The Best Holiday Films

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The holidays are fast approaching; Ramadan, Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Winter Solstice and more than a few others. Whatever you celebrate, I hope it is joyous or solemn, whichever you prefer. I looked for films that celebrate other holidays, but the results were spotty at best. While “The Hebrew Hammer” is a great send-up of Blaxploitation films, it doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. “Eight Crazy Nights” is, well, let’s be charitable — it’s dreadful. There’s the adorable “An American Tale” and that’s about it for Hanukkah films. As for Kwanzaa,
there is “The Black Candle,” which is a documentary narrated by Maya Angelou. While it’s informative and well-made, there aren’t a whole lot of kicks in the thing. Maybe we can get Hollywood to recruit Steve McQueen to come up with something?

There are plenty of movies about Christmas or have become perennial holiday favorites. One of mine is 1984’s “Night of the Comet,” which has everything a Christmas film needs. A Christmas tree, a pair of sisters on a shopping spree, an apocalyptic comet that passes by earth, killing most every living thing, psychotic stockroom employees, the Los Angeles basin an abandoned Hellscape. The always lovely Catherine Mary Stewart and her sister, Kelli Maroney, are left to repopulate the world with Robert Beltran and Marc Poppel. Not everyone finds a zombie/end of the world/apocalypse film to be appropriate for the holidays. Well then, you may want to skip the rest of this list.

Below is a bunch a films and a few TV specials that are staples in the Benintende household. One thing you will not find is the hideous “A Christmas Story.” I have no idea why this film has become a seasonal staple. The 1983 about a kid who needs some type of gun that will somehow make his dismal life better. There’s also a bitter father figure who has some twisted fixation on a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg and a mother that may lack all maternal instincts. Boring, plodding and painfully inflicted on TV audiences as a marathon of continual showings every December, some people call this dumpster fire of a film a classic. No, a classic Christmas film is the one at the top of my list.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra’s films have always held a certain amount of sway over me. We’re both the youngest child in huge Italian families. We’re both big fans of happy endings, tales of the little guy standing up in the face of the unbeatable foe and the fact that hope springs eternal. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a comedy I could watch every day for eternity, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is brilliant and my favorite of all is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

What would the world look like if you were never born? In Capra’s eternal classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” George Bailey (James Stewart) gets to find out. Stewart is an everyman pushed to his limits in a power struggle, and heads to the local bridge to jump into the icy waters below. Yes, it’s a happy set up. George is rescued by apprentice angel Clarence, who is out to earn his wings. Seeing his reaction when he reaches into his pocket and finds the petals to his daughter Zuzu’s — yes, it’s a ridiculous name — flower is priceless. There
is no better expression of joy on any actor’s face as Bailey runs through town rejoicing.

 

While You Were Sleeping (1995)

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Sandra Bullock is adorable as heck as Lucy, the toll collector who falls in love with a man she sees hop on the train every day. He gets mugged on Christmas and falls on the tracks, lapsing into a coma. Lucy saves his life and gets mistaken for his fiance. In a turn of events that can only happen in a romantic comedy, Lucy falls for Jack (Bill Pullman, lovable in all of his awww, shucks glory), the brother of Peter, the guy in a coma (Peter Gallagher). Once Peter wakes up, he’s a self-obsessed yuppie and more than a little bit of a jerk.

This film succeeds based on the extended cast (Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Glynis Johns, Michael Rispoli and quite a few others) and the constant rabble that passes for conversation at the dinner table. There are quotable lines throughout and Bullock is never more lovable than she is here. Originally the role of Lucy was offered to Demi Moore and was offered to Julia Roberts who also declined. Neither one would have brought the human vulnerability, comic timing and chemistry Bullock shows whenever she and Pullman are on screen together.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

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I ran home to see this when it originally aired. I had to beg my parents to let me watch it. I sat in front of the t.v. and felt more disappointed than I have ever felt when watching a movie. It is Life Day on Chewbacca’s home planet Kashyyyk. Chewie and Han Solo are trying to get to the planet in time for the celebration, but the Empire is on the prowl, searching for rebels. The Star Wars regulars all make brief appearances: Han, Chewie, Leia, Luke, etc. But wait, there’s more! Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, a holographic version of the Jefferson Starship and all of them phone it in to the point of embarrassment. The fact that someone thought this was a good idea is proof that the drugs in Hollywood in the seventies were much better than they are now. It’s not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s horrid.

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Well, there is the earnest, luckless, Charlie Brown trying as hard as he might to make the Christmas play not spin out of control and into pure catastrophe. There’s that sad tree that only Charlie Brown can love. There’s Schroeder playing the piano like a mad genius. Top it all off with Linus delivering the monologue that included a Biblical reference that Charles Schulz insisted upon.

Linus asked for “Lights, please,” a read from Luke 2: 8-14“‘And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

It’s not Christmas until I see Snoopy do animal noises and hear Linus return some sanity to the world around him.

 

Die Hard (1988)

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Nothing says Christmas quite like Bruce Willis as New York cop trapped in Nakatomi Towers during a terrorist crisis. Sinister bad guys, a holiday party with hostages and a body count and Willis as John McClane is the lone good guy not being held hostage. Battered, bare-foot and bloody, he makes Hans Gruber’s life Hell and single-handedly prevents the high stakes bank heist. “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” indeed.

 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

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Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo are Clark and Ellen Griswold, the unlikeliest married couple and unluckiest. Family members keep showing up for the holidays, some in “Rolling tenement on wheels.” The holidays spin out of control as Clark’s plans are always too ambitious and the results are always catastrophic. National Lampoon’s Vacation series had some high moments, the original “Vacation” and this installment, and some terrible ones too — Vegas and European Vacation were not as funny or well cast. A young Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the Griswold’s neighbor, who is cursed to suffer the consequences of Clark’s hare-brained ideas. A frozen missile shoots from the Griswold’s utters, break the neighbor’s window and destroying the stereo and then it melts, leaving only a wet carpet behind. If you thought your family’s Christmas was bad, watch this. You’ll feel better after watching Chase suffer a turrets-infused breakdown.

As a trivia note, this is the final film of Mae Questel who portrayed Aunt Bethany. Questel’s film career began in 1930 as the voice of Betty Boop. The script was written by John Hughes, based on his childhood memories.

 

A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story (1991)

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Opus the Penguin has a plethora of issues in life. One of his recurring feelings of inadequacy is being “aerodynamically impaired.” In this Christmas special, Opus finds his true worth in this world with help from his friend Bill the Cat. The t.v. special is based on a story and characters from Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” comic strip. Apparently, Breathed was displeased with the quality of the finished product. According to the Washington Post, he said to a person trying to find the VHS or DVD version, “Hopefully [you will find it] in the rubbish pail. We can do better than that and we will with an eventual Opus film… but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I presume your family was on speed when they watched it. I would imagine it helps.” Suffice to say, I liked the offbeat story more than he did. The voice talents of John Byner, Michael Bell, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman are rare treat.

 

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

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Director Nicholas Webster deserves a medal for bravery for making this film. In the pantheon of bad films, this drek ends up on most every “worst of” list. Here’s the plot: Martians are beside themselves, their children have become obsessed with the idea of Santa Claus, thanks to the constant barrage of T.V. shows from Earth. So, the Martians come to Earth to kidnap Father Christmas and take a pair of annoying kids hostage to lead them to the North Pole and find the jolly pudgy guy and take him back to the Red Planet. Filmed on a shoestring budget in an airplane hangar on Long Island, the plot is not the worst part of “Martians.” The acting is hideous too. To top it off, this is Pia Zadora’s acting debut. It’s one of the films that is so bad, you need to see it, just so you can know how bad bad can be.

 

Scrooged (1988)

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Bill Murray and Karen Allen star in a smart, funny, remake of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Murray’s Frank is a network executive that is planning the biggest Christmas television event of all-time. There’s Bobcat Goldthwait as the guy who gets fired on Christmas Eve and loses it in epic fashion. There’s Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present beating Frank with everything but the kitchen sink. The carolers that Frank insults are Paul Shaffer, Miles Davis, David Sanborn and Larry Carlton. The funniest bit are the commercials for Robert Goulet’s Old Fashioned Cajun Christmas and Lee Majors epic “The Night the Reindeer Died.” Dickens’ Christmas Carol was being made into a film as far back as the 1890’s with mixed results. Murray and director Richard Donner got it right this time out.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

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The release of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was picketed by an angry mob of parents, enraged by ads that depicted Santa Claus as an ax murderer. They must have missed “Christmas Evil” back in 1980. It was yanked from many theaters within two weeks of its release. Siskel and Ebert were vocal critics of the film, as was Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney. Producer Ira Barmak bought back the rights after Tri-Star yanked it from theaters. Pity, since it is an entertaining horror film as well as a holiday film. Not an easy double play to pull off.

After seeing his parents are murdered in front of his young eyes, Billy (Robert Brian WIlson) spends his formative years in an orphanage under the jackboot of Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). He takes a job as a department store Santa Claus and gets ‘Nam-like flashbacks when he sees a couple having sex in the store. Cue the psychotic music and killing spree. He knows when you’re naughty, and you get much worse than coal in your stocking. Oh yeah, Billy has a grandfather that he visits earlier in the film who warns him that Santa is going to get him. It turns out that grandpa is certifiable. So, let’s review: murdered parents. Crazy grandfather. Evil, oppressive nun. Yup, that is all the ingredients to make Billy’s life a perfect storm of misfortune and the killing spree is almost assured by the time he is ten. If it weren’t for the fact that Billy devolves into a deviant killer, I would feel bad for the guy.

 

The Ref (1994)

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Denis Leary is a burglar who botches a robbery and get stuck taking a warring couple (Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis) hostage. Leary’s Gus finds himself stuck in the house with the uptight Connecticut family has relatives coming over and a blackmailing son to further drive him nuts. There’s plenty of entertainment when Spacey has a breakdown and when Davis brings out festive Yule candle hats that are so ridiculous, I must have one for myself.

 

Babes in Toyland (1934)

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Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy star in this holiday staple from my childhood. Back before the days of cable, dvds and streaming, UHF stations would roll this film annually, after Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, the story is set in July, a point lost on program directors stuck working the low-rent end of the television dial. The plot is fairly simple, Stan and Ollie are looking to pay off the mortgage on Mother Peep’s shoe. Having no money, they ask the toymaker for a loan. He turns them down, which puts Little Bo Peep in jeopardy of falling into the clutches of the evil
Barnaby. The boys trick Barnaby into marrying Stanley Dum instead of Bo Peep. This throws Barnaby into fits, so he unleashes the bogeymen from their caverns to destroy Toyland. Basically, the plot is a device to allow Stan and Ollie to milk gags out of fairy tales from an earlier era.

Hal Roach asked his friend Walt Disney if he could borrow the tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from a 1933 Disney cartoon. Disney obliged his request and it turns out to be one the most enjoyable parts of the film. Disney even enjoyed the mouse in the film, a fairly obvious send up of Mickey Mouse. When Disney remade the movie in 1961, a pair of bumbling comedians are featured. Clearly, Walt was returning the tribute and good-natured mocking of Roach’s historic duo.

 

What’s Cooking (2000)

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Thanksgiving rarely gets the attention it deserves. “What’s Cooking” is set in L.A.’s Fairfax District, centering around four households that are celebrating Thanksgiving and experiencing the same tensions every family feels. All four families are different cultures with different struggles but they all seem familiar to anyone with a family that gets together to celebrate the season. Cultural assimilation, estranged parents, gay couples, health issues… if it sounds heavy and dramatic, it is. But it is also well-made and director Gurinder Chadha never cheats for emotions. François Chau, Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Mercedes Ruehl, A. Martinez and the rest of the cast turn in quality performances.

 

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Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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