About 1,500 words on the subject of Christmas movies

December 23, 2011

In this week’s MovieStyle section, my friend Levi Agee writes about Christmas movies that have and will endure. I wish we’d had more room — I’d have liked to have had him expand the piece. I know people are interested, that a lot of you have your favorites.

That said, I don’t particularly like Christmas movies. I know how that sounds and I’m genuinely sorry for it — I’ve always found the curmudgeon pose as tedious as any other.

But I can’t really think of a Christmas movie that, once seen, I’ve genuinely wanted to see again. That’s the problem with so many Christmas movies, you just get sick of them. They show up on television dozens of times this time of year, and around the office everybody starts talking about Red Ryder BB guns and mean old Mr. Potter. Bah bleeping humbug.

I don’t consider myself a Grinch and I don’t pretend to despise the season, it’s just that I’ve never seen a Christmas movie that really did it for me. I think that maybe I’m too aware of the Hollywood dynamic; I really have trouble with a film lecturing us on the soul-sucking commercialism that’s perverted Christmas when it stars an egomaniacal movie star who gets $20 million per picture.

(I’m referencing Jim Carrey in that hideous live action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas if you’re wondering. I could put up with the Grinch when he was a 22-minute Chuck Jones cartoon — I have trouble with the literalization and bombast of the pumped-up For Dummies version Hollywood supplies.)

But that’s just me — and after all, I’m the guy who thinks that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is not only overrated but symp[tomatic of a sick worldview. Someone should — someone probably has — write a paper on Capra’s suicide obsession. (See 1941’s Meet John Doe — which, come to think of it, is sort of a quasi-Christmas film itself).

I think Capra made some good films (including Meet John Doe ), but that he was essentially finished after World War II and It’s a Wonderful Life may have been the film that broke his creative spirit. When it was released on Christmas Eve 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office flop; post-war audiences seemed to prefer the emergent cynicism of film noir to Capra’s rewrite of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Nor do I particularly care for Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s , the 1945 Bing Crosby/Ingrid Bergman vehicle (it’s actually a sequel to the previous year’s Going My Way), the film that’s playing in the Bedford Falls theater when George Bailey retraces his steps near the end of It’s a Wonderful Life . (Look at the marquee when George pauses to shout “Merry Christmas, movie house!”)

I’m not particularly moved by Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or Christmas in Connecticut (1945) or just about any other “classic” Christmas movie you can mention. And while I’m glad such atrocities as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (the low-budget fiasco from 1964 that starred a prepubescent Pia Zadora) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (the 1984 slasher that spawned four sequels) exist, in all truth they can’t really be defended as even campy fun. And on the weird and creepy side, there’s The Christmas Tree, a 1969 film starring William Holden as the father of a child poisoned by radiation who dies on Christmas Eve.

I expected to like Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988) but it turned out to be a bloated and tedious affair, somewhat redeemed by a bright turn by Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story was a charming and witty movie — and maybe the last thing you’d expect from the guy who brought us Porky’s and Porky’s II: The Next Day — when I first saw it back in 1983. And I liked Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas quite a lot when it came out in 1993. If you haven’t seen them you should — though I’m nonplused by their certifiable cult status which I guess has more to do with their offbeat approach to the season than any inherent movie value.

I don’t know if you can rightly consider The Lion in Winter (1968) a Christmas movie; it stars Peter O’ Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his estranged and hateful wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Still, they get together at Christmas for appearances’ sake and spend the holiday arguing about who will succeed Henry. It’s a great film, or at least it contains a couple of great performances, but is it a Christmas movie? If it is, then I could maybe say it’s my favorite.

But if you’ll admit The Lion in Winter , then maybe Billy Wilder’s wonderful 1960 dark comedy The Apartment also qualifies.

Remember Shirley MacLaine, playing a pathetic elevator operator, overdoses on sleeping pills on Christmas Eve after a tryst with Jack Lemmon’s loutish boss. Lemmon takes her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped and they spend Christmas Day playing gin rummy. In a memorable line, Lemmon allows that it’s better than the previous Christmas, when he went to the zoo and ate at the Automat.

And since we’re stretching, Barry Levinson’s 1982 film Diner —a movie that does stand up to repeated viewings — begins on Christmas Day. Levinson assembled a great cast of then-unknowns — Ellen Barkin, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern and the pre- Police Academy Steve Guttenberg — and made a low-key, intelligent adult drama.

The Billy Bob Thornton vehicle Bad Santa (2003) is one of the rare movies that proves funnier than it sounds, because much of the humor is character-driven and relies on relatively subtle interplay between the actors. While the situations are often outrageous — and the plot itself cannot withstand much scrutiny — the gist of the movie consists of the defeated Willie’s fricative encounters with the other characters, including his diminutive partner-in-crime (Tony Cox), a barmaid with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham) and — most of all — a rather mopish dumpling of a little boy, played with something like retarded dignity by Brett Kelly.

The movie’s premise supposedly sprang from a one-sentence concept arrived at by executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen — who received a story credit for their trouble — and the relentlessly misanthropic script does little to dispel that romantic notion. Willie is a Bad Santa, and in a way it’s refreshing that he doesn’t undergo a Scrooge-like change of heart. Whatever lessons he learns are modest; it’s no spoiler to say Willie develops an attachment to the boy, his luck brightens a bit, but he’s not handing out Christmas hams at the end.

Director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) photographs the unwholesome business in a flat, unflattering light and moves his camera grudgingly, an effect that heightens the belligerence of the tone. Even the art direction is subversive of Christmas consumerism; everything looks cheap and tawdry. In what at the time seemed like a direct reproach to Adam Sandler’s similarly conceived (but dreadfully executed) Eight Crazy Nights, the malls in Bad Santa feature no recognizable brand names. (Unless there really is such a thing as a “Fraggle Stick.”)

I know some people consider the Die Hard movies holiday flicks, and I’ve even seen Less Than Zero (1987) cited as a Christmas movie because it takes place over the protagonist’s (Andrew McCarthy) college Christmas vacation, but I wouldn’t go that far.

On the other hand, Less Than Zero does include Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis, Queens” which is one of the classic Christmas carols — but, well, that’s another argument, now isn’t it?

1 Comment

  • Comment by JOKipper — Dec 26,2011 at 2:02 pm

    I still enjoy the cynical 1989 movie, “Christmas Vacation”…it’s probably my favorite film in the genre. Other than that, I might include The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special (a good mix of comedy and Hammer-type horror, but makes little sense of one isn’t familiar with the Gentlemen’s TV series) for my holiday viewing, but that’s about it.

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