It’s Christmas – time for friends and family and presents and colored lights and trees and tinsel and, if you’re lucky, a little bit of magic, especially at the movies, which have frequently found inspiration in the fantasy and emotion of this special day. It’s usually a busy time, but if you find yourself with a few free moments and feel like watching a movie, here’s a list of a few great films guaranteed to keep you in the spirit.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Overexposure in the 1980s made this film a bit of a joke, but if you haven’t seen it in a while, I recommend that you check it out. The scene everyone remembers best is the ending, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is surrounded by all the people his life has touched as everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne,” a sequence which causes many people to dismiss the film as a silly piece of feel-good treacle. However, the narrative that leads to this end is a surprisingly dark chronicle of a man’s growing despair and spiritual desolation, culminating in a desperate suicide attempt, followed by a nightmarish vision of a life in which George had never been born – not exactly lightweight, holiday fluff. But it is precisely because the bulk of the film is so dark that the climax is so wonderful – this is one happy ending that has truly been earned. Christmas has become an important holiday precisely because its traditions remind us of how important the people in our lives are to us and we are to them and there is no film that expresses that idea better than this one.
Miracle on 34th Street
The 1947 original, starring Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a Macy’s Santa who may or may not be the real deal, is an almost perfect piece of holiday whimsy. Valentine Davies’s script – the inspiration for so many “Is he or isn’t he?” films over the decades (including They Might Be Giants, Don Juan DeMarco, and K-PAX) – is exceedingly clever and blissfully restrained, never giving in to the temptation of the cutesiness and over-sentimentality inherent in its premise. Gwenn is great and so is Natalie wood as the Santagonistic child that Kringle teaches to believe.
A Christmas Story
Although TBS has beaten this one to death in recent years by overplaying it for days and weeks at a time, A Christmas Story is a crackerjack example of wonderful yuletide nonsense – gently spoofing middle-American holiday Christmas traditions and paying loving respect to that enchanted state of anticipation that envelops children in the weeks leading up to the big morning. Far from subtle, it is sweet, funny, and thoroughly charming. Don’t let TBS wear you out with it – watch it once and enjoy.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
OK, so it’s not a movie, it’s a TV special, but so what? This simple, quiet, imperfectly crafted cartoon has more to say about the gentle spirit of Christmas than any three features. Plus, there’s that exquisite Vince Guaraldi score which is now just as synonymous with the holiday as “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
The 1966 Chuck Jones-directed, Boris Karloff-narrated animated special, not the bombastic Jim Carrey feature. (I know, I know -- another TV show. Run it a few times in a row to fill up the time.) When I was a kid, I couldn’t stand Dr. Seuss – I could never understand what his creatures were supposed to be (People? Monsters? Hairless lab experiments gone wrong?) and they weirded me out. I caught up with it again a few years ago and, while I still think the Whos and the Grinch are still strangely unidentifiable, the story itself is a wonderful communal spirit and possibility of redemption so inherent in the season. Plus the dog is a riot.
Another film that was perhaps too much with us for a while, but that the passage of time now allows us to see more clearly as a pretty nifty movie. The McCauley Culkin versus Joe Pesci plot is entertaining, but the subplot in which Mac reaches out to the mean old man next door and inspires him to reunite with his estranged family is the sweet heart of this simple tale and one that never fails to give me the warm fuzzies. The look of the film is also terrific – this is the way I always remember Christmas being, even if the reality was probably something quite different. Plus, John Williams’s score is delicate and lovely and contains a new carol – “Somewhere in My Memory” – that seems as if it has been with us always.
It’s not quite as good as many people insist it is, but it does begin with Lee Majors defending the North Pole from a band of marauding psychos in a clip from something called The Night the Reindeer Died, and maybe that’s enough.
Nothing says Christmas like Uzis, terrorists, and exploding massive explosions. Although the Yuletide setting is mostly incidental to the plot, there’s something about the combination of Jan De Bont’s glittering cinematography, Ludwig von’s “Ode to Joy,” and the themes of redemption and family reunification that capture the spirit of the season in the darnedest way. Plus, it ends with a spectacular faux snowfall (of exploded file papers) that’s as wondrous and magical as any I’ve ever seen outside my bedroom window.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis’s directorial debut did only modest business when it was first released, but this is one of those films that cable loves to run over and over and in the process it's becoming a seasonal standard. It deserves to be: it’s a lovely little anthology film containing stories that touch on all aspects of the season – the sweetness, the joy, the silliness, the melancholy, and the joy to be found in the connections between friends, family, and lovers. Plus, every British actor on the planet appears in the thing, which is a present all in itself.
The Yule Log
Anyone that grew up in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s knows The Yule Log. To give its employees the holiday off, WPIX Channel 11 would run a film loop of a log burning in a fireplace continuously for 24 hours straight, with Christmas carols playing in the background. It was completely, utterly goofy and ridiculous and yet there was something bizarrely wonderful about its simple kitchiness. WPIX discontinued the original Yule Log years ago, but some other stations around the country have continued the tradition and you can even buy dvds and iPad apps that feature the same combination of visuals and music. Watch it for five minutes and you’ll laugh; thirty and you will be thoroughly irritated. Watch it all night and I guarantee you’ll be transported to a higher, more Noelish-level of consciousness.
Happy Christmas, everyone!