Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
The annual debate on what makes a Christmas movie is here again with Die Hard as the film at the center of all present and future discussions. Does a Christmas movie simply take place on the holiday? Does it also have to be about something more than just its setting and be about generosity, caring, family, and other traditionally yule-oriented notions? There are numerous ways to answer the question and I’m by no means saying Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film.
Christmastide as a concept is the work of the Roman Catholic Church. While the Bible describes it as Mary and Joseph traveling to Nazareth to pay their annual taxes, such an event would have taken place in the middle of the year rather than at the end. Christmas is predated by numerous events celebrating the Winter Solstice. In film as in all art, winter is a symbol of death while spring is the symbol of rebirth in a long and unending cycle. The myriad tribal and historical celebrations of the solstice embraced and even established such symbolism, recognizing the solstice as the longest night of the year and the beginning of the end of the harsh, cold months. The Church seized on those notions when framing the Christmastide holiday.
Christmas as we have all come to know it was largely dreamed up by the merchandizing industry as an opportunity to incentivize gift giving, the embrace of the Santa Claus figure, and other emblems of commercialism. Regardless of whether you feel positively or negatively about the holiday, certain types of films have come to represent the annual holiday period. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, and numerous other products of the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s have long been seen as the examples to which all other Christmas films should be compared.
Yet they all owe a great deal of their success to the numerous cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the most perfect example of what everyone today feels is a Christmas movie both in terms of its themes, imagery, and outlook on life itself. Comparing those films to a picture like Die Hard or Gremlins would certainly make those pictures feel out of place on the list. Yet, they are often considered Christmas films, the latter because it does come to embrace the themes of holiday films while the former does so out of sheer force of will. Of course, if Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then so too would be Night of the Hunter, Meet Me in St. Louis, Carol, and Little Women, films that have key scenes set on Christmas, but which are more broadly about other stories that are far from holiday centric.
You can make your own choices, but I chose to look at all of the aforementioned films as well as a handful of others before choosing my five favorites. Ultimately, I went for films that embraced the notions of charity, love, and family over those that are merely set on Christmas Eve of Christmas Day. Strangely enough, this still required me to narrow down the list and while a film like Little Women, which embraces many of the Christmas qualities we cherish, is superior to something like Bad Santa, I chose five films that I feel warmly about, whether they be comedies, horror films, or traditional dramas.
Before I get to those, I wanted to mention that all of the above films are of sufficient quality themselves to make the list, but four films I haven’t named remain high on my enjoyment list even if they aren’t necessarily Christmasy. Bloody horror schlock-fest Silent Night, Deadly Night; the Bill Murray comedy based on A Christmas Carol, Scrooged; a film I covered last week, Batman Returns, which stretches credulity as a Christmas film, much like Die Hard does, and Love Actually, a rather sentimental picture that ended up being far more entertaining than it had any right to be. Now, onto the five.
Holiday Inn (1942)
Probably the toughest sell on this list for being a Christmas movie, this musical comedy stars Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, and Walter Abel in a story that takes place throughout the year on various holidays, but begins and ends on Christmas Eve. Crosby plays one third of musical act, alongside Astaire and Dale, who is preparing to ask Dale’s character to marry him, but she has fallen for Astaire instead. He turns his heartbreak around and opens a Holiday Inn on his Connecticut farm where it will be used as an entertainment venue open only on holidays.
As the film progresses through a single year, Crosby falls for Reynolds and must work to thwart Astaire again in fears he will try to steal her away from him as well. This madcap film introduced the world to the now-standard song “White Christmas,” for which it won the Academy Award. This isn’t to be confused with the later film titled White Christmas. Holiday Inn is a funny, heartwarming, and passionate comedy that deserves more attention than the now-more familiar White Christmas.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
After some blunders over renewing the copyrights on this film’s images, but not its story, It’s a Wonderful Life became a staple of Christmas television entertainment where it gained popularity and remains one of the all-time favorite Christmas films of many people. James Stewart plays a down-on-his-luck father who ponders suicide until a cantankerous angel (Henry Travers) shows him what his family’s life would be like without him in it. As the film progresses, Stewart learns just how important he is to his family and ultimately decides not to take his own life.
This warm and familial drama has come to define everything we think of as a Christmas movie. Frank Capra’s directorial style makes the film feel down-to-earth and humanistic in all the best ways. The performances are golden and the sentiments well earned. In spite of its perennial nature, it was not until later in life that I watched the film and feel like perhaps I’m all the better for it. Like Make Way for Tomorrow, this film gains new meaning as each successive year passes and if you haven’t seen it yet, do. Then make a date to watch it again years down the road and experience the depth and sensitivity it has in store at an age where it will mean so much more.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The last of the traditional Christmas features on my list is one that follows an areligious narrative like all great Christmas films. In this film, the fictional character of Santa Claus literally goes before the court to address the notion that he isn’t who he says he is. Played with warmth and convivial spirit by Edmund Gwenn, a performance for which he won his only Oscar, Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is more than just your dime-store Santa Claus and the film goes to great lengths to define the elfin legend as more than just a simple toy store window dressing.
Maureen O’Hara plays a skeptical mother to Natalie Wood who must be convinced along with the court that Kris is indeed the real thing, but there’s more to this endearing holiday classic. Attempting to subvert the crass and overly-commercialized narrative that has developed around the holiday, this film goes a long way towards instilling in the viewer faith that even when things look tough or the greedy become rich, there is more to the holiday than gift giving. It’s the richest lesson of them all.
Taking place on Christmas, a young man (Zach Galligan) receives a strange Christmas gift from his father (Hoyt Axton): a furry creature called a Mowgai. The mysterious Chinese shopkeeper refuses to sell it to him, but his grandson does so anyway, warning Axton of three rules they must follow or risk dire consequence. 1) do not expose it to sunlight, which will kill it; 2) don’t let it get wet; and 3) most of all, never ever feed it after midnight. The first rule to fall, as expected, is getting the mowgai wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the trouble starts as all but the original Gizmo eat food after midnight, which turns them into Gremlins who then terrorize the sleepy little town of Kingston Falls.
Galligan and his girlfriend (Phoebe Cates) try hard to save the city from the persistently multiplying evil Gremlins while the young mogwai does his best to help. This is an adorable film that might be geared best towards children, but is entertaining and engaging enough to thrill adults. Having seen this film in the theater upon its release, it remains one of my favorite Christmastime-set films even though its familial elements are less important, but still crucial, to the whole plot than the rampant carnage on display. It’s a great deal of fun even if it isn’t as thematically Christmasy as other films.
Bad Santa (2003)
Billy Bob Thornton stars in this black comedy about a professional thief and his dwarf assistant (Tony Cox) as they resume their annual holiday tradition of posing as Santa Claus and his elf while fleecing the unsuspecting malls they work in overnight. As Thornton’s Willie Soke takes too fondly to drink and vulgarity, their enterprise is thwarted and the pair must find other routes to riches. After an unsuspecting young boy believes Willie is actually Santa Claus, Willie hatches a scheme to rob the boy’s senile grandmother.
This wouldn’t be a Christmas movie without a redemptive storyline and that’s what the audience gets, but not without some bawdy and crass humor to go along with it. This is most certainly not a family-friendly holiday classic, but the R-rated comedy is absolutely hilarious and has more of the meaning of Christmas at its core than Die Hard ever could, making it a far more worthy inclusion on this list than the Bruce Willis starrer.