Jack's Christmas Movie Marathon 2012

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Last Update Dec 19, 2013

In 2010, I began a movie marathon of the top 30 Christmas movies according to google. That turned out to be too many Christmas movies to watch in one Christmas season, so I didn't finish working my way through that list until 2011. Some of those movies really were classics, and some of them were total duds that showed me the folly of relying on the taste of search result summaries. Either way, I compiled my reviews of those movies into the original Jack's Christmas Movie Marathon page.

Starting in 2012, I dove into the Christmas movies that I'd like to watch (or rewatch) that didn't make it onto the original list. I still use google searches to help find them, but I've exercised a bit more personal discretion, so that I can avoid the ones that I know are terrible. A few of them I'd seen before, and they're on the list because I wanted to see them again and share them with you. They're presented in the order I viewed them, which was based primarily on the whimsy of what I felt like watching on any given night. I made some attempt to save the best for last, but generally these aren't in order of quality.

This has now become an open-ended tradition for me, so if there's a movie I haven't reviewed yet that you want to recommend (or if you want to share your thoughts, or just say hello) please email me at revjack@prykop.com. You can also check out other things I've written if you'd like.

Enjoy, and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

The List

Titles in bold are ones that I particularly highly recommended.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Batman Returns
The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)
The Year Without A Santa Claus (2006)
Joyeux Noel
The Snowman
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Disney's A Christmas Carol
Make the Yuletide Gay
The Santa Clause 2
Arthur Christmas

The Reviews

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Reviewed on 11/30/2012

This movie came out right when I was starting my original marathon, and I've had many people recommend it to me over the past couple of years, so I was eager to start this year off with it. I'm happy to say, I think it lived up to the hype.

The premise is that excavators near the border of Finland uncover the icy prison of the original Santa Claus--not the jolly gift-giver of Coca-Cola legend, but rather the horrific germanic beast that was more inclined to thrash naughty children until there was nothing left of them but blood and bone. When the children in a small Finnish village start disappearing, it's up to one young boy to convince his father of the truth before it's too late.

Given that premise, I expected a holiday slasher film, but this isn't really anywhere near that genre. There's suspense and a few good scares, but I thought the atmosphere of the movie was dominated by the isolation and danger of the rugged arctic wilderness, and what the men of the movie must do to endure it. There's some gore to be seen, but the scares come mostly from the boy's description of the demonic Claus, while the monster itself remains mostly offscreen. The attention of the film is on the boy's relationship to his father and his own transition into adulthood. The evil Santa premise serves to keep the movie fast-paced and relatively lighthearted, even as it touches on emotionally heavy themes in a desolate setting.

If you're looking for an immediate injection of traditional Christmas spirit, this isn't anywhere near what you should be watching. But it's a really good movie, undeniably a tale about Christmas and well worth a watch during the holiday season.

Batman Returns (1992)

Reviewed on 11/30/2012

Though I surely saw this when it was originally released, I had very nearly forgotten it existed, let alone that it was set on Christmas. I'd forgotten that Tim Burton directed this first sequel to his original Batman movie, before Joel Schumacher made the series lame. I'd completely forgotten that Christopher Walken was in it. But this year it was showing up on a few different Christmas movie lists I perused, so with the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy still fresh in the air, I thought I'd give it a whirl.

It's very entertaining. I remember how much darker and grittier Burton's films made Batman seem at the time, but this movie still retained quite a bit of the campiness from the television show I was raised on. The car chases were extremely low speed, the gadgets made no attempt for realism and the fight scenes only barely avoided flashing "ka-POW" across the screen as henchmen lined up one at a time to be punched by our hero. Michael Keaton's Batman was relatively flat, but Batman is mostly just there to play the straight man while the villains steal the show.

It's by the villains that you judge a Batman movie. Danny Devito played a positively wicked Penguin; his deformed lecherous villain frothing black at the beak probably wouldn't have been out of place under Nolan's direction. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was strong, sexy and compelling, despite the writers' failure to give her a schtick beyond being a woman who decides to fight back (I guess that was still novel in the early nineties.) And Christopher Walken spends the movie simply making it more awesome by his presence, basically playing himself. Together, these three put on a damned fine Batman movie.

But...is it really a Christmas movie?

Well, it's got more Christmas in it than Edward Scissorhands or even The Nightmare Before Christmas, the other Burton titles vying for a place in Christmas canon. Much of the plot hinges on the mayor's attempts to light the city Christmas tree without being attacked by henchmen. Snow is a major feature of the outdoor scenes, and Christmas decorations pervade the indoor scenes. The Penguin's arctic lair filled with toys (including a giant rubber duck he rides around in) seems intentionally evocative of the North Pole. Danny Elfman's score has enough jingling bells and children's choirs to sound appropriately seasonal. And the very last line of the film is Bruce Wayne wishing Alfred a Merry Christmas. I think this could have accurately been titled "The Batman Christmas Movie" if that wouldn't have sounded lame.

The emphasis is still on the Batman, rather than the Christmas. It's not about Christmas, it's about Batman villains on Christmas. But there's more Christmas in this than in plenty of other movies frequently cited as Christmas classics. So while this wouldn't immediately spring to mind if you asked me about Christmas movies, it's probably got more than enough Christmas to qualify.

The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)

Reviewed on 12/01/2012

Man, what happened to Christmas during the 1970s? This is only the second flick from that decade out of thirty-three movies I've now watched, the other one being Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. Both are Rankin/Bass television specials, and other than them, I got nothing. It's as if Santa took that entire decade off.

In this show, though, Santa just tries to take one year off. He's tired and he's got a cold and dangit, kids just don't seem to believe in him anymore, and that's got him down. This prompts Mrs. Claus to sing a fun song about how she's always wanted to be Santa. She dresses up in his outfit and prepares to do his job for him, and I'm starting to think, hey, this could turn out to be a jolly romp down retro women's liberation lane. But as soon as the song is done, she drops the idea so abruptly that I can't help but be a little offended.

Instead, she conspires with a couple elves to go out into the world and prove to Santa that he's still wanted. This lands them in Southtown USA, where they strike a bargain with the mayor: if they can make it snow in Dixie, he'll throw a celebration in honor of Santa. Which means (obviously) that they've got to convince the feuding brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser to allow each into the other's territory for a day.

Setting aside the weird unintended implications about global climate change, the Misers are definitely what make this special memorable and worth watching at least once. They're not really miserly at all. They do a vaudeville bickering brothers routine with a catchy toe-tapping tune, until finally Mrs. Claus gets their mother involved--none other than Mother Nature--and the boys are compelled to strike a deal. Snow falls, and Santa is celebrated.

On top of that celebration, all the kids of the world conspire to get presents for Santa Claus. Once again looking past the parade of stereotypes used to represent the "children of the world," I thought this was a really heartwarming twist. So did Santa, I guess, because the children's generosity inspires him to get back on the job, and Christmas is saved.

All in all, I liked it. It manages the minimal cohesion necessary for a kid's special--something that the 1970 special failed at. The original songs pass muster, and it throws in a few classics like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Blue Christmas" just to cover the bases. And it seems unfair to compare it to the paragon of the Rankin/Bass collection--there can only be one Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It doesn't really capture the quintessence of Christmas the way the best specials do, but that's not really what it's aiming for. It's just a simple and enjoyable story about Santa, and by not trying to be more than that, it does alright.

The Year Without A Santa Claus (2006)

Reviewed on 12/02/2012

I was fully prepared, if necessary, to stop watching this one after five minutes. It wasn't on my initial list for this year, and my past experiences with remakes haven't been very good. But while I can't say this one was great, it did at least hold my attention for its full hour and a half, so I thought I shoud write it up.

This version is live-action, starring John Goodman, and really, he's perfect for the role of a worn-out Santa. Also, Harvey Fierstein as Heat Miser and Michael McKean as Snow Miser, performing the same catchy tune from the Rankin/Bass special, were excellently cast. Eddie Griffin and Ethan Suplee deliver humorous enough banter and keep things moving along as the elves sent out into the world to save Christmas. We also get Chris Kattan in a new subplot as Sparky, the corporate elf that's eyeing Santa's job, and most of his bits are pretty funny. These folks make this movie worth watching.

On the down side, Delta Burke makes for an uninteresting Mrs. Claus, failing to bring any real warmth to the character. Carol Kane should have been awesome as Mother Nature, but for some reason she's dressed in a shirt and tie under a trenchcoat, and there's nothing about her character that's particularly motherly or natural. There's also a cookie cutter after school special plot surrounding the mayor of Southtown's relationship with his son that ends up becoming the main storyline, overshadowing Santa's existential crisis. And then there's an unfortunate running gag involving the elves' reverence for the advice of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, calling controversy to mind where any number of more palatable talking heads would have sufficed for the joke.

One final quibble--Santa laughs a lot in this one. But he laughs "HA HA HA" rather than "HO HO HO." This could've been an artistic choice reflecting Santa's mood if he had picked up the proper laugh by the end, but he didn't, so it just made John Goodman look like he wasn't really in character. Luckily, this is a role he could get away with phoning in.

This was a decent broadcast network tv movie. It was very different from the original, but it didn't make me retch the way other remakes have, and it had me sincerely chuckling enough to make up for its deficiencies. I wouldn't say you should go out of your way to catch it, but if you're channel surfing and you run across it, you could give it a chance.

Joyeux Noel (2005)

Reviewed on 12/05/2012

Set in the trenches of World War I, this drama manages to be heartwarming, uplifting and a celebration of Christmas through and through. It tells the story of German, French and Scottish soldiers who hear one another caroling on Christmas Eve 1914, and end up crossing the line and "fraternizing."

I expected a movie about the effect of war on Christmas, but this is about what Christmas can do to war. Though the horror of war provides the backdrop for the story, this movie is about the peace the soldiers find that day. We are shown enough death and destruction to do justice to their terrible circumstances, but this film helps lift our spirits out of that quagmire, rather than asking us to dwell in it. Though it is far from lighthearted, it is pervaded with hope.

And this is undeniably a Christmas movie, not just in theme but in emblems. We get Christmas trees and well-known carols and reverential discussion of the birth of Christ aplenty. The setting imbues each of these symbols with sincere meaning, preventing any of it from seeming shallow, trite or pointless.

Most importantly, this is an excellent movie, well written, well acted, and deservedly award-winning. It's a bit too serious to watch casually to pass the time (with three languages spoken in roughly equal balance, you'll at some point have to follow subtitles.) But it's well worth a watch, and should certainly find a place in the canon of Christmas classics.

The Snowman (1982)

Reviewed on 12/06/2012

This is an animated version of the children's picture book illustrated by Raymond Briggs. Like the book, it is wordless. If you enjoy quality hand drawn animation set to an orchestral score, this might interest you.

I found the animated version moderately enchanting. I was bored during the first stretch, where the child shows his magic snowman around the house, getting into things in the kitchen while his parents sleep; this part seems squarely aimed at the pre-kindergarten crowd. It treads a bit more into ethereal beauty when the boy and his snowman go on a magical flight to meet Father Christmas.

Even though I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen this, I wouldn't dare suggest it isn't a classic. Basic internet research reveals it to be a pretty big deal to some people, particularly in Britain where it originated. It's quality enough to have been nominated for an Academny Award. I do remember the book being a staple of the children's section of the library when I was a very young child.

But it's just a touch too short to call it a Christmas movie, and a touch too artsy to get a pass for being an iconic kids' special. It's beautiful, but not compulsory viewing--it's not so much fun for the whole family as it is fun for toddlers, art majors and stoners.

Which is to say, it is exactly the sort of thing to link to from a blog. I mean it no disrespect, it's just that you'll be able to tell quick enough whether or not it's your bag. Youtube was made for this. Here's a link to a short excerpt of the hauntingly beautiful song at the center of the piece. And if you like that, here's a link to the full twenty-six minutes.

I enjoyed it. You might, too.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983)

Reviewed on 12/09/2012

There's a surprising dearth of the nativity story amongst the thirty seven Christmas movies I've now reviewed. The closest we've really gotten until now was Linus van Pelt's famous speech. This short made-for-tv movie has all the sincerity and good will I could hope for from a nativity pageant, showing us the reason for the season without getting preachy about it.

Loretta Swift (Maj. Houlihan from M*A*S*H) stars as the director of her church's Christmas pageant. When the delinquent, impoverished and socially outcast children of the Herdman family want to be in the pageant, the adults in the community do their polite-yet-gossipy best to let her know it's a bad idea. She perseveres, and proves them wrong.

It also stars a really, really young Fairuza Balk in her debut performance. She plays Swift's daughter, narrating to us through the fourth wall as the story progresses. As a general rule, I'll watch anything with her in it.

This movie benefits from being only forty-eight minutes long. It feels like a ninety minute movie that's been ruthlessly edited, leaving only the best jokes, the tenderest moments and the absolute essentials to keep the story moving along. This does mean it ends rather abruptly, with little character resolution, but I'll take that over the potential for dwelling in saccharine family movie tropes that this one deftly avoided.

Let's not let this movie fall through the cracks. The shepherds, angels, wise men and baby in the manger are due some spot in a Christmas movie lineup, and this one gets them there without stoking religious tensions. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever deserves a place amongst the best Christmas movies ever.

Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009)

Reviewed on 12/18/2012

(Not to be confused with the vastly superior Mickey's Christmas Carol)

The full title here, according to all those movie posters I saw a few years ago, is Jim Carrey in Disney's A Christmas Carol in IMAX 3-D. Directed by Robert Zemeckis! So I figured, this is gonna suck hard.

But first, the surprisingly good points. At the heart of this movie is a quality, faithful presentation of Dickens' classic, old english dialogue and all. There's nothing immediatly obviously "Disney" about this--it's firmly in the vein of the 1951 film. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes and others turn out some very British performances. And this movie remembers that it is first and foremost a proper ghost story--deliberately slow pacing and attention to detail help build up some honest chills as Marley's ghost approches, and at many points thereafter.

And to be clear, Jim Carrey isn't part of the problem here. His take on Scrooge is as classic as it gets, without any of the unwanted comedic flourishes of Carrey at his worst. I was surprised to discover Carrey also played the three Christmas ghosts, including maybe my favorite ever jovially belligerent Ghost of Christmas Present. He redeemed himself for past atrocities with his performances here.

On the whole, with such an excellent supporting cast, I thought we could've gotten an unimpeachable live-action Christmas Carol out of these actors. There was no reason to computer-animate over them.

Yet I wish Disney had been content to let the computer animation simply be unnecessary; instead they decided to add enough action to justify the technology. I had suspected, given the IMAX 3-D, that we'd get somewhat overdone shots of flying over London and whatnot, but they managed to push it to downright intolerable levels. This movie is riddled with fast-paced cartoonish action sequences that break the mood so completely that they feel stapled on. The Polar Express had a similar problem, but this was even worse. It's like someone took a nuanced work of art and scribbled all over it with neon marker. I wish we could just wipe it off to get at the well-executed subtle psychological drama underneath. A careful fan edit of this film could make it worth seeing over and over.

Ironically, had this movie been a bit more blatantly Disney and a bit less Masterpiece Theatre, the 3-D action sequences would've been a lot more tolerable, even entertaining. But as it stands, I think they were so out of place that it actually made the difference between instant Christmas classic and dustbin.

Make the Yuletide Gay (2009)

Reviewed on 12/22/2012

I love this movie, but I'm a bit nervous about recommending it to heterosexuals. Kind of like the main character, college student Olaf Gunnunderson, is nervous about coming out to his loving and lovable midwestern parents when he heads home for Christmas. This movie is pretty gay, and you never know how even seemingly liberal people are gonna react.

Of course, maybe I'm just defensive because I know that I'm forgiving a lot of flaws in this film for the same slightly prurient reasons heterosexuals forgive the flaws in their lame romantic comedies. This one has got its fair share of stilted dialogue and mediocre acting hinging on our more visceral interest in the story. If there are a few moments in this movie where the actors seem like they're kids reciting lines in a nativity pageant, it's because they're walking through a coming out pageant that all of us 'mos know by rote by now. As coming out stories go, this one is two-dimensional. I feel like I should apologize for that in advance.

But the reason why I keep coming back to this movie, and why I think you should see it, is Mama Gunnunderson's Christmas. The thousands of mini-lights in the yard, the full-sized decorated trees in every room (two in the living room) and the racks and racks of cookies in the kitchen all encapsulate the north-midwestern Christmas aesthetic exactly to my tastes. Mama G's holiday frenzy finds a mellow counterbalance in hunky bear Papa Gunnunderson, a laid back college professor with a fondness for the pipe weed and a tendency to walk around with his robe hanging open. Theirs is a house that anyone would be happy to come home to for Christmas.

It's understandable that Olaf would fear losing them, but then, there's no point in the movie where that ever really seems to be a risk. That said, his angsting does at least provide the minimal tension necessary for having any plot at all, giving us an excuse to watch an hour and a half of pleasant people enjoying Christmas as a family, which is what this movie is really about.

There are a lot of corny jokes in this one, the kind you can see coming, where you can even maybe see the actors wincing a little as they deliver them. But there's also a few real gems that'll leave you sincerely chuckling long after the movie is over. For a gay independant film, all of the humor is very sanitized, though there are still a few jokes in there that I wouldn't want to have to explain to my mother (or even worse, know she gets.)

So maybe, like Olaf, I'm being overly paranoid. Maybe there's no reason at all that heterosexuals wouldn't like this movie. If one of y'all get around to seeing it, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. In the meantime, Christmas with the Gunnunderson's will at least be my own furtive tradition, much beloved. My yuletide's already pretty gay.

The Santa Clause 2 (2002)

Reviewed on 12/23/2012

Years after the events of the original film, Santa discovers a new clause in the fine print of his contract requiring him to marry a woman or lose his powers. This is known as the "Mrs." Clause. Get it?

It would have been quite a surprise if I hadn't been disappointed by this movie, but alas, it's no better than you'd expect a sequel to be. It's not terrible, but it did fail on the points that made the first film so charming.

Tim Allen is still like a pleasantly witty friend, but there's also a lot more slapstick, crude and clownish humor thrown in. Nowhere near as repulsively much as in Elf, Home Alone or Christmas Vacation, but enough to diminish the contrast with those movies.

And we don't get any more skillful explanations of Santa's powers, or new North Pole modernizations. The first movie did some great world building, but here that world is already built. It's just a backdrop that we take as given, without further refinement.

But the biggest problem is thematic. I praised the first film for representing the notion that "Believing is Seeing." That iconic line is repeated here, but it's only lip service. Santa ultimately woos his new wife (hope I didn't spoil it!) pretty much entirely by showing off his magic. Given the absurd task of finding a wife in less than a month, I don't think we can blame him for resorting to a little, "Hey, babe, check out my magic sleigh." But it's sort of the antithesis of the original film's thesis.

I'd complain that apparently single or homosexual men would be disqualified from being Santa, but it's so clearly just an excuse for a romantic plot that I can't take it too hard. Really, the nicest thing I can say about this movie is that it's relatively inoffensive. There's plenty of Christmas movies I've reviewed that I would figuratively claw my eyes out if I had to watch again, and this isn't that bad. But I'd rather just rewatch the original.

Arthur Christmas (2011)

Reviewed on 12/25/2012

From the day I saw it in the theater last year, Arthur Christmas has been my new favorite Christmas movie. I don't think any film has had this much pure Christmas sincerity since the children's specials of the sixties. It also delivers a dash of holiday family frustrations, without ever getting vulgar about it. It fleshes out the mythology of Santa without disrespecting tradition, and my imagination couldn't ask for a more excellently modernized North Pole. Plus, the computer animated 3D action sequences are actually plot-appropriate and fun to watch!

This movie introduces us to three generations of the Claus family. First and foremost, there's Santa himself, jolly and well-intentioned, but approaching retirement and something of a figurehead in the current age. North Pole operations are primarily overseen by his son Steve, a svelte Christmas commando brimming with confidence and competence. (I've got to admit, I've got a small crush on him--I think it's the Christmas tree goatee.) From his state-of-the-art command center, Steve leads a modern army of elves to deliver a couple billion presents successfully each year.

Yet despite near-perfect operational efficiency, one present gets forgotten-- a bicycle for a young girl in England. Only Steve's younger brother, the bumbling but big-hearted Arthur, seems to notice or care. For him, if even one child wakes up without a present, Christmas will be ruined. Arthur sets out to deliver the wayward gift, enlisting the aid of his grandfather, Grandsanta, who may be slightly senile but at least still has his old sleigh.

What impressed me the most about this movie is that it tells a high-tension story without any bad guys. The forgotten gift and the roadblocks to seeing it delivered are the result of the forgivable quirks of lovable people. Even Steve, who in any other movie would have been made into a hard-hearted miser, is a sympathetic character here, no worse than justifiably frustrated after his busiest night of the year. The conflict in this movie comes not from overcoming any villain, but rather from wanting to see everyone be happy. That can be a difficult enough task as it is, and I think that's the basic archetypical plotline of Christmas for families around the world.

In Arthur Christmas, I see the culmination of half a century of Christmas movie magic. It perfects ideas that have been brewing for a few decades, without losing any of the charm of the classics. This really is one of the best Christmas movies ever, and I look forward to watching it again and again in the years to come. Merry Christmas!