All seasons have their defining visual cues. I have my visual cues for Christmas. They include a specific artificial tree, memory stamped decorations, and a unique ceramic nativity set. It also includes viewing a set of movies, without which, Christmas would not be complete.
I have specific and exacting criteria that movies must pass to make the grade. For any movie to be added to my list of the truly great it must possess a combination of factors. They include, but are not limited to, storytelling that allows me to suspend my disbelief, gripping cinematography, quotable dialogue that reinforces my love of language, emotional impact and its ability to influence my point of view.
There is a long list of Christmas flicks… but only a few great ones. On that long list of offerings are some that only have great moments, like the burb scene in Elf, and there are some that disrespect the whole genre like Bad Santa. For me, the pinnacle of the theatrical summit of Christmas cinema includes the following great titles.
At the base of that mountain is A Christmas Story. It isn’t the bully and his minions, the tongue stuck to the frozen pole, the monolithic focus on the perfect present… a red rider BB-gun, or the episodes of revelatory family dysfunction. Of all the elements of that movie that make it truly great, it’s the leg in the window. I laugh at every recollection of that amazing lamp, the dialogue between the husband and wife and our main characters first meaningful exposure to his libido. The conflict of those emotions colliding with the true symbolic meaning of the season is like sprinkling salt on each bite of an apple… it adds savor to whole experience.
One movie on my list is negatively impacted by only one major shortcoming… its length. There was a period from the mid-60’s through the 70’s when animation took a serious nose dive. Early attempts at stop motion were just plain painful to watch. However, the 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the original, not the Jim Carrie remake, was and is a must see EVERY year. It wasn’t great only by comparison to the trash available; it is a truly engaging tail, decently animated and wonderfully narrated by the late Boris Karloff. Max is adorable, the music is memorable and engaging, Cindy Lou-Who is a magnificent symbol of the innocence of the season, and the underlying message about the true meaning of the Holiday, is a necessary antidote to my more material nature.
For sheer delight and constant laughs I have to include National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The Griswold family, led by Chevy Chase, provides one serious cringe worthy moment after another. It’s a period piece that transcends its era by so accurately portraying the extremes of the family flaws we all grew up with. It’s full of quotable dialogue… not so appropriate for the younger children in the home, and better viewed without the kids entirely so that your inner child can find its uninhibited expression of joy.
A must see every season is Miracle on 34th Street. I’m a sucker for shedding a heartfelt tear or two, and I can’t help but cry every year when Chris Cringle speaks Dutch to the adopted child newly planted in her American home. A serious business lesson is offered when Santa turns the Macy’s/Gimbels rivalry into the foundation for the more progressive customer service policies of actual companies operating today. Add terrific acting and great story telling that the whole family can enjoy and you have the recipe for a truly great holiday classic.
Although it didn’t do much at the box office of its time, like a great wine that ages well, my all-time favorite Christmas movie is It’s a Wonderful Life. The story of George Bailey’s introspective analysis of the value of his life is as terrifically acted as it is poignant. If I have to explain it, you haven’t seen it. If you’ve seen it, my explanation won’t do it justice. Great acting, a wonderful and thought provoking story, an enjoyable pace, brilliant in black and white and a good cry at the end… what more could you ask for?
You may or may not agree with my choices. It really doesn’t matter much. These are MY favorites and add to MY enjoyment of the season. Feel free to add your list in the comments section below. Regardless, I hope you take time to enrich your holiday with the cinematic visual cues that make Christmas special to you and yours.
Merry Christmas to you all…