By Cody Willoughby
For many, this is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be an awfully difficult time to gauge entertainment, too, right?
Come December, most of us are in the mood for a good Christmas movie, but new attempts at holiday classics are being pumped out every single season, ever thickening the murk of mediocre viewing material available to the public.
Sifting through this material can be maddening. What are the best choices? However might one decide?
Fear not, humble reader, for I have concocted an eclectic list of some of the most entertaining Yuletide cinema on the market, including a title or two that many may forget are related to Christmas.
Grab your hot cocoa, and let’s begin!
Dec. 1 – Elf (2003)
I mostly include Elf at all out of spiteful obligation. I’ve never been a fan of this film – Buddy the Elf’s character arc is at best opaque and at worst indiscernible, not to mention the many scenes in the movie’s middle that sag with dead weight. I’ll submit, however, that it does have funny moments, and that the production design is spirited and pleasant-looking. I don’t include Elf for myself, but instead for all of you, as this movie’s following seems to gain more traction with every passing season. Treat it as a seasonal appetizer, and get it out of the way early.
Dec. 2 – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Nightmare hits the list early in the month, because it’s really as much a Halloween feature as it is a Christmas feature, and it’s not unlikely that many already viewed the film several weeks ago. Nightmare is most notable for its innovative stop-motion animation techniques, and its usage of narrative thrust within the songs that propels the story at lightning-speed. Though Tim Burton only produced the film, his trademark visual style marks every frame, making the experience unforgettable despite the film’s flaws. It isn’t the best choice for the youngest kids, perhaps, but is otherwise a great family watch.
Dec. 3 – Love Actually (2003)
This one’s for all the rom-com lovers out there, featuring a dozen or so love-related subplots that entangle and unfold amongst a coterie of colorful characters who inhabit London during the holiday season. It stars nearly every English actor you’ve ever heard of, and is worth the price of admission just to see a young Andrew Lincoln serenade Keira Knightley with a boombox and cue cards.
Dec. 4 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Written and directed by Shane Black, this film stands as a sort of spiritual cousin to Lethal Weapon, chronicling a comedic detective caper during Christmastime in Los Angeles. The film is also notable for standing as Robert Downey Jr.’s first leading role after several years of legal trouble. It wasn’t long after that Downey’s career would reach stratospheric heights after his casting as Tony Stark, and his understated charisma on display in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may be largely to thank.
Dec. 5 – Jingle All the Way (1996)
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Howard, a father frantically looking for the season’s hottest toy for his son on Christmas Eve. At the time of its release, it seemed clear that this film was meant to be satire or parody of the holiday shopping season, but in the years since, reality has echoed fiction as shopping crazes have only grown more bombastic and out-of-control. The film leans heavily into schlock and cheese, but its self-awareness allows for the film to maintain some charm.
Dec. 6 – Batman Returns (1992)
The festive, snowy landscape mixes surprisingly well with Tim Burton’s grotesque and swirly vision of Gotham City, as Batman, played by Michael Keaton, faces off against Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Perhaps it isn’t the popular opinion, but for my money, Batman Returns stands as the strongest of the 90s-era Batman movies. Its detailed set design has aged the best in home video re-releases, and its captivatingly bizarre storyline allow it to eclipse even the ‘89 original in re-watchability.
Dec. 7 – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1994)
Could this be the most adapted literary tale in onscreen history? Every holiday, it certainly feels that way. At any rate, this rendition is easily the strongest of the “kiddie editions” of A Christmas Carol. The Muppets’ brand of humor and heart gel seamlessly with the source material, and Michael Caine lands as a very effective Scrooge, whether Muppets are present in it or not.
Dec. 8 – Frosty the Snowman (1969) / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Both of these specials clock in at under an hour, and given that they’re both adapted from popular Christmas tunes, they run perfectly together as a double feature. Frosty is notable for its memorably characterized title character and villain, and Rudolph has the edge on unique animation style, if not some eclectic characters of its own. Both make for terrific light viewing when the kids are awake and time is short.
Dec. 9 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Something special was happening through the mid-1940s when it came to stellar Christmas movie fare. This stands as the first offering from that era, about an angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant, sent from Heaven to guide a reverend losing his faith. The 1996 remake is also worth a look.
Dec. 10 – The Polar Express (2004)
Adapted from the popular holiday children’s book, this film largely endures not just for its compelling tale of a child’s journey to the North Pole, or the groundbreaking new animation techniques it boasts, but also for its fearlessness to embrace the strange and mildly creepy. Roger Ebert himself claimed the film possessed “a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie”, which is arguably a trait that, for whatever reason, has made many of the great family films of years past endure.
Dec. 11 – Krampus (2015)
What this film might lack in proper exposition, it makes up for in cinematic execution. Frankly, the less said about Krampus, the better. Perhaps it’s simply best to conduct a quick Wiki search of the Krampus legend, and then proceed to watch the film with baited breath. Director Michael Dougherty utilizes practical effects techniques here that harken back to the CGI-less special-effects films of decades past, particularly one other dark Christmas classic (which will appear in Part 2 of this list). Krampus also boasts some of the most thrilling sound design that any holiday movie has ever featured, making the winter landscape bleaker and the film’s ghouls scarier.
Dec. 12 – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
If I could only catch a single Christmas special on television each year, it would always be A Charlie Brown Christmas. The volume of memorable material that the creators of this special managed to pack into 25 minutes is astounding. Not only is it sharp-witted with well-rounded characters and catchy music, it also had the guts to bring things to a full halt for Linus Van Pelt to step into the spotlight (literally) to tell the world what Christmas is really about. Somehow, I doubt most mainstream specials would follow suit today.
Dec. 13 – Lethal Weapon (1987)
The original adventure of Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtaugh still stands as the greatest of its franchise, as well as the gold standard for the buddy-cop subgenre. Penned by Shane Black, the same gentleman who later gave us Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon offers up some of the most electric action-movie banter ever filmed. The movie has endured so strongly, talks have sparked recently of Gibson and Glover returning for a fifth installment.
That concludes Part 1 of my cheery holiday viewing list. Part 2, which will chronicle films for Dec. 14-25, will be available next week.
Happy viewing and stay warm!