The holidays are here, and as everyone gets out decorations and makes plans with the people they love, old traditions get trotted out for another round. Sometimes they are a personal ritual while other times they are communal bonding moments shared year after year. Whatever it is, something about this season cries out for you to stop and take notice of it, and everyone seems to agree that movies are an exceptional way of doing just that.
TV stations play classics on a loop, and many families dust off battered copies of personal favorites to get them in their own, unique version of the holiday spirit. Even my dad has kicked off his annual quoting of A Christmas Story, which somehow never gets old.
Everyone here at Film Inquiry has their preferred way of integrating movies into the holiday season, and this month we’ve decided to share the ones we’ve built well-loved traditions around.
Stephanie Archer – Home Alone (1990)
Many of the films I consider a tradition for the holiday season are films I grew up with – films we all watched as a family. The Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and It’s a Wonderful Life are all films that I have strong memories of and forever have a place in my heart. Yet with all the holiday films too choose from, there is only one whose shenanigans against two would-be robbers reigns supreme year-to-year: Home Alone.
While it has been 27 years since the film’s release, Home Alone from director Chris Columbus has not only become a holiday tradition for many, but a timeless classic. From the moment of the opening score by John Williams, the excitement for the film begins to build and the inner child within stands alert, remembering exactly how it felt when the film was first released. Even with adult eyes seeing the film in new perspectives (what did Kevin’s father do for a living to afford all that?!), the magic and the wonder of Home Alone never wanes. Even this year, watching John Candy sing Polka, Polka, Polka had me and my fiancée laughing and Frank’s cry of disgust with Kevin at the beginning of the film, “Look What you did you little jerk!”, is a quote that is a constant source of reference throughout the year.
Written by the mastermind of coming-of-age stories, John Hughes, Home Alone hits every aspect of family, love, dedication and responsibility. As with any movie, it is the cast bringing its characters to life that seals the deal. Enigmatic child star Macaulay Culkin shines as Kevin McCallister, whose antics outsmart the Wet Bandits played by Daniel Stern and the one and only Joe Pesci. Catherine O’ Hara (best known for her eclectic performance in Beetlejuice) radiates a mother’s love, guilt, and desperation as Kevin’s mother trying to get home to the son she forgot.
While elements of the film will forever date it (phones, airport procedure), it is the fervent story that makes Home Alone timeless and a film that resonates with all ages.
Sophie Cowley – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Every year on Christmas Eve, I watch It’s A Wonderful Life by myself (and usually cry my eyes out). While this may sound sad or strange to some people, it’s actually one of my most cherished holiday traditions. Amidst all the holiday buzz and chatter, the family obligations, and general stress of making sure everyone’s cards are made and the gifts are wrapped and ready, this film transports me into a world where angels dive into the icy water for you and railing knobs never quite stay put. Feeding the tape into the mouth of the VCR and hearing its mechanics settle and churn is oddly comforting.
Ironically, though, this film always gave me another form of anxiety: something I used to call the “George Bailey Syndrome.” It is the feeling of wanting so desperately to escape and move on, but feeling continually trapped, facing roadblocks and claustrophobia. And then, of course, there’s the fact that George basically becomes invisible and increasingly despondent during the second half of the film.
Actually, the more that I think about it, the more I realize how incredibly unsettling and stressful the majority of this film is! But I guess the magical piece is how, when everything finally comes together, we are gifted with an enormous sigh of relief and a feeling of warmth accompanied by Jimmy Stewart’s sweet-talkin’ voice: the real Christmas miracle.
Zachary Doiron – Krampus (2015)
As I’m not one to watch typical Christmas movies, I searched long and hard for that special film. And then I remembered Krampus, a Christmas-horror hybrid that celebrates a well-known German tradition. If you are unfamiliar with the folk tale, Krampus is the bad to Santa Claus’ good. When Max (Emjay Anthony) loses his Christmas spirit, the Christmas demon comes to take his family to hell. Sounds like a cheery Christmas movie, doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly why I love it so much. It’s not afraid to depict Christmas as the mass production nightmare that it is.
However, it’s not a nihilistic film, either. It’s an honest film that shares your pain of seeing that snarky aunt of yours during the Christmas supper. Yes, it’s very much a counter-cultural film for which Krampus is the president of such movement in America. But the film showcases a realistic part Christmas that gets neglected for the simple reason that movies have been conditioned to be extremely happy when Christmas is involved. Krampus shows the darker aspects of the tradition, and in doing so, it gives a more realistic image of Christmas. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but for people who are searching for an unconventional holiday film, you should give Krampus a try.
Jax Griffin – Love Actually (2003)
Before you indulge in your obligatory groan, let me lay down the backstory. There are two facts you need to know. First, growing up my mother and I always went to the movies together. It was our “thing”. Second, my mother’s crush on Hugh Grant rivals only her love of meringue, and as a result, we saw every Hugh Grant movie together from 1994-2007. Some we enjoyed more than others and Love Actually was one of the ‘more’. By 2003, I had just started high school and we were going through that difficult period in the mother-daughter relationship where I desperately wanted to be an adult without knowing in the slightest what that meant.
Then Love Actually comes out and you know my mom was dying to see Hugh Grant shake his ass to The Pointer Sisters. But it was rated R and I grew up with a very strict “no R-rated films” rule. To my delight, she actually allowed me to go with her and so began one of my favourite Christmas-time traditions, because it’s one that I share with just her.
Every year after, there would inevitably be a late-night where we both wordlessly agreed make hot chocolate and put on Love Actually (on VHS no less, we were old school). This carried on until I moved to England (I swear it was not on a mission to track down Hugh Grant), and we haven’t had the chance to continue this tradition for the past six years as I haven’t been able to get back for Christmas. As I finally make the journey back this year, one of the things I most look forward to is finding that one quiet night where just my mother and I stay up late and watch Love Actually.
Amanda Mazzillo – Scrooged (1988)
When I think about Christmas, one of the first films to come to mind is the 1988 comedy Scrooged. Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue’s script helps to build a unique film, which is just as much heartfelt holiday fun as satirical dark comedy. This combination of genres gives Scrooged a push into my favorite Christmas films, since it’s goal is not simply to recreate A Christmas Carol, but to create something memorable in itself.
Scrooged follows Frank Cross, a crass and mean TV executive, as he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas to evaluate his life. From early on, we see Frank fire someone for no reason right before the holidays. Frank could have come across more solely as a figurehead of ’80s corporate greed, but the film mixed together this aspect of his personality and the inherently mean nature of the Scrooge character. Scrooged did a good job of showing the mean-spirited personality of the character while still bringing in laughs and that much-needed touch of Christmas joy.
One strong aspect of the film is its satire of the television industry. Near the beginning of the film, we are shown a series of promotions for upcoming Christmas specials, such as The Night the Reindeer Died, a Christmas action film starring Lee Majors. This montage sets the tone for Scrooged, letting the audience know this is just as much satire of ’80s television culture as it is heartfelt re-telling of A Christmas Carol.
Carol Kane’s performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present always manages to put me in the Christmas spirit. I never knew watching Carol Kane hit Bill Murray with a toaster would fill me with so much holiday cheer, but now it doesn’t feel like Christmas unless I see Kane in a sparkly dress land those precious hits.
Lucy McMillan – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
When this film is onscreen, you know Christmas is fast approaching. Despite being one of the lesser liked installments in the National Lampoon franchise, Christmas Vacation (1989) is a staple of many households during the festive season, including mine. Jeremiah S. Chechik directs, utilising the classic formula of a seemingly wholesome American nuclear family + Christmas = disaster and hilarity. Predictably, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, much to Clark’s (Chevy Chase) despair. As each kooky member of Clark and Ellen’s (Beverly D’Angelo) huge family crowds inside the Griswold house for Christmas, barely anything goes according to plan; the turkey is practically incinerated and as dry as sandpaper, the tree along with Bethany’s (Mae Questel) unfortunate cat is scorched, and Clark’s work bonus is a monumental let down.
Adorned with comic gags and tongue in cheek humour, Christmas Vacation is a tree decorating tradition. There is something for everyone in the packed script: moody teenagers played by fresh-faced Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki, overbearing parents, lovable but accident-prone cousins, and my personal favourite, yuppie neighbours. The ridiculousness of the comedic sequences, led mostly by Chase, provide comic relief for the relatable overarching theme of the movie: the pressure to have the perfect family Christmas. It’s probably impossible to not feel Christmassy after watching the chaos that is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Nathan Osborne – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first cinematic installment in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, adapted from C.S. Lewis’ novels for the big screen. While it may not strike you as a Christmas film on first glance, you need look no further than the themes, tones and messages of the epic fantasy-adventure to realise that this is every bit as festive as pigs in blankets, eggnog, and Father Christmas (who himself makes an appearance), solidifying its classification as a Christmas film in my eyes! Quite frankly, the Andrew Adamson-directed piece is one of the most joyous, festive bundles seen in cinema.
Oozing with handsome production values and exquisitely well-realised special effects, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an absolute feast for the eyes, and the beauty still holds up twelve years after its first release. From the breathtaking, snow-laden landscapes of Narnia and the White Witches’ chilling Ice Palace to the first blooming of spring and the trolls and creatures that seamlessly come to life, there exists a wonder to behold in each and every minute of the film’s run time, heightened by fantastic performances. With grand and captivating visual splendour spoiling audiences and evoking a sense of awe, it really is something magical. Rich in its detail and utterly captivating, Narnia is a beautiful place to visit when snow is falling outside, the fire inside is roaring and the Christmas tree lights twinkle.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a perfect harmony of elements coming together superbly; the ensemble performances are superb, the special effects are stunning, the story is inspiring and the production values are rich. But what works the most is the sheer amount of heart and charm that exists within it, created by people with a deep admiration and respect for what they do and the original source material. This heartwarming story does more than enough to melt away the winter blues – and the White Witches’ ice cold heart. I will certainly be continuing the holiday tradition of watching this film on Christmas Eve – you’ll be as amazed with this film as Lucy is with Narnia itself!
Matthew Roe – Die Hard (1988)
Though there are many holiday movies I watch every year, the only one that holds rank at number one is John McTiernan’s 1988 action film Die Hard. Setting up a standard formula of an estranged father trying to make it home to his family for holidays (i.e. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), we get a terrorist plot instead of blizzards, led by a man named after Franz Gruber, the composer of the classic carol Silent Night.
Besides dialogue rife with constant Christmas allusions amidst all the awesome action, swearing, and carnage, the strongest inference that this is a Christmas movie is the musical score laden down with classic holiday tunes, even Alan Rickman’s villain Hans Gruber hums Ode to Joy while attempting to track down and kill Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Probably the most direct moment is when the film ends, the eternal question of a white Christmas is answered as snow begins to fall… in Los Angeles.
Besides being one of the best American action films ever to be released, it is always far more fun to watch with family and friends while enjoying mass amounts hot chocolate and cookies on a cold winter night. Sure, it doesn’t have a catharsis as you would find in It’s a Wonderful Life or a focus on a child’s innocence like A Christmas Story, but all in all, you can never go wrong with this one. And considering Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, from which the film was based, has relatively no holiday reference or spirit, the filmmakers purposefully wanted to make their 40 stories of sheer adventure the most holiday-drenched action film ever released.
Kristy Strouse – Gremlins (1984)
Each year, there is a collection of festive films that I usually partake in, many of which will be discussed by other writers here. One such movie that has become a staple in my household is Joe Dante’s 1984 film Gremlins.
A small picturesque town becomes swarmed with little monsters on the holidays- what’s not to love? They even have their own Scrooge/Mr Potter in the form of Mrs. Deagle, a crotchety dissatisfied woman who rules over the town.
Our heroes are played by Zach Galligan (Billy), who seems perpetually hopeful, and Phoebe Cates (Kate), his crush who has her own misfortunes regarding Christmas (her father died coming down the chimney dressed as Santa).
When Billy’s inventor father purchases a Mogwai named Gizmo from Chinatown for his son’s Christmas present, a strange turn of events ensues. Gizmo comes with a set of important rules regarding sunlight, water and being fed after midnight. All of which are broken quickly.
While the film revolves around these cute fuzzy creatures becoming havoc-loving menaces, there is still a heart at its core. Combining just the right amount of humor, creepiness and wit, Gremlins wraps it all in a nice holiday bow.
Who can resist Gizmo as he happily sings or plays on his trumpet? Who didn’t watch this and desire their own Mogwai?
Many discuss metaphors within the film or consider it to be a horror movie foremost. The thing with Gremlins is that it’s in the eye of the watcher. For me, it’s a Christmas tradition, a nostalgic delight, and it’s just plain fun.
Chris Watt – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
I’m not a huge believer in ritual. The Wicker Man was enough to put me off such things.
However, I make exception when it comes to Christmas gift wrapping, mainly because of my Pavlovian response to The Muppet Christmas Carol, a film that plays multiple times over December in my house, and the film by which I like to wrap my gifts.
It’s not just the general cheeriness that the film lends my demeanour, but the ease with which one can enjoy it without even watching it. So catchy are the songs by Paul Williams and so snappy is the dialogue, which approximates Dickens’ text somewhere between vaudeville and classic sitcom, that I can easily get through at least 10 reams of glitter-infused, paper-based organisation without breaking a sweat.
Then there is the joy of Michael Caine, arguably film’s finest Scrooge. It’s a miracle of a performance, his transformation from bitter, angry monster to warm and kindly father figure never feeling forced or overplayed.
He even sings and dances. With Muppets. And I love the Muppets. Or rather, I love that I live in a world in which they can co-exist with something like, say, an atom bomb.
Yes, we have war and famine in the world, but we also have felt crafted into frogs. It gives me hope for humanity.
And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Tynan Yanaga – Elf (2003)
This is stretching the parameters of a Christmas tradition to their absolute limit, but usually a day or two after Thanksgiving the inevitable happens: while most of America switches gears for Christmas, I end up watching Elf. True, some of the most fabled classics (i.e. It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas) get a viewing closer to the actual date.
But Elf is the perfect gateway into the season because Buddy Elf is the greatest spokesperson for the holiday that ever lived. I’ll admit that I’m not always fond of Will Ferrell, but he goes all out walking around New York City in an elf suit while simultaneously evoking a sense of delight in the holidays that bowls you over.
Recently I was reminded of the letter that a little girl named Virginia sent to her local newspaper inquiring about the legitimacy of Santa Claus. The response she received was more eloquent than I could ever pen. In essence, we are born into an age of skepticism, often ruled by cynics and folks who must see everything to believe. Likewise, we so often lose our ability to see beauty, to find joy, and to love others generously. The holidays just mean something that we need to get through. Not with Buddy. He’s the complete antithesis of that, and it’s refreshing. There’s a childlike wonderment about him.
So, Elf might not be my favorite Christmas movie, but it’s consistently found itself integrated into my Christmas preparations for some inexplicable reason. Yes, it’s a fun little movie – a modern Christmas classic if you will – but it strangely enough makes me want to truly enjoy the many facets of this season. If Virginia were around today, I feel like she’d be watching it, too.
Those are the films we’ve built holiday traditions around. Which ones do you return to at this time of year?
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