Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

20+ Movies to Watch This Christmas Season (2020)

Here's my annual post a handful of Christmas movies worth watching. Not all are technically "Christmas" movies, but in some way they're related to the Christmas season. As always, I've updated the list from the previous year. This year's additions: "The Bishop's Wife" and "Happiest Holiday."

1. The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

Dejected by his efforts to raise money to build a cathedral, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) beseeches heaven for guidance, and is visited immediately by an angel Dudley (Cary Grant). Henry, as a good theological liberal, is skeptical and then becomes annoyed when Dudley wins the attentions of Henry's long-suffering wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley falls for Julia, but in the end Julia tells him it's time for him to go. Dudley leaves, all memory of him is erased, and later that night at the Christmas Eve service when Henry delivers his sermon, Dudley watches from the street. If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade as The Preacher's Wife starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in 1996. 

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is right up there) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and  the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

3. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. Scott is (was) such a great actor. When he (Ebenezer Scrooge) yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. And, the supporting cast is quite good. David Warner (who once upon a time played a reporter in "The Omen") is an excellent Bob Cratchit, as is Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit (Note: two of York's children played two of the Cratchit children). And I really like Roger Rees as Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Finally, Angela Pleasence and Edward Woodward are excellent as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are, of course, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Jonathan Winters' reading of Dickens's book is also quite good.

4. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in the minority.

5. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). The movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas sit poorly with their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora learn that Blair coming home for Christmas (with her fiancé), and they have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks to the true meaning of Christmas.

6. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie. In fact, there's a debate as to whether it really is (see "Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). I obviously fall on the side of those who think it it. It takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis as NY city police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."; Yippee ki-yay...").

7. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #16 and #18 below).

8. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't survive, and when the movie begins (13 years later), Cage is a successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't moved to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and convinces her not to leave for Paris to take a new job.

9. The Family Stone (Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson)

This tells the story about a Christmas gathering of the Stone family when the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his very uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him to introduce her to his family, as well as propose to her with his grandmother's wedding ring. Parker's reception by Mulroney's family -- played by Diane Keaton (mom, who is dying), Craig T. Nelson (dad), Rachel McAdams (younger sister), Elizabeth Reaser (older sister), Luke Wilson (younger brother), and Tyrone Giordano (youngest brother) -- is chilly, to say the least. So chilly, in fact, that Parker begs her sister (Claire Danes) to join her. Mulroney ends up falling for Danes (and vice versa), Wilson for Parker (and vice versa), and McAdams for her ex-boyfriend (and vice versa), who is played by Paul Schneider. Chaos ensues, poignancy follows, and although it was greeted with mixed reviews, it has become a holiday favorite for many.

10. Happiest Season (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen)

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a couple who have been dating almost a year. Abby has disliked Christmas since her parents passed away, so on a whim Harper invites her to celebrate the holidays with Harper and her family in her hometown. Harper, however, hasn't to come out to her parents (or sisters) and thus tells them that Abby is her roommate. In the meantime, Abby plans to ask Harper to marry her and has already bought a ring. Complicating things: Harper's Dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and she doesn't want to mess that up by coming out; one of her sisters (Mary Holland) is a bit wacky and has been writing a book for 10 years; her other sister's (Alison Brie) marriage isn't as happy as it appears; and her high school boy friend and (secret) girl friend tend to be around a lot. Daniel Levy of Schitt's Creek fame is also great as Abby's best friend, John. Of course, it is a Christmas movie, so things, for the most part, work out in the end.

11. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

Definitely one our family's holiday favorites. This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "Ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. I believe Wallach should've at least received a best supporting actor nomination for his role, but this isn't the type of movie that actors and actresses win awards for. One of the biggest surprises is the revelation that Jack Black actually can act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

12. Home Alone (Macaulay Culkin, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Robert Blossom)

When adjusted for inflation, Home Alone is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two highly incompetent burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), whom he continues to foil with numerous booby-traps. The rest of his family doesn't realize they left him behind until they are mid-flight to Paris and then struggle to find a flight back (all her booked). Kevin also ends up befriending Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who is rumored to have murdered his family. Like many holiday favorites, it received a mixed reception from critics, but many consider it one of the best Christmas films of all time.

13. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast. There are now three Grinch movies, one with "real people" directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Cary in 2000, and a 2018 computer-animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role.

14. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his  wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Stewart was one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

15. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

16. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

17. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (OHMSS) is a "Christmas film" of the way that "Die Hard" is (see above): It involves a battle between good and evil, it's set at Christmas (or quite a bit of it is), it includes Christmas songs, and it even throws in a little bit of redemption. It also involves a chase scene through a Swiss village celebrating the holiday and includes some of the skiing scenes ever. Recently, in an article in which The Economist considers whether "Die Hard" is really a Christmas movie, the author makes the case for considering OHMSS as one ("Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). OHMSS is, of course, the only movie in which George Lazenby plays James Bond. He was chosen after Sean Connery retired from the role after "You Only Live Twice," although Connery changed his mind and came back to play Bond in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Although OHMSS was a commercial success, its reception was mixed. The film's reputation has improved greatly over time, however. The director Christopher Nolan has named it as his favorite Bond movie, and it has slowly moved its way up the "all-time Bond film lists" ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "50 Years Later, This Bond Film Should Finally Get Its Due"), and it's no wonder. OHMSS contains some of the best action scenes of the series (which are similar to those of the more recent Bourne movies), Lazenby plays a capable Bond, Diana Rigg's excellent as his love interest and future (and only) wife, and Telly Savalas's "Blofeld" is by far the best of all the Bond films (although Christoph Waltz's portrayal in Spectre is a close second). It also follows the original novel much more closely than the other Bond films. It's definitely worth a watch.

18. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

19. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After this, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

20. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is  a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

And here's three more movies that appear on other lists but I haven't had time to watch but plan to eventually (summaries pulled from Google, Wikipedia, etc.):

21. Christmas in Connecticut (Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet)

While recovering in a hospital, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) grows familiar with the "Diary of a Housewife" column written by Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Jeff's nurse arranges with Elizabeth's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), for Jeff to spend the holiday at Elizabeth's Connecticut farm with her husband and child. However, the column's a sham. Facing a career-ending scandal, not only for herself but for her editor, Elizabeth is forced to comply. In desperation, she agrees to marry her friend, John, who has a farm in Connecticut. She also enlists the help of her uncle, a chef, who's been giving her the recipes for her column. Elizabeth and John plan to be married immediately by Judge Crowthers, but Jefferson arrives, interrupting the ceremony, and it's love at first sight between Elizabeth and Jefferson. To complicate things, Jefferson has a fiancée, but that isn't as straightforward as it seems either.

22. Holiday (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant)

Holiday is a 1938 American romantic comedy that is a remake of the 1930 film of the same name. I tells the story of Jonathan "Johnny" Case (Cary Grant), a self-made man who has worked all his life, is about to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), whom he met while on holiday in Lake Placid, New York. He actually knows very little about her and is surprised to learn that she is from an extremely wealthy family, the youngest daughter of banker Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). Assured that Johnny is a worthy suitor, Edward approves of the pairing. But, as Johnny's wanderlust surfaces -- he is more interested in traveling than in business -- Edward starts to have doubts. Johnny also begins to wonder if he might not be a better match for Linda (Katharine Hepburn), Julia's outspoken younger sister, with whom he has much more in common.

23. Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh)

Seasonal clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) catches Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) in a fraudulent shopping scheme during the busy Christmas rush. But when he discovers that Ennis is a war widow and single mother, he decides not to turn her in. His supervisor takes notice and fires him. Mason befriends Connie and her young son, Timmy, and complicates her plans to marry boring nice guy Carl Davis (like Meg Ryan's fiancé in Sleepless in Seattle). The movie is based on the story Christmas Gift by John Weaver, which was also the film's working title. Set during the Christmas season, the film was not well received on its initial release. However, Turner Classic Movies airing the film over Christmas has led to it becoming a minor holiday classic. A made-for-television remake was produced in 1996.

No comments:

Post a Comment