Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Christmas Playlist: Movie Edition

Christmas movies are formulaic, saccharine, and predictable (just like romantic comedies). And both Christmas movies and rom-coms provide a happy, warm feeling. But, to me, unlike rom-coms, Christmas movies are rewatchable and tolerable. They make me all happy and warm because of the feeling and memories they evoke of family and gratitude for the blessings in my life. Every year, there are go-to films that I simply have to watch around Christmas time. Some are unconventional and some are very traditional. Either way, though, they are my essential Christmas films (in no particular order).

1. It's a Wonderful Life
When I was a kid, this was the film that played on every network constantly. However, after NBC finally acquired the rights, the film is now only shown once or twice. When the film was released, it wasn't meant to be a "Christmas movie." Frank Capra's masterpiece was made in 1946 and premiered in New York in December of that year, but it was released nationwide on January 7, 1947, after Christmas. In a 1984 Wall Street Journal interview, Capra admitted that he "didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when [he] first ran across it. [He] just liked the idea." It was based on a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, and has moved on to be the top Christmas classic movie. I love the epicness of it and the overall message, plus that scene where a broken, emotional, teary-eyed Stewart -- whom is facing bankruptcy and jail time -- grabs his youngest son and smothers him with a hug and kiss might be just one of the best scenes ever (then again, there's a lot of them in this one). Although married to childhood sweetheart Mary (the beautiful Donna Reed) with a loving family, George Bailey (James Stewart, one of my favorite actors of all time) is a man that feels trapped -- trapped in a small town and particular life while everyone around him moves up and on in life. However, it's his guardian angel, Clarence, that shows him that every man's life touches many more lives than he will ever know, and that George's life means so much more to so many. GREAT film!

 2. Scrooged
 Not as contemporary (1988) of a version (but it's the best), Charles Dickens' classic tale A Christmas Carol is retold with Bill Murray taking on the Scrooge persona as media mogul Frank Cross, who is visited by the three spirits: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Christmas Present (Carol Kane), and Christmas Future (Robert Hammond). Nothing beats Murray's comic timing, sarcasm, and improv. This is a retelling of a classic that I never get tired of.

3. White Christmas
Another essential Christmas film that revolves around the holiday but has nothing to do with Santa, presents or religion. This 1954 classic -- a partial remake of the 1942 film Holiday Inn (which also starred Bing Crosby) -- tells the tale of two World War II Army buddies (Crosby, Danny Kaye) who, after the war, go into business as music/theater producers. They meet struggling singers, the Haynes sisters (Vera-Ellen and the beautiful, there's-just-something-about-her Rosemary Clooney), and you can imagine the romance that ensues while they detour to Vermont to reunite with their old Major General Tom Waverly (the splendid, underrated Dean Jagger) and attempt to save his rundown bed-and-breakfast. I still get choked up at Jagger's reaction (in the first clip) when his Army division surprises him and sings "We'll Follow the Old Man." The look on his face is just plain touching. And the second clip still resonates strongly today what with so many men and women in the armed forces who are stationed away from loved ones during the holidays. Look at the expressions on the mens' faces as Bing sings "White Christmas." This is still one of my faves.

4. A Christmas Story
Believe it or not, I almost didn't put this one on the list simply because it plays ridiculously too much (24 hours on TBS is overkill). I'm as big a fan of this one as the next critic (especially when it first came out and I first discovered it), but TBS needs to curb their laziness and at least get another film to add to their playlist. The best thing about this film is the way the kids are portrayed; they're the closest to actual little adults that I've ever seen in a Christmas film. Plus, the mix of Jean Shepherd's voice narration, Peter Billingsley's facial expressions and Darren McGavin's "Old Man" are gold! Many things to learn from this film: 1) your tongue can stick to a flagpole in ridiculously cold temperatures, 2) Life Buoy soap = YUUCCKK!!!, and 3) RE: an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle will result in shooting your eye out.

 5. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Along with Bill Murray, Chevy Chase is tops with the comedy. So it's no surprise that his return as Clark Griswold, along with his hysterical family, make for one of the quintessential Christmas films. There is no other movie that best fits in all of the traditions (picking out a Christmas tree, going sledding, reminiscing of Christmas during our youth, putting up the lights, Christmas shopping, letting the in-laws visit, etc.) of Christmas vacation as this National Lampoon classic.

6. Love Actually
Yes, I do enjoy this rom-com for the holidays. Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones' Diary) knocks one out of the park by penning -- and directing -- the ultimate romantic comedy Christmas film. There are several vignettes focusing on different types of love, with an all-star (mostly British) cast. I've always said that Liam Neeson kicks butt in pretty much everything he does ... and rom-coms are no different. If you haven't seen this film 'cause you think it's some mushy, nonsense film, well, it is mushy, but it's a good kind for the holidays; plus, the acting is great and the stories are nicely developed. Definitely check it out.

7. Die Hard
This is it. One of my favorite Christmas movies! For those who scoff my choice. This is a Christmas movie in the same sense that any movie that happens around the Christmas holiday is a Christmas movie. Plus, this is the beginning of all the non-stop action films. Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, McG, Joe Carnahan and every other modern-day action film director owe their careers to Die Hard director John McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza; this movie truly was the beginning of the action-style production that is seen in most action films and TV shows today. The quintessential Christmas film for those action buffs out there. But, hey, it's got kids, plenty of the color red and lots of explosions ... er, I mean, lights!

8. The Family Man
Taking the idea from It's a Wonderful Life and turning it on its head is this 2000 sleeper starring Nicholas Cage who is a bit of a Scrooge. Then, on Christmas Eve, he's given a glimpse of what his life would like if he had stayed with his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni) rather than left her for an internship in London 13 years prior. The culture shock to his new -- in his eyes -- "subpar" life is a bit frightening and intense. However, he warms up to his endearing, loveable family and he realizes what the more important things in life are. My favorite part is at the end when he's describing their children to an oblivious Leoni. The way he describes them is just plain touching.

9. Fred Claus
Ever wonder if Santa Claus had/has any siblings? It is on this premise that this 2007 film focuses. Vince Vaughn stars as Santa's (Paul Giamatti) troublesome big brother, Fred. But he's not as saintly as his little brother; in fact, he's downright naughty. Fred is somewhat caught in a perpetual stage of rebellion. But when Santa comes under attack by an efficiency expert (this was the only lame plot point as the audience is never told from where he comes from), it's up to Fred to save his little brother's -- Santa's -- job and save Christmas. Co-written by Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Crazy Stupid Love), and featuring a great cast (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, John Michael Higgins), this film has a good heart and has plenty of laughs. It's not just about Christmas, but also about familial love and supporting them.

10. Four Christmases
Yes, it's a romantic comedy. But, for a Christmas movie, it's pretty damn funny. This film centers around an unmarried, childless couple (Vince Vaughn & Reese Witherspoon) who cherish that each Christmas, rather than be subjected to their crazy families, they fly off to exotic warm locales. But this Christmas, their plans are publicly foiled, forcing them to visit their four sets of parents (Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight), their step-spouses (Dwight Yoakam, Patrick Van Horn), and siblings (Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau, Kristin Chenoweth). As they meet each other's families, the couple find out things about each other and their supposedly perfect life is thrown for a loop. Let the hilarity ensue! "Mistletoe."

11. Elf
When I first saw this film, I wasn't terribly impressed by it. However, with every viewing, I find myself liking this film more and more. When baby orphan Buddy crawls into Santa Claus' (Ed Asner) sack one Christmas, it is decided that he be raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) as an elf. At first, all is well but when he grows bigger and bigger than the other elves and feels out of place, even amid claymation forest creatures and Snowman (in an homage to all of us who grew up watching Christmas TV specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Jack Frost) -- via Burl Ives (only this time it's singer Leon Redbone), Buddy (Will Ferrell) decides to search for his birth parents Walter Hobbs (James Caan) and Susan Wells by traveling to Manhattan. While there he meets his new family (Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay), and a love interest (Zooey Deschanel), while also trying to win the affection of his father. It's a story with not just humor but also heart as Buddy struggles to find his place in two worlds in which he seems to fit neither. Only Ferrell could pull off the devoted childlike wide-eyed innocence that makes up Buddy. Plus, with cameos from actors such as Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, and Jon Favreau, this film has plenty of good Christmas laughs!

And even though it's not a Christmas movie, I still would be remiss if I didn't post this classic clip from a TV classic that almost wasn't: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Back when it premiered in 1965 network execs were afraid to air this last clip because of its religious reference. However, because Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was so adamant about keeping this scene in, he won over the execs and it has gone on to become a classic for millions, if not billions of people. It has gone on to make the network billions of dollars. And it has inspired billions of young children every year when they first lay eyes on Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang. What was Schulz's remark to execs to help him keep in the ending he wanted? Answer: "If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?"

Happy Holidays!!!

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