Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Movies

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at Christmas-related films. Here is a recap of the movies covered on the show as well as a few other titles.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dir. Frank Capra

One of the films most associated with the holiday season is Frank Capra’s 1946 feature It’s a Wonderful Life. However, at the time of the movie's release, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office failure that received a mixed critical reaction. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the film became popular due to its repeated showings on television during the Christmas season which actually came about due to a lapse in the copyright. It’s a Wonderful Life has since been named one of the 100 greatest American movies by the American Film Institute and the organization named George Bailey and Mr. Potter on its list of the greatest movie heroes and villains.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Dir. George Seaton

Miracle on 34th Street is perhaps the only Christmas courtroom drama as it involves a department store Santa Claus who insists that he is the actual Kris Kringle and is subsequently put on trial for mental competency. Miracle on 34th Street was remade several times, most notably the 1994 version starring Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle and featuring a screenplay by John Hughes.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Dir. Sidney Lanfield

Bob Hope plays a small time crook who owes a gangster $10,000. To pay his debt, The Lemon Drop Kid recruits a group of people to dress up like Santa Claus and collect money in the name of charity. This movie introduced the song "Silver Bells."

White Christmas (1954)
Dir. Michael Curtiz

Music is an integral part of the Christmas season and several of the most popular holiday songs were originally created for Hollywood movies. One of the most popular of these is “White Christmas” which is usually associated with the 1954 movie of the same name but was in fact originally written for the 1943 motion picture Holiday Inn, for which Irving Berlin won an Oscar for Best Original Song. According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, “White Christmas” has been recorded over 500 times in a dozen different languages.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Dir. Bill Melendez

One of the popular traditions of the Christmas season is the ritualistic broadcast of classic animated television specials. Most of these came out of the 1960s and that decade saw the premiere of animated network events that have become holiday fixtures including 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. Among the most popular of these was 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas in which the Peanuts gang rediscovers the meaning of Christmas.

Christmas Evil (1980)
Dir. Lewis Jackson

There is a whole subgenre of Christmas horror films. This isn’t as unusual as it sounds. A lot of elements of the holiday are frightening, especially for children, and there are a lot of killer Santa movies. The best of these is 1980's Christmas Evil. An early entry in the slasher genre, Christmas Evil is frightening but also darkly funny.

A Christmas Story (1983)
Dir. Bob Clark

One of Bob Clark's two Christmas films (the other being the 1974 horror flick Black Christmas). A Christmas Story has likable characters and wacky set pieces but it's also unexpectedly subversive in the way it weaves together 1950s suburbia, the Christmas holiday, and the tale of a young man's disillusionment. A Christmas Story was only a modest success in 1983 but it has become a classic and one of the most popular holiday movies.

Gremlins (1984)
Dir. Joe Dante

1984’s Gremlins is a delightfully mean spirited take on the holiday. In this film, a suburbanite is given a mysterious animal as a Christmas present but he fails to follow the special rules and the town is besieged by a horde of scaly green monsters. It’s not too much to read this film as a metaphor of the commercialization of Christmas. Gremlins was a hit but it was also controversial and, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.

Die Hard (1988)
Dir. John McTiernan

Every year around this time, film and pop culture websites publish click-bait articles about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. It is. Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve and the holiday is central to the premise. But this is also a Christmas movie in that it’s about one of the most popular themes of holiday movies: a man tries to get back with his family for Christmas.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Dir. Jeremiah Chechik

The National Lampoon Vacation series veers wildly in quality but Christmas Vacation is a comedy classic and one of the best movies of its kind. Written by John Hughes, the film is consistently funny in a way that few movies ever achieve and it has a cast of memorable characters speaking quotable lines. But Christmas Vacation also taps into something real about the suburban holiday experience that continues to play for the audience.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Dir. Brian Henson

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel has been adapted to film more frequently than perhaps any other Christmas story with dramatizations going all the way back to the silent era. There have been a number of versions with different approaches to the material featuring notable actors taking the role of Ebenezer Scrooge including Albert Finney (1970), George C. Scott (1984), Bill Murray (1988), and Jim Carrey (2009). Among the most popular adaptations was 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge. Like most Muppet movies, it was a musical but one particular piece stands out. “When Love is Gone,” performed by Meredith Braun and Michael Caine, describes the falling out between Belle and Scrooge. It is the emotional core of the movie but studio executives ordered the song cut from the theatrical release for the sake of pacing, allegedly over the objections of director Brian Henson. “When Love is Gone” was featured on the VHS, laserdisc, and the full screen DVD release of The Muppet Christmas Carol but subsequent editions on Blu-ray and streaming services don’t include it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Dir. Henry Selick

Animated fare is quite popular around the Christmas season and one of the most popular titles is The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie was financed by Disney but in 1993 the Mouse wasn’t sure what to make of the film’s dark and oddball qualities and so it was released under the Touchstone Films banner. The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick but it was written and produced by Tim Burton and it has an undeniable Burton touch. This is one of the best collaborations between Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman and The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical for people who hate musicals.

Bad Santa (2003)
Dir. Terry Zwigoff

It’s become fashionable to take an ironic stance toward Christmas or to spit in the holiday’s face. Bad Santa was among the first and it remains one of the best. In this film an alcoholic safe cracker poses as a shopping mall Santa while plotting to rob the store. Billy Bob Thorton turns in a career defining performance and the movie balances its crudeness with an aching sense of human frailty. This is the story of a man hitting rock bottom and coming around to redemption and Bad Santa is more authentically in tune with the Christmas season than a lot of saccharine dramas.

Love Actually (2003)
Dir. Richard Curtis

Among the most popular holiday movies of recent years is 2003’s Love, Actually. The directorial debut of Richard Curtis, Love, Actually is a collage of stories centered around the holiday season. The movie foreshadowed a lot of terrible imitators but Love, Actually manages a likeable tone and it is funny in a humanistic way that Curtis does so well.

The Polar Express (2004)
Dir. Robert Zemeckis

The Polar Express is a popular children’s book written by Chris Van Allsburg. The story concerns a boy who is invited aboard a train that takes him on a tour of Santa Claus’ home at the North Pole. The book was adapted into a computer animated feature film in 2004 directed by Robert Zemeckis. The Polar Express began Zemeckis’ foray into motion capture filmmaking which would later include another holiday film, 2009’s extraordinarily creepy version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.