Left-of-Center Xmas Movies

By on December 17, 2013
Courtesy of imdb.com

This Christmas, I was asked to compile a list of my favorite holiday-themed movies. I asked instead to forgo the obvious in favor of some more left-field choices instead, while still acknowledging the best of the bunch. My loyal readers know that I previously did an entire article solely devoted to Xmas-themed horror films, which you can find here.

As I have covered that ground already, I’ll stick to non-horror this time out, except to point out that if you’re going to watch but one, and you haven’t seen the original “Black Christmas” (1974), what are you waiting for? In my house, it’s required Xmas viewing, but then, my house doesn’t feature your typical Xmas fare, as you shall see…

The obvious choice: “A Christmas Story”
You know it, you love it, and you’re gonna see it eventually, especially with TBS now-infamous 24-hr. marathon starting on Xmas eve. Fun fact: Director Bob Clark also helmed “Black Christmas,” pretty much the polar opposite of this film, as well as the infamous sexploitation teen flick “Porky’s,” which was so successful it allowed him to finance his dream project…what else? “A Christmas Story.” It also directly inspired the much beloved show, “The Wonder Years.”

As much as I love it, it takes place in a time far before my own childhood experience. As such, for genuine nostalgia, I turn to “Christmas Vacation,” with Chevy Chase in his heyday, and an able supporting cast that includes Randy Quaid, Johnny Galecki (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Juliette Lewis. Indeed, the entire “Vacation” series is pretty solid all around, although I can’t vouch for “Christmas Vacation 2,” a made-for-TV sequel that focuses on Quaid’s character. Fun fact: Though not generally associated with his main oeuvre, the first three installments were written by none other than classic teen movie auteur John Hughes, who started out writing for National Lampoon, who “presented” all of the movies in the series.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious choice #2: “Elf”
Hey, Will Farrell’s fine by me when he’s on top of his game, as he definitely was here, and I’ve been a dedicated Zooey Deschanel fan since I saw her in this and “The Good Girl.” But who hasn’t seen this by now?

Instead, why not check out the underrated, polar-opposite version of a similar theme: “Bad Santa”? It features the late, great Bernie Mac and Billy Bob Thornton as the titular character, who is pretty much the worst department Santa ever. If you can find the unrated version, it’s well worth the effort, though it is decidedly not family friendly like “Elf,” so be forewarned. Fun fact: Director Terry Zwigoff also did the excellent atypical teen flick “Ghost World,” which is equally worth seeing and features a young Scarlett Johansson.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious Choice #3: “A Christmas Carol”
There’s roughly a gazillion versions of this one, from the classic 1951 B&W version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and arguably the scariest ghost of Xmas Future, to versions featuring Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, Kelsey Grammer, and most recently, an animated Jim Carrey.

For my money, though, I’ve always enjoyed the version with Bill Murray entitled “Scrooged.” Murray is one of my all-time fave comedic actors, and for some reason Carol Kane never ceases to crack me up every time as the Ghost of Xmas Present. As a bonus feature, you could always pair this up with the Xmas-set “Trading Places,” featuring two more “SNL” vets, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious Choice #4: That cheesy TV-movie you secretly love
You know the one I mean. Everyone has one of those Xmas guilty pleasures, be it on ABC Family, Hallmark, or even the dreaded Lifetime Channel. It’s that made-for-TV movie that’s super-cheesy, yet you somehow find yourself watching it every year anyway. For me, it’s -God help us all, everyone- Disney‘s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” No doubt in part because of the presence of a young Jessica Biel admittedly. The scene where she sings along with Aqua (of “Barbie Girl” fame- as if you didn’t know that) is a keeper, and probably the most embarrassing thing on her resume, I’m guessing… as well as this list.

I also have a soft spot for Jenny McCarthy, who sadly never quite did find her niche over the years, despite a few choice grabs at the brass ring. Though her work is notoriously spotty acting-wise, for whatever reason I thought she was kind of charming in the two “Santa Baby” movies, where she plays Santa’s daughter. Apparently, I’m not alone, as these films were amongst ABC Family’s highest-rated TV movies ever.

Last but not least, one of my earliest crushes was on “Twin Peaks”-vet Sherilyn Fenn, who stars in the appealingly off-kilter “Off Season,” featuring a young Rory Culkin as Fenn’s nephew, who suspects a neighbor might be a not-so-jolly Saint Nick. This one is unusually touching and deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, but in an uplifting way. Culkin is phenomenal and the film, made in 2001, still holds up quite well, though I never hear it mentioned much.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious Choice #5: Gremlins
I adore “Gremlins.” It’s not just one of my fave Xmas films, it’s one of my favorite films, period. I even collect “Gremlins” memorabilia, I’m ashamed to admit. Even so, it’s an unusually subversive bit of work that doesn’t always come up when discussing Xmas-themed movies- no doubt because of the infamous scene with Phoebe Cates where she explains her motives for disliking the holiday- a scene that almost cost the film getting made.

Well, there’s a “Gremlins” rip-off out there you might not be aware of entitled “Elves” that is something to see if you can get a hold of it. (Locally, I’d keep an eye on WUOA, as they lean towards the wild and wacky, movie-wise.) It’s like an insane mash-up of Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” and “Bad Santa,” with Dan Haggerty (a long way from “Grizzly Adams”) as a department store Santa battling the evil elves, who are seeking to create a race of “supermen,” whatever that means. I’m guessing they don’t mean of the superhero variety. Oh, and Nazis are involved, too, because nothing says Xmas like Nazis. Only in the 80s, folks.

courtesy of imdb.com

courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious Choice #6: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Not too far removed from “Christmas Carol,” this is a part of most people’s required viewing every Xmas. However, if you like old-school Hollywood, can I suggest as an alternative? “O. Henry’s Full House”- It features five of Henry’s stories, most set in the wintertime, including the classic “The Gift of the Magi,” which you probably know even if it doesn’t sound familiar, as the main plot has been ripped off countless times.

The impressive cast includes an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe (as a streetwalker, no less!) and her previous co-star Anne Baxter (“All About Eve”), among many other familiar classic Hollywood faces. Henry’s stories were known for their last-act twists and were big influences on the likes of “The Twilight Zone” and M. Night Shyamalan, though the ones here are grounded mostly in reality, not fantasy. As a special bonus, one of the stories, “The Ransom of Red Chief” is set in Alabama.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

Obvious Choice #7: The Nightmare Before Christmas”
I love this film as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, the vast majority of Xmas-themed kid’s films out there are pretty horrible. However, there are a small handful I enjoy for whatever reason because they bring a little something unique to the table.

“Prancer,” named after Rudolph’s reindeer teammate, is a surprisingly touching, disarmingly realistic little film with an excellent performance from the main lead (Rebecca Tickell, who coulda been a contender), plus the always-reliable Sam Elliot as her father. It’s like the arthouse version of a Xmas film, and well worth a look for the uninitiated.

It’s a big, campy mess, but if I see it coming on, I find myself powerless to stop watching the 80s version of “Babes in Toyland,” featuring a young Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. Fun Fact: This is the film that served as the notorious 90s Riot Grrl punk rock act’s namesake.

Also, if you haven’t had the pleasure, the 60s-era “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”- the title pretty much says it all- is something to see. It sometimes crops up as an Elvira-hosted feature, as does the Mexican B-movie “Santa Claus” (1959), in which our beloved Santa faces his most heinous foe to date: the Devil himself! As if that weren’t insane enough, his ally in the fight against Satan is… Merlin the magician, because why the hell not?
Emmet Otter

Last but definitely not least, what with the Muppets making a comeback, there are several Muppet-themed Xmas specials out there. For my money, though, nothing beats the perennially- underrated and lesser-known “Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” It may lack much in the way of familiar Muppet faces, but the rock band with the spitting fish is worth the price of admission and could show Dr. Teeth and Co. a thing or two. And say what you will about the arguable talents of the impish Paul Williams, the songs here are pretty catchy.

Guilty Pleasures- Obvious Choice: “Jingle All the Way”
I can’t hear that title without thinking of Conan O’Brian’s recurring skit making fun of it. Although the movie isn’t that good, needless to say, some swear by it. I would, however, be completely onboard with an Arnold DVD commentary of the flick. If I close my eyes I can hear it now…

Lesser known but way more fun is “Just Friends,” a moderately-successful flick with Ryan Reynolds before he got so actively annoying. It’s worth seeing for Anna Faris alone, as a Britney Spears-type. She’s hilarious. Plus, Reynolds starts out the film in a fat suit, so if you ever wanted to live out your fantasy world where his six pack abs weren’t so prominent, you’re welcome.

Also pretty underrated is the Xmas-set black comedy “The Ice Harvest,” with John Cusack, Oliver Platt and Billy Bob Thornton. It’s one of those heist movies where everything that can go wrong does. It’s not a perfect movie, but it gets the job done, especially for fans of those actors. Picture something along the lines of “Very Bad Things” set at Christmas-time, and you’re halfway there.

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

If you’re of the Jewish persuasion, feel left out no longer, I have just the film for you. In the hilariously mental “The Hebrew Hammer,” “Dazed and Confused”-vet Adam Goldberg plays the title character, a Blaxploitation-type superhero with a Hanukah bent. Though Andy Dick (who plays the villain) gets on my last nerve, this flick is just amusing enough to excuse his presence, with an ace supporting cast of game vets.

Finally, some of my friends took me to task for leaving the notorious “Jack Frost” off of my previous Xmas horror list. Well, I can’t in good faith recommend a film in which a killer snowman uses his carrot nose for decidedly untoward purposes, but if that sort of thing does it for you, be my guest. Just don’t say you weren’t warned. And yes, there is a sequel, subtitled “Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman,” which just about says it all, don’t you think?

So, there you have it. None of these choices may supplant the classics, but at least they offer up some viable alternatives to the same old same old. Happy holidays!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
 
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