t need movies to tell us what Christmas and Thanksgiving mean because we already know?

So what are your favorite holiday films?

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Anonymous said...

For me, it's all about Christmas Vacation and Die Hard. I also love Planes, Trains & Automobiles though I don't always associate it with the holidays... just the season in general. When my brother and I were much younger, we re-enacted the "You're going the wrong way!" scene for dad's new video camera. (At the time, my brother was short enough to stand on the driver's seat without hitting the roof!)

Once in a blue moon, I'll think to myself, "How come we don't have any good Chanukah movies?" I'm not taking about movies about the origin of the holiday itself but if they can make Christmas Vacation, then why not Chanukah Vacation? I'm sure there are certain cultural observations that can be made here, not to mention the fact that Chanukah is not our most important holiday; we have you guys and Hallmark to thank for that. :-)

A few thoughts:

-Re: It's a Wonderful Life, I only saw it for the first time a few years ago and what surprised me was that the alternate reality that Clarence shows George was only the last ten minutes of the film. I thought that was the entire movie! Robert Zemeckis has gone on record saying that Back to the Future II (with alternate 1985) owes a debt to this film.

-Re: A Muppet Christmas Carol, I remember seeing this in the theater with my mom and brother. It was my first exposure to Michael Caine and I recall thinking the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence was quite dark for a kid's movie.

Both stories make interesting pseudo-time travel tales.

-Re: Ernest Saves Christmas, I haven't seen this film in almost 20 years! I grew up watching Hey, Vern, It's Ernest! on TV (which should explain a lot) but Ernest Goes to Jail was always my preferred Ernest film. The show is coming to DVD in January and I might have to but it (literally, it was announced today).

Unknown said...

Although I have both on my DVD shelves, I somehow prefer "Holiday Inn" to "White Christmas."

I know it's heresy to say this, but I find It's A Wonderful Life to be inferior to the genuine Christmas stories. For me, it's too "common folks vs. evil bankers" to qualify as a true Christmas classic, though standing by itself it's an enjoyable enough movie.

I should also add that Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth is required holiday fare in my house for both Christmas and Easter.

For those of us with kids and grandkids, I include Frosty The Snowman and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

CrispyRice said...

Love Love LOVE(!!!) Muppet Christmas Carol! :D

Scott - yes it has a dark sequence, but I think that's very necessary for the story. It's meant to scare Scrooge straight and to get him (and thereby the reader / audience) thinking about our own mortality and how we are living our lives.

Kids' movies and fairy tales have a long history of having a "darkness" about them. It helps kids learn to deal with and overcome fears. (Think classic Disney, like Snow White or Bambi.) I have bigger problems with today's PC vision of children's entertainment in which everyone is always happy and never hurts anyone's feelings and no one ever dies without really really really (really!) deserving it. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Of all the Earnest movies, I enjoyed Jail the most as well, but I haven't seen any in a while. I think that outside of Vacation, each of the holiday comedy movies tends to fade away after a few years.

You're right about It's a Wonderful Life, I always forget that only a little part of it is the alternate timeline. And good point about it and Christmas Carol being time pseudo time travel/alternate universe stories.

On the Muppets, a lot of the older children's stories are much darker than the ones made today. In fact, I recall in the 1980s there were groups of parents whining about how dark some Disney films were. To me, that's ridiculous. Children are much more able to process scary things than modern parents give them credit for and it is the darker ones that tend to leave the strongest impression, i.e. nobody remembers or cares about the pure sugar stories.

I have no idea why they haven't done a Chanukah Vacation story, but then I'm not that familiar with it. I was always under the impression it wasn't a big deal?

I love that "you're going the wrong way" scene.... "how do they know where we're headed?" LOL!

Tennessee Jed said...

I'm more of a music guy during the holidays than a film guy. If pressed, I'd probably go with the Christmas Carol version with Sir Basil as, (Marley, I think?) We used to get together with friends in our youth and sing the first half of Messiah. Recently, Anonymous 4 and Boston Camerata have gotten a lot of Christmas season play for me.

Joel Farnham said...

To me, it is about Die Hard and Lethal Weapon for the action movies. For the rest, a Charlie Brown Christmas is the best followed by The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

BoilerRoomElf said...

Ahhh, our favorite season! Hey, Bossmen, how about some extra time off for movie watching next month?

You know what our fave movie is?

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

It's really more of a military-history thing around these parts, which makes a nice fit as things turn to a frenzie in December here.

Di said...

I have another Thanksgiving movie for your list: Home For The Holidays with Robert Downey Jr. and Holly Hunter (and several other quite big names). My husband and I find it amusing, the acting is good, the family drama is good and of course, it has a sentimental ending.

Writer X said...

You've listed my three favorites:

1) It's A Wonderful Life
2) A Christmas Story
3) Christmas Vacation

Watch them every year, without fail.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I ignore the politics of It's a Wonderful Life because it's a good film and it's one of the only real Christmas films out there... hence the short list.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I agree completely, and well said.

Technically speaking, the point to fairy tales is to teach kids cultural lessons and to get them prepared for the real world. If all you show your kids is the politically correct Teletubbies or Barney, your kids are going to end up (1) unable to deal with anything they encounter in the real world and (2) psychotic.

All the classic fairy tales are truly dark because the point is to scare you about bad things, they aren't there to cuddle you and hope you get the difference between good and bad.

Unfortunately, there is a whole set of people out there who oppose these dark scenes, just like they oppose violence in cartoon, blah blah... I have no respect for that.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's actually a very good point you touch upon. I think the holidays are more about music than television. And when people do watch television, they often watch things like Christmas specials that involve lots of music (or even certain Operas are a Christmas fixture).

I suspect that's because Christmas is still considered together time with friends and family and we haven't surrendered it yet to the television, like we have with so many other "special days."

So maybe that accounts for the dearth of holiday movies? Maybe there just isn't much of a demand for them? And maybe they just can't compete with what we get from friends and family?

CrispyRice said...

Well, if we're talking Christmas music, I like to go see Handel's Messiah live whenever I can. It never fails to impress.

For home, I like quiet jazz versions of classic tunes. I'll also confess a fondness for Mannheim Steamroller.

... and the Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack, which gets more play than I care to admit!

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Those are my some of my favorites too -- although, as I get older, I'm amazed at how nasty the other kids were to Charlie Brown. But you've gotta love the Grinch.... you're a mean one, Mr. Grinch.... :-)

AndrewPrice said...

BRE, A military history thing! LOL! Very nice!

I've seen the movie of which you speak, though I saw it as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Good stuff... with the commentary. Not so good without out. In fact, horrible without.

AndrewPrice said...

Di, A lot of people mention that one and I thought it was an enjoyable movie. It could probably go on the list too, though as I note, I don't think any of these films (except maybe It's a Wonderful Life) are particularly influential.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think you're in good company. Those are clearly the most popular in the country. Isn't it ironic that Life and Christmas Story were both flops when they were first released? It's fascinating how that works.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, We actually watch a couple of German specials that my mother really likes -- a very young Domingo and Pavarotti. And for Turkey Day, we used to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, If you're still looking for material, maybe you can write the first great Chanukah Vacation film?

P.S. Hallmark is evil. Like some sort of James Bond villain, they are struggling to kill real sentiment and replace it with the fast-food of sentiment.

Anonymous said...

If I were to write anything, I'd have to kick this bad laziness habit first. :-)

I remember on John Nolte's old (and better) website, there was a huge discussion over the politics of A Christmas Carol (as it related to Scrooge and his attitude towards charity).

Check it out here.

Oh, by the way, I also loved Bad Santa but I don't have the urge to watch it again anytime soon. At the time, I was laughing up a storm but wondering why I was laughing and maybe I don't want to risk it (watching it again and not laughing).

"Your name is Thurman Murman?" :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Laziness can stop you in your tracks. ;-)

A discussion of the politics in A Christmas Carol? There's no politics there! Dickens wasn't into politics. ;-)

Actually, I'm not sure it's as political as you might think. I've always seen that as Dickens' take on the individual, rather than a criticism of society like the rest of his work. In any event, he certainly struck a chord!

I liked most of the holiday comedies when they came out, but they haven't really stood up to repeated viewing for me. They seem to be handicapped by the holiday formula, which makes them all kind of uninteresting and workman-like.

Anonymous said...

Re: holiday comedies... a good movie is still a good movie. Re: Bad Santa, I can't really explain it. I loved it when I first saw it but it is a dark film and if I watch it now, I'm afraid I may not like it as much as I did six years ago.

As for other films I enjoy, Trading Places has a nice holiday vibe going on in the background, as does Batman Returns (which is more of a Tim Burton movie with Batman in it than a genuine Batman movie, but I like it anyway).

And your point about how It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story were box-office failures only proves how money is not always the true sign of success in this business... the true test is time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I absolutely agree that the true test is time. In fact, many things that were hugely successful or which critics lavished praise upon ("greatest film of our time") all died off because they just weren't that good in hindsight and they never caught on.

That actually dovetails the other part of your comment: sometimes, a movie isn't good so much as it's an event or it comes at the right time. It's like hearing songs at a concert that sound great in the concert atmosphere, but which stink when you buy the album. Films can be the same way. When a lot of buzz surrounds a film, it gets very easy to enjoy the film a lot more because of the buzz than you will enjoy it when you get it home and watch it alone. I think the whole holiday vibe can cause that too.

I put Trading Places in the same category as Die Hard, good movies with a holiday thing going on in the background... but not holiday movies.

Ed said...

I'm don't really like Christmas movies, but you've named all the ones I like.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Why don't you like Christmas movies?

DUQ said...

I love "It's a Wonderful Life" what a great film. It's obvious why that one's at the top of the list.

Ed said...

I don't know. There's just something I don't like the films. To me the holiday is so much more than you get in these films. It's like the films are cheapening it. That's the best I can explain it.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, As near as I can tell, that one is on top of almost every list. As stories go, it's got a real genius in its pieces, it delves into ideas that really wouldn't get much play for another 30 years (see Scott's comment about pseudo-time travel), and it just ring through with very American themes.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I can understand that. It's sort of a distaste at the commercialization of the holidays?

CrispyRice said...

Hey, we watched the George C. Scott version of Christmas Carol last night. It was very good! (Much scarier overall than the Muppet version.) But I have to say that I find Michael Caine's transformation as Scrooge much more believable. It was as though Scott turned almost suddenly on a dime once the 3rd ghost shows up. With Caine, you can see the remorse grow even from the 1st ghost.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I agree. I've always seen George C. Scott as a one note actor. He plays bombastic. Caine is a much more subtle actor and I think he does a great job in the Muppet version of showing that the grounds for his redemption are there from the beginning -- something Scott does not do.

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