EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason is WTOP’s Morning Drive Writer and founder of The Film Spectrum, which The Washington Post hailed for its “lengthy, spirited reviews … with the ethos of a true film aficionado.” He also recently received his M.F.A in Film & Electronic Media from American University, where his thesis film won a 2011 CINE Golden Eagle Award.
WASHINGTON – Have you put your leg lamp in the window yet? Have you counted your blessings instead of sheep? For many of us, it’s just not the holidays yet until we’ve watched our favorite Christmas movie or TV special.
This week, we’re counting down the 25 essential watches of the holiday season. Here are Nos. 25-16 in case you missed them. Otherwise, it’s off to the races with Nos. 15-6.
15. Frosty the Snowman (1969)
The song “Frosty the Snowman” may have been first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, but the version that plays in our heads is Jimmy Durante‘s from this 1969 animated classic by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. Durante narrates as a group of school kids witness Professor Hinkle’s magic hat bring Frosty to life one day. Karen leads Frosty to a colder climate to prevent him from melting, but Hinkle is right on their heels trying to steal back his hat. When Frosty turns “wishy washy” in a greenhouse full of poinsettias, it’s up to Santa to save the day.
Best Scene: Frosty and Karen escape Hinkle by Frosty’s belly slide “over the hills of snow.”
Best Line: “Happy Birthday!” –Frosty’s first words
14. The Santa Clause (1994)
On TV’s Home Improvement (1991), Tim Allen always delivered best around the holidays, whether it was watching a church choir misspell “NOEL” or battling Doc Johnson in neighborhood decorating contests. It was only fitting that Allen’s first foray into the movies — a year before Buzz Lightyear — would be called The Santa Clause. Here, the grunting Toolman plays single father Scott Calvin, who accidentally kills Santa on Christmas Eve. To please his son, he puts on Santa’s suit, but he forgets to read the fine print, thus falling victim to “the santa clause.” It’s a magical pact that forces him to assume St. Nick’s identity, freaking out his boss and ex-wife, but bringing him immeasurably closer to his son. With a supporting cast that includes Judge Reinhold (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), The Santa Clause trilogy grossed more than $473 million in worldwide box office and countless more in home video sales.
Best Scene: A doctor’s stethescope hears “Jingle Bells” from Scott’s heartbeat.
Best Line: “Who gave you permission to tell Charlie there was no Santa Claus? I think if we’re going to destroy our son’s delusions, I should be a part of it.” –Scott Calvin
13. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a better film than most on this list, but I couldn’t resist putting it at #13. Tim Burton’s stop-motion classic tells the tale of Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), King of Halloweentown, who stumbles across Christmastown and doesn’t understand the concept. That is until he wins the love of Sally (Catherine O’Hara) while thwarting a Santa kidnapping attempt. Thus Jack and Sally became the antithesis of Jack and Rose for ’90s youth looking to choose sides — the type of differing tastes between Celine Dion and Fiona Apple, who covered “Sally’s Song.” Other homages followed — Amy Lee,Blink 182, Korn and Marilyn Manson — but nothing compared to Danny Elfman’s vocals on the insanely catchy “What’s This?” The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects and would have surely won if it weren’t the year of Jurassic Park (1993).
Best Line: “What’s this? There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads?” –Jack Skellington
12. Elf (2003)
The very same year Will Ferrell went streaking in Old School (2003), he donned a green suit and pointy shoes as Buddy the Elf. In a classic “fish out of water” story, Buddy is an adult-sized elf who literally doesn’t “fit in” at the North Pole. He packs his bags for New York City, but has trouble adapting to the real world. Ferrell plays the part with superior innocence, backed by a stellar supporting cast: Ed Asner (Mary Tyler Moore), Bob Newhart (The Bob Newhart Show), James Caan (The Godfather) and Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer), who recorded her own duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the soundtrack. Director Jon Favreau later reunited with Swingers co-star Vince Vaughn in Four Christmases (2008), but couldn’t quite recapture the magic of Elf.
Best Scene: Buddy freaks when he learns Santa is coming to the department store.
Best Line: “It’s just like Santa’s workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they wanna hurt me.” –Buddy upon seeing the mail room
11. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
After landing hits with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968), the legendary stop-motion duo Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. followed up with another Christmas classic. Narrated by Fred Astaire, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town tells the origins of so many Santa traditions, including how the big man got his name, his “Ho Ho” laugh, his flying reindeer and his stocking-stuffer habit. Along the way, Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney) wins the heart of schoolteacher Jessica (Robie Lester), melts the heart of the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) and routinely outsmarts the toy-banning Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees). Featuring some fabulous tunes, including “If You Sit on My Lap Today,” “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” the film was so successful that Rooney reprised his role four years later in The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), where the Winter Warlock was reincarnated as the legendary Snow Miser.
Best Scene: The Kringles discover baby Kris on their doorstep and refer to each other by their rhyming names: Ringle, Dingle, Zingle, Tingle and Wingle.
Best Line: “Toys are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful and anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon!” –Burgermeister Meisterburger
10. Home Alone (1990)
Written by John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) and directed by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter), Home Alone took the simple premise of a child pranking robbers and turned Macaulay Culkin into a cheek-slapping star. Catherine O’Hara and John Heard are the perfect blend of loving and frantic parents, John Candy propels a subplot straight from Planes, Train and Automobiles (1987) and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the most lovable crooks ever to hit the screen, the same year Pesci won his Oscar for Goodfellas (1990). The film features the best Christmas soundtrack around, from Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” to The Drifters’ “White Christmas” to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” all on top of a fantastic John Williams score. When adjusted for inflation (the fairest way to compare box office numbers), Home Alone remains the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time and the second highest grossing comedy of all time, behind only Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Inspired numerous sequels, including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).
Best Scene: Kevin has a “Boo Radley” moment, learning that Old Man Marley isn’t the boogeyman he thought he was, as a church choir sings “O Holy Night” just before the bell tolls.
Best Line: “You bomb me with one more paint can, kid, and I’m gonna snap off your cahones and put ‘em in motor oil!” – Harry Lime (named after Orson Welles in the 1949 classic “The Third Man”)
9. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Fifty years after a New York Sun editorial declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Hollywood captured the same magical reassurance in Miracle on 34th Street. The Oscar-winning script puts a New Yorker named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) on trial for insanity because he insists he is Santa Claus. The only one who believes him is young Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), who tries to convince both her mother (Maureen O’Hara) and lawyer neighbor (John Payne) to defend his case. The film was nominated for Best Picture, won Gwenn the Oscar, launched Wood’s career and memorably featured Gene Lockhart (His Girl Friday) and William Frawley (I Love Lucy). Voted #9 on the AFI’s 100 Cheers, the tale romanticized the notion of shopping at Macy’s in Manhattan and ensured the staying power of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The pop culture impact continues decades later, from the opening scene playing on a kitchen TV set in Home Alone (1990) to the 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and Mara Wilson (Matilda).
Best Scene: Kringle’s defense laywers dump baskets full of “letters to Santa” onto the judge’s bench, a time capsule to a lost era of the U.S. Postal Service.
Best Line: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial; it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” –Fred Gailey
8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
The Ron Howard remake may be one of the highest grossing Christmas movies of all time, but much of its success came from the public’s adoration of the 1966 animated original. Despite hilarity by Jim Carrey and a radio hit in Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?,” critics ranked the remake a mediocre 53% on rottentomatoes, while the public gave it a measly 5.7 on IMDB. Those scores don’t hold a Christmas candle to the original’s 100% on rottentomatoes and 8.4 on IMDB. Narrated by Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and co-directed by the legendary Chuck Jones (Looney Tunes), the famous Dr. Seuss story rhymes its tale of the grumpy Grinch, who lives atop a snow-covered mountain and hates the joyful sounds of Whoville below. He becomes so fed up with the holiday cheer that he sabotages Christmas Eve for the Whos, only to realize Christmas means more to them than presents. The montage of the sabotage has become legendary for its song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” performed by Thurl Ravenscroft and written by Albert Hague and Seuss himself.
Best Scene: The Grinch ransacks Whoville, stealing everything including the roast beast.
Best Line: “The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” –Narrator
7. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Charles M. Schulz invented the Peanuts gang in 1950, but they didn’t hit prime-time until this 1965 CBS special. It was so successful that the network aired a follow-up, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), making Brown the original “King of Halloweentown and Christmastown.” Filled with legendary music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, from “Christmas Time is Here” to the de facto Peanuts theme song “Linus and Lucy,” the program won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award. It’s aired every Christmas since, cementing a number of priceless moments in our memories, from Snoopy decorating his dog house to the entire gang jamming out to Schroeder’s piano.
Best Line: “I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.” –Charlie Brown
6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The greatest of all the Rankin/Bass stop-motion classics, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer could very well be the favorite of many a Christmas viewer. The shiny-nosed character had been invented for a Montgomery Ward catalog in 1939, and was popularized by country singer Gene Autry a decade later. Yet it was this ’64 TV special that cemented its version of the story in our minds, from Rudolph’s parents trying to cover his shiny nose, to fawn Clarice thinking he’s cute; from Rudolph meeting Hermey the dental-aspiring elf, to their teaming with loud prospector Yukon Cornelious; from their stop on the Island of Misfit Toys to their dangerous encounter with the Abominable Snowman. Burl Ives is a charming guide as the snowman narrator, singing “Silver and Gold,” ” Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Best Scene: The misfit toys sing about their fatal flaws, including a Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels and a cowboy who rides an ostrich.
Best Line: “Hermey doesn’t like to make toys!” – Santa’s Elves