My Favourite Christmas Movies

3 12 2013

A couple of pieces on Forbes present lists of Christmas movies. The first is their “top 10 of all time”, the second is the “top 10 in the past decade”. After a minor rant about their lists, I want to present my own list of my favourite Christmas movies. Spoiler alert, by the way.

The List From Forbes

My only gripe about the lists that Forbes put forward is that they include “movies released at Christmas” or “movies that happen to include Christmas as a background plot element”. Neither of these lists include movies that deal explicitly and exclusively with themes around Christmas. Note, I didn’t say “Christmas Themes”. There are other things that have come to light around Christmas, particularly for people who experienced some kind of tragic personal loss, those who feel lonely or otherwise left out of the Christmas season, or those jaded by the commercial elements that sometimes dominate the season. I’m not saying these lists are “wrong”. It’s an opinion at the end of the day. I’m just not entirely entranced by their selection criteria, that’s all.

Of course, any list put forward will have detractors. There are people who will have all manner of movies that they like, but aren’t necessarily mainstream. Then there is the issue of history and television. Where I live, there were two staples for movies at Christmas, specifically The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. Why? Because the list of movies that were specifically about Christmas was pretty limited, mainly consisting of It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooge (or A Christmas Carol in the the U.S.), White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street. Except perhaps for Miracle, the rest aren’t exactly engaging for most kids, so the other two were added to the roster as being more kid-oriented. This was the state of Christmas movies in the 1970’s. So, while I enjoy watching The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz at Christmas, and there is a strong association with the holiday for me personally, I don’t consider them strictly “Christmas movies”.

My list has only one specific requirement: the movie must be about Christmas and the season has to figure prominently in the storyline in some way. Therefore, movies like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon don’t make the cut (even though I really like both of them), because Christmas is a secondary element to the story. They could be set in Thanksgiving or the Memorial Day weekend and still work. Beyond this, the list isn’t limited to some arbitrary number, like 10, and isn’t in any particular order.

So, without further ado, my list of favourite Christmas movies.

The Santa Claus

While the second and third movies in the series are entertaining, the first is still the best. It is a wonderful take on the Santa Claus myth, providing “plausible” explanations about how Santa does his job, and how he continues to be for centuries. Watching Tim Allen transform from Scott Calvin to Santa Claus is fun.

The struggles that Scott’s son, Charlie, struggle with the duality of his father also being Santa adds some depth to the story, but not so much that it overwhelms the movie. The capture and rescue of Santa, and Charlie’s finally coming to terms with who is Dad is now are well paced and entertaining.

The Polar Express

This is a well-conceived adaptation of the amazing book by Chris Van Allsburg. The book itself obviously didn’t have enough story to fill a motion picture, but the Zemeckis and Broyles did a wonderful job of fleshing out the story. They added depth and texture, without trying to create an epic tale, and while still preserving the core elements of the Van Allsburg book. The roller-coaster scenes with the train were very exciting, and the animation overall was simply fantastic.

Some have criticized the animation for having “dead” or “lifeless” eyes. That never bothered me. I didn’t find it creepy or off-putting, but instead found it to be fairly consistent with animation of the day. It was also consistent with the rest of animation style of the film, at least in my mind. The only “complaint” was the slight overuse of viewing “up through things”. The first time (when Hero Boy is looking at the encyclopedia article) was impressive. But the style appears a few other times, and in places where it seemed a bit gratuitous. It doesn’t detract from the movie at all, and first-time watchers may not even notice it. But it was more apparent on subsequent viewings.

It’s A Wonderful Life

This Jimmy Stewart classic is a deep and rich morality tale about the surprising worth of an individual, and just how big a hole their absence would leave in the world. Stewart was brilliant and perfectly cast as George Bailey, unsung hero and everyman of late-1940’s Bedford Falls. While some elements of the story are obviously dated, this doesn’t detract from the excellent performances from every actor, or the deep story that they tell.

Overall, the movie feels “comfortable”. Like a favourite pair of jeans, it fits well with repeated viewings. The humour is well-presented, but not over the top. The characters are believable. Even the supporting characters feel as if they have depth, rather than feeling like cardboard cut-outs. Sure, we don’t know a lot about them, but they seem like “real people”, not just token elements that are expected in the movie.

What is sometimes overlooked is the amazing performance of Lionel Barrymore. Much of the focus is on Stewart, Donna Reed and their supporting cast members. But, as Henry Potter, Barrymore brings to life a believable nemesis for George Bailey without resorting to caricature or satire. I can believe he is a warped, frustrated old man, but also see that he isn’t the all-powerful overlord the writers could have made him to be.

Scrooge

In this case, I specifically mean the 1951 Alistair Sim film (typically known as A Christmas Carol in the United States), and for further specificity, I mean the original black and white version, not the colourized monstrosity that was re-released later. It is a dark and haunting adaptation, and stays true to the original Charles Dickens novella. Sim’s performance is masterful, and his transformation is quite believable.

Being in black and white enhances the dark nature of Scrooge, and misery that is early Victorian-era lower-class London. The main characters (Scrooge and Cratchit) aren’t just cartoon characters or cardboard cutouts meant to represent “good” and “evil”. They are real people, created by their circumstances and their actions. The performances of all the main actors is very well done.

For younger audiences, the special effects certainly can detract from their viewing of the story. It doesn’t do that for me, but then, I grew up in an era where the visual effects in Star Wars were considered groundbreaking and breathtaking (and even 1960’s Star Trek was considered impressive for its time), and even those dated today. For those you can look past those elements, they will find a deep and rich story about the transformation of one person from “not good” to “good”.

Note that I don’t say “evil”. In the novella, as in the movie, Scrooge isn’t driven by a desire to do harm to his fellow man. If he is “evil”, it is a more benign form of evil that arise more from neglect that outright intent. It takes the 3 ghostly visitors to impress upon Scrooge all of the consequences of his decisions. That, at its heart, is the main problem with Scrooge, and his late partner Marley. They don’t fully consider the deeper consequences of some of their actions. It isn’t that Scrooge lacks a conscience. What he lacks is vision, foresight and deeper thought about the consequences of his decisions.

Scrooged

This is Scrooge in the 1980’s, an modernized adaptation of the classic Scrooge story. Instead of Victorian-era London and the start of the Industrial Revolution, we have the “Greed is Good” Gordon Gecko 1980’s.  While the last 5 minutes of the movie do drag on a bit, the overall story is well told and well acted. Bill Murray only really goes over the top in those last 5 minutes, and it seems like he’s improvising (and not improvising as well has he could).

Fortunately, the writers chose to not try to incorporate any of the classic names in the story in some way. The Scrooge character is Frank Cross. His former partner is Rhinelander. Instead of Cratchit, we have two characters, Eliot Loudermilk and Grace Cooley, with Cross’s younger brother replacing the original Scrooge’s nephew. Unlike other Scrooge adaptions, staying away from the classic names is refreshing (for example, consider that in another adaptation, Ebbie, we have Susan Lucci playing Elizabeth”Ebbie” Scrooge, a cringeworthy name and an equally cringeworthy adaptation).

The writers also used the original story as a guide, rather than a hard-and-fast set of rules. We still have the 3 ghosts, and we have the same basic themes. It is about a man who doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions and decisions, and only realizes his mistakes when given a chance to see them objectively. It is still a Scrooge story, but not one with an exclusively happy ending. Sure, Grace and Eliot end up in a better place, but one minor character dies, and another (Brice Cummings) gets treated worse than he perhaps deserves.

Overall, though, I think the story is entertaining, and it is an interesting alternative adaptation of the classic Scrooge story. Again, the last few minutes start to drag a bit, but the story as a whole is well told. It isn’t as dark and serious as the 1951 movie, but it also isn’t an over-the-top-satircal take on the story either. It is more lighthearted than other adaptations, but not so much that you lose the darker elements of the story.

White Christmas

This is the second movie made to feature the title song in its repertoire (and the first to use the song’s name as the title). The song itself first appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. White Christmas deals with some of the emotional fall-out for veterans of the Second World War, without dwelling on the subject too deeply. The story itself is uplifting and funny, and many of the musical numbers fit well within the plot.

There are a couple of numbers, though, that appear to be added to fill out the soundtrack rather than advance the story. These are found during the “rehearsal scenes” prior to the big show itself. Certainly, they are well-produced, wonderfully choreographed and masterfully performed. But some of the “rehearsal numbers” could have been omitted and it wouldn’t have changed the story in any meaningful way.

Otherwise, the story is heartfelt without being heart-rending, and sweet without being schmaltzy. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye make a believable pair of performing partners. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney are convincing as a duo of singing sisters. The movie does a good job of focusing on the story, with just enough backstory for the boys that we know why they are where they are. The movie is entertaining, and the theme about the importance of friends, family and togetherness is well presented.

An American Christmas Carol

Another take on the Scrooge tale, this sets the story in depression-era New England, and brings some unique American elements to the story. Again, the writers stayed completely away from using names from the source story, but all of the main characters are still there. The performances, the writing and direction are very good in this movie.

Henry Winkler’s performance as Benedict Slade is thoroughly brilliant. He is stern and serious, and menacing when necessary, without being either purely evil or rendered to the level of comic book character. His emotions, good and bad, are believable, and his transformation in the movie is clearly not yet complete. Rather than becoming a completely and totally new man, we see in Winkler’s performance the beginnings of meaningful change in the character. It’s a beginning, not an ending.

But what makes it an American story? First, it introduces elements of the early days of the American labour movement. It focuses more on industry, and it is specifically about manufacturing as the backbone of the economy. What makes Slade “bad” is is trading on other people’s money without creating anything substantial himself. He becomes “good” when commits to making things other than just money. The story is, in a way, a condemnation of “making money for money’s sake” and financial markets in general, one that isn’t explored in the previous tellings of the story. Consider how Slade will redeem himself: rather than just being a “better person”, as we see in the 1951 movie or the Bill Murray adaptation, Slade is doing something tangible as well. He is going to re-open the quarry. He is going to get the furniture factory going again.

It isn’t enough to give his assistant his job back (with a raise) and give people a break on their loan payments. That’s about Slade making his business something with a heart, and not just a mind, but that is mainly about himself. In this telling, “Scrooge” goes beyond himself in tangible ways, by taking steps to try to improve the local economy. He wants to try to have a meaningful impact on his whole community, just just those around him. This, in my mind, makes it distinctly American in feel, because it is about tangible action with measurable results, and it is about reviving industry, not just improving personal moral values.

What Got Left Out

While there are Christmas movies that I enjoy personally, I wouldn’t call them “favourites”. I also have some movies I haven’t seen yet that could be potential candidates for the list. For example, I have yet to see A Christmas Story in its entirety. It is a movie I have seen bits and pieces of, but not in a single viewing.

But there are other movies that are entertaining, but not necessarily “favourites”. The Jim Carrey version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas is fun, and I enjoy watching it, but I still prefer the Chuck Jones short from 1966. Both versions of Miracle on 34th Street (in 1947 and 1994) are wonderful movies, but not something I necessarily want to see every year. Elf with Will Ferrell is a movie I only want to watch every few years at best. Many others, set around Christmas (such as Home Alone) are not strictly Christmas movies. Taking Home Alone as an example, it could have easily been set around any major U.S. holiday and still easily worked as a movie, preserving the challenges of travelling in the U.S. at these times of year to get back to the child left behind.

I also didn’t include TV specials, because those aren’t strictly “movies”. I have several favourites there as well, but more because of the nostalgia of childhood more than anything else.

It’s My List, Not Someone Else’s

Ultimately, this is my list. Others will have different lists, and they aren’t wrong. Not everyone will agree with my choices here, and not everyone will like the movies I’ve listed. That’s good. That brings diversity to our entertainment, and that results in better movies for everyone. While I may not agree with the criteria others use, I won’t disagree with the lists themselves.

I also know that my list may change over time. I expect to add new movies to the list, and it won’t surprise me if some movies drop off. As we move through life, things change.

But until they do, that’s my list of favourite movies. Here is wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and all the best during this holiday season.

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