I’m no Christian and I certainly have only a sourness in me for the tradition of gift-giving during the time of year most refer to as Christmas. Regardless of my distaste for the big-business corporate exploitation of the pagan holiday known as Yule, I do still love and enjoy the time of year when the earth turns cold – freezing, killing off the weak. We are reminded of our fragility, and the survivors become rejuvenated with renewed spirit for the coming new year. At least this seems to be the transformation I feel I am a part of as my soul searches and spirit re-balances itself during the winter solstice.
So here are Roger Malcolm’s 10 Christmas Film Favourites…
10 – Home Alone (1990)
I watched this in the theater at the age of 7 on Christmas Eve in 1990. I still remember the exact moment standing in the lobby of the movie theater next to Hills Department Store in Columbus, IN. I was with my father, mother and older sister. We had been treated to a film on Christmas Eve by our father’s friend, or more aptly, father-figure, Harry Black. We had already watched one film and I just assume Harry wanted to treat us for the holidays. I don’t remember what film we had watched, though after reviewing the box office at the time, I would say it must have been Kindergarten Cop. Harry seemed rich from my perspective as a poor kid, and asked if everyone was up to watching another film! I always felt Harry just really liked my father and must have really enjoyed our family unit. My father had been rebuilding an engine for Harry’s extremely large black truck at the time. This meant my dad worked all day at Hoosier Parts and then would spend his evenings working for Harry, dragging us along on many occasions where we would spend countless hours in his garage/basement. It was known as the Bat Truck, and had yellow shocks and struts with Batman logo stickers. Harry wasn’t an elderly Batman fan but rather had done it for his grandson Josh. At such a young age seeing such a thing was truly amazing to me. It wasn’t the Bat-mobile from Tim Burton’s Batman but a monster truck (it had a lift kit and huge vicious tires) that would run right over it instead. Some years later Harry would have the unfortunate fate of suffering through a divorce in which his wife would take him for basically everything he had. He ended up selling the Bat Truck to my father and whether it was for needed cash or to prevent his ex-wife from taking everything I’ll never know. Whatever the case, he treated me and my family to a wonderful time together, a time that is long gone but so close to my heart. No better gift could ever replace it.
Home Alone is a holiday classic written by John Hughes, directed by Chris Columbus and starring, in the role that would make him one of the most famous child-actors next to Shirley Temple, the absolutely lovable – albeit rotten – Macaulay Culkin. Culkin had been hand-picked by Hughes after impressing him in the John Hughes-written and directed Uncle Buck (1989) starring John Candy. Candy would go on to have his lovable character from John Hughes-written and directed Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) portrayed in Home Alone as the very similar Polka-playing softy who identifies with the main dilemma of a mother who isn’t home for Christmas to be with their child. Also starring are Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the hilarious comedy duo the “Wet Bandits”, and the wonderful Catherine O’Hara who contributes a much-needed heartfelt performance to make this a film that doesn’t just come across as a phony and pretentious holiday cash-in.
9 – Christmas Vacation (1989)
Also written by John Hughes, yet directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, Christmas Vacation revolves around the comedic National Lampoon family the Griswolds and is another holiday-classic. Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the lovable buffoon of a husband and father that only wants to treat his family to the best experience possible regardless of his shortcomings. Although I have a soft spot for his role in my favorite director John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Clark Griswold is my favorite Chevy Chase role. I find him to be absolutely hilarious and when supported by Randy Quaid in what I would consider his most memorable role as Eddie (Eddie would even get his own film in Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003), which I do not recommend) it becomes a non-stop laughing riot regardless of the amount of times I witness their mischief. Also starring are the lovely Beverly D’Angelo as Clark’s wife Ellen, with the sardonic Juliette Lewis and easy-going Johnny Galecki (best remembered by me as David on Roseanne) as their children Audrey and Rusty, respectively.
I always hear most folk’s favorite moments are when Clark tells his neighbor to “bend over and I’ll show you” only he explains he wasn’t talking to the man but his neighbor’s wife instead (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). There’s also the scene where Ellen asks Clark what he’s looking at out the window, to which she gets the reply “an asshole in his bath robe emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer”, with the camera cutting to Eddie as that asshole who shouts “The shitter was full!” Or there’s the scene where Clark offers a last-minute gift idea to see his boss so he can “tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?” My personal favorite is the attic scene which isn’t based on humour but rather the emotional aspect. While locked in his attic as the rest of his family is out shopping, and dressed only in his pajamas and slippers, Clark searches through a chest of clothes and discovers a box of old reels of film. Through the home movies depicting his many past Christmas holidays we revisit his childhood memories as he’s dressed looking like Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Ray Charles sings That Spirit of Christmas.
8 – Scrooged (1988)
Scrooged, a modernized retelling of Charles Dickens’ literary classic A Christmas Carol (1843), gives us Bill Murray in the focal role of Frank Cross. Cross, an alternate to Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, is a network television executive. He is despicable as we watch him celebrate over an ad his network ran that caused an 80-year-old grandmother to keel over and going so far as firing an employee (played by Bobcat Goldthwait) on Christmas Eve, before being visited by the decomposing corpse of his former mentor. The supporting cast consists of Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Carol Kane and Robert Mitchum.
As a child this film really spooked me, especially the Ghost of Christmas Past depicted as a New York City cabby. You could even quote Murray’s character that it even scared “the Dickens out of” me. The film even includes 3 of Murray’s brothers John, Joel, and Brian in roles. Whether or not “Yule Love It!” with classic lines such as “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” being shortened to “No no no no no no no you’re not a worm feast, you are a hallucination brought on by alcohol… Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl!”, I know I do.
7- Bad Santa (2003)
This is a black-comedy tale of a foul-mouthed sex-addicted alcoholic department store Santa Clause named Willie (played by Billy Bob Thornton) who uses the guise of the holiday to pull heists on Christmas Eve. Willie incorporates assistance from his dwarf partner Marcus (played by Tony Cox) as his elf helper on the jobs. Marcus organizes each job while Willie is the reliable safe cracker. The forever-to-be-missed John Ritter plays an uptight, prudish mall manager opposite Bernie Mac’s constipated chief security guard who becomes wise to Santa and his elf’s plans. Also included are the Santa-fetishist Sue (played by Lauren Graham) and the hopeless-yet-hilarious role of “The Kid”, whose real name is Thurman Merman (played by Brett Kelly).
This is no traditional holiday film by any means but has become a staple during the holidays for me. Willie’s treatment of Thurman is overboard to the point of absolute cringe-worthy moments, yet when the character arc comes it only feels that much more appreciated. Both Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson showed interest in the role of Willie, though they would instead go on to work on Lost In Translation and Something’s Got To Give respectively. The unrated version of the film consists of 170 uses of “fuck”, and 74 uses of “shit” – in variable forms of course. I find the dialogue to be an unending barrage of hysterics, with the highlights being the recurring jokes about Willie’s anal sex with large women leading him to comment “You ain’t gonna shit right for a week!” and the outburst with Therman as Willie exclaims “I don’t want any fucking sandwiches. What is it with you and fixin’ fucking sandwiches?”
6 – We’re No Angels (1955)
This film is directed by Michael Curtiz, known for Casablanca (1942), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and his holiday classic White Christmas (1954). Angels with Dirty Faces is the film Home Alone spoofs as “Angels With Filthy Souls”, where the quote “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” originates. We’re No Angels stars Humphrey Bogart (who was also in Casablanca and Angels with Dirty Faces) in one of his rare comedic roles. The story centers around 3 escaped convicts from Devil’s Island – Joseph, Albert and Jules – who plan to take advantage of a family-ran store in a nearby colonial French town to secure much-needed supplies. After being treated with kindness by the family and a lovely “hot” Christmas dinner, the convicts have a change of consciousness when they discover the family is in severe financial peril. Utilizing their criminal backgrounds they put their skills to use in the task of turning the store around to be a profitable venture.
Including a romantic subplot involving a venomous pet viper named Adolphe, the film captures a charm that seems utterly irresistible. In an uncut consecutively-shot scene, Aldo Ray tosses a stack of plates onto a table, a few with ease and then the rest with some added flare! Also starring Peter Ustinov (better recognizable to me as the voice in Disney’s Robin Hood as Prince John the Lion) and Basil Rathbone in a villainous role (at one point Aldo Ray’s character delivers deadpan “You frighten me.”) Bogart’s character pretty much sums up the tone of the film by his much loved quotes, “Yes, buy! In the spirit of Christmas. The hard part’s going to be stealing the money to pay for it” and “We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes”.
5 – Joyeux Noel (2005)
Centered around the real-life events during World War I, Joyeux Noel (French for Merry Christmas) depicts the 1914 Christmas Eve truce on the front lines between the French, Scottish and German soldiers. Starring are the German-born Diane Kruger and Benno Fürmann, the French-born Guillaume Canet and Dany Boon, the Scottish-born Gary Lewis and Spanish-born German Daniel Brühl (most famously known from his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) as Frederick Zoller). The film excellently establishes the ensemble cast as the plot unravels with its strong anti-war sentiments typical of any war film wanting to be considered in the same company as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). Once the characters are established we become witness to the harsh brutalities of war as we see the viciousness of trench warfare taking the lives of many fallen soldiers. We only find some reprieve during Christmas Eve as the sides dig in until morning for the next barrage of attacks. It’s during this downtime when the Scottish soldiers with a couple bagpipes in hand start singing festive and other songs of their homeland. This of course catches the attention of not only the French soldiers but the Germans as well, leading a German tenor to deliver his rendition of Silent Night which, when accompanied by a Scottish bagpipe from across the battlefield, sets in motion the cease-fire between all sides. Only the unforeseen consequences of these actions clearly outweighs any and all moments during which the combatants learn of each others’ similarities and the joy of their differences. I especially enjoyed the subplot between a French soldier and his German opposite who have both befriended a feline which they argue over the name of, as the German declares him to be Felix and the Frenchman insists it’s Nestor. According to the film the cat was captured and shot for espionage after the French retrieved a message from around its collar in French inquiring “Which regiment are you from?”
The film reminds me of a revelation I had while stationed in Germany during my time serving in the United States Air Force in the early months of 2005. I had been on a TDY (aka temporary duty) in Stuttgart where I had befriended a close-knit group of German, Italian and Czech friends. At first I was treated with suspicion as most of them kept their distance. Slowly interrogated by them I seemed to win them over when one by one they discovered I wasn’t like the standard American by whom they were so typically disgusted. As I revealed myself to be a warm-hearted, down-to-earth, genuine individual and not some pretentious, self-centered, ignorant conformist flake like most of my fellow Americans, I became accepted among them and invited to many unforgettable outings that I never dreamed of embarking upon when first I met them. During one of these outings at an indoor water park during a break in the action we ordered beers. As I sat relaxed pouring my beer into a glass I looked up to see the whole gaggle staring at me in awe, which immediately caused me to inquire “What?” or “Was?” in German. I was informed much to my disbelief that not one of them had ever witnessed an American pour a beer correctly, as I had just done to perfection in front of them all. I never forget a compliment and coming from Germans this is one I still hold in high regard. I informed them my father, who had also served in Germany during his time in the United States Army, had taught me. Though the revelation came later while in the club Dilayla, I voiced to Tobias that, had it been another time such as during World War II, we would have been forced to be enemies regardless of the strong bond we were able to form during the weeks of knowing each other. War is nothing more to me than the most vile and despicable creation by those so out of touch with their own humanity as to be able to send good people to their deaths. Joyeux Noel certainly reminds us of this eternal truth.
4 – A Christmas Carol (1938)
A much more faithful adaption of Charles Dickens literary classic than Scrooged, A Christmas Carol (1938) is my preferred film adaption of the novella. Though it has been criticized for certain liberties MGM took to make it more family-friendly, I however do not hold these same sentiments, to which I must say “Humbug”. I’ve viewed Scrooge (1935), Scrooge (1951), Scrooge (1970) – a musical version, A Christmas Carol (1984) and Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey, yet this is the only one I continually watch. That is besides my occasional viewing of Walt Disney’s animated short Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) which centers around Scrooge McDuck. Starring is Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, who replaced the intended Lionel Barrymore when he withdrew due to illness.
I am always taken by joy during the opening scene. It consists of Scrooge’s nephew Fred (played by Barry Mackay) encountering children sliding on ice in the street. An elderly lady passing by encourages Fred to make an attempt himself for a bit of fun. Fred, feeling reassured, steps out into the street, making his attempt and sliding all the way down on his feet to a lamp post. A young boy standing next to the lamp post informs him he just set the record. Fred, realizing the boy’s physical condition and inability to slide himself, hefts him onto his back for an experience of his own. The boy is of course Tiny Tim, and greatly enjoys the experience until his brother slides into Fred, knocking him into the snow. Fred is at first frustrated by the incident but once informed the boy is Tim’s brother declares he has “only one reason to be angry. You broke my record!”
3 – Stalag 17 (1953)
Based on a play and set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II “about a week before Christmas”, the plot centers around a group of American airmen who suspect a “stoolie” amongst them. William Holden stars in a role he was hesitant to take out of distaste for the depiction of his character. Paramount eventually forced him to take the role which would lead to him winning his only Academy Award for Best Actor. Directed by Billy Wilder, it is a re-teaming of Wilder and Holden who had previously worked together on Sunset Blvd. (1950). It’s a story full of heart and humour strongly supported by the characters of “Animal” and “Sugar Lips” Shapiro.
Fans of The Bloodhound Gang (such as myself) might even recognize Animal’s voice, which the Gang sampled on their debut album Use Your Fingers on the track “We Like Meat” (“Hey, look at all that meat, ain’t she the bitter end?”). Also any fans of the camp 60s television show Hogan’s Heroes (not such as myself) will recognize the similarities in format – regardless of the federal judge that deemed there was a “striking difference in the dramatic mood of the two works.”
2 – Citizen Kane (1941)
Before there ever was a Quentin Tarantino, there was Orson Welles. Directed, co-written, produced and starring the then-25-year-old Welles, this is his very first feature film, nominated for 9 Academy Awards and winning Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Citizen Kane is consistently considered by film critics as the greatest film ever made and is particularly praised for its innovations in cinematography, makeup, special effects, soundtrack, music, and narrative structure. Truly one of if not the greatest filmmaker to ever live, Orson Welles deserves your respect regardless of your ability to comprehend his abilities and achievements. Citizen Kane depicts the mass media’s manipulation of public opinion on society to perfection. The tale centers around the life – or perhaps more accurately the death – of Charles Foster Kane, an enormously wealthy newspaper publisher, and his final words at his deathbed – “Rosebud.” Of everything that can be praised of this film nothing means more to me than the meaning behind Kane’s last words. As the film revolves around what exactly IS the meaning behind them, we are taken through the rise and fall of Kane told to us by his peers in flashback.
I always think of Orson Welles as depicted in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008) as inspiration to myself to achieve my own dreams of becoming a celebrated filmmaker. Christian McKay playing Orson Welles stands on stage during a conflict with the set builder demanding recognition in the play program for his contributions. McKay in character declares “I AM ORSON WELLES and every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision. You want a career in the Mercury Theater and everything else I plan to do, then remember one simple rule. I own the store. You don’t like the way I work here. There’s the door.” Regardless of the validity of these comments, Welles was an artist that did indeed possess a vision and the conviction to see it through. He shall be remembered as long as cinema is still honored and appreciated while most modern filmmakers will be forgotten with time. As I believe every human being owes a debt of gratitude to the works of Thomas Paine, I too believe every person calling themselves a lover of cinema owes a debt of gratitude to the works of Orson Welles.
1 – The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
It’s a wonderful life but at the top of my list I choose the romantic comedy The Shop Around The Corner (1940) based on the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie written by Miklós László. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, known for his classic comedy Ninotchka (1939) starring Greta Garbo, The Shop Around The Corner stares James Stewart as Alfred Kralik, a sales clerk at Matuschek and Company located in Budapest – though top billing goes to Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak. Also with wonderful performances by all of the cast, not least of all Frank Morgan, famous for playing 5 roles in the classic Wizard of Oz (1939) including the wizard himself. Though two performances in particular – one by Felix Bressart who reminds me of Groucho Marx and William Tracy as “Pepi” – truly shine.
It’s a love story revolving around a couple who are in love with each other without knowing it themselves. There is much more here than the simplicity of the last statement implies, however. In the Book “Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise”, Ernst Lubitsch called this film “the best picture I ever made in my life.” Not only is this number 1 on my list of Christmas films but it has become 1 of my 3 favourite films of all time. It has a pure magical quality, a timeless tale of love and the struggle that comes with life.
Being the hypocrite I can’t help escape from as a human being, this list is, after all, a gift to the world. I only hope someone finds an appreciation or enjoyment in the films that have touched me so deeply. Simply choosing favourites is as revealing as we can be as human beings, yet I decided to include a little more than just picks with my words. Merry Christmas to all regardless of our belief systems. To the Wild Hunt I go.