Over the last five or so years, I’ve slowly been figuring out more and more what I want each Christmas to be like. Caitlin and I haven’t been able to travel home for the last couple of years — what with getting married and all this year (eventually I mean to talk about that here) — so after all the phone and Skype calls are made, there’s not a whole lot else to do.
So it becomes movie time.
Generally, I can’t stand Christmas movies. Even the best of them descend into sappiness in the end, and the real trouble is that it’s all the exact same sappiness. You can basically flip on any Christmas movie for five minutes, assess where you are in the story, and fill in the blanks from there. The key differences are generally whether you’re watching Bill Murray, Jimmy Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or something made of clay. (Side note: Wait, are there really no Christmas movies with women leads, or am I just blanking on them?)
I try to skip Rudolph, Charlie Brown and anything that involves Santa. That might sound like the makings of Regular Movie Christmas, but there are a few titles that deserve recognition for their ultimate undefinable Christmasiness, while also side-stepping the awful. Here now is the watch list I’ve been cultivating for several years. It’s ever-evolving, but so far, this is the definitive iteration.
5. Home Alone
Caitlin’s a huge fan of Home Alone, and it’s hard to deny its essential brilliance. I prefer to watch it for Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, who really pull it together in terms of physical comedy in the final act of the movie. I tend to find Macaulay Culkin a little insufferable in the role, especially with an adult perspective, though. He’s not a kid who’s too smart for his own good, he’s just f–king spoiled out of his mind. Just pick the pepperoni off the pizza, dude. Stop whining.
Then again, the McCallister clan is largely an group of wild, untamed jackasses. So you feel for the kid, at least a little.
At the end of the day, Home Alone is just packed with classic moments, not the least of which is that John Candy improvisation in the back of the polka van. The whole movie is worth it for that alone. Also Pesci’s face when he gets his scalp torched.
4. A Very Supernatural Christmas
Christmas episodes of TV shows are generally awful, but I enjoy “Supernatural” anyway, and its take on Christmas is both illuminating for the characters and well-endowed of various monster lore. Like all of a “Supernatural,” it has a tendency to be a bit “whaaa, Sam and Dean’s life has been so sad and their father sucked, whaaaa,” but it has its moments.
Meanwhile, in the part of the story that’s awesome, Sam and Dean track back what they refer to as an “Anti-Claus” (which is just kinda hilarious) to Ypsilanti, Mich. (bonus points for native state), and then to some hilariously wholesome Christmas-loving folk in town, who are, of course, evil. It’s a pretty fun take on Christmas stuff — the best is when Sam and Dean exchange gifts they got both bought at a nearby gas station — with the usual horror movie-esque stuff.
3. A Very Venture Christmas
It’s “The Venture Bros.” and Krampus, so … I’m not sure what else you need to be told about this. For added delight, check out the various “Venture Bros.” holiday songs. For a long while, a new one was getting released every year. They’re amazing, especially when 21 and 24 sing “Wonderful Christmastime.”
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
I appreciate this one more the older I get; it’s easily the best of the Vacation series. It’s also a testament to the writing and performances that I catch new jokes every time I watch it, and the old ones fall differently with each new year. I’ve watched this one each Christmas for probably the last 18 or so years, thanks to my parents’ emphatic insistence. At first, I got irritated. Now I’m glad I was forced through it.
I’m not sure there has been another movie ever more packed to the brim with one-liners and phenomenal scenes.
1. Die Hard
C’mon, like this was even a discussion. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.” Alan Rickman versus Bruce Willis is basically a dream I had, and then I woke up and it was a movie. If there’s one movie that perfectly encapsulates the Christmas spirit — risking everything for your family (pretty sure it’s a comment on holiday shopping) — Die Hard is it. Incomparable.
Some honorable mentions that are also in the rotation:
Die Hard 2 – Also Christmas. Also Die Hard. Also awesome.
Xmas Story – The “Futurama” episode in which the Planet Express team has to deal with the deadly Santa robot.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – As my friend Bryan Carr recently pointed out, just about any Shane Black movie qualifies as a Christmas film. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets those points, plus it’s lighthearted as well as murdery.
Elf – On the one hand, Elf is largely one of those Christmas movies I dislike for its sugary intensity. On the other, Will Ferrell is pretty hilarious, you’ve got cameos from Peter Dinklage (although the scenes in which Ferrell continually calls him an elf kinda makes me … uncomfortable) and Kyle Gass, and it’s a Christmas movie with James Caan.
That’s this James Caan:
and this James Caan:
Anyway, happy holidays. Feel free to drop your essential holiday movies in the comments, as this list is always evolving. (And yeah, Gremlins should be on there but I was feeling a bit overloaded. I understand and accept the oversight.)