I’ll start this off by saying I love Christmas! I know people who can’t stand the holidays and I feel sorry for them because this time of year is where many of us are at our absolute best. We do nice things and treat each other right because after all, “Tis the season to be jolly.” We decorate our houses, we wear ugly sweaters and even drink egg nog without even thinking about our daily calorie intake. And I love every single minute of it – a holiday cheerleader through and through! So naturally, picking just five movies to represent my favorites of all-time presented quite a challenge. These might not be your favorites but the following films epitomize what gets me in the holiday mood.
5. Santa Claus The Movie (1985)
Right out of the gates I hit you with a knee-buckling curve. This 108 minute classic from 1985 made me a believer in not just Saint Nick but also John Lithgow. His role as the dastardly toy maker who hires an ambitious elf (Dudley Moore) to help him become bigger than Santa Claus was the very definition of evil in the McGinn household. What can I say, we weren’t allowed to watch much TV in those days. I remember hoping and praying for years that someone would leave me some enchanted candy under the tree that would allow me to float around my family room on Christmas morning. This film also features David Huddleston who is one of those “I know I’ve seen him in something else” type of actors. In addition to playing the title role here, he was Olson Johnson in “Blazing Saddles” and played Jeffrey Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski” of course! Nothing says Christmas like bright-colored costumes, 1980’s special effects and the comedic genius of a young John Lithgow. Find this if you can and I know you’ll thank me later!
4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
A pretty obvious choice that I’m sure many others will rank higher. This movie seems to always be my leadoff hitter to get me back into the holiday spirit. It actually gets popped in some years as early as Thanksgiving evening when dinner is settling in my stomach just before the food coma commences. While most point to Randy Quaid, I think the interactions between Chevy Chase and the neighbors next door provide me with some of the more “laugh out loud” moments. Also the goofy bits from the sledding scene to Clark Griswold’s antics in escaping death while putting up all those lights are very fond memories indeed. My favorite line (Mom, close your eyes): “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, kiss my ass. Kiss his ass. Kiss your ass. Happy Hanukkah!”
3. A Christmas Carol (1999)
I make a point every single Christmas season since 2006 to find an evening to read this Dickens’ classic. If you really want to know how much of a Christmas honk I am, I sometimes will read the text while listening to some British actor performing the whole story on a podcast. I say all that to say this: When I picture the events of this tale on paper, this version is the very best film adaptation and without question the most accurate. It is almost a word-for-word account of what Dickens wrote. When Scrooge and the second ghost traveled all over the world to prisons, ships and lighthouses to spread Christmas spirit, so too did Patrick Stewart in this movie. Plus I always grade my Christmas Carols with the criteria of how afraid of Scrooge am I at the beginning and how much I want to hug him at the end. To me this is no contest! You wouldn’t go within 100 feet of Stewart in the first hour but he truly becomes a giggling school boy at the end. A masterful performance in a wonderful adaptation.
2. Surviving Christmas (2004)
Okay haters. Let me explain! This movie has developed a bum rap for two reasons 1) In a silly marketing scheme, the movie came out in late October so of course when it bombed it was immediately released on video in December of the same year and 2) Everyone hated Ben Affleck in 2004. But once you get past your personal biases for the cinematic legend that is Mr. Affleck, you’ll see that this movie is grossly underrated and quite entertaining. The cast is loaded with comedic talent including Catherine O’Hara, Christina Applegate and the late James Gandolfini. Ben’s over-the-top holiday cheerleader ways are infectious and endearing. Forget that he was with J-Lo at the time. That’s ancient history and he’s moved on and became one of the best and most influential directors in Hollywood today. The one-liners in this movie are also belly laugh funny.
Tom: I think your mom’s starting to like your grandfather hitting on her.
Drew: There’s a sentence you don’t often hear on Christmas Eve.
Some families have “Christmas Vacation,” some go for “Christmas Story.” As for me and my house, our holiday laughs now and forever will come from “Surviving Christmas!”
1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Main Event if you will. Of all the movies listed above, only one of them is seen by me on the exact same night with the exact same people with the exact same menu year in and year out. There cannot be a Christmas Eve unless I’m joined by my brother Chris (of www.cgmcginn.com fame), his wife Meaghan and our buddy Thom for our annual viewing of this Frank Capra masterpiece. Plus, Chinese food and wine is always served if you ever care to join us!
What can I say? I can’t speak about this film without weeping! Witnessing the highs, lows and eventual triumph of George Bailey are truly among my personal highlights of the year. From the dance scene spoiled by Alfalfa opening up the brand new pool to the stock market crashing on George’s wedding day. We feel happy when he becomes successful and helps the town’s people live in affordable, well-kept houses but we always scream when he nearly loses everything because of his idiot uncle. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get choked up at the end when the whole town saves George from prison and Clarence, his guardian angel, finally gets his wings. Nothing encapsulates the spirit of Christmas quite like this movie and if you haven’t seen it, you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice.
These films are just taste of the smorgasbord of holiday treats you can discover this season. They all play a huge role in how my family makes merry at Christmas and I’ve enjoyed sharing them with you today. So on behalf of myself and Place to Be Nation, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
5. Gremlins (1984)
I have to wonder if director Joe Dante anticipated the controversial, somewhat ill-advised marketing bonanza that accompanied this project, because it sure enhances the satirical qualities of his film. Bitching about the crass, over-commercialization of Christmas is well-worn territory today, but in a PG-rated, 1984 Steven Spielberg production featuring adorable anthropomorphic puppetry? Surely, this would be fun for the whole family! Everything – from the send-ups of Americana genre tropes, to the slapstick launching of that miserable old bag Ms. Deagle through her roof – is raucously funny, and decidedly un-PG. There’s nothing about the film that really anchors it to Christmas; the holiday setting just serves as that extra twist of the knife when all hell breaks loose, not to mention another target for Dante’s vitriol. Upon witnessing Warner Bros.’ ensuing merchandising campaign, I can only imagine the director sitting back and thinking, “I rest my case.”
4. The Ref (1994)
Some films reward you on repeated viewings, revealing subtle nuances you missed the first time around. The Ref is not such a film. I know, because it’s been in regular rotation on Christmas Eve in my family since about 1994. Every year, it’s just as vulgar, mean-spirited, and outlandish as it was the first time around. Every year, we make the same comparisons to whichever family member(s) have fallen out of favor, with whom we could only imagine dining whilst held hostage. And every year, we laugh our asses off all the same. It features Denis Leary at the height of his “I’m an asshole!” phase, but opposite Kevin Spacey’s shithead family, manages to position him as a sympathetic, hapless cad. The plot is all sorts of contrived, the tone is uneven, and the message is downright nihilistic, but anyone with a dysfunctional family should find it relatable. Turns out, that happens to be everybody. Hey, whatever brings your loved ones together, right?
3. Scrooged (1988)
This, like most of the entries on my list, gets to the heart of how I feel about Christmas and (how that perception has evolved over the years) more so than any sort of qualitative judgment I make towards it as a film or even as a “Christmas film.” These days, I would say I subscribe to the notion that Christmas is for children. That’s not to say I’m unable to derive any joy from Christmas as an adult, but ultimately, I’m at the point in my life where whatever magic the occasion holds is invariably going to be eclipsed by the better memories of days gone by. And that’s fine. But it really says something that this film resonated with me as an adult, despite never being a favorite growing up. I’ve always had an awareness of the film’s existence and basic premise, but never actually sat down to watch it until about ten years ago. I don’t know what it was, exactly: an ability to relate to childless, workaholic protagonist Frank Cross? Nah, I’ve never been that important. Must be my undying devotion to Bill Murray! As an audience surrogate, though, it’s hard to top Alfre Woodard’s put-upon, overworked Grace Cooley and the deadpan ease with which she calls Cross on his shit. Or maybe it just comes down to that intangible, corporate “80s-ness” of the setting. I don’t think this was quite what anyone envisioned for Murray’s comeback following a four-year hiatus, but I love the film, warts and all. And, in keeping with what brung me to the dance: for an additional layer of humor, pretend that the subject of Scrooged is not Frank Cross, but infamous curmudgeon and Marvel Comics EiC of the 1980s, Jim Shooter. Fellow comics fans should find this an amusing thought experiment the next time they watch Scrooged.
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
I know ALLLLLL the people are gonna have this listed, so instead of getting into the film itself, I’ll share a personal anecdote. That way, so you can just skip to the next entry. I’ve always loved this movie, but it took on a deeper meaning a few years ago after my first semester of grad school. It was a little after 9:00 PM in my last class on the last day of finals, which, for Damned Reasons, stretched well into mid-December on this particular academic calendar. It was a challenging year that probably set me on my current course of a lifetime of regret, but for our purposes, the class in question was… well, I don’t remember what they called it, but industrial psychology under a new coat of paint. Our final exam required a group project, a presentation evaluating the effectiveness of various employee incentives as motivational rewards. This gave me an idea. We were the last team to present, and performed various skits illustrating the merits of flex time, wellness programs, commendations, and other noncash forms of compensation. However, I insisted that our closing argument should be taken directly from the best possible source: Clark Griswold. Painstakingly, and a bit passive-aggressively, I sought out the scene and its complete, surrounding context, making sure that the last words anyone in that diabolical class on a cold winter’s eve heard were Clark’s tirade against his “cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-assed, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit” boss, Frank Shirley. (My point: the Jelly of the Month Club is a poor choice in endearing a worker to his employer.) It was a cathartic summation of this miserable academic experience as a whole and a wonderful note to go out on. I think we got a C.
1. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
For my number 1, I figured I might as well go with the safe bet. When Sean Brody, responding to a routine police dispatch, instead has his arm ripped off and is devoured, his anguished cries drowned out and contrasted by the angelic wailing of carolers nearby, I really felt his pain. Similarly, Ellen Brody’s psychic premonitions of the titular monster’s activities serve as a metaphor—
Oh for fuck’s sake.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Like Superman, this is a sacred cow I’m giving a free pass. Plus, in the spirit of Jimmy Stewart, it’s always fun to refer to someone as a “scurvy little spider” this time of year. Or to reenact the scene wherein a frazzled George Bailey bursts into his home, tells Zuzu to shut the hell up with her obnoxious piano-playing, and bemoans the fact that they had to have so many damn kids. And the barkeep throwing Clarence out on his ass for ordering such a sissy drink. There’s just so much to love, in spite of myself. Some years, I even watch the colorized version. (But I don’t like it better, so shut up, okay?)
We’re pretty sure they still lost the Building and Loan like a month later, right? The townspeople were sure understanding to make all those donations on Christmas, but that wouldn’t exactly fix, you know, the Great Depression and whatnot.