An informal holiday film festival may seem like a little too much effort to organize for those with busy Christmas schedules.
But most of us simply can’t contemplate the season without spending at least one evening cocooning from the cold, putting on the slippers and curling up in an easy chair (or on the sofa) with one or two movies to put everyone in a seasonal mood.
Whether you’re looking for familiar films that bring back happy memories of childhood viewing, or films that challenge or poke fun at our traditional view of Christmas, or films that simply reaffirm the fundamental values of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all’, there is something for everyone in the vast array of seasonally-themed movies.
And with the multiplicity of media devices and services available for streaming full length features (including YouTube and Netflix), we no longer have to depend on what’s available in the stores, or what commercial networks choose to schedule.
There are some indisputable Christmas classics, of course – many still ready to warm hearts or prompt a tear or two, even though they were produced in the pre-widescreen days of black and white photography.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – arguably the grandfather of the entire Christmas drama genre – received a perfectly respectable American adaptation in 1938 featuring British actor Reginald Gardiner for example. But, for many, the classic depiction of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve conversion to humanity is Alastair Sim’s lively interpretation of 1951, enhanced by the Victorian trimmings of an authentically British production.
If you must have colour for your screening of this oft-revisited fable, there’s a computer colorization of the Sim version. Or you could try Albert Finney’s Scrooge (1970), the George C. Scott TV-movie remake (1984), Henry Winkler’s An American Christmas Carol (1979) – or even the Bill Murray update Scrooged (1988).
For another more recent – and vastly under-appreciated variation – try 1992’s A Muppet Christmas Carol in which, believe it or not, Jim Henson’s famous characters are successfully integrated into the original plot, and the quality of the production is enhanced by Michael Caine’s brilliantly touching Scrooge – acted without a trace of ‘guest star’ condescension.
No discussion of Christmas classics is complete without mention of White Christmas (1954).
Presented in colour and in the early widescreen ‘Vista Vision’ process, it still has it’s many adherents, thanks to Irving Berlin’s score and the felicitous teaming of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in a featherweight ‘let’s put on a show’ vehicle – although others still enjoy the more acerbic singer-versus-dancer sparring of Crosby and Fred Astaire over Marjorie Reynolds, and even more Irving Berlin hits, in its precursor, Holiday Inn (1942), which boasts recently-restored picture and sound elements.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947), with a young Natalie Wood, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle still manages to play on the heartstrings, and has the nerve to put the very notion of Santa Claus on trial – quite literally – but with a happy outcome.
In director Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) it’s society itself on trial, as we are reminded, through some dramatized ‘what-ifs’, that without a few good men like James Stewart’s disillusioned banker George Bailey – not to mention a few good women like his wife, Donna Reed, and a putative angel named Clarence – life in one small town might have taken a very grim turn indeed.
It’s worth remembering that this movie – now viewed as an indispensable holiday classic – wasn’t popular on its first release, and only evolved an audience through subsequent television screenings.
More recent movies are evolving into classics too, year by year, as they find new audiences, and win over old ones, through frequent showings and different media platforms.
Jingle All The Way (1996) with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a shopper desperate to buy this year’s ‘hot’ children’s toy and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), with Chevy Chase as benighted, accident-prone Clark Griswold, are certainly examples of films that have acquired classic status over time.
Christmas romances have also shown resilience in recent years – including the Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jude Law vehicle The Holiday (2006), chronicling an L.A. to English village Christmas season house-swap with romantic complications, which has the benefit of an irreverent but largely benign Jack Black performance to save it every time it threatens to get too sappy (or soggy).
Love, Actually (2003), a British celebration of all the possibilities of love relationships – positive and negative – during a single Christmas period, has gathered a loyal cult following over more than a decade of re-runs. It still maintains appeal through it’s winning collection of offbeat characters and character players – including Bill Nighy, memorable, as a tired veteran rocker trying for one more hit with a crass attempt to turn a pop classic into a Christmas song.
Speaking of Christmas songs, mythical ditty Santa’s Super Sleigh is the source of spoiled aging playboy Hugh Grant’s wealth in About A Boy (2002). The Christmas setting of his reformation from selfishness – thanks to the presence in his life of an awkward schoolboy in need of a dad (Nicholas Hoult) – qualifies this as a potential holiday movie too.
Those who are in the mood for an unusual Christmas romance – and a slice of Second World War Americana closer to the tartness of a true Norman Rockwell vision – might want to venture unto the black-and-white past for I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).
This Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten vehicle beat It’s A Wonderful Life to the punch by two years in introducing more than a few surprisingly adult themes into the typical-coming-home-for-Christmas scenario.
Rogers is a prison inmate on a good-behaviour furlough from jail (victimized by a would-be rapist, she is serving time for manslaughter for his fall from an apartment window) while Cotten plays a frontline soldier invalided out of service for what we would now call post-traumatic-stress-disorder.
The grim back-story sets the stage for a bittersweet yet heart-warming romance (with interference provided by a teenaged Shirley Temple) that spans the few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day and, believe it or not, it does manage to end on an upbeat note.
There are a few other unconventional choices worth checking out for fans of the classic Hollywood era – including one of the few known Christmas film noirs.
Few people remember now that actor/director Robert Montgomery’s ground-breaking version of Raymond Chandler’s mystery classic The Lady In The Lake (1947) also qualifies as a Christmas movie.
In this celebrated experiment in film technique, it’s the camera (aside from Montgomery’s voice-overs, and a few glimpses of the shamus in mirror reflections) that plays the role of tough private eye Philip Marlowe tracking a vicious killer and romancing femme fatale Audrey Totter.
But the setting of the movie also happens to be the holiday season in L.A. – a long-time before Robert Downey Jr.’s latter-day noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) traversed the territory – complete with tinseled trees and a choir singing carols through the opening titles.
It’s possible to forget, too that such diverse movies as John Ford’s western Three Godfathers (1948), starring John Wayne, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), with Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, and even Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) with Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, qualify – peripherally at least – as Christmas movies.
Weirdest Christmas movie choice ever? You might want to check out a low-budget cult title from1964, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians – which had the ‘honour’ of being included in Harry Medved and Randy Lowell’s The Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time (And How They Got That Way).
On an estimated budget of $200,000 (including Pathecolor processing and prints) director Nicholas Webster spun a relentlessly cardboard tale of Martians – irritated that their children are captivated by Santa Claus-themed TV shows beamed from Earth – who kidnap the bearded one and two children (one of them a young Pia Zadora – if that name still means anything to you) and bring them back to Mars.
Considering the title, it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Santa wins the aliens over with a large helping of fun and Christmas cheer.
But my vote for the most unusual, most twisted, Christmas movie choice this year is not Bad Santa (2003) with lecherous, boozy, foul-mouthed Billy Bob Thornton, or the Bob Clark slasher flick Black Christmas (1974) – even though these genre-busting (if not devastating) deviations have their devotees among the truly iconclastic.
For sheer off-the-beaten-track appeal, I nominate Crumbs (2015) a surreal, post-apocalyptic science fiction feature shot on a hyper-low budget in Ethiopia, by transplanted Spanish director Miguel Llanso.
It’s too slow-moving, by far, for most movie-goers’ tastes – even at an only a one hour-eight minute running time – and while it features a touching romance, it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a heartwarming, feel-good flick.
But the odyssey of unconventional leading man Candy (Daniel Tadesse) through a society of survivors, obsessed with the surviving ‘crumbs’ of civilization – plastic toys, iconic imagery, record albums – is oddly haunting, and memorable as a meditation on materialism and what is truly important.
If that doesn’t make it appropriate for Christmas, all by itself, it’s also a fact that Santa Claus – or at least what he represents – plays a key role in this movie. Trust me on this one.
There’s an extra bonus for Lower Mainland residents in viewing the slew of Christmas-themed movies that hit our screens each season – so many of them seem to be produced in Hollywood North (also known as Greater Vancouver)
That gives plenty of scope for a few over-the-eggnog games of “spot the location” or, for those with friends in the acting or extra business, “spot the local player.”
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course.
Will Ferrell’s Elf (2003) shot most of its interiors in Vancouver area studios – bringing in a number of local actors, but not many people may know that The Muppet Christmas Carol shot interiors in Vancouver as well as London.
And many in the South Surrey-White Rock remember Deck The Halls (2006), starring Matthew Broderick and Danny De Vito as neighbours competing over Christmas decorations, – was filmed in temporary house sets specially-constructed on a city lot in Ocean Park.
This year the seasonal movie genre seems even more like a budding local industry in Vancouver area locations (including Surrey and Langley), thanks to Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas series of TV movies.
Among those shot locally to watch for this December are Looks Like Christmas, starring Anne Heche and Dylan Neal; and A Christmas To Remember, starring Cameron Mathison and Mira Sorvino.
Other local shoots that wrapped earlier this year in Hallmark’s dizzying list of seasonal heartwarmers for 2016 include Christmas List, starring Alicia Witt and Gabriel Hogan; A Rose For Christmas, starring Rachel Boston and Marc Bendavid and A Heavenly Christmas, starring Kristin Davis, Eric McCormack and Shirley MacLaine; A Wish For Christmas, starring Lacy Chabert and Paul Greene; Mistletoe Promise, starring Jaime King and Luke Macfarlane; Every Christmas Has A Story, starring Lori Loughlin and Colin Ferguson; My Christmas Dream starring Danica McKellar, David Haydn-Jones and Deirdre Hall; A December Bride, starring Jessica Lowndes and Daniel Lissing; Operation Christmas, starring Tricia Helfer and Marc Blucas; Finding Father Christmas, starring Wendy Malick and Erin Krakow and Sleigh Bells Ring, starring Erin Cahill, David Alpay and local player Robyn Bradley.