A selection of Christmas classics (and not-so-classics) to carry you through the New Year.
Consider this The Lakelander’s Christmas movie manual — your entertainment source in an effort to inhale the last of those Christmas cookies, or your survival guide for the remaining days of claustrophobic family gatherings. We present to you the holiday films that are simply necessary to complete the season.
These old-fashioned classics certainly paved the way for holiday films as a solid movie genre. Even in black and white, their Christmas magic lingers throughout the years.
This musical-comedy-romance classic, written by Irving Berlin, stars the ultimate Christmas crooner, Bing Crosby, and funny man Danny Kaye. A story of American army soldiers revived as Broadway entertainers who set out to save the Columbia Inn owned by a respected former major general in quaint and snowy Pine Tree, Vermont.
Along with rich vocals and snappy dance moves of a sister pair, the four set out to create an unforgettable holiday showcase experience.
Another by Irving Berlin, this musical released 12 years before its unintentional sequel, also starring Bing Crosby, was the first to introduce the world to the iconic holiday song “White Christmas.” A heartbroken performer (Crosby) leaves the entertainment business for a hard life on the farm, only to transform his land into an entertaining cottage called Holiday Inn.
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
Based off the Peanuts comic strip, a Christmas special animation stars Charlie Brown who finds himself with the blues at the wake of the holiday season. While the Peanuts gang gathers to lift his spirits, Charlie soon discovers the true meaning of Christmas.
Originally televised in 1965, this cherished animation features a jazz score by Vince Guaraldi (worth putting on for the kids for the background music alone) that went on to achieve commercial success.
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
A man by the name of Kris Kringle, assigned last minute to the role of Santa for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is so convincing he soon takes on Santa for Macy’s New York flagship store on 34th Street. As he directs one parent to another store for a better deal, Macy’s wins the loyalty of customers, while Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn) begins to win the belief of the store’s events director’s practical, young, old-souled daughter Susan (played by Natalie Wood). Eventually brought to court for convincing customers and children of his magical identity, the story builds a newfound hope and belief in young Susan and the entire city.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
Set in Budapest, this holiday tale from 1940 follows the unlikely romance of Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), employees at Matuschek and Company. Paving the way for classics such as You’ve Got Mail (almost verbatim), Alfred responds to a young lady’s want ad for an anonymous male correspondent while finding himself in endless bantering and bickering with his new co-worker, Klara. Little does Alfred know, falling in love with each written letter, he’s a tad closer to this pen pal than he thinks.
The Cult Classics
You have your classics, yes. But then you have your cult classics (two very different things). Films that have built a strong and loyal fan base, cult classics are those movies that ignite repetitive viewing, endless referencing, and annoyingly quotable one-liners. Often deemed failures too quick in the game, cult classics are the ones initially shunned by the public and go on to be timeless, watch-a-dozen-times-before-Christmas-Eve worthy. In other words: pure movie magic.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Nine-year-old Ralphie Parker’s only Christmas wish is for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Though his wish is rejected by his mother, friends, and even Santa, come Christmas Day Ralphie is disappointed to discover Christmas wishes don’t come true. Or do they?
The film is based on Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical collection of short stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, originally published in Playboy magazine between 1964 and 1966.
Released in movie theaters shortly before Thanksgiving 1983, the sleeper film rolled in a mere $2 million, along with negative reviews from The New York Times. Overlooked for its small success due to its holiday theme, by Christmas of 1983 the film was already pulled from many venues, remaining in only about 100 theaters until January 1984.
Of course, since then, this beloved film has built a quick following as an American Christmas staple. Aired on HBO in 1985 and on several networks years after, it inevitably became the 24-hour-marathon Christmas film of choice.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION
With Christmas just a few weeks away, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) decides it’s time to get the family Christmas tree. Griswold drags his family to the Chicago-suburban wilderness, only to realize he has forgotten his tools. He proceeds to uproot and tie a tree to the roof of the car, setting the stage for the kind of unprepared, offbeat, traditionally unpredictable family holiday.
The third installment of National Lampoon’s Vacation film series, based off a short story called “Christmas ’59” written by John Hughes (also creator of Home Alone) was originally published in the National Lampoon magazine.
The film received mixed reviews on its initial release and was given only two out of four stars from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Regardless, it quickly grew to become a nationwide comedy favorite.
A narcissistic president of IBC television network, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a miserable, slave-driving boss. In preparation for a live production of A Christmas Carol, Cross forces his entire staff to work the holiday, only to grumble out of the studio and find himself in his own modern whirlwind of A Christmas Carol, meeting with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Paired with Murray’s cunning wit and wackiness, this Charles Dickens’ classic was turned into an ’80s cult comedy.
After its release and many critiques, Roger Ebert, of Siskel & Ebert at the time, gave the film a thumbs down, calling it “one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time.”
From its modest box office taking of $13,027,842, open in just over 1,000 theaters, the film quickly grew as a Murray favorite and became the 13th highest-grossing film in 1988 with $60,328,558.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
A fantasy/comedy/drama, this story follows the endearing story of George Bailey (James Stewart). After a series of setbacks causes the desperate Bailey to wish he’d never been born, he contemplates committing suicide. Guardian angel Clarence Odbody is dispatched from Heaven with orders to stop Bailey before his fateful action. Odbody takes Bailey through a vivid reflection of his past, the lives he impacted, and the drastic changes the town of Bedford Falls would have experienced if Bailey never existed.
A sentimental classic that will make you laugh and cry, it may be the pinnacle film of the moments of truth we live for during the holidays and throughout the year.
No doubt one of the treasured holiday stories to stand the test of time, this Jimmy Stewart classic is commonly mistaken to be an instant hit. Frank Capra’s picture was poorly received its opening weekend, The New York Times commenting on “the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life.”
Pushed for an earlier nationwide release to be in the ring for the upcoming Academy Awards, the film lost $525,000 at the box office. And while it received five nominations, it went home recognized only for a Technology Achievement Award at the next year’s Oscars — particularly for its artificial snow.
Not until decades after the film’s release did it become the beloved and televised classic in the 1970s.
If you simply can’t come to a peaceful agreement on family movie night, here are classic family favorites for all ages that may avoid a few black eyes. While most are fairly recent compared to the timeless ones mentioned earlier, many are sure to make their way to the holiday criterion collection of not-to-be-missed films, at least in our books.
JINGLE ALL THE WAY
When a Turbo Man figure becomes the most-wanted Christmas item on every boy’s wish list, one father is ready to fight the masses in order to get his hands on the sold-out toy and rekindle his son’s affections. The unlikely trio of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, and the late Phil Hartman compete with each other and the race of time for a laugh-out-loud, hysterical Christmas film that’s sure to make your dad hit rewind more than once.
THE SANTA CLAUSE
At the height of his role of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor (Home Improvement), Tim Allen plays a distant and uninterested single father who is on daddy duty for an underwhelming Christmas Eve. When he accidentally kills Santa, he finds he is magically inducted to the role of Santa Claus.
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
While the nostalgic animation of this Dr. Seuss classic story is a must in the holiday film rotations, director Ron Howard brings the story to life in this magical comedy. In what is quite possibly the role he was created for, Jim Carrey stars as the Grinch, somehow simultaneously despicable while winning hearts and laughs in this heartwarming tale.
THE FAMILY STONE
If ever there was a dysfunctional family to make yours feel semi-normal, it is the Stones. A tight-laced, conservative businesswoman accompanies her boyfriend on a visit to his sarcastic and carefree family in New England for Christmas and finds herself lost while family dynamics are in disarray (and a few love triangles are formed). A film that somehow makes you feel right at home with its uncomfortable and painfully normal awkward scenarios, it’s truly one you will either hate or absolutely love. (Clearly, we lean towards the latter.)
The always demeaning, bitter, yet laughable Vince Vaughn plays the role of Fred Claus, brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti). Forced to move to the North Pole after Santa bails him out of jail, Fred must pay his brother back by helping make this year’s Christmas production a success.
THE FAMILY MAN
Would any movie list be complete without a Nicholas Cage film? Surely. But this overlooked film, with a married couple that rekindles their romance, just might be the exception. A self-absorbed Wall Street hot shot, after a swift moment of life-changing events, finds himself waking up to the woman he could have married 13 years ago. In a modern spin of It’s a Wonderful Life, Cage’s egotistical character endures a change of heart that makes him reconsider his future.
The Lakelander Staff’s Favorites
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
I can relate to the Griswold family. I’ve done some of the stupid things Clark does and says.
Favorite scene: When Cousin Eddie shows up at Clark’s house in his motor home.
Eddie: “You surprised to see us, Clark?”
Clark: “Oh, Eddie… If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”
Home Alone 1 & 2
Although I was still an only child when I saw the first one, I could definitely relate to Kevin McCallister and how overlooked he felt. I would never get away with being as bratty as he is in the film, but I could empathize with his frustration. My parents were often busy, so I learned to be pretty responsible as a kid and was occasionally left to my own devices. I remember thinking I’d be smarter than Kevin if left in similar situations. Both films are full of goofy slapstick comedy that had me laughing hysterically as a kid and some witty dialogue that keeps me amused to this day.
Anushka van Huyssteen
The Family Stone
Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams’ characters make this movie. It’s always been a cozy and familiar-feeling movie for me. The tight-knit family with all of their own dysfunctional problems is not only entertaining but also relatable.
When Harry Met Sally
Though The Family Stone easily tops the list for the neurotic normalcy of family gatherings, or Home Alone 2 (because getting lost in NYC was my childhood dream), When Harry Met Sally is a perfect holiday film for its combination of the Big Apple through the seasons: chunky cable-knit turtleneck sweaters, oversized plaid blazers, high-waisted trousers, and Nora Ephron’s cunning, immortal wit.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
I was nine years old when I first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas, and even at that age I was intrigued by how different it was from any other cartoon I’d seen. The message of faith and hope, and that wonderful soundtrack, added so much to the show’s spirit and mood. One music critic later wrote that the songs were “small, observant miracles.” That’s exactly how it felt to me, too.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Favorite Quote: When Clark is standing next to Eddie looking at Eddie’s RV, and Eddie says, “Now Clark, what we have here is a genuine RV. Now don’t go falling in love with it, because it’s coming with us when we leave here next month!”
Great blend of fairytale and present day. Full of humor while highlighting the contrast between an elf and us. We watch it every year.
Favorite scene: When Buddy is at his dad’s office, and the phone rings, and Buddy answers it with, “Buddy the elf, what’s your favorite color?”
A Christmas Story
The Old Man Parker (Darren McGavin) reminds me of my own father. He is an intimidating but loving father with a sense of humor. I’ve watched it many times since the first year it came out. Too many to count.
Favorite scene: the “It’s a major award” scene.
I love how Elf can look at Christmas through the eyes of a child and also his enthusiasm about everyone he meets. What’s sad is that he finds out not everyone loves it like he does.
Favorite scene: the dinner scene where he talks about his food groups.