List by Gordon K. Smith
A new Christmas tradition that started only in the last few decades and flourished through the age of television and multimedia is Christmas movies, those old and new parables that you NEED to see every Christmas, and you can’t stand to watch any other time. Everyone has their faves, be them the recognized classics, or the offbeat ones that have special personal meaning. Here’s my top five:
1. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
On this one I’m in agreement with just about everyone and the American Film Institute, which continually places it among the top 10 favorite American movies ever. Most Christmas movies have themes of joy and thankfulness, but Frank Capra’s saga of the redemption of George Bailey (James Stewart, probably second only to Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch as our most beloved movie Dad) puts a darker spin on that theme, one of the most deeply felt in America cinema, and it hasn’t aged an iota – how the value of friends, family and self are worth way more than the eight grand your drunk uncle accidentally gives to the mean town boss. No matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV, NEVER miss a chance to see it on the big screen with a packed house. In addition to the fade-out group high experience, you’ll see new details you never noticed before, like the skulls on Potter’s chair, the continuity gaffes (the appearing/disappearing wreath on George’s shoulder), or how Stewart speaks VERY LOUD throughout (I know George is supposed to be hearing impaired—then again, Stewart had a tendency to over-project). Contrary to popular belief, LIFE was a modest success in ’46, and nominated for five Oscars (losing them all to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES). Its one Academy Award was a special technical one, for its invention of a new fake movie snow that allowed for live audio recording. Its imitations continue to this day – Adam Sandler’s CLICK being an annoying example.
2. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Yes Virginia, its’ a Christmas movie, from its mid-December premiere to the opening imagery of snowflakes, cookies and Christmas ornaments, to Edward’s Christmas Eve ice shower to the intriguing bits of Christ allegory – not on the level of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL or E.T., but it’s there – Edward even heals the blind in one quick bit (albeit a dog). Tim Burton’s fable works on many levels, about many things– shyness, artistic genius, awkwardness — and it doesn’t do much for some. I couldn’t talk for an hour after my first viewing in ’90, and the final scenes still affect me deeply. The film started Johnny Depp on his winning streak, and gave us the final – and most fitting — big-screen role for Vincent Price. Danny Elfman’s much-imitated score should have won an Oscar.
3. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)
Five months after the release of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE came another bona fide classic that likewise attained its modern cult through TV exposure. That’s right, a Christmas perennial was released in MAY, and was still playing six months later during the real holiday season. Oscar-winning Edmund Gwen is still the cinema’s greatest Santa, and George Seaton’s Oscar-winning, non-schmaltzy screenplay is aimed at adults, bringing in elements like insanity and union hassles. It was a new and daring move at the time to make a real department store, Macy’s, the pivotal location, something they continue to exploit to this day. Skip the colorized versions, the two TV versions (two in the ’50s and 1974) and the 1994 remake (which somehow works in a mention of pedophilia).
4. ELF (2003)
Here’s the one gem out of a slew of naughty-list Christmas movies made in the last 20 years (SURVIVING CHRISTMAS, CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, DECK THE HALLS to name a few). Jon Favreau’s deserved new addition to the holiday essentials combines the feel of animated TV Christmas classics with smart comedy writing and a surprisingly genuine Christmas spirit. The inspired casting includes a perfect Will Ferrell in the title role, a charming Zoey Deschanel, Bob Newhart’s senior elf, Ed Asner’s wiseguy Santa, and even James Caan singing Christmas carols.
5. BEN-HUR (1959)
It begins with Christmas and ends with Easter, and Turner Classic Movies shows it every holiday season. I’ve always had a soft spot for sword-and-sandal epics, and this one runs a close second to SPARTACUS as my favorite (I first saw it as a kid during its early-70s reissue). It shares a tie with TITANIC for most number of Oscars at 11, and the chariot race is still an unsurpassed piece of non-CGI action filmmaking. Check out the 1925 silent original sometime – you might be surprised by what they were doing in the early epics.
Like I said, never miss a chance to see any of these on the big screen with a holiday-jazzed audience, and The Alamo Drafthouse DFW in Richardson gives you that opportunity in December. You can see EDWARD SCISSORHANDS on December 2, ELF on December 10, and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE on December 22, plus other cool yule movies and events all month. Check out the schedule at http://drafthouse.com/dfw/richardson.