Last year we wrote about our favorite and least favorite animated Christmas specials and it’s still one of our favorite posts. This year we felt we would set our sights on some of our most special Christmas movies. Christmas is our favorite time of year and film is part of that enjoyment. For over 100 years, cinema has given us some classics and also a ton of Lifetime and Hallmark Channel movies – seriously every year they seem to roll out a boatload of cheaply made cheesy Christmas movies. Even Netflix got into the act this season with The Christmas Chronicles starring Kurt Russell as Santa. We had a ton to choose from but we had to narrow it down to 6. So what did we pick for our favorite Christmas films?
I actually believe there is a shortage of good Christmas films. It was hard for me to come up with three stellar films that I can enjoy over and over again. I am always game for another viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life but it’s slightly overrated, and the same goes for Christmas Vacation – a movie I revisited last year and was annoyed on how dated and unfunny it really was. A Christmas Story is barely enjoyable to me as well. And before you call me a Scrooge I love a good version of A Christmas Carol. I could find six great versions of the Dickens’ version including Mr. Magoo’s which I wrote about last year. So for my three I specifically avoided any TV-related schlock, I kept out religious films such as Jesus of Nazareth, and to my great dismay I kept out Die Hard. I wrote about Die Hard once already and I do believe it’s a Christmas film – case closed. My three are varied but at the end of the day, all have the heart I am looking for in a Christmas film.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife is a film I didn’t love on first viewing but one I have really taken to on subsequent viewings. It premiered in early December 1947 several months after Miracle on 34th Street and one year after It’s a Wonderful Life. It will always be compared to those two films since they came out close together and both contain some Christmas magic. Life also includes an angel albeit a less suave and put together one. I enjoy this film more than Life and less than Miracle (more on this later). In The Bishop’s Wife, Loretta Young plays the title character Julia Brougham, David Niven, the Bishop, and Cary Grant, the Angel Dudley. The Bishop is trying to build a Cathedral and is making some choices to get it built and it’s making him lose faith and sight on what is important to him. Niven and Grant were originally hired to play each other’s roles but smarter heads prevailed as they are perfect in their roles. Grant, one of my all-time favorite actors, is great as Dudley balancing his angelic duties with some mortal thoughts. He flirts with all of the women in the film only as Grant could do, he charms Niven’s wife and child and has some very funny lines. Niven does good work here too being the stressed, jealous, frustrated clergyman. My only quibble is I just wasn’t a fan of Loretta Young, although there was some chemistry with Grant (who doesn’t have chemistry with Grant?), I didn’t think she fit the character, something was missing. Overall it doesn’t distract from the film. The supporting players are fantastic. The lovely Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) is fun as the swooning maid Matilda and as atheistic Professor Wutheridge, Monty Woolley adds to the humor. One of my favorite scenes is the sherry-drinking scene with the Professor and Dudley. What I love about this film and what sets it apart from most Christmas films is that it doesn’t hit you hard over the head, the sentimentality is there but it’s duller, it’s a smart well-written film that still gives you that warm feeling you should have. Maybe I like it better than It’s a Wonderful Life because it doesn’t get the hype that Life gets. It’s also shorter and tighter. In 1996 Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston starred in a remake renamed The Preacher’s Wife but still doesn’t hold a candle to its original.
Bonus: The film was based on a 1928 book by the same name written by Robert Nathan. It is said to be much darker and questions things such as theology and yearnings especially of the wife. Not quite the Christmas tale.
MG: Unfortunately, I have not seen the Bishop’s Wife, or The Preacher’s Wife or The Priest’s Wife. I do like Grant, and I know I should make more time for older films, but I think it will be tough to find the time (and mood) to check this out. Maybe next Christmas.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Miracle on 34th Street may be my favorite of all Christmas films, at least in the running with Albert Finney’s Scrooge. Natalie Wood stars as the witty and non-believing Susan Walker. Her mother Doris played by Maureen O’Hara as a single parent who taught her not to believe in fairy tales. She works for Macy’s and is in charge of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and when she has to replace the parade’s drunk Santa the story takes off. The new Santa she finds, played by Edmund Gwenn, is named Kris Kringle and believes he is the real Santa. Macy’s hire Kris for their in-store Santa and eventually, he gets into trouble with a store psychologist (is this a thing?) and is sent to Bellevue. Kris decides to fail the psych tests because he does not believe he has gotten through to Doris and Susan. His lawyer and love interest of Doris, Fred (John Payne) convince him to keep fighting and his case of commitment is brought to a hearing. Gwenn won a supporting actor Oscar for this portrayal and it was said he even convinced 8-year old Wood that he was Santa on set. He was the Santa in the Macy’s parade that year and did some promotional bits as well for the store. I love great character actor Gene Lockhart as incredulous Judge Harper who presides over the trial and maybe his career. The highlight, of course, is Gwenn holding court at Macy’s his interaction with the little Dutch girl and also with Susan. My favorite moment in this film is when Fred tells Doris, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to”. It’s a great line and as adults people don’t believe in Santa but people do believe in the concept and that there are times when faith is important, and I don’t mean in a religious way. Hope and faith keep us going and we need to believe that certain things may happen which allows us to be doers and keep us sane. Skip the colorized version and the remakes.
Bonus: Both The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street were Oscar-nominated together as the only Christmas films ever nominated together for Best Picture and two of three ever to be nominated. It’s a Wonderful Life a year earlier being the other one.
MG: This is one of those films I’ve seen, but in parts and segments over the years. Perhaps by not seeing it all in one shot I have not been able to appreciate it like you have. I did not realize it had been up for Oscars.
Elf is the only modern movie I could really think of that to me feels like Christmas and is also a good and extremely quotable movie. I never liked the Santa Clause films, maybe my dislike of Tim Allen (he is just not funny), or was ever interested in Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, etc…only Love Actually has ever come close. But Elf is a movie I have seen a ton already, anytime it’s on TV and I catch it I stop, even in June (why are they playing this in June?). It’s like a live-action Rankin and Bass special but funny. They even give a nod to stop animation early in the film, reminiscent of Rudolph’s trip. Will Ferrell can be a polarizing actor. I loved him on SNL, his Alex Trebek, Robert Goulet, James Lipton, and the bearded guy in the hot tub are classics. His movies have been hit or miss, with every Anchorman and Old School, there is Anchorman II and Land of the Lost. Most of his comedies are just not good but he is the perfect Buddy the Elf. He has the great ability to play a man-child which is exactly what is needed in this fish out of water story. Buddy finds out he was adopted by elves at the North Pole and travels to New York City to find his real father Walter, a book publisher, played by the great James Caan. Caan actually does a nice job of balancing being a jerk and having a heart, the character is not the caricature you would think. Of course, an Elf in New York would lead to various adventures and hi-jinks. Zooey Deschanel, before her New Girl fame, plays Jovie a mall employee who becomes Buddy’s love interest. Deschanel shows she can play a role straight and is charming as the unenthusiastic employee who shows interest in Buddy. Her “Baby it’s Cold Outside” duet with Ferrell is a highlight. Other highlights are when Buddy meets Walter at his office, Buddy’s time in the mail room, and an inspired fight scene with Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as a famous author. The climax of Santa crashing his sleigh into Central Park is the only part of the film that loses me, it’s this quarter of the film that just isn’t as consistently funny. But director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) leaves the film with a ton of heart and enough whimsy to put Elf with the best of the Christmas films.
Bonus: A great Christmas movie always means finding ways to capitalize on it, Elf The Musical is a thing in on Broadway and there was an animated TV special with Mark Hamill playing Walter and Jim Parsons as Buddy.
MG: I was getting annoyed for a while at the over-gushing for Elf, but the fact is, it’s a fun film that I also will stop and watch when I see it on TV. I actually resisted seeing this film when it first came out, which seems silly now. It has Will Ferrell’s idiocy, but not too much that it becomes all about his shtick. The homage to the Rankin Bass classics is fun, yet not overdone. I’m surprised, and pleased, that they have resisted making an Elf 2.
I have to agree that it was harder to come up with three GOOD Christmas movies than I thought it would be. Like DJ, I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life one too many times at this point, and really don’t get any laughs anymore from Christmas Vacation. I’ve seen lists of Christmas films that have selections like Lethal Weapon, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, In Bruges and even Batman Returns on them. Batman Returns? Why – because there is snow in it? Just because Christmas is mentioned or there are decorations in the background of a scene does not make something a Christmas Film. I like most of those movies, but the argument and the ever-expanding inclusion is getting old (granted, I did just watch Die Hard again, which started all of this, and I’ll concede that it does have a lot of Christmas in it, including two great Christmas songs). Anyway, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories of all time, Christmas or otherwise, so forgive me for picking two versions of it – both are very different takes.
I have clear memories of watching Scrooge (not to be confused with Bill Murray’s Scrooged) with my sister on Christmas Day several times during my childhood. There’s actually a classic photo of us opening presents with Albert Finney clearly on the TV in the background. As Roger Ebert said in his review of this film, a musical version of this story shouldn’t work, especially with Finney as the lead, but somehow it does. Any time you take a dramatic story and add musical numbers, it could turn out corny, but it doesn’t. I’ve always liked Finney as an actor, and he commits wholeheartedly to the role, even if his Scrooge comes across more of a loner/socially handicapped figure than the mean and miserly curmudgeon from the book. Some have criticized Finney’s singing, but it works in the film – and I think it would be weird if Scrooge sang with some Josh Groban-like voice. The supporting cast is solid, and I particularly liked Alec Guinness as Marley and Kenneth More as the over-the-top Ghost of Christmas Present. The telling of A Christmas Carol can range from dark and gloomy to downright silly. Scrooge strikes the right balance and also has a little bit of that look of 70’s cinema style.
DJ: Probably my favorite Christmas film of all-time. It’s a fairly faithful version of the book and it has great songs to boot. “I Hate People”, “I Like Life” and “Thank You Very Much” are the stand outs. Guinness is a great Marley and I think the 34-year-old Finney has me convinced. This film gets a love/hate vibe out in the world and I don’t know why, it’s the best Christmas Carol bar none.
Love Actually (2003)
Feel free to criticize this obvious choice (I told you I had a hard time finding good Christmas films), but I’ll lay claim to liking this movie when it was released, as it was not always the “modern-day Christmas classic” that it has become. In the US it did average box office, just under $70 million, and reviews were mixed at best. I’m not sure why/when in the past decade and a half it started to become an annual tradition, but it has clearly found its place in the Christmas movie canon. I don’t love all the story threads in this, in fact I probably really only enjoy half of them, and will admittedly skip over some segments if I’m able to. My favorite is the one about David and Natalie, and it was it seemed like Hugh Grant was having fun again after a few years of personal scandals/woes (which seem rather quaint now in our current news environment). One of my most memorable moments in the film is the reluctant playing of the wedding video recorded by Mark (pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln) which reveals his affection for Juliet (Keira Knightly), the new wife of his best friend. The later scene with the Bob Dylan cue cards gets all the attention and memes, but for me the showing of the video is both endearingly awkward and relatable on a certain level – that secret yearning for someone who you know you shouldn’t have feelings for. Maybe the widespread appeal of the film is that there is at least one or two story threads for everyone. Bill Nighy hams it up as the aging rock star looking for one last go at success, and Laura Linny, one of the few non-Brits, makes the most of her storyline that is both funny and heartbreaking. In reality, close to half of the film is quite a downer, especially Liam Neeson’s widowed single parent and Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson’s troubled marriage, but most of the threads weave together to an ending that evokes a feeling of Christmas joy.
DJ: Yeah, I admit to liking this one when it first came out and I have been reluctant to re-watch it and I think it’s taken a critical hit over the years but I should probably check it out again.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
If I hadn’t seen this and you were trying to convince me to watch it, I would have stopped you at Jim Carrey and motion-capture animation. But if you haven’t seen this, you really should give it a chance. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is a surprisingly good interpretation of the book (please ignore this ridiculous movie poster for it):
Ok, there are a few goofy, overlong scenes towards the end, but for the most part, Carrey keeps the hyperactive, rubber-faced acting to minimum. In fact, his Scrooge starts out pretty nasty – one of the colder, meaner Scrooges I’ve seen on film. I like how Zemeckis and the screenwriters feature a lot of details from the book you don’t normally see, like in the beginning when Scrooge takes the two coins from Marley’s dead eyes so they don’t go to waste. Another unique element to this version was the more accurate depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Past, which is described as a candle/flame in the book, something you could only try to create on film with animation or CGI. Carrey also does all three Christmas Ghosts, and predictably, but aptly, lets the lunacy loose with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The supporting cast is very strong, particularly Gary Oldman in three roles: the ghost of Jacob Marley (actually kind of scary with his detached jaw – another detail from the book), Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Carey Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins round out the rest of the supporting cast. Again, in light of crap like the live action Grinch movie, I don’t blame you for avoiding a Jim Carrey motion-capture animated film, but if you are a fan of the story, give this a try – I don’t think you will be disappointed.
DJ: I keep meaning to see this but Zemeckis motion capture and Jim Carrey mugging is not appealing, especially since I just watched the horrific live-action Grinch for the first time. I will check it out at some point.