Jack's Christmas Movie Marathon 2010-2011
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Last Update Dec 4, 2013
To get into the Christmas spirit in 2010, I decided to compile a list of Christmas movies to watch before the big day. I wanted to watch not only the classics I love, but also the beloved classics that I've never seen. So to put together my list, I googled "top christmas movies" and "best christmas movies" and pretty much just added together other people's lists. I make no claims of scientific, impartial calculation here. Originally, my plan was to watch the top twenty-five movies. I ended up going with thirty in order to slip in a few movies I wanted to see. I ended up only watching twenty-three before the New Year rolled in and I ran out of Christmas spirit. Then in 2011, I picked up where I left off to watch the top seven Christmas movies. I revealed the list as I watched the movies, adding my reviews of them to this page. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on these with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out other things I've written if you'd like.
And have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Please remeber that I'm not personally responsible for the ranking here; it's based on tallied google searches. The movies I actually love are in bold. The movies in regular font are palatable (or very good, but not particularly Christmas themed.) The movies I disliked are in italics. I watched the crappy ones so you don't have to.
30. The Bells of St Mary's
29. Frosty the Snowman
28. Christmas in Connecticut
27. Santa Claus: The Movie
26. Bad Santa
25. Babes in Toyland (1934)
24. Die Hard
23. Gremlins 22. Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
21. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
20. A Charlie Brown Christmas
19. The Grinch (2000)
18. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
17. Love Actually
16. The Nightmare Before Christmas
15. Holiday Inn
14. The Polar Express
13. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
11. Home Alone
10. The Bishop's Wife
9. The Santa Clause
7. A Christmas Carol (1951)
6. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol
4. White Christmas
3. A Christmas Story
2. Miracle on 34th Street
1. It's A Wonderful Life
30. The Bells of St Mary's (1945)
Reviewed on 11/13/2010
From a time when men were men, women were nuns and seeing a staunch patriarchy show even a modicum of tenderness was heartwarming rather than slightly disturbing.
Gender norms from a couple generations ago aside, I quite liked it. It's not particularly set on Christmas, though they do mention the holiday a bunch. The primary themes of faith and charity certainly fit. I of course dug the Catholic angle and the singing. It was a good weekend afternoon movie, and a good way to start this.
I was originally going to start my countdown at 25 but I fudged a little to get this (and a couple others) in there, and I'm glad I did.
29. Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Reviewed on 11/14/2010
A few Christmas specials did make it on the list; I left it to the discretion of the google hits to decide what constitutes a Christmas movie.
I don't know why, but the plot of this one always felt more contrived to me, compared to something like Rudolph. Both throw in a bunch of new details to flesh out the song, and I can't tell you why a magician, a rabbit and a greenhouse seem more out of place in classic Christmas canon than an elf that wants to be a dentist and a flying lion king, but they do. That's just how I feel about it.
That said, probably about half of the special consists of Jimmy Durante singing the title song in half a dozen different musical styles, and that's totally worth it.
28. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Reviewed on 11/15/2010
This one follows a fraud homemaker columnist whose boss wants to visit her farm for Christmas and experience some of the homemaking she's always writing about. Problem is, she's actually a single woman living in the city who can't cook. And then of course she falls in love with someone besides the guy she's pretending to be married to. Holiday hijinks ensue.
Interesting especially in contrast to Bells of St Mary's, the old-school gender stereotypes were mostly absent here, and even the homemaker stereotype at the center of the plot was treated mostly like it would be treated today. The whole thing felt very modern. I even googled to see if it had been remade, and it had--made for tv movie from 1992 directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and apparently very bad. It's also in IMDB as in development for 2012. I'm guessing in the new version, the restaurant owner confidant who secretly does her cooking will be gay instead of german.
This movie mostly lost me cuz I'm not into the "tell a lie, escalate the cover up, hijinks ensue" formula. I mostly just cringe throughout then feel slightly unsettled when everything works out in the end for the liar. But if you're down with that, then I'd say the movie has at least stood the test of time.
27. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Reviewed on 11/22/2010
This was another title that prompted me to go for the top thirty. I'm pretty sure I saw it in theatres when it came out when I was seven, and I remember it being a really huge deal at the time. Rewatching it now, though, I get why it never really became part of the Christmas canon.
The first part of the movie is quite good, going for a sort of epic "Life of Claus" feeling to give us Santa's origin story. The depiction of the north pole is quite beautiful, with mid-eighties effects standing the test of time. If the movie had run with just that, it probably would be a staple classic Christmas movie.
But then we jump to "present day" and a corny plotline involving an evil toy manufacturer, a waywayrd elf, a rich little girl and a homeless little boy. John Lithgow does a decent enough job as the bad guy, and Dudley Moore is amusing enough as the elf (I'll admit to chuckling at the various self/elf jokes, "elf-esteem", "elf-taught", etc) but the kids are terrible, both as written and as acted.
Everything surrounding the homeless kid in particular is bothersome. Santa shows up, takes him on a magical sleigh ride, then...dumps him back and leaves him still homeless. The kid takes this in stride, and doesn't seem to care one whit that he's homeless. And Santa clings to his friendship out of this weird sense of pity and guilt, as if he's the only homeless kid in the first place. Even at age seven I knew that didn't play right--one of my only memories of this movie going in was "this is the one with the awkward homeless kid." It seemed even creepier watching as an adult.
The other thing I remembered going in was that McDonald's was a heavy promoter of this film. Effective marketing, I guess. But given the pure-heart anti-capitalist message of the movie, it REALLY stood out to my grownup eyes when they toss in a scene of the homeless kid watching longingly through the window of a McDonald's as people eat their cheeseburgers. There was also some really blatant Coke sponsorship.
And ultimately, that encapsulates what's wrong with this movie. It is transparently capitalists trying to bank on the spirit of Christmas by making a movie about Santa defeating the evil capitalist to save the spirit of Christmas. Ironic, I guess, especially since they did probably make a lot of money on it. But I think I can go another twenty five years without seeing this one again.
26. Bad Santa (2003)
Reviewed on 11/22/2010
Probably the only movie on my list with tits in it.
I enjoyed it. The obligatory bad-guy-finds-a-heart christmas lesson was there, but it was about as non-saccharine as it ever gets. The comedy was situational rather than slapstick. It stayed plenty dark without wallowing in it, and didn't try to offer any sort of ironic social commentary or deep thought, just a simple story with a lot of swearing. And strangely believable. The kid wasn't irritating, was rather amusing even. I read bad reviews of this one, and I could easily imagine the premise being executed terribly, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I got.
25. Babes in Toyland (1934)
Reviewed on 11/27/2010
This is the first Laurel & Hardy movie I've ever seen. I thought they were funny, particularly Laurel.
I enjoyed the simplicity of the story and the intricate fabulousness of the sets. Somehow the early cinematography made the studio set seem even grander, giving enough to stimulate the imagination while leaving something to the imagination. The music is about the only part of it that doesn't stand the test of time--I don't foresee the crooning warble of the songs making a retro comeback anytime soon.
The story takes place in Toyland, which is populated not by toys but rather by nursery rhyme characters, toys apparently being their primary economic export. Though Santa makes an appearance, the story takes place in July and revolves around Little Bo Peep, whose old mother is about to default on the mortage of the shoe they live in. Barnaby, the evil mortage holder, offers to forgive the debt if she marries him. But she's really in love with Tom-Tom Piper.
Most disturbing moment from a different era involves Piper putting Bo Peep in stocks until she agrees to marry him. Apparently the big problem with Barnaby is not that he's forcing her into marriage, but rather it has something to do with him being old and mean instead of a young crooner. Finding herself thus trapped, she melts with an adoring "he only hurts me cuz he loves me" look in her eyes.
This movie is not to be confused with Babes in Toyland (1986) starring a very young Drew Barrymore and a pre-Bill-and-Ted Keanu Reeves. We recorded this made-for-TV movie when I was a kid, and all I remember is getting irritated when my sister wanted to watch it. I took some peeks at it this week, and it really is terrible. Awful. Poorly written, badly acted, boring sets. Keanu plays Keanu, there's no point in trying to see it just to see what he was like when he was younger--he was Keanu. Seeing him lip synch to songs sung by someone who can sing was worth half a chuckle, but not the price of attention. I couldn't stomach more than the first twenty minutes and then maybe five minutes of skipping around.
But the Laurel and Hardy version was actually worth a watch.
24. Die Hard (1988)
Reviewed on 11/29/2010
Okay, so, I was wrong. At least two movies on this list got tits in 'em.
I'd never seen any of the Die Hard movies before, so I feel a little bit more cultured now. Terrorist violence ain't usually a genre I get into, and I was cringing a little throughout for reasons associated with that. Bruce Willis made it fun the way Bruce Willis does, but I'll take Fifth Element or Hudson Hawk when I need a fix. It was good to see the movie that started it all, defining Willis' abused good-hearted action hero personality (and Reginald VelJohnson's donut cop personality) that built a career. Alan Rickman's role wasn't as career defining, but holy cow he used to be svelte. Observing this to a friend, they quipped, "Yeah, that was back in his Death Eater days." And Best Plummet Ever.
I get why this is considered a Christmas movie. It's a fair label. But I can't personally call it a Christmas movie--it's only set on Christmas, not about Christmas. Not a distinction I often need to make, but the holiday really was incidental to what made the movie entertaining.
I might get around to seeing the rest of the franchise at some point, but I don't think I'm a big enough fan to include this in future Christmas movie marathons. I'd let real fans slip it in there, though, especially any loved ones who are already indulging me in my Christmas movie marathon.
23. Gremlins (1984)
Reviewed on 11/29/2010
Hadn't seen this since I was young, didn't remember much. I was more a fan of the sequel back in the day, and I remember being underwhelmed by the original; I figured it was because the original was scarier and less kid-accessible.
But other than the puppetry--which was superb--I was surprised that this is actually just a bad movie, with unsympathetic characters and fairly random motivations. I knew something was up the moment the 3 big rules were delivered via tacked-on voiceover during the opening credits, and it just got worse from there. IMDB has a huge list of goofs and continuity errors for this thing, but the other particular big stick in my craw involved Billy not even mentioning the dead biology teacher when he encounters the skeptical police officers. For all the people dying, there was no suspense, in part cuz none of the characters were emotionally processing the deaths at all. I'm fine with a shallow plotline just for tieing together scenes of cool Gremlin puppets, but this plot was so bad that it would have been better with just the puppet scenes and NO plot.
Without going back to rewatch it, if I recall correctly, Chris Columbus found a better balance in the sequel, focusing more on the comedy of the cool puppets and not even bothering to try and be scary.
In contrast to Die Hard, I'd say this had enough Christmas to be considered a Christmas movie. But eighties nostalgia aside, it's just not a very good movie.
22. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town (1970)
Reviewed on 11/30/2010
A Rankin/Bass followup to their classic version of Rudolph, it's still a pretty early work in the Rankin/Bass holiday special library. But it's not really all that much of a stand-out, as far as kids Christmas specials go.
This was going right for "Life of Claus" mythmaking, so I was kind of excited about it, but it ended up not doing it for me. It very explicitly strives to explain the origins of all Santa-related tidbits, with narrating children chiming in throughout to say "That's why he goes down a chimney/wears a red suit/gets letters/etc." Every element of the story is geared towards such explanations, to the point that, once they run out of things to explain, they just sort of drop the major plotline with a mention that the contrived bad guy ("Burgermeister Meisterburger") eventually died. Some of the origin anecdotes are cute, some are corny or stupid, but the real failure that sums up the rest is that CHRISTMAS ITSELF is tacked onto the end--after many adventures as a year-round giver of toys, Santa gets old and has to cut back his deliveries to once a year, and so he just sorta picks Christmas. For Jesus, I guess.
The songs weren't really memorable, and they seemed to skimp on the animation during them, with lots of still shots and at one point a 2D-animated retro acid trip background in lieu of a set. Not the best Rankin/Bass out there.
One thing they could have done to please me was keep better continuity with the Rudolph special. There's enough in there to evoke a connection to Rudolph, but it's different enough to leave a disjointed feeling. I wouldn't complain that much about continuity in kid shows, but this bugged me even when I was a kid. Strong continuity with Rudolph would've made up for a lot of the mediocrity here, I think, letting it build on Rudolph instead of paling in comparison. For all that this one tried to be definitive Christmas mythology, it's Rudolph that became definitive.
Anyway, not worth going out of your way for this.
21. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Reviewed on 12/01/2010
Ah, here we go. If you hadn't yet noticed, this one is the silver-and-gold standard by which I judge all others. I'm surprised it ranked this low, though the Christmas specials seemed to rank low because they ambiguously qualify as movies. Still, I'd put this in the top five, maybe even number one. Watching it today felt almost a bit premature; this is the show to watch the night before Christmas, to set the mood just right.
Pretty much every song in this is a classic, and the songs are the highlight of the special. The story contains some odd elements, but they all tie back to Christmas and fit in nicely with the Santa myth. And this time around, the "misfit" theme really stood out for me--there's a genuineness to the lessons here that's very much lacking in other Christmas moralizing.
Full disclosure--in kindergarten I played the jack-in-the-box during an all-school version of this. It was heavily redacted (down to pretty much just the music) but that surely played a large part in this being burned into the deepest levels of my Christmas soul. But I'm pretty sure I'd consider this Christmas gospel anyway. It's the classic classic.
20. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Reviewed on 12/04/2010
No words I write could do justice to this classic. Rudolph might be Christmas canon, but this here's Christmas scripture. Not every anti-commercialism message is as insincere as Santa Claus: The Movie, but most can't help but seem somewhat tainted when set next to this. Not a sign of hypocrisy as far as the eye can see.
Unless, of course, Charles Schulz had secret piles of stock in tree farms and this was his way of absolutely killing the aluminum tree industry, in which case he was deviously successful.
I can sympathize with the concerns of some religious people that we have forgotten the "reason for the season," but only so long as their anger is no greater than the Peanuts' frequent sighs of "good grief." Throughout the special, each kid takes their turn letting the quirks and imperfections of their peers roll off them with a mutter of that phrase, before they all come together for a moment of pure Christmas spirit. So this year, when your family members inevitably do something that chafes, try to let it pass through you with a sigh of "good grief."
And remember, it's not a bad little tree. It just needs a little love.
19. The Grinch (2000)
Reviewed on 12/07/2010
...or, "How The Mask Stole Christmas." Jim Carrey does an excellent job with the visual portrayal of the title character; he hits the cartoon expressions dead on. But everything that isn't just a transcription of the cartoon is Jim Carrey's usual bad puns and sight gags, and the net effect is to make the Grinch less grinchy.
The Whos were also less Who-ey. Again, visually they're spot-on, exactly what a live action version of the cartoon should look like. But personally, they're not very likeable. In the course of padding things out to feature length, the screenwriters gave the various Whos a variety of personality flaws, presumably to give their characters something to resolve during the big Who ending. But it ends up ruining the ending. Having woken to a stolen Christmas, the classic cartoon Whos shrugged it off with a smile and a song, because true Christmas hadn't been (and couldn't be) touched. In this version, though, they awake with all the boo-hoos that the Grinch expects, and are only persuaded to chin up a bit when little Cindy Lou Who gives a nonrhyming speech explaining the moral of the story. Even then, they are more chastened than cheerful; they only really get their joy back once they get their presents back.
I could go on, but making a very long list of things I disliked about this movie does not seem like a Christmas sort of thing to do. I need to forgive and move on. But I will say, I really wish one third of the lists I surveyed hadn't included this in the top ten. It's baffling to me. I hope I never watch this again.
18. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Reviewed on 12/07/2010
Continuing with the unnecessary remakes, we have this.
I don't know how I never noticed this before, but Richard Attenborough is the real Santa Claus. This much, I'll readily believe. It seems obvious in hindsight. But he deserved a better movie than this for revealing his true identity to the world.
At first I was excited. They borrow a lot stylistically from the original, with long-form opening credits and cinematography that left me wondering for the first ten minutes if I wasn't accidentally watching a colorized version of the original. But it turns out the old clothing is just anachronistic--it's set present day. The old-school cinematography techniques are dropped abruptly, then used inconsistently thereafter. And once I realized that Macy's didn't allow their name to be used in this one, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride.
I don't remember much of the original, but from what I can tell they basically took the original and added a subtext explicit frequently reiterated equivalence between believing in God and believing in Santa Claus.
In the original (spoiler warning?) they prove Kris can think he's Santa without being insane when the post office jokingly decides to give him all the letters to Santa they got. The judge passes the buck to the post office, riding on Kris' official acknowledgement by government officials, and thus the government is able to wiggle out of it with the same sort of wink and nudge that parents use to evade Santa-related questions.
In this one, the post office subplot is gone entirely, replaced with the judge pointing out that our money says "In God We Trust," and saying that if the treasury can believe in God, then this guy can believe he's Santa. No wink. No nudge.
Even if I accept that line of reasoning, all they show is that belief in Santa is not legally insane. Unlike the original, there's really nothing to say this guy in particular is Santa, they just kinda gloss over that.
And if we're gonna be as deathly serious about it as we are about God, then I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with the government establishing a particlar person as Santa. Without the wink and nudge, I think I'm on the side of a separation between Claus and State.
As I wondered how this remake got such a high score, I noticed a few people on the web mention that they saw this a bunch in school, and didn't see (and come to love) the original until later. I can see this being shown a lot in school; the original is dated enough that it probably isn't accessible for kids, and teachers are just looking to fill the time. But still, if I heard my kids were gonna watch this in school, I might ask that they be excused that period for religious reasons.
So yeah, I'm generally a fan of things that talk about the importance of faith and God and all that, but this one lost me. Stick to the original.
17. Love Actually (2003)
Reviewed on 12/08/2010
Ok, make that three movies on my list with tits in 'em. More tits than the first two combined, actually. And it's the second movie on my list with both tits and Alan Rickman; I'm not sure if that means anything.
This is one of those ensamble movies with multiple plotlines--a half a dozen or so short films about love, chopped up, shuffled and glued back together by a few incidental relationships that ensure everyone's within a documented number of degrees from everyone else. It's kind of a stretch in this case, just because one of those characters is the Prime Minister.
And oh yeah, this is very British. It features a wide spread of actors from Harry Potter. It also has Hugh Grant, whose two dimensions of talent are much more palatable with only twenty minutes or so of screen time.
Unlike many multi-threaded relationship movies, this one lacked a token gay couple, which I found disappointing. But I did appreciate the fraternal relationship between Bill Nighy's rock star character and his manager. All of the vignettes were interesting and carried substance. Love is easy to get cliche about, and they avoided that as well as anyone could.
Like Die Hard, this was set on Christmas without really being about Christmas. Also like Die Hard, watching this may appease a loved one who is otherwise antsy about your Christmas movie marathon. But it's probably this or Die Hard; I don't think there's much of an overlap between target audiences here.
I'm not personally a fan of hetero romance movies, any moreso than I'm a fan of terrorist violence movies. But I'm glad I saw this one. I'm not itching to see it again, but it was a good movie.
16. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Reviewed on 12/15/2010
This is a Halloween movie, about Halloween beating up Christmas. I don't just mean, as I did with Die Hard or Love Actually, that it is about something else and only peripherally involves Christmas. Christmas is really quite inextricable from the plot here. Rather, I mean that it put me in the Halloween spirit, which is fun in its own right, but diametrically opposed to the Christmas spirit. In fact, if this movie has any moral at all, it's just that--Halloween and Christmas don't mix.
As far as Halloween spirit goes, nobody does it like Tim Burton, and I'd highly recommend giving this one a watch in the latter part of October. This is some of the finest stop-motion animation I've ever seen, visually delightful, creepy yet fun. The dialogue is somewhat flat throughout, but it's there pretty much to give the animators something to animate, and that's fine. Every frame is worth a thousand words.
I really can't stand the music though. Music AND lyrics by Danny Elfman, who fills the movie up with repetative phrasing, tormenting rhythms and entire verses that seem to exist solely because he thought of a few words that rhyme. It sounded to me like it was written by someone intentionally mocking musicals, doing their best to show you just how stupid, cliche and grating musicals sound to them. I got over it enough to enjoy the rest of the movie, but only barely.
I'm thinking that Tim Burton did Christmas better in Edward Scissorhands. I'm really hoping to watch that again soon, but sad to say, it's not on the internet-tallied list I'm using for this marathon. I haven't seen it in over a decade, though, so I can only tentatively recommend it as a better alternative if you want some Tim Burton in your own Christmas countdown.
15. Holiday Inn (1942)
Reviewed on 12/21/2010
More Bing Crosby, and most assuredly not the last of him on this list. At least one Bing Crosby movie probably belongs on any Christmas movie list, but I wouldn't make it this movie.
This is another one that kind of walks the edge of what constitutes a Christmas movie. It's technically a movie about holidays more generally, taking place at an inn that's only open on holidays. Even that premise is mostly just an excuse for Irving Berlin to write one song per holiday to be performed by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and whatever woman they have on hand. It does include the song "White Christmas" twelve years before the movie of that name (loosely based off this one, from what I understand.) It starts on Christmas and New Year's Eve and ends on Christmas, but in the middle there's a lot that isn't Christmas: Lincoln's Birthday, Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday, Easter, Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
It's an interesting premise, but I'd like to know if those are really the top eight iconic holidays that would come to mind for a person in 1942. I suppose it might have something to do with intense wartime patriotism-- there's a bomb-making montage during the Independence Day song, after all. But throwing two presidents' days in there still seems like it's stretching.
Speaking of which, if you're going to spend any of your own attention on this movie, be sure to see the unedited version with the racially offensive and extremely unintentionally ironic blackface number they do for Lincoln's Birthday. Because I don't think this movie should get to wipe that off.
14. The Polar Express (2004)
Reviewed on 12/22/2010
I almost didn't watch this. I saw it a few years ago, and I remember hating it. I remembered too much Tom Hanks, disturbing not-quite-human computer animated characters from uncanny valley, and a bunch of contrived plots meant (like with The Grinch) to lengthen what would best remain short. But in the spirit of Christmas, I decided to give it another shot. And I'm glad I did, because this time (with qualifiers) I liked it.
The most important qualifier is that I'm the sort who can stare at computer animation for hours. I buy video games, not for the games, but just to wander around in visually stunning rendered worlds. I watch collections of Final Fantasy cutscenes like they were feature films. And as far as the computer animation goes, this movie runs with the best of them. Yeah, over half the subplots seem to be there just to turn the train into a rollercoaster ride, but check out what an awesome ride it is (all the better for those who caught this in Imax 3D.) If you can stop trying to make sense of how the characters end up crawling through the back tunnels of the North Pole, you might notice that those tunnels would make for breathtaking levels in some kind of Santa-themed RPG. And I guess I've just gotten used to the computer characters, because they didn't bother me this time; they seem to stand up to the quality of what's come along since.
The other realization that opened me up to this film is a lot more subtle. I think part of the reason I wasn't enjoying the movie was that I was watching it like it's a straight classic meaning-of-Christmas tale, with all the heartwarming that Tom Hanks implies. From that perspective, a lot of the excuse-for-rollercoaster tension just sort of gets in the way and makes me long for the simplicity of the children's book. This movie fails to be a magical Christmas dream.
But it's actually sort of a decent magical Christmas nightmare. The feelings welling up in me were more akin to what I might feel watching Terry Gilliam's films. I thought of the gutwrenching runaway boat scene from Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. I began to appreciate this movie as a bad dream the main character was having, one that he wants to wake from but can't, his inner turmoil leaking out in spurts of Santa symbolism mixed with a bit of steampunk until he makes enough sense of it to satisfy his soul (but not his intellect.)
I don't know if that was Robert Zemeckis' intention; I'd still guess it's probably by accident. But I think, if this movie had Tim Burton's name attached and Tom Hanks' name hidden, I would have liked it more at first-- even if the film itself was exactly the same-- just because my attitude going in would be different. If it were meant to be dark, disturbing and somewhat morally ambiguous, I'd say it did a good job of it.
I wouldn't expect everyone to like this movie. I can easily respect the opinions of those who hate this movie. But this time around, I found a way to enjoy it, enough so that I just might watch it again someday. And that makes me as surprised a skeptical kid hearing the jingle of Santa's sleigh bells.
13. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Reviewed on 12/22/2010
For me, this is up there with Rudolph and Charlie Brown as definitive Christmas (one after another three years in a row-- I'd say folks in the mid-sixties really knew what Christmas is about.) I hope new generations are being brought up with this one in regular rotation, and I weep for our future if they're not.
It's Dr. Suess. It's Chuck Jones. It's Boris Karloff. There's some serious talent packed into twenty five minutes, and they work together wonderfully. The story is as simple as they come, and distills all the world's Christmas moralizing down to its purest essence. The songs stand on their own as classics. You don't need me to tell you to love it.
12. Scrooged (1988)
Reviewed on 12/22/2010
This movie was as great as I remembered, genuinely funny, scary and touching. They don't just recast "A Christmas Carol" in a modern setting; each character has enough of their own personality to tell the story anew, and the ghosts (particularly Carol Kane's Christmas Present) find their own schticks instead of running with Dickens' archetypes.
Where "modernization" could have easily left this one feeling very dated twenty-two years later, I thought the story of Bill Murray's television executive scrooge fit today's world just fine. That is to say, this movie managed to capture a timelessness of its own.
It's not exactly kids fare (PG-13 rating) but I suspect this would otherwise be fun for the whole family near Christmas. Without reservation, I'd say this belongs on the list of top Christmas movies ever.
11. Home Alone (1990)
Reviewed on 12/23/2010
I was certainly dreading this one. I was hoping that seeing it again years later, I might find something to redeem it from the crust of bad associations built up by overexposure and too many sequels.
But no, it earned every ounce of the disdain that surrounds it. I can't call it a bad movie from a technical standpoint--it was well constructed. It's more that I loathe the substance of it. None of the characters are very likeable. Macaulay Culkin's character is a little asshole, and he's only remotely sympathetic because his family are bigger assholes. The rube goldberg traps he lays are novel, but their violence skirts too much of a line between cartoon and gore. There wasn't really anything enjoyable about watching this at all.
I do vaugely recall liking it for a bit when it first came out. This may be because I was a preteen, or because it was entertaining until it became cliche. But it might also have been the culture of America at the start of the nineties. For some reason, though the McCallister family is plenty obnoxious in their own right, this time I found myself distracted by how far they are from the war and recession of the new millennium. Back then, I'm pretty sure I considered them passably middle class; now, I saw them as rich. This time I felt like I was watching something that spoiled kids would enjoy, so maybe I was just a spoiled kid back in the day.
Anyway, sorry I wasted my time on it now. Box office totals and cultural saturation might make it somewhat objectively a "Christmas classic," but I'll kick it off the list just because I never want to see it again.
10. The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Reviewed on 12/24/2010
I had never even heard of this before, but I really enjoyed it. Cary Grant plays a Christmas angel who saves the bishop by wooing his wife. After all the archetypes I've been wading through during this marathon, this offered up a refreshingly original story.
The angel, known only as Dudley, manages to be an indisputable saint while also slacking like the truest subgenius. It's fairly common to see angels portrayed as flawed or naughty in order to make them more relateable, to contrast the noble virtures of roughnecks with the hypocrisy of stuffy religious leaders. It's an effective trope, but there's really none of that here. Instead, Dudley manages to embody the holiness of an enjoyable life and sincere love without making it tawdry. He's something of a trickster, but the kind that ultimately leaves folks appreciating his tricks, even if it takes them awhile to get the point. He quotes scripture throughout, and makes me wish there were more people in this world quoting scripture the way he does. For all I know, this movie was considered outright blasphemy when it was made, but now I'd point to it as a shining reminder of what I long thought Christianity was really about.
I won't try to summarize the Christmas moral here, but I'll say it's not quite like your standard fare. This movie comes at the usual holiday tensions from its own unique angle, and so the feeling of joy it left me with was new, even as it fit perfectly with more common Christmas tidings.
Despite its ranking, I didn't expect this one to stand out so much, but the ranking really is deserved. I now assume I never heard of it mostly because it is in no way a kids movie--not that kids shouldn't watch it, just that they'll probably be bored to death. But it's worthy enough that I hope grownups don't forget about it.
9. The Santa Clause (1994)
Reviewed on 12/27/2010
I went into this still hesitant about sequel-laden Christmas franchises after Home Alone, but I ended up delighted. Tim Allen plays a father who is thrust into being the real Santa Claus after the old real Santa Claus falls off his roof.
It's been awhile since I'd seen any Tim Allen. I was worried he might fall into the large category of sitcom comedians who I thought were funny before I hit puberty. If anything, though, I enjoyed his screen presence even more now that I've had a taste of being grown up. In this movie, at least, he bore the casual humor of a friend who just happens to be funny-- not slapstick, not ironic, not crude, not clowish, just pleasantly witty.
I'm hesitant to say this after my words against the sloppy equation of Santa and God in the remake of 34th Street, but I enjoyed this a bunch from the "skeptics get their comeuppance" angle. Particularly when they hit the line, "Seeing isn't believing. Believing is seeing." I wrote one of my favorite sermons on that theme.
From the buildup during which Allen's character is in denial about his new role (despite the material proof of his new belly & beard) through the frustrating circumstance created by well-meaning skeptics, the tensions being portrayed resonated well with faith journeys of many different stripes.
Like many movies about belief and skepticism, this one contains several moments in which a skeptic is given material evidence of magic. I often cringe at such moments for undermining the theme of belief. But for the most part, here, all of those moments come after the seed of belief has already sprouted, simply sealing the deal. The visions of sugarplums are the fruit of belief in sugarplums, rather than the cause. Which is good, since that's how belief and magic actually work.
As far as Santa mythology (Clausology?) goes, this movie does a much more satisfying job of tackling the questions mishandled by Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, giving straightforward and dang-near believable answers to the usual headscratchers about chimney mechanics and reindeer flight. And though the North Pole is portrayed as a fairly modern place, none of it feels overdone or deliberately sci-fi. It's simply up-to-date, and it fits comfortably in my imagination.
I'll probably give the sequels a whirl at some point, with my expectations appropriately lowered. The original The Santa Clause, at least, deserves its place in the Christmas canon.
8. Elf (2003)
Reviewed on 12/28/2010
Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human orphan raised by Christmas elves who makes his way back to New York City to meet his biological father.
I really wanted to hate this movie as much as I hate Will Ferrell, but there's a whole lot conspiring to make it entertaining despite his presence. Bob Newhart warms the screen as the narrator and Buddy's elfin adoptive father. Ed Asner portrays Santa with a practical mind and just the right level of weariness from his thinning supply of believers. Zooey Deschanel is beautiful and awesome and I wish she were in more shows. And the last twenty minutes of the movie tells a wonderful story about Christmas faith that deserves its place on this list.
But before that, there's an hour of Will Ferrell to endure. I tried to keep an open mind, but I couldn't get the humor to work for me. It was exactly the kind of slapstick, crude, clownish humor that I was contrasting against the more genial humor of The Santa Clause. The "elf in the city" setup was certainly ripe with comedic potential, but Ferrell's portrayal is mostly indistinguishable from any given man-child with severe ADHD and a long list of other mental disorders. Very few of his antics actually seemed justifiable by the premise of the movie. Santa and the other elves don't act the way he does, and when they describe Buddy as "special" they don't just mean he's not an elf. I guess arbitrary social ineptitude can be funny to some people, but this otherwise excellent movie deserved jokes rooted in its unique premise. Instead, the premise felt wasted on these jokes.
I hadn't really seen this before, but it was on in the background a couple years ago as my family sat around digesting Christmas dinner, and that was probably the best context for watching it. You can catch a glimpse or two of something genuinely amusing, and then talk to your aunt about cookie recipies during the wide swaths that fail.
7. A Christmas Carol (1951)
Reviewed on 11/11/2011
I picked up where I left off last year with the 1951 black-and-white classic "A Christmas Carol," otherwise known as "Scrooge."
I would guess that Dickens' classic is one of the most retold stories in existence. Seems like every television show and ensamble cast franchise has taken a crack at it at some point. But before it became the basic template for everyone's Christmas special, way back in the day, someone had to do a straight-up movie version of the story as Dickens told it.
And this movie really is Dickensian. At its worst, that means a bunch of golden age actors rattling off outdated english prose in unintelligible mouthfulls, making it slow to watch despite its short running time. But at its best, this movie brings close attention to the social injustices and business greed that so much of Dickens' work cries out against. Through years of adaptation, the edges of the story have been rounded down, such that Scrooge is often a stand-in for a very generic kind of asshole. But here we have a very pointed portrayal of a rich businessman who has much wealth to give, but little desire to give it.
One scene in particular stood out to me as powerful and underutilized by future adaptations. At the end of Marley's visit, Marley takes Scrooge to the window and shows him dozens of spirits wailing around a poor mother and child. When asked why the spirits lament, Marley says, "They seek to interfere for good in human matters, and have lost their power forever." So often the emphasis in Scrooge's conversion is on how alone and ill-remembered he'll be when he dies. In this moment, though, we see that perhaps the greatest tragedy of his selfishness would be for him to want to help, and no longer be able to. This moment really sharpens the scene toward the end, when Scrooge hovers over his future grave, worried that it's already too late to repent.
It also stood out to me how the whole scene with Marley was played to be frightening. Where so many later versions assume we're already in on the joke and simply leave us to watch Scrooge's fear from an emotional (perhaps even vindictive) distance, this film clearly made an attempt to actually be scary. Marley puts enough face-wrenching into his performance that I could believe he's a soul suffering in hell, not merely a cautionary spirit. Unfortunately, though, the movie was really too old and its tropes too outdated to make me sincerely afraid.
And that was the case for most of this movie--the director's intentions were clear and meaningful, the actors did a commendable enough job, but the theatrical techniques have been surpassed many times over in the past sixty years. Christmas is the time of year I can be most forgiving of old-fashioned movies, and indeed there's a calming nostalgia to them that emphasizes their Christmas spirit. In that regard, this was a nice way to ease into the marathon this year (as The Bells of St Mary's provided a good starting point last year.) And I don't mean to knock older movies; there were a few movies I watched last year that were made even earlier than this one, yet stood the test of time better. But this one is maybe just a bit too classic for its own good. Given all the delivery mechanisms out there for the story of Scrooge, I think I'd probably leave this one to gather dust on the shelf.
6. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1991)
Reviewed on 11/30/2011
I didn't laugh.
Ok, maybe I can say a bit more that that, though it's literally true--I smiled maybe twice, but no laughter, and that pretty much sums it up. Mostly this movie reminded me what a desolate emotional wasteland the late eighties were, a time when familial love was more like a momentary lack of familial hate and it wasn't funny unless somebody was getting hurt.
The only good thing I can mention is the lineup of actors playing the elder generation of Griswolds. I would have loved to see them together in a different movie--John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, William Hickey and Mae Questel each brought outstanding personality to the screen, even during the last years of their careers (Ladd and Roberts are still ticking, but the others are now dead.) It was briefly enjoyable seeing Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki when they were kids, though their characters weren't particularly likeable or noteworthy.
The cast was wasted here. All of the "jokes" were cartoonish physical disasters, set up so that you could see them coming from a mile away. "Oh no, the lights didn't work! Oh no, the tree caught on fire! Oh no, the sled went too fast!" The violent physical humor and holiday lack-of-hate would be done better a few years later with Home Alone (if you insist on finding that sort of thing entertaining at all.) And there's a movie I'll be watching soon that, if I recall correctly, portrays Christmas family strife with enough sincerity to induce a form of pleasant nostalgia. I think that's what they were going for here, but they just didn't cut it.
And I didn't laugh. Some consider that a fatal flaw for a comedy.
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Reviewed on 12/06/2011
This is the Muppets at their most technically proficient. From the first camera sweep through beautiful nineteenth century London set through crowds of Muppet Londoners, I not only forget about the people behind the scenes, but when I do remember they're there, I find it difficult to believe. This is the height of an artistic form, showing just how much movie magic can be accomplished with only models, puppets and minimal chroma keying.
All of the Muppet headliners are here, with Kermit as Bob Cratchitt, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchitt and Gonzo the Great narrating as Charles Dickens. Most every Muppet ever created gets at least a cameo, but some of the larger names have to step into smaller roles to make room for original Mupppet creations for the Ghosts of Christmas, a choice that works out well for this production. The ethereal Christmas Past calls to mind the best of Henson's stranger work, while the jolly Christmas Present works perfectly as a more traditional man-sized Muppet.
Technical excellence aside, I thought most of the jokes were bland and inoffensive. It wasn't as stiltingly unfunny as the last movie I watched, it's just that "The Muppets" currently in theaters reminded me how much these guys can leave me laughing and smiling. The humor here was mostly "wakka wakka" calibur, but at least with Statler & Waldorf's self-awareness of that fact. Excellent music did a lot to make up for the weak humor. "It Feels Like Christmas" has become one of my favorite Christmas songs.
I mentioned in my review of A Christmas Carol that the edges of the story have been rounded down through the years, and that might be the case here. There's no sense of the deep-seated social injustices of Dickens' London, and Michael Caine as Scrooge is less of a cold-hearted miser and more just an angry selfish jerk, though he plays the role well. The script is otherwise very faithful to the original story, with Gonzo quoting extensively from the book itself. As an introductory course in Dickens for your kids, this movie hits all the important points and lessons with sincere conviction.
This one became a Christmas classic when I wasn't looking. It came out when I was in my early teens, the first Muppet movie after the death of Jim Henson, and I think I dismissed it at the time as Disney's attempt to cash in on the newly acquired Muppet franchise and a classic Christmas tale. But setting aside my previoulsy cultivated cynicism, I have to admit that plenty of Christmas classics are rooted in the entertainment industry's attempt to make a buck. This movie is still delightful twenty years later; it's earned its rank on this list.
4. White Christmas (1954)
Reviewed on 12/10/2011
This one didn't do much for me, much to my surprise.
I expected it to be more of a Christmas movie than Holiday Inn turned out to be, but it was pretty much the same. Like a few other movies on this list, this one was set on Christmas but not really about Christmas. Other than the titular song at the beginning and end of the movie, none of the other songs were about Christmas, let alone recognizable holiday favorites. And having heard a bit more Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby at this point, I'm not sure I'm generally much of a fan, regardless of how much I love this one particular big hit.
This movie was also just as sexist as Holiday Inn, and I just can't relate at all to the relationship dynamics at play between these mid-century men and women. And while I figured this one would at least be less racist, given Holiday Inn's actual blackface number, they still had a big song and dance number about how much they miss minstrel shows. I'm pretty sure that's technically the least less-racist-than-a-blackface-number a movie can get. It was a different time.
I don't mean to bash people who get something from this movie. There's probably a list of good reasons it should count as an all-time classic. I just think, at any given point in the future, there will most certainly be some other Christmas movie I'd rather watch.
3. A Christmas Story (1983)
Reviewed on 12/24/2011
This seems to be a turning point in Christmas movies, when the sincerity of Christmas movies past first touched the dysfunctional family themes that would pervade Christmas movies yet to come, and for a brief moment, they got the balance just right. It's honest without being cynical, and campy at times without losing its firm footing in reality.
Christmas is about presents, and the light plot of this movie is about a nine year old boy's quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun on Christmas day, despite the insistence of every adult that "you'll shoot your eye out." This is mostly a thin thread to hold together several comedic slice-of-life vinettes that will surely provoke nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the midwest. Taken as a whole, it's a movie that reminds us that Christmas is really about family, without ever having to belabor that message explicitly.
This movie deserves its high ranking, but one of my only problems with it is overexposure. There's a cable station that plays it on repeat Christmas day, and it inevitably ends up on in the background at my family's house. This was the first time in many years that I watched it start-to-finish, but I nonetheless nearly have it memorized. It's like a good episode of a sitcom that gets played to death in syndication. I'll not knock it, but I've also kind of seen it enough.
Despite that, though, watching it on Christmas Eve this year set the mood just right. Merry Christmas everybody!
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Reviewed on 01/01/2012
It's already after Christmas, and I'm pretty worn out from the holidays. This is an older movie that I'd seen a few times before, and I've still got a bad taste in my mouth from watching the remake last year. So when I sat down to watch it tonight, I was just looking to get this movie marathon over with. Instead I was reminded what a delightful movie this is, and why it's lasted as a classic for sixty-five years.
What really stood out to me this time around was the way it treated the commercialism of Christmas. Where other movies portray commercialism as the nemesis of real Christmas spirit, here the lesson was that real Christmas spirit is the best advertising campaign you can find. It portrays a mutually beneficial partnership between good will and good money that seems to summarize everything that America wants Christmas to be.
I love the way most of the characters in this movie all have their ulterior motives for the part they play in proving that Kris is Santa Claus--Macy wants to make money, the judge wants to get reelected, the mailmen want to clean out storage, and the prosecutor just wants to save face in front of his son. None of them really believe. It's the kind of thing we would normally point to when we want to prove that faith is just the dishonest taking advantage of the gullible. But when the result is that everyone gets what they want and everyone is happy, the faithful are the ones getting the last laugh. In this film, the ulterior motives didn't sully the sincere believers so much as the sincere believers uplifted everyone around them. As a person of faith, that's the way I hope it always works.
I previously thought the remake might have been justified by the age of this movie, but that was bunk. This was fast paced and witty, and it didn't feel at all removed from today's culture. Definitely one of the best, with no sign that it will be losing its charm anytime soon.
1. It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
Reviewed on 01/02/2012
I'd never, ever seen this. I loved it.
I was dubious going in, suspicious that no better Christmas movie has been made in two generations, prepared to discover that this one held the top spot because of cultural momentum. I also felt like I had already seen it, given how often it's been referenced in other works, and so I didn't expect to get much new from it. But none of those references do it justice, and in retrospect, there was nothing that could have substituted for seeing it myself.
By about halfway through the movie, I was ready to concede that it was an excellent film, humorous and emotionally moving, but I thought it might still fall into the category of "set on Christmas but not about Christmas." By the end, though, I had to admit--despite its lack of reference to either Santa or Baby Jesus--that it was a Christmas movie through and through. The story of George Baily is about more than Christmas, sure, but that doesn't diminish how perfectly it captures the holiday spirit, and it's got plenty enough explicit Christmas spirit to go around.
I will say that I'm glad I first saw this as an adult. I'm not sure what I would have thought if I'd first seen it as a kid--I can't tell how accessible it would be to younger viewers. But I felt like this movie was aimed most squarely at the middle aged, right where I am now, old enough to have felt the pressures of money and business and young enough to be despairing about it for the first time. Any of my peers who haven't seen it since they were kids should watch it again for this reason.
This movie also resonated quite particularly with society's current economic woes, our problems with debt and inequality. Part of me was reminded how much worse things were for our grandparents. Part of me was sad to think that well-intentioned local companies such as Bailey's Building and Loan would have even less of a shot at success in today's world. But there's no doubt that this movie felt more relevant the new millennium than it was to the last decades of the old millennium that I grew up in. It feels like there's lessons in this movie that we all forgot about for awhile, but we might yet hope to remember.
And that concludes Jack's Christmas Movie Marathon. It took a little bit longer than I expected--it usually does--but I now feel well versed in the Christmas classics. As I put together my own ranking for these movies, I'm going to have to do a lot of thinking about where "It's A Wonderful Life" falls. I'm not quite sure if I'd give it the top spot (a lot depends on if I include the kids' specials from the sixties) but it's got a good shot. Now that I've done this, maybe I'll do a playoff round next year. But for now, a final Merry Christmas to you all, and remember, only forty-four more shopping days until Valentine's Day!