Once upon a time, in the days of Good King Wenceslas, Charles Dickens, wassail and figgy pudding, people sat in front of an open fire, roasted chestnuts and sang carols for Christmas Day. And then they went back to Scrooge's office (late, for they had been making rather merry the day before) and that was it. That was Christmas.
Now, Christmas starts somewhere after Halloween (or before it, depending on how into it you get) and once the season kicks off, we find ourselves on our couches overdosing on Christmas movies. There are an incredible amount of films set around Yuletide, though not actual Germanic Yuletide – that would be like a Beowulfian "The Hangover." It's easy to understand why. It's the perfect soup to set anything in – action, romance, comedy, drama – because it's a time full of whimsy, emotion and lush decorations. Kisses, gun battles and family feuds simply pop when placed against the holly and the ivy.
You undoubtedly have your own favorites this time of year, but if you actually find yourself scrambling for something seasonal, here are our five favorites ... and five that you only want to put on if you're hoping to get that crazy aunt out of your house.
The Top Five
There are holiday movies that emphasize the magic and warmth of the season ... and then there are films that show us the grubby, migraine-inducing reality. Like Clark Griswold, we hope for a merry, old-fashioned Christmas, but what we get are invading relatives, fried pets, broken lights, ruined dinners and a Jelly-of-the-Month club membership. But at least it all ends in a hug and a sing-along, and that's ultimately what the season is all about. Play Ball!
Yes, it's a cheat, but pick just one of the bullet-riddled holiday favorites and you risk alienating the enthusiasts of the other. Do we have to choose between the stoic cowboy John McClane, crawling through air ducts like Bizarro World's Santa Claus, delivering bullets to the naughty German boys, and the depressive and drunk Martin Riggs, who faces Christmas carols with a hollow-point bullet in his mouth? No, we don't. They make for a terrific double feature, and a bracing chaser to all the sugerplums and nutcrackers. (If you'd like to program an entire blood-and-bullets marathon, they go great with "Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang," "The Long Kiss Goodnight," "Eastern Promises" and "L.A. Confidential.")
Many a modern filmmaker tries to make a Christmas classic (cough "Fred Claus" cough) and stumbles long before the finish line. "Elf" bucks the trend. It's the perfect blend of sweet, snarky and self-aware. (The visual cues to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are nothing less than brilliant.) We all have a hard time buying into Buddy's relentless cheer, and yet by the end, we ask ourselves when we became too cool to believe in it all, and give in. Because what's worse — a world without Santa, or one where someone does give us gifts for being good?
Yes, we could be cool and put "Bad Santa" on here, but we're going to be defiantly chipper and retro. Besides, without Bing and Danny, there is nothing for "Bad Santa" to abuse. "White Christmas" has terrific music, incredible costumes, an unabashedly patriotic bent, a hard-edged heroine and an inn that can hold an entire tap-dancing universe. (We could do without that awkward minstrel number, though...)
It's just not Christmas unless you watch one adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, and while you can't go wrong with any of them, only one is guaranteed to lift you out of any holiday doldrums. Not only is it one of the better adaptations (it strays less from Dickens than many "serious" versions), but it's the only one where Dickens himself steps in to narrate. It doesn't shy away from the social criticism or the ghosts for being packed full of felt, and Michael Caine turns in a genuinely affecting performance as Scrooge.
5. 'Fred Claus'
Its heart is in the right place and the cast is terrific, but this convoluted story of the Claus family veers from mushy to madcap. It's the textbook example of a movie assembled by a test committee, jamming in sibling rivalry, disappointed hopes, self-identity and romantic comedy into one awkward stew. It wants to be wacky (Fred Claus's best friend growing up is a bird) but plays the end so blandly that it winds up feeling like those tasteless candy canes they hand out at the bank.
The best Christmas films aim to elevate the season into poetry, emphasizing peace on earth and goodwill toward men. "Jingle All the Way" celebrates crass commercialism and the bloodthirsty hunt for The Hot Item of the Year. It never once stops to criticize its characters for their obsessive and violent pursuit of Turbo-Man, and doesn't even ask whether a kid would prefer the toy to a dad in prison. It's ugly stuff that was funnier — and that's a stretch — before people actually died in Black Friday crowds.
A film dealing with the complicated and convoluted 21st century family? That's a great idea. Sadly, we got "Four Christmases" instead, a movie that asks us to believe two people could remain married with this many skeletons in the closet. It's shrill, hollow and overlong, and celebrates snide affluence and suburbia above all else in life, while pretending to be above conformity and life lessons.
2. 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'
A more appropriate title for this film might be "Mars Needs Santa Claus," but that's asking for logic where none resides. It's a film where Santa Claus is kidnapped by Mars to create fun, and evil Martians want to kill him for it, and it's done so sincerely that you almost have to admire its gumption. Almost. Because it's genuinely bad ... but terrific if you are watching it with MST3K or Cinematic Titanic's commentary!
1. 'Black Christmas' (2006)
The original "Black Christmas" is a horror classic for good reason. It's all shadow and gurgling whispers, doused with gore and left horribly open-ended. The 2006 remake glossed it up, adding an unnecessary backstory for the killer and soaking the screen in blood. Sadly, creative kills don't make for many chills, which seems to account for its desperate, no-holds-barred ending. It lacks the menace of the original, and should be watched only if you're trying to chase relatives out of your living room and into their cars.