Season's screenings! Lots of tongue-gnashing went into making a list and checking it twice. These films hinge strictly on the spirit or traditions of the holidays. Pleasers like "Trading Places" (1983), "White Christmas" (1954), and "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945) miss the cut since their window-dressed plots could easily occur on the hottest July 4th.
Ralphie, portrayed by marvelous child actor Peter Billingsley, dreams and schemes to be gifted with a glorious Red Ryder air rifle -- at the risk of putting an eye out! Loving 1940s remembrances, based on narrator Jean Shepherd's "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," are as pertinent, compelling and hilarious today. Best scene: the frozen pole and a tongue. Followed by "My Summer Story" (1994).
This magical, reverent comedy is among the very best of all Hollywood Christmases. A stranger (Cary Grant) comes to town to help erect a new church. Along the way, he might be falling in love with a married woman. --And there's another catch. He's an angel. Opposite David Niven and Loretta Young, Grant is remarkable in his gentle, understated approach. Remade as "The Preacher's Wife" (1996).
Irresistible. A department store Santa claims to be the real deal. To prove it, he lands in court, converting a skeptical six-year-old (Natalie Wood) into a believer. The comic fantasy won three Oscars, including best supporting actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, original story, and screenplay. Then it became a quintessential holiday classic. Maureen O'Hara and John Payne co-star. Remade in 1994.
Everybody's favorite globe-trotting goofballs, the Griswolds, stay home for the traditional American family Christmas. Experience the tree, the outdoor lights, the dinner, the uninvited relatives -- all the recognizable hells of the season. Well-done slapstick and trademark tastelessness stuff the package, a giggly vehicle for Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid. A sequel followed in 2003.
My favorite Christmas movie of them all is largely a drama, but after years of wrestling with its omission from this list, I've determined the film must be included. Laced with homespun humor and the promise of post-WWII Americana, Frank Capra's brilliant film (based on a Christmas card) is often warm, fuzzy, and funny. Could anything possibly be more smile-filled satisfying than the romance of George (James Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed)? The black-and-white photography is beautiful, too.
It's "The Terminator" for tots, as Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to any extreme to score an unobtainable toy for his kid's Christmas commandment. Big and splashy, the production will suit youngsters -- and parents who've been there. Sinbad becomes a villain, of sorts, competing in the chase, while smarmy neighbor Phil Hartman chases Arnold's wife (Rita Wilson).
7. "The Horn Blows at Midnight" (1945)Thieves scramble to steal Gabriel's horn from angel Jack Benny, sent to Earth to sound it and destroy the planet. A broad fantasy, especially timely to New Year's Eve. Benny put down the movie for decades as a stock gag, but, in truth, the show's clever, original and cute. Directed by Raoul Walsh ("White Heat"), co-starring Alexis Smith and the wonderfully huffy Franklin Pangborn.
The sweet and silly tale of a human baby raised by elves at Santa's North Pole lair. Jump ahead to adulthood and our boy (Will Ferrell) heads to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). Along the way, he picks up some elf work and a little romance. It's a bright modern day fairytale filled with charm and daffy slapstick, enough to delight kids and grumpy ol' middle-aged guys like me. Also starring Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, and Andy Richter. Nice!
The famous ugly schmuckling charges onto the screen in full blustery weirdness -- a film to recommend for intentionally laughable art direction. So, who in Whoville has been a good little boy? That wouldn't be greeny meany Jim Carrey, a sour ball of holiday-loathing. Watch his body language, sharply considered and executed, creating an impressive physical comedy performance.
Inept criminals (Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey) sting their disapproving brother (Nicolas Cage) into becoming an accomplice on a Paradise, Pennsylvania, bank robbery. Unfortunately, the icy weather delays the trio's getaway, forcing them to experience the gracious Christmastime hospitality of their victims. An easygoing surprise, which meshes chuckles with golden era Hollywood inspiration.