Five Great Movies returns this week with a special Christmas installment. We’d have gone with Kwanzaa or Chanukah instead, but alas, the pickings were rather slim. There are dozens if not hundreds of Christmas movies out in the universe and picking five great ones – not the top five, necessarily, just five that are particularly awesome – was quite a challenge. There are several bona fide classics we left out on purpose to make way for excellent films you may not know about. We’re sure you have your own favorite Christmas or Christmas-themed movie classics, so feel free to give them a shout out in the comments. Everyone certainly did last week…
Christmas has a certain vibe to it, one that permeates everything it touches. You can’t mistake a Christmas Carol for any other kind of song; there’s just a specific cadence to them. Christmas movies are like that too. Whether the movie’s about the religious history of the holiday or terrorists blowing s**t up on December 25th, the sprinkling of snow, the Santa hats and omnipresence of eggnog just make the films different from any other. Maybe there’s a little magic in that old top hat, or maybe we’re just projecting our love – and occasionally hate – for the holiday on everything we see.
However you feel about Christmas, here are Five Great Movies to watch on or before the big day this weekend.
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (dir. Peter Godfrey, 1945)
Of all the old school classic Christmas movies, the ones from decades before you were born, Christmas in Connecticut is our favorite. That’s no slight to It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, it’s just a compliment to Peter Godfrey’s whimsical masterpiece about a city girl, Barbara Stanwyck, masquerading as a housewife for a series of magazine articles. Although she gives advice about recipes and home furnishings, she’s actually a spicy firebrand with no housekeeping skills or aspirations towards marriage at all. But when her editor, Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, insists that she give him the good old-fashioned Christmas he’s been longing for, she has to con him into thinking she’s old Mother Hubbard. In the grand screwball fashion, everyone’s soon running from room to room, spinning a web of elaborate lies to keep the deception going. In the end, Christmas is saved, Stanwyck finds the right guy and Sydney Greenstreet says, “Ho, ho, what a Christmas.” Absolutely wonderful from start to finish.
One last fun fact: Christmas in Connecticut was remade in 1992, directed by Arnold Flipping Schwarzenegger. Sadly, that version is just as good as it sounds.
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (dir. Brian Henson, 1992)
Before The Muppets hit their famous 1990s-2000s slump, there was one great classic that bridged the gap between brilliance and poo. That film was The Muppet Christmas Carol, the first film in which The Muppets took a back seat to a live-action co-star, and the first Muppet movie to adapt a classic story. Later installments like Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Wizard of Oz never quite worked for two reasons: they were following a formula, and they didn’t have Michael Caine in them. Caine stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens’ timeless curmudgeon who learns the true spirit of Christmas when three ghosts let him visit Christmases past, present and future on the eve of the holiday. The film faithfully adapts The Christmas Carol, and despite the pervasively cute Muppets running around, Caine manages to turn in a heartfelt dramatic performance. Adorable, funny and genuinely touching. If it weren’t for this year’s The Muppets, it might have gone down as the last great hurrah for Jim Henson’s creations.
THE REF (dir. Ted Demme, 1994)
Unappreciated in its time, The Ref has gone on to become a minor holiday classic. Denis Leary stars as a thief who kidnaps a bickering couple, played by Judy Davis and a then-unknown Kevin Spacey, right before their big Christmas get-together. The family is hilariously dysfunctional, and Leary finds himself their de facto psychologist; one who’s willing to tell them who’s right and who’s wrong, and with a pistol-whipping if necessary. Anyone who’s had a horrible Christmas with their family – read: everyone who celebrates Christmas – will find The Ref to be a witty, only slightly dark comedy that puts your most annoying relatives in their place. And oh, those stupid candle hats…!
TOKYO GODFATHERS (dir. Satoshi Kon, 2003)
Going off the beaten path a bit we find Tokyo Godfathers, one of only five films directed by the late, lamented Satoshi Kon. They’re all brilliant, but only Tokyo Godfathers takes place at Christmas, so here we go. The film tells the story of three vagrants – a bitter drunk, a hopeful drag queen and a teenaged runaway – who find a lost baby on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the day trying to find its parents. Naturally their hearts are warmed by the experience, but Tokyo Godfathers is about more than familial ties, it’s about the tiny ways in which every person is connected. As our heroes bound from one unusual adventure to the next they discover secrets, histories and adventure in a truly absorbing, touching storyline that’s just as Christmasy as any of the traditional yuletide classics.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (dir. Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Not every Christmas film is a triumph of the human spirit. From Black Christmas to Die Hard to Bad Santa, movies have been mining the holidays for darkness for decades. All of those films and more deserve a spot on this list, but there’s only one left so we’re letting an underdog have the title shot. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is the Spielbergian story of a young boy who thinks Santa Claus is an evil monster who has just been awakened from his slumber by a mining expedition near his house. He’s right, of course, and despite his warnings all the naughty children are soon kidnapped and it’s up to him and his haggard father to kill Santa once and for all. It sounds more macabre than it is: Rare Exports is a gorgeously shot new Christmas classic that infuses the wonder of the holiday with the perils of single fatherhood and the infinitely more perilous perils of supernatural monsters. If you haven’t seen it, you need to check it out.
Those are our picks for Five Great Movies about Christmas. What are yours?