Christmas Goes to the Movies

The popcorn is ready, the hot chocolate is, well, hot, and the TV is calling your name. It’s time once again to sit down and enjoy some of your favorite Christmas movies. As any Christmas fan knows, it’s important to have a nice stack of holiday movies on hand for viewing during this time of year. The list of Christmas flicks to choose from is endless, but below are some that may just be some of your personal favorites.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The story of Santa Claus on trial because of a feud between rival department stores gets to the heart of the constant battle over the commercialization of Christmas. Plus, it brings out the kid in you as an adult to watch it and realize how differently you may view old Kris Kringle as you grow older yourself. It’s not about whether or not Santa Claus is real. It’s about whether or not you believe. Watching a movie like this one will make everyone want to. 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). What Christmas movie list would be complete without this movie? In fact, it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood decides to remake this holiday classic.  But why should they? It still stands up amazingly well, over sixty years later. Not a big hit when it was released, it is now probably the most famous holiday movie ever made. The idea that a person can be shown, all in an instant, what life would be like if he were never born is inspired. Jimmy Stewart is amazing in what became one of his best-known roles. And you’ll always remember “Merry Christmas, Bailey Brothers and Loan!”

The Ref (1994). A bad decision was made in 1994 when this movie was released in the middle of summer, rather than during the holiday season, as it was originally intended. Someone at a studio somewhere was afraid it wouldn’t be a hit. Well, releasing it during the summer was worse, and it went mostly unseen until it hit cable and video. It’s a shame, because it’s probably Denis Leary’s finest work until Rescue Me. A hilarious movie that manages to still get the spirit of Christmas along the way, The Ref still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are along for the ride, but don’t miss Leary’s trademark tirade during the closing credits.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  The poster for the movie promised “Yule Crack Up!”  Audiences agreed, because this Chevy Chase vehicle was a hit when it was released in theatres, and remains extremely popular on TV and home video to this day.  Clark Griswold wants to have the perfect Christmas at home, but everything keeps going wrong.  The billions of Christmas lights!  The enormous tree!  Where’s the cat?  Loaded with all the pratfalls and slapstick you would expect from Chevy Chase movie, this film (the third in a series of four Vacation flicks starring Chase) actually had its own direct sequel.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure did not feature most of the original cast, however, and was released straight to video in 2003.

Love, Actually (2003). This romantic comedy was actually several different un-made movie ideas slapped together into one story, courtesy of the folks behind Four Weddings and a Funeral. Don’t let that fool you; the movie is often very funny and almost always sweet and romantic. Definitely a Christmas movie for cynical adults, the flick examines everything from platonic love between pals to ill-conceived office flirtations with married people. Almost every actor in the thing is completely charming, which is a feat considering how many stuffy Brits are in it.

The Christmas Shoes (2002).  Have yourself a merry little cry.  This TV movie is based on the hit song, which was also a hit novel.  Three families’ lives intersect at Christmastime, and everyone learns the true meaning of the season, even in the face of death.  Two parts uplifting family film, one part tragic tear-jerker, this perennial favorite led to two more TV movie sequels.  Fans of the movie love its message that Christmas is so much more than presents and shopping and, instead, on focuses on the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Having Rob Lowe as the lead doesn’t hurt, either.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).  Director Ron Howard is at the helm of this movie.  Boris Karloff is nowhere to be found, and this ain’t no cartoon.  Of course, with Jim Carrey as The Grinch (in full-on fuzzy, green costume and make-up, no less), it might as well be.  He’s just that animated throughout the entire film.  The goal was to bring the children’s book and animated TV special to life, and that’s exactly what it does, with Carrey playing that mean ol’ Grinch as a part genius and part buffoon.  A blockbuster smash when it was released, it remains one of the top grossing Christmas movies of all time.

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985).  At some point in the middle of the 1980s, some movie producers thought, “How about we make a movie about the life and times of Santa Claus?  I bet nothing could go wrong with that.”  But a lot did go wrong with it.  This movie was an enormous flop upon its release, despite the great casting of Dudley Moore as an elf and John Lithgow as the big meanie who would ruin Christmas.  Critics hated it and audiences stayed away, despite the huge budget behind it and cutting edge (for the day) special effects.  In recent years, it has found a large cult following and several “Special Edition” home video releases.

A Christmas Story (1983).  Another movie that wasn’t a huge hit in theatres yet has since become a holiday classic, A Christmas Story is hilarious, heartwarming, awkward, and touching all at the same time. For a kid growing up in the 80s, it introduced sayings many kids of the day never knew, such as “Triple Dog Dare”. Of course, everyone will remember “You’ll shoot your eye out”. Based on the writings of humorist Jean Sheperd, this movie captures the feeling of pre-war Midwestern America during the holidays, and it doesn’t pull punches when showing just how crude kids can be when the adults aren’t around. By the way, that’s Jean Sheperd himself standing in line waiting to see Santa, scolding young Ralphie (Peter Billingsly) that “The Line Ends Here”.

Holiday Inn (1942).  What a way to “Bing” in the New Year!  A Christmas favorite about a hotel that is only open on holidays, this Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire classic was an enormous hit.  Much of that success is thanks to the music of Irving Berlin.  He penned all the songs in Holiday Inn, including the huge Christmas hit “White Christmas”, which made its debut in this film.  It’s hard to see this film in its entirety these days, mostly because of an entire musical number performed entirely in blackface (!) that many audiences often find to be quite offensive.  The scene in question is usually cut out of television broadcasts.

Bad Santa (2003).  Put the kids to bed and enjoy some very adult humor in this modern Christmas classic.  Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken thief who takes a job as a mall Santa every year just so he can rob the department stores at which he works.  He hates kids, hates Christmas, and hates himself.  Full of more four-letter-words than any other holiday film, this raunchy comedy also stars late greats Bernie Mack and John Ritter (in his last film appearance).

The Bishop’s Wife (1947).  Some argue that, although set at Christmastime, this isn’t really a “Christmas movie”.  All about learning what the really important things in life should be, as opposed to what you think they are, The Bishop’s Wife seems perfectly in line for the holiday season when you think about it.  Starring Cary Grant as an angel helping bishop David Niven better appreciate his life and—you guessed it—his wife, this romantic comedy classic was remade in 1996 as The Preacher’s Wife, with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945).  A post WWII romantic comedy about (deliberately) mistaken identities, this classic movie shows up like clockwork on TV every Christmas.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as a homemaking advice guru who turns out to be nothing like the Martha Stewart she claims to be.  Will her charade keep her from the arms of the handsome sailor she falls in love with?  Don’t bet on it.  This popular holiday movie was remade in 1992 by a little-known director named…Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Elf (2003).  An enormous hit that exceeded even the filmmaker’s expectations, this oddball comedy stars Will Ferrell as an orphaned human being raised by Santa’s elves after accidentally being brought back to the North Pole thirty years earlier.  A combination of screwball antics and heartwarming family bonding, Elf instantly became one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time.  A stop-motion homage to the Rankin-Bass Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special is especially nice.  And Zooey Deschanel is charming as the love interest that sometimes sings in the shower.

Four Christmases (2008).  A cranky Christmas, indeed.  This offbeat comedy stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as a California couple just trying to spend Christmas away from their families for a change.  Since both have divorced-and-remarried parents, they are forced to endure four separate Christmas celebrations, each to varying degrees of suffering and slapstick.  The first Christmas movie for people from broken homes, it seems. 

All I Want For Christmas (1991).  Oh, those clever Christmas kids!  What do a couple of kids do when they want to get their divorced parents back together?  Why, they devise a scheme at Christmastime and hope for a little help from Santa Claus along the way.  Having Leslie Nielsen as Santa Claus helps with the giggles along the way, and Lauren Bacall shows up for a while, too.  Plus the movie feature Ethan Embry and Thora Birch when they were just two child actors hoping for some Christmas cheer at the box office.

Noel (2004).  Directed by actor Chazz Palminteri, this drama is all about lonely, confused, and sad people at Christmas hoping to find a little holiday cheer in their lives.  Along the way, their stories intersect and they each learn a bit about themselves during what is, for many, not always the most wonderful time of the year.  Featuring an all-star cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, and Robin Williams, Noel is not the most chuckle-inducing Christmas movie.  But there is plenty of heartwarming sentiment to be had before the last snowflake falls and the credits roll.

The Santa Clause (2004).  A huge holiday hit, this is the movie that solidified comedian and sitcom star Tim Allen as a box office draw.  Delivering family-friendly laughs even while killing off Santa Claus in the opening minutes (!), this classic comedy stars Allen as a man who has to become the new Santa Claus.  Besides just being a showcase for Allen’s silliness, the movie is also a great look at how the holidays affect children of divorce, and how growing up is sometimes even harder for adults than it is for children.  So popular, it led to two hugely successful sequels.

This Christmas (2007).  They say you can’t go home again, and yet that’s exactly what the characters in this family drama manage to do, just because it’s the holidays.  The title coming from the popular song of the same name, This Christmas is significant for being one of the only Christmas movies to feature a cast that is almost entirely African-American.  The Whitfield family welcomes their family home for Christmas, including the grown son who has avoided them for years.  The all-star cast includes Regina King, Chris Brown, Delroy Lindo, and Loretta Devine. 

Home Alone (1990).  The film that made Macaulay Culkin a household name just happens to also be a holiday classic.  The tale of an obnoxious kid accidentally left behind by his huge family when they go on vacation, this movie set box office records back in the day.  These days, it’s mostly known as the film in which two burglars, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, get pounded repeatedly by a set of booby traps left for them by the oh-so-clever Culkin, but the rest of the movie is quite heartwarming, and fits right into the spirit of Christmas.  Not only a popular Christmas movie, it’s one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and spawned several sequels, with and without Culkin, Pesci, and Stern.

Just Friends (2005).  This movie features something jealous men everywhere have been craving: Ryan Reynolds in a fat suit.  In this screwball comedy, Reynolds begins as a fat, awkward teenager who is madly in love with his best friend, played by Amy Smart.  His heart is broken, however, when he realizes she will never love him back.  Ten years later and about a hundred pounds lighter, Reynolds returns home as a successful (and stupidly attractive) record producer babysitting a spoiled pop singer, played by Anna Faris.  Along the way, he hopes to woo his old crush, leading to some wacky shenanigans and a few punches to the face.

White Christmas (1954).  Sometimes referred to as a remake of Holiday Inn, this Bing Crosby flick was supposed to reunite him with Fred Astaire.  Instead, Danny Kaye is along for the ride as Crosby again finds himself singing Christmas tunes at a remote resort in Vermont.  It seems that those holiday resorts always need to be saved and ol’ Bing is just the guy to do it.  Although indeed very similar to Holiday Inn, this movie stands on its own, and has Rosemary Clooney joining in.  An enormous hit, it’s just as popular as its predecessor.  The fact that it’s named after the most popular song of all time doesn’t hurt.  It’s all over the TV every December.

It seems that the problem with Christmas lists is that it’s simply too hard to choose only a few holiday movies to watch. The list goes on and on, and new movies are being made ever year which become instant classics. It’s probably only a matter of time until one of these flicks gets replaced by something else. Still, the movies here will always stand the test of time and will likely find their way into many homes, for many Christmases yet to come. 



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