*Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,
*A Christmas Story,
*Nat’l Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
And those are just five of the most popular choices. Every list tries to top the trending bars by listing the “Best Christmas Movies Ever”. Well, I’m here to try something different. Instead of shoving my opinion of the greatest holiday flicks, I am going to showcase the holiday movies most tend to forget about, with a couple of exceptions, just because. I hope to bring some entertainment and appreciation to these little-known classics that are certainly worth finding.
The Thin Man (1934)
First up is a noir caper from the early days of Hollywood, and also the film debut of the popular detective duo, Nick and Nora Charles. The film is the granddaddy of the murder mystery, with snappy dialogue, shadowy showdowns, and two of the classiest detectives this side of the pond. It also takes place during the holiday season, opening with Nora going Christmas shopping for her girlfriends, and ending just after New Years at a dinner party with all the suspects invited to be wined and dined by the witty couple. But that still dictates a Christmas morning scene that remains one of the most dryly funny interactions between a couple on such a day that was ever put on celluloid.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and the unflappable David Niven star in this delight of a romantic comedy from the 40s. A down-on-his-luck bishop (David Niven) is trying to raise funds for a new cathedral and decides to pray for guidance, expecting a sign. Instead, he is surprised to find he has an unexpected guest, a suave angel named Dudley (Cary Grant). Dudley professes to know exactly what to do in the poor bishop’s situation, and then sets off to woo the Bishop’s wife, who has been almost abandoned in her husband’s obsessive quest for monies. I know what it sounds like, but you have to watch the movie. It’s actually quite heartwarming, and funny, too! This is a very popular treat among classic movie lovers who have outgrown the typical NBC broadcast fare and wish to explore other Christmas classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
We’re No Angels (1955)
A seldom mentioned dark comedy from 1955, the film We’re No Angels deals with 3 convicts who escape from jail with only their wits, the clothes on their back, and their pet snake Adolphe in tow. Determined to escape Devil’s Island and make their way to a far-away paradise, they hole up in a local shop run by a much-beleaguered family who give supplies on credit. Initially intent on knocking over the joint and skedaddling, the three ex-cons grow fond of the family and decide to help them in regards to their visiting villainous store owner (Basil Rathbone, the original screen Sherlock Holmes) and his equally duplicitous nephew who plan on ruining the store so as to take it over and ensure a bigger profit margin. The three “angels”, played by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray, are a delight as characters that operate more like a military unit, with quality repartee between the three of them in regards to properly demonstrating the customer is not always right and how to cook a grand Christmas turkey, after stealing the money to buy it first, of course. Best of all, the snake prominently features in the film, but is never really onscreen for those squeamish of the slithering reptiles. I would know, since my mom loves this movie, and absolutely hates snakes.
Santa Claus (1959)
Somebody stop me! No seriously, this particular entry might be dangerous if not viewed under the right conditions. This Mexican production of the Santa Claus myth takes a go-for-broke approach in terms of creativity. Here, Santa Claus lives in space, having…erm…adopted various kids of all cultures into his workforce in place of unionized elves and teamed up with Merlin the Magician to ensure Christmas goes well for the children of the earth. However, (this is where I lose people) Satan sends his underling Pitch to force children to do bad and make Santa’s Christmas delivery most difficult, including breaking store windows and promoting theft to get the gifts they want. Imagine if David Lynch made a Christmas movie…for children. That’s sort of what you’re in for with the proto-NSA technology Santa uses to keep an eye on Earth’s child population as well as the strange life-size doll interpretive dance nightmare sequence and don’t forget the terrifying wind-up toy reindeer, whose laughter will stain your thoughts for the rest of time, that Santa uses to fly across the world. This gem was featured on the cult comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000 so you should know what you’re in for. Watch at your own weird risk.
Donovan’s Reef (1963)
John Ford directs The Duke and Lee Marvin in this glorious vacation home movie masquerading as a tropical buddy comedy. Before you look at the poster and yell at me, “What does John Wayne and John Ford on a Polynesian island have to do with Christmas?”, two words: Christmas pageant. The film takes place during the month of December, as a brief scene in Boston alludes to how the majority of the world experiences the holiday season. About two-thirds the way into the film, the entire cast sits down to view a Polynesian Nativity story complete with appropriated wise men and updated gifts for the wee Son of G-D. Even the sudden cloudburst of rain can’t bring down the show, even though it kinda does, for the characters. There’s plenty of shenanigans and post-war humor that makes this movie a classic that deserves a better reputation, though it has its share of fans across various communities. It also functions as a good anti-bigotry tale that eventually crosses into the Christmas spirit.
DIE HARD + Die Harder
I know, I know. Every man’s man whom you ask about Christmas traditions immediately spouts, “DIE HARD! Greatest Christmas Movie, Ever!” While I slightly disagree on the term greatest, I cannot deny that DIE HARD is both a great action movie, and it does take place on Christmas…so it’s a great Christmas movie. But, also worth mentioning is the sequel, directed by Renny Harlin, who will direct another flick on this list. While not quite as fresh and overall inspired as the initial film, this film does continue to showcase the action talents of Bruce Willis and his supporting cast, including William Sadler, Dennis Franz, and the original Django, Franco Nero. Two quality Christmas actioners that take no prisoners, count me in!
While not the best Nutcracker adaptation by a long shot, this particular version, released in the early 90s by a tiny Canadian animation studio that didn’t quite survive into the millennium, holds a dear place in my heart as it reminds me of my childhood days when I would get up before the parents on cold December weekend mornings, huddle close to the fireplace and turn on Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Theatre to spend some time catching up on the delights of animated classics like Balto, various Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry movies, and Race for Your Life Charlie Brown. This particular classic was a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, via The Princess Bride. It’s got a decent cast at it’s head, Kiefer Sutherland as the Prince, Peter O’Toole makes a cameo as the lead soldier general, and Phyllis Diller plays her usual shrill self as the mother of the Mouse King. It’s not a maligned masterwork, but it entertained me in younger times, perhaps some of that charm is still present…?
Oh, the 90s! Renny Harlin, of Die Harder fame, gives the world another holiday season-set action film, this time not starring the ever-receding hairline of Bruce Willis, but a super sensual and cold-as-ice Geena Davis. Davis plays Samantha Caine, a small-town housewife and local celebrity who was previously an assassin for the CIA, unbeknownst to her and her family until a concussion brings to light her skills with cutlery and crack shot skills. Shortly after, a busload of goons decide its time to wipe her and her associates off the map, prompting her and her private investigator buddy Mitch, played by the always-entertaining Samuel L. Jackson, to clear the playing field, unlocking her latent abilities, and saving the world from shady chemical weapons dealers by shooting them mercilessly. It’s a tad bit vulgar and toes the line between blunt-force trauma thriller and buddy comedy, but it’s still a very fun ride to go on.
Another favorite of mine from years ago that begs a revisit. Back in the days of yore when Jonathan Taylor Thomas was relevant and riding the wave of post-Home Improvement popularity that could be argued to have proven his undoing, Disney released this little gem concerning a college boy who has to hitchhike across the United States in a Santa Claus outfit after a juvenile prank gets out of hand. His goal is twofold: I- Win back his disenfranchised girlfriend (Jessica Biel, post-Seventh Heaven) before his arrogant rival scoops her for himself, and II- Get to his New York State home before Christmas dinner so he inherits his father’s vintage Porsche. Along the way he has to deal with bratty children, disgruntled bus drivers, and the wrath of his frat boy rival. A genuine little family film teaching the wrongs of arrogance and the fruits of perseverance in a comic fashion.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
The late Japanese animation legend Satoshi Kon spent his career building stories that got under viewers’ skin while introducing concepts of humanity and imagination that stick with you after the story has ended. Of his oeuvre, this film, his second-to-last, is the most inviting and least disturbing feature, being an off-beat Christmas tale that concerns three homeless vagrants, each with a tragicomic backstory that tugs at your heartstrings and your sense of humor, who discover a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a trash can. Determined to find out the babe’s origins and return him to his parents, they set off across Tokyo in search of answers, and maybe a hand-out along the way. Imagine The Hangover crossed with Adventures in Babysitting and toss in a little Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and you have a rough idea of what kind of journey you have in store when you watch Tokyo Godfathers. I am unashamed to admit that I was so struck with this movie’s heart and zany tragicomedy that it is now one of my cherished holiday traditions. Check this one out!
This is currently in limited release across the country, and from what I hear, a big Oscar(tm) contender. Based on a story by Ripley mastermind Patricia Highsmith, Rooney Mara stars as a young 1950s-era department store clerk who falls for an older woman, the sumptuous and charismatic Carol (Cate Blanchette). That’s the gist of the plot that I dare to give away. More than likely the prettiest movie released this holiday season, the film promises luscious photography and a tumultuous romance between 2 of the loveliest people working in the movies currently. My contacts in the industry centers tell me this is The Movie to see this Oscar season. I can’t wait!