Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ten Best Christmas Movies of the last 30 years

It’s December, and that means the airwaves and cinemas are flooded with Christmas movies. In case you hadn’t noticed, most of those movies are just awful. There’s no way you’d watch them for free on television, and you can’t imagine anyone paying money to see them in a theater. Christmas movies are usually the laziest form of film-making, as it’s usually the same story every time: someone has a problem and the magic of Christmas makes it all better and everyone learns a life lesson.

The good news is that not all Christmas movies are terrible. There’s been a few good ones, and while It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are indeed classics, I want to focus on the past three decades and look at more recent Christmas fare. These movies that are starting to become classics that will be beloved by future generations.

If you’re in the mood for a Christmas movie and don’t want to get stuck watching Fred Claus, here are ten great Christmas movies that will put you in a good, Christmas spirit.

10) The Santa Clause

The Story: Tim Allen becomes Santa. What more do you need?

Why it’s Great: You may not remember this, but Tim Allen was king in the 90′s. He had a great stand-up career, and his show Home Improvement was incredibly popular. The idea of putting that character into a Santa suit was both a clever marketing ploy and surprisingly funny. Yes, it was basically Tim Taylor playing Santa, but it worked. Throw in a pre-Numbers David Krumholtz and you’ve got yourself a great cast.

This movie asks the question of what it’s like to be Santa in the modern world. The newest Santa is going through a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, and people are a lot more cynical about the holidays. The message of the movie, as Scott Calvin (Allen) embraces his new role as Father Christmas, is that the holiday magic never went away, we just have to accept it.

Best Christmas Moment: Judge Reinhold rediscovers the magic of Christmas via an Oscar Meyer weenie whistle.

9) Elf

The Story: Will Ferrell is an elf. The movie writes itself.

Why it’s Great: Will Ferrell of the last decade was Adam Sandler in the 90′s and Bill Murray in the 80′s. You just couldn’t go wrong. This movie features Ferrell as Buddy, a human raised as an elf in the North Pole. Once a grown man, Buddy arrives in New York and it’s a classic fish-out-of-water story where the elf-man must contend with not only the fast-paced life of the human world, but the cynicism and commercialism of Christmas.

Part of the struggle is realizing that the mall Santas are not the genuine article, a revelation that comes as quite a shock to the childlike former elf. It’s yet another exploration of what happens when we have to grow up and accept Christmas as it really is in the adult world, when that small child in all of us still wants there to be some magic.

Best Christmas Moment: “You sit on a throne of lies!”

The Story:Everyone shows up for Christmas, there's no Christmas bonus, a few people get kidnapped, and Clark finally gets his lights to work.

Why it’s Great: Go to any Christmas party and talk smack about Christmas Vacation. I dare you. It’s over 20 years old and still considered sacrosanct in many households. Just start quoting the movie and someone will answer back with another quote.

Normally the third movie in a series is terrible, especially after two strong entries. Making it a Christmas movie would be the final nail in the franchise coffin, but not if you involve the Griswolds. This is Chevy Chase at his bumbling, snarky best. Rather than terrorizing America or Europe, this time they terrorize each other and all the relatives as they try to have a perfect Christmas. Accidents happen. People lose their minds. Things blow up. Santa takes flight. It’s a great family Christmas.

The movie does have a sentimental side, such as the moment when Clark is up in the attic watching old home movies. Just when you think the film is getting to saccharine, we find out why it's never a good idea to sit on the ladder leading downstairs. In the end, this movie will make you feel the holiday spirit and be a little more grateful for your own crazy family.

As usual, the Griswold kids are different, this time played by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki, who’ve gone on to have pretty impressive careers.

Best Christmas Moment: “And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”

The Story: The king of Halloween wants to try his hand at Christmas. Hijinks ensue.

Why it’s Great: Stop motion animation is a lost art, but when it’s done well, it’s amazing. Nightmare holds up because it’s incredibly stylized, thanks to director  Henry Selick and producer Tim Burton. It’s funny, dark, scary, and yet all the hideous Halloween creatures have a fuzzy warm charm to them. Jack Skellington is very lovable and he’s a Jimmy Stuart-type idealist who just wants to give Santa a break and have a go at making children happy.

It’s Christmas seen through the lens of madness, which is pretty typical for a lot of families, actually. It’s not the usual take on Christmas, it’s dark and twisted, but at the core it still celebrates the spirit of the season, and that’s what a lot of people respond to. Plus, it has the most adorable ghost dog you’ve ever seen, and who doesn’t love a loyal and faithful dead doggie?

Best Christmas Moment: The children opening their gifts from the fine folks in Halloween Town and suddenly not minding when Aunt Ruth gives them socks.

The Story: A little boy tries to survive his childhood at Christmas.

Why it’s Great: Because while we often remember childhood as an idyllic time, it was often a miserable experience. Christmas Story captures that reality and lets us reminisce about the holiday with a little more honesty than our rose-tinted glasses often allow. 

While Ralph’s childhood wasn’t unhappy, it was full of those terrible childhood moments we edit out of our memories when we reminisce, from bad presents and bullies, to the usual level of insanity at home.
Admit it, you want one of those lamps. It’s fra-gee-lay, probably Italian.

Other great moments are Ralphie’s fantasy sequences, including his “A+++” composition to why having your mouth washed out with soap will cause blindness. In real life, he had to learn that not all Santas are nice, and that Little Orphan Annie was shilling for Ovaltine.

Christmas doesn’t always work out the way you’d like it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t stop trying to celebrate the holiday. Ralphie’s perseverance to get his prized Red Ryder BB gun is a quest that still rings true today, especially when he does wind up with his prize and very nearly shoots his eye out.

And who among us hasn’t let out a very slow “fuuuudge” when something goes wrong?

Best Christmas Moment: Ralphie gets his Red Ryder gun after all.

The Story: The Muppets tell the Christmas Carol story. If you don’t know what ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about, then I can’t help you.

Why it’s Great: Aside from the usual Muppet madness, which is always fun, this is the only version of Christmas Carol that begins the same way as the story: telling us that Jacob Marley was dead. All the other movies skip that line, but Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) makes sure we’re aware of that plot point. All the usual Christmas Carol trappings are there, the Muppets are in top form, and Rizzo and Gonzo are hilarious as the omniscient narrators.

The climax, of course, is when Scrooge realizes that Christmas hasn’t passed him by, and Michael Caine gives us a Scrooge who is truly, happily, touched: a changed man. Even though we all (should) know the story, it’s great to see the Muppets’ joyful take on that moment. The Muppets have always been about finding the magic, and what better time than at Christmas? 

Best Christmas Moment: The opening song devoted to the nastiness of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Twenty years later and I still can’t get it out of my head.

The Story: It’s like ‘A Christmas Carol,’ but with Bill Murray as a TV executive.

Why it’s Great: As I said earlier, Bill Murray in the 80′s was a force to be reckoned with. His turn in Scrooged is one of his best performances, right up there with Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and Stripes. In this incarnation, Scrooge is cynically using a TV broadcast of A Christmas Carol to bring in big ratings and big money. Only a few select spirits can help redeem him.

The Ghosts are wonderfully insane, and he plays off them well. While the Muppets version of Dickens’ tale is very traditional, Scrooged puts it in modern times, where the spirits of Christmas have to contend with the worst the 1980′s had to offer.

Naturally, he sees the error of his ways. No one expresses exuberant, manic joy like Bill Murray, and in a story like this you need the redeemed character to be completely insane with happiness. He truly does get us to put a little love in our hearts.

Best Christmas Moment: Every time Carol Kane beats the crap out of him.

The Story: In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, someone is out to kill the Hogfather (their version of Santa).  Death convinces his granddaughter, Susan, to track down the assassins, while He dons the red suit Himself.

Why it’s Great: This TV-Movie was the first adaptation of one of the Discworld books, and it succeeds admirably. By removing the specific trappings of Christmas (replacing it with Hogswatch) this movie is able to analyze what it means to believe is a being like the Hogfather (or Santa) and why that’s incredibly important for children. It is our beliefs, our faith, that makes the holidays magic, and such a thesis is pretty heady for a Christmas story. Philosophy aside, it’s also got the same clever wit as the Discworld books.  Plus, the production values are amazing.

When the Hogfather disappears, none other than Death takes his place in order to keep people believing in the Hogfather. Seeing the Grim Reaper in the red robes and beard, attempting to master “Ho, ho, ho” is a tribute to everyone who wasn’t quite sure they could pull off being Christmassy but gave it a go anyway.  Also, the relationship between Death and His granddaughter Susan (the original Supernanny), while difficult, is poignant and redeeming for both of them.

Best Christmas Moment: Death convinces a sentient computer device to believe in the Hogfather, and the computer begins writing a letter establishing that it’s been a good computer this year.

The Story: Mel Gibson is too crazy and Danny Glover is too old.

Why it’s Great: Christmas can be a dark time for a lot of people, and while the notion that suicide rates go up during the holidays is a myth, people still get very depressed. Riggs (Gibson) is the embodiment of that depression, and his redemption is what Christmas movies are all about. Riggs is dealing with his wife’s death the only way he knows how, by walking around naked and contemplating suicide, though usually not at the same time.

But don’t think there’s not a lot of crazy action, because that’s what you get when you pair up a crazy cop with a death wish and Murtaugh (Glover) a jaded veteran of the force who just wants to get home to his family. We have shootouts, explosions, and not a little torture. (Fun for the whole family.)

Of course this movie has a happy ending, it is Christmas after all, and not only are the bad guys stopped (and pretty much all killed) but Riggs comes to grips with his grief and realizes that there are a few things worth living for. It’s just the kind of sentiment that all Christmas movies need.

Best Christmas Moment: Riggs gives Murtaugh the hollow-point bullet, showing that he’s going to try living his life again.

The Story: Bad Guys crash a Christmas party in a skyscraper and only Officer John McClane’s bare feet can stop them.

Why it’s Great: Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies ever made. That it takes place on Christmas also qualifies it for one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made. (So much so that it’s almost cliche to put it on a best Christmas movie list, but I don’t care. I’m doing it.)

What about this movie doesn’t embody the Christmas Spirit? We have a hero fighting for his family, a police officer haunted by his past looking for redemption, and a bunch of hostages praying for a miracle. Not to mention, it’s a crazy corporate Christmas party in the 80′s and you know those were crazy times even before Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) showed up and started shooting people.

This movie also has a sentimental side, seen through the radio communications between McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson, who was contractually obligated to only play cops in the 1980′s.) Each of them had their baggage, and as they shared, they gave each other the strength to survive, especially against a henchman who just won’t stay dead.

Best Christmas Moment: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho!”


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