Christmas is coming (you guys hear about this? All the rage this year, I guess.) and if you are anything like me (and for sake, I hope you are not) you enjoy pumping up your Holiday Spirit with a little bit of the ol’ cinema at home. But Christmas is also a time of stress and hard decisions so let me help you out by programming your Season Greetings watching. I give to you, your 12 Hours (When Rounding Up) of Christmas (Viewing).
The only rules I put on myself was that these had to be movies released in my lifetime (sorry It’s a Wonderful Life) that are not shown for 24 hours on Christmas Day (I love The Christmas Story, but you can get your fix from some segment of that marathon) and that had to be about Christmas, not just set during it (bye-bye the oeuvre of Shane Black).
And with those rules out of the way, here are your 12 (about) hours of Christmas to trim your tree in laughter, decorate your hearth in heartfelt wishes, and spike your eggnog with a little bit of that delicious Cage.
Elf- Has Will Ferrell been better? I am honestly not sure. Funnier, perhaps, but not better.
The story of a normal human being who was adopted by the elves of the North Pole as a baby and is now making his way to New York City to meet his biological father is, arguably, the most recent truly excellent family Christmas movie, a film you could actually show the family and everyone get something out of.
Scrooged- I am of the opinion that any programming of Christmas movies must include one version of the Christmas Carole story. There are more faithful versions than this one and ones that feel, perhaps, a bit less dated, but none of those stay Bill Murray. Also, none of those feature one of the most frightening versions of Christmas Future, a shambling collection of rotting TVs and shredded robes.
The Nightmare Before Christmas- This is probably a divisive pick. Maybe I am wrong, but I can imagine a lot of folks balking at this goth/emo favorite as it has monetized and merchandized to the hilt. There are plenty of people who instinctively dislike any entertainment that is feature prominently in Hot Topic and, I admit, they may have a point.
Nonetheless, I find Nightmare to be delightful. The stop-motion is wonderful, the tone is sad and sweet and just right. But for me, and this is saying something as I am no big musical fan, what really brings me back time after time are the songs. Something about Danny Elfman vocals just screams Christmas to me, I guess.
The Family Stone- This ensemble film barely registered when it was released, but I recommend it without qualification. One of those “the family is getting together for Christmas and one sibling is bringing by his/her new significant other who does not quite fit in” films, it has a comfortable feeling without ever feeling overly clichéd or predictable. There’s no blow the doors off the joint moment, but the whole thing just feels…lived in. I would not call it plot-free but much of what recommends it is the chance to just be amongst these characters, not actually where the film takes them.
When I was a kid, my Christmases, whether I was with my Mom or my Dad and Stepmom that year, were often of the “go to someone else’s house and spend all day there” variety so I have a sort of bred-in love of the idea of camping out in a relatives living room, surrounded by lights and wrapping paper, and just watching as your family bounces off one another, tells stories new and old, and barely suppresses grudges. The Family Stone, with broad strokes, nicely captures that kind of holiday.
Bad Santa- Even as it goes soft in the last sixth or so, it is an acidic delight; a treatise on Christmas for the mean, the unhappy, the lonely, and the self-destructive. The cast is top notch and all come to play. Believe me, somehow by the time the film is wrapping up, the sight of a skinny, unshaven, drunken Santa placing a blood stained elephant on a lonely kid’s doorstep as police close in will be one of the most heartfelt images of the season.
The Family Man- You want Nic Cage demanding chocolate cake this holiday season. You NEED the Cage demanding chocolate cake. I can feel you starting to argue with me, but stop. Don’t deny yourself this simply joy.
A take on It’s a Wonderful Life with Cage stepping in for Jimmy Stewart and Don Cheadle as Henry Travers. The question is less “what if I never lived” and more “what if I married that woman” (the woman being Tea Leoni, actually being a warm screen presence).
Maybe it’s just because I am a dad now, but the real treat of the movie for me these days is between Cage’s Jack and his youngest daughter (in the alternate timeline) Annie. She is the only person who believes that Cage when he protests that he hasn’t lived this life but welcomes him anyway as he’s still capable of making a mean chocolate milk.
The Ref- Is this my favorite Christmas movie? You know, it just might be. If you are the type that does not like how Bad Santa lets a little Spirit in at the end, you will loathe this movie’s last 20 minutes or so. Me, I am an undeniable sentimentalist so it suits me just fine. Another “the family’s all here” movie, this one has a secret uninvited guest, an on the run fugitive played by Dennis Leary. Leary’s still making the transition from comedian to actor, but he plays beleaguered well enough to convey the mounting frustration of a stuck criminal who has made the mistake of hunkering down with an unhappy family (headed by Hope Davis and Kevin Spacey) and their thoroughly unpleasant relatives, especially the matriarch, a spendthrift who wields guilt with deft skill.
While Leary nails his rants, it is really Spacey, a buttoned up momma’s boy who becomes steadily unraveled over the course of the evening, who steals the show. It is predictable now, perhaps, but this is early Spacey and the moments he lets his anger boil over, especially his last speech, still had the power to surprise back then. Now, even though we expect him to command the screen at some point, they remain wildly quotable, especially a bit about how he intends to decorate for next Christmas.
You’ve been so good this year (and I admit, the above only runs 11 hours 33 minutes) that I’m giving you an extra present under the tree. But this one was not released during my lifetime and, in fact, is not even a movie. But, for a bonus, we can break ALL the rules. Especially for…
Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas- Now let me be completely clear here, I am talking the 1966 (?) animated version with the voice of Boris Karloff, not the live action starring Jim Carrey monstrosity. That one saw fit to make the Whos, you know the ones in the story who celebrate Christmas despite being robbed blind, terrible creatures who are only redeemed by the Grinch’s thievery. The only thing that I like about it at all is Christine Beransky is essentially playing the same character she played in The Ref just in Who form. Otherwise, rotten.
But this isn’t about that hideous creation. This is about the good one. The one that, in my opinion, is the best of all the network Christmas specials. It is just 26 minutes of all the ingredients necessary for good Christmas entertainment mixed in perfect ratios. Never schmaltzy but always wearing its heart on its sleeve. Funny but fully committed to telling the story not just getting giggles.
Guys, I’m just saying, the Grinch Stole Christmas is really great.