Here's your Christmas present from me, your new pal: the best (and worst) of holiday films. By Zac Crain
I've got a confession to make, though the only reason I have to say this is that the readers of this magazine, by and large, don't know me personally. Before we get to the confession, let me remedy that briefly. Hi, I'm Zac. I like basketball, playing Scrabble, not eating meat, going prematurely gray, and teaching my two-year-old son how to heckle bad drivers. There are a few other interesting tidbits, but that's the gist. Are we pals now? Awesome. Okay, so here's the confession: I don't like Christmas movies, and, to be more specific, I hate It's a Wonderful Life. But I'll get into that in greater detail momentarily.
In a broader sense, I am not a fan of pretty much all holiday-themed entertainment, with a few exceptions here and there. I like exactly one Christmas album (Vince Guaraldi's jazzy piano soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas) and one Christmas song (Bing Crosby's "Round and Round the Christmas Tree"). I'm well aware of the fact that the latter is borderline insane and more or less unforgivable; I dealt with that a long time ago, and you need to as well, being that we are now friends and all. Anyway, don't hate me for any of this. I'm not the Grinch who stole Christmas. I'm just the guy who turned down the stereo and turned off the TV. Again, deal with it.
As long as I'm sharing, let me add this: I'm a pretty nice guy, and even though I happen to have a distaste for Christmas movies, there have been a few that slipped past the goalie, and, while they didn't find a way into my coal-black heart, they did cozy up near it. Here are the five that I will probably end up watching at some point over the next couple of weeks. And in the interest of equal time, I've also included a few more that I will be avoiding like a homemade oven mitt at the office white-elephant party.
Elf (2003) This is, as far as I'm concerned, what every Christmas movie should aspire to be. It has an interesting fish-out-of-water premise (a normal-size kid is adopted by Santa's little helpers, and then sets off from the North Pole to find his real dad in the big city). It's funny for everyone, without having to really make any concessions to any point on the age spectrum. It does kind of beat the viewer over the head with the "wouldn't the world be so much better if everyone could just believe in Santa?" hammer, but it makes up for that with a heaping helping of the fearless comedic genius that is Will Ferrell. Not to mention that it reintroduces the greatness of James Caan and Bob Newhart to an unappreciative world. Enjoy it now, because in the near future, some basic-cable channel is going to play this on a loop from Thanksgiving through Christmas morning. It might already be happening.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) The other entries in the Chevy Chase-led Vacation franchise are all fine and good, though I'll admit I've always been slightly bothered by the fact that the Griswold clan's two children are never played by the same two actors. But this is my favorite, for two reasons. One, this is the rare dysfunctional holiday movie that highlights all the pitfalls that accompany Christmas in general, and a big family Christmas, specifically, while keeping everything so cartoonish that it never hits too close to home. (If you want to be bummed out come Christmastime, curl up with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Jeez.) Two, and more importantly, this is the first of the Vacation movies that really lets Randy Quaid's Cousin Eddie take over. Yes, a little bit goes a long way with his trailer-park shtick. I would submit that this is the perfect amount. Also, as a bonus, Chase still maintained control of his fastball at this point.
Scrooged (1988) There are something like 52,349 adaptations of Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol, but for my money, this is the best one. Why? Easy. It's because Bill Murray is believable both as the soulless television exec who hates Christmas (he tries to get a production assistant to staple fake antlers to a mouse - long story) and as the guy with a heart of gold who learns how to believe again after visits from the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Wait. Did I spoil the ending? Well, I guess it's too late now. Sorry. Forget the second part of that sentence, with the ghosts and whatnot. Never happened. Where was I? Oh, right. The thing I never really bought about most of the other versions of this story is this: The Scrooge character is a miserable old coot; then, all of a sudden, he's an old coot running around in the snow in his nightshirt and cap, screaming about how great Christmas is. If that were to happen in real life, Mr. Scrooge would be getting another Christmas visitor: the cops. And so, those versions make me sad because they make me think how depressing it would be to spend Christmas in a mental facility. Sorry for bringing down the room. They started it.