Monday, November 14, 2016

My Favorite Christmas Movies

This may not be a popular position, but I like to start watching Christmas movies (and baking Christmas cookies, and shopping for Christmas presents, and listening to Christmas music) sometime around Halloween, so my personal "Christmas movie" season is really a "holiday movie" season that encompasses the whole Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year stretch of time.

Fortunately, there are a LOT of Christmas movies out there to fill that long stretch of time. But what makes a movie a Christmas movie, anyway? Is it set at Christmas? Was it originally released around Christmas? Does it feature Christmas themes? I'd say that a "yes" to any of those questions qualifies a movie as a Christmas movie. But another qualifier, in my opinion, is that it's a movie that the whole family, anyone from a toddler through a centenarian, can watch and enjoy. So here are some of my favorite family Christmas movies.

I'm not much of a Will Ferrell fan, and I had no idea who Zooey Deschanel was when I originally saw this movie, but I find them both wonderfully charming in it. Buddy, a human who was adopted by elves (and fully believes he is one), leaves the North Pole to find his father, who turns out to be a rather cold-hearted, cutthroat businessman who neglects his wife and son. Buddy's sweet naivete and sincere belief in the magic of Christmas takes a beating in the big city, but eventually it allows him to save his family, fall in love, and save Christmas itself. The star-studded cast includes Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Mary Steenburgen, James Caan, and Peter Dinklage.

White Christmas
If you have ever enjoyed any kind of stage or movie musical, this one should be at the top of your Christmas movie list. Starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera Ellen at their singing and dancing best, this story starts off with two former Army buddies trying to make it in show business, meeting up with two sisters trying to do the same, and eventually everyone falls in love and they put on a show at a lovely but remote Vermont Inn in order to help out the men's former Army commander. Of course the plot is a bit contrived, but who cares when there are numbers like "Sisters," "Snow," "Count Your Blessings," and "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me"? The delightful character actress Mary Wickes as the gossipy and long-suffering housekeeper at the inn is worth the price of admission.

A Christmas Carol/Scrooge

There are so many different versions of Dickens' classic story A Christmas Carol that I can't pick just one. Well-known (and well worth watching) Scrooges have included Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), Albert Finney (1970), George C Scott (1984), Patrick Stewart (1999), Kelsey Grammer (2004), and Jim Carrey (2009). Some versions that take a bit more license with the story (for good or ill) include Bill Murray's Scrooged (1988), Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Cicely Tyson in Ms. Scrooge (1997), Mickey Mouse in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), and of course, Mr. Magoo in Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962).

Home Alone
Filling the spot of a less-than-traditional holiday movie, Home Alone is a good example of a film that's set at Christmastime but doesn't otherwise have a strong holiday connection, and yet, it feels like such a holiday movie. If you've been living under a rock since the film came out in 1990, here's a quick summary: A young boy (Macauley Culkin, in the role that made him famous) gets accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for Christmas and has to single-handedly defend his home from a pair of bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). It doesn't sound like much, but there's a reason it's still one of the most popular Christmas movies ever.

Little Women

Much like A Christmas Carol, the book Little Women inspired multiple film versions starring high-powered casts, including a 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn as Jo; a 1949 version with Janet Leigh as Meg, June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Mary Astor as Marmee, and Peter Lawford as Laurie; and a 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Young Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, John Neville as Mr. Laurence, Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer, Eric Stolz as John Brooke, Christian Bale as Laurie, and the immortal Mary Wickes (again!) as the crusty Aunt March. A heartwarming story of a family of women desperately missing their father during the Civil War, this holiday tale stresses the importance of faith and family amidst life's sorrows as well as joys.

It's a Wonderful Life

Again like A Christmas Carol, the story of the film It's a Wonderful Life has inspired many stage and screen adaptations. Frank Capra's original, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, is the story of what would have happened if George Bailey had never been born. It turns out that the world would have been a much poorer place without George in it. The film's message is a lovely reminder that every decision we make in our lives can have a much broader impact than just on ourselves. 

The Family Man

One of my personal favorite Christmas movies is The Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. Almost a cross between A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, this film shows a career-driven business man how different his life would have been had he chosen love over money in his youth, and offers him the opportunity for his life to take a different path.

The Santa Clause
For a movie that begins with (SPOILER!!) someone accidentally killing Santa Claus, this movie is surprisingly warm and funny. It finds just the right mix of silly and sweet, touching on the difficulty of dealing with stepfamilies at the holidays, the love and bond between a father and a son, and belief in the magic of Christmas (however you define that magic). Tim Allen is at his comic best as a reluctant Santa, aptly aided by David Krumholtz's Bernard the Elf. Surprisingly for this type of movie, the sequels (The Santa Clause 2: Mrs. Claus and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause) were actually also quite well done. Take time during the holidays to settle in with a mug of cocoa and a plate of cookies and make a marathon of the whole trilogy!

The Nutcracker

In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", and in 1892 Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky composed a ballet based on that story, and the rest, as they say, is history. Famous dancers throughout the years have strived to play the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Many of those performances were filmed for television audiences and can still be found on DVD recordings. Among the companies whose performances are available are the New York City Ballet (several versions), Bolshoi Ballet (also several versions), Pacific Northwest Ballet (with sets designed by Maurice Sendak), Marinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theater (starring Mikhail Barishnikov), and the Royal Ballet. Even if you're not a fan of ballet, you can hardly help but be swept up by the magic of the mysterious Doktor Drosselmeyer, the growing Christmas tree, the dancing fairies and snowflakes, the gorgeous sets and costumes, and of course, the brilliant music.

All The Rankin/Bass Productions

The airings of the animated TV specials "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964), "The Little Drummer Boy" (1968), "Frosty the Snowman" (1969), "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" (1970), "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (1974), "Rudolph's Shiny New Year" (1976), and "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey" (1977) were all much-loved holiday events growing up in my house. With impressive voice talent like Burl Ives, Fred Astaire, Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, Greer Garson, and Jimmy Durante, the animated characters took on delightful lives of their own. Pick up a DVD multipack and here's another wonderful movie marathon to get you into the holiday spirit!

Honorable Mentions

Obviously, there are many, many wonderful and worthy Christmas movies that could be added to this list, so here are a few more that I don't quite have room to expound on, but that are worth watching between now and the end of the year.

  • Miracle on 34th Street - There are multiple versions to choose from, including a 1947 version starring Maureen O'Hara, a 1994 version with Richard Attenborough and Elizabeth Perkins, a 1973 TV version starring Sebastian Cabot, and a 1959 TV version starring Ed Wynn.
  • Holiday Inn - starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, a 1942 classic.
  • The Bishop's Wife/The Preacher's Wife - In 1947, Cary Grant became an angel trying to save the marriage of David Niven and his wife Loretta Young, and in 1996, Denzel Washington became an angel trying to save the marriage of Courtney B. Vance and Whitney Houston. 
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas - I'm not a fan of the 2000 Jim Carrey remake, but you can't not love the delicious deep voices of Boris Karloff and Thorl Ravenscroft telling the story of the mean ol' Mr. Grinch and how his heart grew three sizes that day in the original 1966 animated TV special. 
  • National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - Most of the National Lampoon movies turn me into a grinch, but I will admit that Christmas Vacation makes me laugh, if even just for the scene where Chevy Chase nearly electrocuted himself and half the town. 
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas - How else to end this list than with everyone's favorite blockhead getting into the Christmas spirit with his sad little tree and his happy little beagle? 

What favorite of yours did I forget to include?

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