By Cody Willoughby
Continuing from Part 1 of my Must-See Christmas Movie list, here are some selections for the dozen days leading up to the 25th, and some quality movie material that I, your noble writer, have painstakingly calculated as the best of the best. Don’t thank me — just enjoy!
Dec. 14 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
For starters, it’s pronounced “St. Louie,” and the movie’s title song will make sure you know it. This film chronicles the life and times of the Smith daughters, as they reluctantly prepare for a move to New York in the lead-up to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Not only is “St. Louis” a vibrant period piece with lavish sets and colorful costumes, but it also features Judy Garland at the height of her fame, and includes the haunting debut of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung by Garland herself.
Dec. 15 – Gremlins (1984)
On Christmas Eve, the sleepy town of Kingston Falls is invaded by mischevous creatures that seem to be multiplying by the minute. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, “Gremlins” was a collaborative product by some of the most innovative minds of the 1980s. The inventive animatronic effects by Chris Walas alone make the film worth multiple viewings, and still stand as an inspiration to artists attempting to achieve similar techniques today (see my earlier mention of “Krampus” in Part 1.) “Gremlins” is admittedly a horror-comedy foremost and more of a Christmas film by proxy, but the holiday is still so deeply embedded into the film’s DNA, it undeniably begs to be watched in December.
Dec. 16 – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) / How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Based on the children’s book by Dr. Seuss, “Grinch” chronicles a grumpy creature’s ambitious excursion to snuff out Christmas for every citizen in the nearby Whoville. Both the animated special and the film are notable for capturing Dr. Seuss’ signature visual design, particularly in the buildings and houses that the Whos inhabit. While the special is stronger overall, the casting director of “Grinch” ‘00 should be commended for landing Carrey, who is clearly giving his all to sell the team’s creation (perhaps even a bit too much). Given that the TV special clocks in at 25 minutes, it’s very easy to watch it alongside the full-length feature, particularly as a study on pacing, and how the same story can be told in such drastically different timeframes.
Dec. 17 – The Santa Clause (1994)
When people relay their adoration for “Elf” (much to my constant disdain), I always turn their attention to “The Santa Clause” as a much more effective telling of North Pole movie fare. Not only is the design of Santa’s world beautiful and unique from what we’ve seen in other films, but Tim Allen’s character, Scott Calvin, has a very clear character arc that is satisfying to see transpire over the film’s runtime, as he changes both inside and out into a better, more spirited version of himself. As for the sequels, Part 2 is okay if you’ve got few other choices, and Part 3 is a heinous crime against humanity that barely even deserves seasonal airtime on the Disney Channel.
Dec. 18 – Home Alone (1990) / Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
Still standing as the highest-grossing Christmas film of all time, “Home Alone” is notable to cinephiles as a selection from the John Hughes catalog, containing all of his trademarks (such as its Chicago setting, its underage protagonist, and even its extended John Candy cameo.) Of course, everybody remembers it for the climactic booby-trap sequence, but there’s some lovely life lessons in the mix as well, and a very timeless depiction of the American suburb filmed with lovely cinematography. Yes, the sequel is essentially the same story in a different location, but the characters and spirit remain consistent, so it’s worth its weight, too.
Dec. 19 – White Christmas (1954)
My grandfather once called “White Christmas” the “Singin’ in the Rain of Christmas movies,” and that sentiment is very accurate. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star as World War II soldiers/entertainers who, along with a two-sister team, attempt to save a failing inn owned by their former General. “White Christmas” was the first film released in VistaVision, an early widescreen revitalization that enhanced the use of 35mm film. The film now stands as an earmark for a bygone era of vaudevillian cinema, which no other Christmas film depicts more gloriously.
Dec. 20 – Die Hard (1988)
Much like “Gremlins,” this film uses Christmas as a unique backdrop to set its high-concept genre piece within, and boy, does that concept deliver. When a group of Euro-terrorists take siege of a L.A. highrise during its Christmas party, it’s up to off-duty officer John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, to save the day. This film’s secret (and really, this shouldn’t be any secret at all) is constructing its story around a hero and villain who are equally likable and fun to watch. It’s difficult to believe that Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s first major film role, but it’s easily one of his greatest. As far as holiday action fare goes, nothing else comes close.
Dec. 21 – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
It’s funny that “Christmas Vacation” is technically the third movie in a five-film franchise, as it does just fine as a stand-alone outing. Clark Griswold is the role that Chevy Chase was born to play, and he’s assisted by a John Hughes script packed with great supporting characters and wall-to-wall gags. A lot of the film’s charm lies within its inherent relatability. We all know that one house in the neighborhood that’s obnoxiously over-decorated, or the pain of encountering that certain awkward relative, or the pressure to get the family celebration to come together just right. “Christmas Vacation” depicts all of these elements with such aplomb, it makes the presence of SWAT teams and gas explosions mere cherries on the sundae.
Dec. 22 – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
When the affable Kris Kringle claims to be the real Santa Claus and is accused of insanity, a young lawyer defends him in court. “Miracle” is a fascinating time capsule of a film, considering its direct depiction of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as it was in the 1940s, and also its depiction of the American shopping season and how the Santa Claus iconography has changed since then, or otherwise stayed exactly the same. Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the film, as did the movie’s screenwriter. “Miracle” has aged surprisingly well, and is well-deserving of its acclaim.
Dec. 23 – A Christmas Carol (1984)
As mentioned in Part 1, this tale has been adapted more times than can possibly be counted, but the 1984 adaptation, featuring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, is easily the strongest. Not only does it feature the most rich and cinematic depiction of 1840s London, but it employs a cast of stronger actors than are seen in any other version. It seems easy for those playing Scrooge to portray him as some sort of caricature or cartoon-come-to-life, but that’s not the case here. Scott plays Scrooge as a real human being, whose pain is deep-seated and legitimate, and it makes his redemption in the film’s final act all the more rewarding.
Dec. 24 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s difficult to find anything new to say about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so perhaps I won’t try. The film’s near-perfection is almost its own little miracle, one of those lightning-in-a-bottle occurrences that only happen once in a while. Of couse the film is terrific at depicting the community spirit of the Christmas season, but what isn’t brought up enough about it is its vital allegory in regards to facing mental illness. For those in the world who are considering drastic measures against depression, particularly during the holidays, “It’s a Wonderful Life” counters those measures with a beautiful crescendo of a final act that makes the movie’s saccharine title entirely justifiable. While financially unsuccessful upon its first release, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has earned its exalted spot in movie history. It is, no pun intended, truly wonderful.
Dec. 25 – A Christmas Story (1983)
We have arrived to Christmas Day, and what better way to celebrate the festivities than “A Christmas Story.” Somehow this film manages to cover almost every seasonal faux-pas that every American has ever had to deal with, poking fun at shopping mall Santas and tacky gifts and holiday dinners with tongue-in-cheek expertise. “A Christmas Story” plays almost like a really catchy song or joke, which is so clever in its execution, you don’t mind hearing it play out again and again despite knowing all its beats. Each moment is so on the money, it’s shocking to recall that this film, like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was not a financial success at the box office. There’s a reason that cable networks run the film for 24-hour marathons at Christmastime: it contains something for everyone, and captures the Christmas experience more honestly than pretty much anything else.
That concludes my must-see holiday watch list, my humble readers. Here’s hoping you saw some new things. Best wishes until next time, and have a Happy New Year!