Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Christmas Movies

With Christmas just hours away, I have been spending much of my time getting into the holiday spirit by watching some of my favorite holiday movies. Most of them I have been watching since childhood, others are more recent additions to the list. Now I know this tends to be a touchy subject - forgive me if I have left out some of your favorites, or a few movies you consider "Christmas classics." You won't find White Christmas or It's a Wonderful Life here - it's not that I don't think they're great movies - they just aren't my ultimate "go-to" films when I start to hear sleigh bells ring. So without further ado...

Honorable Mention - Elf and The Holiday
I'm sure I will get many eye rolls for including The Holiday here, and I am well aware of it's downfalls (Cameron Diaz and Jack Black, just to start); however, you cannot deny Kate Winslet's vulnerability and warmth as the heartbroken and caring Iris, and Jude Law as the charming Graham with his two sweet little girls. Not to mention the scene when Arthur walks on his own up to the stage to accept his award - it gets me every time.

"I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel." Elf is probably less of a surprise on this list - Will Ferrel's Buddy the Elf is a lovable ball of Christmas cheer. Zooey Deschanel's crooning of "Baby It's Cold Outside" always puts a smile on my face, and how can you not love the ways Buddy wants to spread Christmas cheer?? "First we'll make snow angels for two hours, then we'll go ice skating, then we'll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie-dough as fast as we can, and then we'll snuggle." Sounds pretty good to me!

#5 - The Nightmare Before Christmas
This movie became a quick classic after it's 1993 release, and is the first one I think of when it comes to Tim Burton. With his signature aesthetic and quirky characters in tow, The Nightmare Before Christmas created world of conflict between two of our most dissimilar annual celebrations: Halloween and Christmas. Jack Skellington, the frightening Pumpkin King of Halloween Town bored with a life of scares and screams, discovers a land of tinsel and cheer he is determined to be a part of. His ghostly companions, of course, do not quite share Jack's vision of joy, and the result is one of the most terrifying Christmases we've ever seen - Santa Claus is kidnapped (and almost eaten), children awake to ghouls instead of gifts and general mayhem consumes December 25th. In addition to the visually stunning stop motion animation, dastardly villains and infectious songs, The Nightmare Before Christmas also explores, in a way that doesn't feel like a sermon, a popular question: What is the spirit of Christmas? Are we so different from Jack, confusing toys and decorations with goodwill and kindness? Then again, we don't stuff giant snakes into stockings...maybe we're not so bad, after all.

Fun Fact: Although Jack's speaking voice was provided by Chris Sarandon, his singing voice is none other than Danny Elfman, the world-famous composer responsible for the film's amazing soundtrack.

#4 - A Muppet Family Christmas
It's no surprise I am a huge fan of the Muppets (my cat is named Fozzi) and, as you'll be able to tell from this list, the Muppets are a huge fan of Christmas. Over the years they have starred in several holidays features - some more successful than others (i.e. It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie ...don't bother). This is one of the best. The Muppet clan decides to spend the holiday at the country home of Fozzie Bear's mother, who due to a wild winter storm is forced to stay with the Muppets instead of spending Christmas alone on the beach. Hilarity ensues, most notably with Swedish Chef chasing the loud-mouth Turkey and Miss Piggy's seemingly endless crusade through the blizzard. The thing that puts me over the edge, of course, is Kermit and Robin's visit to the Fraggles that results in the incredibly infectious song "Pass It On." Jam packed with Christmas songs like Animal and the gang's version of "Jingle Bell Rock," it's a light-hearted, feel-good holiday movie.

#3 - A Christmas Story
"You'll shoot your eye out, kid." I may have never wanted a Red Ryder BB gun like young Ralphie Parker, but I can certainly relate to his never-ending campaign for the perfect gift (in my case it was an unsuccessful pitch for a puppy). That is what makes A Christmas Story so great - the Parker family of the 1940s acts as a timeless microcosm of our own family Christmas experiences. The Old Man's obsession with the leg lamp (the box is from Italy....fragilé...?), the overwhelming visit to Mall Santa, the absurdly fluffy and pink rabbit pajamas from Aunt Clara - these are all events we can (sometimes painfully) relate to. Some of my favorite scenes: Ralphie dropping the F-bomb (the "Queen Mother of Dirty Words"), the school bully getting pummeled, the "Chinese turkey" dinner complete with a "fa-ra-ra-ra-ra" version of "Deck the Halls" and the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder ring that turns out to be an advertisement to "Drink More Ovaltine!" This movie is a family favorite and a must-see come Christmastime.

#2 - Love Actually
You wouldn't be hard-pressed to find a good number of people who consider this a favorite movie, so finding it on my Christmas list should come as no surprise. The stories of love, heartbreak, commitment and betrayal are in no way new in concept, but their presentation always feels fresh. The diversity of story arcs keeps the movie moving without ever getting too light or too heavy - one minute we're with Colin (who's "got a big knobbbbbbb") in a Wisconsin bar picking up easy American girls (like a pre-Mad Men January Jones), the next we are watching Harry and Karen's marriage crumble at the hands of an affair. There are those unforgettable scenes - Hugh Grant's Prime Minister dancing to "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters, Mark silently professing his love for Juliet at the door with giant posters, Jamie marching through the streets of Portugal to profess his love to Auriela in broken Portugese and, of course, the school play with a giant paper mache whale and wonderful rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You." recently released a list of "50 Actors We'd Watch in Anything" read like the cast list of Love Actually, which was chock full of Hollywood superstars: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson etc etc etc. The last 30 minutes of this film, aided  by Craig Armstrong's beautiful soundtrack, build in emotion and excitement until the emotional conclusion. I dare you to watch the montage of real-life candid shots of loved ones embracing at London's Heathrow Airport and NOT cry. It is, in my opinion, impossible. Love Actually begins with Grant saying, "If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion... love actually is all around." By the end of the film, I have no choice but to agree.

#1 - The Muppet Christmas Carol
Possibly the most often recreated Christmas story of our time, I will argue 'til I'm blue in the face that the best version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol comes courtesy of my beloved Muppets. In fact, while watching the Jim Carrey version this fall, I found myself longing for Michael Caine's Scrooge and all of the wonderful songs ("Bless Us All," "Feels Like Christmas," "Marley and Marley," etc). As the first feature film produced following the 1990 death of Jim Henson, this movie (and director/son Brian Henson) had a lot to live up to, and it certainly delivered. The Muppets bring a joyful warmth to this classic Christmas tale - an already magical story gets an extra boost when in the hands of Jim Henson's creations. I love the use of a narrator (Gonzo as Charles Dickens, along with sidekick Rizzo the Rat), and Bob Cratchit has never been better - let's be honest, if anyone understands the spirit of Christmas, of course it's Kermit the Frog. Other great casting choices: Statler and Waldorf as the Marleys (bonus points for adding a Robert Marley - aka Bob Marley), Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit and Robin the Frog as the always endearing Tiny Tim. It is not Christmas to me without The Muppet Christmas Carol and since, as Kermit sings, "there's only one more sleep 'til Christmas," it is my pleasure to award it top honors.
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