Friday, December 21, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Christmas Movies

We’re four days from Christmas—it’s practically here! And what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t share my top 10 Christmas movies? Granted, most of them usually wind up on everybody’s top 10 list, but I figure I’ll share my reasoning while I’m at it.

10.  It’s a Wonderful Life
It had to make the list as a matter of principle. Sickly sweet though it may be (darn you, Capra!), it’s still a holiday classic, and you can’t go wrong with Jimmy Stewart. “Mary! The kids! Zu-Zu’s petals!” Nevertheless, I’ll admit he wasn’t very believable as a teenager.

9. Jingle All the Way
Put the cookie down—NOW!”
Putting action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in a kid-friendly movie isn’t a new concept. However, unlike Junior and Kindergarten Cop, this one is actually funny. Of course, having Sinbad as his foil and Phil Hartman as his smarmy neighbor helps, and the absolutely ridiculous ending (“It’s Turbo Time!”) is actually rather epic. Besides, the film does a great job illustrating the madness of holiday shopping, and throwing Arnold Schwarzenegger into that chaos really isn’t much of a stretch for him. He even gets to punch a reindeer.

8. Just Friends
Chubby nerd-turned-smug playboy Ryan Reynolds unintentionally finds himself home for the holidays and decides to win the heart of the girl who friend-zoned him in high school. It’s pretty straightforward, but it has some of the funniest gags since Chevy Chase first greased a saucer (if you like watching Ryan Reynolds get hurt, this is the movie for you), and as a guy who’s all-too-familiar with the friend zone, I could relate pretty easily to Reynolds’ character. It’s surprisingly sweet and features some great performances from Reynolds, Anna Faris, Amy Smart and the devious Chris Klein. Plus, for added holiday fun, try taking shots every time you see the group of Christmas carolers.

7. A Christmas Story
No matter how old you are, or in what era you grew up, you can find something to relate to in A Christmas Story, whether it’s the childhood longing for the ultimate Christmas present, the humiliation of double dog dares or the realization that the secret message you’ve been waiting to hear on the radio was really just an advertisement. This film would rate higher on the list except for a few slow points, but it’s still one of the best Christmas movies I’ve ever seen. And the scene at the mall with “Santa” . . . oh, wow . . . “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid. Ho . . . ho . . . ho . . .”

6. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
If ever there were a movie that encapsulated everything that could possibly go wrong at Christmastime, by golly, this is it. Chevy Chase’s manic enthusiasm for the holiday swiftly turns to boiling rage, but still he obsesses over how to make his Christmas perfect, even when fate conspires against him and relatives become too much to handle. This film bombards the viewer with one gag after another, and right when you think it’s over, it wraps up one final loose end with a resounding BOOM. The film runs the risk of being too over-the-top, and although it does cross that threshold several times, you know what you’re getting into when you see the National Lampoon header. Besides, there’s no denying this film is fun to watch, if for no other reason than "SQUIRRRRRRRRREL!!!!"

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
There’s that one moment—everybody remembers it—when the Grinch sneaks into the little Whos’ room and finds them all fast asleep and lookin’ all adorable-like. The blood-curdling grin that spreads across his face as he stands at the foot of the bed still haunts my dreams to this day, and that alone would be enough to put this one on my Top 10 list. But it’s not just the imagery (the Grinch slithering around the living room is pretty terrifying, too); the music is fantastic, and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is a delightful and memorable tune. Then there is Boris Karloff (yes, of Frankenstein and The Mummy fame) providing narration with just the right balance of seriousness and playfulness. This is hands-down the best adaptation of the story. Ron Howard should be ashamed of himself for messing with a good thing. And failing.

4. Die Hard
Now, this is a Christmas movie. You’ve got great performances by Willis, Rickman, VelJohnson, Bedelia and Atherton, PLUS Run-DMC providing some upbeat holiday music. If this movie doesn’t get you in the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will. Also, I think there are some explosions in there somewhere. It’s pretty dang legit.

3. The Santa Clause
Tim Allen was riding high at this point thanks to Home Improvement, so Disney execs thought, “Hey, let’s put this guy in a Christmas movie! It doesn’t even have to be good—his name alone will sell big-time!” Well, surprise-surprise, not only was it a Christmas blockbuster, but it was actually a good movie, to boot. Judge Reinhold is great as the dorky, weasely, sweater-wearing stepfather and David Krumholtz (who apparently hasn’t aged since filming this movie) is spot-on as the curmudgeonly, longsuffering head elf, Bernard. Throw in Peter Boyle as Allen’s boss and Eric Lloyd as the plucky child protagonist . . . yep, you’ve got a stew goin’.

2. A Muppet Christmas Carol
Believe it or not, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I have ever seen, and it’s by far the most loving. The attention to detail in the sets is mind-staggering, and you really feel like you’re in the middle of a Dickensian setting, Muppets notwithstanding. Indeed, the Muppets, too, fit right in, and it becomes difficult to imagine Bob Cratchit as being portrayed as anything other than a green sock puppet. The human characters also play their parts well, and let it be known that Michael Caine’s Scrooge is absolutely perfect. He is selfish and bitter, and prone to yelling at the slightest provocation, and he hate-hate-hates Christmas. He even includes the line about wanting to see everyone who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on their lips roasted with their own turkey with a stake of holly through their hearts—how’s that for a kid-friendly Muppet movie? But seriously, he chews the scenery like a pro and displays genuine terror when Jacob (and Robert) Marley arrives. He even manages to say, “Why, it’s Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory! I used to work there as a boy!” with a straight face. And seriously, is the ending not the most heartwarming thing ever?

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas
It’s the best of the best—the one movie you’re obligated to watch every. Single. Christmas. Yes, the opening music is more dreary than festive. Yes, some of the voice acting is a bit rough. Yes, it’s predictable and ends abruptly. Yes, there’s no way that crappy little tree actually GAINED needles. But y’know what, it’s still a great movie, and it still makes me smile no matter how jaded I am with the whole holiday season. And even though I could go on an epic rant about how *technically* Christ really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Christmas (it’s a secular, commerce-driven holiday based on a pagan festival that was co-opted by the Catholic church to draw in converts, and in all likelihood, Jesus wasn’t even born in December, but actually—oh, crap, here I go . . .), Linus’ limelight monologue gets me every time. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Now, in compiling this list, I thought of a few films that were actually pretty good, but had some flaws that kept them from making the list. So here’s a few of them.

Movies that came close but missed the sleigh (in order of not-badness):

The Nightmare before Christmas
Settle down, kids. I’m the first to admit Tim Burton did an incredible job with this film, and the scene where the kid pulls a shrunken head out of his stocking is pure awesome sauce. But for some reason, I just don’t enjoy it as much as I did when I was a kid. I love the beginning. I love the ending. But somewhere in the middle I get just a little bit bored. It’s still a great Christmas movie (AND a great Halloween movie), but it just barely missed my top 10. 

I actually liked this movie quite a bit (Zooey Deschanel as a blonde had a lot to do with it, as did the ever-awesome Peter Dinklage as the “angry elf”), but it didn’t quite make my top 10, either. Deschanel, Dinklage, Will Ferrell and Bob Newhart are absolutely superb, but some of the jokes seem forced. James Caan comes off as a little too surly, and Buddy the elf’s human brother is kind of a tool, especially when he’s trying to be likably plucky.

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Richard Attenborough isn’t the best Santa Claus out there (his crooked yellow teeth and violent tendencies make him a bit intimidating), but Mara Wilson’s plucky, pragmatic protagonist is equal parts charming and depressing, just the way the character should be. She’s given up on magic and happy endings, but by the end of the movie (of course) she learns to believe again.  It’s a pretty good holiday film, and worth watching, but it’s just not one of the best.

It was a clever idea to set A Christmas Carol in a Western setting, I’ll admit. Jack Palance was an excellent pick for a crotchety old cowboy Scrooge, and the film had some truly inspired moments (the final gunfight with Ricky Schroeder of all people is pretty great), but the only thing worse than hearing Palance attempt to sing is the pathetic CGI snowstorm at the end.

Then there are the Christmas movies that make you wonder why they even bothered. The sad thing is, especially nowadays, most Christmas movies fall into this category. There are plenty of others that I absolutely hated (I’d watch Santa’s Slay over Must Be Santa, I’ll Be Home for Christmas or Prancer any day), but these are a few of the standout lousy ones.

Movies to make you yell, “Bah, HUMBUG!”

Santa Claus: The Movie
Ugh. Dudley Moore can ruin ANYTHING. This movie is absolute reindeer doo. It tries to be whimsical but comes across as patronizing instead. And, again, Dudley Moore. *shudder*

Mr. St. Nick
Kelsey Grammer is heir to the Santa Claus title. And he’s a shrewd, womanizing businessman. And he totally has sex, even though it’s a Wonderful World of Disney Christmas movie for kids. So, basically, you could call it A Very Frasier Christmas and ignore it altogether. Indeed, I think you should.

Surviving Christmas
What’s that? You’ve never heard of Ben Affleck’s attempt to eradicate Christmas cheer? Lucky you, because this movie was awful. I would say the fun stopped at the scene where James Gandolfini’s wife shoots cheap Internet porn (which her son inevitably watches), but I stopped having fun well before then. Just trashy. And icky. Very icky.

The Santa Clause 2 and 3
Remember what made The Santa Clause great? It was the story of a normal guy adjusting to becoming Santa Claus and trying to balance his family and professional life with his new duties as a holiday icon. The Santa Clause 2 attempted to bring back some of that conflict by having Santa’s powers fade and forcing him to seek out a Mrs. Claus, but despite some great ideas, it was ruined by a mentally retarded reindeer and the addition of various other characters (Mother Nature? Father Time? REALLY?!!). The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, however, was just a mess. The magical elements completely drowned out the human conflicts that made the previous two enjoyable, and David Krumholtz’s head elf, Bernard, was sorely missed. Eh, maybe more Judge Reinhold would have helped. Actually, he improves any movie.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
Every Who down in Whoville liked the original a lot. But everyone who saw Ron Howard’s atrocious remake did NOT. Jim Carrey is pretty convincing as a live-action Grinch, but this movie is messed up from start to finish. The animated version is charming and relatively innocent, save for some serious nightmare fuel in the form of the Grinch’s sinister leers. The new one . . . ehhhh. Gross-out gags (like the doggy butt-kissing scene, for instance) and ridiculous subplots (such as the Grinch’s troubled childhood) fail to draw out any real laughs. It’s the only movie I ever saw that I wanted to walk out of, and I saw it when I was a kid. I repeat, I WAS A CHILD AND I WASN’T AMUSED. That’s saying something.