Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.
A Christmas Story
American humorist Jean Shepherd, who spent many years spinning semi-autobiographical yarns on the radio and in books, wove several of his stories into this tale of Christmas Americana. The result is one of the most beloved holiday films.
I could write endlessly of bee bee guns that shoot out eyes and the glowing light of sexuality that burns in the front window and the hillbilly neighbor’s dogs and tongues on flagpoles and the f dash dash dash word, but that would make this review seem more like a love letter to the movie. That would be unprofessional. I might as well be writing these words while wearing a set of pink bunny pajamas with long floppy ears and a cotton tail.
This movie has been nostalgia typified for a handful of generations. There are those who were adults in the 1980s that knew what a decoder ring was. There are those who were children in the 1980s that viewed Christmas through their parents’ experience and could see their reflection of their own. And then there have been those who have come after, who see that those stories Mr. Shepherd told about his own life are both frozen in time and alive in our own.
If you’re an adult and want to see Christmas as a kid again, “A Christmas Story” is a great way to go.
“Die Hard” is the manual for how to create a compelling action movie.
First, you get the cool, quick witted hero. Someone like John McClain (Bruce Willis). You put him into a situation where he has personal interests in stake. In this case, it’s his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and kids and the opportunity to save his marriage – and his wife’s life.
Now you need a great bad guy. Someone you really love to hate. Someone like Alan Rickman will do, and if you can make him a racist, perhaps install overtones of neo-Nazism, that will work best. Give him a sinister plan, like a terror plot to hijack the building where John McClain’s wife is having her company Christmas party.
You need some great henchmen, and Die Hard starts off with twelve really good ones. There’s the Aryan twins, the obnoxious hacker, a bunch of guys with machine guns (ho-ho-ho), and everyone’s favorite 80’s stuntman (Al Leong).
Now, if you’re making this movie in the 1980’s, you’ll need more than just Al Leong. You’ll want the coked up business guy, a journalist a-hole (no one better than William Atherton for that part), and if you can find a way to work in Mary Ellen Trainor (“Lethal Weapon,” “Scrooged,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Ghostbusters II”), then you’re really cooking with grease.
You’ll need a sidekick. He could be the hero’s driver and played for laughs. Or he could be the only one that believes in the hero and played for heart (Reginald VelJohnson).
Create a series of plausible scenarios. Use physics as a guiding principle for how things will react in your world. Hobble your main character with some kind of injury that makes the audience worry even more as the third act draws near. And make it one man against a small army.
Oh, and if it can be on Christmas Eve, and you can work in as many references to the holiday, you might end up with a movie as good as “Die Hard.”
The Muppet Christmas Carol
There was a time directly after Jim Henson’s death when the future of The Muppets was in peril. Mr. Henson realized that in order for the creations he and his workshop had come up with to continue in perpetuity after his demise, he would have to entrust the characters to a studio that could continue the legacy. A studio like Walt Disney.
Whereas the live Muppet Theater show at Disneyland is the perfect example of what this new collaboration could be, Jim had a major part to play in that attraction. However, subsequent to Disney taking full control of The Muppets, there was a period where the classic formula was set aside. It was only natural, after all, since that formula was very driven by Henson, Oz, and the gang and their distinct sense of humor. Without them as the driving force – and coming off of a declining franchise of theatrical releases – the Disney executives were tasked with reinvention.
That reinvention came in the form of overlaying The Muppets onto classic public domain literature. Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol. By the time the studio had figured out how to do an original Muppet story (the excellent “Muppets from Space”), the audience had all but forgotten about the clan of crazy puppets.
Luckily, the internet kept the characters alive long enough for modern stars that grew up loving The Muppets (director James Bobin, actors like Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais) to revitalize the dying franchise with nostalgia for the best material.
Okay, that subjective history lesson aside, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a pleasant and utilitarian retelling of the Dickens classic. While it is not the best Muppet story – or the best version of “The Christmas Carol” – there’s some nice work here. Michael Caine is quite good as Ebenezer. The puppet work is endlessly clever. And if you’re a fan of Rizzo, this is his most important part.
There are some problems too. Some of the characters work well (Waldorf and Statler are perfectly cast), and some of them are definitely forced puzzle pieces (Miss Piggy being the worst offender).
If you’re a huge fan of The Muppets, this is a fun holiday movie. But may I suggest you stagger this one with the other Muppet Christmases? There are quite a few.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a love letter to those who sometimes feel isolated. That’s the ultimate origin and what drew many of the key players into giving some of their best work.
Tim Burton had gone back again and again to draw storyboards for a poem he had written. He was inspired by the classic television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” so when it came time to produce the film for Disney, he sought out a director with experience in stop-go-animation.
Henry Selick, who would go on to create “James and the Giant Peach” and “Caroline,” had created some shorts that showed great promise. He was given the great task of helming the film.
Danny Elfman had done some great instrumental music for films and television, including “Batman” and “Beetlejuice” for Burton. However, he hadn’t yet tapped into the type of songwriting he had done in Oingo Boingo. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” would be a chance to create music for a full musical. He was so eagerly involved that he ended up voicing the singing parts for several parts, including Jack Skellington.
The material itself came from Burton’s childhood memories. He felt isolated, but when Halloween or Christmas came around, things felt magical. In the film, Jack Skellington has lost his zeal for his own holiday, Halloween, but finds himself drawn to the light and mysterious Christmasland. Not yet seeing what makes him special, Jack does everything he can to adopt the magic of Christmas. Unfortunately, these two holidays don’t and shouldn’t feel the same.
Selick and Elfman felt they could understand Jack, and that was very advantageous for the cult audience that can too.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a treasure of a holiday film that manages to do what Jack could not, find the proper mix of both Halloween and Christmas that would please the world.
The Bells of St. Mary’s
Though not technically a Christmas film, this school house drama has become a holiday staple for classic film lovers the world over. There are, after all, two scenes during Christmas and a reference to the spirit of the holiday in one of the closing speeches.
Bing Crosby (“White Christmas,” “Holiday Inn”) plays Father O’Malley, a priest with a straw hat and swagger. Ingrid Bergman (“Casablanca”) is Sister Benedict, the head nun that teaches compassion and discipline to the students. Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) is Horace Bogardus, a venture capitalist that has his mind set on tearing down the school to make a parking lot. Sister Benedict, however, has her mind – and prayers – set on Bogardus donating the building to the school.
Many of the best moments and scenes in this film seem improvised, which is a very uncommon thing for movies during this period. My favorite scene, in fact, is the reenactment of the nativity by a group of first graders. For about five minutes, the movie becomes a Little Rascals title of the highest caliber.
The plot is fairly melodramatic (and the ending ever so), but in many ways it takes the back seat to tableau of kindness and compassionate tutoring.
The greatest strength of this film is that the crooner and the beauty have incredible chemistry together, but it never becomes inappropriate. It’s a pleasant story of the Christian compassion that makes up the spirit of Christmas.
Honestly, this one is worth watching just to watch Sweden’s greatest Hollywood starlet dressed as nun teaching a boy how to box.