By Joe Carrel, Buffalo Exchange HQ
One weekend. 20 movies. A stocking full of cocoa. And I lived to tell the tale. Read on as I rank the films that got me into the holiday spirit.
20. Frosty the Snowman (1969) – A slight but charming 25 minutes of animation aimed squarely at the little ones. It gets a lot of mileage out of that song – but since it, along with the narration, is done by the singular Jimmy Durante, you don’t mind a bit.
19. Bad Santa (2003) – A raunchy experiment in how unlikable you can make a main character and still (perhaps) keep the audience on board. The humor stems from its non-P.C. “I should not be laughing at that!” approach, as an unapologetically abrasive Billy Bob Thornton holds nothing back.
A number of holiday flicks string together like popcorn and cranberries, so we might as well pair ‘em up…
18. The Bishop’s Wife (1947) & 17. Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – 1947 gave us a couple “what if” holiday movies. “What if an angel walked into the lives of a struggling bishop and his neglected wife?” “What if Kris Kringle walked into the lives of a struggling working mother and her skeptical daughter?” In both cases, our otherworldly guests in street clothes (Cary Grant as the angel and Edmund Gwenn as Kringle) reinvigorate flagging faith and leave a little magic in their wake.
16. Love Actually (2003) & 15. The Holiday (2006) – Like reindeer and snowflakes, love is eternally in the winter air. Love Actually jumps between eight very different relationships, giving us just enough pieces to assemble this do-anything-for-love mosaic. The Holiday focuses on two potential couples and the ocean that separates them, buoyed by the charming Kate Winslet and Jude Law. In modern studio releases it’s rare to see such refreshingly unjaded looks at love.
14. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) & 13. Scrooged (1988) – If you’re gonna dust off a 172 year old tale, have a little fun with it – something these two films manage quite well. For The Muppet Christmas Carol, Gonzo as Charles Dickens, sidekicked by Rizzo the Rat, make for a lively comic pairing. As for Scrooged, no one does manically self-absorbed quite like Bill Murray.
12. Holiday Inn (1942) & 11. White Christmas (1954) – How about a movie where Bing Crosby plays half of a male performing duo who end up in a snowy northeast country inn, where they put on large scale shows in-between falling in love with female entertainers – featuring songs by Irving Berlin, including “White Christmas”? Well here are two that fit the bill! Holiday Inn co-stars Fred Astaire, while White Christmas features Danny Kaye in these breezy concoctions of song, dance and romance.
10. Home Alone (1990) – One of three John Hughes-penned films on this list, the script imbues what would otherwise be a silly clever-kid fantasy with enough heart to keep us coming back. That, and Macaulay Culkin was a pretty darn charming kid.
9. Elf (2003) – “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup.” Will Ferrell plays the titular fish-out-of-water elf to earnest perfection and manages to warm even James Caan’s frosty heart.
8. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Charlie Brown learns to look past the depressing commercialism of Christmas and find something of meaning. Its surprisingly melancholy tone will likely speak even more to adults than kids.
7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) – Poor Max the dog, always trying to please a master whose heart is “two sizes too small.” Not since Ebenezer Scrooge has “Bah Humbug” been embodied more effectively than by Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Animated by Chuck Jones and voiced by Boris Karloff, this propulsive story is 26 minutes of simple perfection.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Led by Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, the residents of Halloween Town reinterpret Christmas in creatively ghoulish ways. Some of the best macabre visuals ever put to film.
5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – Chock full of memorable characters like Hermey, the elf who aspires to be a dentist, Yukon Cornelius, the pick-axe-wielding prospector, Bumble, the Abominable Snow Monster of the North – not to mention the whole Island of Misfit Toys crew. The quirky liberties it takes with the Santa mythos are what make this shine. You could even say it glows.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Most of us recall its schmaltzy last eight minutes more than the two hours that precede it. It’s a surprisingly mature look at compromised dreams and the trappings of obligation that still packs a punch 69 years later, making the ending feel well-earned.
3. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) – Some may not consider this a true “holiday” movie, since the holiday at its core is Thanksgiving, but like shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith, every misfit needs a home. John Candy and Steve Martin are at their absolute best in this heart-warming film that’s hilarious throughout.
2. Christmas Vacation (1989) – While far from a masterpiece, the rough-around-the-edges stabs at comedy just keep coming. The bumbling but well-meaning Chevy Chase shines as Clark Griswold and Randy Quaid almost steals the show as the tactless Cousin Eddie in this go-for-broke send-up of the perfect, old-fashioned Christmas.
1. A Christmas Story (1983) – It revels in elevating a child’s daily exploits to that of storied proportions. Author and narrator Jean Shepherd crafts with loving detail a slice of nostalgia so comically vivid that, magically, we find ourselves feeling nostalgic for it too.