‘Tis The Season: Our Film Staff’s Favorite Holiday Movies

On Burton, on Clark, on Donner, and Kubrick -- dash away!

Christmas Movies

    Happy holidays! Before we all head home to gorge ourselves and mourn our inability to make The Interview this year’s Christmas night viewing (or will we?), the CoS film staff decided to take a moment to talk about its favorite movies to watch during the most wonderful time of the year.

    Dominick Mayer (DM): It’s the holidays. And for us, that’s mostly spent poring over year-end lists as we consider everything we’ve seen this year, and reflect on the good, the bad, and whatever the hell Addicted was. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t touch on the other best filmgoing part of this time of year: holiday movies. It’s a long-running tradition, leaving a swath of classics in its wake.

    For me, it’s always started and stopped with A Christmas Story. Granted, like most things in pop culture, age has been a bit unkind; I can’t help but cringe at the climactic mangling of “Deck the Halls”. But having said that, it’s still one of my favorite movies to throw on around this time of year. It’s infinitely quotable (my underrated favorite is “He had yellow eyes! So help me God, yellow eyes!”), truly warmhearted in its nostalgia for a simpler kind of holiday, and possibly one of the most thoroughly Midwestern movies ever made.


    I bring up the regional specificity because I think that’s a big part of which holiday movies people tend to enjoy. To me, it’s always felt like It’s A Wonderful Life, while a great film in its own right, was the New York movie. Having lived my whole life to date either in or around Chicago, A Christmas Story is a movie for us. There’s the sarcastic sensibility, the value of family, the abject terror that can only come from uttering the word that definitely isn’t “fudge” in front of family members. Bob Clark’s film understands that to honestly capture Jean Shepherd’s short story is to capture an entire way of life that will never get the same play on celluloid as its coastal counterparts. Also, it’s just funny as hell from start to finish.


    Adriane Neuenschwander (AN): You hit the nail on the head, Dominick. I’m old enough to remember when A Christmas Story was first released on VHS—long before TNT (then TBS) started the 24-hour Christmas Story marathon that cemented the movie as a holiday tradition. My mom rented it from the shitty little grocery store in our shitty little Wisconsin town, and my younger sister and I watched it with her while my dad was at work. As soon as the end credits began to roll, my mom called up the grocery store and rented the tape for another night so my dad could see it too. She assumed that he would relate to Darren McGavin as The Old Man, and boy was she right. That character, more than any other I can think of, embodies all the peculiarities of the Midwest: the stoicism, the pent-up hostility, the thriftiness, the way that football trumps any other stimulus to the brain. There’s a reason why every Midwesterner I know loves A Christmas Story with an almost religious fervor—hell, some even make pilgrimages to the house where it was filmed. It’s my favorite holiday movie by far—really, it’s just one of my favorite movies.

    But its director, Bob Clark, also made another holiday movie that I find myself returning to every year: Black Christmas, a truly terrifying yarn about a psychopath hiding in the attic of a sorority house and picking off the sisters one by one…during Christmastime! Now granted, this ’70s-era slasher pic might not fill you with the same yuletide joy as some of the more traditional choices. After weeks of nonstop cheer, good will towards men, and malls playing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” on a loop, this macabre little palate cleanser will get that saccharine taste out of your mouth right quick. Sure, there are other Christmas-themed horror movies out there—Silent Night Deadly NightChristmas EvilJack Frost—but this one is legitimately good. The others are entertaining only when viewed through an ironic lens or an eggnog haze. Plus, horror nerds will appreciate how ahead of its time Black Christmas was. I think it clearly influenced Halloween, a movie it predated by four yearsby incorporating both a holiday theme and shots from the killer’s POV.


    Ah, but now I’ve led this discussion down a dark path. Who’s next? Please pick something uplifting with a guardian angel or an adorable kid on crutches!


    Randall Colburn (RC): Christmas carries with it certain connotations: there’s family, forgiveness, redemption, and new starts, but there’s also loneliness, melancholy, and regret for yet another year wasted. Setting a movie on or around Christmas immediately taps into those feelings, making it an easy, clever way to give your story a little extra weight. There’s no real reason Lethal Weapon needed to take place during the holidays, but its presence makes Riggs’ depression that much more resonant.  The same goes for Die Hard, my go-to holiday flick. And though that movie lives and dies on its intrigue and action, the idea of a tough guy reconciling with his estranged family on Christmas gives the film some serious heart.

    And around the holidays I suppose it’s heart that I’m looking for. That isn’t really the case during the rest of the year, when my penchants for horror and action trump even the most heartwarming fare. But as Christmas approaches, it’s #movies that thaw the layer of frost on my guts. Maybe this is because every Christmas Eve since I was six years old, my parents and I have made a tradition of moviegoing. Sometimes we see hits, sometimes we see duds, but it’s the closest I can come to capturing the wonder, joy, and anticipation I felt as a child during Christmastime. So while you won’t find me weeping at the end of something like The Immigrant, you’ll definitely see wet eyes during my umpteenth viewing of Home Alone. Hell, even The Santa Clause made me a little teary when I rewatched it last year (though, seriously, fuck the “Elves With Attitude”).


    How about you, Justin? How do films factor into your holiday?


    Justin Gerber (JG): Thanks for asking, Randall. I’ll echo Adriane’s praise of Bob Clark’s Black Christmasfeaturing Juliet herself, Olivia Hussey, as well as 2001’s Keir Dullea. Most of its beats were made popular a few years later with Halloween and Friday the 13th, but this is indeed the kickstarter of the slasher genre. And that ending…oh boy, that ending still gives me the creeps.

    Speaking of creeps (transition), I need to give a special shout-out to Denis Leary’s Gus in the late Ted Demme’s The Ref. It’s a dark comedy, set around a thief holing up in the house of a dysfunctional family during Christmas. Said family includes a pre-fame Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, and definitely not the kid from that “I learned it by watching you!” anti-drug commercial, but for years I had convinced myself it was. It’s funny, it’s poignant, but most importantly, it’s filthy (“Mother?” “What?” “Is it possible for you to shut the fuck up for ten seconds?”). Another palate cleanser.

    Ultimately though, my heart belongs to Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. For a movie surrounding a guy about to kill himself, it’s my go-to uplifting holiday movie. The chemistry between Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, the salvation of the drunk who runs the local drugstore, the villainy of old man Potter, Clarence’s comic relief, Harry’s return at the end, etc. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say I watch it every year. Blake? Any faves of yours we’ve yet to touch upon?



    Blake Goble (BG): Yes, Grinch here.

    Okay, that’s not fully accurate. I’ve never truly been a curmudgeon on the holidays, but generally, I’ve always been pretty lazy with Christmas. When you’re the last of four kids, there’s a growing sense of “oh, good, here we go again – let’s scale back a little more this year, in terms of decorating and festivities?” We didn’t really have traditions, or annual viewings, or gingerbread house parties (a new, real tradition of mine – anyone that reads this is invited in 2015). It can be a holiday of stressful scheduling and heart attacks while shoveling in my mind. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the holiday’s warmth and generosity, or can’t get into the spirit of things. Gifting and over-edification are really, really fun. And the movies aren’t so bad either once you get into them. Justin, I only saw It’s A Wonderful Life for the first time last Christmas, so, uh… yeah, Capra-ganda, huzzah. I mean, it’s a good movie. Startlingly dark, too. And my heart grew, like, a size that day. I’m learning.

    But for me, a movie that makes me laugh, and captures the frustrations and folly of the season better than most, is Christmas Vacation. It’s a regular part of the Christmas rotation now, and John Hughes’ script is full of knee-slapping, smart-ass silliness. It perfectly outlines the horrors of the holiday season (the simmering tension among in-laws, the forced nature of shopping and tradition and pomp and circumstance and all that groan-inducing stuff). Yet, there’s a hidden sweetness, the realization that we do it all because we care. Or some Hallmark sentiment like that.

    I can’t tell you how funny I still find Cousin Eddie. In the first Vacation, he was just some sleazy relative. In Christmas Vacation, he’s the awful and disgusting living ghost of Christmas present, haunting every family with snot-covered dogs, or weird cousins, or septic tanks in the street. Okay, that last thing seems impossible, but it’s really damn funny in the movie. Eddy’s like a take on everybody’s weird uncle at family gatherings. You know, the one that says something deliberately awful or racist come the third or fourth hour of festivities? Anyways, Merry Christmas. Shitter was full.


    Sorry, Mike.

    Michael Roffman (MR): Whatever. I just really like Scrooged.


    JG: Mike, can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and … leave you for dead?

    BG: There are some great stories about Scrooged, its writer, and that damn final monologue. According to his biography, Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous, the film’s co-writer Michael O’Donoghue, an SNL veteran and known-destructive humorist, was on set for the filming of Bill Murray’s big, shameless speech about what the holidays mean. Miracles! With Bill Murray attitude! After the scene was filmed, Dick Donner yelled “Cut!” and O’Donoghue simply replied, “What was that? The Jim Jones Hour?!”

    Donner responded by punching O’Donoghue in the arm.

    Leah Pickett (LP): Haha! Brilliant.

    I have been known to get all mushy and gushy over It’s a Wonderful Life. “No man is a failure who has friends” always brings a tear to my eye, and that phone scene between Mary and George? The sexual tension burns through the screen. But when it comes to movies I actually feel compelled to watch when I’m home for the holidays, well, I tend to gravitate toward more alternative fare. And when I say alternative, I don’t just mean irreverent, although Christmas Vacation never fails to crack me up. I mean a film that barely qualifies as Christmas-y, but that I make into a tradition anyway. The boundaries are lax; it can either be set at Christmastime, or include snow at some point, but the number one requirement is holiday cheer, whether the film is radiating it or subverting it in a particularly delicious way. Movies on my list that fulfill this requirement include Die Hard, Eyes Wide Shut, Brazil, The Apartment, Batman Returns, and Gremlins for subversion, with Edward ScissorhandsHook and the first Harry Potter film for the requisite warmth and magic.




    I’d also like to point out that A Muppet Christmas Carol, with a young(er) Michael Caine as Scrooge, is by far my favorite Christmas Carol adaptation. Seriously, give it a re-watch. It’s really well done.

    Now, on to the topic that has ripped Internet comment sections apart: What are your thoughts on Love Actually? It’s become a Christmas classic for some reason. I tried to like it, I really did, but the only performance I found myself invested in was Emma Thompson’s, and then her character gets shat on in the grossest way, metaphorically speaking, and I was like, fuck this noise.

    Roy Ivy (RI): Actually, I’ve managed to block Love Actually out of my mind.  I worked in the only movie theater in all of Dallas that played Love Actually, and the audiences that kept it sold out for months were swine, actually, and/or friends of Mark Cuban. Now I can only associate it with snoots who sneak Pinot and sushi into theaters and wear Ugg boots on 90-degree nights. But I don’t completely loathe it, actually. I dug Bill Nighy’s washed-up rocker and his wretched Troggs’ rewrite (“If you really love Christmas/Come on and let it… snow!”). And old men really dug the nudity. But I can’t understand why anyone would consider it a Christmas classic, nor do I understand how that kid runs past Heathrow Airport security without getting the ever-loving shit beaten out of him.


    My family would never cotton to a cornball Limey rom-com at Christmas time. We’re rootin’, shootin’ Texans who like our Dies Hard and our Weapons Lethal. Both of those series, before they turned into steaming piles of “fried lice,” fulfilled our yuletide bloodlust and brought us together in ways that unarmed nellies like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye never could.


    You know that part in Lethal Weapon when McAllister says, “There’s no more heroes left in the world,” and then Riggs busts in and starts shootin’ goons …like a hero? That scene pumped my dad and me with more glee than George Bailey running through Bedford Falls. When Gibson unveiled his pasty, anti-Semitic butt cheeks, my mother and sister tittered like kids shaking their presents.

    Decades later and states away, Die Hard is still my go-to. It’s a hug from an old friend that has aged surprisingly well, considering how much it smokes. It gets funnier every time I see it (RIP: Paul Gleason), and my heart grows three times bigger just watching Al Powell buy his Twinkies.  But when Christmastime gets me extra sad and surly, I’m always down for drowning my sorrows in the mean-spirited mayhem of Gremlins, or just getting shithammered and yelling over Michael Keaton’s suicide note: Jack Frost. “Snow Dad’s better than no dad!”


    DM: Man, what a terrifying movie. It’s supposed to be heartwarming that Keaton’s dead, but is now a scary-ass CGI snowman, and despite the subtext that these kids will inevitably have to lose their dad all over again in the thaw. Way to ruin summer for your family forever, Birdman.

    Also, I can’t hate Love Actually. I just can’t. I can’t hate it despite the fact that it’s a movie about the breadth and variety of the holiday experience that’s also blindingly white, and despite the fact that (as a close friend once pointed out), it’s the epitome of monogamy porn. It’s a movie that races through the unabashed joy of Christmas as a time of absolute redemption, it features a murderer’s row of talented British actors, and offers a fantastic window into what the rest of the world thought of the younger President Bush at the time. And everyone gets laid by the end! Except the kids, because that’s wrong. And Laura Linney. Poor Laura Linney.


    I’ll bring us to a close with one newer, more unheralded gem: Rare Exports. Particularly for those of you out there who enjoy a bloodier Christmas offering, and don’t find Bill Goldberg’s sadistic Viking Santa in Santa’s Slay anywhere near as entertaining as I do, Rare Exports is a Finnish offering that’s heavily rooted in the darker, scarier Krampus tradition. But really, it’s just an even more holiday-themed version of Die Hard, except the villain is a monstrous Santa and John McClane is the coolest nine-year-old on Earth. It’s perfect dark comedy for the people weary of forcible holiday cheer.


    So, we’ve spoken our piece. For those of you reading, what do you get together to watch this time of year? No matter what it is, we wish you all a happy holiday.