Rundown: The Five Best and the Five Worst Christmas Movies

As a connoisseur of films, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas movies, special episodes, and the like. A lot of them serve their purpose of spreading good cheer fairly well, and most are kind of treated as background music (hence the 24 hour marathons of A Christmas Story, among others). But just because there’s a smorgasbord of holiday entertainment out there doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few special ones you should check out- or avoid. Below, I’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of the five best and five worst Christmas themed features. It wasn’t easy; I love theChristmas episodes of everything from Frasier to Scrubs to Adventure Time, and Lifetime has enough Yuletide garbage to make a “Bottom 50” list. But consider this introductory list my gift to you!!

THE BEST:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Rankin/Bass Christmas movies are kind of an odd bunch, because while they’re not always very good (The Little Drummer Boy and Santa Claus is Coming to Town spring to mind as misses), they’re pretty ubiquitous in the Christmas pop culture scene. Rudolph is among the best of them because it takes a pretty basic story with a moral (Don’t Be A Jerk) and expands it out into a kind of a coming-of-age odyssey. The Island of Misfit Toys, Hermie the Dentist Elf, and Yukon Cornelius all flesh out the world of the song well, and the animation and style of it are charming, especially for the time. It’s not a perfect special, but as movies based on novelty songs go, it’s one of the best.

Love Actually:A number of romantic comedies are set during Christmas, owing to the romantic nature of gift-giving and snow and whatnot. Love Actually takes this to the next level by running a half-dozen romantic comedy plots at Christmas on top of each other simultaneously. It’s a model that’s been imitated a ton recently in crappy Garry Marshall holiday movies, but it really works here because it nails a bunch of different tones. Hugh Grant and Martin Freeman’s storylines are cute and silly, but a quick one starring Laura Linney is brutal in its honesty and pain. No matter what flavor of romance you prefer, Love Actually has you covered. And if you only really like one or two bits, you can actually watch just those sequences on the DVD. Win-win!

Die Hard: This is an offbeat pick, but I love movies which just happen to take place mostly or entirely on Christmas (compare Gremlins, Batman Forever, and Three Days of the Condor). Die Hard is the Christmas Eve tale of a bunch of terrorists holding a company Christmas party hostage, and the one cop who can stop them. It stars comparatively young Bruce Willis versus an equally green Alan Rickman, and was one of the first action movies to really beat the tar out its protagonist by the end. It’s definitely one of my favorite movies, and hopefully it’ll gain some more acceptance as a Christmas classic. It’s not quite there yet: When I attended a Santacon (bar crawl in Santa and Christmas-themed outfits) recently in a bloodied John McClane outfit, I got more than a few sideways looks.

The Muppet Christmas Carol:Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge would normally be enough to sell a Christmas Carol adaptation, but here it’s just the beginning. The Muppet Christmas Carol includes a number of familiar faces (Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie as Fezziwig), but it avoids the misstep of most “[BLANK] as Christmas Carol” adaptations by crafting new puppets and effects for the ghosts.  The result is a funny but still emotionally affecting take, with probably the creepiest Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come I’ve ever seen. Gonzo narrating as Charles Dickens is a fun bonus, and the musical numbers are clever enough. A good family choice, to offset my previous pick.

White Christmas: I wanted at least one “Christmas classic” on the list, but I’ve never been hugely enthralled by Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life. I am, however, enthralled by Bing Crosby, and White Christmas is him at his crooningist, sad-eyedest, questionably sexist…ist best. An old fashioned Christmas musical with jokes that still feel surprisingly fresh, its simple but effective premise allows for a variety of musical numbers and clever set pieces. The “showbiz revue” nature of most of the numbers keeps it accessible even to someone who doesn’t like musical numbers, and it’s set in some pretty picturesque locales to boot. They’ve been showing it a lot on AMC of late, check it out if you don’t believe me.

AND THE WORST:

Four Christmases: I don’t know if I could name a movie I hated more than Four Christmases off the top of my head. It’s Vince Vaughan doing his basic “mean jerk we’re expected to like for some reason” schtick, but paired with a surprisingly obnoxious Reese Witherspoon and sent off into a comedy of errors-type tour of both their extended families, a rollicking series of stereotypes and grossout gags. I hated it so much I actually walked out of the theater about one and a half Christmases in, so I can’t tell you much beyond that. I did end up theater-hopping over to the end of Transporter 3 though, so I can talk about that for a sec. In this installment, Frank Martin has a bomb shackled to his wrist that will go off if he gets too far from his car, forcing him to find some inventive ways to kill people. It’s not very Christmasy at all, but it’s still was better than Four Christmases, so watch it instead.

O’ Christmas Tree: There’s not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s an animated special based on the song, about a poor widdle Christmas tree that just needs a good home. It’s sappy and saccharine in a way that I think people who don’t watch Disney movies think Disney is. I understand the inclination to avoid offensive or complex humor in children’s movies, but this sanitized wreck isn’t doing anyone any favors.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas:Before anyone freaks out, I’m not talking about the classic Chuck Jones animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ story. I’m talking about the live action Jim Carrey vehicle. If you’re still freaking out, you need better taste in movies, son. Jim Carrey’s make-up and costume are unpleasant and distracting, and he’s chewing scenery like he has an iron deficiency. Carrey’s never been the most subtle actor, but his capering and antics are out of place here, as is the whole bolted-on backstory they give the Grinch. The beauty of the original story is in its simplicity, and stretching it out to feature length with pratfalls was a mistake.

Christmas Shoes:Remember how I wasn’t a fan of overly sappy stuff? Christmas Shoes is a 2002 film adaptation of a 2000 Christian country song about a boy asking Jesus to buy shoes for his dying mom for Christmas or something, I dunno. It stars Rob Lowe in a poor late West Wing era career choice. It’s got all the low production value awkwardness of most made-for-TV films, but none of the inadvertent humor or fun. Skip this dour, dreary affair.

The Star Wars Holiday Special:The beginning of a long series of questionable decisions regarding the direction of the Star Wars franchise by George Lucas, the holiday special followed Han and Chewbacca back to Chewie’s home planet of Kashyyyk for “Life Day” (since we are long long before and far far away from the birth of Christ). On paper, this is the kind of thing I would love. Expanded Universe stuff? More Wookies? Yes please! But in practice, the treatment of Wookies is even more suspect than in the core series. George Lucas famously based Chewbacca on his dog, and with names for his relatives like “Itchy” and “Lumpy,” it shows. Getting bent out of shape over perceived racism against fictional aliens is an overreaction, but the whole thing is weird and unfunny. While featuring the first appearance of Boba Fett does redeem it ever so slightly, neither The Force nor Christmas spirit are strong with this one.

Anything I missed? Am I way off on the various merits of Christmas Shoes or Die Hard? Sound off in the comments, and God bless us, everyone!!

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