FilmNerds Recommends: Christmas Movies
Welcome to our special holiday edition of our FilmNerds Recommends series where the writers and contributors here at FilmNerds give you our top picks for the DVDs you should be watching this month. Every film fan is familiar with the traditional staple Christmas movies we find running all over basic cable this time of year but we here at FilmNerds believe there are more than a few holiday classics that don’t quite get the respect and attention they deserve. This month, we’ll be taking you through our top Christmas recommendations including a few that you may not have heard of before. As usual, every FilmNerds recommendation is currently available on Netflix so if you see a pick you like, simply click on the DVD cover art to link straight to the movie’s page on Netflix.
Christmas Classics (pre-1980)
I’ll take the obvious one here. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just essential viewing for the Christmas season, but also in life in general. It’s worth a view every year to remind us of how great and healthy the American version of the Christmas tradition is. It’s also nice to have our perspectives refreshed before starting a new year. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a darker and more terrifying movie than you can imagine.
Though I haven’t seen it in a long time, the original Miracle on 34th Street is pretty much aces, isn’t it? Maureen O’Hara and child Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn, perhaps the definitive performance of Santa Claus on screen?
Winner by a mile for me, though Frank Capra’s fable is the king of the feature length examples of this category. This is easily one of my earliest memories of enjoying a Christmas-themed movie, show or special. My parents would always insist I pay attention to Linus’ explanation of the true meaning of Christmas, and I was always glad I did. Plus, Vince Guaraldi’s legendary musical accompaniment continues to surge through my Christmas playlist.
Since Stark stole the “Christmas Goose” with It’s a Wonderful Life, I’ve got to go my brother’s route and choose another Made-for-TV animated special that actually came out a year after the Peanuts special: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas from 1966. With a combination of Chuck Jones’ brilliant animation and direction, Boris Karloff’s classic narration and Albert Hague’s unforgettable song and score, adaptations don’t get much more faithful and successful than this. It’s an immortal Christmas classic that should be required viewing every holiday season.
While it’s not nearly as Christmasy as the films you see listed above, White Christmas obviously has enough seasonal connotations to qualify for our list but above all else, it’s just a purely fun piece of classic Hollywood entertainment. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are among the greatest all-around talents to ever share the silver screen and Rosemary Clooney is at her most charming. It may not feature any Christmas miracles but it’s a movie about friends, good times and great music, all of which fit in perfectly with the spirit of Christmas.
Again, I’ll leave the first obvious pick (an unnamed Bob Clark classic) to someone else, so that leaves me the second obvious pick. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation isn’t just a hilarious Christmas stand-by, it’s also my personal favorite film in the Vacation series. “Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere, leave you for dead?”
Bad Santa, if only for the cursing. Terry Zwigoff’s misanthropic comedy (with a rewrite, I hear, by the brothers Coen) hits all the sour notes a sad person might want to hear during a season that’s all about good cheer and happiness and good will towards men and all that crap that miserable people hate to hear about. Plus it’s just straight-up funny; I can’t think of a better comedic performance by Billy Bob Thornton.
I’d normally count Die Hard because Bruce Willis gives a fantastic comedic performance, but the go-to here is Ted Demme’s blistering, profane, highly adult comedy The Ref, starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. Severe marital quarrels are at the core of this would-be friendly holiday experience, as Spacey and Davis play a pair of squabbling spouses who get kidnapped by Leary’s unlucky burglar. Leary certainly does his regular (as in the good 90s regular) schtick, but the film’s (black) heart is the dynamic between Spacey and Davis, who do their absolute best work here. Riddled with adult themes, I swear it’s HILARIOUS.
I’m going to resist Stark’s low-hanging fruit and go with another somewhat obvious pick: Home Alone. At the time, the 1990 blockbuster probably existed as a majority of 7-12 year-olds’ pick for ‘favorite film of all time,’ and it has only improved with age. John Hughes’ last great contribution to American cinema (forgive me, Beethoven fans) is primarily known for its slapstick-riddled third act… but the movie is held together by its supporting cast, anchored by Catherine O’Hara, as a mother so determined to get back to her stranded son that she’s willing to sit in the back of a rental truck with a group of ‘polka bums’ led by John Candy in one of the greatest cameos of all time.
Pretty obvious pick here but in the process of writing my recent review for <shameless plug> Back to the Movies </shameless plug> I rediscovered just what a perfect comedy this movie truly is. Every segment of this episodic comedy is chock full of classic big laughs that still hold up today no matter how many times you’ve seen this movie and there’s just enough nostalgia factor to give us all that warm fuzzy Christmas twinge without coming off as too cheesy.
Obscure Christmas Pick
Had trouble with this one, but I’ll give a nod to Futurama: Bender’s Big Score. This, the show’s first full-length film, features an amazing musical number featuring the evil Robot Santa, Kwanzaabot, and the Chanukah Zombie, in which they force elves into arming our heroes for a space battle featuring numerous solid gold Death Stars.
I don’t think this counts as obscure, really, but amongst adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” I probably enjoy The Muppet Christmas Carol the most, and I’m not sure that people think of it like they should when they think of Christmas comedies or Dickens adaptations. Come on, it’s the Muppets. I could watch a Muppet movie every day and I think that’d be just fine. (Editor’s Note: INCREDIBLY, Netflix does not carry The Muppet Christmas Carol. Click the image to link to Amazon to purchase the DVD. You should own it anyway.)
I’ll cheat and pick a television special, though it’s not feature length. Like many people, my first exposure to “The Simpsons” came when Fox broadcast “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” which was actually the first full-length episode to actually air. Not only did it introduce perhaps the greatest television show ever, but we got to know Homer Simpson rather intimately through his well-kept secret of financial problems he wouldn’t dare share with Marge, namely that he wasn’t getting the Christmas bonus they were banking on. For me, this episode nails the special meaning of Christmas, that material things take a back seat to a family and its newest addition, which is Santa’s Little Helper here (after Homer visits the dog track to raise some extra cash). “Ow, quit it…”
Of course, you won’t find Stanley Kubrick’s underrated 1999 masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut on any Christmas movie marathons on the ABC Family Channel. However, it definitely contains plenty of Christmas spirit since almost every scene in the film features a Christmas tree (I might have missed one, so allow me to go back and watch EVERY SCENE one more time…); perhaps this is the director’s not-so-subtle way of reminding the audience that human beings are capable of some of the worst things imaginable, even against the backdrop of a season synonymous concept of humanity.
Not to knock the almighty Pixar, but the idea of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t around was not quite an original idea. This Jim Henson made-for-TV special follows a group of toys who come to life when no one is looking and just like Woody the cowboy, our hero in this movie is a favorite toy insecure about being dropped for a newer model. One key element that Henson included was that unlike the Toy Story toys, the stakes are a little higher this time: if a toy gets caught out of his normal place, he becomes “frozen forever”. A little intense for the small kiddies but among Henson’s most underrated work.
Movies Featuring Santa as a Character
People often lament the creepiness of The Polar Express, one of my recent Christmas favorites. Possibly one of the creepiest parts of the film is the climactic introduction of Santa, who enters the square of the North Pole in the same way the WWF’s Undertaker is introduced to wrestling arenas. The elves here are terrifying cult members, which I think is a unique interpretation.
Miracle on 34th Street could apply here, too, but I’m fond of the cranky portrayal of a besieged Santa in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which pits St. Nick against a skeleton interloper who longs to bring good cheer instead of spreading fear. But don’t take my word for it; The Nightmare Before Christmas is a classic.
The Santa Clause always found its way into the VCR this time of year when I’d spend the night at my grandmother’s house. Looking back, I watched that movie A LOT, and I can’t decide whether or not it was because it was the only Christmas movie available. Truth be told, I think it’s a swell holiday pick, featuring a nice comedic performance from Tim Allen, someone I can’t say I followed before or after seeing the movie. Best moments may be when Allen takes shots at Judge Reinhold, his ex-wife’s new sensitive, sweater-donning boyfriend.
Many consider the 1985 release Santa Clause: The Movie to be one of the most noteworthy Christmas flops of all time. While it was negatively received in the USA, the film apparently did big business at the worldwide box office.. and – according to the movie’s Wikipedia page – is considered a “classic” in the United Kingdom! Who knew? I actually saw this movie during its initial theatrical release in the 1980s.. however I must admit I don’t remember a single frame. I definitely plan on checking it out (on Bluray!) and making a definitive decision.
Ed Asner’s grumpy, slightly put-upon version of Santa brings a lot of underrated comedy value to Jon Favreau’s modern Christmas classic (and I do think this one has major staying power). I particularly like Santa’s carefully worded explanations about Ray’s Pizza and “peep shows” to Buddy the Elf. This is clearly a well-traveled and world-weary Santa.