Katrine Philp’s unique, moving documentary Beautiful Something Left Behind (2021) explores a topic that many would rather not explore. The film focuses on a Morristown, New Jersey organization called Good Grief, which is dedicated to helping kids whose parents or other family members have died. Only kids between the ages of 5 and 10 are actually interviewed on camera, and it’s powerful stuff when one child, 8-year-old Nicky, begins to knot his brow and weep while making a little bracelet. Counselors and other children comfort him, letting him know that it’s OK to cry. (It “makes your eyes clean” another child offers.)
Kids are also encouraged to play in a strange little sandbox that contains a small graveyard with headstones. (“He’s dead!” proclaims one child, playing smash-up with toy cars.) One bittersweet segment of the film takes place over Christmas as new guardians try to make a happy season for the sorrowful children. This is an unforgettable experience.
Better Watch Out (Peacock)
Just when it seemed as if nothing more could be done in the subgenre of Christmas horror films, Chris Peckover’s clever, fun Better Watch Out (2017) displays enough bright ideas to earn it a surprising “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) is in love with his pretty 17-year-old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). When his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) go out for the evening, Luke sets out trying to win Ashley’s heart, which includes popping a bottle of champagne, snuggling while watching scary movies, and protecting her from a masked intruder.
The movie starts with an almost ridiculous amount of cheery Christmas lights and decorations (Warburton is particularly proud of his loud holiday tie), as well as a hilarious opening line. All of it grows steadily darker as—ahem—other colors begin to take over the film’s palette. It all takes place in a world where horror movies exist, and the characters are smarter as a result, but it also offers up a sinister twist on an old Home Alone staple and includes a few refreshingly unpredictable plot turns.
Catch Me If You Can (Paramount+)
One of Steven Spielberg’s most satisfying and enjoyable films, Catch Me If You Can (2002) is based on 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 anything 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. For Spielberg, this was a refreshing, glamorous return to his 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 drawn 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.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Apple TV+)
What more can be said about this, one of the earliest and most enduring of all animated TV Christmas specials? Now with a home on Apple TV+, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) may not have the smoothest animation—the scene of the kids dancing is easily parodied—but its teleplay, written by Charles M. Schulz himself, takes a most unique approach to the holiday.
Feeling gloomy, Charlie Brown is given the chance to direct the school Christmas play, while Snoopy enters a commercialized decoration contest. The story culminates when Charlie Brown and Linus are sent to pick out a Christmas tree; choosing a misfit little live tree over a soulless aluminum one. (Sales of aluminum trees apparently plummeted after this.) Employing untrained child voice actors, no laugh track, and a brilliant jazz score (Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack album went multi-platinum and remains an annual favorite), the unconventional special somehow came together as something universal and magical, an ode to the True Meaning of Christmas.
Die Hard 2 (Peacock)
Everyone knows Die Hard (1988) is a Christmas classic, but fewer harbor as much love for its sequel, Die Hard 2 (1990), which once again pits John McClane (Bruce Willis) against terrorists at Christmastime. (There’s just something about this guy and the holidays….) The setup isn’t quite as clever, but it’s still pretty riveting, and it led film critic Gene Siskel to name the film as one of the 10 best of the year!
On Christmas Eve, McClane shows up at the airport to pick up his wife (Bonnie Bedelia); unfortunately, bad guys have taken over the computers and her plane is forced to circle until it runs out of fuel, or until McClane can cook up one of his badass plans. Suffice to say that there is a lot of gunfire and several explosions. William Atherton and Reginald VelJohnson return, as Dick and Sgt. Al Powell respectively, from the first film. It was actually adapted from a novel by Walter Wager that had nothing to do with the first film. Director Renny Harlin went on to make another Christmas-themed film, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).
In this unlikely Christmas cult classic, Mel Gibson plays the hard-drinking—and, apparently real—Chris Cringle, who takes out his frustrations in target practice on Christmas-themed cans. This year, his government subsidy check is alarmingly low—he gets paid for the number of gifts delivered, and more and more children are on the naughty list these days—and his workshop is in danger of closing down. Meanwhile, a nasty little rich kid (Chance Hurstfield) hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to end Cringle’s life; the hitman is only too glad to oblige, given that he himself never received any gifts as a child.
Directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, Fatman (2020) is a strange thing, seemingly made up of used parts that don’t seem to fit together—until they do. It’s an odd combination of brutal violence and genuine holiday cheer that kinda-sorta works. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, as a no-nonsense Mrs. Cringle, is a big part of the reason it does.
Friday After Next (Peacock)
The third in writer/star Ice Cube’s Friday trilogy, Friday After Next (2002) is a somewhat dark, perverse take on classic Christmas movies. It begins with an animated title sequence, recalling all those beloved old TV specials, but updated to the modern-day ‘hood. Then, we catch up with Craig Jones (Cube), a regular guy just trying to get by, perhaps not too terribly unlike George Bailey. A burglar dressed as Santa Claus breaks into the apartment shared by Craig and ne’er-do-well cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps) and steals their rent money. If they don’t pay up, they will be evicted as well as pounded by the landlady’s son (Terry Crews).
So, they get jobs in a dingy, outdoor strip mall, which is filled with oddball characters and decorated for Christmas in a way that only emphasizes Los Angeles’s lack of snow. Eventually, the duo decides to throw a Christmas rent-party. Though it’s hardly brilliant, the movie manages to combine a smidgeon of holiday cheer (with some classic, soulful Christmas songs) with a bit of harsh, everyday realism (and hardcore hip-hop) in a way that’s effective and satisfying, like eggnog spiked with whiskey.
Iron Man 3 (Disney+)
Screenwriter-turned-director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), loves to include Christmas in most of his action-oriented films, including the fun Iron Man 3 (2013), the seventh film in the hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. This one re-teamed Black with star Robert Downey Jr., after their terrific Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also a good Christmas movie). In this, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is shell-shocked after the events of The Avengers, and must face a villain called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who might not be quite what he appears to be.
As with Black’s other works, this one is full of clever contradictions and humorous ways of deconstructing the traditional action genre; it plays around with the idea of armor, shells, disguises, and what they hide and what they reveal. Meanwhile, colored lights and holiday tinsel stand in for explosions. Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Jon Favreau co-star.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Disney+)
The key ingredient in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) isn’t a Muppet at all, but rather Michael Caine, who makes a marvelous, traditional Ebenezer Scrooge. Kermit the Frog becomes Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid, underheated employee who risks the ire of his boss by asking for Christmas Day off. Little Robin plays the Tiny Tim role and effortlessly steals hearts. The grumpy critics Statler and Waldorf play the ghost of Jacob Marley and his brother “Robert.” Of course, Miss Piggy is here, as Emily Cratchit, and in a masterstroke of casting, Fozzie Bear plays that staple of Scrooge’s past, the Christmas party-loving “Fozziewig.”
Gonzo, who claims to be Dickens, narrates the story along with Rizzo the Rat. Despite many clever, funny Muppet-style gags, the movie sticks fairly closely to the Charles Dickens story—except the Paul Williams songs, which are nice without being exactly memorable—and the result is unexpectedly touching and constantly funny. This was the first Muppet film after the untimely death of Jim Henson; Steve Whitmire takes over for the voice of Kermit. Henson’s son Brian directed.
‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas (Apple TV+)
The brand-new documentary ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas (2021) starts out feeling like a comedy, and its subject, Idaho lawyer Jeremy Morris, a smiling comedian. Animated and manic, he tells his story. He loves Christmas, and loves decorating for Christmas. His decorations became ever more elaborate and opulent, including a live camel, drawing huge crowds, who would leave donations for charity. Morris’s family decides to move to a bigger house, and he contacts the West Hayden Estates Homeowners’ Association, asking permission for the gathering.
The HA shows trepidation, and Morris swings into full-time victim mode, vowing to sue (for “religious discrimination”) and putting up his decorations anyway. As the film goes on, Morris begins to seem more and more like the worst that America has to offer—the very opposite of the Christmas spirit—while the members of the HA start to become like the best of neighbors to each other. Not always an easy watch, this revealing film is a good alternative choice for anyone who detests goopy holiday fare.
While You Were Sleeping (Disney+)
This is one of those romantic comedies based on a “lie plot” that could have been annoyingly formulaic, but thanks to an array of sweetly earnest performances, the idea is easily forgiven. In While You Were Sleeping (1995), Lucy (Sandra Bullock) works as a token taker for the Chicago “L” train and is secretly in love with one of the regular riders, Peter (Peter Gallagher).
After Peter gets mugged, she rescues him, unconscious, from the tracks. In the hospital, with Peter in a coma, she is mistaken for his fiancée, and upon meeting his grandmother with a weak heart, Elsie (Glynis Johns), she decides to keep up the ruse. Lucy also meets Peter’s down-home, aw-shucks rocking chair-making brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), and thus begins the real romance. Lucy spends a sweet Christmas with the family before the truth finally comes out in an unexpectedly moving finale. Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Micole Mercurio, Jason Bernard, and Michael Rispoli co-star.
Will Penny (Paramount+)
This low-key, laconic Western concerns a forty-something cattle-puncher, Will Penny (Charlton Heston), who has been on the job most of his life. At the end of a drive, Will and two partners, Blue (Lee Majors, in his film debut), and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), run into a little trouble over who shot an elk, and wind up angering the vengeful Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence), who chants Biblical threats.
Will lands a winter job on a ranch, and discovers a woman, Catherine (Joan Hackett) and her young son, Horace (Jon Gries, the son of director Tom Gries), inside the Line Shack. He tells them to skedaddle, but of course, they all end up spending the winter together, including celebrating a brief but lovely Christmas, before the preacher shows up again, his grinning progeny (Bruce Dern) in tow. Will Penny (1968) has a lovely, elegiac flow, with supple cinematography by the Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch), and a focus on character and place. Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and G. D. Spradlin are also among the great cast.
If you catch some double features and get through this list before the season is over, here are 23(!) runners-up:: About a Boy (Peacock), Arendelle Castle Yule Log (Disney+), The Best Man Holiday (Peacock), Black Christmas (1974) (Peacock), Decorating Disney: Holiday Magic (Disney+), Die Hard 2 (Peacock), Disney Christmas Cartoons: Santa’s Workshop, The Small One, Pluto’s Christmas Tree, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (Disney+), Godmothered (Disney+), Happy Christmas (Paramount+), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Peacock Premium), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) (Peacock Premium), Jingle All the Way (Disney+), Lady and the Tramp (2019) (Disney+), Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (Disney+), Mean Girls (Paramount+), The Merry Gentleman (Peacock), The Nightmare Before Christmas (Disney+), Noelle (Disney+), The Santa Clause 1-2 (Disney+), Seed of Chucky (Peacock), The Simpsons: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (Disney+), To All a Goodnight (Paramount+), Toy Story (Disney+)
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