Top 10 Christmas Movies #3: A Christmas Story

a-christmas-story-movie-poster-1983-1010423185Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #3, A Christmas Story.

Do you remember that one Christmas gift you wanted more than any other? Maybe it was a bike or a Cabbage Patch Kid. Depending on when you grew up it might have been a video game system (Atari, Nintendo, Playstation…) or an Erector Set.  The specific gifts may differ from person to person and time to time but the dream is the same. We all went to bed on Christmas Eve hoping the morning would bring us joy tied up with ribbon.

A Christmas Story taps into this universal longing with protagonist Ralphie’s quest to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model BB gun for Christmas. He seems to be thwarted at every turn. Whether it’s his mother, his teacher or even Santa Claus himself he always hears the same refrain, “You’ll shoot your eye out”. Sprinkled throughout his pursuit are views into his everyday life.  We get to watch as Ralphie and his friends try to survive encounters with the school bully. We meet his parents (in particular The Old Man). We even get a glimpse into his childhood fantasies. These looks provide some classic moments: Flick and the frozen flag pole, the major award, The Santa Slide, the bunny suit just to name just a few.

All of this leads to Christmas morning. After all the gifts appear to be opened and the Red Ryder is nowhere to be found, Ralphie has one last surprise.

This is my favorite scene in the entire movie. Darren McGavin (The Old Man) deserved an Oscar nomination for this scene alone. He captures perfectly that as great as it is to finally get that gift you have been wishing for it’s even better as a parent to be able to give your child exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

A Christmas Story is set in Hammond, Indiana during  the post WWII 1940’s, It is a period piece that perfectly presents its era yet it ties into themes that audiences from any generation can relate to. The result is that whether you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, or even a dreaded Millennial you walk away from this movie with a sense of nostalgia.

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Top 10 Christmas Movies #4: Home Alone

mv5bmtuzmzg4mtg2m15bml5banbnxkftztywndm4otk4-_v1_sx640_sy720_As a 13-year old, I saw Home Alone in the theater when it was released in 1990.  For reasons explained elsewhere, I did not go to the movies much as a kid, and persuading my mother to let me see the hottest new movie amongst my demographic in the theater was something of a coup.

Some time later, a family member informed my mother, who still had not seen Home Alone, about the bad attitude Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has toward his family and how disrespectfully he speaks to his mother (Catherine O’Hara).  Mom pointed this out to me, as if I had been keeping it a secret from her.  I assured her I knew Kevin’s attitude was not acceptable, as I probably rolled my eyes while she wasn’t looking.

A parent myself now, I can of course understand a little better Mom’s concerns about how a Hollywood movie might influence her child.  But, Kevin’s terrible attitude is of course central to the plot of Home Alone (and I’m happy to say Mom has since seen it and, by appearances, seemed to enjoy it).

When the movie opens, we find the McCallister house a-bustle with activity, as the family and extended family prepare to leave for France the next morning.  Eight year-old Kevin is fed up with all the relatives and the lack of enough plain cheese pizza.  In his defense, his siblings and cousins do treat him cruelly, insulting him in French, calling him a disease, and eating all the aforementioned cheese pizza on purpose.  This last offense breaks the camels back and Kevin flips out, causing a scene in the crowded kitchen which results in some misplaced travel documents.  Only adding to his disdain for his own family, Uncle Frank spews a sneering invective in one of the greatest insults in movie history ever leveled at an eight year-old:

Somewhat understandably, yet completely inappropriately, Kevin declares he wishes he didn’t have a family.  Hurt, his mother hopes he doesn’t mean it and sends him off to bed in the attic.

When he awakes the next morning to find the family gone he thinks his wish made his family disappear (in their rush to leave for France, they just forgot him).  At first, it’s a dream come true and he revels in it.  Enter the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), a couple of burglars who have had their eyes set on the McCallister house, the “silver tuna”, since they started working the neighborhood.  As the days go by and Christmas Day draws nearer, Kevin defends his house from the criminals, conquers his fears, and realizes he misses his family and loves them after all.

The final John Hughes movie on our list, in Home Alone Hughes again reminds us that while family can drive us nuts, when it comes down to it, it’s what really matters.  There are great performances by Culkin, Pesci, and O’hara.  The late, great John Candy has a fairly minor, but scene stealing role as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest, who helps O’hara get home to Kevin.

For us 90’s kids, Home Alone is a Christmas classic, but I wonder if today’s kids have realized that the whole madcap scenario could have been solved rather easily since the advent of cell phones.  My kids haven’t clued in on that yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  For it’s time, the movie does a pretty good job of realistically thwarting all of the family’s attempts to contact Kevin from France, though I would not give their communities police department high marks for diligence.  One unanswered knock on the door and the officer assumes the abandoned eight year-old is fine?  Okay.

Of course, you can’t talk about Home Alone without bringing up the funhouse of horrors Kevin transform his house into when the Wet Bandits make their final assault.  Irons to the face, blowtorches to the head, and broken glass to the feet are just a few of the booby traps Kevin sadistically dreams up and employs.  I recently read an article that documented all the injuries Pesci and Stern’s characters would have suffered in real life.  It’s a Christmas miracle they survived.

Home Alone is a full of slapstick fun and a lot of heart.  Good performances, a great–and Oscar nominated–soundtrack from John Williams, a ton of quotable lines and memorable scenes also help to make it #4 on our list.  Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.

 

Top 10 Christmas Movies #5: Elf

Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #5, Elf.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a human, raised by elves at the North Pole, traveled to New York City to meet his long lost father? I know I have. Luckily the next movie on our list lets us know.

Elf (starring Will Ferrell in the title role) tells the story of Buddy. He was a baby living in an orphanage when one Christmas Eve he crawled unseen into Santa’s (Ed Asner) sack and ended up stowing away to the North Pole. There he was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and grew up believing that he was an elf himself. The elves loved and accepted Buddy as one of their own but eventually his 6’3″ frame and lack of toy making skills lead to his discovery that he is actually human.  On top of this shocking revelation he also finds out that his real father (James Caan) is on the Naughty List.

Having learned his true identity Buddy heads to New York to meet his father and find his place in the world. What ensues is what one might expect when a large elf-man armed with nothing but an over abundance of Christmas spirit and childlike optimism confronts the harsh realities of the modern world and a cynical father who is not exactly overjoyed to find out he has one of Santa’s helpers for a son. He even has a less than friendly experience with one who he thinks is his own kind (Peter Dinklage.)

Eventually Buddy is able to make peace with his father, fall in love, and even save Christmas. Happy endings all around.

This is a movie that could have been terrible. It is an admittedly silly story and uses a lot of slapstick humor to get its laughs. In different hands it could have been nothing but a corny schlockfest. But, what makes it work is Will Ferrell’s absolute commitment to the role. He is completely without inhibitions but never stoops to mugging for the camera. He has a real sense of innocence and heart. The movie doubles down on the fish out of water theme: first with Buddy’s humanness conflicting with his life at the North Pole and then with his elfness in New York creating mayhem for himself and pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. All of it results in plenty of genuine laughs.

This is the most recent of the movies on our list. It was released in 2004 but it has already claimed its place as a classic must see holiday favorite. I took my family to see it when our kids were still kids. I watched it with them just the other day and we laughed and loved it just as much.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Pmpw-38615oor Clark Griswold.  All he wanted was the perfect good time, old fashioned family Christmas.  The lights, the tree, the carols, sledding, the perfect Christmas dinner, and of course that big Christmas bonus.

What he got was frustration, a squirrel infested Christmas tree, Cousin Eddie, a cat food jello mold, a SWAT team invasion, and the Jelly of the Month club.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes all of the elements folks come to dread about the Christmas season and puts them on steroids.  Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned family man Clark Griswold does his best to give his family a Christmas to remember.  It certainly will be, but for all the wrong reasons.  His wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) do their best to stay encouraging as the wheels start to come off the closer the big day gets and the house fills up with more cantankerous family members than it was made to handle.  Coupled with the realization that big Christmas bonus may not be coming, and thus leaving him unable to pay for the big gift he had planned and paid for, by Christmas Eve, Clark is pushed to the brink of holiday insanity.  The arrival of the chronically uncouth Cousin Eddie (chronically tax-evading Randy Quaid) didn’t help.

Another Chicago-based holiday movie with John Hughes’ fingerprints on it (he wrote this one), Christmas Vacation is the holiday nightmare that seems far fetched, and yet all too real.  Fortunately for me, my good time, old fashioned family Christmas’ all turned out pretty well.  But it isn’t hard to see how bringing so much family under one roof at one time during what should be a festive but is often stressful season, can go horribly awry.

As is usually the case in Hughes’ movies, despite the chaos endured, when it gets down to it, with your family by your side, things have a way of working out.  Even if you do have to live in constant fear of being accosted by a Mississippi leg hound.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #7: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #7.  Enjoy!

The only reason this movie is not higher on our list is because it is not a Christmas movie. It is a Thanksgiving movie and it is maybe one of the two or three funniest movies I have ever seen.Written and directed by John Hughes (who was involved in two other movies on this list and the ’94 version of Miracle on 34th Street) it stars two of the all time great comedic actors, Steve Martin and John Candy.  It is a shame that this team never collaborated again because when they did, it resulted in pure gold.

Martin plays Neal Page, a straight laced, sort of uptight ad executive who is on business in New York City. All he wants is to get home to his family in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. His path crosses with Del Griffith, played by Candy, a friendly but uncouth shower curtain ring salesman. When bad weather strands them in Wichita this unlikely pair teams up to try and make it back to Chicago in time for Neal to get his turkey. Thus begins the road trip from hell.

Neal and Del find themselves facing every imaginable obstacle on their journey: robbery, biting  dogs, missing rental cars, the worst imaginable wrong turn, exploding cars, and uncomfortably affectionate bus mates just to name just a few. When you add the oil and water quality of their personalities to these foibles you get as many laugh out loud moments as I can remember having in any movie. (As I write this I have been giggling just thinking about some of them)

What makes this movie stand out though is that with the laughs comes real heart. Neal may be uptight but he loves his family. Del is obnoxious but he possesses more than meets the eye behind his goofy mustache.  The scene below is one of my favorites. Forced to share not just a motel room but also a bed Neal is driven to the breaking point by Del’s nighttime routine. He delivers a rant for the ages. It’s hilarious, but watch as Hughes with his writing and Candy with his acting take this from being simply a funny tantrum to a truly poignant moment.

This scene is followed up with one of the biggest laughs ever in a movie. I won’t spoil it here but after you see it the words “Those aren’t pillows!” will be forever burned into your mind.

This movie has become a part of my Thanksgiving routine. It gets the holiday movie viewing off to a fantastic start. (One warning: if you watch an unedited version of this movie on DVD or by streaming, it it does contain strong language. In one scene Steve Martin uses one particularly profane word 19 times in one minute. This is done for comedic affect and it is pretty funny but I didn’t want anyone to be caught off guard by it).

Top 10 Christmas Movies #8: Holiday Inn

holiday_inn_posterHoliday Inn was released in 1942 and features some classic Irving Berlin holiday (not just Christmas) songs that would pop up in various other movies over the years.  Most notably, it features the first appearance of White Christmas, which would of course be the eponymous title of a movie that may or may not be featured later on this list, and go on to be the best selling song of all time.

Like The Nightmare Before ChristmasHoliday Inn is a musical appropriate for more holidays than just Christmas.  The similarities pretty much end there.  There are surprisingly few clowns with tear-away faces in Holiday Inn.  All told Holiday Inn covers Christmas, New Years Eve, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas again, New Year’s Eve again.  Each holiday features a great song and dance number.

Oh, right, the plot.  Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) are a song and dance trio at the top of their craft.  Fed up with show biz life, Jim convinces Lila to leave the rat race, marry him, and take up the lazy, carefree life of a farmer. Apparently Jim has never seen or heard of a working farm before this proposal.  Spurned by Lila, who opts to marry Ted instead, and discovering farming is anything but lazy or carefree, Jim turns the farm into the Holiday Inn, a venue only open all holidays, giving him the rest of the year to kick up his feet and think of clever Bing Crosbyisms (“take a slug out of the mug”).  Joining him at his new venture is Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), yes Linda Mason, an aspiring performer and new love interest for Jim.

But before long, in stumbles Ted, drunk and dumped by Lila, on the opening night of Holiday Inn, New Year’s Eve.  In his stupor, Ted trips the light fantastic with Linda to wild approval of the crowd.  But, he’s too fractured to remember her after the fact.  What follows is a festive spate of musical scheming on the part of Ted and his unscrupulous agent Danny Reed (Walter Abel) on the one hand, and Jim on the other, in a battle for Linda’s affections and sway in determining the course of her show biz career.

The performances are great all-around.  I’m not really a dance guy, but somehow Fred Astaire makes it look pretty cool, especially his fireworks tap dance routine (brief snippet in the trailer below).  All the holiday musical numbers are great, and feel more organic and realistic than they might in other musicals.  They don’t just randomly burst into song like in a lot of other old musicals.  They are giving actual performances for the most part, so they seem natural.  There are a couple exceptions of course, but when it’s Bing doing the crooning, who cares?

There is the matter of the black face performance during the Abraham number.  Try to remember is was 1942.

All told, it’s a fun and entertaining movie with great songs, worthy of a yearly viewing and and the number eight spot on this list.

Post Script:

Besides being great on it’s own merits and providing us with the greatest Christmas song ever, Holiday Inn also spawned this amazing (and only?) Bing Crosby remix.  Enjoy.

 

 

Top 10 Christmas Movies #9: Miracle on 34th Street

Note:  Here’s the latest offering from You Know What I Mean? for our Top 10 Christmas Movies.

What do you do when the same Christmas movie has been made twice and both are excellent? One option would be to include both in our list. Another option would be to have them face off in a head to head, winner take all death match to determine dominance and therefore inclusion. Based on what I have observed in shopping malls, this seems to be in keeping with the holiday spirit so let’s go with option two.

This first MO34S (as it shall be referred to henceforth) was released in 1947 and stars Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood in the essential roles. The second came out in 1994 and correspondingly stars Elizabeth Perkins, Richard Attenborogh, and Mara Wilson. Both follow the same basic plot line. Little Susan Walker has been raised by a single mom (an executive at a New York City department store) to be a realist and therefore does not believe in Santa Claus. Enter the store’s new Santa for the Christmas season
who not only looks and acts the part to degree never seen before but actually believes that he is Santa Claus (he even enters Kris Kringle as his name on his employee information). Kris sets out to convince Susan that he really is Santa Claus culminating in a court battle to determine his true identity.

I like both of these movies but I can only include one. I am going to compare 4 important elements side by side and let that determine which Miracle rises to the top. (Warning, this will contain spoilers)

1. The Santas:
If you want to make a movie about whether or not there really is a Santa Claus you had better have an actor that brings the goods when it comes to that role. As it happens, both versions possess that. In the 1947 MO34S Edmund Gwenn actually won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal. (Apparently Natalie Wood was convinced that he really was Santa Claus until the wrap party.) Richard Attenborogh for his part exudes warmth and charm and hits all the right notes in his performance. He also looks the part. It’s hard to imagine other actors from their respective eras doing a better job than either of these two.
(Edge: Even)

2. The Susans:
MO34S 1947 was Natalie Wood’s first major film role and to be honest it shows. She would grow up to become a big star and respected actress. She gives a fine performance but it’s pretty much one note. Mara Wilson’s acting though, is nuanced. She displays a wide range of emotions, often with just her facial expressions and instantly makes the audience care about what happens to her. Plus she is completely adorable.
(Clear Edge: 1994)

3. The Moms:
In both movies the mother has been hurt by her past and has had to make it on her own. She is obviously strong and resourceful but she is guarded and even cynical. The difference in the performances is that in MO34S 1947 Maureen O’Hara is able to show a spark of warmth behind the layers. Her change of heart for Kris is more subtle and seems organic. Elizabeth Perkins comes across as an Ice Queen. She is prickly and almost mean. I honestly don’t see what her kindhearted love interest sees in her other than that she is pretty. When she finally comes around it seems to come out of left field.
(Edge:1947)

4. The Climax
As mentioned before, both movies wind up in a courtroom for a competency hearing to determine whether or not Kris should be committed. The only way for him to be declared sane is to somehow prove that Santa Clause does in fact exist and the Kris is Santa Claus. In both movies this appears to be a lost cause until a last minute maneuver tips the scales of justice in Kris’ favor. In MO34S 1994 the judge uses “In God We Trust” being printed on U.S. currency as the basis for an argument that Santa Claus is real. It’s confusing and anticlimactic. The 1947 version does a more satisfying job of proving Kris’ case.

This has become on of the most iconic scenes in movie history and is one of the main reasons this movie has been a Christmas mainstay for almost 70 years.
(Overwhelming Edge: 1947)
 
Winner: 1947
While I had to declare a winner, I recommend you make time for both of these movies this Christmas season. You will find plenty to love with both.