What is a Christmas film?? What are the parameters?? How do we define the sub-genre?? These are vital questions to ponder as one tackles a central question of the holiday season: is Die Hard a Christmas movie??
It is a debate that has become an annual tradition on social media every December, with passionate advocates on both sides of the issue. I have jumped into the fray on occasion, but it’s kind of like arguing about religion, sports, & politics…the chances of changing anyone’s mind is midway between slim & none.
The first thing that needs addressed is the definition of a Christmas movie. In my opinion it’s pretty simple. Context & backdrop are important. Is the movie set at or around Christmastime?? Visuals are a key element as well. Are there Christmas trees & decorations in the movie?? Music is a vital part of any cinematic experience. Does the movie contain Christmas music?? Some folks like to argue about the subject matter or main theme of the film, but that’s a slippery slope. How many of our beloved Christmas films are truly about Christmas?? There are very few movies that even mention Jesus Christ, let alone focus on His birth. Hollywood runs from religiosity, so if you throw out the birth of Christ as a defining characteristic the whole discussion becomes a free-for-all. What about a movie’s release date?? Nowadays most studios will debut their holiday films in November or December, but that hasn’t always been the case, so it has to be eliminated as a requirement. At the end of the day, if a movie takes place at Christmas, shows Christmas trees & other decor onscreen, has Christmas music, & gets alot of play on television in December I think you can reasonably call it a Christmas movie.
Die Hard was released on July 15, 1988, which is something that many use to discredit it as a Christmas film. However, allow me to toss out some truth bombs. It’s A Wonderful Lifehit theaters on January 7, 1946, yet nobody calls it a New Year’s movie. Miracle on 34th St. was released on May 2, 1947 and no one is questioning its Yuletide credentials. White Christmas came out on October 14, 1954, yet it certainly isn’t a Halloween movie. Christmas in Connecticut was released on August 11, 1945. Elf?? October 9, 2003. The Polar Express?? October 30, 2004. You get the point. While Christmas movies are generally out in November or December there are exceptions, so release date cannot be used to disqualify Die Hard or anything else from the category.
Let’s dive down the setting rabbit hole. Some folks like to say that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, it just happens to be set at Christmas, which is a really dumb argument. They point out that it’s about terrorists taking a bunch of people hostage in a skyscraper, and the plot wouldn’t change if it took place in the spring or summer. Okay, I’ll concede the point. However, let’s look at It’s A Wonderful Life, which is one of my all-time favorites. The story is about a suicidal man who is guided back on track by a good-natured guardian angel. It happens to take place on Christmas Eve, but would the story change all that much if George Bailey was going to jump off that bridge in March or September?? Not at all. What about Home Alone, the story of a little boy’s valiant defense of his house against burglars?? What if Kevin’s family forgot him as they were headed to the beach in the summer or to Disneyland in April?? Would it drastically alter the movie?? Not really. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous Hallmark Christmas movies that the ladies love (okay okay…I’ve watched a few on occasion too). They are basically small screen rom-coms that take place at Christmas, but no one is mocking them. Well, alright…everyone mocks them, but no one whines that they aren’t Christmas movies. The importance of setting cannot be minimized. Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve during a company Christmas party. Why do some people want to flippantly toss that fact aside??
At one point John McClane kills a terrorist, puts a Santa hat on him, & sends the carcass back to evil Hans Gruber wearing a sign that’s says “Now I have a machine gun…Ho ho ho!”. Are we supposed to ignore that?? Or how about early on, in the limo, when Argyle the chauffeur introduces us to Run-DMC’s Christmas in Hollis?? And the closing credits that feature traditional holiday song Let it Snow?? I’m pretty sure there is a little Jingle Bells & Winter Wonderland thrown into the mix as well. Those moments cannot be discarded.
Ishouldn’t bring politics into this, but I cannot help myself. In my experience one side of the ideological aisle tends to support their opinions with logic & facts, while the other side is led by their feelings. I find this is also the case with the Die Hard debate. Christmas movies are generally warm & fuzzy family flicks or kid friendly Santa Claus stories, which is fine. I love that kind of stuff. Conversely, Die Hard is violent & doesn’t “feel” Christmasy. That’s really the only legitimate argument some can offer. Unfortunately for them facts & feelings don’t always intersect.
In my humble opinion the debate begins & ends with the setting. To argue that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, it’s just set at Christmas, makes zero sense. The fact that it takes place on Christmas Eve at a Christmas party is precisely what makes it a Christmas movie. Offering hypotheticals that the plot wouldn’t change if the story took place some other time of year doesn’t hold water a) because it is speculative and not based on the reality of what the film actually is, & b) rationale that can be applied to other movies that no one is trying to disparage. This fact & other evidence I have presented form a solid case in support of Die Hard as a Christmas movie. Welcome to the party Pal.
A film is…or should be …more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of moods & feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. – Stanley Kubrick
If you need to catch up with the first three parts of this series please go here, here, & here.
I decided to run some numbers because I’m nerdy like that. It surprises me how well balanced these rankings are when it comes to representation from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and classics produced before I was born. What doesn’t surprise me is just how few characters from movies in the first couple of decades of this century made the cut. I’m not sure if that is a reflection on the subpar quality of newer films, the fact that they haven’t had time to really get a deep hold on our pop culture consciousness yet, or simply a manifestation of the singular entertainment taste of a middle-aged guy in flyover country. It’s probably all of the above. At any rate, enjoy!!
39 Ron Burgundy (Anchorman)
Will Ferrell is a polarizing comedic actor…either you enjoy his shtick or you hate it. I happen to find Ferrell amusing, although his film career has been decidedly uneven. Old School, Elf, Step Brothers, & Talladega Nights are hilarious, while Bewitched, The Campaign, Holmes & Watson, and The House failed miserably. Perhaps Ferrell’s greatest contribution to pop culture is his embodiment of news anchor Ron Burgundy. Though it is never stated when the storyline is set there are many indicators that it is in the 1970’s, making Burgundy a throwback of sorts, an hysterically exaggerated interpretation of a bygone era. Burgundy is pompous, misogynistic, vain, & mostly clueless, but he is good at his job. When he is forced to welcome a woman to his news team he doesn’t take it well and hilarity ensues. It’s the type of silly humor that kind of flies above the head of some, but if you get it you’ll be quite entertained. Ferrell throws himself completely into becoming Ron Burgundy, to the point that nearly everything he’s done afterward has paled in comparison. An Anchorman sequel was produced eight years after the original, but it couldn’t live up to its predecessor.
“Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means ‘a whale’s vagina.”
“Great Odin’s raven!”
“The only way to bag a classy lady is to give her two tickets to the gun show and see if she likes the goods.”
“I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal. I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”
“I am going to have three fingers of Glenlivet with a little bit of pepper, and some cheese.”
“It’s quite pungent. It’s a formidable scent. It stings the nostrils…in a good way.”
“Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.”
“I’m in a glass case of emotion!”
“You are a smelly pirate hooker. Why don’t you go back to your home on Whore Island?”
“It’s so damn hot!! Milk was a bad choice!!”
“I won’t be able to make it fellas. Veronica & I trying this new fad called uh, jogging. I believe it’s jogging or yogging. it might be a soft j. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.”
“You stay classy, San Diego.”
38 Biff Tannen (The Back to the Future Trilogy)
When actor/comedian Thomas Wilson first moved to Los Angeles to begin his career in entertainment he was roommates with Andrew Dice Clay & Yakov Smirnoff. That has nothing to do with anything in particular, but I find it amusing. Decades after co-staring in all three BTTF films Wilson began to tire of incessant & tedious questions from fans about them so he wrote Biff’s Question Song, which is quite funny (you can find it on YouTube). At any rate, Biff is a classic high school bully who…at different times (literally)…makes life tough for both George McFly & his son Marty. In BTTF 2 we get a glimpse of the future (October 21, 2015 was the future back in the early 90’s) wherein Biff…with a little help from a sports almanac…is a filthy rich tyrant running roughshod over Hill Valley, and there have been indications that Future Biff was based on Donald Trump. Personally I think that’s a bunch of poppycock, a narrative crafted by some because it just so happens to fit in a really vague way. Biff appears in various forms throughout the trilogy. In BTTF 2 there is an older version of Biff alongside his grandson Griff, and in BTTF 3, which takes place in The Old West, Marty & Doc are tormented by Biff’s ancestor Mad Dog Tannen, who is sort of a Jesse James-esque outlaw. In all his incarnations Biff is the quintessential comedic bad guy, someone we immensely enjoy seeing get his just deserts.
“Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?”
It can’t be easy acting with an imaginary rabbit, but that’s exactly what James Stewart does in Harvey. Elwood is a nice enough fellow, but his insistence on treating his pal Harvey as a real creature drives his family nuts. Though Elwood is fond of the drink and hangs out in a bar no one is sure if his…friendship…with Harvey is a result of that proclivity or if he truly is mentally ill. Through a series of misunderstandings & classic farce it is Elwood’s sister that ends up institutionalized, but then the hunt commences for Elwood himself. By the end of the film Elwood has convinced the doctor of Harvey’s existence and his sister decides she’d rather her brother remain…eccentric…than become “normal” thru treatment. Stewart received his fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor but lost to José Ferrer for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac.
“Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”
“I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with.”
“That’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us. That’s too bad, isn’t it?”
“You see, science has overcome time & space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time & space…but any objections.”
36 The Joker (multiple films)
The Joker is Batman’s oldest & fiercest rival, making his debut in the inaugural comic book way back in 1940. Since then he has appeared in every medium that The Caped Crusader has, including multiple animated & live action films. His backstory & certain details vary in all of those movies, but he is usually depicted as a psychopath with a bleach white face, bright red lips that form a grotesque smile, & green hair. Though the origins may differ The Joker is most often a “normal” guy who somehow becomes disfigured then descends into madness. He doesn’t seem to have any kind of extraordinary abilities…he’s just really smart, completely sadistic, & batshit crazy (pun unintended). By far my favorite Joker is Jack Nicholson’s turn in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Nicholson should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance, but had to settle for a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. He faced stiff competition from Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy), Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally), Michael Douglas (The War of the Roses), & Steve Martin (Parenthood), with Freeman ultimately taking home the prize. Heath Ledger did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his take on The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Though the performance is undeniably stellar my feeling has always been that it is more fondly regarded in the wake of Ledger’s tragic death than it otherwise may have been. I have not seen Jared Leto’s Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad or Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, which is currently in theaters, though I expect that I’ll catch both on video sometime in the future. Whatever one’s particular favorite might be the fact is that The Joker is a cornerstone supervillain in comic book films and an unforgettable character no matter who portrays him or what kind of spin they put on the story.
“Wait ’til they get a load of me!” (Batman 1989)
“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger. (The Dark Knight)
“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” (Batman 1989)
“I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” (The Dark Knight)
“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?? This town needs an enema!” (Batman 1989)
“Introduce a little anarchy…upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.” (The Dark Knight)
“Never rub another man’s rhubarb!” (Batman 1989)
“I’m a man of simple tastes. I like dynamite & gunpowder… and gasoline! Do you know what all of these things have in common? They’re cheap!” (The Dark Knight)
“I do what other people only dream…I make art until someone dies. I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.” (Batman 1989)
35 The Dude (The Big Lebowski)
His name is Jeffrey Lebowski, and that’s important because the crux of the film is mistaken identity. The bad guys are actually after the other Jeffrey Lebowski, an elderly millionaire whose wife screwed them out of some money. The plot is a comedic heist farce that is strangely fun, but honestly the characters & their interactions are what one remembers about the movie. The Dude is a middle-aged, unemployed slacker who spends his days smoking pot and his nights bowling, drinking a lot of White Russians along the way. He has a really laid back devil-may-care attitude, though he seems to be fairly intelligent & insightful. Needless to say, the action-packed drama he becomes involved in thanks to the other Lebowski is in direct contrast to The Dude’s normally easygoing lifestyle, which makes the movie an interesting twist on the fish-out-of-water formula. It actually inspired an entire philosophy called Dudeism , which advocates & encourages the practice of “going with the flow”, “being cool headed”, and “taking it easy” in the face of life’s difficulties, believing that this is the only way to live in harmony with our inner nature and the challenges of interacting with other people. Dudeism aims to assuage feelings of inadequacy that arise from society’s emphasis on achievement & personal fortune, alternatively encouraging a preference for simple pleasures like bathing, bowling, & hanging out with friends. Louisville, KY began hosting an annual Lebowski Fest in 2002, and several other cities have followed suit, including London, England.
“Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
“I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.”
“Yeah, well – The Dude abides.”
“This is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.”
34 Bluto Blutarsky (Animal House)
John Belushi died way too young at the age of 33 in 1982. He only starred in eight movies after being one of SNL’s original Not Ready for Primetime Players for four seasons, but amongst those far too few films are Animal House & The Blues Brothers, both of which remain irrefutable comedy classics four decades later. When I attended college in the early 90’s I joined a fraternity hoping it would be half as much fun as Animal House. My brothers & I were better students than the party animals of Delta Tau Chi and not quite as rowdy, but we had fun and were certainly inspired to a degree by the movie. With the exception of a cameo by the legendary Donald Sutherland. Belushi was the biggest star in the film, even though Bluto probably has less dialogue than most of the cast. Bluto provides a unique brand of physical comedy, a prime example of using the fat dumpy guy for laughs. Belushi could get a chuckle out of the audience simply by the way he moved or even with just facial expressions. One of Animal House’s most celebrated scenes is the food fight in the cafeteria, but go back & watch…we only see about two seconds of the actual food fight. What makes it memorable are Belushi’s actions leading up to it, and he barely says anything.
“See if you can guess what I am now. I’m a zit. Get it?”
“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough . . . the tough get goin’! Who’s with me? Let’s go!”
“My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.”
33 The Shark (Jaws)
One could argue that The Shark is the real star of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic. What’s really interesting is the behind-the-scenes stories wherein we learn about all the issues cast & crew faced while filming. One of the biggest problems was the mechanical shark (which they named Bruce), which regularly malfunctioned. This forced Spielberg to retool the script and altered Jaws from what would have been a straight up horror movie to more of a suspenseful Hitchcockian experience. For example, in the opening scene the shark was originally supposed to be seen fully devouring a late night swimmer, but instead what we got was the woman being dragged underwater kicking & screaming by some unknown force. Limited usage of the mechanical shark makes the moments that we do see the creature that much more impactful, and that arguably created a better film. I was frightened for years by the idea of sharks after seeing Jaws (it didn’t help that I was probably 7 or 8 years old the first time I saw it), and even now I have zero interest in swimming in the ocean. Multiple sequels followed the original Jaws, to the point that it became a joke in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II (Jaws 19…this time it’s really, really, really personal!! lol). Even though none of those sequels lived up to the original and only served to soil its legacy we shouldn’t forget that the first one is a truly great movie, in no small part thanks to its scary lead character.
32 Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)
Speaking of scary…
Sir Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of Dr. Lecter is legendarily disturbing, a role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Hannibal “The Cannibal” is a forensic psychiatrist who also happens to be a serial killer, which actually makes a lot of sense. After landing in prison he is consulted by the FBI when they’re trying to track down other psychopaths, and in Silence he is interviewed by young agent Clarice Starling, who is on the trail of serial killer Buffalo Bill. Despite his homicidal tendencies Dr. Lecter is a well-to-do, culturally refined man with erudite tastes in food, wine, music, & art. The dichotomy is a large part of what makes the character so fascinating. Like it or not we all have pre-conceived notions & tend to put folks in neat little boxes, and typically we don’t think of brilliant & sophisticated people as murderers, although when one really ponders the idea it’s much more logical that an intelligent individual with financial means would get away with such crimes than a stupid and/or poor person. Hopkins portrayed Lecter in Silence as well as prequel Red Dragon and sequel Hannibal. I have read all three books, but didn’t see the prequel & only watched bits & pieces of the sequel (it wasn’t good at all). It is my understanding that another prequel book & film…Hannibal Rising…was produced as well, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention.
“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
“We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?”
“Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming? Don’t bother with a trace, I won’t be on long enough. I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy. I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner. Bye.”
31 Jake & Elwood Blues (The Blues Brothers)
The Blues Brothers first appeared on an episode of Saturday Night Live on January 17, 1976. Well…kind of. The sketch was actually called “Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band” and had John Belushi singing while Dan Aykroyd played harmonica…both dressed in bee costumes. Aykroyd had long been an aficionado of blues music and turned Belushi into a huge fan as well. Aykroyd owned a bar in New York and the duo used to sing blues music there at SNL after parties. They came up with the idea for a band, complete with fictional backstories, which went out on the road and produced an album in 1978 called Briefcase Full of Blues, recorded live when The Blues Brothers were the opening act for comedian Steve Martin. A few months before that they had made their official SNL debut. The film came along in 1980 and was the tenth highest grossing movie of the year (ranked above it: The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Smokey & The Bandit 2, just to name a few). The whole idea of the two characters’ having a quite detailed background then forming a very real band that performed concerts and made a hit record before a movie was even made is pure genius. Their music & outfits contribute tremendously to the full effect, which adds up to The Blues Brothers still being a part of the pop culture zeitgeist four decades later. Belushi’s untimely death is sad for many reasons, but one of them has to be the fact that we probably would have gotten one or two more Blues Brothers flicks. We did get a sequel in 1998 called Blues Brothers 2000 in which John Goodman stepped into the void as Mighty Mac Blues, but it just didn’t have the same appeal as the original.
“Are you the police? “No, ma’am. We’re musicians.” (Elwood)
“Yes! Yes! Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ… I have seen the light!!” (Jake)
“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.” (Elwood)
“Four fried chickens and a Coke.” (Jake)
“We’re on a mission from God.” (Elwood)
“I hate Illinois Nazis!” (Jake)
“We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here tonight. And we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’s law enforcement community who have chosen to join us here in the Palace Hotel Ballroom at this time. We do sincerely hope you all enjoy the show. And please remember, people, that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there are still some things that make us all the same. You. Me. Them. Everybody. “ (Elwood)
30 Professor Severus Snape (The Harry Potter Series)
Alan Rickman had an interesting career. He was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but didn’t find mass success until his 40’s after starring as terrorist Hans Gruber in the classic Christmas caper Die Hard. More than a decade later he became popular with the sci-fi nerd crowd after starring in Galaxy Quest. Then a few years after that he really hit the jackpot when the Harry Potter series was translated to film. To call Professor Snape complicated would be a vast understatement. His story plays out in seven films in the course of a decade, and we’re never quite sure whose side he is on. Is he a faithful servant of the dark Lord Voldemort?? Or is he a double agent whose true allegiance lies with Professor Albus Dumbledore?? We eventually learn that Snape was a classmate of Harry’s parents James & Lily Potter, and that Snape loved Lily but was pretty much bullied by James & his pal Sirius Black. At one time Snape was one of Voldemort’s Deatheaters, but switched allegiances in an effort to protect Lily. His feelings toward Harry are complex, a mix of the animosity he felt toward the boy’s father & the affection he had for the boy’s mother, but ultimately it is revealed that much of what he did over the years was meant to save Harry’s life. It is a tribute to Rickman’s immense talent that Snape’s screen presence is so cold, acerbic, arrogant, & borderline cruel yet retains a sense of mystery & vulnerability. Credit must be given to author JK Rowling for creating such a complex character, but we all know that a great book doesn’t always evolve into a great movie, and while I still like the Potter books much more than the movies it must be said that Rickman’s portrayal of Snape isn’t one of the reasons why.
“Control your emotions. Discipline your mind!!
“I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses… I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”
“You dare use my own spells against me, Potter? Yes, I’m the Half-Blood Prince.”
“The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.”
“It may have escaped your notice, but life isn’t fair.”
29 The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, & The Scarecrow (The Wizard of Oz)
I seem to recall that when I was a child The Wizard of Oz was offered as a special television presentation once a year. That idea seems quaint now when we can watch almost anything we want anytime we choose, especially old movies. Author L. Frank Baum actually wrote a series of 14 Oz books in the first two decades of the 20th century, but the beloved 1939 film is based on the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was one of ten nominees for Best Picture (a field that included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chipps, Of Mice & Men, and the winner – Gone with the Wind). One can choose to view Oz many different ways, but I’ll leave it to people much smarter than me to do that kind of analysis. Taken at face value we can all relate to guys like The Cowardly Lion, who seeks courage…The Tin Man, who wishes for a heart, and The Scarecrow, who only wants a brain. These are endearing but imperfect characters who recognize what they lack and engage in a journey to be made whole. It has been suggested that The Wizard represents God, Oz is Heaven, and The Yellow Brick Road is a kind of path to enlightenment. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is it’s no wonder we feel a connection to these flawed characters seeking redemption.
“If I only had a brain.” (Scarecrow)
“Courage! What makes a King out of a slave? Courage! (Cowardly Lion)
“If I only had a heart.” (Tin Man)
28 ET (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial)
Our fascination with outer space & aliens goes back many decades, but it feels like most of the time sci-fi treats such creatures as villains that we humans are to fear. Not ET. He’s about as loveable as anything that a UFO has ever stranded on Earth. He befriends 10 year old Elliott & the boy’s family, and in a harbinger of things to come with product placement in movies develops an affinity for Reese’s Pieces, which had only been on the market for five years. Actually the original script called for the use of M&M’s, but the Mars Candy Co. declined a deal that Hershey ultimately accepted. Of course we all know how these stories end and eventually Elliott & his pals help ET evade capture by government agents and hop a ship back to his home planet. Anyone over the age of 40 can tell you what ET looks & sounds like, and Reese’s Pieces are still going strong. I’d say that’s a solid legacy.
“Phone. Home. E.T. home phone.”
27 Jason, Michael, & Freddy (slasher flicks)
I am a child of the 80’s, and horror films were a big deal back then. While I am not a huge fan of the genre kudos must be given to three cornerstones, especially since they have appeared in a whopping 33 films (with more to come I’m sure). The only horror movie I really like is the original 1978 Halloween in which Michael Myers murders his older sister and ends up in a sanitarium at the tender age of six, only to escape fifteen years later and return home to the sleepy little hamlet of Haddonfield, IL on Halloween night to engage in a killing spree. Numerous sequels and reboots have been made, but all they’ve done is muddle the mythology and water down the understated brilliance of the original. Michael is referred to in the credits as The Shape, and his appearance is notable for the whited out William Shatner mask he wears. He never says a word, and we aren’t really supposed to know why he does what he does except that he is the embodiment of “pure evil” (one of the key elements the sequels & remakes ruined). Just as Jaws made the idea of swimming in the ocean perpetually frightening Jason Voorhees had a negative impact on summer camp for an entire generation & singlehandedly proliferated the ideas of triskaidekaphobia & paraskevidekatriaphobia (look them up…I can’t do everything). The backstory is that Jason is the young son of the cook at Camp Crystal Lake, and when he drowns as a boy his mother goes nuts and starts killing people. As it turns out he isn’t as dead as everyone thought, which means Mom’s revenge was needless. But now she’s dead and he’s the one seeking vengeance. At any rate, Jason is known for wearing a hockey mask, although he didn’t actually do that until Part 3. The backstory for Freddy Krueger is a little stronger. He’s a child killer in small town Ohio who lures his victims to a boiler room before shredding them with a bladed leather glove. After he gets out of jail on a technicality he is hunted down & burned alive by a mob of angry parents. Years later, though his physical body is dead he lives on and haunts the dreams of local teenagers. Everything about Freddy is memorable, from his history to his clothes to his burnt face. And really, the idea of an evil force haunting our dreams is super creepy and borderline genius.
26 Obi-Wan Kenobi & Master Yoda (The Star Wars Trilogy)
Wise old gurus who seem to understand the mysteries of life and pass on their knowledge to young protagonists are a cornerstone of cinema, and nowhere is it done better than in the Star Wars universe. Ben Kenobi is initially introduced as an old recluse living on Tattoine near Owen & Beru Lars and their nephew Luke Skywalker. After his aunt & uncle’s death Luke is mentored by the elderly man, who we find out was a great & powerful Jedi warrior. His relationship with Luke’s father is a huge part of the franchise. Obi-Wan is killed by his nemesis Darth Vader in the first film, but appears as a Force ghost in the latter two parts of the original trilogy. A younger Obi-wan is a significant player in the prequel trilogy as we see his relationship with Anakin Skywalker from beginning to end. Sir Alec Guinness was already a living legend by the time he originated the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, having won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1957 for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai. During his career he received four Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for Star Wars (he lost to Jason Robards). Guinness famously had a…complicated…relationship with Star Wars, calling it “fairytale rubbish” and the dialogue “banal mumbo jumbo”. It was his idea to kill the character off in the first movie as he “shriveled up” at the mere mention of Star Wars. Luckily for George Lucas he didn’t face the same ego-driven obstacles with Yoda since it was essentially a puppet voiced by Frank Oz (the same guy who provided the voice for other famous characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Cookie Monster, & Ernie’s pal Bert). Yoda is the Jedi Master of Jedi Masters, a 900 year old two foot tall creature with wrinkled green skin and an odd…almost dyslexic…speech pattern who we don’t meet until he trains Luke Skywalker on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. It is his appearance & the way he talks that makes Yoda so memorable. I’m far too lazy to do the required research, but I’d bet that Yoda was one of the top selling Halloween costumes in the early 80’s.
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda)
“You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. The truth is often what we make of it…you heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.” (Yoda)
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force… as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“Do or do not, there is no try.” (Yoda)
“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.” (Yoda)
“If you define yourself by the power to take life, the desire to dominate, to possess…then you have nothing.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.” (Yoda)
“Be mindful of your thoughts…they betray you.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
“If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are… a different game you should play.” (Yoda)
“If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
Let’s take a break. We’ll resume with the Top 25 soon.
So what exactly are we trying to accomplish here?? Are we seeking the best movie of the 1990s?? Not really. Are we looking for my favorite movie?? Well, yes and no. Is this about zeroing in on the signature film of the 90’s that most represents the decade?? That would be ideal but I’m not sure it’s possible. I suppose I am ultimately looking to “have my cake and eat it too”. It has always fascinated me that movies that make a ton of money are oftentimes loud, obnoxious, unintelligible games of chicken in which studios spend mind blowing amounts of cash and directors have fun with impressive technological toys all to tell a story that makes no sense, has no intellectual or emotional resonance, & people rush to theaters to see but forget about ten minutes after it’s over. Meanwhile, critics like to heap praise on erudite, pretentious snoozefests that Joe Sixpack in flyover country has no interest in seeing. Can a movie be successful critically AND commercially?? The 1970’s produced several such films: Jaws, The Godfather, Star Wars, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Apocalypse Now, All the President’s Men, & Young Frankenstein all spring to mind as being both popular and acclaimed. I’m okay with liking “bad” films…we all have our guilty pleasures. However, for the purposes of this competition what we are hoping to find are good movies that normal folks like you & me actually enjoy.
If you have not checked out first round action in the Fly and Phat divisions please do so, but for now we move forward. Enjoy.
Starring: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn
Directed By: Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith)
Batman & Robin
Starring: George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alicia Silverstone
Directed By: Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Falling Down, The Client)
One may make an assumption that Batman & Robin is included in this competition for the same reason films like Showgirls & Very Bad Things have been thrown a bone…because they are so dreadful that their sheer awfulness prompted a level of negative buzz that warrants discussion (kind of like how Cabbage Patch Dolls were considered so ugly they’re cute). That is partially true. However, as a huge fan of all things Batman I must also opine that it’s not really as bad of a movie as many seem to think. In 1995 Joel Schumacher took the reins of the franchise after Tim Burton was asked to step back from the director’s chair because the studio wasn’t happy with the box office for Batman Returns in 1992. Schumacher had already done St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, & the John Grisham adaptation The Client, so there was reason to believe that he wasn’t a decent choice, and 1995’s Batman Forever did little to dissuade that notion. But then, after Val Kilmer decided not to reprise his one stint as The Caped Crusader for various reasons, George Clooney got the job. Clooney was still doing the TV show ER but had begun his movie career as well. Schumacher wanted to pay homage to the kitschy 1960’s Batman television show, so he decided the tone of his films would be more colorful & humorous than its predecessors, and though no one seemed to have much of an issue with the more cartoonish vibe of Batman Forever, it seems to be a point of contention when it comes to Batman & Robin. On paper the cast is top notch…Clooney, Schwarzenegger, Thurman, Silverstone…but critically it bombed & commercially didn’t fare as well as the previous films in the series. I remember seeing it in the theater with my best buddy Greg and thinking that it was aurally & visually obnoxious…an assault on the senses. However, when watching Batman & Robin on video…in the comfort of one’s own home where you can control the volume & the lighting…it’s much more palatable. In hindsight the movie suffered from comparisons with its forerunners, and as the fourth film in a series with two directors and three leading men there was a lack of stability that fans found unsettling. In a game of “One of These Things Isn’t Like the Others” it sticks out like a sore thumb…but on its own merits it is harmless cinematic fluff that is acceptably entertaining. Swingers was written by Jon Favreau, and was the first starring role for both he & Vaughn. The plot isn’t necessarily as important as the vibe, with the story revolving around a group of underemployed actors in 1990’s Los Angeles, a period when 60’s era swing music was experiencing a revival. The soundtrack is top notch, with tunes from the likes of Dean Martin, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Bobby Darin, & Sammy Davis Jr. There is a portion of the film that takes place in Las Vegas, and y’all know that tickles my fancy. Swingers isn’t a thought-provoking masterpiece that will cause one to ponder deep & philosophical questions of life, but it oozes cool and is quite quotable. Critic Roger Ebert called it “sweet, funny, observant, & goofy”, and I concur.
The Verdict:Swingers. Batman & Robin has a 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was the 12th highest grossing film of 1997, although it must be noted that it is the least successful of any Batman film ever produced. When compared to 1989’s Batman ($250 million), 1992’s Batman Returns ($163 million), and 1995’s Batman Forever ($184 million), Batman & Robin’s $107 million is the very definition of The Law of Diminishing Returns. The franchise probably should have been given a rest after Forever, especially when faced with casting & creative changes. The viewing public obviously had Gotham City fatigue, and the absolute mauling given to the film by critics certainly didn’t help. Swingers has an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score, and ranked 155th at the box office in 1996. However, given the fact that it made $4.5 million on a $200k budget and its cast was a bunch of unknowns at the time the financial situation is relative. The film has become a cult favorite and its cast all went on to varying degrees of fame & success. It is a simple case of expectations vs. reality. Hollywood continues to make the mistake of giving huge budgets to movies with mega stars, dazzling effects, & over-the-top plots, when oftentimes it is a small budget, obscure but talented performers, & a well-written story that stands the test of time.
Starring: Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short, Kimberly Williams
Directed By: Charles Shyer (Baby Boom, I Love Trouble)
What About Bob?
Starring: Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss
Directed By: Frank Oz (The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
FotB 2 is a remake of a sequel from 1951 called Father’s Little Dividend starring Spencer Tracy & Elizabeth Taylor, and a sequel to 1991’s Father of the Bride. Martin returns as the titular father who must deal with the concurrent pregnancies of his daughter and middle-aged wife. Martin Short is given a bigger role in the sequel after an amusing turn as an eccentric wedding planner in the first film. FotB 2 ranked 17th at the box office in 1995, ahead of some well-regarded movies like Braveheart, Clueless, Casino, Dead Man Walking, The Usual Suspects, & Leaving Las Vegas. It holds a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critic Roger Ebert opining “movies like this butter us up so well that we’d feel like a grouch criticizing them”, adding that the movie is “warm & fuzzy, and has some good laughs & a lot of sweetness” before concluding that “I had the unmistakable feeling, toward the end of this film, that they may be reaching the end of this particular road and that there may be new horizons to investigate”. Other critics said things like “Short is trotted back out for more of his mincing shtick…a pretty feeble way to keep his character in the story”, “starts off weak but finishes strong…wacky & weepy, silly & sweet”, and “the strengths of these films are not so much laughs as sincerity & heart”. What About Bob? is a dark comedy about a psychiatric patient who stalks his therapist on vacation and befriends the doctor’s family, which upsets the arrogant shrink to the point that he becomes unhinged & ends up in a catatonic state. Bill Murray apparently doesn’t work & play well with others in real life, and nearly two decades after the film was released Richard Dreyfuss said of Murray “Terribly unpleasant experience. We didn’t get along, me and Bill Murray, but I’ve got to give it to him…I don’t like him, but he makes me laugh even now.”, which kind of sums up my feelings about Murray. I’m not a huge fan, but I give credit where it is due in that he is a talented actor who has been in some memorable movies. I’m just not sure that What About Bob? is one of them. It was the 19th highest grossing film of 1991 and holds an 83% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Washington Post proclaiming it “one comic session strung to feature-length breaking point”, while Entertainment Weekly states that it “begins as a rambunctious satire…but turns into little more than a pleasant one-joke movie.”
The Verdict:Father of the Bride Part II. Several years ago I had a co-worker who enjoyed sour candies like Skittles, Lemon Heads, & Sweet Tarts, while I am all about chocolate. I am reminded of that comparison now because some folks like edgy, dark, cynical entertainment, while others…like yours truly…prefer what I call “comfort food cinema” that leans heavily toward sentiment, a few good laughs, a pleasant cast, & a low-key vibe. I suppose it also comes down to whether or not you’re a fan of Murray, Dreyfuss, Martin, or Short. I gravitate toward the latter duo.
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joes Pesci, Rene Russo
Directed By: Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Scrooged)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, Adam Sandler, Joe Mantegna
Directed By: Michael Lehmann (Heathers, Hudson Hawk)
The only issue I have with the Lethal Weapon series is that it is easy to get the plots confused. They all star Mel Gibson & Danny Glover as a pair of mismatched cops fighting nefarious criminals, with the latter two films adding Rene Russo as a love interest for Gibson and 2, 3, & 4 having Joe Pesci as an annoying reformed criminal. In the third installment Riggs & Murtaugh track down a dirty cop who has become an arms dealer. A subplot involves the budding romance between Riggs and internal affairs officer Lorna Cole. LW3 was the fourth highest grossing film of 1992 and had the best box office of any film in the series. It has a 57% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Ebert opining that “we miss the sense of invention that brightened the earlier movies…this one falls back on experience & craftsmanship”, and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calling the film “mediocrity wielded by experts”. Those are fair assessments in that we don’t necessarily keep going back to series like Lethal Weapon for innovative storytelling or fresh ideas…we have developed a deep fondness for familiar characters and the actors who portray them. Airheads is an example of the earlier work of guys like Sandler, Buscemi, Fraser, & Mantegna. It is a mildly entertaining tale about an unsuccessful garage band who takes an L.A. radio station hostage in an effort to get their demo tape played. It has a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and ranked 138th at the box office in 1994, which was atleast better than something called Spanking the Monkey.
The Verdict:Lethal Weapon 3. I’m not usually a buddy/cop movie kinda guy, but I adore the Lethal Weapon series. Airheads is a fun little movie, but there’s really no competition here.
Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti
Directed By: Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus)
In the Line of Fire
Starring: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo
Directed By: Wolfgang Petersen (The NeverEnding Story, The Perfect Storm)
I love a good biopic. Let’s face it…if a movie is being made about a person’s life story it is a fair assumption that the person & their life was noteworthy and/or interesting. Whether the movie tickles one’s fancy largely depends on the level of curiosity about the subject, and I am old enough to have some degree of fascination with Andy Kaufmann. I am not a big Jim Carrey fan, but do recognize that he has a fair amount of talent when given the right material. Man on the Moon derives its title from a 1992 song by alt-rock band REM that was written as a tribute to Kaufman. The movie follows Kaufman’s rise from struggling night club act to infamous sitcom star thru his death from cancer at age 35. There are some questionable decisions made (like the cast of the sitcom Taxi portraying their 1970’s selves fifteen years later) that negatively impact one’s overall impression of the film, but praise for Carrey’s performance as Kaufman is nearly universal, to the point that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. In the Line of Fire is a criminally underappreciated movie about a guilt ridden Secret Service agent whose failure to save JFK’s life has messed with him for three decades. The agent gets another chance when a deranged former CIA assassin threatens the current President. The conclusion is somewhat predictable, but the ride getting there is lots of fun. I’ve never been a bigtime Eastwood fan simply because he typically stars in westerns & cop films that aren’t really in my wheelhouse, but for some reason I find this particular movie compelling.
The Verdict:In the Line of Fire. Rotten Tomatoes scores Man on the Moon at 63% and it was the 58th highest grossing film of 1999, which seems far too low for an Andy Kaufman biopic starring one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time. Movies like Stuart Little, the god awful Wild Wild West with Will Smith, & Deuce Bigelow: Male Jiggolo did better at the box office. In the Line of Fire was the 7th highest grossing film of 1993 and has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t help but wonder if Man on the Moon was a huge missed opportunity that might have fared better with a better script and a different director.
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sophia Loren, Burgess Meredith, Daryl Hannah, Kevin Pollak, Ann Margret
Directed By: Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful)
Fools Rush In
Starring: Matthew Perry, Salma Hayek
Directed By: Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch)
I think we’ve established the fact that I have a type. If I am in vegg mode and doing some couch potatoing on a lazy afternoon I gravitate toward breezy comedies with pleasant characters and a charming plot. That’s my jam and I’m not sorry. Grumpier Old Men is a follow-up to the 1993 original and finds our two favorite cantankerous geezers resuming hostilities in the frozen tundra of Wabasha, MN. Things have calmed down between John Gustafson & Max Goldman, with John now happily married to Ariel (who moved into the neighborhood in the first film) and the two men’s offspring…Gustafson’s daughter Melanie and Goldman’s son Jacob…set to get married. But an alluring Italian divorcee moves into the neighborhood and all hell hilariously breaks loose once again. The cast is terrific, proof that not everyone has to be a gorgeous 20something for a movie to be good. Old-timer Burgess Meredith is the unsung hero once again, stealing the show at 87 years of age. It was the 20th highest grossing film of 1995 but only has a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By 1997 hit TV show Friends was only in its fourth season (not even halfway thru its decade long run) but the cast was already beginning feature film careers. Matthew Perry’s first leading man role was Fools Rush In, about a NY City architect who has a one night stand in Vegas while he is there supervising the construction of a night club. The vivacious young lady shows up at his door a few months later with a bun in the oven, and simply wants to introduce him to her close-knit & very traditional Mexican family so that when she breaks the news about her pregnancy she’ll be able to tell them they’ve met the baby’s father. The city boy is enchanted by the beautiful woman and her family ties, and in short order the two have a quickie wedding and move in together. Of course the culture clash is inevitable, especially when his snooty parents show up, and as tends to happen in rom-coms the couple fight, break up, & eventually reunite just in time to welcome their child into the world. It’s all very sweet & predictable, but I’m okay with that. Fools Rush In was the 70th highest grossing film of 1997 and has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Verdict:Grumpier Old Men. This is a tough choice because I really like both movies, even though critics didn’t. Our old pal Ebert called Grumpier Old Men “a big-screen sitcom”, opining that “I would love to see this material transplanted to the TV screen where it belongs”. I am intrigued by that insightful comment, because of course two+ decades later isn’t that what eventually happens to a lot of movies anyway?? Think about it. We go to the local cineplex to watch loud, visually stimulating, effects laden action flicks that provide us with a momentary jolt of adrenaline…but decades later when we’re chillin’ out & flipping thru the channels what kinds of movies stand the test of time and provide a measure of jovial comfort on dreary & tedious days when we need that sort of cozy contentment?? Oftentimes it is exactly the kind of “big screen sitcom” that Ebert describes that has been “transplanted to the TV screen where it belongs” just as he suggested. He was a man ahead of his time. Of Fools Rush In Ebert said “it is a sweet, entertaining retread of an ancient formula, in which opposites attract despite all the forces arrayed to push them apart”, and “Yes, the movie is a cornball romance. Yes, it manufactures a lot of standard plot twists. But there is also a level of observation and human comedy”. It feels wrong that either film has to be eliminated at this point, but Grumpier Old Men has the edge in repeat viewings & legendary movie stars.
Starring: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman
Directed By: Dean Parisot (Home Fries, Red 2)
Starring: Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner
Directed By: Mick Jackson (L.A. Story, Volcano)
Galaxy Quest works on multiple levels. It’s a comedy. It’s a sci-fi adventure. And it is a spoof. Allen, Weaver, Rickman, et al portray the cast of a Star Trek-esque TV show that was cancelled long ago but still has a community of hardcore fans that hold conventions & such, many of which the actors attend because they’ve been typecast and aren’t able to make any kind of money otherwise. The “captain” still basks in the glow of his small slice of fame, but the rest of the crew is really just over the whole deal. But then a strange thing happens…they find themselves caught up in an actual outer space adventure when a well-meaning group of aliens mistakenly believes the TV show to be real life and thinks the crew can save their species…or something like that. I suspect that Trekkies & other sci-fi nerds are the only audience that can truly appreciate everything Galaxy Quest has to offer, but perhaps those who just enjoy good popcorn cinema are entertained by it as well. The Bodyguard was a big deal back in 1992 because Whitney Houston was at the top of the music charts and was transitioning into acting with her first film role. Houston portrays a famous singer (not much of a stretch) who gains a former Secret Service agent as a bodyguard after being nominated for an Academy Award and being sent death threats by a mysterious stalker. Unsurprisingly the singer & the bodyguard fall for each other, and naturally the audience loves it because of the undeniable charm and chemistry of Houston & Costner. The Bodyguard has a little something for everyone…mystery, suspense, action, romance, drama…and gave us what…to my knowledge…is still the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time.
The Verdict:Galaxy Quest. This one is tricky. Ideally I’d put it up for a vote from The Manoverse, but that doesn’t seem to work for me so I’ll make the tough choice. The Bodyguard was the 7th highest grossing film of 1992, behind the likes of Aladdin, Home Alone 2, & A Few Good Men but ahead of competition such as Wayne’s World, Unforgiven, & White Men Can’t Jump. It has a 35% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with our old pal Roger Ebert opining “the basic situation is intriguing enough to sustain a film all by itself”, but adding that he “felt a little cheated by the outcome”. Other critics were less generous. TV Guide called it “a dreary, turgid melodrama”, while Entertainment Weekly said “it is an outrageous piece of saccharine kitsch…or, atleast it might have been had the movie seemed fully awake.” Ouch. Galaxy Quest was the 30th highest grossing film of 1999, beating out notables like The Thomas Crown Affair, Eyes Wide Shut, Varsity Blues, & Fight Club. Rotten Tomatoes scores it at an impressive 90%, with the Associated Press calling it “alot of wacky fun” and Entertainment Weekly saying it is “a fast, loose, & very funny parody that pulls off the not-so-simple feat of tweaking Trekkies and honoring them, ribbing long-in-the-tooth actors and applauding them, bringing together Star Trek savants and those who couldn’t give a squat about dilithium crystals, and saying ‘See, there’s room on the final frontier for everyone.’” So what this boils down to is one movie that made a bunch of money but generally isn’t viewed as being very good versus a movie that didn’t make as much money but is well-regarded as being good at what it is supposed to be. All too often Hollywood seems to believe that they can take any old schlock and sell it to the masses as long as a big star or two or three is attached. And sadly much of the time they are right. I feel like The Bodyguard was successful because Whitney Houston was such an awesome singer and everybody likes Kevin Costner. That soundtrack that made a ton of money is mostly songs by Houston and probably would have been about as successful if it were just another one of her albums with no film attached, so I don’t think it should factor into the equation. As always I ask myself what I would watch if I were flipping thru the channels, and since I probably haven’t watched The Bodyguard since I saw it at the theater the answer is pretty clear.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper
Directed By: Jan de Bont (Twister)
Dazed & Confused
Starring: Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Parker Posey
Directed By: Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Fast Food Nation)
Keanu Reeves first came into our pop culture consciousness in the late 1980’s as Valley Boy slacker Theodore Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But since one can’t portray dimwitted high schoolers forever he moved on to more serious roles in Point Break and My Own Private Idaho. And then came Speed. The thriller about a bus rigged with a bomb programmed to explode if it slows down below 50 mph thrust Reeves into superstardom and also introduced the world to Sandra Bullock. It was the 8th highest grossing film of 1994 and has an exceptional 94% Rotten Tomatoes score. Dazed & Confused is a Hindsight Film, meaning that it has remained relevant in large part based on what several of its young stars went on to become…especially McConaughey & Affleck. The movie itself is a slice of life look at the last day of school for a bunch of high schoolers in Austin, TX. It is set in 1976 so there is a lot of pot smoking, cruising, & hazing of younger students…things that wouldn’t fly in our modern PC purgatory, and had even diminished by the late 80’s when I was in high school. Dazed & Confused isn’t as much about a particular plot as it is about capturing a mood and painting a picture of an era, which it does really well. The cast is…obviously…stellar, and the soundtrack (featuring songs by Foghat, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, & Black Sabbath) is terrific. It was only the 121st highest grossing film of 1993 but has become a cult classic in the ensuing years. It has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Ebert referring to it as “art crossed with anthropology” and Rolling Stone calling it “the ultimate party movie…loud, crude, socially irresponsible, & totally irresistible”.
The Verdict:Speed. I am hesitant to reward a film based largely on the fact that its casting director did a superb job of finding young unknowns who eventually became famous. Matthew McConaughey’s next project would be starring in A Time to Kill two years later and EdTV (a film ahead of its time) in 1999. Ben Affleck did a few decent films after Dazed & Confused, but in 1997 cemented his status by winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay after writing Good Will Hunting with his pal Matt Damon. Dazed & Confused is a fun flick that does an excellent job of creating a snapshot of not just a moment in time but a time in life that just about everyone fondly remembers even if the details vary. Having said that, I cannot overlook the cultural impact of Speed. It was a surprise phenomenon that dominated the summer box office in 1994. Bullock had previously been in a couple of decent films (Love Potion No. 9 and Demolition Man), but Speed made her a star and she’s still making movies two decades later.
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Raúl Juliá, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci
Directed By: Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black, Wild Wild West)
Saving Private Ryan
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston
Directed By: Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, Hook, Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can)
The Addams Family made their debut in a series of cartoons published in The New Yorker beginning in 1938. In the 1960’s the kooky clan came to television for two seasons, and although the show was cancelled due to poor ratings it lived on in syndication, to the point that I was watching it as a kid growing up in the 80’s. The Addams Family finally came to the big screen in 1991 in a tale that finds a greedy lawyer & a con artist scheming to get ahold of the Addams fortune that is hidden deep in the bowels of their creepy mansion. The con artist’s son just happens to look like Gomez Addams’ brother Uncle Fester who has been MIA for 25 years, so there’s your plot. Hijinks ensue and of course the evil plan goes off the rails, all in the midst of the oddball family’s usual weirdness. The cast is superb, the movie is entertaining enough, and critics didn’t completely hate it. The Addams Family was the 7th high grossing film of 1991 and its Rotten Tomatoes score of 63% is fairly solid. The New York Times said that its “aimlessness & repetitiveness eventually become draining”, Variety opined that “despite inspired casting and nifty visual trappings the eagerly awaited Addams Family figures as a major disappointment”, and Ebert observed that “there are a lot of little smiles and many chuckles & grins, but they don’t add up to much”. Conversely, the Austin Chronicle gushed that “it’s hard to imagine a better screen adaptation of this queer household….Charles Addams would have been proud”, while the BBC complimented the cast, saying that it “elevates this film from flimsy to sheer delight”. Saving Private Ryan is a totally different kind of movie from its competition. It is a gritty & unflinching look at D-Day and its aftermath when a team of U.S. Army rangers are given the task of finding & rescuing Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have all been killed in the war making him the only son remaining. The mission isn’t easy and there is violence & death along the way. This is not a romantic, sanitized, family friendly war movie, though I don’t feel like it is gratuitous either…it’s just very very candid. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is poignant & impactful. Saving Private Ryan was the highest grossing film of 1998, has an amazing Rotten Tomatoes score of 92%, & was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won five of those Oscars, including Spielberg’s second Best Director award. It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Shakespeare in Love, which in retrospect might be the biggest travesty in award show history.
The Verdict:Saving Private Ryan. I’ve got to be honest…I only watched Saving Private Ryan once twenty years ago and don’t have the desire to ever watch it again. That’s not because it’s a bad move (obviously), it’s just that on a lazy day of couch potatoing violent war films aren’t my thing. Having said that, I cannot in good conscience overlook it, not simply because of its pedigree but out of respect for the historical events that inspired the story. It goes without saying that Spielberg is terrific, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better or deeper cast in the entirety of cinema. It is a story that needed to be told, and thankfully it was told really well. The Addams Family is an innocuous & engaging comedy that actually got a sequel a few years later, though I must admit that I’ve never seen it. I am intrigued by an animated Addams movie set to be released in 2019, but all in all I am inclined to stick with reruns of the old TV show.
Less than a year ago…right after Christmas…I commented on Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas, and this year they are having the same issues. With streaming options the entire Christmas movie watching process has evolved, but for those who don’t have a streaming player and anyone of a certain age who is used to watching their holiday favorites thru mindless channel surfing Freeform’s month long “event” has become problematic. I’m not a television executive and know nothing about the ins & outs of ownership and rights fees and all that jazz. Freeform is owned by Disney so obviously they’re going to air films produced under that banner. I get it. However, as massive of an entity as that company is one would think they’d have access to a wider selection of movies. Not only do they spend too much time showing Frozen, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, & the Harry Potter franchise, none of which are Christmas movies, but the Christmas movies they do show are the same few over & over. As a fan part of me doesn’t mind because I love those particular Christmas movies, but as a couch potato & semi-creative person I yearn for the powers-that-be to do better. If I were in charge of the process the event would span 4pm-midnight (approximately) every night, meaning there’d be room for four movies each evening, or maybe just a couple of feature films and then a few animated specials. And it’d be my goal to not repeat a film or special more than 3 or 4 times. Math isn’t my thing, but off the top of my head it seems like that’d mean I’d need the rights to maybe three dozen Christmas movies & specials, which shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for the folks at Disney. The 25 Days of Christmas has been a thing since the mid-90’s and has survived multiple rebrandings of the TV channel itself, but I sense weariness from fans who look forward to the holiday season and Freeform’s contribution to it. Anyway, if you need to go back and catch up on second round action in the North Pole and Eggnog divisions please follow the links to do so. When you’re up to speed come back here and enjoy Round 2 in the Mistletoe Division.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f^&#@ing Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white a$$ down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of a$$holes this side of the nuthouse. – Clark Griswold
Hurry up, Clark. I’m freezing my baguettes off. – Grandpa Art
You couldn’t hear a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant. – Uncle Louis
They had to replace my metal plate with a plastic one. Every time Catherine would rev up the microwave, I’d piss my pants and forget who I was for about half an hour. – Cousin Eddie
I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery. – Ellen Griswold
The movie is based on John Hughes’ short story Christmas ’59, the second vacation story to be published in National Lampoon (the first was Vacation ’58, which was the basis for National Lampoon’s Vacation).
Mae Questel, who portrays Aunt Bethany, was the original voice of Betty Boop.
When Clark and Cousin Eddie are talking in the living room, they are drinking egg nog out of Walley World mugs. Walley World was the destination of the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
The scene where the cat bites on the Christmas lights cord and gets electrocuted was nearly cut from the movie. Prior to the first test screening, the studio executives wanted the scene taken out, fearing that it might offend some viewers, but Producer Matty Simmons begged them to leave the scene in, and they eventually gave in to his request. After the first test screening, the test audience scored the cat electrocution scene as their number one favorite scene throughout the entire movie.
The house in which the Griswolds’ neighbors, Todd and Margo, live, is the same house where the Murtaugh family lived in all four Lethal Weapon movies.
Trapped in Paradise
“Alvin, if we’re going in circles, I’m going to break your neck”…”We’re not. I took four lefts, just like the map said.”…”Four lefts is a circle you idiot!” – Bill & Alvin Firpo
In the Firpo family, the man with half a brain is king. – Bill Firpo
“I’m tellin’ ya, if I had a gun on me right now I’d go in there and take over that place.”…”Bill, you wouldn’t be angry if I were to tell you there might be guns in the trunk.” – Bill & Dave Firpo
Dana Carvey loosely based his character’s speaking style on a young Mickey Rourke.
Jon Lovitz claimed that the cast hated making the movie so much they took to calling it Trapped in Bullshit.
The Verdict:Christmas Vacation. I’m a little concerned that Vacation is heading down the old IAWL path, wherein it is on television so much each holiday season that a backlash is inevitable. But for now the masses still seem to love it, yours truly included. Trapped in Paradise is special to me for a couple of very personal reasons, but I can be objective enough to admit that it’s not a great movie.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Now you know how Santa uses these flying reindeer to pull his sleigh. You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? – Sam the Snowman
A toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child. – King Moonracer
Someday I’d like to be a dentist. We need one up here. I’ve been studying. It’s fascinating; you’ve no idea. Molars and bicuspids and incisors. – Hermey the Elf
How do you like that? Even among misfits you’re a misfit. – Yukon Cornelius
You’d better go home with your folks. From now on, gang, we won’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games! Right? – Comet
When Yukon Cornelius throws his pick axe into the ground and takes it out and licks it, he’s checking neither for gold nor silver. The original concept for the special stated that Yukon was in fact searching for the elusive peppermint mine, which he found eventually.
The song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a seasonal standard long before it was used in the film. It was written in 1939 & its popularity skyrocketed in 1947 with Gene Autry’s recording.
When the film was first released in 1964 the technology of using an articulated metal armature inside the figures was considered so amazing that TV Guide devoted four pages to the story. They failed to mention that the “new” technology had been pioneered 31 years before, most prominently inside the gorilla King Kong.
Yukon Cornelius’ sled dogs include a cocker spaniel, a poodle, a Saint Bernard, a collie, and a dachshund.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol
There is nothing on this earth more terrifying to me than a life doomed to poverty. – Ebenezer Scrooge
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that…as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it! – Fred
In the Cratchit home, there is a portrait of the story’s author, Charles Dickens, hanging by the fireplace.
During the opening credits, as we fly through the old London city roof tops, one can see the second London Bridge. In 843 it was just 12 years old and remained in London for another 124 years before it was dismantled and sold to an American in 1967. It can now be seen spanning Bridgewater Channel in Lake Havasu City, AZ.
Scrooge falls at least eighteen times throughout the film. This may be a reference to Scrooge being humbled before his fellow man, the fact that he falls from high places, as well as low ones. His final fall is from the rail at the back of the carriage on Christmas day. This fall seems to hurt him least of all, since his heart and spirit have been “lightened” by the spirit’s visits.
Between Scrooge leaving Marley’ s corpse and Scrooge going to his counting house there is a scene where servants and cooks are preparing a banquet for the mayor of London. This is directly taken from the novel where Dickens mentions a banquet being prepared for the mayor and his subjects. The only other film adaption that shows this is the 1935 version starring Seymour Hicks.
After sending the prize turkey on to Bob Cratchit’s house, Scrooge grabs onto the back of a carriage and hangs on for a ride down the street, waving to people. Many viewers saw this as a nod to one of Robert Zemeckis’ previous works, Back to the Future. However, when asked about it in an interview, Zemeckis said that had not occurred to him but reasoned it was a subconscious image.
Scrooge’s “future tombstone” says he was born in 1786 meaning Scrooge was 57 years old in the present and 50 years old when Marley died in 1836.
Scrooge doesn’t go to Cratchit’s house on Christmas Day after the encounter with the three spirits. Scrooge visits his nephew and has Christmas dinner with him, his wife, and their friends, followed by Scrooge giving Cratchit a raise the next day at work, keeping true to the book.
The Verdict:Rudolph. Opinions seem divided on Disney’s version of Carol. Some people still haven’t embraced motion capture, though I think it is utilized beautifully in this movie. One can see noticeable improvements in the technology when comparing Carol to The Polar Express, which was produced just five years earlier. Some people aren’t big Jim Carrey fans. I count myself among that group, but won’t deny his talent and the fact that it is a perfect complement for this film. Some people think this version of Carol is a little too dark and…raucous. I understand that perspective but don’t have any issue with it myself. Having said all of that, Rudolph is…well, it’s Rudolph. It is the greatest achievement of the Rankin-Bass team, and has been a Christmas tradition for over a half century.
My time with you is at an end, Ebenezer Scrooge. Will you profit from what I’ve shown you of the good in most men’s hearts? – The Spirit of Christmas Present
A few of us are endeavoring to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. It is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. – Charity Collector
Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool with no eyes to see with and no ears to hear with all these years? – Ebenezer Scrooge
As your business prospered, Ebenezer Scrooge, a golden idol took possession of your heart. – The Spirit of Christmas Past
We Spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year. We live the whole three-hundred and sixty-five. So is it true of the Child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in men’s hearts one day of the year, but in all days of the year. You have chosen not to seek Him in your heart. Therefore, you will come with me and seek Him in the hearts of men of good will. – The Spirit of Christmas Present
The song that Mr. Jorkin whistles after offering Scrooge a job is The Lincolnshire Poacher, wherein a poacher sings how much he loves unlawfully entering property and trapping game there. Poaching also refers to the practice of hiring an employee away from a competitor, which is what Jorkin is doing with Scrooge.
Although the word Scrooge means a stingy person now, in Charles Dickens’s time the word was a slang term meaning “to squeeze.”
This is the only film adaptation of A Christmas Carol that omits Scrooge’s famous line “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”.
Changes to the screenplay from the Charles Dickens novella were made, mostly in the Christmas Past sequence. Among these changes are: reversing the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, so as to add that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him…creating a character named Mr. Jorkin, who does not appear in the book…flashbacks of several incidents in Scrooge’s past (e.g. his sister’s death, meeting Jacob Marley, taking over Fezziwig’s warehouse, & Marley’s death) which do not appear in the book.
Just after Marley dies the Ghost of Christmas Past calls Scrooge a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, covetous old sinner”, which is how Charles Dickens describes Scrooge in the novel.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
One of the greatest traditions we have is the Thanksgiving Day football game. And the biggest, most important tradition of all is the kicking off of the football. – Lucy Van Pelt
Why should I give thanks on Thanksgiving? What have I got to be thankful for? All it does is make more work for us at school. Do you know what we have to do? We have to write an essay. – Sally Brown
What blockhead cooked all this? What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where’s the turkey, Chuck? Don’t you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners? Where’s the mashed potatoes, where’s the cranberry sauce, where’s the pumpkin pie? – Peppermint Patty
Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. You heard what Linus was saying out there. Those early Pilgrims were thankful for what had happened to them, and we should be thankful, too. We should just be thankful for being together. I think that’s what they mean by “Thanksgiving”, Charlie Brown. – Marcie
Peppermint Patty and Marcie are voiced by male actors.
Lee Mendelson always objected to the ending where Snoopy serves Woodstock a piece of turkey, because it made him seem like a cannibal. But it was kept in at the suggestion of Charles M. Schulz and Bill Melendez.
The Verdict:Scrooge. Sorry Charlie…your Thanksgiving just doesn’t measure up to a couple of other Peanuts specials. I think that by the time Thanksgiving was produced in 1973 the children whose voices had been used in earlier specials had grown up so different actors were used. And though Vince Guaraldi once again composed the music it isn’t quite as enchanting as other tunes he’d done. This version of A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim is consistently praised as being amongst the best.
They’ll spend a month sifting through the rubble and by the time they figure out what went wrong we’ll be sitting on a beach earning twenty percent. – Hans Gruber
I’m Agent Johnson, this is Special Agent Johnson. No relation. – FBI Agent Johnson
Yippee-ki-ya mother%^*@#$! – John McClane
When you steal $600 you can just disappear. When you steal 600 million they will find you…unless they think you’re already dead. – Hans Gruber
The scene in which Gruber and McClane meet was inserted into the script after Alan Rickman was found to be proficient at mimicking American accents. The filmmakers had been looking for a way to have the two characters meet prior to the climax and capitalized on Rickman’s talent. It was was unrehearsed to create a greater feeling of spontaneity between the two actors.
Roger Ebert was one the few critics to give Die Hard a negative review. The main reason he did was because he hated the character Chief Dwayne Robinson. He said the character was unnecessary, useless, dumb, and prevented the movie from working.
In a street scene, a gas station sign shows the price per gallon as 74 cents.
Only a couple of the actors who played the German terrorists were actually German and only a couple more could speak broken German. The actors were cast for their menacing appearances rather than their nationality. 9 of the 12 were over 6 feet tall.
Bruce Willis was shooting Moonlighting concurrently. He would shoot the television series during the day and then come to the Fox lot in the evening to work on the film.
Near the end of the film Hans Gruber mocks John McClane by saying that the conflict wouldn’t end like an American Western with “Grace Kelly riding off into the sunset with John Wayne”. McClane corrects him and says he means Gary Cooper. The film referenced is High Noon, another action movie about a lone hero having to defeat a large group of enemies while being vastly outnumbered.
I’m the worst toymaker in the world! I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins. – Buddy the Elf
You stink. You smell like beef and cheese, you don`t smell like Santa. – Buddy the Elf
We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. – Buddy the Elf
This place reminds me of Santa’s workshop. Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me. – Buddy the Elf
Will Ferrell suffered from headaches throughout filming due to actually eating so much sugary food on camera.
Elf was turned into a Broadway musical that premiered in November 2010 and ran through January 2011.
The elf Ming Ming, who appears briefly in the beginning of the film, is played by Peter Billingsley, who starred as Ralphie Parker in the classic holiday film A Christmas Story.
Mr. Krueger’s Christmas
I’m Willy Krueger and I’m custodian over at the Beck Apartments, but, but you know that, don’t you. You know that. I guess nobody here can see me or hear me except you. I didn’t bring a gift, but I guess that’s not important. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. As long as I can remember you’ve been right by my side. I’ll never forget when you walked with me right in those first few hours after I lost Martha. I’ve always been able to count on you, when I felt dark inside. You were right there, right, every time, right there. Even when I didn’t feel good about myself, I knew that you cared for me enough, and that made me feel better. I love you. You’re my closest, my finest friend. And that means that I can hold my head high, wherever I go. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. – Willy Krueger
James Stewart approached the scene where Mr. Kreuger talks to the infant Jesus very seriously. Before filming this scene, he told the producer Michael McLean, “I’ve got only one of these in me. Everyone who doesn’t need to be here, get them out. Tell them I want this to go well. I can do other takes, but this will be the right one. There will only be one.” After the scene was finished, McLean asked the cameraman, “Did you get it?” “I hope so,” was the reply, “because I was crying.”
Stewart accepted the role because he believed it would promote the true meaning of Christmas. He said that Christmas “has come to be connected with Santa Claus, gifts, lights, decorations, & trees. We may be guilty of forgetting that Christmas is really the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.”
The scene where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir starts clapping and gives Willy Krueger a standing ovation was the actual reaction of the Choir to James Stewart’s directing. It was a total surprise and completely unscripted.
The Verdict:Elf. We arrived at a Triple Threat Match due to a first round tie. As much as I love Mr. Krueger’s Christmas one cannot escape the fact that it is never aired anywhere on television and isn’t available on any streaming service. That’s a huge issue. When YouTube is my only option to watch a movie I cannot in good conscience advance it further in this competition. For those who may be wondering, please don’t let the fact that Krueger was produced by The Mormon Church prevent you from checking it out…there is no objectionable ideology presented in the story at all. It’s the end of the road for Die Hard as well. The debate about its worthiness as a Christmas movie is cheeky fun, and I will always defend my opinion. However, detractors make some valid points and there really are much more Christmasy movies out there. As with Christmas Vacation I am a bit apprehensive about overexposure of Elf (I’m looking at you specifically Freeform), but at present it is still generally considered to be lighthearted & palatable pleasure for the entire family, and how many things can one say that about these days??
Today we finish the first round of Merry Movie Mayhem. If you need to go back and catch up on the results thus far just click on the links to see what went down in the Candy Cane, Eggnog, & Mistletoe Divisions. I’m pleased with the pace we’ve set so I think we’ll take a break for a few days before moving on to Round 2. If you didn’t see your favorite holiday film in the competition don’t hesitate to leave me a comment asking “What up with that, dawg??”…or something to that effect. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for its exclusion. Or maybe I just completely overlooked it. Who knows??
It’s A Wonderful Life
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed
Director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Rotten Tomatoes 94%
I feel like I’ve written just about everything there is to say about IAWL in the years since the inception of The Manofesto, but allow me to offer a brief refresher. The story was conceived by a Pennsylvania Civil War historian named Philip Van Doren Stern. The Greatest Gift was not accepted for publication for whatever reason, so Stern simply included it in his annual Christmas card mailings. Someone on his Christmas card list must have liked the short story, because it was subsequently published in 1944. A film producer saw the story and it eventually ended up in the hands of director Frank Capra. IAWL was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, & Best Director. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed in 1974, so due to it being in the public domain the movie became a popular late night staple during the holidays on local TV stations throughout the 70’s & 80’s until 1993 when the copyright was restored to Republic Pictures, who then licensed it to NBC in 1996. For the past two decades NBC had shown it only a couple of times every December (early in the month & again on Christmas Eve), but starting in 2016 USA Network (which is owned by NBC/Universal) added a few additional airings. Of course with streaming & other home video options none of that really matters anymore.
Starring Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth. Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley
Director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary)
Rotten Tomatoes 63%
Personally I am more unconvinced of Love Actually’s claim to being a Christmas film than I am Die Hard, but I’m feeling generous. This is one of those movies…like New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You, & Valentine’s Day…with a huge, very British, very talented ensemble cast involved in multiple stories that all seem to intersect by the end. There are those who love Love Actually, and maybe they are right. Perhaps I’m missing something or just being obtuse.
The Verdict:It’s A Wonderful Life. Believe it or not there are people that hate IAWL. Some people say “How can a movie about suicide be a heartwarming Christmas classic??”. Others remember when it used to be on TV a bazillion times every December and still hold a grudge, even though a) that hasn’t been the case for over twenty years, & b) there are other movies these days that are shown just as much as or more than IAWL used to be and those same people love those other movies. I guess folks just like what they like, and I happen to adore IAWL. If it’s not your cup o’ tea we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Love Actually is a perfectly delightful film, but not only is it severely overmatched here, it’s also a movie that I just haven’t watched often at all & can take or leave.
The Polar Express
Starring Tom Hanks
Director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away)
Rotten Tomatoes 55%
Zemeckis is back!! Actually this was his first foray into motion capture technology…and perhaps one of the earliest feature films utilizing it. The story is based on an award winning 1985 children’s book about a group of kids who ride a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Tom Hanks plays a half dozen different characters. I’m totally into motion capture and think it’s cool, but I understand that others find the animation disturbing for whatever reason. I am far beyond the age of believing in Santa Claus, but I’ll be darned if this movie doesn’t make me REALLY want to believe once again.
Deck the Halls
Starring Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick
Director John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2)
Rotten Tomatoes 6%
The Rotten Tomatoes score seems harsh, but I get it. With a title borrowed from the beloved Christmas carol you’d expect this movie to be a bit more uplifting, but it’s not. The story follows two neighbors who end up going to war during the holiday season when one of them decides to put up an elaborate light display that “can be seen from space”. I have to assume that the plot is inspired by those shows you see on The Travel Channel this time of year called Crazy Christmas Lights or something like that, and I think those shows & those types of gaudy displays may have been inspired by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Personally I prefer elegant & tasteful Christmas lights and can do without the rock music accompaniment, but to each their own. Anyway, in my opinion this movie isn’t as bad as the critics might indicate, if only because of the talented cast.
The Verdict:The Polar Express. I adore this movie. It is the very definition of holiday magic. Wouldn’t we all like to retain that childlike wonder that allowed us to believe in something as enchanting as Santa Claus?? Of course we would. Deck the Halls is better than a rotten 6% rating…but not much better.
Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
Starring John Candy, Steve Martin
Director John Hughes (Mr. Mom, Sixteen Candles, Uncle Buck)
Rotten Tomatoes 92%
Here we go…back to Thanksgiving. However I think this is probably superior to any other Thanksgiving movie or show. It’s actually a road trip/buddy comedy that happens to be set at Thanksgiving. I’m a huge John Hughes fan. He wrote/produced/directed so many wonderful films. And the pairing of Candy & Martin?? Inspired. Brilliant. Comedy gold. I only wish they would have made more movies together. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday that is difficult to besmirch with commercialism. People don’t want gifts or candy or flowers. It’s not an excuse to party or blow things up. All that most folks want on Thanksgiving is to be at home with loved ones and enjoy a nice meal. This movie captures that desire in such a subtle & funny way that it kind of sneaks up on you.
Starring James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie
Director Sarah Smith
Rotten Tomatoes 92%
A lot of the movies & shows you’re reading about here have been around for awhile…25 years, 35 years, 50 years, 75 years. This is one of the new kids on the block. It hasn’t had time to really ingratiate itself into our pop culture consciousness. It may or may not ever achieve that goal, but does merit inclusion in this exercise. Arthur is Santa’s youngest son, and he’s kind of the black sheep of the family. The North Pole is depicted as a high tech command center, Santa’s sleigh is the sort of ultramodern vehicle that NASA dreams about, & the annual Christmas Eve flight around the world is an intricate operation that’d make the U.S. military envious. The mantle of Santa Claus is passed from father to son, with the current titleholder, Malcolm, on the verge of retirement and his eldest, Steve, preparing to take the reins soon. But this particular Christmas Eve something goes awry and it’s up to Arthur, inept but resolute, to save the day. Arthur Christmas takes familiar territory and adds a futuristic spin, but instead of being cynical itself it is more of a fun commentary on Christmas cynicism.
The Verdict:Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. I like Arthur Christmas well enough. It’s fresh, creative, & entertaining. But the competition is just too much. It has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, & the Macy’s Parade.
Frosty the Snowman
Starring Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon
Rotten Tomatoes 60%
“Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry recorded Frosty the Snowman in 1950, just one year after his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit #1 on the charts. But it wasn’t until 1969 that CBS first broadcast the animated special based on the song. Nearly a half century later it is still a beloved annual tradition. While the song is a winter carol that has become tangentially associated with Christmas despite the holiday only being mentioned at the very end, saying “he waved goodbye saying ‘don’t you cry…I’ll be back on Christmas Day!’”, the special is set on Christmas Eve and features Santa Claus “resurrecting” Frosty after he’s been locked in a greenhouse by Professor Hinkle and melted.
The Family Stone
Starring Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Clare Danes
Director Thomas Bezucha
Rotten Tomatoes 52%
Dysfunctional family dramedy has become a common theme in holiday films. I really can’t relate because I’ve always gotten along with my family and look forward to visiting with them on holidays. At any rate, there are several subplots in The Family Stone, as everybody seems to have some kind of issue. They scream, they cry, they argue…but familial love wins in the end, as it should. The cast is phenomenal, from the sublime Diane Keaton & elegantly low-key Craig T. Nelson to the wittily charming Luke Wilson & radiant Rachel McAdams. The movie ends on a bit of a downer, which unfortunately impacts one’s lasting impression. The story stays with you for awhile, but not necessarily in a good way.
The Verdict:Frosty. Come on…was there any doubt?? Look, I realize that Christmas can be very sad for many people, and Hollywood feels compelled to address that aspect. I get it…I really do. I will admit that…mostly because of the talented ensemble and nimble writing…The Family Stone has gotten its fair share of repeat views from me. However, at the end of the day I still choose for Christmas to be a joyous occasion despite the harsh realities of life. Maybe someday I’ll be the guy sitting alone in a dive bar on Christmas Eve nursing my whiskey and raging at the jolly masses while wondering why my life has gone so horribly wrong, but thankfully I’m not there yet. Frosty the Snowman is something I grew up with, and for a short time every December I get to bring my inner child out to play, which is awesome.
Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire
Director Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee)
Rotten Tomatoes 100%
Did you know that the Holiday Inn chain of hotels got its name from this movie?? Well you do now!! Bing Crosby stars as a song & dance man who decides to escape the bright lights of New York and open a quaint Connecticut inn that will only be open on holidays. There is singing, dancing, romance, & hijinks, all centered around familiar celebrations on the calendar. Holiday Inn is mostly remembered for introducing the world to the song White Christmas, but there are memorable performances throughout. They don’t make movies like this anymore, which is a shame.
All I Want For Christmas
Starring Ethan Embry, Kevin Nealon, Thora Birch
Director Robert Lieberman (D3: The Mighty Ducks)
Rotten Tomatoes 0%
1991 will be forever be remembered by the masses as the year that launched the fabled career of actor Ethan Embry. And while he went on to star in cinematic masterpieces like Vegas Vacation, That Thing You Do, and Can’t Hardly Wait, it is this little holiday gem that might outlast everything else. The basic gist of the story is that two kids whose parents are divorced hatch a scheme on Christmas Eve to get them back together (spoiler alert: it works). For such an overlooked film the cast is actually quite stellar, including Thora Birch (who would go on to more notorious roles in American Beauty and…well…American Beauty is pretty much it), Leslie Nielsen as Santa Claus, SNL funnyman Kevin Nealon, & the legendary Lauren Bacall. All I Want For Christmas was a box office bomb that the critics didn’t like, but found new life for awhile popping up on television, which is where I first discovered it. It’s not a great movie, but it is delightful enough.
The Verdict:Holiday Inn. I am eternally indebted to my friend & brother The Owl for introducing me to this movie back in college. I pride myself on having good taste, and films like this display a level of class generally absent from the vast majority of modern entertainment. Would it even be possible to maintain a business that is open less than a dozen times per year?? I have no idea. But the concept sure does make a terrific foundation for this movie.
The Santa Clause
Starring Tim Allen
Director John Pasquin (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous)
Rotten Tomatoes 75%
There was a brief moment in 1994 when Tim Allen starred in the top rated show on TV (Home Improvement), authored the best-selling book in the country (Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man), & played Santa in the #1 film at the box office. The Santa Clause was the first of a (unplanned…I assume) trilogy, and is indisputably the best of the three movies. It is an origin story suggesting that Santa is a character inhabited by different men at different times. In this case Scott Calvin…a divorced toy executive who has consistently disillusioned his young son…inherits the job when the current Santa falls off his roof and I guess dies…a morbid fact that is mercifully glossed over. Scott & his boy Charlie deliver gifts around the world and spend a night at The North Pole, but the real fun begins the next day when the new Santa thinks it was all a dream…until he slowly begins to morph into The Jolly Old Elf over the next few months. I’m a fan of Santa Claus origin stories, and this is one of the best.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol
Starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck
Director Burny Mattinson (The Great Mouse Detective)
Rotten Tomatoes 90% (a)
It’s difficult to tell the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a half hour, yet it’s been tried several times with varying degrees of success. Taken at face value the Mickey Mouse version is perfectly charming. Disney created the character of Scrooge McDuck in 1947 as a homage to Ebenezer Scrooge, and that tribute comes full circle in this show. Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit is perfect casting, and a few other cartoon favorites make an appearance (Jiminy Cricket, Daisy Dick, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs, Chip & Dale, Huey, Dewey, & Louie, Minnie Mouse). Television aficionados may be interested to know that Hal Smith (Otis Campbell from The Andy Griffith Show) and Alan Young (Wilbur from Mister Ed) provide the voices for Goofy/Jacob Marley and Scrooge McDuck / Ebenezer Scrooge, respectively.
The Verdict:The Santa Clause. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is a great introduction to the story for small children, but at a running time of less than 30 minutes it only has time to hit the highlights, which is fine for short attention spans but not all that enticing to adults. There is also an issue with accessibility. I remember it being on TV when I was a kid, but I don’t think it has aired with any kind of regularity for a decade…maybe two. The Santa Clause instantly became a beloved classic twenty years ago. Sure it has some undertones emblematic of somber 90’s cynicism, but that is minimized in favor of Christmas magic. I love Santa origin stories, and though it has a modern spin at the beginning the outcome is decidedly vintage.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
Starring George C. Scott
Director Clive Donner (The Thief of Baghdad)
Rotten Tomatoes 74% (a)
I am a traditionalist in most aspects of life, and it has always been my belief that uniquely British characters from British novels should be portrayed by British actors in film adaptations. However, there are exceptions to most rules, and in this case I must admit that Virginia native George C. Scott is a worthy Ebenezer Scrooge. This version of Carol was a made-for-television production that aired on CBS here in America, but it was released in theaters in Britain and certainly has a big screen vibe. Like just about every other adaptation it takes certain liberties with the novel, adding & subtracting little things, but none are deal breakers. If you’re channel surfing and need your Scrooge fix you could definitely do worse.
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Starring Richard Attenborough, Dylan McDermott, Elizabeth Perkins
Director Les Mayfield (Encino Man, Flubber)
Rotten Tomatoes 61%
There are no sacred cows in Hollywood. If they’ll remake Psycho, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and The Pink Panther then apparently all bets are off. This was clear way back in 1994 when a remake of the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street was released. The thing is…it’s not that bad. Macy’s didn’t want to be involved and Gimbel’s was already out of business, so two fictional department stores fill in, but other than that and a few other modern updates the essence of the story remains. Alas, while the underrated Elizabeth Perkins as the jaded mother is luminous, the film itself lacks the innocent magic of the original, replacing it with subtle 90’s era cynicism.
The Verdict:A Christmas Carol. I don’t HATE the Miracle remake and I don’t LOVE this version of Carol, but I am used to there being a plethora of A Christmas Carol adaptations and accept that each of them tries to put their own unique spin on the story. This one brings a lot of good stuff to the table. 1994 wasn’t the first time Miracle on 34th Street was remade, but the others were TV movies made in the 50’s & 70’s that are easily ignored. The 1994 movie can’t be ignored and I’m not suggesting it should be, but it just doesn’t measure up.
The Lemon Drop Kid
Starring Bob Hope
Director Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles)
Rotten Tomatoes 73% (a)
My generation remembers Bob Hope as an aging comedian who frequently hosted variety show specials on NBC, including an annual show at Christmastime when he would introduce college football’s All-American Team, and also for regularly heading overseas to entertain American servicemen in places like Korea, Vietnam, & The Middle East. Hope always ended his shows with his signature song Thanks for the Memory, and the Christmas special traditionally featured him singing Silver Bells. But from the 1930’s thru the 60’s he was also a movie star, and Silver Bells became famous in part due to being sung in this film in which Hope plays a fast-talking racetrack hustler known as The Lemon Drop Kid because of his fondness for lemon drop candies. When The Kid inadvertently crosses a well-known gangster in Florida he is given until Christmas Eve to come up with the money he owes or else he’ll face…unpleasant…consequences. The Kid flees to New York, but when his gig as a street corner bell-ringing Santa Claus doesn’t work out he hatches a new scheme to raise donations for a phony old folks’ home. That plan is going alright until another mobster interferes. Hilarity & chaos ensue, but all’s well that ends well in a fun Christmas Eve climax.
Starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd
Director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers)
Rotten Tomatoes 86%
I wanted to avoid crossover with this project and 80’s Movie Mania, which necessitated a few difficult decisions. At the end of the day that means Trading Places & Die Hard were saved for this competition, while Lethal Weapon was a part of 80’s Movie Mania. At any rate, Murphy & Aykroyd are both SNL alums who went on to bigtime movie stardom in the 1980’s. Their stars have since faded significantly, although they still pop up now & again (Aykroyd has gracefully transitioned into supporting roles, while Murphy still labors under the delusion that he’s relevant). Hot off the success of 48 Hrs. and just before the box office triumph of Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy took this role as a smartass homeless bum who basically switches lives with an erudite stockbroker at Christmastime as part of a social experiment/wager between two wealthy old geezers. The key is that the two guys are set up and not in on the joke. It is essentially a modern take on Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince & the Pauper, and the two leading men really deliver. It is a smart, funny, well-written movie with an immensely satisfying conclusion.
The Verdict:The Lemon Drop Kid. This is a tough call. It’s a great example of what exactly defines a Christmas movie…or not. Both are set at Christmastime. Neither story is dependent on Christmas as a factor in the plot…they both could be set at any other time of the year with few changes needed. However, I think the Christmas timeline plays a slightly bigger role in The Lemon Drop Kid, and we cannot overlook the fact that the movie introduced the world to what has become a very popular Christmas carol. There is an accessibility issue. The Lemon Drop Kid is never shown on television…not even on AMC or TCM, and it’s not available on streaming services. The only way I know to watch it is on YouTube, which is a shame. Trading Places is a great movie…one of the best of its era. But it just doesn’t jump into my mind when pondering Christmas movies.
Before we proceed further it may be worth considering what exactly makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie, because there is legitimate dispute on the issue when it comes to certain films. Since I am the king of The Manoverse I make the rules here so it boils down to three things for me:
*the film has to be set…mostly…during the holiday season
*Christmas carols/songs must be part of the soundtrack, even if they’re just in the background
*Christmas imagery…tree, lights, Santa Claus…needs to be present
Those are the biggies…the dealbreakers. After that it becomes a matter of opinion, and sometimes those opinions might not make sense to anyone else. Why is Die Hard a Christmas movie but Lethal Weapon isn’t?? Why does Mixed Nuts make the cut but Batman Returns does not?? Edward Scissorhands isn’t but Love Actually is?? I don’t put a lot of stock in the whole idea of “if you set the film’s storyline at any other time of year other than Christmas it wouldn’t change the plot”, because that is such a broad notion. The opposite could be just as true. If George Clooney & Brad Pitt were robbing Vegas casinos on Christmas Eve would that make Ocean’s Eleven a Christmas movie?? I think it might. If Doc Brown & Marty McFly had used their time machine to visit Christmases past & yet to come would that qualify Back to the Future as a Christmas film?? Perhaps. In the grand scheme of things I believe that most people know a Christmas movie when they see it, right?? As always I value the opinions of The Manoverse and welcome your feedback.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid
Director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon, Diabolique)
Rotten Tomatoes 64%
I never would have dreamed 28 years ago that Christmas Vacation would become the holiday entertainment juggernaut that it has evolved into, especially in the past decade. It is one of about a half dozen Christmas movies that is shown almost daily from Thanksgiving clear thru New Year’s, and oftentimes I see it popping up at other times of the year (usually as part of a Vacation marathon). I’m sure I don’t have to review the plot. Everyone has seen Christmas Vacation. Many people love it, some folks hate it. Either way, no one can deny its staying power.
Eight Crazy Nights
Starring Adam Sandler
Director Seth Kearsley
Rotten Tomatoes 12%
Adam Sandler made this mess right around the time that his career had plateaued and was beginning to approach the abyss on the other side. I’m not Jewish, but to my knowledge Hanukkah films are rare. This is an animated story wherein Sandler gives voice to Davey Stone, a thirtysomething malcontent with an alcohol problem & a rap sheet. After Davey’s latest arrest he is sentenced to community service under the guidance of an elderly referee for a youth basketball league. The rest of the film focuses on the relationship between Davey & the old guy, which has its ups & downs. This is about the least heartwarming holiday film of all time, making slasher flicks about Santa Claus look like after school specials.
The Verdict:Christmas Vacation. Come on now…was there ever any doubt?? I think two hours of infomercials would be more entertaining than Eight Crazy Nights, and probably have just as much to do with Hanukkah. Believe it or not Sandler has done worse…but he’s also produced much better, funnier, & more memorable films. Meanwhile, Christmas Vacation is a certified classic that just seems to get better with age.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Starring Burl Ives
Rotten Tomatoes 92%
An advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward named Bob May created Rudolph in 1939. Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money and be a nice goodwill gesture. The oddball reindeer became the star of that coloring book (with accompanying poem). May’s sister just happened to be married to Johnny Marks, a songwriter whose hits would eventually include Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and A Holly Jolly Christmas. But in 1949 Marks’ career hadn’t gotten off the ground yet (no pun intended) and he adapted May’s poem into a song, which was then recorded by “The Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry. The song was a smash hit, and just over 15 years later an animated special was produced and began to air annually on NBC. It shifted over to CBS in 1972 and has now been a beloved Christmas tradition for a half century.
Shrek the Halls
Starring Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas
Director Gary Trousdale (Rocky & Bullwinkle, Beauty and the Beast)
Rotten Tomatoes 63% (a)
In comparison Shrek has only been a holiday tradition for about a decade, and calling it a tradition is being quite generous. Of course a quartet of movies spanning from 2001 to 2010 introduced us to the big green ogre & his quirky pals Donkey & Puss-in-Boots (a fifth film is rumored to be in the works), and he’s even made it to Broadway. The Christmas special has Shrek learning about Christmas so he can celebrate properly with his wife & children. Unfortunately all of his plans turn into chaos thanks to the well-meaning interference of his friends.
The Verdict:Rudolph. I have absolutely nothing against Shrek. The movies are solidly entertaining, and the Christmas special is just dandy. Perhaps kids growing up right now will feel about it in 35 years the way that I feel about Rudolph, Hermie the Elf, Yukon Cornelius, et al. But for me Shrek is the newbie that I have no attachment to whatsoever, while Rudolph is a HUGE part of the whole Christmas zeitgeist.
Starring Alistair Sim
Director Brian Desmond Hurst
Rotten Tomatoes 84%
Charles Dickens’ novella has been adapted for the big screen countless times, with several of those versions being part of this competition. And while you will find varying opinions of many of those movies there is almost unanimous agreement that the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is…at the very least…one of the best. I can’t say that it’s a faithful rendering of the book, as there are several plot points that are either expanded upon or entirely fabricated for the film. However, I don’t mind these changes all that much, especially since the film does capture the solemn tone of the book quite effectively.
It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie
Starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, David Arquette, Joan Cusack
Director Kirk Thatcher
Rotten Tomatoes 90%
Be careful not to confuse this film with The Muppet Christmas Carol. This was a made-for-TV movie that originally aired on NBC, and it is basically a Muppet send-up of It’s A Wonderful Life. Kermit is despondent at the prospect of losing his beloved theater, so various characters show him what life would be like if he’d never existed. There are several human actors involved, including Mel Brooks, David Arquette, Willam H. Macy, the cast of Scrubs (which was a semi-popular NBC show at the time), Snoop Dogg, & Kelly Ripa. That’s way way way too much humanity for a Muppet movie. IAWL has been ripped off too many times to even fathom, and this is far from the worst tribute to a great film. However, it’s not even the best Muppet Christmas film!!
The Verdict:Scrooge. Neither is an original idea. Both are based on other works. Scrooge just happens to be a far better adaptation of its source material.
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman
Director John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero)
Rotten Tomatoes 92%
Here we go!! Yes…I do consider Die Hard a Christmas movie. NYPD Detective John McClane comes to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to see his estranged wife at her company Christmas party. Winter Wonderland & Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! are part of the soundtrack. At one point a dead terrorist shows up with a Santa hat & the words “Ho Ho Ho” written on his shirt. Case closed my friends. Oh, and it also happens to be a great action flick, and that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t particularly like action flicks.
The Year Without A Santa Claus
Starring Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn
Rotten Tomatoes 83% (a)
Hey, we’re all entitled to a bad day & the occasional foul mood, right?? Even Santa Claus isn’t always so jolly. In this stop motion animated classic from the prolific folks at Rankin-Bass ol’ Saint Nick is under the weather and isn’t sure anyone really believes in him anymore anyway, so he decides to skip the whole ordeal. Mrs. Claus helps the cause by playing two evil brothers…Heat Miser & Snow Miser (who both apparently control the weather)…against one another (with an assist from Mother Nature). Long story short…all’s well that ends well and Santa goes forth with his annual gift giving. You might have a hard time finding it on television in comparison to other Rankin-Bass classics, but Freeform (or whatever they’re calling that channel this week) usually has it on at some point.
The Verdict:Die Hard. This is a tough call. The debate about Die Hard’s worthiness as a Christmas film is legit, and though I obviously come down on the pro side that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the veracity of the argument. Conversely, TYWASC is indisputably a Christmas classic, but I’m not sure that it has held up well thru the decades. To be honest I don’t even recall it being that important of a viewing tradition in my childhood, and as an adult I can take it or leave it.
Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man)
Rotten Tomatoes 84%
Will Ferrell has to be considered one of the Top 5 alumni whose career was launched on Saturday Night Live, and that is mostly due to the staying power of Elf. As much as one might enjoy watching Talladega Nights, Old School, Step Brothers, Wedding Crashers, or Blades of Glory none of those films has achieved the pop culture significance or made the kind of sustained entertainment impact that Elf has in the past 15 years. Buddy the Elf is the role Ferrell was born to play, and its popularity will probably outlive him.
Santa Claus: The Movie
Starring Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston
Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2)
Rotten Tomatoes 17%
I can imagine the pitch to the studio back in the mid-80’s…”Santa…as an action fantasy!!”. It may help you wrap your head around the concept and understand why this film is what it is to know that it was produced by the same guys who produced the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve and directed by the man who helmed Jaws 2. The Movie tells a…unique…Santa Claus origin story, and weaves in subplots involving an industrious elf and an evil toy manufacturer. The cast…Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, Burgess Meredith, among others…is solid, but the movie as a whole is largely style over substance.
The Verdict:Elf. In the three decades since its release Santa Claus: The Movie hasn’t really become a cherished holiday tradition. Oh sure, it has its fans…but there doesn’t seem to be that many of them. And it hasn’t gotten a lot of airtime on TV over the years. I understand that technology has transformed the world and that virtually anything that has ever been produced can be watched with the push of a few buttons, but please understand that I’m an old school child of the 80’s and repeat viewings to me entail using my remote to flip thru the channels and catch whatever is on. Elf almost immediately took its place as a Christmas classic when it hit theaters a decade & a half ago, and its stature as lighthearted family fun has only grown in the ensuing years.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Peppermint Patty
Director Bill Melendez
Rotten Tomatoes 73% (a)
More than three dozen animated television specials starring Charles Schultz’s comic strip characters from Peanuts have been produced from the 1960’s until just a few years ago. Several have been centered on holidays (there’s even one about Arbor Day), which makes sense because Schultz was a very devout man. This Thanksgiving story finds Peppermint Patty, Marcie, & Franklin inviting themselves over to Charlie Brown’s place for the holiday, and ol’ Chuck being too timid to tell them that he & his family will be heading out to Grandma’s house. Linus, Snoopy, & Woodstock are recruited to help, and when the kids all sit down at a ping pong table in the back yard they are served a hilarious meal of toast, pretzels, popcorn, jelly beans, & an ice cream sundae, which totally sounds like my diet. Luckily Grandma (unseen, as all adults are in Peanuts) invites all the children to her house for real food, while Snoopy & Woodstock stay behind and have their own feast.
Jingle All the Way
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Rita Wilson, Phil Hartman
Director Brian Levant (Beethoven, A Christmas Story 2)
Rotten Tomatoes 17%
The commercialism of Christmas has been a popular subplot for holiday films thru the years, and this one might be among the best at capturing the pathetic retail frenzy. Schwarzenegger stars as a busy, somewhat neglectful Dad (as many fathers are in Christmas movies) who waits until the last minute to find the toy that his son really wants to find under the tree. Every Christmas season has THE toy, right?? Cabbage Patch Kids, Rubik’s Cube, Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, Xbox, Playstation. Parents spend time, energy, & money to get their child what every kid wants that particular year, only to see it collecting dust before spring arrives. At any rate, in this film that toy is a super hero action figure called Turbo Man. Dad quickly develops a rivalry with a weird mailman who is desperately seeking the same item. Meanwhile, a smarmy neighbor (the late Phil Hartman at his slimy best) has his eyes on Mom and successfully drives a wedge into the marriage. The whole movie crescendos to a really fun conclusion, and overall it’s a better film after you watch it a few times than one might think from a first impression.
The Verdict:Charlie Brown. There are better Peanuts specials, and Jingle All the Way is a better movie than you may remember. However, while we all recognize the commercialization of Christmas as a bad thing I think an entire movie focused on it is a bit too cynical. Schwarzenegger can be funny (Twins is pretty good), but he is miscast here and would have benefitted from a better foil than Sinbad. Peanuts is what it is…and that’s why we’ve loved it for decades.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol
Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman
Director Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Cast Away)
Although I’m not really sure what a director does when helming an animated film, I am a huge Zemeckis fan and was thrilled far in advance when I found out he’d be making a new version of the Dickens classic using performance capture technology. Jim Carrey’s shtick wore thin two decades ago, but his talent is undeniable and put to good use in an animated format that allows him to portray multiple characters. This is a fairly faithful interpretation of the source material, and technology allows scenes & characters to be depicted in fresh, distinctive, & inspired ways. Some are critical of the film’s dark tone, and Zemeckis probably does go overboard & have a little too much fun with the toys at his disposal, but one must remember that the book is rather macabre. Don’t blame the director for not caving into the temptation to make a more palatable “family friendly” adaptation…it’s been done.
Mr. Krueger’s Christmas
Starring James Stewart
Director Kieth Merrill
Rotten Tomatoes No Score Available
The legendary Jimmy Stewart’s career had peaked long before he ever made this little gem, although he would do a few more projects in the following decade. If you’ve never seen Mr. Krueger’s Christmas you are far from alone. It was produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and broadcast on NBC just a few days before Christmas 1980. Since then it is impossible to find on television and isn’t even available for streaming. The only avenue available to watch it…to my knowledge…is YouTube. It is a half hour in length and tells the story of Willie Krueger, an elderly janitor who lives in the basement apartment of the building that he takes care of. Willie is a lonely widower whose only companion is a cat named George, and he fills the void with Walter Mitty-esque fantasies. On this Christmas Eve Willie’s imagination has him conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, wearing finer threads than he can afford in real life, enjoying a delightful sleigh ride, welcoming carolers into a much nicer abode than he actually lives in, decorating a grander tree than the little tabletop one he has, & talking to Jesus as he lays in the manger at the Nativity. You might notice that in all of these dreams except the last one Willie, as opposed to his actual life, is surrounded by people who respect & appreciate him. While he is talking to Jesus he is, as in life, invisible to others…but in the presence of Christ there is no loneliness. This short film makes such a profound impact on multiple levels that it’s a shame it isn’t shown somewhere on television during the Christmas season.
The Verdict: It’s a tie!! I’m sorry. It was never my intention to cop out in such a manner at any point in this competition, but I just can’t choose between these two. I like Zemeckis, love A Christmas Carol, & am smitten with motion capture animation. Some find the technology a bit creepy and believe its use in A Christmas Carol is too dark & scary, but I think the combination is fantastic. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is difficult to find and repeat viewings are few, but its story is so delicately effectual that it must not be overlooked. Jimmy Stewart still had it even at 72 years old!! If you’ve never seen Mr. Krueger’s Christmas please set aside some time to find it online. Trust me…you won’t regret it.
Trapped in Paradise
Starring Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey
Director George Gallo (The Whole Ten Yards)
Rotten Tomatoes 10%
I have to give Nicolas Cage credit. There’s no way to typecast or pigeonhole him as an actor because he’s done a little bit of everything…comedy, action, drama, rom-coms. With films on his resume like Raising Arizona & Honeymoon in Vegas it can’t be said that he’s not funny. Yet having said that he feels…out of place…in this movie. The story follows three dimwitted brothers who head to a small Pennsylvania township (think modern day Mayberry) to rob a bank. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong and the trio is unable to make their escape, all while they are being treated warmly by the pleasant, unsuspecting citizens. I’m not a fan of Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carey is inexplicably annoying…but somehow it all works, atleast for me.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Starring Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam
Director Abe Levitow
Rotten Tomatoes 67% (a)
Quincy Magoo dates all the way back to the 1950’s when he starred in animated shorts that would precede feature films. Eventually he’d make his way onto television, and in the 90’s there was even a live action movie starring Leslie Nielsen. However, the most enduring legacy of Mr. Magoo is his take on Dickens, a fairly authentic telling of the story, or atleast as faithful as a less-than-an-hour long cartoon can be. I seem to recall this particular special being an annual thing when I was a kid, but in the past 25-ish years airings have been hit & miss, and I believe it is often heavily edited to allow for more commercials.
The Verdict:Trapped in Paradise. I feel like I’m betraying my 80’s kid roots. Is Trapped in Paradise a good movie?? Not really. However, for reasons that I have alluded to on a few occasions it holds a special place in my heart, despite its shortcomings. I cannot get behind Magoo a) because repeat viewings have been scant (it’s hardly a Christmas tradition), & b) airings are usually edited significantly. I’m sure the original, full length show can be streamed, and maybe someday that’ll be the norm, but right now I’m still old school and want my Christmas movies & specials to be available the way they always were…thru mindless channel surfing.
I recently shared with The Manoverse my favorite film adaptations of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. In the process of producing that piece a few things became clear. First of all, there has been no perfect version of the story made for the big screen. Older movies leave too much out in an effort to be “family friendly”. Newer attempts lean toward either animation or modernization of the story so that it isn’t really a straight-up translation but something that is merely inspired by the Dickens book. Few have had well-known stars in lead roles. Secondly, some of the better takes on the story have actually been made-for-television movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think A Christmas Carol deserves a faithful, big budget, live action film with all the bells & whistles…a star-studded & talented cast, superior production values, a top shelf director, and Oscar buzz. Hollywood specializes in remakes, right?? They remake classics that didn’t need remade like Footloose, The Poseidon Adventure, Halloween, The Karate Kid, Arthur, The Pink Panther, Miracle on 34th Street, & Psycho, as well as movies that few gave a darn about in the first place like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Red Dawn, Total Recall, Robocop, & The Manchurian Candidate. But while all these lukewarm pieces of crap litter our cinemas the fact is that a non-gimmicky big screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol hasn’t been made in over 60 years. It’s time for that to change.
First though, there needs to be a few rules. This would be a live action film. No animation. As much as I like The Muppet Christmas Carol and the 2009 Jim Carrey motion capture movie that kind of thing isn’t what I’m going for here. Besides, it’s been done and probably can’t be done much better. This would not be a musical. I’m not necessarily anti-musical, although they aren’t really my thing. However, making a Carol musical is just another gimmick that has been done so there’s no need to go there. This would be an authentic version of the novella. Too many films leave things out, add things in, change names for no apparent reason, gender bend, & make other unnecessary alterations. I am by no means a film production or screenplay writing expert, but I don’t see why it’d be so difficult to translate a hundred page novella into a two hour movie without pointless modifications. And finally, the cast would be comprised completely of British actors & actresses. Charles Dickens was British. A Christmas Carol is set in London. Scrooge, Marley, Bob Cratchit, & all the other characters are British. I don’t care how talented Tom Hanks, Leonard DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, or Meryl Streep may be…they are American and should not star in A Christmas Carol.
I’ve given a lot of thought as to who the director should be, and while I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of every filmmaker out there and all of their work I do, as a movie fan, have a passing familiarity with many of the more prominent modern auteurs and their styles. In pondering the issue one name kept creeping into my mind…Peter Jackson. Jackson, of course, is best known for spending most of the past 15 years bringing author JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit to life on the big screen. I believe he could make the kind of epic version of A Christmas Carol that I envision, and he could do it while showing immense respect to the source material. He has the skill to capture the dark tone of much of the story while infusing the film with lighter moments that’d make an audience smile. Jackson isn’t British and prefers to work in his native New Zealand, but I am confident a solution could be negotiated in which most of this movie would be shot in London. Hopefully he wouldn’t try to make A Christmas Carol into a trilogy.
Now…onto the main cast…..
As mentioned I believe that this needs to be a strictly British group. As much as I love Robert Downey Jr. it bothers me tremendously that he has portrayed Sherlock Holmes on the big screen. Do you realize that America’s most beloved trio of superheroes…Batman, Superman, & Spiderman…have all most recently been played by three British actors (Christian Bale, Henry Cavill, & Andrew Garfield)?? It’s not that these capable performers have done a bad job. Bale, in particular, was quite good in his role as The Caped Crusader. I just think that it takes a contemporary moviegoer, with all we know about the moviemaking process due to The Internet and other accessible & informative technologies, out of the realm of fantasy & imagination when we know “Hey…that dude is using a fake accent!! He’s from another country!!”. I am only mildly neurotic and most of my fixations are kind of trivial…this just happens to be one of them. Fortunately there is a plethora of very gifted British actors to choose from and I think we can put together the best cast of any A Christmas Carol adaptation ever made:
Ebenezer Scrooge – Daniel Day-Lewis
Lewis, with his three Oscars for Best Actor, adds instant gravitas to our film. To be honest I am not a huge fan of most of his work. His movies just aren’t my thing. However, I did enjoy his performance in 2012’s Lincoln in which he was mesmerizing as our 16th president. Dickens describes Scrooge as having “old features”, a “pointed nose”, “thin lips”, & a “wiry chin”. He is generally thought of as skinny, which makes sense since he only eats “a small saucepan of gruel”…a porridge/oatmeal type of substance typically eaten by peasants…for supper. Lewis fits the bill physically and at 57 years old the transformation into an elderly miser wouldn’t be all that difficult.
Bob Cratchit – Simon Pegg or Martin Freeman I would be fine with either of these two gentlemen in the role of Scrooge’s overworked & underpaid clerk. Bob is married and has 6 children, the eldest of whom is said to be an apprentice at a milliner (hat maker) shop. This means she is probably a teenager, which puts Bob somewhere in his 30’s or 40’s. He is generally depicted as a mistreated milquetoast who doesn’t dare challenge his nasty boss Mr. Scrooge, but then when he gets home is a devoted father & husband who tries to make the best life possible for his family despite a decided lack of resources. Pegg is best known as Scotty in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot films, while Freeman stars as Dr. Watson in the British television update of Sherlock Holmes and as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy. Both actors could portray the lighthearted, doting, & generally content Cratchit while not ignoring the underlying pathos present in a character who is abused at work, is very poor, and has a young son on the verge of death.
Mrs. Cratchit – Emily Blunt
This is a relatively minor role. Mrs. Cratchit is Bob’s supportive spouse who nevertheless isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to Ebenezer Scrooge. She appears to be a traditional wife & mother who loves her family, but with just the tiniest bit of spunk. Blunt isn’t as well-known as she probably should be due to her eclectic career choices, having done a whole spectrum of movies from rom-coms to action-adventure to drama to Shakespeare…few of them being all that great or profitable. She may be a tad young to play a mother of 6, but I think she could pull it off and add some much needed refreshing beauty to what can largely be a bleak story.
Jacob Marley – Alan Rickman
Marley, as you’ll recall, is Scrooge’s business partner who is “dead as a doornail”. He shows up in ghost form to tell Scrooge how he has completely screwed up his entire life and to warn him of the impending visit of three spirits. It is a relatively small yet vital role. Rickman is best known for playing bad guys like Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard and, more recently, Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. Marley isn’t necessarily a bad guy I suppose. It seems that, when alive, he was as much of a ruthless & greedy businessman as Scrooge, but now he is a sad & pathetic figure, doomed to roam the Earth in the afterlife bearing the burden of the chains that he forged in life. He is in only one scene, but it is important and sets the tone of the entire film. Anyone who has seen Rickman’s work knows that he could pull off the scary spectral figure of Jacob Marley.
Fred – Benedict Cumberbatch
Fred is Ebenezer’s nephew and the antithesis of his grouchy uncle. He is friendly, jovial, & full of Christmas spirit. He genuinely cares for his uncle and continues to attempt to have a relationship with him despite Scrooge’s perpetual rejection. Cumberbatch has seen his career trajectory rise exponentially since playing Sherlock Holmes in the contemporary BBC television show, but it seems like he is often cast as the villain otherwise. He played Khan in 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness and voiced the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy. I think it would be interesting to see him go against type and play a cheerful & approachable character. This is another small but key role, and Cumberbatch would undoubtedly be a tremendous addition to the cast.
Tiny Tim – unknown British child
I don’t know enough about child actors in general, let alone specific British child actors, to pull a name out of the hat. However, I will opine just a bit. We don’t know exactly what disease young Tim suffers from, but we know that he will die without proper treatment which Bob Cratchit cannot afford to provide, and that he walks with the aid of a single crutch. Tiny Tim should be portrayed as a loving child with a positive attitude and faith in God. At one point in Dickens’ novella it is said that Tim “hoped the people saw him in the church because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” However, I believe it is unnecessary and counterproductive to have Tiny Tim be an incessantly jolly child. That is just annoying and does the story no favors.
Fezziwig – Robbie Coltrane
When Ebenezer Scrooge was a young man just starting out in the business world he worked for Mr. Fezziwig, who we can assume was in the same “money-lending” profession as his young apprentice. Fezziwig is portrayed as the kind of employer we all wish we had, a kindhearted man who has his priorities straight and treats people with warmth & respect. He is generous, loyal, & presumably successful. Fezziwig’s benevolence is a stark contrast to Scrooge’s malicious attitude and serves to show us who Ebenezer could have and probably should have become had he allowed Fezziwig to be more of an influence in his life. Coltrane is best known nowadays as the gregarious Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter series, and he immediately sprang to mind as I pondered this role. In addition to Harry Potter, Coltrane has been in a couple of James Bond films as well as forgettable movies like Nuns on the Run, Message in a Bottle, & Van Helsing. Fezziwig is another brief but vital part in a story that seems to be full of them.
Young Scrooge – Daniel Radcliffe
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a few significant moments in his life, one of those being when he was a young man just beginning his career and facing the choice between love and professional achievement. Radcliffe, of course, is best known for his role as the titular character in the mega-successful Harry Potter series, and I think he vaguely resembles a young Daniel Day-Lewis. It is tempting to overlook such a small role in what I visualize as a grand film, but I believe it would be a mistake to cast a marginal talent in the part. This is when we see who Ebenezer Scrooge used to be and gain some insight as to what went so terribly wrong. It is a turning point, and a youthful but skilled actor like Radcliffe adds credibility that lets critics & audiences know that this film is legit.
Belle – Carey Mulligan
If you meet a man who is cynical, angry, bitter, & kind of a jackass there is a good chance that there is a woman somewhere in his past that is partly to blame. Okay okay okay…I’m kidding…sort of. At any rate, Belle is a young lady that Scrooge meets at one of Fezziwig’s Christmas parties. They fall in love and become engaged. Eventually Belle breaks up with Scrooge because of his obsession with money. Remember, The Bible says in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. While Scrooge goes thru life brokenhearted & lonely Belle eventually finds love again, marries, and has a happy life with several children. Mulligan is best known for her roles in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and as Daisy Buchanan in the 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. She is quite fetching but also tough, like the kind of person who wouldn’t hesitate to kick her fiancée to the curb when he becomes selfish, greedy, & narcissistic.
Christmas Past – Tilda Swinton
Dickens describes The Ghost of Christmas Past thusly: “A strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.” It is further said that “its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.” Various adaptations have shown Christmas Past as an angelic female, an elderly man, & an “androgynous” figure of unspecified age. The 2009 Disney motion capture film comes the closest to bringing Dickens’ unique vision to fruition. Obviously with CGI we could do something similar even in a live action movie. However, I think what might work best is a combination of computerized magic and a performance by a real actress. Swinton not only has a unique look, but she is another Academy Award winner to add to our fully loaded cast.
Christmas Present – Sir Anthony Hopkins
Dickens describes The Ghost of Christmas Present as “a jolly giant” clothed in a green robe with white fur and sitting upon a throne of various kinds of food (yum…my kind of throne!!). Most films represent the spirit fairly accurately. However, many don’t present the events of the story faithfully. Christmas Present takes Scrooge into the streets of London on Christmas Day, to Bob Cratchit’s house, to see a poor miner’s family celebrating in their little shack upon a lonely moor, to visit two men keeping watch in a lighthouse, out to sea where the crew of a ship (possibly a fishing boat…the book doesn’t specify) is quietly remembering Christmas amongst themselves, & to his nephew Fred’s house where he and a group of friend’s are making merry. For some reason the visits to the lighthouse, the miner’s shack, & the ship are often left out of A Christmas Carol movies. We would not allow that in our version. Christmas Present also reveals to Scrooge two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children hiding under his regal robes named Ignorance & Want. It is a disturbing scene rife with social commentary and is too often left out of movies. Not this one though. At any rate, when pondering the casting decision my mind immediately fell upon Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins. We associate him most with the role of evil Hannibal Lecter, so I think it would be really interesting to see him instead play a character that is ebullient & gregarious. Christmas Present ages as the night goes along, and we undoubtedly could pull that off as well.
Christmas Yet to Come – Andy Serkis
Dickens describes Christmas Future as a “draped and hooded” phantom “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand”. Essentially it is The Grim Reaper, and almost all film versions of A Christmas Carol depict it as so. The spirit doesn’t actually speak…it just points a lot and acts menacing. This is a tough one from a casting standpoint, but I immediately thought of Andy Serkis. That name might not ring a bell because he isn’t a well-known actor in the traditional sense. His specialty is giving voice and physicality to computer generated characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the titular character in King Kong (a lukewarm 2005 film directed by…Peter Jackson). We could certainly go the CGI route here, but I think Serkis’ unique talent adds a level of je ne sais quoi that would elevate our movie to another strata.
Ideally this film would be released in early December so that it could be enjoyed by audiences looking for some holiday cheer at their local cineplex in the midst of their Christmas shopping. Hopefully it would get lots of love from Hollywood during its awards season. What do you think?? Do we need another A Christmas Carol movie?? Did I do a good job of casting?? Does this look like a film you might be tempted to check out?? As always your comments & feedback are welcome. Merry Christmas Manoverse…and God bless us everyone!!
Finally. After over a year we have entered hallowed ground…The Top 10. This will be the last group of five, as I will give each of the top five movies their own entry. Part of me is actually a little sad that this series is almost over because I have had so much fun writing it and doing a self-examination of my own tastes. We’ll do it all again in one form or another in a few years, but until then enjoy the remaining entries, and as always thanks so much for visiting my little corner of this wonderful thing we like to call The Info Superhighway. Fear not, because I have much more to say on a variety of topics.
As we have covered a few times in this series, sequels are often a very risky proposition. From a business perspective I understand why they are made, but from a creative standpoint and through the prism of the viewing public it is difficult to not fall into the trap of being lazy, repetitive, and uninspired. Too often we see sequels that are just retreads of the original…same stunts, same gags, same jokes, same effects. Or worse yet, the powers-that-be try to make a sequel where few of the original actors or characters remain and they are only borrowing a broad concept or theme with very loose ties to its predecessor. The Godfather Part II is not a victim of any of these issues. It is quite possibly the greatest sequel ever made. It was the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, a feat that has only been matched once since with 2003’s third part of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Return of the King (movies that will likely make it onto this list next time around). Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather is the source material for both the first and second movies in this trilogy and is a great read. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movies. However, this is a rare case where I must say that the greatness on film exceeds what one finds on the written page. Part II is fascinating, as it shows us two different stories at the same time. We follow Al Pacino‘s Don Michael Corleone as he moves the family business to the left coast in the 1950’s, making his home in Lake Tahoe while simultaneously trying to become a major player in Vegas, which of course mirrors the real life exploits of infamous gangster Bugsy Seagal. Meanwhile, in turn of the century Sicily we see little Vito Corleone‘s parents killed and his escape to Ellis Island. The adult Vito is then played by Robert DeNiro in a performance that won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the only time that two different actors (Marlon Brando got the nod for Best Actor in the original film) have received Academy Awards for the same role. Vito gets married, has a family, meets new pals Tessio & Clemenza, and quickly rises from small time NY City hood to nationally known, feared, and respected organized crime boss. Flash ahead to the 50’s and we see Michael’s attempt to bring his empire to Cuba, his double cross of rival gangster Hyman Roth and Roth’s henchman The Rosato Brothers, United States Senate hearings with Michael as the chief target that mirror the real life Kefauver investigation of the mob, and the revelation that Michael’s older but dimmer brother Fredo betrayed him which resulted in an assassination attempt and ultimately ends up with Michael having his own brother murdered. I love love love Al Pacino and this movie is neck & neck with Scent of a Woman as his best role. In the original Godfather film he shares the spotlight with Marlon Brando and James Caan, but here he goes toe to toe with DeNiro in what may be his best role as well. The supporting cast is superb, with Talia Shire, Robert Duval, and Diane Keaton returning from the first film and acting legend Lee Strasberg coming out of retirement to portray Hyman Roth. My favorite character though might be Frank Pentangeli, a Corleone family caporegime who replaces Clemenza, a development dictated by a dispute with the actor who played Clemenza. Frankie Five Angels is just tremendous…funny, ham-handed, erratic, and most of all unique. I am not sure Part II would have been quite as good with Clemenza as it ends up being with Pentageli. The flashback sequences with the younger Vito are done completely in Italian, a risky move by director Francis Ford Coppola that pays off. Emulating real events like the coup in Cuba, U.S. Senate hearings, and the mafia infiltration of Las Vegas is a nice touch. There are a significant number of people who rate the The Godfather Part II above its predecessor and say that it is the only sequel in movie history that is actually better than the first film. I can’t go that far for reasons which I will eventually explain. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary achievement and those responsible for it…Coppola, Puzo, Pacino, DeNiro, and many others…can be very proud of what they were able to accomplish. The story arc of the rise & fall of Michael Corleone is truly one of the most inspired ideas in cinema and has been endlessly entertaining for me and millions of others for over 35 years.
9 Die Hard
I know I have said it before but it bears repeating…I am not an action flick aficionado. Most anything starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal, or Chuck Norris just doesn’t frost my cupcake. I have never seen a James Bond film in its entirety. Indiana Jones has never graced a screen big or small in my presence. But as with any rule there are exceptions, and this is the biggest one of them all. 1988’s Die Hard finds Bruce Willis starring as John McClane, a NY City cop whose marriage is on the rocks because his wife took a corporate gig in Los Angeles and now lives there with the kids, estranged from her husband. She invites him out to the Left Coast for Christmas to visit the children and maybe smooth things out. However, upon arriving at the wife’s company Christmas bash near the top of an unfinished skyscraper McClane finds himself the lone wolf fighting against a contingent of foreign terrorists who invade the party, kill the CEO, and hold everyone else hostage. The bad guys are unaware of McClane’s presence and even when he does make himself known he does not reveal that he has the skills to fight back. Soon enough the LAPD and the FBI are involved. There is lots of shooting and explosions, but thankfully they are accompanied by a good story and surprising levity for an action movie. I think maybe that’s why I like it…the humor sets Die Hard apart from others in the genre, who tend to take themselves too seriously. Don’t misunderstand…Die Hard is a serious movie about terrorism and one man’s battle to save the life of his beloved wife, but along the way we get airheaded FBI agents (agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson), a limo driver that personifies the generation gap between himself and McClane, and the Dad from Family Matters, an 80’s sitcom best known for its nerdy star Urkel, who bonds with McClane over the two-way radio. We also get Hans Gruber, one of the most memorable villains in movie history. Gruber is portrayed by Alan Rickman, who is widely known today as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films. But in 1988 he was an unknown who ended up creating such a great character. It is implied that Gruber is a ticked off German who has taken over Nakatomi Plaza for political reasons. However, we eventually learn that he is nothing more than a thief whose goal is to steal a half billion dollars worth of bonds, destroy the building making everyone think the terrorists perished as well, and escape with the loot. It is an ingenious plan, and Gruber seems to know everything that will happen. He especially knows the playbook of the police and the feds, who are portrayed as predictable buffoons. But what he and his men don’t plan on is the “fly in the ointment” named John McClane. Willis was a television star at the time, coming into our living rooms each week alongside Cybill Shepherd in the detective rom-com Moonlighting. He had done a few forgettable films, but it was Die Hard that made him a star and he has continued to ride the wave for over 20 years. Die Hard, in my opinion, is the gold standard of action movies. It has just the right mix of drama, action, humor, suspense, good writing, and excellent performances. It is not gratuitously bloody, and it is just plausible enough for the viewer to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the story and characters. 1988 was, of course, long before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and for that I am thankful if only because Die Hard would likely never get made in a post-9/11 world. McClane has resurfaced in three sequels with plans for yet another, but those efforts have been hit & miss. I keep using the phrase “lightning in a bottle”, and it applies here as well. Countless films have borrowed elements of Die Hard in the last two decades, and I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But I have yet to stumble upon a knockoff that comes anywhere close to being as good as the original.
8 The Star Wars Trilogy
Yes, I know…I am kinda sorta cheating just one more time. In pondering the three original Star Wars movies…Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi…I just couldn’t find a sensible way to justify any type of separation. It is true that most fans of the trilogy will say that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three and that Return of the Jedi comes in third. But I cannot look at these three films as separate entities. The story is an arc with huge themes of good vs. evil, destiny, vengeance, justice, fear, anger vs. patience, self-sacrifice, and betrayal. There are elements of religion, philosophy, and mythology so intertwined yet so subtle that the films may be enjoyed as simple popcorn entertainment by some and appreciated on another level by those who like to ponder life with a deeper, more esoteric thought process. Writer/producer/director George Lucas was heavily influenced by a number of sources, including the Flash Gordon comic books and movies of the 1930’s, the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, and Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I am making the assumption that most adults have seen the trilogy and know the basic story, but…just in case…allow me to summarize. Star Wars and its sequels is the story of Luke Skywalker, a young man of meager means who is thrust into an ongoing adventure involving the battle between The Rebel Alliance, a resistance group that desires to restore The Republic, and The Empire, which is what has become of The Republic under the tyrannical rule of Emperor Palpatine. One must remember that this story was written and the movies made in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, so there are obvious parallels to The Cold War and the ongoing battle between The United States and The Soviet Union. Throughout the trilogy we are exposed to a plethora of memorable characters…Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pricess Leia, Chewbacca, R2D2, CP30, Hans Solo, Jabba the Hutt, Lando Calrissian. I could go on and on. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but what Star Wars does is take many of the elements of the typical western and utilize them in a futuristic space motif. It is a concept brilliant beyond comprehension. Lucas has done some other notable films…The Indiana Jones Series, American Graffiti, Hook, Howard the Duck (well…okay…maybe that isn’t such a great example)…but his crowning achievement is most certainly The Star Wars Trilogy. Over 30 years since the story was first introduced to the public these three films are still among the world’s most popular. They pop up on television all the time and people like me, who have seen them dozens of times, still watch. Earlier this decade when Lucas was preparing to launch a new prequel trilogy…Episodes I, II, and III…the excitement and anticipation reached a fever pitch. People waited in line days in advance for tickets. Unfortunately the prequels did not live up to their predecessors, but honestly how could they?? They aren’t really bad films, especially the third, but there was no way they could possibly approach the greatness of the original trilogy. Every new generation that is introduced to The Star Wars Trilogy embraces it which is a testament to the timelessness and superb quality of the story. And make no mistake…it IS the story. Are there any truly special performances here?? Not really. The only acting that was ever critically recognized was Sir Alec Guinness’ Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV: A New Hope, and even that was likely more a function of his legendary status. Most of the other actors involved have had middle-of-the-road, mildly successful careers but are still primarily known for their roles in the trilogy. The only exception is Harrison Ford, who over the course of the past three decades has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. So one must conclude that the enduring appeal of these movies is the epic nature of the tale itself.
7 Apollo 13
This is what NFL scouts might call at quick riser, a movie that has improved its stock the most in the shortest amount of time. Released in 1995 and based on the true story of NASA’s 1970 “successful failure”, Apollo 13 is a film that I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to when it first came out. Looking back I have to assume that is due to the timing. June of 1995 was a bad month, one that I look back on almost daily as a negative turning point in my life. So I guess I was engrossed in my own drama and didn’t make it a priority to go to the theater and pay money to watch tragic events of others’ lives. But over the course of the past 10 years I have discovered its greatness and become familiar with the real life situation. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton as astronauts whose planned mission to land on the moon goes horribly awry, Apollo 13 is just the sort of movie I can truly embrace. It is beautifully written, has understated, moving performances, and the direction by Ron Howard is magnificent. I don’t usually recognize the function of the director because honestly I am not familiar enough with what a director really does and what his/her role is in the final product. But here one can easily see that this story, in the hands of someone else…maybe James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic), Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), or God forbid as a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer production (Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor)…would have been completely different and likely lacked the subtlety and class brought into the mix by Howard, aka Lil Opie Cunningham, who turns it into something better than a cookie cutter action flick. Two supporting performances, Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kranz and Kathleen Quinlan as astronaut wife Marilyn Lovell, were nominated for Academy Awards. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture and Howard for Best Director. Somehow all four of these awards went to others. Braveheart won Best Picture and its director, Mel Gibson, won that award. Kevin Spacey was Best Supporting Actor for his role as Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. And Mira Sorvino was Best Supporting Actress in some movie no one remembers. I suppose many may disagree, but it is my contention that Apollo 13 was robbed and should have won atleast 3 of these 4 awards. Harris’ performance is especially exceptional and cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated actors. Various television stations show Apollo 13 quite often, and I almost always stop whatever I am doing to watch, which in my mind is the mark of a really good movie. There is a scene near the end of the film where the fate of the astronauts is in question for about 3 minutes. This plays out in real time and is very dramatic. Since this is a true story I know what happens, and even if it wasn’t a true story I have seen it enough times that I know how everything plays out…yet every single time I watch I get goosebumps and am on the edge of my seat. Now THAT is a great movie.
6 National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
This is an oddity simply because it is the third movie in a series, and while traditionally the third movie in a series is better than the second (which is usually a poorly written, hastily produced money grab in response to the public’s love of the original) it is unusual that it would outrank the first. I suppose on most lists the tradition would hold true here, as the vast majority of folks would likely opine that 1983’s Vacation, where we first meet The Griswold Clan, is the best in the series. But by now loyal readers know of my fierce passion for Christmas movies, and that is why Christmas Vacation ranks higher than its parent film, which is 13th on this list. Clark, Ellen, Rusty, and Audrey don’t actually go anywhere this time. They stay home to host a good old-fashioned Christmas for the extended family, which includes Clark’s parents, Ellen’s parents, and the elderly Uncle Lewis & Aunt Bethany, though their exact relationship is never explained. Showing up unexpectedly is cousin Catherine and her redneck husband Eddie, along with two of their small children. Fans of the Vacation series will recall that Catherine & Eddie and their brood make a memorable appearance in the original, and Eddie turns out to be the big star of this film. There is too much goodness for me to go into detail here, but suffice to say that Clark proves himself to be as big of a buffoon as usual, all the grandparents are nuts in that special grandparent way, and Eddie’s antics are the icing on the cake. Virtually every scene in this move has become legendary, from the oversized Christmas tree that Clark stubbornly determines is going in the living room, to Eddie cleaning out his RV’s toilet in his bathrobe, to the 25,000 lights with which Clark adorns the house. As a matter of fact, every December channels like HGTV and The Travel Channel have shows featuring wacky, over-the-top, gaudy Christmas light displays from across the country, and I’d be curious to know whether those kinds of garish exhibits were always around or if Christmas Vacation was the impetus for an odd new holiday tradition. I remember the first time I ever saw this movie, and there is a scene where Clark crashes a saucer sled oiled up with some sort of food varnish that he supposedly invented straight into a WalMart. At the time we did not have a WalMart in my hometown and it was just becoming a big deal. I remember thinking “Man, I wish we had a WalMart”. I laugh at that thought now since WalMart has become such a ubiquitous part of every day life. At any rate, Christmas Vacation has quickly become part of the pantheon of great Christmas movies, one of the half-dozen or so that everyone watches annually. It isn’t high art and it isn’t supposed to be. It is fairly innocuous entertainment, and that’s just fine by me.