Thursday, December 16, 2010
Christmas time is a unique time of the year. Maybe its because there are lights everywhere. Maybe because in New York and most other places it gets cold therefore developing a mass media that promotes the Christmas season as being cold and full of snow, which, let’s face it, we all want it to look like anyway. Perhaps Christmas is so unique because the world is infused with a certain sense of wonder – gifts are given, families come together, feasts are eaten and there is a supposed sense of goodwill toward men. Or maybe its unique because of the propaganda of the Christian religion in popular culture, which relegates Judaism, Islam and other religions to an afterthought, a moment of “oh, yeah those are great religions and holidays too.” Christmas rides along on the fuel of a Bruce Springsteen guitar riff and saxophone solo that has no regard for volume (Oh, wait, he recorded “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He’s in on it too.).
All of this is up for debate. However, you can’t argue that there are certain indelible images attached to the holidays, such as sitting on the couch or in the other warm nooks of your home, with your family, with your lover, covered in blankets and watching movies. Most often, those movies have something to do with Christmas (is the only Hanukkah movie Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights?). So, in honor of the holiday season (sorry other denominations) and in order to fill out the Puddles of My Stupidity Section on this blog, I give you The Top 20 Christmas Movies.
20. Elf – This movie is a relative newcomer to the Christmas Movie genre. However, it has built steam in the canon due to some serious excessive play on the USA network even in the non-yuletide seasons. I can’t argue with it entering the canon due to the fact that Will Ferrell’s overacting actually works in the context of this movie; Bob Newhart’s presence lends a classic feel too it; and Zooey Deschanel sings in it and looks slightly strange with blonde hair, but gives off a great Christmas vibe and is all around attractive. You also have to love James Caan getting a large role. You can never say no to Sonny Corleone.
19. A Garfield Christmas Special – Now, my friend Dan Morgenstern has had a lifelong appreciation for the cartoon character Garfield and when you watch a Christmas special like this one, its not hard to figure out why. This special came in the run when the Garfield TV show was ruling the airwaves and you have a very dry Garfield, being voiced by whoever the hell did his voice, going to Jon Arbuckle’s family farm. The only person that Garfield gets along with is Arbuckle’s feisty grandma who makes strange sexual innuendos, but who is really lonely. Garfield is able to cheer her up, stuff his face and even be nice to Odie. An instant classic upon its airing in 1987.
18. Scrooged – I don’t know too many people who don’t enjoy Scrooged. This movie came in the era when Bill Murray could do no wrong as a smirking, smug and arrogant character; whether it was Peter Venckman in Ghostbusters, Phil Connors in Groundhog Day or Frank Cross in Scrooged. The Christmas Carol gets a good update for the late 80’s corporate world and you can’t go wrong with Karen Allen (also known as Marianne Ravenwood from the Indiana Jones movies) as his long lost sweetheart who Frank turned his back on for the almighty dollar. This movie also gets points from me because they tend to air it late night on Christmas Eve into the early hours of Christmas morning.
17. Muppets Christmas Carol – This movie has been getting some serious play during the past few weeks. Like most great authors and artists, the popularity of Christmas movies moves in cycles. Muppets Christmas Carol was way down on the critical scale in the early 2000’s, but with the recent championing of the Muppets by Jason Segel and the terrible animated Jim Carey version (human facsimile scale anyone?) this movie has risen in its stature. As it is, it is a terrific Muppets outing. All of the Muppets make their cameo appearances. They give Gonzo some great screen time as he plays Charles Dickens narrating the tale. Also, Rizzo the Rat gets his due by providing commentary alongside Gonzo. Obviously, Kermit gets to play Bob Cratchit and Ms. Piggy is his wife. And you have the classic Brit, Michael Caine, playing an inspired Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s amazing that a Muppets Christmas Carol could have ever fallen out of favor. Shame, shame.
16. Home Alone 2 – I don’t want to give away future entries on this list, but this is an instance where my hard, fast rule that sequels are always better than the original is not true – although, it is very close. Home Alone 2 is a fantastic movie and, like its predecessor, it always does justice to the Christmas season. This movie spawned all kinds of new gags and gadgets, especially the recording device that Kevin McCallister uses throughout the movie to trick his foes like Tim Curry as the hotel maître d. There is also the misunderstood “scary” character, the Pigeon Woman, who is much cheesier than the Scary Old Guy Next Door from the first Home Alone. Kevin’s wild use of his dad’s credit card is not only fun when you are a part of the spending spree, but also turns out to be a valuable lesson about how not to abuse credit. Finally, the insane beating that the Wet Bandits take in this movie is literally unbelievable. It actually includes a part where Daniel Stern is electrocuted and his head turns into a skeleton for a brief moment like in the cartoons. This prompted my old friend, Blake Fabrikant’s, grandfather to exclaim, “There is no way two men could endure such abuse!” when he took a young Blake to watch the movie in the theatre. How can you say no to a Christmas movie that causes and old man to say that?
15. Santa Clause – This is a hard classic in my house and if you polled my family they might just put it in the top five. However, this list has to reach a broader appeal. Tim Allen made this movie when he was on top his game as Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor on Home Improvement and his charisma just shines through. It’s a great myth too: you accidentally kill Santa Claus, you put on the suit, you become the successor to Santa Claus. A great play on words in the title as well. It also manages to make a nice commentary on divorce and the effects that can have on a child, as well as the perhaps detrimental use of therapy. I also enjoy the movie because the main elf, Bernard, played by the actor David Krumholtz looks exactly like my great friend Jeff Schles.
14. The Year Without a Santa Claus – Of all the stop motion animation Christmas movies of the 60’s this one has to be my favorite. It introduces Mother Nature and her sons Snow Miser and Heat Miser as characters who are always fighting over the weather and that its only Santa Claus who can keep them at bay. When Santa thinks that kids aren’t believing in him anymore and decides to bow out of Christmas, well then these guys go crazy. The Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs are probably the most underrated Christmas songs of all time, featuring great brass playing and top of the line production for the era. There is almost a Burt Bacharach feel to the instrumentation. This is a must watch for anybody and I vow that all the people of my age group show this movie to their kids once we start having them. Got it? Great.
13. Jingle All the Way – This movie was pretty much panned upon its release, but it has gained steam over the years due to Conan’s Arnold impersonation on his old show. This is actually a fantastic Christmas movie about paying attention to your kids and being an active father in your children’s lives. Arnold really digs deep for his performance and Sinbad is great as the rival who is trying to get the Turboman doll for his kid as well. However, it is the late Phil Hartman who really steals the show. Phil Hartman was probably the best “voice comedian” of all time. When I say “voice comedian” I don’t mean just voice acting in a cartoon, I mean that he sold jokes with his voice like nobody else. He could do so much in just a slight inflection and he really swings for the fences in this movie. This was one of the last things he ever did. At Christmas time I really remember how much I miss Phil Hartman.
12. Miracle on 34th Street (1994) – I know most people enjoy classic movies, but I usually enjoy the remakes instead. I don’t care if a young Natalie Wood was in the original, this remake assembled some of the best early 90’s talent that the silver screen has ever seen. You have Dylan McDermott playing Brian Bedford, the lawyer who has to defend Kris Kringle. You have Elizabeth Perkins (Tom Hank’s girlfriend from Big) playing the protagonist mother who has forgotten how to believe in Santa. And you have an on top of her game in cuteness Mara Wilson (Matilda, etc.) as the little girl. To top that off, Richard Attenborough (Dr. John Hammond from Jurassic Park) plays Kris Kringle himself. I mean, seriously, can you do any better than that? Of course there are all the Christmas themes about believing and large department stores looking beautiful, but what this movie really nails down is casting.
11. It’s a Wonderful Life – If you want to look for a classic Christmas movie, this is really the one to look to. You can’t go wrong with Jimmy Stewart and I just caught this movie on TV the other day and I forgot how beautiful that the woman who plays his wife is. Also, the scene where the young George Bailey saves the life of the old chemist is always moving and heartbreaking with some great acting by the kid and also the old man. It’s a Wonderful Life has been referenced so much and been around so long that it has become a cliché, which really means that it has just become ingrained in us so that its hard to view it from a distance. But it really does have one of the best messages of all the Christmas movies as well as movies in general: remember to appreciate your family and friends no matter how bad things seem. Great movie.
10. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – I didn’t become a disciple of Chevy Chase until about my sophomore year in college when my friend Blake preached the glory of Spies Like Us. Since then, I have only gown to appreciate the nuances of Chevy Chase, which is why Fletch has become one of my favorite comedies of all time (that and the basketball scene). Anyway, I was never a huge fan of this movie among all the “Vacation” movies, so I’m not really sure why its here. I guess its because it has grown on me as a movie over time. There is that great cheesy (in a good way) song that plays when Clark is watching the old home movies in the attic. Rusty and and Audrey have once again swapped ages so that’s always funny. I think I enjoy this movie because it reminds me of a girl I grew up with, Lindsey Blechman, who always enjoyed the old aunt saying, “Grace? Grace died thirty years ago!” after the family says grace at Christmas dinner. It reminds me of slightly snowy, cold, gnarled tree, winter nights on Long Island when I was teenager and looked at the burning lights of homes on the streets and was as distraught and lovesick as I’d ever be. Now, that is Christmas spirit!
9. Frosty the Snowman – This is one of the obvious classics that has to be on any list. The animation has the complete sixties aura around it and the narrative of the special really expands on the Frosty song. There is plenty of great twinkly, sixties produced Christmas music in the background. And of course the magician has one of my favorite lines of all time, “I’m busy, busy, busy.” There’s not much more I can say about it. It’s always on CBS, we always watched it, ours kids will watch it and if we’re lucky we’ll find those old VHS our parents taped the special on so we can catch all the old Nestles and 7-Up commercials. Oh, wait…DVR.
8. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Rudolph and Frosty go hand in hand. These two specials are really the forerunners of the Christmas special. CBS will always play them back to back to usher in the primetime holiday season feel immediately after Thanksgiving. The stop motion animation is embedded in our consciousness, as is the snow monster, the lumberjack, the Island of Misfit Toys, the babe reindeer that Rudolph kind of likes. It’s a classic Christmas song and story brought to life in a timeless way. Was there any doubt this would be in the top ten? Please.
7. Back to the Future – I have a long standing belief that the Back to the Future movies are secretly Christmas movies. It’s not because of any Christmas spirit in the actual movies themselves, but for the fact that they are always played on TV on Christmas Day. I’m telling you, just watch the USA Network this Christmas Day and you will be treated to all three Back to the Future movies, arguably one of the most original and greatest movie franchises of all time. Clearly the first Back to the Future is an amazing movie – a young boy goes back in time and avoids having his mother fall in love with him so that he can make sure that she falls in love with his father and cements him having a better future. I mean, c’mon, does it get any better than that? This brings you a joy that only the joy of Christmas Day is supposed to be able to have and match.
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss will always be beloved by all human beings. I’m pretty sure that’s a fact. And this was perhaps the best rendered of any of his stories. The animation is full-blown sixties radiant warmth mixed with the fade of time. Boriss Carloff’s narration reminds us of an earlier time of film and history – the changing of generation. The “Mean Mr. Grinch” song has become a holiday staple of sorts and the morale of interacting with other people in a positive way will never get old. Of course the dog with the sawed off antlers tied to his head is a nice touch that always gets cuteness points from the female viewer. When I was a kid, I made my family stand around our tree, hold hands and sing the “Va-hoo Voories” song. Let’s just say I have a soft spot for Little Cindy Loo Who.
5. All I Want For Christmas – This is a terribly overlooked great Christmas movie. This basically carries the stamp of the early 90’s on it. Ethan Embry plays an upper east side Manhattan kid whose parents have been divorced a year but who still sort of love each other. Embry’s character is a mischevious kid so he and his sister (a still cute Thora Birch) decide to use Christmas as a way to get their parents back together. The movie’s strength lies in the Upper East Side at Christmas backdrop and also Embry’s New York City kid charm. It also has some random early-90’s teenage brunette babe who plays a friend of the family. You know the girl, the kind of friend of the family you always wished would show up at some holiday or over some summer and you could have a little fling and then long distance communication. It’s classic 90’s stuff. Also, Embry’s dad owns a diner that features prominently as a set in the film and Kevin Nealon plays the mom’s doofus boyfriend that she ditches. This is a Christmas masterpiece.
4. Charlie Brown Christmas – Charlie Brown Christmas is everyone’s go-to Christmas movie. It basically stands at the top of the class. You have American icons in the Peanuts characters. You have the great score. You have Charlie Brown trying to learn and show everyone the true meaning of Christmas and the show stopping scene at the end where the tree grows due to love and all the kids sing “Hark the Harold.” This is probably my mom’s favorite Christmas movie so it has to be in the top five based on that merit alone.
3. Die Hard – Die Hard is often overlooked as a Christmas movie because of the violence, Alan Rickman’s fantastic acting as Hans and Bruce Willis becoming an action hero icon. However, the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, which technically makes it a Christmas movie. Hans obviously has no appreciation for the spirit of Christmas since he decides to plan a siege on a huge corporation on Christmas Eve. There are terrific wisecracks and references to the holiday throughout and Die Hard set so many standards for parodies of Christmas parties, hostage situations, Germans and tall buildings that it is on par as a pillar of our culture with any Christmas movie. People just need to remember that John McClane saved the day on Christmas Eve.
2. Home Alone – We already saw that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York made it on this list, but Home Alone deserves to be in the number two spot. Its really a fantastic movie that is funny on a lot of different levels. It also features a completely fat John Candy who was a few years removed from inspiring Joe Montana to a game winning drive against the Bengals in the Super Bowl. There are countless memorable scenes: Kevin eating ice cream; Kevin thinking about his family hating him; Kevin finding the picture of Buzz’s girlfriend; Kevin setting up the TV really loud to scare the robbers while watching gangster movies; Kevin’s mom riding in the van with John Candy and the polka guys; Kevin’s dad being unintentionally (?) funny. However, the movie really wins out with Kevin confronting the Scary Old Man Next Door when they are in church. The old man’s story of his estrangement from his son is actually a moving little story in general about being estranged from our families and how important it is to forgive each other – the sadness that can lie in between the spaces of fathers and sons! You also have Joe Pesci and especially Daniel Stern operating on the top of their comedic games as the Wet Bandits as well as John Hughes’ just brilliant writing and Chicago vibe to the entire movie. Also, and I admit this begrudgingly, the scene where Kevin and his mom reunite at the end of the movie is one of the few scenes in cinema history that can make me start tearing up cold. No matter if I’ve been invested in the movie or not. There, I said it. That’s where Puddles of Myself really come from.
1. Back to the Future II – Obviously, the best Back to the Future movie would be at the top of this list of Christmas movies. I’m sure a lot of you were dubious about this list in the first place and especially so when you found the first Back to the Future on the list, so I don’t expect you to follow me to this movie being the logical number one. You have to think conceptually. Is there anything that captures the wonder and joy of Christmas more than this sprawling epic of a movie? In Back to the Future II, we travel forward in time, back in time to an alternate reality, back to the altered past from the first movie and then forward to the double altered 1985. Michael J. Fox gives a tour de force playing the different generations (and genders) of the Marty McFly brood. We are upgraded to Elizabeth Shue playing Jennifer. The actor who plays Biff was robbed of an Academy Award nomination for all of the different Biffs he played throughout the years. How can you deny the greatness of a movie that features iconic scenes from the original movie that have been altered based on the ongoing actions of the in progress sequel? I don’t think you can. Besides all of this, you have the dramatic ending where Marty meets the messenger in the rain and receives the letter that Doc Brown sent from the Wild West. A movie that ends on a cliff hanger? The Back to the Future movies contain some quality that may never be duplicated. The movies contain an energy, a creativity, an adventure that sums up what the image of “Hollywood” is supposed to be. It is a feel, something larger than life. Just the basic concept of a teenage kid and mad scientist going back in time is a tale that we give into and go along for the ride because the people that made it tried to make it as fun, enjoyable, memorable and original as possible. And all of those things are hard to come by now, but when they come together, to me, that creates a strange, murky, indescribable sense of joy. That same joy people associate with Christmas. Also, the movies are on on Christmas Day every year.
That concludes yet another Puddles of Myself list. Obviously you will all disagree with my choices, but to quote a Christmas movie that barely missed this list, “Are you not entertained?”