- Vancouver, British Columbia - Christmas movies flood our theatres every year, for better or worse. There’s no question that some are simply awful, but every once in a while a particularly strong one comes around that audiences will identify with, or that become timeless. As easy as it would be to stack a list with classics like White Christmas or the 1951 Scrooge with Alastair Sim, I come from a generation where we were inundated with new adaptations and new takes on the mythology of Christmas.
So what made an impression on me as a kid during Christmas has set the bar for what I deem to be a memorable Christmas movie. This was a hard list to compile, but I’ve narrowed it down to the movies I’ve enjoyed the most and which have a lot of rewatch value. Without further ado, here are my favourite five Christmas movies.
#5) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
I used to watch this every year at my grandparents’ place on Bowen Island, and I used to love it. It’s been some time since I’ve seen it but I find it still holds up. There is a dark and magical tone to the movie that is very tangible and enjoyable. The title is a bit straightforward, but don’t underestimate the film. It was made by Ilya Salkind and the rest of the production team as the Superman franchise (which just got a huge blow from the train wreck that is Superman III), and they were looking to branch out and try some new avenues. One success with the film is definitely the casting; these actors all have tremendous chemistry with each other.
The movie opens with Claus (David Huddleston), a simple village woodcutter in the 14th century and his wife Anya. They’re on their way to deliver presents to village children with their two reindeer Donner and Blitzen when they get caught in a blizzard, and transported to the realm of the Vendequm (elves). The Vendequm rescue them and reveal Claus’ fate: he is to continue his trade for all time. Fast forward to the 1980s and Patch (Dudley Moore) is humiliated in his attempts to automate the toy-making process in the North Pole. He leaves for New York and is snatched up by evil toy making CEO B.Z. (John Lithgow). A couple kids get involved, there’s a special formula instilled in candy canes that can make people fly, and Santa Claus confronts whether he’s relevant in today’s world.
This movie is not well-liked by critics, but I’m willing to attribute this to a generational difference. Most of those critics grew up with the classics, so their expectations for what makes a Christmas movie was probably more in line with Miracle on 34th Street. What I dig about this movie is the tone and the conflict. There’s definitely a fair share of cheesiness and a bit of contrivance, but it’s in good fun. It may not be the smartest or the best written, but it makes for an enjoyable watch with the family.
#4) Love Actually (2003)
Richard Curtis wrote and directed this film, proving that ensemble pieces can work. Garry Marshall has been trying as of late to replicate the feeling and tone with his releases Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, and as funny as they are, he lacks what Curtis was able to successfully capture: heart.
The film has no one central plot, instead showing different people from different walks of life experiencing different kinds of love. The writing is very precise, showing just enough that we’re able to project ourselves in and relate to the characters. Some are successful, such as Sarah (Laura Linney) trying to balance her romantic aspirations with the demands of her mentally challenged brother, and Harry (Alan Rickman) being tempted away from his wife by a younger colleague. It’s not perfect, as I feel the Billy Mack plot (with Bill Nighy) gets too much screen time, and the Jamie plot (with Colin Firth) starts to get silly, but the pros vastly outweigh the cons. I always get teary eyed when Mark (Andrew Lincoln) does his cue card confession to Juliet (Keira Knightley). I always laugh at the utter ridiculousness of the story of the Brit going to America where he’s irresistible to the hottest chicks there.
What I dig about this is that there’s no big Christmas revelation. Our characters aren’t suddenly swept up by the meaning of Christmas and reform to what we expect. Instead, Christmas is the back drop and the impetus, moving the plot along. It forces the characters’ actions, and their conflicts feel genuine because of the stress of the holidays. There’s sadness, there’s joy, there’s bitterness, there’s sex, and there’s Christmas.
#3) The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This was the one all of us kids wanted to see when it came out. It was fresh and totally original…who would have thought you could have a Halloween movie crossed with a Christmas movie. It was dark, it was musical, and it was fun. I wasn’t allowed to see it (thanks Mom!) until years later, and even with all the hype I found it to be immensely entertaining and a very tight movie. I think that’s one of the advantages to having claymation; because of how time-consuming and expensive the process is, there’s no room for superfluous fluff.
In this universe, every holiday is represented by its own world. One day Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, accidentally leaves his world and finds his way into Christmas Town. Seeing something new and exciting in this holiday, he decides that he will supplant Santa and give his own spin on Christmas in the real world. Unfortunately, while he’s gone, Oogie Boogie plans to kill Santa and usurp Jack as the Pumpkin King.
The ingenuity behind this movie is astounding, but I know it seemed too jarring for older generations. The imagery is pretty frightening at times, but the occupants of the Halloween world aren’t villainous, it’s simply their nature to be harrowing and preoccupied with morbidity. That’s part of the appeal as a Christmas movie – Christmas is totally alien to them, and we can relearn what Christmas is all about and all the feelings it brings simply be exploring it with Jack. I don’t really have any complaints about this movie, but I guess if you don’t like musicals this will irk you.
#2) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
One of the best adaptations of a Christmas Carol out there, the Muppets really hit this one out of the park. I had to praise the acting, which says a lot when half of your cast are puppets. The writing is snappy and funny, and the directing is phenomenal. The story has been done a million times, and will continue to be done to death, but in my mind this is one of the best.
If you don’t know the story of A Christmas Carol, I’ll give you a quick breakdown: Scrooge is an old miser who hates Christmas, his old business partner’s ghost shows up to say he’s a dick, three ghosts show up during the night to show Scrooge his past, present, and future, and Scrooge reforms.
This was probably my first exposure to Michael Caine, and he does such a tremendous job as Ebenezer Scrooge. There’s bitterness, but also a great sadness in his portrayal. Gonzo and Rizzo make for a fantastic link to the audience as the narrators of the story, and in general I have to praise the choices for who was cast as a Muppet and who as a human.
The depiction of the ghosts really make the story, and every time a production company wants to do A Christmas Carol, a lot of attention is put towards that. This adaptation succeeds in showing the fantasy and supernatural elements to the ghosts. In particular, the Ghost of Christmas Present is a very relatable and wonderful character but there’s no question as to his power.
This is a movie that can please anyone, in my humble opinion, and deserves to be high on anyone’s list. Jim Henson Productions didn’t strive to make a Muppet movie – they wanted to make a good Christmas Carol.
#1) Scrooged (1988)
My mom hates this movie, except for the scenes with “Simka” (Carol Kane) as the Ghost of Christmas Present. I have some theories why though. It’s probably because of how macabre this movie is, and how utterly ruthless Bill Murray is as Frank Cross. It’s hard to have a more unlikeable protagonist.
But I love this movie, and so should you! Richard Donner directs, Danny Elfman scores, and Bill Murray headlines this, my favourite Christmas movie. Scrooged revolves around Frank Cross, the youngest TV exec in history. His channel is making an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but Cross is oblivious as to the parallels between him and Scrooge. That is, until the zombie remains of his old boss and mentor show up to warn him about his damnation. Cross is visited by three spirits and he must confront all aspects of himself as well.
Nobody can have a breakdown like Bill Murray, and he was perfectly cast for this film. At times he is amazingly manic, but also morose and sentimental. Cross’ life is one of utter dedication to his work, but his work in unfortunately a cutthroat business. He becomes and embodies this mentality, and it takes equally ruthless ghosts to bring him around.
I love everything about this movie. The casting is perfect, the music is tailored succinctly, the cinematography is creative, and the writing is very relevant. This might be the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol, if only because it’s successfully brought into the present (or at least the 1980s). But the inclusion of the original reminds the audience of the roots of the story. For those who are turned off by how morbid and dark this story is, I think that’s remaining true to the original story. It’s a dark tale! But now, it’s been done to death and everyone knows the story. It lost relevance. This movie brought that back. I try to watch it every Christmas, and I always get something out of it.
Special props to Bobcat Goldthwait: you’re my hero.
What are the Christmas movies that really mean something to you? Do you feel I criminally missed one? Are there any you really hate? Share in the comments, and let’s talk about the stories that mean the most to us this holiday season!