My Favorite Christmas Movies

I was working on a post about a character type I’m increasingly drawn to but I turned in a lot of grad school work and I’m tired, so this is something frothier. I am insanely, vertiginously into Christmas. I can’t even talk about how into Christmas I am. Like, all of it. There is nothing subversive or “a twist on” about how I enjoy Christmas. The closer to a picture print by Currier & Ives I can get, the happier I am. The other day “Silver Bells” came on in the grocery store and I almost cried because of “it’s Christmastime in the City.” The pictures in I Spy Christmas get me fucked up for reasons I can’t fully explain, and they did so as a kid too. Is this hauntological? Is every iteration of the Nativity scene an ekphrasis? Is ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas my friend? The type of character I was going to write about appears in my favorite Christmas movie so I thought hey, just empty your brain by listing those. I am always conflicted about whether to call things like this “favorite” or “best,” because I don’t think there’s much of a difference. People should have the strength of their convictions to think their favorites are the best.

White Christmas

I liked this movie as a child because I would watch any old musical with good dance numbers. As an adult, I have a very embarrassing reaction to it which is basically:

At Christmas, it’s nearly impossible to not feel sad about pasts I didn’t experience. The idyllic images of Christmas most of us grew up with were not of things we actually grew up with. And like I imagine almost every person in my age bracket does, I have very thorny feelings about the country I live in. I know that the America of the 40s and 50s was pretty bad. What we think lies behind the foundational elements of Americana as an aesthetic never existed. But still I find myself occasionally envious of people old enough to have lived through a time when being patriotic felt as uncomplicatedly good as it could (as a comfortable white person, that is). White Christmas, made in 1954, is smack in the middle of a prime era for post-war patriotism, but I think there are deeper things happening even within that theme. I like stories about reconstruction, returning a changed person, and whether or not one can really go home again.

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the male leads of the movie, start the story as soldiers, but that’s not what they’ve always been. Crosby’s Bob Wallace was an entertainer and Kaye’s Phil Davis an aspiring performer. Whatever they do after the war, their lives won’t be on quite the same track. Their careers as a successful musical comedy duo will always be forged and colored by their experiences as veterans. White Christmas is, in a way, a blueprint for so many Lifetime and Hallmark movies’ “save the small town establishment” plot. Wallace and Davis meet sisters Betty and Judy Wayne (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and after hijinks and comedies of error, end up traveling with them to a small inn in Vermont. The inn happens to be run by the men’s former army major, now an aging man running the business with his wife and granddaughter. That the conflict of the film is that there is no snow in Vermont at Christmas is at once funny, quaint, and too depressing to think about in our era of climate distress. That the lack of snow is endangering a beloved mentor’s livelihood makes it all personal for the characters. They put a Broadway worthy show on to save the inn, but the big finale is just as much or more about making their Major General feel seen and valued in a world he no longer fits in straightforwardly. The music, the matchmaking plot, the love stories are all well done and breezy in that way that makes old musicals so delightful, but the touching holiday spirit is most evident in the story about people going to great lengths, more than any one person deserves, to make someone they love feel special.

Serendipity

Any time I go into a department store in New York during the holidays, I think to myself, “maybe I’ll buy some gloves.” That of course is because of the Kate Beckinsale/John Cusack movie Serendipity. I loved this movie the first time I watched it, which was probably in pre-teenhood, and have stubbornly decided to keep liking it ever since. Nobody I’ve shown it to outside my own family enjoys it that much. Granted it is kind of dumb. It’s a Christmas movie only in that the beginning and end take place during the holidays. The rest is the story of two people who decided they would be together if it was fate, and years and partners later, they have stubbornly decided to keep holding out for that. Kate Beckinsale writing her phone number in a used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, John Cusack scouring every bookstore for it, only to be gifted it before his wedding to ANOTHER WOMAN! It’s also a strange movie because the script and Cusack’s dour guy presence give it a perhaps unearned gravitas. One of my favorite kinds of gravitas!

The Holiday

The mid-2000s was a fertile ground for the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. I’m not even talking about good, or classic, but there is some 2000s kakushi aji and I suppose it probably comes down to it being pre…all this that is happening now. Romantic comedies were ridiculous and star studded and frequently don’t hold up. And There were a lot of beautiful kitchen islands, which is probably Nancy Meyers’ fault. The Holiday is a Nancy Meyers movie but I don’t remember if there are any kitchen islands in it. The premise is this: two women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) are both burnt out – Winslet with a publishing job and a toxic relationship with a coworker (Rufus Sewell) and Diaz with love and her entertainment industry career. They find each other online and decide to swap homes for the holiday. I know Cameron Diaz is truly a thing of the 2000s but she really does a good crazy dancing scene, and I always smile watching her drunk flailing around to Mr. Brightside in an English cottage. Diaz and Jude law are fine in their plot, about a hookup turned complicated by not just love, but the revelation that Law’s character is a widower with two daughters. But Winslet and the man she meets in her temporary LA home, a film trailer composer played by Jack Black, are the best part of the movie. It’s a sweet relationship and everyone was really sleeping on how charismatic Black is as a romantic lead, but the LA story is also one that does the “hollywood in love with hollywood” thing movies so enjoy doing without making it obnoxious. I don’t have anything smart to say. The Holiday is a great way to spend a few hours.

Rankin Bass, most of it.

classic holiday lore that everyone knows, the Immortal Council

When you’re little and Rankin Bass stop motion specials are on TV you just watch them. I really miss the time when I would just watch things and not question if they were “good” or anything like that. We all know the biggies here. Rudolph, Frosty, Whatever. I am actually not that attached to The Year Without A Santa Claus even though I feel like it has some special place in my cohort. Someone has probably called Cold Miser a “queer icon” or something. I would like to give a shout out to Jack Frost, which is a Christmas special but also perhaps the only Groundhog Day special. Jack Frost is so incredibly strange. Our boy falls in love with a human girl named Elisa while working his winter magic, and she returns the feelings after he saves her from the evil…Cossack king. This movie is slavophobic. The evil king hoards all the village’s money and lives in a mostly metal castle with metal horses and knights (do you get that he doesn’t know human connection? ok). The setting of Jack Frost is just a little bleaker than most Rankin Bass specials. Jack is given the chance to win Elisa as a human, but only if he can prove his worth in her world by spring. He doesn’t make it. Elisa falls in love with a knight in literal golden armor. Jack defeats the Cossack king but he doesn’t get to play the hero’s role. The thwarted love and longing is such an odd way for a children’s program to go that I have to admire it. It clearly stuck with me.

And I would be remiss not to mention the absolutely insane trip the is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a dark fairy tale framed by an immortal council deciding whether Santa deserves to join their ranks. Santa was raised by a fairy.

I would also be remiss not to mention that Nestor the Christmas Donkey’s theme song is sung by Marty Robbins.

Tokyo Godfathers

To steal someone else’s recounting of someone else’s words, my husband told me a friend of his once described Tokyo Godfathers as a movie that asks “how many coincidences do you have to witness before you are forced to concede it is a miracle?” That interpretation is also in line with the late, great Satoshi Kon’s own conception of the story. He is a director that frequently deals in the surreal, the fantastical, and the liminal space between reality and imagination, but with Tokyo Godfathers he explores how miracles and coincidences can function in a realistic setting. The story of three homeless people – the acoholic Gin, transwoman Hana, and teenage Miyuki – finding a baby on Christmas Eve is a parade of unlikely meetings, chance, and coincidence. I think the movie asks the viewer why we can be ready to accept such rare occurrences in fantasy but not reality, not for characters who look and live like these characters. The humor and action (it could be called, I think, “a caper”) can never totally let you forget the dark truths of these people’s social and financial situations. The sentimentality of Tokyo Godfathers is blackly comedic and it’s not accurate to call its outlook idealistic.

All the more special then, that these cynical, marginalized characters, representative of the most overlooked members of our society, “the least of these,” still come together to make something incredible happen. Just like miracles, another big Christmas theme I come back to again and again is what we owe each other. The three protagonsts of Tokyo Godfathers have been neglected and let down by others, yet they go above and beyond what they themeslves owe. It’s also a true “chosen family” story, more barbed and honest than what people usually mean when they trot out that overused phrased. These three people, and the cast of characters they meet along the way, don’t share many interests. If anything it’s an argument for class solidarity. It’s a family of necessity and survival, but it’s also a testament to the connections that are possible when we make moral, not aesthetic choices about our communities.

Meet Me in St. Louis

A few entries on this list are stories that I think can’t be fully appreciated without some of the perspective of adulthood. And it’s not surprising, because I think that goes for Christmas itself. That we can be so full-heartedly happy and excited about Christmas as children is an unlikely gift; it’s a luxury that’s rare in life. Taking things for granted is a luxury of the comfortable and the innocent. As a “grown up,” I’ve had not a few moments of being awestruck that something like a child’s wonder at Christmas can happen in our lives.

Anyway, Meet Me in St. Louis is one of these entries, though I think it has something for people of all ages (unlike a few things I’ll get to shortly). The Smith family lives a comfortable, plush life in St. Louis looking forward to next year’s Worlds’ Fair. Esther, a radiant Judy Garland, is an older teen and the excitement is wrapped up in first love and carefree days with her friends. When Mr. Smith takes a job in New York and announces the family must move, their beautiful Tiffany glass world shatters. It’s during Christmas, shadowed by this impending change, that Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the most beautiful and gently devastating of holiday songs. It has only grown moreso. The first part of the movie is like Christmas as a child. The Smith’s glittering life in St. Louis is almost impossibly pleasant and this is only possible when you can take things – like your surroundings – a little bit for granted. Spoiler, but they don’t have to move in the end. What does happen is that Esther and her siblings feel the weight of sadness, relief, and the breadth of what their lives in the city they love really means. The last scene is a flash forward to the 1904 Worlds’ Fair. In the festivity and light, not unlike a perfect Christmas, Esther exclaims, borrowing some childlike wonder, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.” Knowing what brought her to these simple statements makes it one of the most beautiful endings in film.

The Muppets’ Christmas Carol

Nothing I can say will approach the greatness of one of the best pieces of film writing I’ve ever read. The idea of “Kermit’s decency” has infected my entire approach to media, seriously. Like most of what I like in Christmas media, A Christmas Carol is about incredible, miraculous grace and mercy. It’s such an old story and it’s been done so many times that I think on some level we don’t think about the story itself much anymore. Maybe the idea of a very rich man being redeemed leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths in 2021. The whole gestalt of Tiny Tim can turn saccharine very quickly. But Scrooge isn’t just a man accounting for his selfish and cruel deeds, he’s a man being redeemed from loneliness. And A Christmas Carol does something critical in that it’s an atonement story, not just a redemption story. In the end, what matters is his ability to put consistent action behind the words that this insane miracle has led him to promise.

This is the Christmas Carol I grew up watching the most – every year without fail. The times in my life I’ve been with partners who don’t appreciate this movie have been quietly crushing. It’s a great Muppet movie, but it’s also a great adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Maybe the latter first, actually. As silly as this is to type, the Muppets are well cast in their roles and it’s a very funny movie (Sam the Eagle forgetting he’s in a British production is hilarious). Michael Caine is a consummate actor and a pitch-perfect Scrooge, though, and you get the sense he would be as good, as sincere, as affecting were he surrounded by humans as by puppets. The music is wonderful, and knowing that Paul Williams experienced his own form of redemption while working on it only makes it better. The whole production brims with beauty and pure feeling that has, amazingly, not dimmed after all these years. I am entirely unable to say something negative or unbiased about this movie but I think my bias is mostly correct.

It’s a Wonderful Life

There’s only one movie that could take the top spot. A movie that is not just the best Christmas movie, but one of the best movies. A movie so good it made my husband propose to me on the spot. A movie you maybe had to watch as a kid and didn’t get. Please give yourself the gift of watching It’s a Wonderful Life as an adult. There are things that even the most precocious child can’t wrap their head around because of lack of experience, and lucky for children, understanding the regret and sadness of compromise only comes with (relative) age. Like many kids I think this was shown to me with the “count your blessings,” “life is a beautiful gift” message. That’s not really what the movie is about. This story, the life of a man so normal yet so extraordinary, is a relentless march of sacrifice, grit, long suffering, and roads not taken. Jimmy Stewart, who like Kermit possesses a fundamental decency, is so powerful, lovely, and heartbreaking as George Bailey. The aw shucks humility he wields as an actor is charming, warm, and attractive, but we watch as his features harden and tire, the things that make him a good man coming at more of a cost in every scene. George’s life is full of connections – friendly, romantic, familial – but the beauty of his relationships doesn’t gloss over the fact that any close relationship is inconvenient, difficult, and boring sometimes. So many good things in his life have come at the expense of another path, usually a personal dream. His friends and brother go on to live flashier, even heroic lives.

When George is driven to near death, he is in the age and gender bracket at high risk for suicide. For many men, a leading factor in this is lack of connection. George, on the other hand, is collapsing under the weight of his connections and the compromises they bring. His despair is for loved ones, for the idea that he – a man everyone depends on – is making things worse, but also for himself and the life he imagined when he was young. The supernatural twist of Clarence the angel showing George what Bedford Falls would be like without him gives us a bleak succession of worse-off lives, but it gives George a chance most people never have: the chance to see what their head-down decency and quiet heroism actually does for people. He is able to recommit to his life with the knowledge of how much goodwill he has sown. It’s a gift I wish I could give people in my own life when they fail to see how radiant they are. We can’t give that to people, not like Clarence does, but this film reminds us that what we owe each other is beautiful even if it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, paid easily. That the life George returns to is wonderful is not to say that it’s perfect or even that the pain of what he’s given up will ever heal entirely. The shape it ended up in is wonderful, and worth it. It takes most of us quite a while to appreciate that kind of worth. It’s an unspeakably sad, touching, and joyous story. Never has a happy ending felt so deserved. Most of us will not be as decent as George Bailey, and most of us, god willing, will not have to come to the brink like George Bailey. But when we truly appreciate the importance we hold to others, with responsibility and humility, we might see a glimpse of the love and community of George Bailey. 

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