Over the past 10 years or so, I've made every effort to establish myself as "the Christmas guy." My friends and family may be annoyed that I start playing Christmas carols on my car stereo no later than Nov. 1, but one thing that everyone can seem to enjoy together is the tradition of trying to cram in as many Christmas movies and television specials as possible during the weeks heading up to the big day.
I can never seem to get everything watched every single year, but for your consideration here are 25 Christmas films and specials (divided into eight categories) that I at least attempt to watch annually. This is my own personal list, so you won't find many "standard" titles like "Home Alone" or "The Santa Clause" (too grating), nor will you find "A Christmas Story" (fun but over-rated and played out thanks to TBS). Enjoy, and happy holidays!
More than 60 years after its less-than-lauded original release, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" remains the ultimate Christmas classic. Yet for all its fame, this story of a suicidal man (James Stewart in his best role) who finds personal worth and redemption during a particularly bleak holiday season remains depressingly under-rated. This shouldn't be pigeon-holed as a cliche holiday movie; it should be celebrated as an "anytime" classic.
The original "Miracle on 34th Street" (featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Edmund Gwenn as a department store Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle) is another worthy holiday classic - not as weighty as Capra's film, but every bit as joyous and life-affirming.
Here we come a-caroling
"It's a Wonderful Life" is well-established as my favorite traditional Christmas movie, but I've missed it a few times over the years. I have never, however, missed out on at least one incarnation of Charles Dickens' unabashedly sentimental "A Christmas Carol." The 1951 Alastair Sim version is indeed stunning, filmed in crisp black-and-white and bursting with an old-timey good-naturedness that peaks in the film's glowing Christmas Day finale.
Yet I find myself equally drawn to the 1984 television production starring George C. Scott as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. This one is lesser-known, but features a better cast (including David Warner as Bob Cratchit); gorgeous color cinematography, sets and costumes; and a Tiny Tim who actually looks gravely ill, not just pale and lazy.
If you're not down with the Dickensian Christmas scene, instead check out "Scrooged," with Bill Murray as a TV executive who finds himself hounded by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future as he oversees the production of a musical "Christmas Carol" event; and "Mickey's Christmas Carol," the Disney TV special that stars Scrooge McDuck in a brief, delightful retelling of the classic morality play.
Love is all around me
There's nothing wrong with a little romantic holiday wish fulfillment. One of my recent faves from this dubious but occasionally rewarding sub-genre is the British dramedy "Love Actually," featuring an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson as lovelorn souls, with Bill Nighy in an award-winning turn as a washed-up rocker sell-out who emerges as a sort of Father Christmas figure. In a word, charming.
"The Holiday" is not is as well-known, but is perhaps even better at evoking genuine emotion. Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black and the always lovely Kate Winslet star in this fanciful film about two women who find more than they bargained for when they swap homes for a holiday vacation. No other program discussed in this column made my eyes well up at any point, but this one did on a few occasions. Guess I'm just a sucker for a weeping Jude Law.
I feel like I should be ashamed to admit a weakness for Nicolas Cage's uneven "Family Man," but whatever. The movie, about a rich businessman who glimpses what his life could have been like if he hadn't put money first, effectively teaches an important lesson about the value of family and human connection, and delivers some cute moments in the process. Realistically, what more can one expect from this kind of thing?
Who ever said that Yuletide entertainment had to be in good taste? For your dose of Christmas cynicism, look no further than Terry Zwigoff's "Bad Santa," with Billy Bob Thornton as a small-time crook who works as a mall Santa in order to set up a heist. He ends up befriending a troubled fat kid, but Zwigoff recognizes the absurdity of such genre conventions and proceeds to skewer them with surgical pricision. Very, very funny.
But not as funny as "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," which still remains hilarious even after what must be about 20 viewings. This chronicle of the ill-advised Griswold family Christmas (headed up by Chevy Chase as the archetypal over-eager father) has become a permanent fixture on my holiday watch list, and I try to see it twice each Christmas. Trust me: It never gets old.
"The Ref" is probably the most outright vicious of the dysfunctional-family Christmas movies that I've seen, probably due to the presence of Judy Davis as a brash wife constantly at the throat of her equally horrible husband (played by Kevin Spacey). They're kidnapped on Christmas Eve by Dennis Leary as a cat burglar on the run, but Leary isn't running the show here - it's his costars. The film works because of Davis and Spacey, who turn mutual hate into a delightful bit of holiday Schadenfreude.
A very Muppet Christmas
Okay, don't get me wrong: Christmas movies rule. However, no theatrical holiday film I've ever seen has given me the same all-encompassing sense of innocence and childlike joy as "A Muppet Family Christmas" continues to give me 21 years after I first saw it debut on TV at the age of four. (I've got just two words for you: Swedish Chef.) Forget plot descriptions; if you dig the Muppets, check it out. (The DVD is missing footage, but only purists will care.) If not, then you and your icy heart can have fun playing with your lump of coal, because the Muppets rock.
If the Muppets rock the holidays so hard, then "A Muppet Christmas Carol" would just be a stupid waste of time, just like almost every other kid-oriented interpretation of a classic literary work. The Muppets sell it, though, with the help of Michael Caine, who makes a pretty good Scrooge. Proper Dickens it ain't, but, hey, it beats Mr. Magoo's version.
Also worth checking out is "A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie," which is their riff on "It's a Wonderful Life." Kermit is in the Jimmy Stewart role, and Joan Cusack makes fun use of her special brand of sexuality to bolster her performance as the rich bigwig looking to exploit the huddled masses. Watch it for Pepe the King Prawn, who falls prey to Cusack's charms but ultimately redeems himself and saves Christmas. Yay, Pepe!
Festival of frights
"Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" gets watched twice during the year, once at Halloween and again closer to Dec. 25. It's brisk, it's fun and it never gets stale. It sports a great soundtrack to boot, with the impressive vocals of ghoulish protagonist Jack Skellington performed by frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman (Chris Sarandon does the speaking voice). My favorite trans-holiday double-dipper treat.
"Gremlins" is worth watching now and again, if only for that cute little Mogwai named Gizmo, who sprouts misbehaving hellions when he's not properly taken care of; and for Phoebe Cates' memorable monologue on why Christmas makes her uncomfortable. The sequel was better, but not very Christmasy.
"The Polar Express" isn't very Christmasy either, if you ask me, and I don't think I like it very much at all. But it's still fascinating, in some twisted way. This thing is like salvia for your DVD player, and may send your consciousness spinning into dark, unspeakable places. Needless to say, this bizarre bit of holiday revelry has little to do with the famous children's book on which it is "based," yet it's still compulsively watchable. I'm just striving to understand its appeal to non-acid freaks, let alone children.
Which brings me to "A Very Brady Christmas," arguably the most terrifying Christmas program on this list. The Bradys have always had an unsettling weirdness about them, and it's magnified in this hypnotic reunion show filmed 14 years after the original show ended. Alice is having relationship problems with Sam the Butcher, Greg is now a gynecologist, Marcia is a neglected housewife, Peter has turned passive aggressive and feels emasculated by his domineering wife/boss, and Jan has sex in her parents' home. The horror. The horror.
I've never been much into those creepy claymation programs ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," et. al.), but I dig TV specials as much as the next Christmas-loving couch potato. The standard, of course, is the animated "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!", directed by "Looney Tunes" legend Chuck Jones. Boris Karloff provides the narration for Dr. Seuss' story of a grumpy Grinch who finds the spirit of Christmas buried deep beneath his cold exterior after he tries to "steal" the holiday from the denizens of Whoville. It's still touching more than 40 years later.
The same goes for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which has attained a well-deserved, untouchable classic status thanks to its frank and earnest examination of the rift between modern Christmas tradition and the actual meaning of the holiday. It's also notable for that cool dance sequence featuring that one kid doing a funky shoulder-hunching jig. Yeah, you know the one I'm talking about. It's awesome.
And who can forget "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," which served as both the series' pilot episode (shorts were previously featured on "The Tracy Ullman Show") and our introduction to the lovable Simpsons family dog, Santa's Little Helper. "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas" may not be as well-regard, but is just as funny. It's the first thing I watch when I quit school and/or work for Christmas vacation, or, as Peter Griffin calls it, "dipsoluscious vacation," which is so much cooler.
Alright, I don't even want to hear it. It's been my experience that many scoff when "Die Hard" is cited as one of the perennial Christmas movies, but what's not to like? It's the best straight-up action film ever made in America, with a wonderfully macho lead performance by Bruce Willis in his prime, plus a villainous Alan Rickman in what is perhaps his greatest role. And, it's more than Christmasy enough to be considered. "Now I have a machine gun - Ho! Ho! Ho!" may be the best holiday greeting ever.
"Lethal Weapon," released a year before "Die Hard," isn't as indispensable, but it's still a mainstay. Holiday imagery abounds, and one of the best scenes finds Mel Gibson's unstable cop Martin Riggs undercover at a Christmas tree lot. And, the can't-miss showdown between Riggs and a Special Forces colleague turned drug henchman (played with unnerving psychosis by none other than Gary Busey) gives the boys at the holiday gathering something masculine to watch and bond over. Can I get a viciously primal chest bump?
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.