Left: actor James Stewart in a still from “The Naked Spur” which is an Anthony Mann western and NOT a holiday film. But Stewart is in one of the most beloved holiday films ever made: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I can’t bring myself to put that movie on my list. I alternate between thinking it is overly sentimental to deciding that Capra rode right down the line between emotion and message. I’ve seen the movie so many times that I don’t need to watch it again to recall the pain I feel when George Bailey gets wrung through the wringer again and again. My cynical self prefers Mann’s take on the human drama and what it means to be busted and lose everything you ever wanted, and how it will warp you if you don’t watch out. It's a feel good movie. Jimmy Stewart does something amazing in Mann’s film too, something big Hollywood stars wouldn’t dream of doing these days: he’s totally vulnerable. Heck, watch both movies this holiday season—bookends on a career and bookends on families which is really what holiday films are all about.
In the U.S. the predominant end of year holiday vibe is Christmas and the celebration of giving, self-sacrifice, and family. This is all pretty much a hard sell to someone like me who looks around and sees consumerism run amok. To make my holiday list a movie has to speak to a transformation in the main character from someone self-centered or otherwise damaged, into someone with hope (or someone who sacrifices so others can have hope; that’s pretty much the tradition as written). Also an important component of holiday movies for me is the dysfunctional family. Here transformation manifests as acceptance, in whatever flowered form it might take. And I prefer sentiment glazed with humor.
The Holiday Film Recommendations
So, in no particular order, because the order changes depending on how I feel on a certain day.
Ted Demme’s brilliant 1994 movie about a cynical thief, Gus (Denis Leary), who takes a family hostage on Christmas Eve. Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) bicker and negotiate their way back to family with Gus’ unwilling help. Judy Davis has never been more acerbic and fragile at the same time. My memory calls up scenes from this movie all the time: favorite lines, favorite actions. Every performance in this ensemble is a delight. (And you’ll get to see a little bit of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) Contrast Glynis John’s portrayal of the Chasseur family’s matriarch with her performance as Elsie in “While You Were Sleeping.” Enjoy the B.D. Wong cameo at the movie's opening.
We’re No Angels
ALERT: we are talking about the 1955, Michael Curtiz version here folks. The 1989 version written by David Mamet and staring Sean Penn and Robert De Niro is close to unwatchable. Mamet totally misses the point in his reworking of this material: odd since he writes about con-men so much.
So what is so great about a 1955 movie about 3 escapees from prison on Devil’s Island? We’d have to start with the convicts Joseph, Albert, and Jules (Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov) who play their roles with such synchronized timing and clarity that you totally believe they have been cellmates and friends for years. Despite their sordid pasts and the debasing conditions of their prison life they retain their humanity and hold more “Christian” virtue than the citizens they encounter. In this morally ambiguous, and hilarious atmosphere where we see the electricity of attraction between Joseph and the lady of the house (Joan Bennet) side stepped effortlessly, and selflessly, and find ourselves cheering on the murderous plans of the trio, the true meaning of Christmas unfolds, more full flavored, nuanced, human, and celestial than in any other 10 films about the holiday. Karma, and a family saved.
A man, Buddy (Will Ferrell), raised by elves, leaves the North Pole in search of his father, Walter (James Caan), an angry, bitter, man who is neglecting his current family. Ferrell brings total belief to his portrayal of Buddy. His infectious exuberance in the role sweeps everyone along with him, transforming what could have been a simply saccharin ending into a satisfying resolution. (The movie is sprinkled with more than enough grumpiness for the grinches in the audience; and this serves to highlight Buddy’s sincerity.) There’s a delicious cameo by Peter Dinklage as a children’s book idea man. Oh, and a little bit of fun holiday singing by Zooey Deschanel (beautiful voice) to seal the deal. An all around great supporting cast. (John Favreau directs and has a bit part as the doctor who does the paternity test. Written by David Berenbaum. 2003.)
Kudos to writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’donoghue for hitting the bull’s-eye in the 1988 movie version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” A Dickens’ fan from childhood I have seen all of the movie and animated versions many times. This contemporary version (set in a television network where a Christmas special is in progress) captures the Dickensian essentials of compulsion to the exclusion of human connection and redemption, all in an atmosphere that is wickedly humorous. (The commercialization of Christmas is totally skewered in the process.) Bill Murray plays the Ebenezer Scrooge character: Frank Cross. The audience is never allowed to feel sorry for Cross; Murray manages to make him likeable even when he is “unlikeable.” This makes the transformation to sensitive, caring person more satisfying, a true rediscovery of a forgotten self, instead of a veneer of Christmas cheer. There is a great supporting cast with performances that can’t be missed, especially Robert Mitchum’s performance as the network head interested in getting ever larger audience share. Carol Kane actually makes the Ghost of Christmas Present interesting.
About a Boy
I’ve included this 2002 movie based on the Nick Hornby novel, in the holiday film category because there is a running holiday musical gag and several key scenes take place at holiday meals. Most important, however, I include it because Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is an irresponsible yet likeable thirtysomething man who is forced to look at his life and relationships when his baroque dating schemes introduce him to Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a teenager with a suicidal mom (played with brilliant goofy seriousness by Toni Collette). Grant brings more edge to his typical mumbly persona and it makes the friendship which grows between Will and Marcus both more brittle and ultimately more satisfying. A great film about finding your family and the support of others.
Two Movies Set at Thanksgiving
Home for the Holidays
I recommended this movie on November 27, 2008, because it is set at a Thanksgiving Dinner celebration. It’s a 1995 release directed by Jodie Foster with a stellar ensemble cast which includes Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Robert Downey Jr., and Dylan McDermott. The film captures the intricacies of emotion and sentiment roiling in a hilariously, boisterously dysfunctional family. In the course of the movie the characters have to learn to talk with each other, settle expectations, and accept that some things can’t be fixed and others can. There are touching and humorous moments to sustain you long after the movie is finished. We can learn from these characters.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is just a guy who is trying to get home for the holidays (Thanksgiving again) to be with his family. Del Griffith (John Candy) is an overly friendly fellow traveler who becomes a bit of an albatross around Neal’s neck as the two use every means possible for transit, to arrive at their destinations. I don’t really want to say anything else about this movie because I want the small joys that pepper it to be viewed freshly. But I do have to warn you that this John Hughes (written and directed by him) movie from 1987 has a deep core of sadness that only John Candy could really dredge up with his portrayal of Del. If you’re strong, you’ll want to watch this movie every year at the holidays. If you miss John Candy as much as I do you’ll only be able to watch it every so often. I also recommend “Uncle Buck” another Hughes film (1989) with Candy: yet another movie about finding family. Candy shows a tremendous range in “Uncle Buck,” moving from goofy and jokey to serious in a snap. His facial expression as he sits in the car, deciding whether or not to take Maizy and Miles to the racetrack, generates more pathos in an instant than some actors can accumulate in an entire feature film.
A Holiday of another Sort
Arsenic and Old Lace
From the director who brought you “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s a look at a different holiday, Halloween. But in this 1944 dark comedy from Capra it’s still family that matters. Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a writer who is a dedicated bachelor who succumbs to the girl next door. On his wedding day he learns his two elderly aunts have been poisoning the lonely gentlemen who stop by to rent a room. Sheer craziness ensues as Mortimer tries to keep the truth hidden and commit his entire family to an asylum. It’s sheer joy to watch Grant move, react, talk, engage. Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby) and Jean Adair (Aunt Martha) captivate rather than offend as the aunts, and a string of character actors enliven each scene.
Sentimental Favorites and Also Rans
While You Were Sleeping
A sweet dollop of holiday cheer from 1995, about a woman (Lucy, played by Sandra Bullock) who doesn’t have family and then has too much family for the wrong reasons. It’s funny, it’s got a three-act structure, and Jack Warden. I think it’s Sandra Bullock’s most appealing role. Michael Rispoli just about steals the movie with his portrayal of Joe Fusco Jr. Glynis Johns plays a ditsy and loving matriarch (a great contrast to her role in “The Ref”) who may not be able to make egg nog, but knows true love when she sees it. Has anyone ever squeezed out more from the vowel in “Ma” than Midge (Micole Mercurio)? In every scene she just keeps bringing it. (Directed by Jon Turteltaub.)
The Bishop's Wife
See the anti-trailer trailer here. I have to include this 1948 Cary Grant movie because while it is a little too religious for me there are lovely moments, especially as we see Grant (who plays an angel called “Dudley”) come to envy the bishop (David Niven) his wife (Loretta Young). Every time I think the trappings of Christmas are going to get laid on a little thick the director (Henry Koster) manages to salvage things by showing us something real, divorced from those trappings. There is an air about this movie that is unusual and not a little weird. (It doesn’t translate in the “the Preacher’s Wife,” a more recent visitation with Denzil Washington in the role of Dudley.)
It's a Wonderful Life
O.K. even if I can’t bear to watch it I have to list this 1947 classic. James Stewart is phenomenal in the movie. And of course the movie is about family, but it is also about being your most authentic self, produced in an age when we didn’t talk about “authentic selves.” So if you want to be inspired and moved you should watch this film. Whatever you do DO NOT watch “Family Man” from 2000 with Nicolas Cage as a family man who gets to see what life would be like with different choices when he is visited by an angry or tough love angel (Don Cheadle). The borrowing is painful and only the snow-signals-magic translates. There are good performances, but it just doesn’t hang together.
A Christmas Story
Another sentimental favorite of mine, which I can no longer bear to watch. This film, from 1983 depicts the childhood memories of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, who happily has grown up and added directing and producing to his resumé, including co-producing the vastly entertaining “Dinner with Five” series with Jon Favreau in 2001) and his goal of receiving a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. The narration is voiced by Jean Shepherd who wrote the book and screenplay. Shepherd's voice has a lovely nostalgia inducing quality to it. I double-dog-dare you to watch this film and not have a little fun.
What I’ve Forgotten
I’m sure I’ve overlooked too many films for some people, and not enough for others. “Miracle on 34th Street” never finds a place on my list (well how could it if she puts “The Naked Spur” on her list!). I could make a case for "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," and damn if I didn't try to fit in "Big Trouble in Little China." And so it goes.
I’m also sure I’ve missed films I love; it’s just that brain cells are dying or that particular memory won’t pop up until after the New Year. I’ll write them down as I go along in 2009, maybe I’ll have some more titles to recommend next year. In the meantime I’d love to know what you are watching for holiday films. It might jog my memory!
I hope you have a great holiday as prescribed by the above movies.
UPDATE December 2012:
I posted about this list again in December 2012 and when doing that I added a review of one of my favorite movies "A Shop Around the Corner. You can read my review of "A Shop Around the Corner at the end of the December 21, 2012 post. (I actually indulged myself and watched it two more times in that week after preparing that post.)