Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why most Christmas movies suck (and a few don't)

Most Christmas movies suck. There, I said it.

I am not a Scrooge--in fact, I greatly love the Christmas season. I love the gifts and the trees and the caroling and the food and all of it. My wife and I do a "Twelve Days of Christmas", where each of us give a small present to the other for twelve days, leading up to Christmas Eve. I always save up my vacation, so that I can take two full weeks off at Christmas. The whole season is amazing.

So why do I hate Christmas movies? Don't blame me -- I'm not the one who made them suck so badly. I'm simply the one who watches them.

The problem, you see, is unoriginality. There are basically only two commonly-used plotlines for most Christmas movies. Seriously, only two. Research shows that 92.3% of all Christmas movies fall into these first two categories of plots [citation needed]. These two tired and overused plotlines are:

Type A - The Sucky: Santa is unable to complete his rounds, so someone must fill in for him.
This is probably the one that drives me the craziest, because it is just plain lazy. It lets the writer put his characters into Santa's place--and the minute that it happens, you can pretty much predict everything else that is to follow. There are probably going to be a couple of fat jokes. He is going to figure out that being Santa is not as easy as he thought. He is going to be comically unable to come down a chimney. Some kid will see him and have to be convinced that he is Santa. In the end he will appreciate his neglected family more.

Examples that I can think of off the top of my head include: The Santa Clause, Santa Clause 2, Santa Clause 3, Santa Baby, A Winnie the Pooh Christmas, A Flinstone Christmas, Merry Madagascar, about a thousand other TV Christmas specials, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in a slight variation: the freakish and rejected Rudolph had to "save Christmas" by filling the reindeer role rather than Santa's role).

These are the worst of the Christmas movies--the ones that I truly hate to watch. I really try to avoid these when I can help it. They are eye-gougingly predictable, and you can tell that they were just word-vomited onto the page.

Type B - The Okay-but-not-Great: Ripoffs of Dickens
Charles Dickens' novel, A Christmas Carol, is a brilliant work of fiction. In it, miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, showing him different versions of Christmas past and in the future. It is a great read--and like all of Dickens' work, much darker than those of you who have seen only its ripoffs might be aware.

It has been the inspiration for a whole lot of movies. These are movies which, through some supernatural being or event, show the main character Christmases from his/her life in a different light. By observing their life and influence from the outside--as did Scrooge--they undergo character development and have a different view toward Christmas.

These are generally okay. I can stand them, but they aren't my favorite. They are all takeoffs of Dickens and all fall short of his work. That fact always takes away just a bit of my joy from them; the same way you feel when one of your favorite books is made into a good-but-not-great film.

Examples include: A Christmas Carol (movie--17 versions), A Muppet Christmas Carol, Mickey's Christmas Carol, Scrooge, Scrooged, Elmo Saves Christmas, and It's A Wonderful Life.

You will notice that almost every Christmas special of a TV show falls into one of the top two categories. Again, it is lazy, easy stuff. Which is why I don't like it.

Type C - The Good Stuff: Original Ideas

The final category are for Christmas movies which have actual, original ideas. There aren't that many of them, when you really think about it. And almost all of them are actually pretty good; at the very least, they are different and refreshing from all of the other movies, which simply steal one of the two above ideas. Original Christmas movies include Frosty the Snowman, White Christmas, A Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I actually like every movie in that list, except for White Christmas--a movie I refuse to watch just to irritate my wife.

There are five of this list that are original, excellent, and they make up my top 5 Christmas movies. Rarely does a Christmas season go by where I don't watch all of these.

Honorable Mention for the Top 5: The Nutcracker *, The Ref, Die Hard.

The five best Christmas movies are...

5. Love Actually

Love Actually is a vastly underrated movie. I am notoriously hateful toward romantic comedies; mostly because I hate sitting in a theater for two hours to watch people do impossible-to-believe things and then watch it get resolved in entirely predictable ways.

Love Actually is the exception. The cast is of course amazing, featuring seemingly every notable British actor and actress out there. The writing is funny and clever and unusual. We see how a large number of loosely-connected people experience love, in all its forms, around Christmas.

There are of course the silly, predictable love storylines. But a few of the storylines are absolutely incredible, demonstrating love in all its forms. Consider Laura Linney's character, who consistently and quietly sacrifices her own chance at romantic love in order to be the lone support for her mentally-unstable brother. Next, the relationship between Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln: Knightley discovers that Lincoln, her new husband's best friend, has been obsessed with her for years. He refuses to act on the attraction, suffering silently out of a greater love for his friend. Finally, there is the relationship between Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman; Thompson's character finds out that her husband, Rickman, is smitten with his secretary. The scene where she discovers his emotional betrayal, composes herself, and 'bucks up' to put on a good face for her children is heart-wrenching and brilliant.

In each of these three cases, one character sacrifices their own personal romantic feelings or emotions in order to achieve (or, in Thompson's case, maintain) a deeper love. It is sacrificial love--and though the movie is by no means overtly Gospel-centric, there is nothing more appropriate to the Christmas season than a celebration of sacrificial love. After all, that is kind of the entire point of the baby in the manger, no?

4. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
The Griswold's attempt at Christmas is a must-see every year. Chevy Chase is in his best role here, as Clark Griswold is unable to contain himself in his search for the perfect Christmas. It is hard to decide the funniest part of the film--Eddie kidnapping Clark's boss, the 25,000 Christmas lights that just won't light, the explosion at the end, or a dozen other scenes. For me, it is the squirrel attacking Julia-Louis Dreyfuss. I wish that there was some intelligent scene or subtle irony or clever witticism that made me love this movie. But I am pretty sure it is the squirrel jumping on her.

3. Elf
Elf is one of my definite newest classics. Will Ferrell has some real stinkers on his resume, but when he has a good one (Anchorman, Elf), he really knocks it out of the park. No actor I can think of is better than he at fully embracing the insanity of a character.

Elf is the story of Buddy, an orphan raised at the North Pole, who thinks he is an elf. When--fully grown--he finally finds out who he is, he sets out on a journey to meet his real father...a grouchy, self-absorbed editor played by James Caan. The film is just flat-out brilliant. Nothing really misses in the entire movie.

How can I even describe it? The casting is perfect--from Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, to Caan as Buddy's father, to Ferrell as Buddy, to Zooey Deschanel as Jovie. There are great actors even in bit roles, like Mary Steenburgen and Ed Asner.

The movie is sweet and funny and interesting the whole way through. It is just great. And, like any good Ferrell movie, it is very quotable. I can't hear the name Francisco without thinking, "Ooh, Francisco. That's fun to say!" I also often have to fight the urge during Christmas to answer the phone with, "Buddy the Elf, what's your favorite color?"

This is a movie that I watch the day after Thanksgiving every year. It is the start to my Christmas season.

2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Let me start by saying that "The Grinch", that abomination of a film starring Jim Carrey, is not to be discussed here. It is anathema to me. Bell, book, and candle on those associated with it, for ruining a classic.

But the real Grinch is the Boris Karloff-narrarated Dr. Seuss classic. In a twist on the "A-type" plotline, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has its main character dress like Santa as well--but not to save Christmas, to steal it. In the end, the Grinch learns that the joy and happiness of Christmas will continue regardless of the materialism of the season. I definitely would not feel that it was the Christmas season unless I saw this.

And of course, it has the brilliant lyricism of Dr. Seuss, along with his brilliant song, "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch." How can you not appreciate a film which says of its main character, "Your soul is an appalling dump heap, overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable...mangled up in tangled up knots."

1. A Christmas Story
A Christmas Story, based upon the equally excellent novel, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

How can I describe my joy at watching this movie? I usually watch it once on my own during December, and probably 2-3 times during the 24 hours of a Christmas Story that plays on Christmas Eve each year. It is one of those movies that I cannot turn off if I flip through and find it...the kind of movie that I can stop at any time.

It is such a great combination of things that make me love it. It is completely original, nothing at all like any other Christmas movie. There are dozens of quotable lines and hilarious scenes. It so perfectly captures so many parts of American life that it is hard to single any out.

And how can you not laugh out loud at so much of this movie? It is packed full of hilarious scenes. The "major prize" of the leg lamp. The "F-dash-dash-dash word". Flick's tongue stuck to a light pole. The "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" from the department store Santa. The Bumpeses dogs eating the turkey. The Christmas duck. The pink bunny. The old man, about whose cursing tendency Ralphie says, "In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."

This is the greatest film in the history of Christmas movies. If you do not like it, then I will say to you what the old man says to his furnace: you are a "dumb, frattin', housesnickle viper".

PS--My wife and I are going to see our local theatre performing A Christmas Story as a play tomorrow. Very excited! Update: It was fantastic. The actor playing the narrator was amazing.

* I originally had The Nutcracker in my top 5. Then I bumped it for Die Hard. Then The Ref. Then finally for Love Actually. Sorry, classy part of my brain...the part that laughs won out.

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