Howie names his 15 favorite Christmas films
As the year comes to a close, one of the things I look forward to are those holiday movies that help to create a feeling of warmth and togetherness and, of course, great memories.
In a world that has become increasingly tense, movies remind of us of a more pleasant period (albeit sometimes a fantasy) from our past. There was a time when people were more courteous to one another, especially at Christmas. Granted, if you look around, there are plenty who still are kind at heart, especially here at Tahoe and all we’ve gone through. One just needs to shut off the media, who make a living, it seems, off of other people’s misery for ratings, but I digress.
Just like those familiar Christmas songs that act as an audio photo album in our minds, so are those timeless holiday classic movies that remind us how precious friends and family are at this time of year.
There are, of course, so many Christmas movies that it’s tough to single out just the usual Top 10, so I sort of stretched it out to encompass an additional five.
Then there are those movies that use Christmas as a backdrop, such as the first two “Die Hard” movies. They incorporated the holiday almost as a character all itself. And, by a strange coincidence, the “Lethal Weapon” franchise also was timed around the Christmas holiday.
I know there are plenty of flicks out there I probably overlooked, but the ones here are still the ones I either own or rent every December.
Oh, yeah, just a note of reference: For those younger viewers out there, if you see some of these and they are in black and white, don’t be alarmed, because they’re supposed to be that way and should never be altered just because we have the technology to do so.
I’ve been watching this movie now yearly since it came out, and it has moved to the top of the list just because I think it has one of the best messages about family, friends and co-workers, and that message is forgiveness. No matter what has transpired throughout the rest of the year, there’s something symbolic about the timing of Christmas being at the end of the calendar year to reflect on one’s accomplishments – not financial, but about your place on this planet and how you have reflected others around you. “Love Actually” follows the lives of eight different couples dealing with their love lives five weeks before Christmas in England. With a cast that includes fine performances by Bill Nighy, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Richman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson and Colin Firth, there’s enough story to go around for virtually everyone here. With splashes of comedy mixed with some tear-jerking moments, the movie captures the emotional rollercoaster associated with the holidays. Writer/director Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Notting Hill”) has an excellent track record when it comes to ensemble pieces, and this one is no exception. The story begins at Heathrow Airport and ends there as a metaphor for a crossroads on a journey through life, and as the title insinuates, love is truly all around.
The quintessential Christmas movie, and, I might add, the only one that had religious overtones that made the classic even more spiritual. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a man with big dreams who seems destined to remain in his little hometown of Bedford Falls. All his friends and even his younger brother, Harry, eventually leave, but not reliable George Bailey. Time and time again, things don’t go George’s way, and when he contemplates suicide (because his life insurance policy is worth more than he is if he were dead) a wonderful guardian angel in training named Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to set him straight, and the movie’s title pretty much sums it all up. I mean, who hasn’t thought what would happen if they had never been born and how it would affect those around them? A nice, feel-good movie with a terrific cast that includes Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and a host of other supporting characters, including Thomas Mitchell.
Go with the original, black-and-white version here and not the remakes. This timeless classic stars Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn and a very young Natalie Wood in her first feature-length motion picture as the little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. It’s got something for everyone, from working parents to skeptical kids and supporting characters like Thelma Ritter and Gene Lockhart, who really fill out the cast nicely.
In what has to be the funniest (albeit NOT for children), nontraditional, anti-Christmas movie (but with a heart at the end), Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, an alcoholic, bad-mouthing department store Santa Claus who tires of the overcommercialism of Christmas and spends the year drinking himself into a stupor until the holiday season arrives. Every year, he reteams with his partner in crime, a foul-mouthed black dwarf (oops – make that African-American little person) named Marcus (Tony Cox) who plays a department store elf. Director Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb,” “Ghost World”) really hits the mark with this sarcastic flick and will leave you howling with laughter throughout if you just give it a chance. The movie does have heart and pairs the most dysfunctional group of individuals into one cohesive family. “Bad Santa” also was John Ritter’s last film playing a mild-mannered mall manager. He was so good. Tough-nosed mall detective Bernie Mac also is very good here. And let’s not forget the snot-nosed, 8-year-old boy (Brett Kelly) who adopts Willie as his pal, believing that he is the real Santa. Cloris Leachman, although she doesn’t have any lines, is so funny visually that she doesn’t need any. Lauren Graham (who separates herself from her goody-two-shoes role in “Gilmore Girls” on TV) also is hysterical as bartender Sue, who has a thing for guys that dress up in Santa suits. The Coen brothers executive-produced “Bad Santa,” and their deadpan sensibility is evident throughout.
What can I say? I ws choked up after watching this and hope that it’ll catch on as a holiday classic. Starring (and produced by) Pierce Brosnan, this little movie shifts into the sentimental gear centered around its title character, played by a very precocious Sophie Vavasseur. Set in 1953 Dublin and based on a true story, the film stars Brosnan as Desmond Doyle, a poor painter and interior decorator whose wife walks out on him during the holidays, leaving him to fend for their three children, Maurice, Dermot and Evelyn. Back then, the government mandated that children must be placed in the custody of the state and not that of the father, even when their own mother abandons them. That law soon would change when lawyers Stephen Rea and Aidan Quinn (with Alan Bates in tow) take on the establishment and, well, the story is a moving one just in time for the holidays. I will say that this was one of those labors of love for Irishman Brosnan. Director Bruce Beresford utilizes the emotional side of the former 007 star and shows us his fatherly side with great results. Also impressive is that of American actress Julianna Margulies as Doyle’s love interest, who pulls off a good Irish accent without sounding obvious. Will it become a holiday classic? Tough to say, but “Evelyn” is definitely one to watch with the family.
One of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, based on the recollections of humorist Jean Shepherd, who grew up in the 1940s, “A Christmas Story” stars Peter Billingsley as the boy who only wants one thing under the tree: a Red Ryder air rifle BB gun for Christmas. That, and he’d like to stay away from the school bully, too. It’s absolutely hilarious. Told in a narrative format, who can forget that immortal line: “You’ll shoot your eye out with that thing, kid!”
This holiday classic almost never made it to the small screen, but lucky for us it did. We would have missed not only a classic cartoon taken from the funny pages, but a great soundtrack as well provided by the late Vince Guaraldi. I always wanted to be Schroeder after hearing him bang out those cool piano pieces. When Charlie Brown complains about the overwhelming materialism that he sees among everyone during the Christmas season, Lucy suggests that he become director of the school Christmas pageant. Charlie Brown accepts, but it proves to be a frustrating struggle. When an attempt to restore the proper spirit with a forlorn little fir Christmas tree fails, he needs Linus’ help to learn what the real meaning of Christmas is. Any sad-looking Christmas tree to this day is referred to as a “Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”
Can you believe that Dr. Seuss’ classic book will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year? Wow. This tale based on his timeless classic still is a delight to watch. Forget the fancy CGI graphics of today, “Grinch” still has that charm as if the book were speaking (and singing) to me and still evokes fond memories from the very first time I saw it on TV. Directed by the legendary Chuck Jones of Warner Bros. fame and narrated by Boris Karloff, this 26-minute animated TV classic about a Christmas-hating Grinch who wants to make everyone as miserable on Christmas still is one of the most original Christmas stories ever. The poor, small-hearted Scrooge learns the true meaning of Christmas through the loving Whos in Whoville. And who can forget that poor dog of his that has to haul that enormous sleigh, too?
Before the less-than-adequate sequels and Macaulay Culkin’s growing pains, “Home Alone” was one of director John Hughes’ best holiday efforts. Culkin plays the resourceful 8-year-old Kevin, who wishes his family would just go away and leave him alone. Accidentally, they do, and he’s left to defend for himself against two dopey criminal types (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). Billed as “A Family Comedy Without the Family,” the family film is both funny and entertaining, with a fine performance by Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mother.
This is a delightful musical film that tells the story of a turn-of-the-century family in suburban, midwestern St. Louis of 1903, who live in a stylish Edwardian home at 5135 Kensington Ave. The city, and the well-to-do Smith family (with four beautiful daughters), is on the verge of hosting (and celebrating) the arrival of the spectacular 1904 World’s Fair. The movie first paired director Vincente Minnelli with Judy Garland and was the most popular and financially successful film produced by the legendary Arthur Freed and directed by its star’s future husband, newcomer Minnelli (who married 23-year-old Garland a year later on June 15, 1945; it was Garland’s second marriage). This classic was Minnelli’s third film (after the all-black musical “Cabin in the Sky” and the music-comedy “I Dood It” with Red Skelton, both in 1943), and it was Minnelli’s first full-length film in color. After their marriage, Garland and Minnelli also worked together on “The Clock” (1945) and “The Pirate” (1948).
One of the most time-honored classic Christmas musicals, “White Christmas” featuring such stars as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney. Bing croons such Irving Berlin classics as “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” Vera-Ellen taps up a storm, Kaye entertains with his usual goofy antics, and this movie is overall a lot of fun. A lot of comedy, a little bit of romance and just enough holiday sentiment to go around.
Also known as the “Scrooge” movie, Alastair Sim played the perfect Ebenezer Scrooge. So good, in fact, that he was almost typecast. Other Scrooges were based on his adaptation, that much is certain. Based on the Dickens classic, this adaptation about a miser who doesn’t believe in Christmas until three ghosts come to take him on three voyages still sends chills through me. Vivid with what life was like in 19th-century London, the terrific performances of the cast, including Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Dilber, make the story come to life. This version of “A Christmas Carol” is the one to see.
In yet another anti-Christmas movie (but again with a heart), Denis Leary plays a cat burglar, abandoned by his partner in the middle of a robbery who forced to take the couple from hell (from Connecticut, no less), played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, hostage. The couple have been in therapy, and he soon realizes that being held hostage is nothing compared with their constant bickering. And if that wasn’t bad enough, their in-laws are coming over for dinner, so Leary takes on the role of their marriage counselor, playing “ref” until everyone leaves the house – but who will hold out the longest? Directed by Ted Demme.
Written and directed by Christian Carion (“The Girl From Paris”), this French movie was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and re-creates an incredible incident which took place on western front during the first World War. It was Christmas Eve 1914, the first year of the war. German, British, French and Belgian troops, who had been slaughtering each other for months, initiated a spontaneous and unsanctioned truce, if you will. They put down their guns, sang songs with each other, played soccer, shared rations and posed for photos. They had joint religious services and helped each other bury their dead. Mixing fictional characters with historical fact, “Joyeux Noel” becomes an extraordinary film and shows what can happen instantaneously during the madness of war.
Chevy Chase, star of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and its sequel, probably will be best remembered for this holiday spoof, because it is one of the most popular rentals year after year. As head of the Griswold family (Beverly D’Angelo plays his wife), Clark personifies everything that inevitably happens as the Christmas holiday counts down, from the unexpected in-laws (Randy Quaid will forever be typecast as Cousin Eddie) to maintaining the family traditions and that oh-so-needed Christmas bonus check from the Scrooge-like boss (played hysterically by Brian Doyle-Murray). Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the movie still is a family favorite and seems to only gain in popularity with each passing year as it becomes introduced to a whole new generation.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
“The Year Without Santa Claus” (1974)
“Holiday Inn” (1942)
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)
“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947)
“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” (1987)
– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout Northern California and Nevada, including Sirius Radio. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio, and you can see his film reviews on RSN.