ELF (2003) Will Ferrell, James Caan. Dir. Jon Favreau
“Why don’t you just say it? I’m the worst toymaker in the world! I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins!” - Buddy the Elf
The most recent Christmas classic, and it already came out about a decade ago. See what I mean about them being relatively rare to come by? But this one was so sweet, funny, and full of good cheer that it instantly became a surprise sleeper hit and holiday favorite. Will Ferrell really makes the movie, using his clueless, overgrown kid persona that seemed the perfect fit for an elf. He’s really a human adopted by elves (in an animated North Pole setting that’s a cute little homage to the 60’s TV classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), who just can’t seem to ever fit in for some strange reason. He eventually must leave for New York City to find his real father (James Caan). Of course, in New York he gets into all kinds of trouble and Christmastime shenanigans, but in true Will Ferrell fashion, manages to endear the affections of most everyone he meets, and save the day by rallying the Christmas spirit. Sounds awfully corny, I know, but Jon Favreau directs in an un-ironic, straightforward way that’s matched by Ferrell’s likability and his particular brand of silliness that never takes itself seriously enough to seem overly sentimental. His presence garners genuine laughs and prevents too much corniness from seeping through, and he even gets a cute romance with store girl Zooey Deschanel, whose jazzy voice provides this film with the cornerstone of any decent modern Christmas movie- a great soundtrack with perfectly timed Christmas classics to fill in the frame. A warm and fuzzy holiday tale for the whole family.
Original 2003 Trailer:
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch
“Oh, my dear friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.” - Klara's letter
The remake is You’ve Got Mail, but the original can’t be touched. Ernst Lubitsch was an early master at heartwarming romance, and this particular classic is one of the best loved romantic comedies of all time. Set in a small shop in Budapest, Hungary, it starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two employees who can’t stand each other, but are unknowingly involved as passionate pen pals in a letter writing relationship (hey, there was a time when people did use to have to do that). The whole shop is peppered with the colorful personalities of the other employees and the shop’s owner, all engaged in their various romantic and business entanglements as the busy Christmas season approaches. The brilliance of what was called the “Lubitsch touch” has been defined by different people in different ways, but in my opinion it was his ability to make all his characters sympathetic and dignified people, with real interests and capable of real emotions, none more so than their penchant for heartbreak and hurt, like the rest of us. Stewart and Sullavan convey the depth of their feelings in confrontation with each other, whether bickering, teasing, toying with the other, or professing their love. And you believe what they’re saying at every moment, culminating in the famous reveal of their identities in the final scene. The Christmastime setting is always a perfect background for romance, as it provides an unspoken explanation for the loneliness that drives one to seek the company of others. It works just as well for those in the background as it does for the two leads, and Lubitsch effortlessly gives depth to the people who populate his little city and shop, even for just a few scenes. You’ll want to spend as much time with these essentially good and ordinary folks as you can, and sigh with blessed relief when they find it in themselves to come together at last. SO romantic.
Original 1940 Trailer:
LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson. Dir. Richard Curtis
"But you know, the thing about romance is...people only get together right at the very end." - Sam
Speaking of romance, how about a hodgepodge of romantic couplings, a who’s who of British movie stars, and all set to the sparkling holiday lights of a decked out London? Sounds great, right? Well, I like it anyway. First things first, in my experience this movie has proven to be polarizing, with some loving it more than life itself and others hating the sentimental sappiness embodied in every frame. But there’s no denying the fact that ever since its release it’s become a boon among the Christmas classics, and I do think there’s evidence that it’s becoming a perennial holiday favorite with each passing year. As for me, I loved it from the start. Maybe the Christmas season makes me more amenable to that warmhearted, fuzzy feeling that permeates the screen in this one, but I have always been a sucker for Richard Curtis, the mind behind the modern romantic comedy classics Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones. They all work in their own way, and in this one he finally stepped behind the camera to direct his own script, which may partly account for the overt sentimentality displayed. But hey, I say it works and it’s perfect for Christmas cheer. The plot? Well, it’s a mishmash of various romances and love stories among an all star ensemble cast that includes Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, and Curtis mainstay Hugh Grant (wouldn’t be complete without him would it?). Some of the stories are sad, others happy, some take up more time than you’d like while others are too short, but the mini plots wrap up full circle, with the endings playing like the greatest hits of romantic comedy clichés: the airport reunion, the proposal in the restaurant, the curtain rising on a couple mid-embrace, etc. I say it’s obvious the clichés are intentional- I mean, this is basically romantic comedy on an epic scale, paying tribute to all that came before it. If you look at it that way, which I always have, it tends to work. If you don’t, then yeah it can seem corny. But one thing everyone always agrees on? Bill Nighy as a shitfaced, over the hill sleazy rockstar is hilarious plugging his crap record by calling it crap and stealing every scene he’s in by delivering all the best lines. See it for yourself at least…and then you can judge it accordingly.
Original 2003 Trailer:
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) Judy Garland, Mary Astor. Dir. Vincente Minnelli
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light/ Next year all our troubles will be out of sight..." - Esther singing the Christmas classic
Ah, one of my faves. It’s a gorgeously filmed, technicolor, buoyant celebration of an American family circa 1903, following the passing of the seasons over the course of one year. The Wizard of Oz is more cemented in our consciousness, but I say this is Judy Garland's best performance, the one that most successfully conveys every facet of her appeal at its peak- from her showmanship and outstanding voice, to her spunk and sense of comedic timing, to her ultimate longing and melancholy air as she introduces the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” actually one of the most depressing (lyrics-wise) Christmas songs of all time, but made a fitting tribute to the firm resolve of a brighter future, by the lilting pathos in Judy’s voice. She met and fell in love with her future husband, director Vincente Minnelli on the set, and he wanted to make it the ultimate showcase for her, framing her in doorways whenever he could and lighting her in soft focus close-ups intended to accentuate her unique look. The whole movie plays with a lighthearted but earnest sincerity and is a wonder to look at, with sumptuous period costumes and gorgeous sets (you’ll want to move in to their awesome house immediately). The cast features Mary Astor as the mother and Margaret O’Brien as little sister Tootie, and the rest of the songs include “The Boy Next Door,” “Over the Banister,” and my favorite “The Trolley Song,” another classic Judy performance. This was Garland’s last part as a young girl (she played about 18 here), and thus, the height of her career was over. She would go on to do more films but her off screen battles with drugs and depression crippled her, and her adult roles were never able to capture the pluck and ingenuity that made her a star in the 30’s and 40’s. See this one for the pinnacle of her onscreen career, and the early promise she once held for better days ahead.
Original 1944 Trailer:
THE PREACHER'S WIFE (1996) Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston. Dir. Penny Marshall
"You have no idea what the competition is like just to be sent down here." - Dudley
A rare remake that’s better than the original. Based on a 1947 Cary Grant film The Bishop’s Wife, this one was much sweeter and more upbeat than the older story, and the star pairing of Whitney and Denzel gets just that much closer to an actual affair, rather than a one sided infatuation as in the original. And it works, because there’s chemistry between the two, and we want them to get together. Washington is the angel Dudley, who falls to earth in answer to local Harlem preacher Courtney B. Vance’s prayer for help. Sent to help the preacher get his affairs in order (including fixing his marriage), Dudley ends up falling for his wife instead, the lovely Whitney Houston at the height of her superstardom. Every character in the movie is essentially decent and good-natured- the preacher himself only neglects his wife because of his obligations to assist the poor folks in his neighborhood. We feel bad for him but at the same time, like I said earlier, we kinda prefer the other two together in spite of it. The best parts of the movie are all the scenes between Washington and Houston, who flirt and interact with charm, displaying an underlying attraction that seems real, and you only wish this was less of a family film so you could see them go further. Houston of course, gets to show off her powerful pipes in several musical interludes, including the famous rendition of the ballad “I Believe in You and Me.” Despite our inclination to want her to leave the preacher and run off with Denzel (wouldn’t you?) we end the movie feeling warmed to our core, as everything turns out right and things are just as they should be- we flirted with danger but in the end we resisted, the Christmas do-gooder spirit preserved by the “angels” of our better nature.
Original 1996 Trailer:
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992) Michael Caine, the Muppets. Dir. Brian Henson
“Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!“ - Rizzo
So, it only makes sense in any good Christmas movie selection to have some version of A Christmas Carol, right? So why did I choose this one? Well, to be quite honest with you, it really is one of the best. Sure, the 1951 Alastair Sim classic is considered by many to be the definitive version, and that’s a good choice, but…in some ways the Muppets trump it. There have been several Muppet movies, from The Muppet Movie to The Muppets Take Manhattan, but this one was released after Jim Henson’s son Brian had taken over Henson Productions in the wake of his father’s death. There was speculation as to whether the magic could continue without Jim Henson’s personal touch, but luckily, he hit it out of the park with what’s arguably the best of all the Muppet movies (again, arguably). A faithful musical rendition of the Dickens tale with energy, humor and some seriously catchy tunes. Really, you’ll be humming “It Feels Like Christmas” for a week. The Muppets are all hilarious inhabiting the roles of Bob Cratchit (Kermit), his wife (Miss Piggy) and Fezziwig (Fozzie), with special mention to the sarcastic duo of Gonzo and Rizzo as the narrators talking to the camera, Michael Caine steps it up as Scrooge and gives a grave and earnest performance, taking every bit of it seriously, from his nastiness to his joyous transformation, holding the original Dickens message intact and keeping the movie a genuinely moving and heartwarming interpretation of A Christmas Carol, in spite of all the jokes. There have been countless adaptations of this story filmed over the years and will no doubt continue to be, but I’ll argue the case for The Muppets version being one of the top two (alongside Sim’s) any day of the week.
Original 1992 Trailer:
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara. Dir. George Seaton
"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything that he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles." - Fred Gailey
The Christmas classic about Santa that’s hard to improve upon (although I’d say the ’94 remake isn’t half bad). Edmund Gwenn is the department store Santa Claus who believes he’s the real thing, and is ultimately put on trial for it. Maureen O’Hara is the Macy’s exec who hires him, and cute little Natalie Wood is her 6 year old daughter who doesn’t believe in Santa, but changes her mind when she sees the old man. O’Hara is a bitter and disillusioned woman who’s been hurt by men in the past, so she’s taught her daughter not to believe in myths and fairy tales of any kind, challenging Kriss Kringle to teach her the meaning of faith. It’s a sweet little movie that everyone has seen many times, but may be starting to fall by the wayside among younger generations in favor of the remake, so the original deserves a plug. Gwenn is wonderful as Kriss, and it’s a brilliant touch to never quite reveal if he’s the genuine article or not. The courtroom trial finale is a famous spectacle, with John Payne as the lawyer who sets out to prove that he IS the real thing, and also romances O’Hara with Kriss’s help to renew her confidence. It’s a renewal of your own faith as well, guaranteed to fill you with oodles of holiday warmth and cheer. Mandatory viewing, but NOT the colorized version, I beg you. This was one of the movies that suffered that most distasteful process in later years, but the movie was filmed in black and white, people. Why would you want to see it in a format that colored in the original reels with unnatural and pasty colors that do NOT express what it would have actually looked like, had it been filmed in color? It’s like defacing someone’s art. Trust me, they tend to show both versions on TV and in stores, but if you’re looking for it go for the black and white, as it was meant to be seen.
Original 1947 Trailer:
HOME ALONE (1990) Macaulay Culkin, Catherine O’Hara. Dir. Chris Columbus
"This is Christmas! The season of perpetual hope. And I don't care if I have to get out on your runway and hitchhike! If it costs me everything I own, if I have to sell my soul to the devil himself, I am going to get home to my son." - Kate McCallister
In 1990 Home Alone became the highest grossing comedy of all time, and it still holds that record today. It was quite a cultural phenomenon, inaugurating the mass wave of movies starring little kids (most of which were awful) and turning Macaulay Culkin into the highest paid child star in history (and leading his parents to continue breeding little Culkins off an assembly line, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice). But the first Home Alone remains a beloved holiday staple today, as saturated into our collective consciousness as it is. You know the plot. Little Kevin McAllister is left behind by his family in the rush to catch a flight to Paris three days before Christmas. He then has control of the house and has to fend off two cat burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) with ingenious pranks and rigged booby traps. The whole thing is a bit silly of course, mostly because it’s been overdone beyond belief as a result of the movie’s smash success. But the original still has a nostalgic charm, helped along by a memorable John Williams score (plus a great soundtrack actually), and touchingly funny supporting performances from Catherine O’Hara as his frantic mom and John Candy as a polka player who can identify with bad parenting. John Hughes, who wrote the script, infuses it with his special brand of earnestness that allows you to feel for the characters as real people, more or less. And let’s not forget Culkin himself. He was 8 years old and had to carry this whole movie, and he worked it with enormous appeal. It takes a special little extra something to be a successful child actor, and whatever that is, like Shirley Temple, he had it in spades. Also like Temple, it was probably a wise move to essentially stop acting just 4 years later, preserving his image in movie history forever as that cute and resourceful little kid. A Christmas classic you’ve no doubt seen a million times, but an enduring one and a reminder of days gone by. Can you believe it’s now been more than 20 years since this movie came out? Crazy.
Original 1990 Trailer:
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed. Dir. Frank Capra
"Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” - Zuzu
It’s a Christmas Eve tradition in my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year, and every year I get something new out of it. One of my top ten favorite movies of all time, because it serves as a renewal of the human spirit and an affirmation of life in all its glories. And it includes Jimmy Stewart’s greatest ever performance, in my opinion one of the greatest performances in movie history. He’s George Bailey, and we watch him grow up in the little town of Bedford Falls, coming to know him, his problems, and all the people in his life so fully, making the impact that much greater when he’s given the gift (curse?) of seeing what life would have been like had he never been born (a twist on A Christmas Carol). Stewart inhabits George Bailey like he was born for the part, all his reluctant decency, sense of humor and human miseries mirroring our own. It’s a nuanced, fully realized character, we feel we know him so well he could be our relative. He’s no saint either- rather a hardworn, disappointed, but essentially goodhearted ordinary citizen who dreamed of bigger things but settled to a life of far less, mostly in self sacrifice for others. The love of his life is Mary, played by Donna Reed, and the two share amazing chemistry in all their scenes together- she's his rock, the one happiness that holds him up as he lives out his resigned acceptance over his unsung dreams in life. She’s what keeps him going. Bedford Falls is populated by George’s family and friends, people everyone now knows, including Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), that “warped, frustrated” old banker who hates George and all the decency he stands for. This was Frank Capra’s magnum opus, the towering achievement that wrapped up every principle he believed in: small town America, the honest suffering of working class people, greed and power hoarded by the rich to supress everyone else, and the importance of community and loyalties coming together to triumph in the face of despair. If his themes are more upfront in his other, more overtly populist films like Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe, they were never more powerful than in this one, where they serve as the layers underneath the personal story of the life of one man in one little place, with all his joys, fears, and triumphs so specific, so heartfelt, so lived in. There’s really no movie in existence (even after all these years) that better showcases the true spirit of Christmas, and goodwill towards your fellow man. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you. You’re in for a real treat.
Original 1946 Trailer:
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) Peter Billingsley, Darrin McGavin. Dir. Bob Clark
“You’ll shoot your eye out kid.” - Department store Santa Claus
And this is usually my Christmas Day tradition, if you can somehow manage to avoid it until then. I feel that this movie has gradually replaced It’s a Wonderful Life in the last decade as the universal go-to Christmas movie that everyone in the world has now seen and has no problem watching over and over again (this is the one that now gets its own 24-hour TV marathon). And it is no doubt, a wonderful movie, and one that works completely even as it’s centered around Christmas itself, and not just placed in a Christmas time setting. It’s Indiana in 1940, and 9-year old Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but of course everyone tells him no way, he’ll “shoot his eye out.” That’s all the plot really, because this movie is less about that particular thing, and more a series of vignettes occurring in the life of Ralphie and his family one Christmas season. It plays as memories, narrated by a grown up Ralphie (Jean Shepherd), looking back on his life. Movies about kids structured in this way tend to feel like they’re not really geared toward kids at all- it’s a brilliant tool to place the audience on the outside looking in, along with the adult voiceover. Every little thing that happens is identifiably funny, in a “that could happen to somebody I know” kind of way. Darrin McGavin is especially good as Ralphie’s dad, The Old Man, who gives a gruffly natural performance as a long suffering working class stiff whose exasperation and asides will seem familiar to anyone with a similar relative. Melinda Dillon is equally sympathetic as his pre-feminist housewife mom, who nevertheless is really head of the house in all ways that count. The two feel like real parents, neighbors and people you suspect have other problems than what we see onscreen, but carry on the best they can, finding joy in simple things, like crossword puzzles and turkey dinners. And little Ralphie himself is pitch-perfectly played by Peter Billingsley. He’s a precocious, serious minded kid (not one of those impossibly cute “movie kids”), which makes him that much easier to identify with when he suffers through those everyday travails like bullies, little brothers, freakshow department store Santas, and soapsucking as punishment for a filthy mouth. Everyone knows all the classic scenes: the tongue frozen on the telephone pole, the pink bunny pajamas, the sexy leg statue, etc. But they never get old, Ralphie’s plight now as familiar and soothing to millions of people every Christmas as George Bailey’s once was. Who am I to argue for one over the other? Do what I do, see one Christmas Eve, the other Christmas Day. It’s a one-two punch of enough Christmas spirit to hold you over from this year to the next.
Original 1983 Trailer: