The Ten Best Christmas Movies (and What’s Wrong With Them)

christmas-wreath-300x300Well, it’s pretty clichéd to put out a list of the greatest Christmas Movies at Christmas Time.  It’s also pretty clichéd what winds up on the list.  Never one to miss a bandwagon I’m jumping right up on it to present my ten favorite Christmas Movies, mostly in no real order, even if I’ve numbered them in order.  However, just because I’m doing the clichéd thing doesn’t mean I won’t try to tweak it a little so, here it is: The Ten Best Christmas Movies and What’s Wrong With Them.

10. Die Hard, dir. by John McTiernan

After this movie came out it seemed the words ‘die’ and ‘hard’ instantly became one-half of the ultimate in high concept shorthand – go on, I dare you to find a 90s movie that couldn’t be described as “Die Hard on/in…” something.  If you don’t buy it’s cultural impact, just jump over here for a little nugget.

Before that, though, Die Hard was just a movie.  Just a nifty, little movie about terrorists hi-jacking a corporate Christmas Party.  Never mind it was released in the middle of July, the least-Christmas month of the year.  Also never mind it basically ruined Bruce Willis by typecasting into playing John McLain over and over again, a role he’s only occasionally gotten away from, particularly in Pulp Fiction and in sending himself up in Ocean’s Twelve.  I say never mind to all that because, if you can put that aside, you’ll be treated to a nifty, humorous little movie about terrorists hi-jacking a corporate Christmas Party.

Chief flaw:  The easy complaint would be the bad 80s hair, or the suits, or the cocaine, but how can you complain about a movie made in the 80s conforming to the styles of the 80s?  No, the real problem with the movie is that while the terrorists are meant to be German the leader of the group clearly speaks with a British accent, seemingly speaks no German at all, and has a right hand man who is clearly Russian.  On the upside, the movie does have Christmas in Hollis.

9. Go, dir. by Doug Liman

Go is another of those movies, like Die Hard, where when you first think about it, you don’t consider it a Christmas movie.  That’s probably because the film was sold/promoted/taken as another in the long line of Pulp Fiction rip-offs that flooded the film market in the late-90s, simply because it had quirky dialog, a circular structure and random acts of violence.  It probably also didn’t help the film was released in April.  But given the film takes place during the Christmas season and features a drug-fueled rave with a Santa-theme to it, it’s Christmas enough for me.  Besides, with the cast of mostly-not-very-known-actors-at-the-time having gone on to bigger and better things – at least mostly – it’s fun to watch it as a Where’s Waldo-type of exercise.

Chief Flaw: Katie Holmes.  I’ve never bought into her as an actress and her bit at the beginning/end in particular, at the diner, could easily disappear into the abyss and would only affect the movie in a positive way.

8. White Christmas, dir. by Michael Curtiz

Okay, so the movie is definitely dated.  And long.  And beats a little too hard on the ‘let’s put on a show’ motif that was already old hat by the time the film came out.  But given the heaping helping of Danny Kaye hi-jinks, the easy chemistry the boys all have with the girls, and the smorgasbord of Bing Crosby crooned Irving Berlin Christmas tunes – what’s not to love?  Well…

Chief Flaw:  The film is shot, in its entirety, on a soundstage.  Interiors, exteriors – they were all shot on a stage.  Yes, I know Hollywood loves to shoot on stages because it brings predictability and with predictability you get cost certainty.  It’s only too bad that movies of the 40s shot on a stage look like they were shot on a stage which just kills the whole effect because you know everything – including the snow – is fake.  I mean, seriously, how hard was it to just wheel the camera outside?  Even once?

7. Bad Santa, dir. by Terry Zwigoff

All right, here comes a pervy admission: nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ quite like hearing Lauren Graham – yummy, as always – say, “Fuck me Santa,” over and over again.  So what if she’s saying it to a dirty, unshaven Billy Bob Thornton?  It only matters this world was made all the better for her having said it.  Plus – Tony Cox is fantastic!

Chief Flaw:  To me, Bad Santa fits squarely into the same category as Animal House, Caddyshack and Anchorman – they’re not as funny as they’re reputed to be.  Perhaps if Bad Santa had pulled back, just a bit, from the crudeness, more humor might’ve shown through.

6. Elf, dir. by Jon Favreau

I went back and forth on whether to include this as one of the best, or my favorite, Christmas films.  On the one hand, it’s overly silly, which I like.  On the other, it’s completely earnest, which I kinda don’t.  Then again, how can you not love James Caan, Mary Steenburgen or Peter Dinklage?  And even Will Ferrell, who goes for broke in the role?  On the other hand, Zooey Deschanel is an UGLY blonde.  In the end, because it’s heart is in the right place, and because it doesn’t take itself too seriously – like a lot of holiday films do – it was impossible to pass up.

Chief Flaw: Uh, didn’t I already say what they were?

5. Miracle on 34th Street, dir. by George Seaton

I love Miracle Of 34th Street for the way it really zeroes in on the wide-eyed wonder of children and how sometimes belief is better than knowledge.  I also love how wonderful Maureen O’Hara is in the film – she might be even better that Edmund Gwynn, who won an Oscar for the role of Kris Kringle.  I also love how a film released in May 1947 – what the hell is it with releasing Christmas films in the spring and summer? – ignores the fact that Maureen O’Hara’s character is a divorced mother, as if being a divorced mother in 1947 was no big deal and didn’t need to be explained.

Chief Flaw: The biggest flaw is the way the film demonizes everybody who refuses to believe in Santa Claus, who we all – and I mean ALL – know does not exist.  In other words, it annoys me the bad guys in the film are the one’s sticking to their logical, sensible thinking.  Which means if I want to keep watching the film without getting pissed off about it all the time I’ll have to treat it the same way I do Gone With The Wind: I’ll hold my nose over the objectionable parts and just get on with enjoying the rest.

4. Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, dir. by Jim Henson

How can you not love Emmet Otter?  The show or the character?  After all, what we have is a nice, simple, little story about an otter who just wants to buy his mother a piano for Christmas, all the while she’s trying to buy him a guitar.  When I was a kid I remember seeing this on HBO every year and loved it then and love it now – in fact, I just might sit down and watch the DVD today, if I can make the time.  Anyway, I defy anybody, even the most hard-hearted bastard among you, to sit down and watch this and not be moved by the sheer niceness of it, or by the music.  Go on, I dare you.

Chief Flaw: Emmet Otter was originally produced for ABC television, not for the movies.  Therefore, it’s technically not a movie.

3. A Christmas Carol (1951), dir. by Brian Desmond Hurst

In Great Britain this film was released as Scrooge; pretty much everywhere else it’s A Christmas Carol.  Whatever it’s called, as long as you’ve got the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, you’re on the right track.

Anyway, I think by now we all know the story of A Christmas Carol well enough to know it’s been done to death – even Mickey Mouse has his own version.  But just because it’s been beaten to a pulp by circumstance doesn’t mean there aren’t good versions of it and this one is the best, anchored by a truly magnificent performance by Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  Yes, I admit, he has a tendency to be a little hammy now and again, but I also guarantee you you’ve never heard Dicken’s dialog better than when he spoke it.  I also guarantee that you’ve never seen true pathos in the story until you see Sim give it.

Chief Flaw: At 86 minutes it’s crazy to think I’d say this, but the film is too long.  If the scene where the charwoman, the washerwoman and the undertaker go to sell the wares they’ve snatched from a dead Scrooge was removed, the film would be instantly better.

2. Christmas Story, dir. by. Bob Clark

A big, fat DUH on why this one makes the list.  Do I really need to explain why?

Anyway, my favorite line in the movie?  When Ralphie is waiting in line for Santa and the kid in goggles starts bothering him and the Wizard of Oz characters come by and Ralphie looks the Wicked Witch of the West square in the face and says, “Don’t bother me – I’m thinking.”  Can you guess what line I recently said to a Best Buy employee who kept trying to hound me while I was looking at a stand for a flat-screen?  That’s right.  “Don’t bother me – I’m thinking.”

Chief Flaw: Uh…well…there was…I don’t know.  Is there one?

1. It’s a Wonderful Life, dir. by Frank Capra

Ah, yes – the granddaddy of all Christmas films.  Every year I watch this one once or twice during the Christmas season – some years it’s three or four times – culminating in the Christmas Eve viewing in the living room as the wife and I wrap the last of the presents.  And why shouldn’t I watch it?  It perfectly combines drama, humor, pathos, sentimentality and does it all without falling foul of my universal complaint about all movies, which is that it could’ve been shorter.

Chief Flaw: Goddamn it, what happened the morning after?  Did somebody bash in Potter’s head?  Doesn’t anybody know that the Building and Loan would still face embezzlement problems even if the $8000 turned up again?  And did anybody ever come back in put their money in the Building and Loan again?  I mean, they lost your money before – isn’t it a safe bet they might lose it again?

Merry Christmas – oh, and buy my books here!  They make great Christmas gifts!

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