It's almost that time of year again, and it got me thinking about my favorite Christmas movies. There are so many films, tv shows, made for tv movies, and tv specials about Christmas, but so very few of them are high quality product, typically because they're dashed off in an attempt to cash in on the Christmas season before it's over. But there have been some great films made either about Christmas or set during the season, and I wanted to look today at my top five favorite feature length Christmas movies. For the purposes of simplifying, I've eliminated everything that did not play first in a movie theater, so no made for tv or direct to video movies, and nothing that runs shorter than an hour. It took me some time to narrow it down, but these are my five favorites, with five more honorable mentions.
5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir. Henry Selick)
While one could mount an argument that this film does not belong to one holiday, as it spans both Halloween and Christmas, it is ultimately about Jack Skellington's discovery of Christmas, which leads me to classify it as a Christmas movie. As the Pumpkin King, and de facto ruler of the fictional Halloweentown, Skellington wanders off from the festivities of October 31 one year to find himself in a gateway to many different worlds, and is instantly taken by the one that looks like a Christmas tree. It's from here that he discovers what Christmas is and returns to Halloweentown to try and rally the denizens of his home to create their own Christmas celebration. Though it sprang from the mind of Tim Burton, the film belongs to director Henry Selick (Coraline)'s unique sensibilities, and the score by Danny Elfman is second to none in his long and distinguished career. This is a film worth revisiting any time of year, but holds a strong place among the best films ever made about Christmas.
4. Bad Santa (2003, dir. Terry Zwigoff)
There is no more scathing satire of all that Christmas has come to represent in modern times than Terry Zwigoff's biting and caustically funny Bad Santa. Part-time department store Santa and full-time drunk Willy (Billy Bob Thornton) has been running a safe cracking scam with his friend and partner Marcus (Tony Cox) for several years, and is at his most unreliable when the film opens. That he actually manages to devolve even further is a testament to how bleak this film is, yet through his relationship with a parentless kid (Brett Kelly) Willy manages to glean some meaning from the season. Or maybe not, it depends upon which version of the film you watch as there are no fewer than three different cuts of the film floating around. Any way you slice it, this features two great performances from the late John Ritter & Bernie Mac, and also manages to be one of the best performances of Thornton's career. Though it's decidedly for adults only, it wouldn't be Christmas without Bad Santa.
3. A Christmas Story (1983, dir. Bob Clark)
It's hard to imagine now, but A Christmas Story was almost universally derided when it debuted in 1983, and seemed destined to be consigned to "forgotten film" status, but a strange thing happened on the way to obscurity. The film found new life through repeated airings on cable and is now of such revered status that it shows for 24 hours straight every December 25th on TBS. The story of ten year old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas has endeared itself to everyone who's ever had that one toy they couldn't live without on Christmas morning. Though he gets cock blocked by every adult in his life with the "you'll shoot your eye out" argument, his single-minded determination makes him instantly relatable and has helped the film to find new life. Though cries of overrated have begun to seep into the arguments made against the film, it's heart is undeniably in the right place, and it stands the test of time for a reason: it's just that good.
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947, dir. George Seaton)
When it comes to the classics, everyone has their favorite, and for some Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life takes that slot, but for me that film falls victim to Slumdog Millionaire syndrome: two hours of misery followed by ten minutes of uplift does not a heartwarming movie make. For me, the film with the truest Christmas spirit from the golden age of filmmaking is Miracle on 34th Street. The story of a man (Edmund Gwenn) who takes over as Macy's official Santa Claus of the season and claims to himself be the "real" Santa Claus is the original screed against the rampant commercialism that had already begun to make its way into the holiday some 66 years ago. Those who don't know the particulars of the story would do well to discover it for the first time themselves without me spoiling them here, but the dramatic courtroom scene can still bring a smile to the face of even the Grinchiest among us.
1. Scrooged (1988, dir. Richard Donner)
It may not be the definitive telling of the Ebenezer Scrooge myth (for that see the 1951 film with Alastair Sim), but for those who came of age when I did, Bill Murray's Frank Cross will forever be intwined with the story of the hard hearted man visited by three ghosts in order to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Filled with memorable ghosts played by David Johansen & Carol Kane, as well as the Bob Cratchit-esque character played by Bobcat Goldthwait, Scrooged remains my favorite Christmas movie as it seamlessly updates the Scrooge story to (then) modern times. It's the funniest and the most touching version of this story that I've ever seen, and it's one of the very few Christmas movies that can be watched at any time of the year, thanks to Murray's amazing performance and transformation from ultimate evil to redeemed sap. The best Christmas movie ever made by a wide margin.
Honorable Mentions: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), Elf (2003), March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), Home Alone (1990), and Scrooge (1951).