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The Best and Worst of Christmas Movies

Every December, there’s a series of films which get marched and watched without question. These are the Christmas classics, the movies which are forgotten about for eleven months of the year before appearing in a blizzard of snowy, jingle-belled glory come the festive season. The Christmas classics are fairly set these days, and as with music, it’s hard for a new property to get a look in without seeming like a cash-grab. People are also fiercely defensive of their favourites. A lot of this comes down to nostalgia; people loved Christmas as kids, and as adults, they love the movies they loved as children. There’s something charming about this in a way, though really, a lot of Christmas movies are pretty awful. But some of them are great too. People have repeatedly asked me this December about my favourite Christmas movies, so I thought it best to put together my thoughts on the Christmas classics. This isn’t a Top 10 as such, but a kind of ramble through the seasonal movies I love, with a quick look at those I don’t. 8A slight confession – this list isn’t built to be purposefully contrary, but the best Christmas movies tend to be those which are set at Christmas, without really being about the holiday. This is probably because such movies could have existed without the seasonal theme, which means they feel a little bit more solid. I’m also partial to the anti-Christmas movies and specials, as it’s nice to cut through the sap. My favourite Christmas TV episodes, for example, are Futurama’s ‘Xmas Story’, in which a homicidal robot Santa tries to murder the Planet Express crew, and South Park’s morbidly funny Woodland Critter Christmas, in which a bunch of cuddly forest animals try to raise the Antichrist. That’s the Christmas I’m aiming at here.

But first, a quick run through of the worst. These are the movies I actively try and avoid come December.

The Polar Express (2004) – Urgh. I don’t really know what happened to Robert Zemeckis. His 80s movies are amazing – Back to the Future is a perfect blockbuster, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a brilliant and subversive comedy thriller. I even enjoy Death Becomes Her, for its dark screwball insanity. But then Forrest Gump happened, and Zemeckis became a little bit bland and uninteresting. His movies remained technically good, but become fairly lifeless and emotionally manipulative – Cast Away for example, which seems artificially constructed to appeal to a certain kind of casual movie-goer, i.e. the sort of person who thinks The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest film ever made, but couldn’t tell you who Stanley Kubrick was. Then, to further ruin his filmography, Zemeckis started really pushing digital motion capture movies, and made a series of ugly, uninviting films, including two themed for Christmas – A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express. A Christmas Carol has some merit, at times, though the animation is hideous, but it’s The Polar Express that really stands out as offensive. Firstly, it seems to go on forever, the songs are awful, it’s painfully schmaltzy, and the North Pole has a slight 1930s Nazi rally vibe. It’s also one of the ugliest animated films ever made, repulsive to look at even, with cold, dead-eyed lifeless character models. Thankfully, motion capture never took off in the way Zemeckis hoped, so we can all just forget this was a thing.

Love Actually (2003) – I don’t hate this one, it’s got its moments and the cast is good. But there’s too much cast, too much going on, and the end result is a series of mini-movies which aren’t always effective. The result is a bit like getting a box of chocolates for Christmas – some are sweet, some are disgusting, and the final result isn’t too satisfying. Really, I’m not a big fan of Richard Curtis’s sexless, foppish view of England which seems permanently stuck in a Kensington Marks and Spencer in the late 90s, with the Sugababes on loop, people swearing by saying ‘bloody hell,’ and the complete absence of anyone who isn’t white. This is actually one of Curtis’s better films, syrup fest that it is.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – There’s a lot of movies I saw in the cinema as a kid and loved, which I know now are terrible films. The 90s Godzilla for example. This one though, I knew was terrible on first viewing. Jim Carrey is basically a horrifying monster gurning his way through two-hours, which isn’t great, but the big problem comes from the plot. This is what happens when you take a tiny children’s book with tiny themes and try and force it into a film length narrative – you get a lot of unnecessary plot and padding, weird tonal jumps, and a sense of just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Worse still, I’m pretty sure no one likes this movie, but just watches it because it’s Christmas and they feel they have to.

I haven’t really got time for any of the Miracle of 34th Streets or The Santa Claus movies. Scrooged and Bad Santa tend to crop up on ‘Best’ lists, but I’ve not seen either in so long I don’t feel I’d have anything to say. Likewise, I’ve not seen It’s a Wonderful Life at all – I’m aware this is blasphemy for a movie blogger in a favourite Christmas movies post, but I’ll aim to remedy that this year, and maybe add an update. I’m partial to Elf – it’s funnier and more charming than I’d have expected, and whilst I enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas, it doesn’t quite blow me away and I feel the whole thing loses steam after ‘What’s This?’ It’s technically hugely impressive though. A final aside, the best movie set at Christmas is probably Eyes Wide Shut, which I’ve covered in detail on this blog so read it elsewhere. Probably the best use of Christmas lighting ever on screen though. Edward Scissorhands is great too, but the Christmas element only comes in right at the end.

Here’s the movies I love:

The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) 

5

I was never a big fan of The Muppets. I know some people love them, but I’ve not really seen any of their films or shows and they don’t mean a great deal to me. That said, I love The Muppets Christmas Carol. It’s probably my favourite adaptation of the Dickens tale, and despite the puppets playing half the roles, it’s actually surprisingly faithful to the original story, at least in terms of atmosphere. You do sort of forget you’re watching Muppets and get wrapped up in the story, which is both heart-warming and charming but at times creepy and unsettling – I love the atmosphere before the first ghost, the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the freaky Future ghost design. Michael Caine just throws himself into this role, which is again, all the more amazing when you realise he’s working with puppets, and for a lot of people my age, he is Scrooge. He plays it as he would in a ‘serious’ movie, and that’s great. The songs are fantastic throughout, and very festive. Just a very sweet, enjoyable little movie, which I know a lot of people really love.

Batman Returns (1992)

6

Tim Burton’s first Batman movie was a huge cinematic event at the time, with Burton reinventing Batman in the public consciousness and burying all memories of the campy Adam West years. It altered perceptions of superheros, which is funny because post Nolan, the Burton movies actually come across rather silly, camp and a little dated. Regardless, the original movie made a ton of money, and Warner Bros wanted a sequel. Burton wasn’t interested in a second movie, believing he’d said all he could about a man in a batsuit, until Warner Brothers offered him complete creative control of the film. The result was certainly interesting and certainly not what the studio expected – Burton made the anti-superhero movie, a dark, carnival freakshow featuring three completely insane characters (The Penguin, Catwoman, and yes, Batman) in a German-Expressionist hell, accompanied by Danny Elfman’s haunting, silent-movie inspired score, the composer’s best work to date. It wasn’t a family friendly movie in the slightest, featuring a child-murdering monster as the villain, Michelle Pfeiffer in an unhinged and wonderful role having a complete mental breakdown, and an apathetic Batman who struggled with duality; Keaton’s Batman wasn’t human in the same way Bale’s was, Keaton’s was a man disconnected from the world, a freak. And whilst the film does fall into camp (and contains some dreadful dialogue) it’s so aesthetically well put together – with sweeping sets, semi-operatic silly tone and striking expressionist lighting, this is a wonderful and atmospheric experience; Christmas in Gotham City. Burton’s Gotham blanketed in snow is beautiful and the Christmas setting provides a great haunting ambience.  In some ways, Returns, made by Burton back when he was an interesting filmmaker, is both an anti-superhero movie and an anti-Christmas movie. It’s ultimately more Burton than superhero movie or Christmas and comic-book and festive fans hate it, but it’s certainly cinematically stylish, and that’s why I love it.

Home Alone (1990)

7

This is probably on everyone’s favourite Christmas films list. Out of all the movies mentioned here, this is the most traditionally ‘Christmasy’ and the one which conjures up the most nostalgic memories. I usually hate Chris Columbus as a director – he sums up that 90s schmaltzy blockbuster vibe and all of his movies have aged horribly, especially his first two Harry Potters, but here, he does manage to capture the crazy chaos of Christmas, making excellent use of John William’s hectic festive score. It’s an odd movie – but it gets kids. What child hasn’t wondered what life would be like without parents? Icecream for breakfast, sleeping in the big bed, watching what you want on TV – this is why the movie resonates so well with people, as it does capture a sense of childhood. The boiler monster and shovel killer represent the scarier elements of being home alone too. Macaulay Culkin has a lot of energy and is fun in the role, and though not a perfect movie by any means (the plot is contrived as anything and the my-first-home-invasion feels like a completely different movie, though the slapstick is brutal) but its festive, fairly magical, and sums up the season. One to watch on a lazy Sunday in December. The 2nd movie, Lost in New York, is more or less the same and remembered fondly through nostalgia.

Gremlins (1984)

3

This was one of my favourite movies as a kid, and one I watched constantly, throughout the year. I caught it again as an adult, maybe ten years later, and was impressed by how good it actually is. Joe Dante’s Gremlins is an odd movie, and one which wouldn’t get made today – it’s kind of family friendly, and at times childish and comedic, but then veers to out an out horror; the film is notorious for bringing in the PG-13 rating, on the recommendation of Spielberg. Gremlins is perhaps the best anti-Christmas movie. It’s a dark and surprisingly nasty little film, which uses its Christmas setting to great atmospheric effect. There’s a real mix of the wholesome – Gizmo, the town itself, characters, and Christmas too – with the horrible creeping in. Christmas carollers being monsters, a bitter old woman thinking she’s going to Hell; Santa being mauled by gremlins whilst the police just roll up their windows, the use of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ as a creepy and eerie track before the violent and brutal kitchen massacre sequence, which ends with a mother pinned underneath a Christmas tree whilst a monster slashes at her face. Phoebe Cates’ Santa monologue is one of the darkest and most chilling moments in any family film. The movie was made at the time when horror/comedy was in – see Ghostbusters, An American Werewolf In London – but unlike similar hybrid movies today, these films didn’t downplay their scarier elements; Gremlins is at times, a parody of monster movies, a comedy, and a genuinely disturbing horror movie. There’s also a whimsical, fairy-tale quality to the movie too which does play into the Christmas vibe.

Die Hard (1988)

4

The ultimate Christmas movie, though not the most traditional. Die Hard is an absolutely air-tight action movie, the best ever made, with a brilliant script, well edited action sequences and pretty much perfect pacing. The writing is very tight – there’s a great sense of build-up and pay-off and for what could have been a silly action movie, the film really respects its audience and treats them intelligently. It escalates – the plot is always getting bigger, the stakes constantly raising. The cast and characters are excellent – this is the best performance of both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, who have fantastic chemistry together as our hero and villain. As a Christmas movie, again, this is a darker one, playing on the wholesome elements of Christmas and subverting them with a lot of blood and swearing – the ‘now I have a machine gun, HO HO HO’ being a standout. It revels in its Christmas atmosphere like Gremlins but works because it’s Christmas-ness is not pivotal to the plot; this could have been set anytime and would have still worked, and crucially, you could watch Die Hard in June and it wouldn’t feel weird. As a movie, its head and shoulders above any of the other festive classics, though tends to get unfairly aligned with its sequels, which are all pretty terrible and go some way to ruining the legacy of the series – this should have stayed as one.

Let me know if you agree with my list of Christmas classics!

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