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.
We’re No Angels
Imagine that The Three Stooges were lowlife criminals and quite a bit smarter. Now replace Moe with Humphrey Bogart (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”), Larry with Peter Ustinov (“Spartacus,” “Death on the Nile”), and Curly with Aldo Ray (“The Green Berets,” “Pat and Mike”). Okay, that’s not easy to imagine; I realize that. But it might pique your curiosity enough to check into this little gem.
The three gentlemen are escaped cons on Devil’s Island. They want off the island to live a free life in Paris, so they’re looking for easy money. That lands them on the roof of a struggling shopkeeper and his family, and that changes their plans. Slightly.
Using their enterprising criminal minds, they descend from the roof like angels and begin performing little Christmas miracles for the family. Their hi-jinks and shenanigans are a lot of fun to watch, dark though they might be, and the chemistry between these three is fantastic.
The film is based on the play “My Three Angels” by Samuel and Bella Spewack, which was based on the French play “La Cuisine Des Anges” by Albert Husson. The film feels like a filmed play, and for the most part it works well. However, sometimes in the theater unwieldy exposition flies whereas it does not in the movies. This movie starts off with quite a lot of clumsy exposition, including the line, “Don’t you know, me, dad? It’s me. Your daughter.” And if you don’t know that these guys are criminals at the very start, don’t worry. They will tell you over and over again.
This is a light Christmas tale with a dark underbelly, and it’s a real treat for classic movie fans.
Are you looking for an animated Christmas film with a twist of Monty Python flavor? “Arthur Christmas” features the voice talent of some Britain’s biggest talents and has a dark streak that runs right through it.
Arthur (James McAvoy, “X-Men: First Class,” “The Last King of Scotland”) is the youngest son of Santa (Jim Broadbent, “Moulin Rouge,” “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”). His older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie, “House M.D.,” “Stuart Little”) is the next one in line, and his grandfather (Bill Nighy, “Shawn of the Dead,” “Love Actually”) is the former Santa. Of course that makes his mother (Imelda Staunton, “Vera Drake,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) Mrs. Santa.
Steve is all about the future with his tech-based approach to the logistics of Christmas with just one Santa and about a billion kids. Grandsanta is still clinging on to the classics, real reindeer and lead based paint. Santa is caught up in the glory of being the top man and isn’t ready to relegate his throne quite yet, even though he’s become forgetful. Meanwhile, Arthur thinks the most important part about Christmas is that every child gets a present from Santa. When one gift goes undelivered, the race is on to get it under the tree, and everyone has their own motive.
This is a rare animated film that delivers on the promise of creating a satisfying story for both children and adults equally. The humor that is aimed at the children works with the big kids, and the adult humor is neither inappropriate or juvenile. Every note hits its mark with perfect pitch.
“Arthur Christmas” delivers., and everyone gets a gift from Santa.
Buddy the “elf” (Will Ferrell, Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”) is the first human to ever be at the North Pole. In fact, he was accidentally picked up from an orphanage by Santa (Edward Asner, “Up,” “Mary Tyler Moore”) and adopted by an older elf that never found time for kids of his own (Bob Newhart, “Newhart,” “The Bob Newhart Show”). When he discovers the secret that he isn’t just a very, very tall elf, he makes a journey through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet his real father (James Caan, “The Godfather,” “Misery”), his wife (Mary Steenburgen, “Step Brothers,” “Back to the Future III”), and his young son.
Of course Buddy knows nothing of the world outside of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” inspire North Pole. He doesn’t know it makes him seem odd when he eats spaghetti with syrup, makes toys out of furniture, or beats up the Gimble’s Santa for impersonating the real Santa. And he can’t understand why his dad keeps calling the police every time he shows up.
This is a sweet movie about a very kind and compassionate man who is seeking a place where he feels he can belong. It’s about family. It’s about love. And it’s about finding the Christmas spirit in a world that is not as gentle as Santa’s workshop.
Who wouldn’t want to take a sleigh ride brought to you by the director of “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau?
It’s a Wonderful Life
This film has become a Christmas staple for two reasons:
1) It bombed at the box office, drove the studio out of business, put its famed director out of a job, and eventually became public domain property, thus was free to be broadcast on television every Christmas for free.
2) It is a perfect movie.
Frank Capra is one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. He is responsible for dozens of classics like “It Happened One Night,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” James “Jimmy” Stewart is one of the biggest stars of the silver screen, turning in a lifetime of great work in films like “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Rear Window.” These two together had already created “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to great success, and while Stewart was reluctant to return to films so soon after returning from serving in the war, he trusted Capra.
What they got for their final collaboration was powerful. The shot of George Bailey (Stewart’s character) sitting at the bar, weeping, and begging God for a miracle was so rich with real emotional turmoil that Capra blew up the image to make it a closer cut. This is a movie about the ultimate “every man” and how much of an impact he is capable of making.
The film begins with a collage of voices in prayer, asking for God to please help poor George out in his time of need. We are introduced to the wingless angel, Clarence (Henry Travers, “The Bells of St. Mary,” “The Invisible Man”), who will be trying to earn his wings by helping George. As Clarence learns about his client, we see the life of George unfold.
George Bailey is a man with large dreams. He wants to build skyscrapers and see the world. He wants to shake the dust of the crummy little town of Bedford Falls off of his shoes. He wants to be important. But complications with his family, community responsibilities, a local love interest (Donna Reed, “From Here to Eternity,” “The Donna Reed Show”), and a miserly old man (Lionell Barrymore, “Key Largo,” “Captain Courageous”) have kept him from every realizing his dreams. All through the years – the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II – George has raised up a family, run his buildings and loan, and fought Old Man Potter. But due to a financial disaster he had no control over, his life is falling apart. And that’s when George Bailey wishes he had never been born.
It has moments of melodrama and moments of saccharine sweetness, but they both work perfectly well in the context of this heart-warming tale of drama, comedy, and thrills.
A neat little piece of trivia: Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer is the boy that gets jilted by George and Mary at the school dance and opens up the dance floor. This isn’t the only Christmas classic he makes a cameo appearance in. He’s also the freckled-faced older brother of The Haynes Sisters in “White Christmas.”
This movie is one of the top grossing comedies of all time, which easily makes it writer John Hughes’s most successful film. This is the guy behind the Brat Pack films, “Christmas Vacation,” and the updated “Miracle on 34th Street.” To a lot of people, this fact was a mystery to some people back when the movie came out in 1990, but never to me.
“Home Alone” centers around an actor that may possibly be the biggest child star since Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin (“My Girl,” “Uncle Buck”). He is accidentally left home alone by his parents (Catherine O’Hara, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Surviving Christmas,” “Best in Show” and John Heard, “Big,” “Awakenings”). He has to survive on his own and defend his house from two deranged thieves (Joe Pesci, “Goodfellas,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and Daniel Stern, “City Slickers,” “The Wonder Years”).
There are essentially two different movies here. The first is about a boy that learns to act like an adult when the family he wishes weren’t there aren’t. He does all his own shopping, seeks a toothbrush that’s approved by the American Dental Association, applies aftershave, and then runs around the house screaming from the pain of applying aftershave. Then there’s the second film. The one where the boy uses his childish ingenuity to clobber, burn, tar and feather, and maim the bad guys.
The real reason that this movie works so well is Culkin. He’s sweet, cute, clever, has great delivery, and is believable even when he’s using words he’s probably too young to use.
What’s not to love? The film has heart and it has very violent slapstick.