Sun-Gazette movie reviewer picks his top holiday films
When my editor requested a write-up on holiday cinema, naturally I jumped at the chance.
No one has to ask me twice to talk about movies — especially at Christmas!
At the top of my list is 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which I consider one of the five greatest movies ever made.
Originally a short story which Philip Van Doren Stern sent to friends as a Christmas gift, it was adapted by dramatists Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (“The Thin Man,” “Diary of Anne Frank”); not a huge hit when it came out, “Life” is now a seasonal favorite thanks to sensational performances (it’s Jimmy Stewart’s own fave among his 50-plus films) — and a tear-inducing theme about the value of every individual life.
Other standards I love include “Miracle on 34th Street,” from 1947 — which struck gold with viewers despite being released in June of that year!
It stars Maureen O’Hara, a young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, Oscar-winner for his delightful work as a man who seems to suffer under the delusion that he’s Santa Claus.
Or maybe it’s not a delusion . . .
And I’ll confess a life-long obsession with “Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic which nearly always works on screen. Alastair Sim’s 1951 version is surely the best (check out that plot-twist on the death of Scrooge’s sister!); but Dickens’ great-great-grandson — who often performs “Carol” as a one-man show at Lewisburg’s Country Cupboard — once told me that he likes the 2009 stop-motion version with Jim Carrey. So do I.
(And the new “Man Who Invented Christmas,” about how the book was written, is also a gas.)
These three classics all feature supernatural elements; but I also enjoy such down-to-earth chestnuts as “Home Alone” (1990), the comical, family-friendly “Elf” (2003) and of course, 1983’s cult-fave “Christmas Story,” adapted from Jean Shepherd’s uproarious memoir “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” (Shepherd himself does the film’s narration.) “Story” is now so widely beloved that the Cleveland home where it was filmed has been turned into a year-round museum. (And of course the Broadway musical just ran live on TV this past Sunday — with Matthew Broderick doing Shepherd’s narration.)
All three of these comedies go for the funny-bone — but somehow manage to grab your heart, as well.
Among the season’s countless TV specials, I prefer two that recently reached the ripe old age of 50: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965) and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966).
The former was ground-breaking in its decision to use actual children for vocal work (Sally’s lines had to be fed to her one at a time, since the young actress couldn’t read!)–not to mention its innovative jazz soundtrack by pianist Vince Guaraldi, which has itself generated new holiday faves (“Skating,” “Christmas Time Is Here”).
“Grinch” was helmed by animation master Chuck Jones, who directed many of the best Looney Tunes; it features terrific vocal work by Boris Karloff and an uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft — singing “You’re a Mean One” (the inimitable Ravenscroft also voiced Tony the Tiger).
Having been filmed as a pleasant but tepid live-action movie in 2000, “The Grinch” is now being remade again with computer animation.
Due next November, it will feature Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Christmas-crab.
And finally, three lesser-known holiday gems:
“Joyeux Noel” (2005), which outlines the famous “Christmas Truce” in 1914, when opposing soldiers in World War I declared an unofficial ceasefire and crossed trenches to socialize and celebrate.
“Arthur Christmas” (2011) Deft plotting and heartfelt sentiment highlight this tale from Aardman Animation, contrasting the high-tech operation that enables Santa to juggle all those gifts, with one boy’s quest to deliver a single overlooked present.
Vocal cast includes James McAvoy, Bill Nighy and Hugh Laurie.
“The Holiday” (2006) Though crude in spots, this irresistible rom-com from Nancy Meyers (“As Good As It Gets,” “Something’s Gotta Give”) fires on nearly all cylinders, with two heart-warming love stories and a cast to die for: Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, Eli Wallach and Rufus Sewell.
Sorry if I left off some of your favorites.
Feel free to email suggestions for next year: firstname.lastname@example.org.