‘Tis the season for all of the holiday specials, Christmas movies, and related seasonal entertainment to be played and replayed ad infinitum on TV. I’ve noticed some new offerings this year (i.e. what’s with this hot-mess-looking-craziness starring Tori Spelling about rival holiday singing groups?) but I tend to stick pretty closely to the classics – the Christmas-wouldn’t-be-quite-complete-without-them holiday staples like the animated Grinch with Boris Karloff narrating, for one. I was home the other weekend flipping through the various Christmas options and my Mom astutely observed, “You know, a lot of Christmas movies aren’t very good”. So true, Mom. Sad, but true.
Why is this? It seems like holiday-themed programming is rife with trite plots, schmaltzy gimmicks, and over-the-top epiphanies. Like much during the holidays, the related entertainment has been commercialized, packaged and wrapped up in a big glittery bow. But when you open it up, all you get a lot of the time is an empty box. Maybe the industry powers-that-be think quality doesn’t matter much at this time of year – people have time off and are more likely to be in watching TV or at the movies than out in the snow or braving the jam-packed malls and stores. And we’ll watch whatever happens to be on, right? (Case in point, I settled for Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause the other night… please don’t judge me). Maybe all of the original ideas for Christmas family programming have been used up, or are so out of the mainstream that they are all but inaccessible. Regardless of the reasons, it seems to be a sad state of affairs out there for discerning movie watchers looking to expand our holiday repertoire.
I don’t mean to come across as jaded and Grinchy (yep, that’s totally a thing), but realistically, it can be a challenge deciding on quality holiday entertainment. But my Mom’s observation gave me an idea for a holiday-themed post. I thought it might be fun to do a rundown of the popular family-friendly Christmas fare and share my own candy cane ratings out of 3. Perhaps a bit too ambitious, as it’s taken longer than I thought, but I figure I won’t be posting over the holidays so thought I’d do it up right to end the year. Because of the abundance of holiday films, TV specials, and made-for-TV movies out there, I’ve limited my list to full-length feature films (and just the ones I’ve actually seen).
So many renditions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have been made for both the big and small screen using various titles, it warrants its own heading here to help keep them all straight:
Scrooge (1951) – starred Alastair Sim in the title role. Still the best and spookiest of the adaptations coming straight from Dickens’ text. (3 candy canes)
Scrooge (1970) – featured Albert Finney in this musicalized version. Personally I find Finney a tad over-the-top in the title role, and the songs aren’t terribly memorable, but overall, more than watchable. (2 candy canes)
A Christmas Carol (1984) – I’m including this version with George C. Scott even though it was a TV movie… when watching this, I’m always distracted by images of him as Patton. It doesn’t work. (1 candy cane)
Scrooged (1988) – I really like Bill Murray as the Scrooge-like character. He deliciously milks his role as a hard-nosed tv executive exploiting Christmas programming who eventually sees the light. It’s fun with lots of weird twists, one of the most enjoyable is Carol Kane’s oddly violent Ghost of Christmas Present. (2 candy canes)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – perhaps my all-time favourite Christmas movie, and not just for nostalgic reasons. There’s Dickens. There’s Muppets. There’s Michael Caine (who plays Scrooge brilliantly balancing warmth and vitriol). There’s singing. “There’s only one more sleep to Christmas”. It makes me smile. (3 big candy canes)
There are also a number of other versions of A Christmas Carol that I haven’t seen such as Patrick Stewart’s 1999 TV version, Jack Palance’s western version in 1997, Kelsey Grammar’s 2004 musical version, and Jim Carrey in the most recent 2009 animated take. For those of you who have seen these or others, feel free to comment on their watchability… (I’m always looking for recommendations).
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Another of my all-time favourites, I’m sure most readers know the story of a small-town man with big dreams who gets a glimpse of what life would be like without him in it. I actually like the beginning – where George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed) are falling in love – better than the somewhat cheesy ending. Their initial tension and chemistry are what set the stage for the drama to come and are some of the best scenes in the film. It still holds up well over 60 years later – I find it endlessly re-watchable and find new parts to enjoy each time I see it. That makes it perfect for holiday viewing. (3 candy canes)
Miracle on 34th Street – there are two well-known versions of this timeless story of a young lawyer’s mission to prove the existence of Santa and get the girl. The 1947 original version with Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle is my personal favourite. I don’t know, the scene where they bring in the sacks and sacks of mail into the courtroom at the end has way more impact than the weak-ass ending of the 1994 remake. Yes, it introduces the story to a new generation, but the original is way more fun (if somewhat dated). Original – 2 candy canes; Remake – 1 cane.
White Christmas (1952) – Undeniably a classic and a spectacle in the grand Hollywood musical tradition, White Christmas is the quintessential holiday movie. Things I love: Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney; Bing and Danny Kaye’s drag reprise of “Sisters”; the harmonies of “Snow”; the spectacular costumes; and that every time we watch it, my Dad refers to it as “the biggest coincidence in movie history” that the two entertainers wind up at their old army sergeant’s Vermont inn. But some of the dance numbers go on way too long (like “Choreography”), and the movie drags in places – I generally fast forward through those scenes. But there is lots to love here. (2 candy canes)
A Christmas Story (1983) – Ralphie’s obsession with getting a “Red Ryder , carbine action, 200 shot range model air rifle” perfectly captures the magic, wonder, and yes, wanton desire associated with Christmas from a kid’s point of view. It’s charming and real without being overly saccharine. (3 candy canes)
Christmas Vacation (1989) – who could imagine Christmas without the Griswalds? Poor Clark tries so hard and always seems to come up short (or broke, or injured, or goofy). The over-the-top hilarity is somewhat comforting – at least our Christmas won’t be THAT bad! (2 candy canes)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – weird, surreal, endearing, off-beat – all the things that characterize Tim Burton at his best. Shot in stop-action animation, the world of Jack Skellington (our “hero”) is one strange, ethereal landscape after another. Jack yearns to break free from what he has come to see as the monotony of Halloweentown and accidentally winds up in Christmastown. He kidnaps Santa to infuse his hometown with some Christmas spirit. It’s not one of my favs or “must-see” Christmas movies, but it’s kind of fun to catch on cable. (2 candy canes)
The Santa Clause (1994) – there a whole series of Tim Allen as Santa in the Santa Clause movies, but I’ve only seen the first one. I’m good with that. The first one is okay. It addresses those age-old questions of how Santa visits all the children in the world in one night and how he deliver gifts when there’s no chimney. I’m not really a fan of Tim Allen, but here he’s fairly relatable as Scott Calvin, working weekend Dad struggling to maintain a relationship with his son. And I confess I do enjoy Judge Reinhold as the well-meaning shrink poised to become Scott’s ex-wife’s new husband. (1 candy cane)
Mixed Nuts (1994) – set at a California suicide hotline on Christmas Eve, it’s not surprising this comedy tips heavily into dark territory. With Nora Ephron at the helm and a stellar comedic cast including Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, Madeline Kahn , Rob Reiner, Liev Schreiber, Juliette Lewis, and countless others in smaller cameos (Garry Shandling, Adam Sandler), I expected more – or maybe less. There’s a lot going on in this movie – too much – like no one in the cast got the memo they were supposed to be the straight man. It’s not without some solid funny moments, but it plays like one slapstick bit after another rather than a cohesive whole. (1 candy cane)
Home for the Holidays (1995) – this one isn’t actually a Christmas movie, as the whole story revolves instead around family members converging for Thanksgiving. Not exactly a laugh-out-loud comedy, Home for the Holidays is funny in a “been-there, done-that” way across a series of awkward family holiday moments. Holly Hunter plays a single mother who comes home to her parents’ (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning) to face the brutal honesty only people who know each other very well can level at each other. The cast is rounded out nicely by Robert Downey Jr. as her gay brother and his partner played by Dylan McDermott. (2 candy canes)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – Why, Ron Howard, why? This is not a fun movie to watch. Despite the glimpses we get into the Grinch’s childhood and how he comes to hate Christmas (which I think are supposed to make him more sympathetic), Jim Carrey’s portrayal seems overly mean-spirited and hurtful with none of the heart of the beloved animated original. Incidentally, the cartoon Grinch seems to have more emotional clout than Carrey under all that makeup. I would rather watch the animated Boris Karloff-narrated version 4 times in a row than the Jim Carrey live action version ever, ever again. (No canes for you)
The Family Man (2000) – The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni isn’t bad holiday entertainment, but it’s not terribly original (the plot is essentially a recycled version of It’s a Wonderful Life where the main character gets a glimpse of an alternate reality and learns an important life lesson). The “what if” plot is a little tired and predictable, and I’m not a huge Nicolas Cage fan to begin with. But I do like Tea Leoni in this movie and Don Cheadle lends some class as the “angel” who helps Cage’s character see the light. (1.5 candy canes)
Love Actually (2003) – with the intersecting storylines and “who’s who” cast of mostly British actors, Love Actually is at the top of my mandatory holiday viewing list. It’s consistently funny, occasionally absurd, and often simultaneously heart-warming and –wrenching, depending on your point of view. (3 candy canes)
Elf (2003) – Will Ferrell is at his frenetic best in Elf as Buddy, a 6 foot plus human raised in the North Pole who thinks he’s an elf. Farrell’s earnestness borders on psychosis, but makes for entertaining holiday fun. I enjoyed the supporting cast immensely: Bob Newhart as Buddy’s elf-father, James Caan as the hard-nosed exec who Buddy learns is his biological father, and Ed Asner as the big man himself. Elf has heart, some homages to classic Christmas shows, and lots of funny, quotable moments: “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favourite!” You will. (2 candy canes)
The Polar Express (2004) – I wasn’t familiar with the children’s book on which this motion-capture computer-animated film was based, but I like the story of a skeptical boy who boards a magical train to the North Pole in search of Santa’s workshop. Tom Hanks lends his face and voice to multiple characters in the film to mysterious and charming effect. The action sequences were outstanding on the big screen (but lose a little when watching on TV), and the motion capture technique lends a captivating (and sometimes eerie) realism to the animated characters. (2 candy canes)
Christmas with the Kranks (2004) – Based on the John Grisham story, “Skipping Christmas”, I generally skip the Kranks whenever it’s on. It wants to be a satire/commentary about the consumerism culture around Christmas, but ends up being a study in conformity rather than in finding the “true” meaning of Christmas. It has a little too much slapstick for my taste, and again, Tim Allen who I know has his fan-base, but I don’t count myself among the ranks (and seriously, what is with this guy and bad Christmas movies?!). Skip it. (1 candy cane)
The Family Stone (2005) – I really like The Family Stone, for the same reasons I like Home for the Holidays – families are their own weird little universe and nothing calls this into sharper relief than when someone new attempts to enter the fray. The matriarch and patriarch Stones are played (or should I say, expertly underplayed) by Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson. Part screwball comedy and part family drama, the strong cast which includes Luke Wilson, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rachel McAdams strikes an effective balance between corny and genuine. (3 candy canes)
Four Christmases (2008) – I’m not going to say much here except that I hated, yes hated this movie – and I don’t say that very often. Usually I can find at least one redeeming feature. Sorry, not here. I will instead refer you to Roger Ebert’s review which made me laugh out loud with its tongue-in-cheek presentation of the theoretical pitch for such a colossal waste of talent. (Zero canes)
So that’s what I’ll be watching (or not watching as the case may be). What will you be watching this holiday season?
This will probably be it for me for 2012 (plus the world is ending on Friday so that could be “it”, period!). Hope all of you out there in blog-land have a very safe and happy holiday season. See you next year!