Friday, December 16, 2011

The 12 Days of Essential Christmas Films

It's that time of year again.  

Christmas is a time of sharing, love, peace and goodwill to all men...

...and of course it's a time for great movies.  There are many Christmas films out there, ranging from overly sentimental to the dark and twisted.  Some are good, some are bad, some are ugly.  But only a few of them are essential holiday viewing.  With that said, here are the 12 Days of Essential Christmas Films.

And here...we...go...

Directed by:  Brian Henson
Starring:  Michael Caine, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire

"Charles Dickens":  Hello!  Welcome to the Muppet Christmas Carol!  I am here to tell the story.

Rizzo The Rat:  And I am here for the food.

Michael Caine is Ebeneezer Scrooge. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit.  Miss Piggie is Mrs. Cratchit.  Fozzy Bear as Fozzywig (get it?)  Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and Robert Marley.  And The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens.  The Muppet Christmas Carol remains to this day my favorite adaptation of Dickens' classic story.  Caine is absolutely vile as the iconic Scrooge, which makes his transformation at the end of the film far more effective than other interpretations.  What makes the film so wonderful is the effortless blending of the story everybody knows with the signature Muppet humor.  Don't let the fact that there are Muppets in the film fool you, it's still very effective as a heartwarming holiday film.

Directed by:  Henry Coster
Starring:  Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young

Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread. 

A true holiday classic.  A bishop is lost and without direction and desperately needs to raise money for a new church.  He prays for help and guidance, but feels he receives none.  However, he does receive help in the form of an angel named Dudley.  Dudley is incredibly charming (after all, he IS played by Cary Grant) as an assistant to the bishop.  Everyone falls for him, especially the bishop's wife (played by Loretta Young.)  Bishop Henry becomes increasingly frustrated and jealous of Dudley and what develops is a film that expertly showcases the fine acting abilities of its three leads.  It has a great holiday feel to it and both Grant and the film are incredibly charming.

(Merry Christmas)
Directed by Christian Carion
Starring:  Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl

Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren't devout came to warm themselves.

You may not have heard of this European film that had a very limited release in the United States.  The story revolves around a miracle that took place during Christmas Eve, 1914 in the middle of World War I.  Four characters are profiled:  a priest in the Scottish army, a French lieutenant, a German soldier who is also a famous tenor and his wife.  On the night before Christmas, hostilities temporarily cease and the soldiers leave their trenches and spend Christmas with the enemy.  Writer/Director Carion and the excellent cast do an amazing job of bringing this film to life.  Even more amazing was that film is based on a true story.  The true strong point of the film lies in the fact that you can take what you want from this film.  Whether the soldiers stopped fighting was brought on by God, Christmas or just the disgust with the horrors of war is up for interpretation.  Whatever you take from it, realize that this is a new classic in holiday films.

(A Christmas Carol)
Directed by:  Brian Desmond Hurst
Starring:  Alistair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Michael Hordern, Francis De Wolff, Miles Malleson

Before I draw nearer to that stone, tell me! Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that MIGHT be? 

The Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite adaptation of this story, however, Scrooge is perhaps the best and most faithful retelling.  That says a lot, considering the story has been adapted 53 times on film and in television since 1901.  Even more impressive is that Sim is, in this blogger's opinion, the best on-screen Ebeneezer Scrooge of all time.  This includes a diverse list of actors ranging anywhere from Albert Finney to Patrick Stewart to Jim Carey.  He excels at being both cruel and menacing as well as childishly hilarious.  It leaves no part of the story untouched and gives more back story to Scrooge in the "Past" segment than any other film has done to date.  

Directed by:  Bob Clark
Starring:  Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin

Oh my god, I shot my eye out!

Every child knows what's it's like to want that perfect Christmas present.  The longing, the pleading, the desperation of that ONE THING that you just can't live without.  A Christmas Story is the simple tale of Ralphie, a little boy who wants nothing more for Christmas than a B.B. gun.  Not just any B.B. gun, mind you, but an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (with this thing that tells time.)  It seems everyone is against him... his mother, his teacher... heck, even Santa thinks he'll shoot his eye out.  But Ralphie is unrelenting in his desire for this perfect gift.  This film is timeless, because even though it was made in the 80s, and takes place in the 40s, everyone, young and old, can relate to Ralphie.  A Christmas Story perfectly captures exactly what it's like to be a kid on Christmas.

Directed by:  Mark Sandrich
Starring:  Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds

Ted:  I like it here... with you and Linda. 
Jim: And we love having you. When are you leaving? 

The movie that gave birth to not just one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, but one of the most popular songs EVER.  More on that in a second.  Bing Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers in his day, so Paramount Pictures gave him a huge budget to do a musical.  What does he spend the money on?  Hiring the legendary dance man Fred Astaire as his co-star and Irving Berlin as his song writer and they produce one of the most charming musicals ever made.  The story follows song-and-dance entertainers Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover (Crosby and Astaire respectively) as they compete for the affections of the same girl.  Jim has reason to be nervous as Ted has stolen one of his girls in the past.  Jim quits show business to run a hotel that is only open on holidays and hires Linda Mason (Reynolds) as a performer.  When Ted realizes that not only is Linda beautiful, but an amazing singer and dancer he schemes to once again steal a girl away from Jim.  Crosby is always praised for his singing, but not enough for his comedic acting... and paired with Fred Astaire, the two have great comedic chemistry.  All the songs for each holiday are fun (though you may want to skip the "Abraham" number because in 1942 doing a song in black face wasn't considered racially insensitive) but the show stealer is "White Christmas" which as I mentioned before became one of the biggest songs of all time.  It's popularity was mostly due to the requests of soldiers fighting the war in Europe who desperately wanted to be reminded of home.

Directed by:  Michael Curtiz
Starring:  Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen

Let's just say we're doing it for an old pal in the army.

12 years after "White Christmas" became a huge hit, Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin teamed up again and made it the title of another Christmastime musical.  This time around Danny Kaye replaces Fred Astaire as the dance man.  Kaye, while not as "legendary" as Fred Astaire, still did not disappoint as all his dance numbers with Vera Allen were a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  Rosemary Clooney played Crosby's love interest and will leave a great impression on you with her magnificent voice.  Crosby and Kaye play two old army buddies that teamed up as a song and dance duo turned producers after the war.  They are so over-worked that Phil (Kaye) is just getting plain sick and tired of constantly being around Bob (Crosby.)  He never misses an opportunity to play matchmaker with any pretty girl that walks into Bob's life just so that he can get some time away from his partner.  Enter the Betty & Judy Haynes, a pair of sisters hoping that Bob and Phil will give them a shot in one of their shows.  After the getting the girls out of a jam, the four entertainers head to Vermont for the holidays where Bob and Phil realize that the ski lodge they're staying at is being run by their old army general.  Seeing the sad state of affairs the lodge is in, Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy start planning a big Christmas spectacle to hopefully attract visitors.  The big closing number?  You guessed it.

Directed by:  George Seaton
Starring:  Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood

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 he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles. 

One of the most warm-hearted films ever made, Miracle on 34th Street depicts the trial of a Macy's store Santa Claus who truly believes he is THE Santa Claus, but at its heart, it's a film about faith.  Not just for the other characters, but for the audience itself.  When we are first introduced to Kris Kringle, he is walking the streets of New York on Thanksgiving Day.  You don't see him with any reindeer, you don't seem him at the North Pole and the only sleigh he rides in is the one in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.  Naturally, since he is the hero of the story, there is an implied trust between the protagonist and the viewer.  We believe what he presents to us.  No matter how ludicrous it may seem.  Unlike most movies about Santa Claus, this film has no magic moments.  Heck, the most amazing thing Kris does is speak Dutch to a little Dutch orphan.  Something certainly anybody with a proper background could do.  He brings people together at Christmastime, and slowly convinces every one around him that he is the real deal.  Most of this of course is due to the wonderful acting abilities of Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kris.  "Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to."  That is a line repeated in the movie... and by the end of the film, we as the audience truly believe that Kris IS Santa, despite having no proof.  And there in lies the true miracle of the film.

Directed by:  Vincente Minnelli
Starring:  Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor

 It's our last dance in St. Louis. I feel like I'm going to cry.

Unlike most of the films on this list, Meet Me in St. Louis is a film that doesn't primarily take place DURING Christmas.  In fact, the only extended Christmas scene doesn't happen until towards the end of the film.  However, much like Holiday Inn, this film was responsible for another immortal Christmas song that you hear every year:  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  Most people don't realize that song is not a "happy" Christmas song, it's actually bittersweet as it is sung at a very sad and poignant moment in the film.  The film follows a close-knit family in suburban St. Louis through the year of 1904 as they live pleasant lives, fall in love, celebrate holidays and have good times with each other.  It is the perfect picture of Middle Class America.  Everything is perfect in this little corner of the world.  There is a pall over the year, however, as the head of the family wishes to move the entire family off to New York where better financial opportunities await him.  On the eve of their departure, at Christmas, Judy Garland tries to comfort her younger sister by singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  The message of the song being, "Don't let this move ruin your Christmas.  Don't mourn the loss of your home, but cherish the memories you have."  This film is essential holiday viewing not only for its classic song, but also for its strong themes of the love of your family and how there is no place like home. (A message Judy Garland isn't unfamiliar with.)

Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Starring:  James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan

Psychologically, I'm very confused... But personally, I don't feel bad at all. 

I have often said that I hate romantic comedies.  I feel they are formulaic, dull and predictable.  Furthermore, just as Playboy give men unrealistic expectations of women, romantic comedies are just as guilty of giving women unrealistic expectations of men.  The exception to this rule, of course, is any romantic comedy made before 1950.  This was a time when they weren't formulaic (well, maybe a little), the characters were fleshed out and developed, the stories were tight and well scripted, and, of course, the two leads were incredibly charming.  I mean, can you really compare Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart with Ashton Kutcher and Robert Pattinson?  No.  You can't.  I digress.  The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy, plain and simple.  It's Christmas time and Klara (Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred (James Stewart) are both employees at the same baggage store, constantly competing for customers and THEY CAN'T STAND EACH OTHER.  Here's the kicker, though:  Each one of them has a pen pal that they've never met... and it just so happens that it turns out that they are each other's pen pal.  They write love letters to each other, not knowing that the person they are professing love to is someone they'd like to throw in front of a bus.  If this sounds familiar it's because it was unremarkably re-made in 1998 as You've Got Mail, this time with an e-mail angle.  Skip that one.  Watch this one.  Not very Christmas-y other than it takes place during the holidays, but it's charming, fun and probably one of the best romantic comedies ever filmed.

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring:  Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Diane Weist, Anthony Michael Hall, Alan Arkin, Vincent Price

If he weren't up there now... I don't think it would be snowing. Sometimes you can still catch me dancing in it. 

Edward Scissorhands is often left off "Best Holiday Films" lists, why I'm not sure.  It is one of the GREAT Christmas films.  If you go into this film as a comedy (like the producers advertised it), you'll be disappointed.  While it certainly has many humorous moments, this movie is much more of a fantasy.  A modern day fairy tale.  Edward is a creation that was built by a scientist who was trying to create a man.  Even though he was a "creator," he was the only father, and family, that Edward ever knew... and sadly he died before Edward was "finished," leaving Edward with scissors for hands.  Years later he is rescued from isolation by a kindly Avon lady, who unofficially adopts him.  At first Edward is welcomed by the small suburban neighborhood, and they take advantage of his handicap by putting him to use trimming hedges and cutting hair.  But Edward's heart truly lies with Kim, the daughter of the woman who rescued him.  What develops is a love straight out of a story book fairy tale, however without a fairy book ending.  What makes this a Christmas movie?  Other than the fact that the film takes place during Christmas, it has a charming theory on the origins of snow.  When people describe a film as "hauntingly beautiful," this is what they're talking about.  Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton's masterpiece.

Directed by:  Frank Capra
Starring:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he? 

I don't care what anyone says, It's a Wonderful Life, after over 60 years is STILL the greatest Christmas movie ever made.  It may be cliche, but there is not one film better.  On top of that, it makes the Top 5 of The Essential Films' Top 100 Movies of All Time (Coming Soon.)  It's better than Citizen Kane.  Better than Star Wars.  Better than Gone With The Wind.  I watch it every single year, and so should every one.  By those who've never seen it and by those who've seen it dozens of times.  It's message is universal and timeless.  A man who sacrifices his entire life for every family member, friend and sometimes complete stranger just because it's the right thing to do... well one day, he gets in trouble.  He's so desperate he considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve.  A guardian angel intervenes and prevents him from doing so. When George remarks that perhaps the world would have been a better place had he not even existed, the angel decides to show him exactly what the world would be like.  The message of the film is that everyone matters and everyone touches everyone else's life in some way.  You should value and cherish not just your life, but all lives.  And at the end of the day, no man is failure who has friends.