ALBANY, Ga. — The weather — with any luck — will be getting a little chilly soon and while the period up to Christmas and New Year’s Day will be a busy one, there will be a few evenings when you’ll have time to sit back with some popcorn and hot chocolate and spend a relaxing evening escaping from the bustle.
So, what do you pop into the DVD player or call up to watch on the DVR?
A list of the best Christmas movies is always arbitrary, but there are some classics out there that just make you feel a little better after you watch them. Many of the best have exactly what you’d expect in a good film — a solid story, great acting and direction, a smattering of humor and human drama.
Others ... well, they’re just fun.
In any event, here are 10 worth watching and a few “honorable mentions.” And for a lot of these (but not all), it’s a shame they’re only available on various cable channels or thought about around Christmas, because, at heart, they’re great movies.
And there will be some obvious titles missing, such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” cartoon. The list focuses on full-length movies. And while you may rank them differently, here’s one guy’s top 10 list.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): This is one of those films that is wonderfully written and acted. It became the butt of a lot of jokes, primarily because its copyright lapsed for a while and TV stations could — and did — broadcast it ad nauseam as free content. It’s shown less frequently on TV these days.
When you look at the cast — the great Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond — and the director, Frank Capra, you can see why it’s perhaps the second-most copied Christmas tale around. Stewart runs the gamut of emotions, from happy to ecstatic to angry to grumpy to desperate to self-sacrificing, and Travers’ Clarence is one of filmdom’s most memorable angels.
By the way, there are colorized versions lurking out there. Don’t be taken in by them.
2. A Christmas Story (1983): This is another one that has lost some luster from over-exposure, but if you really watch it, it’s hard to think of a story that has more Americana wrapped into an hour and a half run time. Ralphie (a young Peter Billingsley) is on a quest for the Holy Grail of Christmas — a Red Ryder carbine BB gun. And few people have owned a character like the late Darrin McGavin owns Ralphie’s dad, “the old man.”
Toss in a few marauders, the menacing Scut Farkus, a leggy “major award,” an inopportune comment while changing a tire, a sticky cold flag pole and the great holiday turkey debacle and the wonderful narration by Jean Shepherd who wrote the story the movie was based on, and it’s a classic.
3. The Bishop’s Wife (1947): This is one I stumbled upon several years ago on Turner Classic Movies and it’s been a holiday tradition ever since. Again, a wonderful cast with Cary Grant portraying Dudley the angel and David Niven playing Bishop Henry Brougham, whose obsession with a new cathedral has him compromising his values and ignoring his wife, Julia (Loretta Young). In praying for help, Brougham doesn’t exactly realize what he’s asking for.
Another bonus is it includes Monty Woolley (“The Man Who Came to Dinner”) in a memorable role as the bishop’s forgotten friend, Professor Wutheridge.
All in all, it’s a nicely acted, entertaining film with a lot of heart.
By the way, it could have had quite a different look had it not been stopped in mid production and started over with a new director. Niven was originally cast as Dudley and Grant as the bishop.
4. Scrooge (1951): A half-century later and this black-and-white retelling of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is still the version against which others are judges. Alistair Sim was the first to make the money-hungry Ebene
zer Scrooge a three-dimensional character.
This is the most retold and copied Christmas story out there, with a departed friend enlisting the aid of three ghosts to help an old business partner become a better man. Be sure to catch this version, but there are some other good ones as well — George C. Scott’s made-for-TV film in 1984, the TNT production starring Patrick Stewart in 1999 and the Disney computer-animated film from 2009 starring Jim Carrey come to mind.
Christmas just doesn’t get any better than seeing a covetous old miser reform. God bless us everyone, indeed!
5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): OK, this is one of the plain old fun movies. Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase), last seen with Aunt Edna’s corpse tied to the roof of the Family Truckster as he traveled west to take on Wally World, is on a new quest — the perfect family Christmas.
This, of course, is not going to go well. Particularly when cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up in his RV.
One thing that’s different about this movie from the top four is the language. It gets a bit rough at times, so keep that in mind if youngsters are watching.
But outside of that, just enjoy the ride, content in the knowledge that no matter how badly your own Christmas holidays go, this will always be much, much worse.
6. Home Alone (1990): Another fun movie. There’s probably a moral in it somewhere, but watching 8-year-old Kevin McAllister (a young Macaulay Culkin), who is accidentally left home alone when his family goes on a trip to Paris, take on grizzled burglars Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) is a roller-coaster ride with Christmas lights. It spawned three sequels, including two without Culkin, but the original’s by far the best of the lot.
7. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Do you believe in Santa? A lot of folks want to after they see the original from 1947 in which Edmund Gwenn portrays the quintessential Kris Kringle. Called on by Doris Walker (Maurreen O’Hara) to pinch hit for Macy’s indisposed elf in the annual Thanksgiving parade, Kringle sets up shop at the store and tries to renew the faith of Walker’s skeptical daughter, Susan (played by a young Natalie Wood). Meanwhile, the state of New York has questions about Kringle’s sanity and things are looking bleak for Santa in court. It’s been remade a number of times, but the original’s the best.
8. The Polar Express (2004): Tom Hanks plays multiple roles in this computer-animated film based on the popular children’s book. The story revolves around a young boy who has lost his belief in Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he hears a train whistle and goes downstairs to see the Polar Express sitting in his front year, stopped over in its journey to the North Pole. He joins other youngsters, also in their pajamas, and they visit the home of Santa, where he is chosen to receive the year’s first gift — a bell that only those who believe can hear. The look of the film is faithful to the book’s illustrations.
9. The Santa Clause (1994): Tim Allen portrays toy company executive Scott Calvin, a divorced father who’s struggling through Christmas Eve with his son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd), when they hear a noise on the roof, which you would think film characters would expect on Christmas Eve. When they go out to investigate, Santa Claus loses his footing and plunges to the snow-covered lawn and, to say it delicately, the end of his term of office. Calvin dons the suit, finishes the night’s route with Charlie by his side and reluctantly moves to a whole new toymaking career, one that has Charlie’s mom (Wendy Crews) and psychiatrist stepfather (Judge Reinhold) wondering whether Calvin’s a good influence on the boy. This was followed by a couple of inferior sequels.
And while this has nothing to do with the movie itself, the title, “Santa Clause,” has been influential in a bad way. No one seems to know how to spell “Santa Claus” these days.
10. Elf (2003): This Will Ferrell movie had to grow on me. Ferrell plays Buddy, a would-be elf who learns he is, in fact, human and leaves the North Pole and his adopted elf dad (Bob Newhart, great as always) to find his real father, Walter (James Caan), a children’s book publisher in New York. Buddy also finds a love interest, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and the best cup of coffee in the world. Through his misadventures, including a chase by the notorious Central park mounted patrol, Buddy and Jovie try to renew Christmas spirit in the world so Santa’s (Ed Asner) sleigh will fly.
It may take you a while to warm up to it, too. But the kids will love it.
And we have some honorable mentions, in no particular order:
One Magic Christmas (1985): This one gets a little too melodramatic, but it includes some memorable performances. Jan Rubes is a great old-world style St. Nicholas in his too-brief appearance, and Harry Dean Stanton’s Gideon is the most unusual Christmas angel you’ll ever meet.
A Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Food writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) gets in a sticky wicket when her publisher, who thinks she’s a married Connecticut homemaker, not a city dweller with no actual homemaking skills, wants her to host a war hero for a traditional Christmas like the ones she writes about.
“Holiday Inn (1942)”: Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire vie for the affections of Marjorie Reynolds at a hotel that is only open for the holidays — Christmas, New Year’s, Independence Day and such. Sometimes confused with “White Christmas” and harder to find, this black-and-white film actually is the movie in which Crosby’s trademark “White Christmas” song debuted.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940): Another entry with Jimmy Stewart, who manages a small gift store in Budapest. Stewart works for the mercurial store owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan of “Wizard of Oz” fame) and runs afoul of new employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Meanwhile, he and a mystery woman are exchanging letters as pen pals. It was remade starring Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998 as “You’ve Got Mail.”
The Thin Man (1940): An all-time great whodunit that started the series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as crime sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, this one would be in the top 10 if the Christmas part wasn’t just incidental. Well written, funny and snappy dialogue make it worth watching anytime. And Nick has an unusual way of undecorating tree ornaments with an air gun.
White Christmas (1954): Full color and elaborate, “White Christmas” reminds you of “Holiday Inn,” mostly because it also stars Crosby, involves a song-and-dance team and has The Song. Danny Kaye is crooner Crosby’s hoofer sidekick as they pursue the affections of two sisters while trying to save their former commanding general’s failing Vermont inn.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942): Woolley plays acerbic theater critic Sheridan Whiteside, who is forced into having dinner at the home of a well-to-do businessman in Ohio. He slips on ice and takes over the house during his long recuperation, which extends through the holidays. Notable for Betty Davis playing a rare supporting role. Plus, Jimmy Durante makes an appearance and it has penguins. What’s not to like?
Die Hard (1988): John McClane (Bruce Willis) has the worst Christmas Eve ever when his wife and others are taken hostage at a Christmas party. Even the Griswolds didn’t experience this level of destruction. Lots of bad language, so you will want to wait until after the kids are asleep.
Gremlins (1984): A boy gets a Christmas pet and promptly breaks all the rules on how to care for it. A good reminder to always read up on how to care for your critters.
Bad Santa (2003): Billy Bob Thornton is the most demented Santa ever. This one is for grownups who are having some trouble enjoying the holidays. Bad language abounds.
Eight Crazy Nights (2002): How hard is it to find a Hanukkah movie? This animated film starring Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider’s the only one I’ve heard of. It has its funny moments, though.
Jingle All the Way (1996): This film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad should be dedicated to every dad out there who — whether from late notification or plain old procrastination — has trouble finding that season’s “hot” toy, in this case a Turbo Man action figure. Jet pack not included.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000): Jim Carrey plays the Grinch, but the movie never captures the spirit of the children’s book by Dr. Seuss. It was included only because I’m told some folks do like it. My advice: Watch the 30-minute cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff instead.