Monday, December 01, 2008

Top 10 Christmas Movies

[NOTE: Reposted from last year.]

Here's The Huck Upchuck's Top 10 Christmas Movies of all time:

10. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey -- This may not be on par with some of the better full-length feature films that treat Christmas, but I have always adored this little 22 minute Bass/Rankin animated Christmas story. I guess it's thematically of a piece with the classic "Little Drummer Boy" Bass/Rankin animated short, but I like it better because it's not as well known and gives the animals of the Christmas story their moment. And who can forget: "Ears, Nestor!" :-) This is the only Bass/Rankin animated production that I'll include in my list, though there are certainly some more classics in this bunch of Christmas shorts that entertain the little ones every Christmas season. Honorable mentions in this category of "claymation" Christmas classics include The Year Without a Santa Claus, which features the Heat Miser, the Cold Miser, and Mother Nature, and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

9. Barbie in the Nutcracker -- Given that I have two young daughters, it's hard not to find room for something like this in the Top 10 list. However, I have to say that this is actually quite a very impressive digital computer animated adaptation of the Nutcracker story. It's the first of these Barbie movies, and I remember thinking how graphically stunning it was at the time. The music and the dancing scenes in this version of the Tchaikovsky-scored Ballet are also quite good. None of the many subsequent Barbie animation movies compares in both production quality and plotline development as this original one. If you can overlook the whole Barbie culture and how it crafts an unrealistic and idealistic notion of female beauty, you can find a little gem of a Christmas movie here.

8. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas -- This charming muppet musical Christmas story from Jim Hensen conjures nostalgic Christmas memories for me. It is filled with all the great Christmas themes of selflessness, love, family, and friendship. It's not as technically slick as some of our modern day animation and muppetry, but it was a masterpiece of its day. I just love the sweetness and wholesomeness of this lovely little story, and the tunes are catchy and fun. Heck, even the bad guys in this story, the Riverbottom Boys Gang, have their own redeeming charm. Another little interesting tidbit to note is that the actors who provide the voices for Emmet Otter and his jug band friends also provide the voices for the characters in the Riverbottom Boys gang. It's fun to try and identify the alter egos in these two groups. Yes, there are times when the puppetry is so noticeable that it distracts from the story, but I am always struck by how few these moments are. For families with kids 12-yrs-old and younger, this Jim Hensen masterpiece should be a Christmas standard.

7. The Nativity Story - While I found The Nativity Story to be a bit superficial and overly simplistic, it is perhaps the best effort that I've seen to portray the nativity story on film with somewhat of a realistic feel, even though I think its pretensions to realism cynically mask what is essentially a romanticized and imaginary representation of history. The script is perhaps the weakest element of this movie, and the plotline is thin and incomplete in parts; and, unfortunately, the scene where a laboring Mary and Joseph arrive at Nazareth and make their way to the manger for the climactic birth of Jesus is so surreal that it almost sinks the realist believability of the whole movie. Nevertheless, it gets my recommendation for effort and for its undeniably impressive cinematography, not to mention the subtle beauty of actress Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and the wonderful performance of Ciaran Hinds as Herod.

6. The Polar Express -- This slick, cgi animated telling of the classic train-to-the-north-pole story merits a place in my top ten because it is visually stunning cgi animation. The storyline is 100% pure Christmas spirit -- of giving, friendship, and faith. I originally thought that the movie would be too saccharine for me and would wear off after the initial viewing and captivating animation "honeymoon" period. However, I found this not to be the case. Every time I'm in a room and this show is on the TV screen, I find myself drawn to it, less so for the visuals and moreso for the storyline. Most of the kids are slight caricatures, and it really is an unabashed feel-good movie, but it all tends to work in the end. I think this movie will become part of the classic Christmas movie lineup.

5. A Christmas Carol -- Of the numerous versions of this Dickens classic Christmas tale that exist, and that I have seen, the one that I find to be the most moving, best directed, and most skillfully acted is the 1984 version produced for TV starring George C. Scott. What I love about this particular version is that George C. Scott's Ebeneezer Scrooge is so understated. Unlike the Scrooge one sees in almost all other productions, Scott's Scrooge is not the caricatured heartless and unreflective miser that experiences an over-dramatic conversion. Scott's Scrooge is a troubled and conflicted soul, wracked by regrets, who hardens his heart principally as a mechanism of avoiding pain and disappointment. His greed and vindictiveness are not really central to his character. They exist, but they are sidebars to the real roots of his anti-social behavior. And his conversion does not come from fear, but rather from an awareness and eventual acceptance of his brokenness as a human, and that this brokenness is not unique and can be repaired. What I also like about Scott's Scrooge is that his "converted" character is softer, but still retains some of his gruff and troubled edges. In other words, when Christmas day dawns, he's not a completely different and unrecognizable Scrooge, as is so often portrayed, just a more vulnerable and human Scrooge, willing to open up, share, and smile.

4. Miracle on 34th Street -- I prefer the classic 1947 movie starring Natalie Wood as the little girl and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. There is something about the 1940s that makes the telling of this tale of belief in Santa resonate much more powerfully than the more recent 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough. The simplicity of the Christmas message, the lack of pretense in the characters, the absence of a post-modern angst about the meaning of Christmas all make the 1947 movie such a joy to watch. What is interesting, I think, is that this particular movie takes on much, much better the alienation that has come with the creeping materialism of the holiday season than any other modern efforts. It's a refreshing, clean, wholesome and inspiring film. And its relevance to the contemporary Christmas environment is still very much real.

3. A Christmas Story -- One's top 10 Christmas movies list would never be complete without this classic included somewhere in the list. For me, this story ranks up there with the best of them. Maybe it's because I'm a guy and this film is really about little boys at Christmas. Ralphie's daydreams are hilarious, especially his "A+++++++++++" essay daydream. And who can forget the irony of the "You'll shoot your eye out!" admonition that actually almost happens. As a parent, I can't say that I'm thrilled about the fact that Ralphie creates the whopper lie that "the Icicle did it" when his Red Rider BB Gun almost puts his eye out, and then gets away with it! But, hey, what little boy hasn't gone down this path? I do, however, feel obliged to issue a warning to parents, though. This movie is marketed as suitable for Children, but beware that there are some really rough, uncensored moments of strong profanity here. It's a movie that is very much politically incorrect, so some might find some of the humor a bit much. But, if taken in the right spirit, it can make for an enjoyable film experience.

2. Love, Actually -- I just love, love, love this modern British movie. It's not really about Christmas, but it takes place around the Christmas season, and its theme is about the mundane beauty of love. The different vignettes are wonderfully done, and the cast is star-studded and stellar. What I particularly like about it is that not all of the stories have a happy ending, but all of them are about love in the Christmas season. Bill Nighy's irreverent performance is absolutely fantastic, and the proposal scene between Colin Firth's character and his Portuguese beauty is so classically romantic that I can watch it over and over and over again, and never get tired of it. And the fact that I know a bit of Portuguese helps me better appreciate the moment. Oh ... I get all wound up just thinking about all the dramas in this movie. I could go on and on about it. And, though I could have done without the sappy kiddie-crush subplot, even this, with some screening of the some fo the more adult scenes, makes it something even the tweens could enjoy. I should say, though, that there are some adult moments, and not all of the film is appropriate for young people, even tweens. For instance, one of the story lines features two characters who are stand-in doubles for what is apparently a porn film, and their scenes often involve nudity and sexually explicit actions, though the relationship itself is ironically sweet and innocent, which makes the contrast with the porn thing all the more stark. Overall, though, I think this film is just fantastic, and the message of love, in all its complex messiness and varied context, can't be beat. Highly recommended, but with appropriate caution when youngsters are involved.

1. It's a Wonderful Life -- I don't care how cheesy, overplayed, and overdramatized some think this movie is, it's still the best Christmas story out there. And I still get all choked up every time I see that last scene when everyone shows up and showers George Bailey with more money than he could ever need to resolve his dilemma. As an actor and person, Jimmy Stewart is one of the best. And Lionel Barrymore's portrayal of the villain, Henry F. Potter, is more classic Scrooge than Scrooge himself!

11 comments:

Eric said...

Shamed admission: I've never watched It's A Wonderful Life.

I've always been afraid to watch it because I think I'd end up rooting for Potter. ;-)

Maitri said...

I'd never heard of Barbie In The Nutcracker and, given my dislike of all things Barbie, envisioned her being crushed in said nutcracker.

Sorry and, I know, I am probably going to end up with two pink-loving girly girls. The way of life.

My fave is A Christmas Story. "In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan." The tradition is to have it on in the background all Christmas Eve day long at the in-laws' house.

Huck said...

Eric - Heh! You may just do end up feeling a bit for Potter. But I imagine not too much. It's one thing to be a hard-nosed businessman, it's another thing to be a misanthrope whose motivation is not just profit, but making others miserable in the process. And he's a real thief, too. I think you'd probably rather admire George Bailey -- he never once expects a government bailout and is always willing to take responsibility, even for the screw-ups of others in his employ. It's an All-American story (with a nod to Angels and religious faith that even Christianists can admire).

maitri - Heh! You give new meaning to "Barbie IN the Nutcracker." No need to apologize, for I know what you are saying and I am sympathetic to it up to a point. But, as I said, if you can get beyond the whole Barbie imaginary for female beauty, the movie is actually quite good -- the musical score is authentic Tchaikovsky and the ballet routines (albeit animated) are very nicely-done.

Cynthia said...

"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."

Eric said...

Translation: "You should give them all loans, regardless of likelihood of you ever being paid back, you mean old bastard!"

Hmmm... sounds a lot like the thinking that led us to the current financial crises.

Maitri said...

"You should give them all loans, regardless of likelihood of you ever being paid back."

Well, that's what happened. They could have been turned down by the lenders, but the lenders got greedy, so let's not blame it all on the "little people." Still want to identify with Potter?

Huck said...

Eric - You really have to watch the movie. Potter wasn't interested in giving people loans to give them a leg up, but to crush them with their indebtedness, especially when times got rough. And nearly all of the people George Bailey provided loans to were people who may not have had much, but who were very good credit risks for modest loans to live in modest houses -- not mansions they couldn't afford.

I think this exchange we're having is partly due to maybe some hardening of opinions about the worth of businessmen and the dependency of the working poor. I think we could all do with a bit more loosening up about what we think of these groups. Some of the poor do latch on to a culture of dependence and eschew personal responsibility; but most of the working poor are responsible people who can and will do what's proper and right. And most businessmen do operate with a view towards the humane in their dealings with people, but some are just soulless, greedy bastards. It seems to me that George Bailey is somewhat of that compassionate capitalist in the middle who recognizes the need for humaneness in business with an appreciation for individual initiative, entrepreneurial hard work, and personal responsibility. We can do more to recognize the compatibility of social justice and capitalist entrepreneurialism. They do not have to be antithetical to one another.

Eric said...

Maitri,

Agreed, there is pleny of blame to go around. But the greed of the lenders didn't exist in a vacuum and would have found no purchase if there wasn't an altruistic social institution promising to buy up their bad loans. Without the backing of the various Government Sponsored Enterprises, the Potters of this world would never have made those loans, and the whole mess would have been averted. It is the idea that everybody deserves a 'nice house' regardless of their ability to pay that is most reponsible for this mess, and the idea isn't limited just to the poor... it was applied to middle class people who thought 'nice house' meant a three car garage instead of a car-port.

I'm sure Potter had many horrible character flaws in the movie (which, once again, I have never seen), but if his main crime was denying loans to people who were bad credit risks, then I'll at least credit with having a degree of wisdom that the rest of America could benefit from.

Eric said...

Huck,

I know, I really shouldn't be making all this fuss without having seen the movie... I just always bristle at the general portrayal of succesful businessmen in pop culture, and assumed this to be mroe of the same.

I've spent some time being part of the working poor, and could certainly find myself there again someday. Some of my best friends could be fairly described as the working poor. I have no hard and fast opinions about people who don't earn much money, unless they are healthy people who blame their lack of money on some ethereal concept of social inequity that they can't ever seem to prove, and then demand the government remedy this invisible situation for them. And in that case, yes, I have some pretty harsh opinions.

Maitri said...

Eric,

So why are taxpayers, including the working poor, bailing out unsuccessful businessmen? Aren't they bad credit risks, too?

I'm with Huck, in that I think most of the working poor just want to make ends meet and most businessmen are not out to get the working poor. Yet, as long as we are talking about rewarding failure, let's talk about rich failures, too.

Eric said...

"So why are taxpayers, including the working poor, bailing out unsuccessful businessmen?"

Because their elected officials are miserable pieces of shit, that's why. We are in full agreement that those companies need to be allowed to fail.

As I've said before, when I was an employee, I thought it was all management's fault. When I was in management, I blamed it on lackluster employees. As a business owner, I see with great clarity that it is all the government's fault!

(For the record, I consider the $700 Billion bailout package to be the single most disturbing thing the federal government has done in my lifetime. Nothing our government has done, including Iraq, Katrina, and Monica, has shaken my optimism about the future so much as this bailout.)