Give your cynicism a rest
Christmas invites plenty of silliness and irreverence, and some of our holiday movies reflect that attitude, but the real mincemeat of the holiday are things like joy, family, giving, etc., and certain movies and TV shows manage to get behind those ideas without getting too syrupy or sentimental. Everybody knows that these 15 choices, available on many streaming platforms, will help to make the season bright.
An Affair to Remember (Netflix)
Thanks to Sleepless in Seattle, Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957) is generally known as one of the ultimate “chick flicks,” but it also happens to be a great movie. McCarey began as a comedy director, working with Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd, before winning Best Director Oscars for his films The Awful Truth (1937) and Going My Way (1944). Perhaps because of these career choices, he developed a touch for human behavior that was, and still is, rare in Hollywood.
Coming near the end of his career, An Affair to Remember was a remake of his own 1939 film Love Affair, but in full color and widescreen. The plot involves Nickie (Cary Grant) and Terry (Deborah Kerr), who meet on a cruise ship and fall in love, even though they are both involved with other people. They agree, if they both come to be single, to meet in six months at the Empire State Building, but Terry is permanently injured in a car accident. Nickie tracks her down on Christmas Eve for a bittersweet reunion. It sounds dreadfully maudlin, but rather than diving straight for the tear ducts, McCarey—aided by Grant’s similarly light touch—keeps everything tender and lovely.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid (Hulu)
Directed by Don Weis, Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid (1955) was the year-end Christmas special from the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and it’s still the warmest thing the old Master of Suspense could conjure up. (The following year’s Christmas episode, entitled Back for Christmas, is pretty cutting, without any kind of holiday cheer.) This one features a prologue, with Hitchcock bricking up his chimney, hoping to give Santa a “surprise” in exchange for all the surprises he has given everyone else (that, as well as for tracking in all that soot every year).
Then, Barry Fitzgerald stars as Harold “Stretch” Sears, a reformed convict whose social worker gets him a job as a department store Santa. He meets a poor, troubled kid and his hardened heart is softened. When the boy wishes for an expensive toy plane, Stretch realizes he must make a hard choice. It’s not exactly riveting Hitchcockian suspense, but it’s sweet. Fitzgerald won an Oscar a decade earlier for Leo McCarey’s feelgood classic Going My Way (1944), which, with its rendition of “Silent Night,” is also something of a Yuletide favorite.
The Apartment (TubiTV)
Billy Wilder’s second Oscar-winner for Best Picture and Best Director, The Apartment (1960) is a bit cynical and a bit sweet, but it’s a much-loved classic, and it’s very funny and very touching. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a meek worker in a huge big city office building; the famous shot of the soulless, endless rows of desks is haunting. Pushed around by his bosses, he finds himself having to loan his bachelor apartment to many of them so that they can carry on extramarital affairs with various girlfriends.
Meanwhile, he falls for the cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), whom, unbeknownst to Baxter, is having an affair with his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Over Christmas, Fran tries to commit suicide, and Baxter spends his holiday nursing her back to health, over a scraggly looking little Christmas tree. But she’s such a damaged soul, with so little regard for her own worth, that she considers going back to Sheldrake. As part of this bold mixture of emotional extremes, Wilder filmed perhaps one of the most insane Christmas parties in cinema history. The film won five Oscars in all, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Editing.
Arthur Christmas (Vudu: Rental)
Aardman Animations, the home of the great Wallace and Gromit, produced this computer-generated animated movie that manages a deft combination of clever humor and genuine heartwarming cheer. In Arthur Christmas (2011), James McAvoy voices the title character, one of the sons of Santa Claus, who is so clumsy he works in the mail room, although he loves his job. His little office is decorated to the nines. Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is growing tired, and the cynical, efficient eldest son Steve Claus (voiced by Hugh Laurie) hopes to take over. At the end of Christmas Eve with all the packages delivered, they end up in a huge fight.
Then, it is discovered that a present has been forgotten and a child is due to wake up Christmas morning without it. So Arthur and Grandsanta (voiced by Bill Nighy), accompanied by elf Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen) must travel at top speed, past all obstacles, to deliver the present before dawn. Opening Thanksgiving weekend of 2011, the movie faced stiff competition and didn’t perform spectacularly at the box office. But, as directed by Sarah Smith, it’s smooth and colorful, without resorting to dumb jokes or headache-inducing noise or pacing. It’s quite gentle and lovable, and funny enough to reward many seasonal viewings.
Catch Me If You Can (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)
One of Steven Spielberg’s most satisfying and enjoyable recent films, Catch Me If You Can (2002) is based on a true events, telling the improbable story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the greatest con artists of all time. He finds that people will generally believe what they are told, and poses as a teacher, a Secret Service man, a doctor, and, mainly, an airline pilot. He cashes fake checks to the tune of millions of dollars over many years, and begins living the high life, although always on the run. Tom Hanks is brilliant and hilarious as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who never stops chasing Frank.
Once a year, every Christmas, Frank makes a touching phone call to Carl, simply because he has no one else to talk to. Along with Minority Report, this was a refreshing, glamorous return to Spielberg’s pure entertainment days, treating the “true story” material with whiz-bang energy instead of dry reverence. Amy Adams has an early role as one of Frank’s many girlfriends—women are apparently attracted to airline pilots in uniform—and the one who steals his heart. And Christopher Walken received an Oscar nomination as Frank’s sad, tragic father, a man whose life lessons for his son didn’t quite work out. Composer John Williams received the movie’s only other nomination for his score.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)
Chris Columbus (Home Alone) was hired to direct the massive bestseller by J.K. Rowling, the first of seven books. He turned in a movie that was polished and innocuous, a perfectly non-offensive family entertainment that still had its share of wonder and exhilaration. Plus Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) has one heck of a beautiful Christmas sequence, filled with magical decorations and a little snippet of jingle-bell music from composer John Williams.
Young Daniel Radcliffe was perfectly cast as Harry Potter, who has a nearly Dickens-like upbringing filled with misery, until he finds that he’s the son of wizards and has been accepted at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson play his new best friends, and Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, and John Hurt fill out the all-English cast. Talented screenwriter Steve Kloves had the job of adapting the novel, and did so admirably. For the record, the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), also has a lovely Christmastime sequence.
Holiday Affair (Warner Archive)
I’m not sure why this black-and-white Christmas movie isn’t better known. Even though it’s something of a minor classic, it’s truly delightful and surprisingly modern, and you can’t get much cooler stars than Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter) and Janet Leigh (Psycho). (The tagline has Mitchum saying, “Baby, you’re just what I want for Christmas.”) In Holiday Affair (1949), Leigh plays professional comparison shopper and single mom Connie Ennis, who visits a department store at the holiday season and buys an expensive toy train set from clerk Steve Mason (Mitchum). That night, Connie’s son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) gets a peek at the train and thinks its his Christmas present. The next day, Connie tries to return the train. Steve knows he will lose his job if he refunds her money, but does so anyway.
From then on, Steve becomes a fixture in Connie’s life, getting to know Timmy and upsetting her bland relationship with average Carl (Wendell Corey), who hopes to marry Connie. But Steve’s past as a drifter also catches up to him, and, through an unfortunate coincidence, he finds himself in trouble with the law. Director Don Hartman was mainly a writer of comedies, with a couple of Oscar nominations (The Gay Deception and Road to Morocco), but not much experience behind the camera. Yet the movie has a vivid New York City, Christmastime feel, with a chill in the air and tinsel hanging on the tree.
March of the Wooden Soldiers (Hulu)
This extremely strange Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy fantasy-comedy is also known as Babes in Toyland, is available in prints of various lengths, and has been colorized. Hulu offers the full-length, colorized version (77 minutes), but it’s such a strange experience that fake, computer-generated color shouldn’t detract from a viewing. (It’s also fine for children.) Our comedy legends play “Ollie Dee” and “Stannie Dum,” who live in a kind of fairytale land with the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe, Little Bo Peep, and others.
The plot involves an evil landlord who wants to foreclose on the shoe unless Bo Peep marries him. So Laurel and Hardy must raise the money. It’s not entirely a Christmas film, except that Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier) turns up in one sequence to collect an order of wooden soldiers that our heroes were supposed to make. Unfortunately, they have made a measurement error. The rest of the film goes off into nearly surreal directions, with songs, a monkey in a mouse suit, giant spider webs, an army of bogeymen, stop-motion animation, etc. It has to be seen to be believed. Co-writer Frank Butler later won an Oscar for his work on the screenplay of Going My Way (1944)!
Meet Me in St. Louis (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)
Certainly one of the greatest musicals of all time, Vincente Minnelli’s beautiful, full-color Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) takes place over the course of an entire year, but it’s worth waiting for the famous Christmastime sequence. It begins in 1903, and 21 year-old Judy Garland plays Esther, in love with the boy next door. There are various other romances and dramas among her sisters and brother, her precocious, adorable younger sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien, who still does personal appearances at screenings) tends to stir up trouble, and everyone waits breathlessly for the 1904 World’s Fair.
The plot is mainly just an excuse to film several glorious sequences, including the dazzling, pulse-quickening Halloween sequence, with its swirling autumn leaves, as well as several notable songs, including “The Trolley Song.” Christmas is a sad affair, as the family may have to leave their beloved home to move to New York. Garland sings the heart-rending “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to an upset Tootie, before the latter rushes outside to destroy a snowman in frustration. But there are still happy tidings on the horizon. Minnelli and Garland fell in love on this production, married, made two more movies (The Clock and The Pirate), and gave the world Liza Minnelli.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)
The world has seen Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carrey, and Mister Magoo. But then there’s Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Even though Caine is surrounded by Muppets, silly jokes, and funny songs, he still plays the role straight and true, and he could be the best of them all. The rest of the movie is also pretty inspired; it was a great idea to cast Kermit as Bob Cratchit, and his sweet little nephew Robin as Tiny Tim. And Fozzie the Bear becomes “Fozziwig,” Scrooge’s former employer.
Hecklers Statler and Waldorf become the ghostly “Marley Brothers,” and, in quite a bit of a stretch, Gonzo plays Charles Dickens with his faithful rat companion Rizzo, narrating the story. It’s very funny, but also maintains a warm heart and stays true to the tone, if not the letter, of the story. Paul Williams wrote the not particularly memorable, but not entirely awful, songs. This was the first Muppet film made after the untimely death of Jim Henson in 1990; Steve Whitmire took over as the voice of Kermit, and Henson’s son Brian directed.
The Shop Around the Corner (Vudu: Rental)
Though he’s frequently overlooked today, back in his day, Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was one of the most respected and admired of all film directors. He was known for “The Lubitsch Touch,” a certain undefinable approach to sophisticated comedy that was difficult to describe, but easy to see. His Christmas season comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), was arguably one of his best, subtlest, and most moving efforts. It was based on a Hungarian play, and continues to take place in Budapest, Hungary, even though all dialogue is in English.
Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is a top salesman in a leather goods store. Klara (Margaret Sullavan) comes in looking for a job and, while she annoys Kralik, she manages to convince the boss, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), that she has what it takes. The Christmas season approaches, and drama simmers in the store; someone is having an affair with the boss’s wife—handled delicately for 1940s audiences—and Mr. Matuschek suspects Kralik. Meanwhile, Kralik is carrying on an anonymous love affair through letters, without having met his pen-pal, and without knowing that it’s actually Klara! William Tracy is hilarious as Pepi, the delivery-boy-turned-clerk. The final wrap-up is as lovely as anything in any Christmas movie.
The Thin Man (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)
MGM was known among movie studios for its polished, high-class entertainments, but somehow this scrappy little gem escaped its gates. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke II, also known as “One Take Woody,” famous for his quick shooting methods. The Thin Man (1934) was shot in something like 12 days for only about a quarter of a million dollars (it eventually grossed $1.4 million). His methods resulted in a film that seems relaxed and natural, complete with moments that feel almost like accidents rather than professional moments of acting.
Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the movie takes off in a new direction, building on the amazing onscreen chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy as married couple Nick and Norah Charles. A great detective, Nick simply wants to retire, drink, and enjoy his wife’s fortune, but she longs for excitement and gently goads him into getting back into the detective game. An old friend of the family’s, Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan), provides an opportunity when her father goes missing. The dinner table denouncement became a staple of the series, but it’s the warm and funny Christmas Day scene that makes this a holiday classic. “Skippy” co-stars as the Charles’ silly dog Asta. Five more Thin Man films followed.
The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek (Netflix)
It’s a shame that the one Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone came during the time of an experiment; the producers wanted to try shooting on video rather than film to save money, but the video of 1960 looked horribly bleary, emphasizing staginess, and the money saved wasn’t enough to justify it. Nevertheless, despite this shortcoming, the Season 2, Episode 11 “The Night of the Meek” (1960) is a wonderful story, providing a little holiday cheer while still keeping with the show’s cautionary themes.
Art Carney (The Honeymooners) stars as Henry Corwin, a down-and-out, drunken department store Santa who loses his job. He wishes that he could really do some good for the “meek” and suddenly trips on a magic bag in an alleyway, a bag that seems capable of producing any gift. He spends the evening providing presents for the most deserving souls, and narrowly avoiding trouble, before finally making a wish for himself. Writer Rod Serling closes with: “There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas and there’s a special power reserved for little people. In short, there’s nothing mightier than the meek.”
The Year Without a Santa Claus (Amazon Prime)
Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass were the kings of the holiday TV specials, with over a dozen Christmas specials alone. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) was their first, and best, but the stop-motion The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) deserves to be a cult classic. To begin, the hero of the story is actually Mrs. Claus (voiced by Shirley Booth), trying her best to save Christmas when Santa Claus (voiced by Mickey Rooney) comes down with a bad cold, and is told by his doctor that no one cares about Christmas anyway.
Two elves, Jingle and Jangle, and the reindeer Vixen get stuck in a small town where it doesn’t snow. Disguised as a dog, Vixen is captured and taken to the pound. The mayor agrees to free the reindeer, if the elves and Mrs. Claus can make it snow. So the trio journeys to visit the feuding brothers, Heat Miser (voiced by George S. Irving) and Snow Miser (voiced by Dick Shawn), to broker a deal. Their respective theme songs (“I’m too much!”) are insanely catchy, and are guaranteed to perk up even the grinchiest viewers. And a little girl singing “Blue Christmas” to Santa will elicit a tear from the sternest
Fireplace for Your Home (Netflix)
Apparently the idea of a yule log on your TV screen began all the way back in 1969, when local stations broadcast a loop of a burning log, accompanied by holiday music, for a couple of hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Since then, many videos and DVDs have been released, with different fires and different types of music and now Netflix features its own fire.
There are three “episodes,” one with cheesy Christmas synthesizer music, one with crackling fire noises and no music, and one with non-Christmasy music. Each one runs an hour, and Netflix has them set up so that they will automatically play concurrently. Otherwise, viewers must get up and reset their fire once an hour. There’s also a “Birchwood” edition, the significance of which eludes me. Additionally, Netflix has Fireplace and Melodies for the Holidays, which runs two hours and features simpler, less cheesy piano music. Whether you enjoy a video fire, a real one, or just some warmth of the heart, here’s wishing you the happiest of holidays!