The 12 (Actually, 13) Movies of Christmas

December 06, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Let's face it... most Christmas movies are bad. They're enough to keep any self-respecting movie-lover up all night with visions of The Santa Clause and Jingle All the Way dancing in his/her head. To counter the charge that Christmas movies are all like fruit cakes, I have put together a short list of Christmas-themed movies that are entirely watchable, and many of these titles (although not all) will appeal to those who don't celebrate the holiday.

For those who appreciate sentimental movies, where else to start but It's a Wonderful Life? Personally, I don't consider this to be a Christmas movie, but I can understand why it has been pigeonholed into the category. No matter what you call it, it's worth watching again and again and again. Then there's A Miracle on 34th Street (the original is better, but the remake isn't bad). This film works best when viewed with children who are still of a certain age. It speaks more to kids than cynical adults. The best adaptation of Charles Dickens'A Christmas Carol is arguably the 1951 Alistair Sim Scrooge. The words "timeless classic" are overused, but apply in this case. (If you're looking for something more recent, try the George C. Scott made-for-TV version. It's also quite good.)

There are plenty of Christmas love stories. At the top of my list is When Harry Met Sally. I know, this is a year-round drama, but a few key scenes happen at Christmas, and the climax is on New Year's Eve. So it counts. Similar comments can be made about Love Actually, but the highlight of the film, with Bill Nighy crooning a Christmas song, makes it a movie more for one season than for others.

When mentioning Christmas comedies, it's mandatory to start with A Christmas Story which is, hands down, the best pure Christmas movie ever made. If the words "You'll put your eye out" don't mean anything to you, then it's time to contact NetFlix and make a reservation. (I have to get around to writing a review of the film some time.) National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is the pinnacle of silliness, and it's not all that good, but when it's funny, it's very funny. Some of the material is borderline unwatchable (anything with Randy Quaid), but that's what the fast-forward button is for. Once you've seen the whole thing, you'll know what to skip next time. Home Alone may suffer from overexposure but, at least when it was first released, it was a breath of fresh air. Now, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, it's worth revisiting. Parts of it are hilarious, and it has a heart.

Most animated Christmas stories are to be found on TV. Rankin-Bass produced the bulk of them something like 30-40 years ago, but they're still fun today. Kids enjoy them, and parents suffer through them because they create a powerful sense of nostalgia. The only animated Christmas film I can recommend is last year's The Polar Express, which weaves its own brand of magic. The animation alone is worth giving up 90 minutes for.

Finally, there are those films that highlight the dark side of Christmas and, as such, may not be for younger viewers. The first of these is Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, which could be considered more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas. But "Sandy Claws" does feature prominently in the storyline. How the Grinch Stole Christmas expands upon the Dr. Seuss short story. I like the cartoon better; after seeing the live-action edition a few times, it loses some of its charm. Those two movies could be seen by children; the next two should not be. First, there's Reckless, a little-seen black comedy about what happens when Murphy's Law takes over Christmas. This forgotten gem is not available on DVD (at least to my knoweledge) but, at one time, could be found on VHS and laserdisc. It's not worth exerting too much effort for, but if you can find a copy, don't pass it by. Finally, there's Bad Santa, which pushes the envelope about as far as it can go without straying into Silent Night, Deadly Night (which I do not recommend) territory.

So there you have it - a baker's dozen of Christmas movies. And I didn't even mention two so-so possibilites: Elf and The Ref.