Collier’s Weekly: The 10 Essential Christmas Movies
It’s not the holiday season without a viewing of these seasonal classics.
Any list of the best holiday movies ever made is, inevitably, going to be very personal. This is a category that has less to do with artistic and cinematic merits than your own history and traditions; the movies you grew up watching year after year are probably going to be your favorites; the beloved classics that, for whatever reason, skipped your household aren’t going to rank as highly.
Still, we need to make sure the all-timers are well represented — particularly in an era where certain cable networks debut dozens of new Christmas movies each and every year. (If they’re brightening your yuletide, hey, whatever gets you through the night. But generally: Feel free to stick with the classics.)
So, while you’re poking around the pie and sipping the spiked eggnog, throw one of these 10 movies on the TV.
10) A Christmas Story (1983)
I know, I know: There are plenty of Ralphie diehards who will consider this ranking criminally low. (At least you’re not in the “Elf” camp — because, I’m sorry to say, Buddy will not be appearing on this ranking.) I’m of the opinion that our fondness for the nostalgic, yuletide adventures of the Parker family earned their reputation more by omnipresence than greatness; if you see a movie often enough, you’ll learn to love it, and we certainly have seen it enough. Still, it works for a reason: It’s funny, the performances are great, and director Bob Clark knows how to set up a memorable sequence (particularly Ralphie’s flights of fancy, which are all brilliant).
9) Black Christmas (1974)
In an act of massive restraint, I’m only including one horror movie on the list. This one’s a doozy, however; the seminal “Black Christmas” not only stands as an unnerving, nail-biting tale of collegiate Christmas mayhem, it’s often cited as the first-ever slasher movie (influencing the more recognizable “Halloween” four years later). The tale of a madman stalking the residents of a sleepy sorority house over the holiday break is certainly not for the whole family, but it’s a good creepy choice for a cold winter’s night after the kids are in bed. (Want some wild trivia? The director of “Black Christmas” is none other than Bob Clark — who went on to make “A Christmas Story” nine years later.)
8) Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Us Millennials do have a soft spot for the remake, featuring Richard Attenborough and ’90s wunderkind Mara Wilson. Shelving the generational preference, though, the superior version of the Santa-comes-to-town tale is the original, with its screwball-influenced comedy and great performances from Maureen O’Hara and a young Natalie Wood. The vintage Macy’s parade footage is a fun glimpse into Thanksgiving past, too.
7) Love Actually (2003)
I may be a humbug much of the season — and, let’s be frank, much of the year — but if you want me to melt, grab a copy of “Love Actually.” While its love stories may be a bit more Hollywood than real-world, they’ll effectively warm your heart even on repeat viewings; when Jamie learns Portuguese and jets off to France to woo his star-crossed love Aurélia, I get misty every time. (To say nothing of the sheer heartbreak endured by poor Karen.) If you’re not there for the love stories, don’t worry; it’s also very, very funny, with hilarious running gags and great performances by Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson and Hugh Grant.
6) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens’ enduring morality tale is a good one; it turns up every year in one new format or another, and they’re usually quite good. (This won’t even be the last version on this list.) For my money, though, the best (straight) telling of the story is the one with the muppets on hand. That has a lot to do with the madcap comedy — Gonzo, particularly, is on point here — but it’s primarily due to a perfect performance by Michael Caine. Even with co-stars made of felt, it’s the best cinematic Ebenezer on record.
5) Home Alone (1990)
You know, I said “Black Christmas” was the only horror movie on the list, but I’m pretty sure “Home Alone” is more violent. While we remember the family megahit best for the mayhem Kevin McAllister perpetrates on the Wet Bandits, it’s the emotional core of the film that resonates; Kevin’s growing bond with his lonely neighbor is perfect. (On an episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry finds George crying at the end of “Home Alone.” “The old man got to me,” George exclaims. Relatable.) Pair that with the Oscar-nominated original choral song “Somewhere in my Memory,” and you realize that “Home Alone” is as much sentiment as slapstick.
4) Scrooged (1988)
The points I made above stand — Michael Caine is the best Ebenezer Scrooge. But Bill Murray’s journey through three ghosts, as cynical television executive Frank Cross, is a hilarious, wild reconstruction of the “Christmas Carol” story through the lens of the signature comedy style of the ’80s. It’s not just a classic Christmas movie; it belongs on any list of the funniest films of the neon decade. (Here’s a take that will infuriate a certain segment: Among ’80s flicks with Murray, this is easily funnier than “Caddyshack.”) A fantastic supporting cast — Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum — seals the deal. This one can be overlooked, but it belongs in your holiday rotation.
3) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Was Indiana, Pennsylvania’s favorite son ever better? Even in a career with a thousand perfect performances, Jimmy Stewart’s desperate, wistful George Bailey is perhaps the ultimate Christmas protagonist. Most of the films in this list are about reinvention, and Bailey has a tall order: He has to transition from hating himself to embracing his life in the course of a few hours. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, it has a dozen indelible moments — and Frank Capra’s smart direction puts it among the best films of a golden decade of Hollywood moviemaking.
2) Die Hard (1988)
It’s “Die Hard.” When watching “Die Hard,” you … are watching “Die Hard.” Which is “Die Hard.” I don’t really know how else to explain it.
1) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
One of the most antic and uproarious holiday movies is also the most true, acknowledging the fact of the matter: Your holiday is not going to go right. There will be disasters, large and small. Catherine will burn the turkey beyond recognition; Uncle Louis will burn down the tree. If Cousin Eddie takes your ravings a bit too literally, several branches of law enforcement may come crashing through the windows. But somehow, you’ll still be satisfied at the end of the day. Don’t try to make it perfect; it won’t be. Just get through it. You’ll be alright.