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The Hebrew Hammer
It’s the holiday season once again, and many will be turning to movies as a way to capture the joys and frustrations of this time of year. Not all of the most beloved classics are available streaming; viewers will look in vain for It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, Elf, and the like, but that doesn’t mean that other hidden gems are not available. Let’s start with a Hanukkah film. Jonathan Kesselman’s The Hebrew Hammer (2003) may not quite be the Hanukkah equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s cheerfully ridiculous and absurdly funny. Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg, above) is a tough Shaft/Superfly-like character who tries to save Hanukkah from the clutches of Santa Claus’ evil son (Kirby Dick). Judy Greer and Mario Van Peebles co-star.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
It’s a Halloween movie! It’s a Christmas movie! It’s an ingenious combination of both, actually, conceived by Tim Burton and executed by Henry Selick in beautiful stop-motion animation, and eminently playable on both holidays. In The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Jack Skellington (voiced by Danny Elfman, who also provided the songs) is in charge of the celebrations in Halloweentown. One year, he tires of the usual stuff and finds new inspiration in the form of Christmas, resulting in a twisted combo.
Christmas Classics: Vol. 1
This collection of public domain Christmas cartoons can seem pretty chintzy, especially since the quality isn’t tops, but Christmas Classics: Vol. 1 contains a couple of winners from the Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, who were serious competitors for Walt Disney back in the 1930s and early 1940s. Christmas Comes But Once a Year (1936) tells the sweet story of “Grampy,” who tries to bring Christmas to a houseful of orphans. The collection also includes the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), made decades before the more famous TV special.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) is generally considered one of the worst movies ever made, but it’s still great cheesy fun during the holidays. Martian leaders begin to grow alarmed at their children’s growing listlessness and decide to kidnap Santa Claus (John Call) to solve the problem. Young Pia Zadora plays a girl Martian named “Girmar” (get it?). The insidious theme song “Hooray for Santy Claus” will be running through your head for weeks.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Story
The dark, bizarre import from Finland, Rare Exports: A Christmas Story (2010), has an attitude in common with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, as well as with Bad Santa and Silent Night, Deadly Night, but it’s still a daring original. An archeological expedition goes looking for the remains of the real Santa Claus, but what they dig up is still alive! It gets even stranger as it goes. This is based on the idea that the Santa Claus was once a legendary monster that tormented and punished naughty children, rather than a jolly old fellow that brings gifts to good children.
The Bells of St. Mary’s
The tagline for the Oscar-nominated hit The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) was “your heart will be wearing a smile,” and—as strange as that sounds—that’s exactly what happens. Bing Crosby reprises his Oscar-winning role from Going My Way (1944) as Father O’Malley, newly assigned to a Catholic school run by Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). It’s long, and almost randomly mixes sentimentality with humor, but director Leo McCarey was a genius for this kind of thing. It only has one Christmas-themed scene, a school play of the Nativity story, but this has nevertheless become a holiday-time classic.
Bing Crosby stars again in his fully-fledged Christmas movie, White Christmas (1954), wherein two army buddies team up with a sister act to help save their old commanding officer’s failing inn. Bing’s enormous hit song “White Christmas” originally appeared in the film Holiday Inn (1942), but today White Christmas is more widely seen and loved.
Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) is set in a New York City smoke shop run by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), where a series of colorful characters (William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker) come and go and sometimes share their stories. The movie sprung from a short story, “Auggie Wren’s Christmas,” by author Paul Auster. Toward the film’s end, Auggie recites the story for our listening (and viewing) pleasure. Blue in the Face (1995) was a companion piece, released a few months later.
Another New York City tale, Metropolitan (1990), involves more upper-crust characters, with their own set of problems. The movie’s first third takes place during Christmastime, with some gloriously opulent big city decorations on view. During “deb season,” newcomer Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) falls in with a group of elites and questions their little rituals. Chris Eigeman is the snootiest and most ironic (and funniest) of the group. This was the writing and directing debut of Whit Stillman, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) is another movie about nuns, but far more romantic and sensual than The Bells of St. Mary’s. Shot in amazing full color by Oscar-winner Jack Cardiff, this one takes place in the Himalayas as a convent of nuns tries to tame a place that does not want to be tamed. Deborah Kerr plays the head nun. One scene features a lovely flashback to a romantic Christmas past. Don’t miss an astoundingly beautiful teenaged Jean Simmons in an early role.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
Finally, one more from England: In his TV special Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988), Rowan Atkinson’s nasty “Blackadder” character stands in for Scrooge and does not fare quite as well as in the Dickens version. Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent, and others co-star. One of the writers on this, Richard Curtis, would go on to write many successful, big time Hollywood movies, and would direct another Christmas movie, Love Actually (2003).
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[Streaming movies and TV shows—on services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Instant Videos—are ephemeral: Here one day, gone the next. The purpose of the Now Streaming series is to alert you to what movies and shows are new to streaming, what you might want to watch before it disappears, and other treasures that are worth checking out.]