By George Basler
I normally can’t stand making lists. But Christmastime is an exception. I almost enjoy “making a list and checking it off twice.“
I’m also a big movie fan. So, I thought I’d combine the two and present a list of my top 10 Christmas movies of all time. I’m certainly no expert. This is just a personal opinion. Any additions, agreements, or disagreements are welcome; that’s what the “leave a comment” section is for . The list goes from 10 to one. Most of all, have a happy holiday season.
10. Home Alone (1990)
The fact that Macaulay Culkin has morphed from a cute kid into a hot mess as a teenager and young adult taints enjoyment of this movie. I realize that. I also realize some critics complained about the violence when the movie first came out. But come on now, the violence is cartoon violence, similar to a The Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote short. I think kids know that.
Let’s face it: The film is hilarious, and Culkin’s interaction with an elderly character who is estranged from his son adds a level of poignancy. The film’s message of the importance of family, no matter how annoying it can be, is a good one. So the movie makes the list.
9. 3 Godfathers (1948)
This is a John Ford western, and nobody did westerns better than Ford. While 3 Godfathers is not as well known as some of his others, it’s one of his best, in my opinion.
John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz are excellent as the three bandits who find a baby and undertake a grueling trek across the desert to rescue the infant. The Christmas Eve theme comes in at the end when the bandits take on the character of the Three Wise Men in a scene with religious overtones. While this sounds mawkish, in Ford’s hands it works.
In typical Ford fashion, the film deftly mixes humor, adventure and sentiment while hitting on the themes of the importance of camaraderie and community. (Be forewarned, this was a remake. Other versions of 3 Godfathers are out there in the ether. Make sure you skip them.)
8. Elf (2003)
I must confess this is on the list at the suggestion of my wife. But I like it too. In fact, I like it a lot more than I thought I would.
The film is genuinely funny and sweet in tone, which makes it good for the whole family. Will Ferrell’s schtick, which I can take or leave, works well in this film. The humor is never cruel. We laugh with Ferrell’s elf character, not at him.
The film may have little emotional resonance, but watching it is a good time.
7. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, died before this movie was produced, but the Muppet charm is still very much in evidence. The movie combines the timeless appeal of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale with the crew of Muppets characters, and the combination is a winning one.
The version, naturally enough, sands off the hard edge of the Dickens’ original to make the movie kid-friendly. The humor and sentiment work well together. Michael Caine is fine as Ebenezer Scrooge but, in my opinion, Rizzo the Rat steals the show as one of the narrators. No, he wasn’t in Dickens’ original.
All and all, the film is good introduction for youngsters to the great English novelist. Watching this is a tradition in our house.
6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
A word to the warning: Don’t get suckered into watching the remake, released in 1994. That’s like eating a baloney sandwich instead of a steak dinner.
The 1947 version is the real McCoy. Maureen O’Hara (one of my favorites) is great. Edmund Gwenn justifiably won a best supporting actor Academy Award playing the Santa Claus character. John Payne is solid as the leading man. Then, there’s Natalie Wood as the kid who gives a fine performance in the years before she would become a teenage and adult star.
Unfortunately, the film’s message of finding the real meaning of Christmas under the rampant commercialism can feel quaint, and naïve, in an era when store Christmas lights go up before Halloween, and Black Friday is almost a national holiday. But the movie remains a charmer.
Somewhat bizarrely, Miracle on 34th Street opened in May, of all months, because studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck though more people went to movies in the summer. Now, though, watching the film should be a holiday tradition for every family.
5. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
I know this is not technically a Christmas story because the action takes place year-round, following a family through the ins and outs of everyday life. But the emotional climax of the picture comes at Christmastime when Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a dewy-eyed Margaret O’Brien. The song is one of the highlights of Garland’s career, and one of the highlights of American film. If you don’t get a little misty eyed, head to the Grinch ward.
The movie is delight, perfectly directed by Vincente Minnelli. Nobody was a cuter child star than Margaret O’Brien (and that includes Shirley Temple). Then, there’s Garland at her most radiant.
4. Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Back in the day, some critics coined the term the “Lubitsch Touch” for films created by master director Ernst Lubitsch. The term referred to director’s uncanny ability to blend sophistication with romantic comedy. The “touch” is never more evident than in this story of two clerks in a Budapest department store who take an instant dislike to each other but then fall in love by letter. The climax takes place on Christmas Eve.
The film stars a young James Stewart, who is about as Eastern European as my big toe, but is marvelous in the part nonetheless. The real revelation for younger viewers is the female lead performance by Margaret Sullavan who is unjustly forgotten today, but was a major star in her time.
The movie may be a little bit too sophisticated for the small fry, but it’s a delight all around.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Funny enough, Frank Capra didn’t think of this as a Christmas movie when he made it. What did he know? He only made the Christmas movie against which all others are measured.
The story of a frustrated businessman and what he means to his small town is as fresh today as when it was released in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t a hit when it was first released.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story’s mixture of fantasy and reality might have been almost unbearable, but Frank Capra was a master. Nobody ever did a better job in directing this type of movie. In his hands, It’s a Wonderful Life is transcendent.
Moreover, some locals think that the Bedford Falls of the movie could be a stand-in for Binghamton. There are a lot of similarities, so maybe that’s the case.
2. A Christmas Story (1983)
To say this film’s reputation has grown over the years is the understatement of all understatements.
Largely ignored when it first came out, the film has grown in popularity, largely the result of repeated showings on cable television. The growth in popularity is well deserved. No film has ever presented the world of childhood in more realistic terms as a young boy desperately lobbies for a Red Rider BB gun under the tree on Christmas.
The film’s irreverent, but sympathetic, tone fits perfectly with today’s mood in a way more sentimental films don’t. I think nostalgia is part of the appeal as well. While the film mentions no time period, it’s obviously set in the 1940s which many people look back to as a more simple time (of course it wasn’t, but that’s another story).
The movie is based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of American humorist Jean Shepherd, who is one of my favorites. If you enjoy the movie, you may want to pick up his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.
1. A Christmas Carol (1951)
The classic 1843 Charles Dickens’ novel has been filmed numerous times. Most versions I can take, or leave. Exceptions are The Muppet Christmas Carol (see above) and this version done in England in the early 1950s.
In fact, this version gets my nod at the top Christmas film of all time. One reason is the portrayal of Scrooge by the great British actor Alastair Sim. He doesn’t play Scrooge. He IS Scrooge, by far the best portrayal ever.
A second reason is that the sets and lighting really make you feel like you’re back in Victorian England, complete with the grime and poverty. The black-and-white photography gives the film an almost spooky, noir-like quality.
The third reason is that the movie really captures the spirit of the Dickens’ novel. Be forewarned: There is nothing sugarplumy about this movie. In fact, the poverty scenes may be a bit disturbing to young children. And some of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come scenes are genuinely terrifying.
But don’t think this is a grim film. The serious tone makes Scrooge’s redemption all the more emotionally moving. The film packs a real emotional wallop.
This movie was released under the title Scrooge in England and A Christmas Carol in the States.