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 – From Miracle on 34th Street to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we’re counting down the 25 essential Christmas movies and TV specials of all time. Here are Nos. 25-16 and Nos. 15-6 in case you missed them. Otherwise, it’s time for the Top 5.
5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
When we think of John Hughes, we think of the Brat Pack: The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Too often we forget he was also behind a “trilogy” of holiday flicks: Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Home Alone (1990) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Indeed, it was Hughes who had penned the original National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), sending the Griswold family off to Wally World. Six years later, he had them stay home, as Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) host a “full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency.”
How does one choose a favorite scene? Clark getting flustered while buying lingerie. His attempts to string Christmas lights. The waxed saucer sled. The pool daydream. Aunt Bethany’s senile comments. The tree squirrel. The exploding turkey. Indeed, Tim “The Toolman” Taylor stole his holiday decorating gaffs from Clark Griswold, backed by a stellar supporting cast: Randy Quaid (Independence Day), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart), John Randolph (Serpico), Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), E.G. Marshall (The Defenders), William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor), Brian Doyle-Murray (Groundhog Day), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear), Johnny Galecki (Roseanne) and Julia Louis- Dreyfus (Seinfeld).
Best Scene: Uncle Eddie takes Clark literally as he sounds off about his lousy holiday bonus.
Best Line: “Is your house on fire, Clark? Is Rusty still in the Navy?” –Aunt Bethany
4. White Christmas (1954)
Landing one spot ahead of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) is the very film Chevy Chase references when he says, “We’re gonna have the hap-hap- happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapdanced with Danny [freakin’] Kaye.” With the exception of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), you won’t find a male dancing duo like this one. Add Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt) and Vera-Ellen (On the Town) and you have a fabulous foursome dropping some of the fanciest footsteps ever to hit the silver screen.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and choreographed by Bob Fosse (Cabaret), the film was the first ever shot in VistaVision — Paramount’s answer to CinemaScope — and its vibrant Technicolor shows off the costumes of Edith Head (Vertigo). Still, the biggest contributor is songwriter Irving Berlin (Top Hat), who provides a string of gems, including “Sisters,” “Snow,” the Oscar-nominated “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and the title song, which he first penned for Crosby in Holiday Inn(1942). To this day, it remains the most played song in history. Add up all these pieces and you get the perfect fireside family flick, summed up by Crosby himself: “A lot of schmaltz and plenty of heart.”
Best Scene: Crosby teaches Clooney to “count her blessings” at the Vermont lodge’s empty piano bar. This was the same lodge used in Holiday Inn.
Best Line: “When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.” –Phil Davis
3. Scrooge (1951)
Over the years, there have been so many great versions of the classic Dickens tale, including the early 1938 talkie with Reginald Owen, the 1970 musical with Albert Finney, the 1983 Disney animation, the 1984 version with George C. Scott, the 1988 spinoff with Bill Murray and the 1992 Muppet rendition. Still, none have nailed the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge quite like this 1951 British classic. The film paints the fullest picture of Scrooge’s past, present and future, full of heartache and nuance, without the frills of dance numbers or hand puppets. This is gritty black-and-white, a true depiction of the cold streets of London — the way Dickens intended.
Above all, no actor has come close to nailing the character of Scrooge like the legendary Alastair Sim. Fresh off Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Sim’s “bah humbug” is as cold as they come, and his “second chance” jubilation on Christmas morning will never be topped. For some reason, this one rarely airs on television, perhaps because it was a British production. But do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy. To these eyes, it’s the definitive version of one of literature’s greatest works.
Best Scene: The terrifying arrival of Jacob Marley with clocks tolling and spirits moaning.
Best Line: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” - -The Ghost of Christmas Present using Scrooge’s own words against him.
2. A Christmas Story (1983)
Stand by Me (1986). The Wonder Years (1988). The Sandlot (1993). Each is classic in its own right, but all three pull their nostalgic, comedic voiceover from the monumental classic that came before: A Christmas Story. Writer/director Bob Clark (Porky’s) and writer/narrator Jean Shepherd pulled the story from semi-autobiographical events. It follows young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) in 1940s Indiana as he tries desperately to convince his parents, teachers and Santa Claus that all he wants for Christmas is a “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.” One by one, they tell him the painful truth about his elusive B.B. gun: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Starring Darren McGavin (Billy Madison) and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), the film is full of priceless moments: Randy’s stubborn approach to meatloaf; Flick’s tongue on a frozen playground pole; Ralphie’s Orphan Annie decoder ring revelation; the arrival of the leg lamp; Ralphie whipping bully Scut Farkas; a department store Santa’s slide; and a “pink nightmare” pajama gift. The pop culture impact is everywhere, from Jeff Daniels sticking his tongue to a pole in Dumb and Dumber (1994) to ESPN featuring the leg lamp on the set of Pardon the Interruption. Since 1997, the Turner networks have aired 24-hour marathons on Christmas Day, meaning you could conceivably watch the film 12 times in a row. For this reason alone, you could easily call A Christmas Story the greatest Christmas movie of all time. It’s the only one I would consider swapping for the top spot.
Best Scene: Ralphie spills his father’s lug nuts and says, “Fudge.” Only he doesn’t say “fudge.”
Best Line: “Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the Triple Dare and going right for the throat.” –Ralphie’s narration
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For a film that’s become such a fixture in our homes each holiday season, it’s amazing how much Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life still has the ability to shock viewers with the same reaction: “I forgot how dark it is. How serious. How little it actually focuses on Christmas.” Indeed, Capra uses the holidays as a framing device for an in-depth character study into one man’s life of disappointment. As critic David Thomson writes, “The film that had failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?”
The answer can only be that Capra shines through the darkness with such blinding truth. It’s a fable of mankind’s interconnectedness, where each of us is an irremovable cog in a wheel where you can only take that which you have given and where no man is a failure who has friends. The infamous “Capra-corn” had finally found its proper doses, proving we need the darkness to see the light; the lows to feel the highs; the despair to feel the inspiration. Steven Spielberg called it “a five hanky movie,” saying it’s one of the three movies he watches before shooting every film, and the AFI recently named it the most inspirational film of all time. What better tribute than the fact that Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart always considered It’s a Wonderful Life the best film either of them ever made?
Best Scene: After preventing a bank run during the Great Depression, George Bailey returns “home” to a makeshift honeymoon, the answer to Mary’s wishes the night they threw rocks and roped moons.
Best Line: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you – a warped, frustrated old man – they’re cattle. Well in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.” – George Bailey to Mr. Potter (played by Drew Barrymore’s great uncle, the great Lionel Barrymore)
Why is “It’s a Wonderful Life” considered such a masterpiece? Find out here.
A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday Inn (1942), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Scrooge (1970), Black Christmas (1974), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Trading Places (1983), Gremlins (184), A Christmas Carol (1984), Ernest Saved Christmas (1988), Scrooged (1988), Prancer (1989), Batman Returns (1992), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Jingle All the Way (1996), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Serendipity (2001), Love Actually (2003), The Polar Express (2004), The Holiday (2006), Four Christmases (2008), A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011).