“The Apartment” (1960)
If a Christmas-time setting is useful for anything, it’s often to play up a sense of loneliness in a character —the holidays are meant to be a time to spend with loved ones and family, and you can isolate a character beautifully by the simple means of surrounding them with festive revels. Perhaps more than anything else, this makes “The Apartment” a Christmas movie: though it spans a few months and climaxes memorably on New Year’s Eve, the film makes as great a use of the holidays as anything else here. Billy Wilder’s film, maybe the greatest romantic comedy ever made, stars Jack Lemmon as an ambitious, lonely office drone who lets his higher-ups use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. He’s in love with elevator operator Ms. Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who is in fact the mistress of his boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Though often incredibly funny, Wilder’s film stands apart from other holiday films by its rich vein of melancholy, and none more so than during arguably the movie’s most memorable stretch, involving a Christmas party where everyone finds out everything that’s going on, and Lemmon finds MacLaine having attempted suicide in his apartment, and then spends several days with her while she recuperates. The Christmas backdrop elevates the fairy tale feel of the story, even if it’s a bittersweet one for much of its running time, and the perfect climax to a perfect film warms your heart like chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
“Babes In Toyland” (1930)
Perhaps a Christmas movie more out of its association with a shitload of toys than because of a seasonal vibe (though Santa Claus does make an appearance), “Babes In Toyland,” a very loose adaptation of the operetta of the same name, is another movie that became a holiday TV staple, airing on New York’s WPIX for many years. If it does not quite encompass Laurel & Hardy’s finest hour, the film is certainly one of their most imaginative and family-friendly efforts. The two play Stannie and Ollie, two toymaker’s assistants who live in a shoe in Toyland who try to raise money to stop the evil Silas (Henry Kleinbach) from forcing Bow Peep (Florence Roberts) to marry him against his will. Surprisingly convoluted plot wise and even surprisingly scary by the time bogeymen invade at the end, the film perhaps suffers in comparison to Laurel & Hardy’s best by letting the comedy take a back seat to the plot and adventure elements. But the two are as good as ever when given a chance, the film makes good use of the music throughout, and there’s a level of imagination at play that should still capture the attention of kids who aren’t checking Twitter every five minutes…
“Bad Santa” (2003)
There’s rum in the egg nog in Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” and maybe a little bit of puke too: unlike some of the more kid-friendly entries on this list, this no-holds-barred comedy is a 100%, unapologetically adults-only affair. Which is to say there’s bouts of sloppy jacuzzi sex, conspicuous binge-drinking and more creatively colorful profanity than a hundred “South Park” episodes. Billy Bob Thornton, a born outlaw if ever there was one, plays Willie Stokes, a piece-of-shit crook moonlighting as a mall Santa Claus, with his pint-sized, foul-mouthed partner Marcus as an attending elf. Some rays of sunshine trickle into Willie’s dark, boozy world in the form of a horny bartender with a Saint Nick fetish (Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls”) and an overweight, underloved kid who frequently finds himself a target of bullies. Zwigoff is an ace profiler of the downtrodden and disenfranchised (see his bitter, lovely “Ghost World” if you haven’t already) and “Bad Santa” never asks to be loved, to its credit. There’s no Christmas spirit forcing Willie to change his reckless, philandering ways: he remains a true-blue American scumbag, all the way to the movie’s literal middle finger of a final shot. Featuring crackerjack supporting turns from two since passed comedy greats —John Ritter as the mall’s perpetually flustered overseer and Bernie Mac as a hard-charging private consultant tasked with cleaning up Willie’s messes— “Bad Santa” is a naughty present for the holiday hell-raiser in us all, and almost certainly the most gleefully foul Christmas movie on this list.
“The Best Man Holiday” (2013)
Grammatical nightmare of a title aside (is it mean to be Best Man-Holiday? Or Best-Man Holiday?), “The Best Man Holiday” is a strong attempt at rebooting the “Family Stone”-esque tragicomedy with a more diverse cast than usual. The sequel to 1999’s “The Best Man,” directed like this film by Malcolm D. Lee, switches up genres, from comedy-drama to a sort of “Big Chill”-style reunion movie, as Lance and Mia (Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun) ask their old friends to join them for Christmas, which is the first time they’ve all been together in fourteen years. It’s refreshing not just because, like the original, it focuses on resolutely middle class African-American characters, but for showing a Christmas revolving less around family and more around friends. It’s a little odd that the film exists at all, given the fourteen year gap, but it proves more effective than a dozen similarly-plotted Sundance movies at examining the fractures and bonds of friendship and at juggling an ensemble cast —Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Terrence Howard et al— with a lot of actors who are often underused given good material to play with here. It becomes weighed down a bit near the end, as terminal illness melodrama threatens to overwhelm proceedings, but on the whole, this is good enough to make us glad that a third movie in the trilogy is on the way next year.
“A Christmas Story” (1983)
Christmas movies become classics not necessarily on release, but often due to a time-honored tradition of endless TV repetition while you’re in a food coma. It happened to “It’s A Wonderful Life” back in the day, it happened to “Elf” and “Love Actually” since, and it’s happened to “A Christmas Story,” which airs in a continuous Christmas Eve marathon on TBS every year. Based on stories by anecdotalist Jean Shepherd, the film follows young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, who’d grow up to be a director and inflict “Couples Retreat” on us) growing up in the 1940s and dreaming of a BB gun, while his parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) feud over the fire, the next door dogs, and a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg. Directed by “Porky’s” helmer Bob Clark, who co-wrote with Shepherd, this is a rare Christmas movie that doesn’t over-sentimentalize childhood, opting instead for a winningly specific look at family life and as much focus on the perceived injustices of pre-adolescence as on heartwarming holiday cheer. Those of us who grew up outside the U.S. and didn’t have it as a childhood staple might be a little puzzled by its place in the canon —it’s very sitcom-y, in part because Clark shoots it that way— but there are certainly worse movies to watch twelve times in a row while present-wrapping.
“A Christmas Tale” (2008)
Within the Christmas genre, there’s that subgenre of the home-for-the-holidays film, where a dysfunctional, often estranged family are reunited for Thanksgiving or Christmas, with secrets pouring out and bittersweet laughs and tears following. It’s normally done poorly —think “The Family Stone” or that Coopers film that’s in theaters at the moment— but Arnaud Desplechin knocked it out of the park with his tremendous “A Christmas Tale.” Giving a very Gallic spin to the set-up (we have semi-open marriages, discussions of Nietzsche, you name it), this picture sees the reunion of the Vuillard family when matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with leukaemia, and black sheep Henri (Mathieu Amalric) returns for the first time in years. In theory, not that much differentiates this film from its American cousins, but Desplechin’s usually finely-honed sense of drama and comedy and a willingness to go deeper and darker than other similar films make it so much more. There’s a real, absolute sense of the interactions, frustrations and love built into a family, with a phenomenal cast (including Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud and Chiara Mastroianni, among others) and Desplecin’s usual deft tonal command and formal playfulness elevate it into something rich, deeply moving and hugely enjoyable. One of the best films on this list.
“Die Hard” (1988)
There’s something irritably smug about the people who announce, usually unprovoked, that “Die Hard” is their favorite Christmas movie —it’s like people whose favorite Beatle is Ringo, or who never fail to mention how they’re not on Facebook. But that doesn’t change the fact that “Die Hard” is one of the three or four best action movies ever made and an indisputably excellent Christmas film, or at least Christmas-set film. Adapted from Roderick Thorp’s novel, it’s a lean, perfectly constructed thriller that sees NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) heading to L.A, where his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) is working, to attempt to win her back, only to be caught up when terrorists take over the building where she works. Sure, the film mostly uses Christmas as iconography and backdrop, and yes, the film wasn’t released during the season (it opened in July of that year), but the film works in part because of the backbone of reuniting an estranged family, and what’s more Christmas-y than that? Of course, it also works because of the terrific performances by Willis, Alan Rickman and others, the immaculate direction by John McTiernan, the terrific script, and more. But also: Christmas.
Nearly all of Will Ferrell’s characters seem possessed by a sort of indefinable mania. Sometimes it’s is hidden beneath a fairly normal veneer (“Old School”, “The Other Guys”), and other times it is not (“Step Brothers”). In Jon Favreau’s charming yuletide yarn “Elf,” Ferrell dials down the vulgarity and aggression that his dunderheaded comic characters often exudes and turns in one of his most earnest, poignant performances to date. The film isn’t exactly substantial —even at its best, it’s light as a cream puff— but as an example of its genre, it’s got heart and laughs to spare. The plot of the film involves Ferrell as one of Santa’s elves who grows up and travels to New Yawk to find his biological father (who turns out to be James Caan) and his apparently never-ending quest to spread Christmas cheer, even where it is clearly not wanted. The film reflects Buddy’s restlessly optimistic tone, making it a decidedly old-fashioned and satisfying holiday entertainment (the stop-motion animation that’s heavily present early in the film fondly recalls Rankin Bass’s animated special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). A winning mix of traditional holiday farce and a typically irreverent Ferrell vehicle (check pre-“Game of Thrones” Peter Dinklage’s cameo as an explosive, insecure writer of children’s books) “Elf” holds up probably better than it should —it’s just the right mix of old and new and features one of Ferrell’s most heartrending turns.
This season will see “Krampus” try to capture a mix of horror, comedy and festive spirit that’s really only been pulled off once, via Joe Dante’s glorious “Gremlins.” Like “Die Hard,” released in the summer but set at Christmas, it’s a gorgeously and subversively funny, splattery monster movie with a big heart, but aside from its snowy setting, its greatest contribution to the Christmas canon might be Phoebe Cates’ dry, darkly hilarious monologue. “The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney… his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”
“Home Alone” (1990)
The film that was until recently the most successful live-action comedy of all time, and also the inspiration for a whole generation of ’90s kids to create imaginary, elaborate traps with which they could thwart intruders, “Home Alone” is really an escalating series of frenzied, violent gags culminating is a not-so-surprisingly sentimental finish. It’s somewhat comforting in its familiarity: even if you’ve seen the film dozens of times and can see the gags coming from a mile away, “Home Alone” is still the zippy, spirited holiday classic that made Macaulay Culkin a star and cemented Joe Pesci (the same year he starred in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” go figure) and Daniel Stern as bumbling suburban bogeymen. It’s easy to see the appeal that Culkin’s Kevin McCallister has for the younger viewer: he is an unapologetic rule-breaker, living by his own set of principles. What does he do when his parents leave him alone at home for Christmas vacation? Why, he binges on junk food, watches violent movies and uses his wits and know-how to fend off two incompetent crooks who’ve been casing his parent’s posh Chicago home. The film’s violence is juvenile and slightly overblown —that staircase scene with the tarantula sure is icky— although it’s nowhere near the brutal nadir of its far less successful sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”. Again, there’s something comforting about that ending, even if you can’t help but marvel at how cheesy it is. Then again, is cheese necessarily a bad thing for a Christmas movie?
“It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)
A universally recognized Christmas classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life” had to battle hard to get to that status: it flopped at first and was even denounced by the FBI as being sympathetic to Communists, but became a beloved perennial via TV broadcasts in the 1970s (“it’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen,” director Frank Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work”). It’s perhaps not surprising, given that the film’s so much darker and stranger than many remember. The film sees the suicidal George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) shown how life would have been without him by his guardian angel Clarence. It’s less concerned with holiday trappings than many of the films on this list, but the Christmas setting feels utterly appropriate, both for the echoes of Charles Dickens and for its spirit of the power of family and community. It’s positively novelistic in its portrait of ordinary American life in the first half, but then pulls a powerful trick in showing the impact one individual has on his people in his life.
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
Few filmmakers have been more associated with Christmas than Shane Black: as a screenwriter, he set “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” in the holiday season, and as a blockbuster helmer, he brought some Yuletide spirit to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man 3.” So it’s perhaps appropriate that his masterpiece is also his most Christmas-y movie, in the shape of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” From its earliest moments, as petty thief Harry (Robert Downey Jr, in the role that reinvented his career) attempts to steal a toy as a Christmas present for a relative, the spirit of the holidays runs through Black’s twisty noir-action-comedy hybrid. Harry teams with gay P.I. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) to solve the mystery of the twin suicide of his childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). Like many Xmas-themed actioners, this picture uses the season mostly as a backdrop rather than actual theme, but actually, as the isolated fuck-ups of Harry and Harmony are drawn together over garish, unseasonably warm L.A. December, there is something pleasingly warm and charming about the film, even as they delve into the incredibly dark underbelly of the city. Plus, few screen Santas have been as memorable as Monaghan’s outfit herein.
“Miracle On 34th Street” (1947)
The existence (or not?) of Santa Claus/Father Christmas is at the heart of all kinds of Christmas movies, but it’s rarely been tackled more effectively than with “Miracle On 34th Street,” George Seaton’s heart-swellingly sweet tale based on a story by Valentine Davies. Set in an initially rather more cynical take on post-war New York than commonly employed (it’s almost striking to see an overly-commercialized festive period in a movie nearly 70 years old), the film sees the elderly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) taking over the role of Macy’s Santa, winning hearts with his selfless, loving persona. Yet he’s also being accused of being mentally unsound by those suspicious of his goodness. In the end, it has to come down to the young Susan (Natalie Wood in her breakthrough role) to save the day and convince her weary mother (Maureen O’Hara) of the spirit of Christmas. It’s a shameless heart-twanger in the spirit of Capra, though with a rather more scabrous wit in places, but as in the film’s universe, even the most hard-hearted cynic (or Academy member: the film was nominated for multiple Oscars and won for the screenplay and Gwenn’s performance) will surely be worn down by the time countless bags of mail are dumped in the courtroom where Santa is on trial. The John Hughes-penned 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough isn’t bad, but curiously plays up the legal drama stuff to the extent that it starts feeling like a Christmas special of “The Practice” or something.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
Who would have thought that one of the best screen versions of Charles Dickens’ classic tale would come stuffed with Muppets? The first outing for the beloved felt creatures since the death of creator Jim Henson (the film was directed by his son Brian) is a surprisingly faithful take on “A Christmas Carol,” narrated by Dickens himself (in the form of The Great Gonzo), as Scrooge (Michael Caine) is shown the error of his miserly, Christmas-hating ways by the Ghost Of Christmas Past, Present and Future. For the most part, the best-known Muppets are reduced to the margins —Kermit and Miss Piggy as the Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit, Sam Eagle as the Schoolmaster— with Statler and Waldorf perhaps getting to have the most fun as Marley & Marley. The surprising sincerity of this rendition sometimes jars against the anarchic Muppet spirit —pathos is slightly less effective when delivered by Miss Piggy. But it’s nevertheless frequently funny and is utterly sold by Caine, arguably delivering one of his best performances. Utterly committed, to the extent that you wonder if anyone told him he was making a Muppet movie, he sells better than most both the black soul of Scrooge when we meet him, and the little boy inside. His redemption, when it comes, is surprisingly moving for a movie that also features the Swedish Chef.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
Director Henry Selick might have come out recently and defined his film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as a Halloween movie, rather than a Christmas movie, but we’re not sure we entirely agree: while you could undoubtedly make a case for either, it’s so infused with Christmas spirit, in an enjoyably macabre way, that it deserves a place as much as anything else here. Produced, and based on a poem by, Tim Burton, but directed in loving fashion by Selick, it sees Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, become obsessed by a different after stumbling onto the neighboring world of Christmas Town, and seeks to usurp Santa. Brought to life in stop-motion at a time when the form was even more unfashionable than it is now (“Paranorman” makers Laika essentially wouldn’t exist without this), it’s a gorgeously designed world, with deep pleasure in every background character or wonky house, and Selick has a great eye for an image. But for all its ghoulish delight in grossing you out, it’s also a wonderfully sincere film: a straight-up musical (with mostly terrific Danny Elfman songs) with a giant heart and a touching love story. It’s somehow one of Burton’s best films, despite it having been directed by someone else entirely.
“The Ref” (1994)
For the most part, Christmas movies are heartwarming affairs, but occasionally, the season can be used for more subversive purposes, and aside from “Bad Santa,” one of the finest examples is Ted Demme’s “The Ref.” The second feature from the late director (who died in 2002, aged just 38) stars Denis Leary as a burglar on the run who takes a married couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage on Christmas Eve. Unbeknown to him, however, they were on their way home from marriage counselling, and are among the more toxic marriages seen on screen. Written by Richard LaGravenese with his sister-in-law Marie Weiss, it’s the antithesis to those “Family Stone”-style reunion movies, using the contained set-up to really let Spacey and Davis let their scabrously dark humor off the chain, with Leary perfectly placed as the increasingly irritated man stuck in the middle. And the script smartly uses Christmas to up the stakes, with extended family (plus J.K. Simmons as a military school commander being blackmailed by the couple’s son) turning up too. It’s smart and funny stuff, and even if attempts to redeem the characters late in the game mostly come to naught, it’s a welcome attempt to depict Christmas with your family as it actually is, not as the cozy ideal.
You must imagine that “Scrooged” was greenlit on one of the shortest pitches in history: “Bill Murray does ‘A Christmas Carol.’” Sold! Charles Dickens’ classic and its grouchy lead were seemingly made for the comedy legend, and a big-budget, effects-packed take in the manner of his biggest hit “Ghostbusters” seemed to be a licence to print money. The film was poorly received, though fairly successful, and that seems to be a fair response to a film that’s wildly uneven, containing fits of inspiration and the occasionally embarrassing moment. Updating the original story to present-day New York, with Murray’s Scrooge-surrogate TV producer being escorted through past, present and future by a trio of ghosts, you feel the tension between Murray’s anarchic persona and the idea of a big-budget Christmas heartwarmer throughout, and the former is usually more successful — the unconventional casting of New York Dolls’ David Johansen as the cab-driver-ish Ghost Of Christmas Past works like gangbusters, for instance. But for every roll of the dice that pays off, there’s another that doesn’t, like the idea of turning Bob Cratchit (Bobcat Goldthwait) into a potential mass shooter. And at this point, filmmakers hadn’t yet worked out how to use Murray for heart as well as laughs – unlike in “Groundhog Day” a few years later, his redemption doesn’t convince. But the actor holds things together so well that, despite the flaws, you have a very good time anyway.
Every generation gets their own take on Charles Dickens’ tale of Scrooge and the ghosts, whether it’s Michael Caine and Bill Murray, Reginald Owen, Albert Finney, the voice of Nicolas Cage, or a CGI monstrosity vaguely resembling Jim Carrey. But perhaps the best loved is “Scrooge,” a British-made take toplining character actor Alistair Sim (perhaps best remembered, besides this, for the “St. Trinian’s” films), with a near-definitive central performance and a winning darkness. Shot in almost noirish black and white tones, it looks closer to something like Ealing classic “Dead Of Night” than to anything you could put a muppet in. The adaptation, by “Wizard Of Oz” screenwriter Noel Langley, is whip-smart, with a far greater psychological realism, and a little more detail in the central figure’s backstory that helps, not ruins, the story. The ghosts are, unusually, legitimately scary, and the book’s themes of inequality and poverty are given an emphasis that’s usually driven over by sentiment, giving it a rare grit and substance. And among a very fine cast (Michael Hordern uses all his Shakespearean skills for Jacob Marley’s appearances), Sim is transcendentally good, touching on, but never fully unleashing, his comic skills, while building Scrooge into a real person. More than any other, you sense that this is the version that Dickens would endorse.
“The Shop Around The Corner” (1940)
The cinematic equivalent of a stroll around a European Christmas market with mulled wine in your hand and the person you love next to you, Ernst Lubitsch’s “”The Shop Around The Corner” is a near-perfect Christmastime romantic comedy. Based on Miklos Laszlo’s play “Parfumerie” (and famously plundered by Nora Ephron for “You’ve Got Mail”), the film revolves around a leather-goods store in Budapest, where two employees, veteran Alfred (James Stewart) and newcomer Klara (Margaret Sullavan) take an instant dislike to each other, without knowing that they’ve fallen in love after corresponding anonymously through a newspaper ad. The banter between Stewart and Sullavan (who manage to bury oodles of chemistry beneath the quarreling) is snappy and, in true Lubitsch fashion (the director actually considered it his favorite of his own works), unafraid to be sour in places, so their eventual delayed meet-cute feels sweet and entirely earned — even if it can feel frustrating that Stewart finds out earlier, but plays along. But Lubitsch’s eye wanders away from the duo, with a genuinely wrenching subplot about the pair’s boss being driven to the brink of suicide by his wife’s affair with an employee (the dapper Joseph Schildkraut), a welcome dose of reality that feels like a direct tonal inspiration for “The Apartment.” The film’s a pleasure to watch at any time of year — not least to the performances from Stewart, Sullavan, and William Tracy, as delivery boy Pepi — but as one of the great Christmas movies, feels particularly appropriate at this time of year.
“White Christmas” (1954)
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is one of the absolute best-known holiday songs, but as any good trivia quiz will tell you, the song didn’t premiere in the movie that it gave its name to, but in “Holiday Inn” a decade earlier. Nevertheless, the latter barely qualifies as a Christmas movie, revolving around all kinds of different holidays, so its later successor makes the list in its place. Michael Curtiz’s film is thinly plotted even by the standards of the genre, as Broadway producers Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (who took the role after Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor passed) try and help their old army commanding officer to save his Vermont inn, threatened with closure due to lack of snow, while falling for a pair of singers (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney). But while it does feel disposable, it’s also very charming, with not just the big title number, but also songs like “Sisters,” “Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep)” and “The Best Things Happen When YOu’re Dancing” working delightfully, and an exuberantly good-spirited nature to the whole thing. While the central pairings don’t have the star power of, say, “High Society,” everyone’s in fine fettle, and the film looks utterly gorgeous too: it was the first movie released in VistaVision, Paramount’s answer to CinemaScope, and an early predecessor to IMAX in using large film formats to boost cinema attendance thanks to the threat of television. Everything old is new again…
This post is created by everydayhappy7 team.