Not a film that pops up on most holiday lists, however, With Honors exudes the quintessential holiday spirit with a memorable final act, thoroughly laced with virtue, love and friendship. With Honors is the story of smug Harvard student; Montgomery Kessler (the name aptly characterizes Brendan Fraser) who meets squatter Simon (the one and only Joe Pesci) in the basement of the school library after his computer crashes jeopardizing his ticket to success – his final thesis. The one hard copy lands in Simon’s hands, and here’s the hook – for every day’s shelter and food that Monty provides, Simon will give him on page of his thesis back. A ransom of sorts that climaxes with Monty’s realization of what is truly worth striving for in life. This early 90’s film feels like a hiccup to the mastery of the great John Hughes’ movies of the 80’s. Director Alex Keshishian (of Madonna: Truth or Dare fame) allows his actors to experiment with quirky characters and deliver performances that teeter between cornball (in a good way, Mr. Pesci!) and noble. The plot offers a few surprise turns, and Madonna’s ¨I’ll Remember` was specifically written for the film and kudos to Keshishian for nailing that hit.
9. DIE HARD (1988)
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Yes. Yippee-ki-yay! One of the most entertaining action films ever, taking place on Christmas Eve, when a Christmas party is interrupted by terrorists, exciting our yuletide spirit in a ‘bad-ass-bomb-and-blow-up- the-bad-guys’ kind of way. John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October) introduces us to John McClane (Bruce Willis) as a clumsy NYPD officer trying to reconnect with his estranged wife. McTiernan’s slick vision and use of lowbrow one-liners ignites scene after scene of action packed thrills. The film also marked a new standard for the genre, introducing us to a new Hollywood villain – the terrorist committed to using force, not for global freedom, but money (well done Mr. Rickman). This villain is paired off with a new type of anti-hero-hero, a man with such bad luck, it keeps pitting him against the worst situations possible, keeping audiences on the tip of their seats and genuinely rooting for an aging, balding, undershirt clad champion.
Elf is Christmas comedy at its best. Ardent Ferrell fans will admit its one of his best performances and that’s in part to John Favreau’s direction. Ferrell plays Buddy, a human that has been raised by elves in the North Pole. With Santa’s blessing he ventures to New York to meet his biological father Walker Hobbs (great casting choice with James Caan). Buddy experiences the charms of the city and culture thought the eyes of a sweet, simple man-child elf. Here is where Favreau’s talents kick in. There seems to be a huge risk that Ferrell’s elf shtick would become nauseating after the first half of the film, but it does not! He is able to maintain the sweet nature of a child and keep audiences on his side (think Jennifer Garner’s ability in 13 Going on 30, or Tom Hank in Big). Another noteworthy performance is that of Zooey Deschanel and her portrayal of Jovie. Deshanel’s trademark deadpan delivery is at its best and her ability to sing, allows the holiday musical nostalgia to set in. This is a witty film about family values and will remind you of the kid inside of us all.
7. HOME ALONE (1990)
One of the most iconic images in recent cinema comes from this film – and that is a young Macaulay Culkin, slapping his face with aftershave and letting out a high-pitched pre-pubescent scream straight into the camera. Oh, how Kevin McCallister is forever etched into our mind as the modern day Dennis the Menace. Chris Columbus has a history of making great family films (Adventure in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire). His collaboration with a marvelous screenplay by John Hughes, awards us with a festive tale from the perspective of an irritated kid, left alone in his house, while his family vacations over Christmas. In one way or another we can all relate to Kevin’s holiday predicaments. The film actively personifies the feelings we all endure during our own holiday festivities, in terms of endearment mixed with a shot of family annoyance. With his newfound liberty, Kevin is completely euphoric, but that’s short lasted once the threat of two imbecilic burglars, Harry and Marv, (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern respectively) becomes real. No worries, its here that the comedy really takes off with the slapstick knockouts Harry and Marv inconveniently encounter in Kevin’s booby-trapped house. After grossing $533 million, and spawning several sequels, Home Alone is a classic holiday adventure film.
6. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)
Every child has at one time wondered whether or not the Santa they just met at the mall was indeed the Santa Claus. In this Christmas story Kris Kringle – the real Santa Claus – is hired to play himself at New York’s Macy’s department store. His jovial cheer and indispensable spirit soon win over all those around him, even in the wake of having to prove his identity in court. Although a tad formulaic, Valentine Davies (story) and writer/director George Seaton deliver a charming, sweet, and lovable screenplay with legitimate characters that remain steadfast in their beliefs. Miracle on 34th Street is similar to films of its era, handling heavy themes (consumerism, justice) in a strong, meaningful manner. Such depth and skill are not easily matched in present day holiday films. Interesting fact, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are of the actual NY parade, and production went to great pains and creative strategy to adequately capture the event for the film. Production was also on location at the actual Macy’s department store, which is a great testament to Seaton’s ability to effectively shoot a film in high-volume environments without the ease of a studio back lot.
5. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Jamming in two holidays in one, The Nightmare Before Christmas firmly positions itself among one of the best holiday films of all time, without the traditional Disney’s color palette. Deviating away from your typical Christmas fare, Jack Skellington and Co. bring us a haunting, amusing, musical film that dazzles the eye in its technique and medieval wonderment. Although almost always associated as a Tim Burton film (he produced and contributed his drawings) director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) pushes the boundaries on traditional animated effects (accounting for the film’s sole Oscar nomination) and innovatively delivers a story ripe for a cult obsession. The opening number (and the 10 subsequent Danny Elman songs) invites audiences into the Pumpkin King’s world and what happens when he discovers Christmas through a secret door. Proclaiming himself as the new Santa, Jack and his cohorts, in their own charming, off-kilter way, plan to takeover the Christmas holidays, much to Santa’s chagrin. Jack’s eyes might be hollow, but sequences are thickly filled with such heart and sincerity, you will forget you are watching something completely unreal. Jack is a true, cinematic, John Wayne-worthy hero in a story about longing and fulfillment… albeit ghoulish.
4. LOVE, ACTUALLY(2003)
For some, Christmas is a time for L-O-V-E. Pure and simple. If Wong Kar-Wai has been hailed the most “romantic filmmaker” of all time, than Richard Curtis must be dubbed the romantic-comedy filmmaker of all time (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary). Curtis and his all-star cast take us to England, where even the scroogi-est of hearts will buckle under his handling of eight special people and their lovelives, or lack thereof. The film is told over the course of five weeks, through a series of super-saturated, inter-related vignettes. The balance between loony and lonely radio-monger Billy Mack (played to perfection by Bill Nighy) and the delicate Sam’s (Thomas Sangster) first crush, effectively portrays Curtis’ ability to authentically juggle a broad spectrum of characters and their needs, regardless of age, class or sex, in a comedic and ironic fashion. Of course Hugh Grant takes the central lead, and his best performances are often at the hands of his collaboration with Curtis. Love Actually does what a great film should do – and that is to show, and not tell. The screen is filled with the universal truth that true love is both euphoric and embarrassing. And that’s why we covet and crave it.
3. HOW THE GRING STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966)
Some people do not consider their Christmas complete, without a visit to Who-ville, and the Grinch’s mountain retreat!! Hailed the “Father of Contemporary Animation,” director Chuck Jones’ adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ beloved tale is charming in its musical, rhyme-versed story structure from the first to last cell of this animated television special. Chuck Jones is responsible for countless Warner Bros. creations (Wile E. Coyote, Pepé Le Pew, Marvin the Martian, etc) and his aptitude in creating legendary characters is sealed with The Grinch. Our Scrooge-like Grinch plans to steal Christmas from the happy, gift-giving Whos, until he literally has a change of heart (three times the size to be exact!) in discovering the truth about Christmas and humanity/”Who-manity!” Although the film initially received mixed reviews, it is now considered a holiday classic for generations of adults and children alike, and that is a true cinematic miracle.
Repeatedly referenced in contemporary culture, It’s A Wonderful Life is a cinematic tribute to the golden age of American cinema. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey (played by “ordinary hero” James Stewart) is seriously contemplating suicide. Angels Clarence and Joseph are on the case, reviewing George’s life as Clarence is assigned to save him, in an effort to earn his wings. The plot is very similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which a man revisits his past/non-existence in the world, with the help of supernatural forces, to regain a renewed zest for life by the finale. This is one of the last films we find a gentle Stewart and his recognizable drawl as an average middle class citizen in crisis, as he started choosing more ruthless roles in the decades to come. The film offers great social realism in its handling of such topics like corporate greed, self-centeredness, morality and civic duty. Producer and director Frank Capra symbolically uses crisp, white snow to transform Bedford Falls, clean and pure. Well edited and acted, this film received several Oscar nominations before becoming the definitive holiday tale.
1. A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
There is a reason why this film conquers with its guaranteed 24-hour marathon on family cable channels every year. Each scene borders perfection in this tribute to the nostalgic, traditional, red-blooded, all-American Christmases of yester yore. A young Peter Billingsly is tailored for the role of Ralphy, our dear protagonist who is on a quest for one gift this Christmas. He wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot, Range Model Air Rifle, a request that requires him to constantly endure the adage that he will only shoot his eye out. Not always does a film benefit from constant narration, but here Bob Clark uses the adult Ralphy’s voice (think The Wonder Years) and perspective to recount the Christmas that epitomizes the meaning of being a kid at Christmas. Ralphy’s journey is packed with family hijinks including a pink bunny costume, a mile-high female thigh table lamp, a visit to Santa, and the consequences of using the (matchless in its magnitude) F-word. Side note: you can pick up the sequel, A Summer Story. Don’t expect the same magic, but do expect a similar familial tone.
– Jennifer Kassabian