Unlike my Halloween Movie List which I didn’t get published until the actual day, I’ve decided to get cracking on a list of movies for the holidays a little earlier.
The thing is, I need it. I mean, it’s great if some other folks read this and find some odd gem or movie that becomes a new holiday favorite for them. But, that’s really not the reason I’m writing this.
You see, I live in Los Angeles. If you know anything about Los Angeles then you probably know it is the most depressing place on earth to spend Christmas.
It’s warm, if not outright hot. And the city seems to pretend the whole thing doesn’t really exist. Except, of course, in shopping malls. The most christmasy place in all of L.A. is a shopping mall. What does that say about this town and the times we live in?
Clearly, I need some help getting in the mood. Or, at the very least, not getting so depressed by the whole damn thing that I join a cult or something.
With that in mind, here is my ammo for some Christmas joy in a town hellbent on denying me one bit of it. Some Christmas viewing ideas which might just make these dark days of December just a little more holiday-like.
Let’s start with a classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Yes, I’ve seen it dozens of times. But for reasons beyond me I seem to be able to relate very easily to that Scrooge guy.
Given a choice, I would take the 1951 Alister Sim version. It’s not only the best of them but the darkest. However, I’ve also got a soft spot for the lighter, more sentimental version which came out in 1938 starring Reginald Owen. It’s slightly warm and fuzzy but still works just fine.
There’s also an 80s TV version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL staring George C Scott that a lot of folks love. Scott is fantastic. But it looks and feels like a TV movie which I can just never get past. For me, the older ones are the still the only ones. None of this fancy color stuff. I’m sticking with the classics.
Then there’s MIRACLE ON 34th STREET. The “real one,” of course. The 1947 version with a super-young Natalie Wood in it.
If L.A. insists on their malls and stores becoming the centerpiece of Christmas cheer, it could learn a thing or two from this movie. Macy’s is key to the story, as is a certain Santa Clause figure who is accused of suffering from severe mental health issues. And it all turns out just fine in the end thanks to the magic of the U.S. Postal Service. A Christmas miracle if ever there was.
There’s actually another version of MIRACLE ON 34th STREET that’s not too bad. It’s not as good as the ’47 version but it’s totally watchable. It stars Richard Attenborough as the man claiming to be Santa Clause and Elizabeth Perkins as the overworked mom.
It came out in 1994 and was adapted and produced by none other than John Hughes of SIXTEEN CANDLES and PRETTY IN PINK fame. There were some additional liberties taken with the story. Macy’s was replaced by a store named Coles. Their rival, Gimbals, which in real life had gone out of business, was renamed Shoppers Express. But, as a movie, it still works. Not as good as the real one but not bad at all.
A proper holiday mix should have more than just the traditional classics in it. Which is why I’m adding METROPOLITAN to my list. It came out in 1990 and was directed by Whit Stillman.
For about ten years, Stillman had a string of indie hits including BARCELONA and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, both of which are worth watching.
Stillman seems to have faded from the independent film scene, much like Hal Hartley, another NY filmmaker from the same period. Last I read, he was working on a show for Amazon called The COSMOPOLITANS.
METROPOLITAN makes the Christmas list because it captures the holiday experience of a very specific group of people. Young Manhattan blue-bloods.
The basic plot involves a college-age guy from the common side of Manhattan who is temporarily adopted into a group of elite Upper-East Side types as they experience the debutante season. Yes, debutante season. The ritual of being formally introduced to society through a series of grand balls.
Think GOSSIP GIRL set during Christmas but with a far less attractive cast. It’s funny. And extremely well written. In fact, the screenplay got nominated for an Academy Award even though nobody had heard of Whit Stillman at the time.
As importantly, METROPOLITAN captures Christmas in New York in detail. The lights, the window displays, the cold. All the things New York does so fantastically well to make it such a great place for spending Christmas. All the things Los Angeles isn’t during the holidays. With it’s hot weather and bland…
Anyway, METROPOLITAN by Whit Stillman. It’s a holiday movie of a very different sort. Witty, funny, smart. Highly recommended if you’re into that sort of thing.
The next one in the mix is a relative newcomer. It’s called CHRISTMAS, AGAIN and came out in 2015. It was directed Charles Poekle who got an Independent Spirt Award for it.
It’s a very gentle movie that most would put in the mumblecore genre. Cheap, watching life happen, dialogue driven, kind of indie filmmaking which tends to feature young hipsters.
CHRISTMAS, AGAIN is another New York movie. This one is set in Brooklyn. It centers around a young guy living in a trailer while he’s selling Christmas trees and a woman from the neighborhood.
Like most mumblecore flicks, the important things that happen are small little moments. The relationship between the tree guy and the neighborhood gal feels very real. And for that matter, is very realistically messy. Nothing very much happens. But enough.
On top of that, the setting is incredibly accurate. Life during Christmas on a specific block, during a specific holiday in a little town called New York.
Before you go accusing me of being too New York centric in my list, let me remind you that A CHRISTMAS CAROL is not even set in America. For that matter, neither are my next two choices.
The first is a movie that has some seriously grim moments in it. Yet, I never find myself feeling depressed when I’m done watching it. This is, in part, because of the way the story works out and, in part, because it’s just so damn beautiful.
I’m talking about FANNY AND ALEXANDER directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some people would not consider this a Christmas movie in the classic sense. But I do. All those scenes of a vintage Swedish Christmas. Candles. Food. More food. And more candles.
The whole thing just makes me want to make my Christmas celebrations feel like that. Of course, I would need a large house, some servants, lots of money and probably need to know Swedish to ever make that happen. But still, it’s a nice thought.
The film was released in 1983 and is about a couple of kids who suffer some real hardships, especially Alexander. Their father dies and their mom remarries. Her new husband is a very stern, sometimes cruel, Bishop who has his own ideas on how children should be raised. It gets ugly.
But, in the end it works out and along the way you get a visual feast of Christmas, Scandinavian-style. The story, acting and directing are solid too. Go figure with some hack like Ingmar Bergman at the helm.
I should mention that there are actually two versions of FANNY AND ALEXANDER. The first is the theatrical film version which runs about three hours. The second is the version originally made for Swedish Television which is about twice as long.
Both are good. The theatrical version doesn’t feel incomplete or hacked-up in any way. However, if you’ve got the time, the longer version is the way to go. More depth. More immersion. More food and candles.
For my last entry, I have another project originally conceived as a television series. THE DECALOGUE by Krzysztof Kieślowski. It’s also known as DEKALOG in some parts of the world. Whatever.
THE DECALOGUE consists of ten separate stories, each dealing with an ethical or moral dilemma referred to in the Ten Commandments. Hence, the title, which refers to those commandments.
Be warned, it’s heavy. Not impenetrable, by any stretch. However, this is clearly a movie about very, very big things. And it’s great. Even if you are not religious at all, THE DECALOGUE is still an incredible example of storytelling and exceptionally skilled filmmaking.
Krzysztof Kieślowski is probably best known for directing THE THREE COLORS TRILOGY: RED, WHITE and BLUE and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. He died in 1996, firmly established as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.
Don’t take my word for it. Look at the awards the man won and the filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick, who praised him. He was the real deal.
The stories in THE DECALOGUE are all set in and around a housing complex in then-modern-day Poland. They interpret the commandments in incredibly intriguing ways. More importantly, biblical references aside, they make for some truly gripping short stories.
Two of the episodes were also expanded into the feature films, A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING and A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE. They used the same cast as THE DECALOGUE versions. Both are worthwhile movies in their own right. However, seeing them in the context of the THE DECALOGUE makes it far easier to understand what Kieślowski was getting at.
THE DECALOGUE repeatedly shows up on “greatest of all time” lists. Sight and Sound, The New York Times, Empire, and the National Critics Association have all praised it to high heaven (so to speak). And rightfully so. It’s amazing.
However, it’s not always easy going. Some of the episodes will probably connect with you more than others. But they are all good. And they are all self-contained which means you can try one and see if it works for you without having to commit to ten hours of viewing before you find out.
Alright, it looks like I have a pretty good start to my list. I’ll probably throw in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and some SIMPSONS Christmas specials to round it out. But it might work. Maybe. For a brief moment I might feel some holiday spirit even though I live in L.A..
Yeah, right. Who the hell am I kidding?
Happy Holidays. Happy viewing. And may your streaming providers serve you well. Merry Christmas!