Christmas According to the Movies

‘Tis the season when bloggers everywhere trot out their “best of” cinematic lists for the closing year. To those I’d like to add mine, except that it’s not exactly an objective catalog of bests but an admittedly personal line-up of favorite Christmas movies. They also fit into neat subgenres. In no particular order, they are:

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – Romantic Comedy

Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most talented and versatile actresses of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Whether working in drama or comedy, she always dazzled and delighted audiences. Christmas in Connecticut is one of her warmest comedies, made right at the end of World War II.

Stanwyck plays a food columnist for a glossy New York housekeeping magazine who doesn’t know the first thing about cooking. The only other person in on her secret is her friend Felix, a true gourmet cook, owner of a local restaurant, and the supplier of all of Stanwyck’s recipes. When her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) orders her to play Christmas hostess to a war hero (Dennis Morgan) at her mythical Connecticut farm, potential exposure as a fraud threatens her career. Naturally, over the course of the movie Stanwyck falls in love and manages to save her job.

Christmas message: Insofar as there is one, I suppose it’s “Go with whatever happens and have faith that everything will work out in the end.”

Die Hard (1988) – Action

Not exactly a Christmas movie. In fact, not at all a Christmas movie, though the story does take place at a corporate party just before the holiday.

Bruce Willis is a New York cop who has flown to Los Angeles to try to patch up his unraveling marriage to an ambitious woman (Bonnie Bedelia) who left him to pursue her career. Although she knows he’s coming, he surprises her by arriving early at her office party. Neither knows that international thieves led by Alan Rickman will hit the party and take the employees hostage while they rob the company safe. What Rickman and his colleagues don’t know is that Willis is at the party, too. Armed resistance to their plans ensues.

Entertaining and endlessly suspenseful, this movie is one of my guilty pleasures. It also is highly quotable: Now I have a machine gun, Ho! Ho! Ho! and of course, Yippee-kie-yay, motherf*cker! Not exactly “Merry Christmas,” but definitely memorable.

Christmas message: Be resolute and whatever you do, don’t let the bad guys win.

A Christmas Carol (2009) – Drama

The umpteenth movie version of Dickens’ minor literary classic, this one was produced by Disney and stars Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge. Now, I’ll state up front that I really don’t like Carrey at all. His humor is not my cuppa; I prefer clever repartee and unexpected witticisms a la Woody Allen’s early comedies.

Having said that, in this version of A Christmas Carol Carrey reined in his tendency to mug for the camera and gave a moving performance as the man who gets a second chance at redemption on Christmas Eve with the help of Three Wise Ghosts. Filmed in realistic-looking animation, this movie’s appearance is impressively rendered as well as family-oriented eye candy. A wonderful achievement.

Christmas message: Even the most damned soul can turn his life around if he opens his heart to the true spirit of Christmas.

A Christmas Story (1984) – Comedy

All Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, but his parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) worry that he’s not old enough for such a potentially dangerous present. Filled with warm nostalgia, this story set in a 1940s Chicago suburb is based on the boyhood memoirs of humorist Jean Shepherd. Not a huge success when it was released, A Christmas Story became an annual favorite once it made its way onto television. Everyone who has seen it has favorite moments: the bunny suit, the leg lamp, the tongue stuck to the icy telephone pole, the Chinese restaurant, and of course, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Hilarious no matter how many times you see it.

Christmas message: Never quit hoping that Santa Claus will give you what you want for Christmas. Or something like that.

The Nativity Story (2006) – Drama

The story of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as told primarily from Mary’s point of view. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), this beautifully photographed depiction of events leading up to Jesus’ birth unfolds gradually and is reverent without being cloying or sentimental. Hardwicke treats her characters realistically and with gentle humor, and has captured daily life in a Galileean village as the inhabitants likely experienced it. This includes the ways in which oppressive Roman rule regularly terrorizes Nazareth’s inhabitants. Equally bad is the Jewish puppet-king of the Romans, Herod (Ciaran Hinds), whose paranoid jealousy compels him to violently confront an ancient prophecy. Probably the best movie of its kind ever made.

Christmas message: Are you kidding?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Drama

This is another movie that made no noise at all when it was released. Its appearance on 1960s television via syndication gave it new life, and over the years it has become a perennial favorite. Directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, It’s a Wonderful Life really is less about Christmas than it is about just that, life. Specifically, it concerns the citizens of small-town America between about 1910 and World War II.

The central figure is George Bailey (Stewart), an ambitious young man who from boyhood wanted to travel, “build things,” and make something of himself, but instead became saddled with operating his family’s building and loan association. Now married with four kids, he faces a major crisis on Christmas Eve when some of the company’s money goes missing. Panicked, he contemplates suicide but is rescued with the help of his guardian angel, who shows him how empty the lives of others would be if he never had been born.

I’m not a weeper, but that powerful line from Harry Bailey – “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town” – gets me every time.

Christmas message: Multiple messages, really: All life has value even when it seems that it doesn’t. Our lives impact others’ in ways we don’t always know. The wealthiest man, or woman, is the one who has the love of friends and family.

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