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 – Cheesy. Cliche. Sentimental. These are the charges that Cinema Scrooges often make toward Christmas Movies. It’s true, the genre features few art-house films and international offerings. But within the confines of popular Western entertainment, you won’t find a more diverse collection of eras and styles than around the holidays.
What other time of year brings people of all ages to watch Will Ferrell, Tim Allen and Jim Carrey back-to-back with Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart and Natalie Wood?
What other films so seamlessly mesh the music of Frank Sinatra and Faith Hill, Burl Ives and Chuck Berry, The Crystals and The Drifters, Gene Autry and Run DMC?
And what other collection mixes the diverse talents of children’s book authors (Dr. Seuss), cell animators (Walt Disney, Chuck Jones), stop-motion masters (Bass and Rankin), hand-puppet visionaries (Jim Henson) and comic strip artists (Jim Davis and Charles M. Schulz)?
With this is in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the 25 essential watches of the holiday season. The list covers both full-length movies and TV specials, but does not include Christmas episodes of TV series. That means you won’t find Michael Scott playing Yankee Swap on The Office; Ross Geller dressing up as the Holiday Armadillo on Friends; or the Costanzas airing their Festivus grievances on Seinfeld.
What you will find is a balanced list of adult flicks and children’s favorites over a wide range of time, from the 1940s through today. So break out your personal collection, browse your Netflix and set your DVR. Turn on your leg lamps, slap your cheeks and count your blessings instead of sheep. It’s time for The Film Spectrum’s 25 Days of Christmas. Where’s the Tylenol?
25. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
While Vincente Minnelli’s musical is only partially a Christmas movie — covering all four seasons in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair — the Christmas segment is one of the most memorable of all holiday movies. Judy Garland makes movie magic by lending her famous vibrato to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song we know so well, it’s easy to forget it comes from this movie. It’s also the film that introduced Garland to director husband Minnelli, and thus unleashed Liza Minnelli on the world.
Best Scene: A sobbing Tootie beheads a family of snowpeople.
Best Line: “Now I remember where I left my other skate!” –Tootie after Mr. Smith falls down the stairs
24. Die Hard (1988)
What better way to ring in the holidays than with Detective John McClane, a group of terrorists and a ton of explosives on an L.A. highrise? Bruce Willis turned McClane into his career role, while Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) turned terror mastermind Hans Gruber into the AFI’s #46 Greatest Villain.
Arguably the biggest action blockbuster of all time, Die Hard is surprisingly covered in holiday spirit, from limo driver Argyle blaring Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” to Reginald Vel Johnson (Family Matters) humming Christmas tunes before a body lands on his windshield. Terrorist Theo also gives a rendition of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and “Let it Snow” ushers in the end credits.
Best Scene: Det. John McClane comes out, hands behind his head, gun strapped to his back, ready to “surrender.”
Best Line: “Shoot ‘ze glass.” –Hans Gruber
23. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck stars as Elizabeth Lane, a writer famous for her Martha Stewart domestic tips. While claiming to live on a Connecticut farm with her husband and baby, she’s actually a single urbanite without cooking skills. When her boss and a war vet invite themselves up for a nice country Christmas, she’s forced to cover her tracks. Stanwyck’s role was a tame follow-up to her femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) and more in line with her comedic deception in The Lady Eve (1941). Shot on the same farmhouse set as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and co-starring Dennis Morgan (Kitty Foyle) and Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon), Christmas in Connecticut is a real holiday classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Remade in 1992 starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson.
Best Scene: Stanwyck falls for Morgan while discussing marriage and children, but can’t act on it because of her little charade.
Best Line: “The things a girl will do for a mink coat.” –Elizabeth Lane
22. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)
Winner of the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program, this Sesame Street TV special is a classic. Big Bird worries when Oscar the Grouch tells him Santa can’t fit down the chimney; the gang performs a skating rink chain whip; Bert and Ernie fret over finding the perfect gifts; and Kermit and Grover do their best Cosby and Linkletter with a series of kids saying the darndest things.
Best Scene: The Cookie Monster tries writing a letter to Santa, but devours his typewriter.
Best Line: “I’m freezing my giblets.” –Big Bird
21. Bad Santa (2003)
From Big Bird to “flipping the bird,” we move now to the other side of the naughty-and-nice list. Bad Santa is a profanity-laced, booze- drenched, sexed-up romp. And by that I mean it’s hilarious. Billy Bob Thornton earned a Golden Globe nomination as a sleaze-bag shopping mall Santa who hates his job and reluctantly mentors a troubled, pudgy kid. He leads a stellar supporting cast, including Lauren Graham, Sarah Silverman, Tony Cox, the late Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter (in his last role). Not for the easily offended, the film features plenty of “no they didn’t” moments, including a sex scene that puts “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” to shame.
Best Scene: The Kid cuts his hand while making Willie a gift and screams bloody murder.
Best Line: “Should I fix you some sandwiches?” - -The Kid
20. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
You know it as “You’ve Got Mail.” But long before Tom Hanks emailed Meg Ryan, Jimmy Stewart left handwritten notes in post office parcels for Margaret Sullavan. The two play unsuspecting co-workers at Matuschek & Co., a Budapest gift shop run by Frank Morgan a year after The Wizard of Oz (1939). As the shop gears up for the Christmas rush, tensions flare and romance buds between two hearts that are pen pals by night and work rivals by day. The film is a classic not just for the Christmas season, but all year long, thanks to the trademark “Lubitsch Touch” of director Ernst Lubitsch, who reunites with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson after their masterpiece Trouble in Paradise (1932).
Best Line: “My heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.” –Klara
19. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
It took 36 years for Scrooge McDuck to get the role he was born to play, but there he was, finally as Ebeneezer Scrooge in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. The Disney tale is easily the best animated version of the Dickens classic, followed closely by Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). We also get Goofy as Jacob Marley, Mickey and Minnie as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, Donald Duck as Fred, Daisy Duck as Belle and Mr. Toad as Fezziwig. Jiminy Cricket, Willie the Giant and Pete play the three ghosts.
Best Scene: A clumsy Jacob Marley botches his haunting, complete with Goofy’s patented “yahahoooie.”
Best Line: “You loved your gold more than that precious creature, and you lost her forever.” –The Ghost of Christmas Past on Scrooge’s loss of his sweetheart Belle
18. Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
Joel Gray (Cabaret) stars as the voice of Joshua Trundle, a struggling clockmaker assigned to build a special clock tower to win back Santa Claus after an anonymous letter has the town banned from his list of stops. Things go awry when a brainiac kid mouse (Tammy Grimes) meddles with the gears and breaks the clock. Father Mouse (Emmy-winner George Gobel) steps in and teaches him a lesson, inspiring the boy to try to fix the clock before the titular storybook night arrives.
Best Scene: The Trundles sing “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand.”
Best Line: “You don’t know as much as you think because you only think with your head.” –Father Mouse to his son Albert
17. A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)
Everyone’s favorite feline smartass contributed one of the classic pieces of the Christmas canon with this Emmy-nominated TV special. As Jon brings Garfield and Odie to his grandmother’s house, Jon and brother Doc Boy become kids again waiting for Christmas morning. The cynic Garfield throws internal monologue jabs at the giddy family, but comes to embrace the giving spirit as he finds a stack of old letters and delivers them to the grandmother.
Best Scene: Odie gives Garfield a homemade back- scratcher.
Best Line: “All right, you guys, just permit me one sentimental moment here, will you? I have something to say. Christmas: it’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving. There, I said it. Now get outta here.” –Garfield
16. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
While most folks hold up The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) as the greatest of Jim Henson’s Christmas efforts, my favorite will always be the 1987 TV special A Muppet Family Christmas. IMDB voters agree, voting the TV special an 8.2, compared to Carol‘s 7.4. Here, the gang gets snowed in at Fozzie’s mother’s farm, where Fraggle Rock jams out in the basement and even the Sesame Street gang pays a visit. This makes for a number of rare pairings between Henson’s separate puppet groups, a line usually crossed only by Kermit, including Swedish Chef trying to baste Big Bird and Animal finding a soulmate in the Cookie Monster. Tying the whole thing together is a running gag of an icy patch at the front door, sending each new entrant for a spill.
Best Scene: Dr. Teeth & Electric Mayhem interrupt Kermit’s wholesome rendition of “Jingle Bells” with their own upbeat version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Best Line: “Look out for the icy patch!” –Various Muppets