The winter holidays are supposed to be well, traditional. Placing the star atop the tree, drinking too much eggnog, kissing your sweetie under the mistletoe, engaging in the uncomfortable office party and, yes, watching It's a Wonderful Life for the ten hundredth time. Traditions all part and parcel to the holiday spirit and, sorry to say, boredom.
But I don't want to pull a Scrooge and label the cinematic tradition of every angel getting its wings tiresome (after all, I revere It's a Wonderful Life); I'd just like to stir things up a bit, especially for those on movie autopilot. So for those sick of the borderline George Bailey hollering his "Merry Christmas" all over the place, we've got just the list for you. And, honestly, I did check it twice.
10. Elf (2003) First off, there's Will Ferrell as an elf in that costume. But Bob Newhart as his adoptive father? And Ed Asner as Santa? Well, now here's a Christmas movie. Ferrell plays lovably inept Buddy the Elf, who's not really an elf but a large human raised by Santa's elves at the North Pole. When Buddy really understands why he can never fit in (literally -- the lumbering guy can barely walk through a door), he sets off to New York in search of his real father (James Caan). Sadly, however, cynical Dad, along with a lot of other city dwellers, needs extra cups of good cheer during the overtaxed, lost-its-meaning holiday. Buddy is going to see to it that everyone's going to get some, no matter how obnoxious his methods. And he is obnoxious. And yet Elf never succumbs to shrillness or cheap emotions. The film is so genuinely good hearted that at a certain point even the most skeptical simply give in and say, awww ... this is really darn sweet. Even when the dwarf attacks Buddy ...
9. 8 Women (2002) Let's just examine the women first -- Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard. That many renowned French actresses in one movie is something of a gift in itself. Now, add gorgeous 1950s set design and color that emulates MGM Technicolor at its finest and throw in song and dance numbers. Did we mention this was also a murder mystery? That's almost a side point in François Ozon's tale of eight women holed up in a house one snowy, Agatha Christie-inspired Christmas. Like opening an especially substantive French Vogue only to have the models jump out and sing a Serge Gainsbourg song while shimmying in a particularly stunning outfit, "8 Women" is tres jolie.
8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) OK, so a movie that features a freaky orgy and a masked Tom Cruise isn't exactly the Christmas cheer grandma's itching to watch (Or is it? Granny?). But when we said alternative, we meant it. And besides that, Stanley Kubrick's swan song is an underrated masterpiece that just happens to pepper its social, sexual, surrealist themes with the very festive, pretty and, in this case, creepy Christmas background. Cruise plays a wealthy New York doctor who's shocked to learn his beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) has desired another. Upset and on a mission of emotional revenge, Tom wanders around New York and finds himself in a mysterious mansion where an Illuminati-like order of men engage in bizarre ritualistic sex. And that is just the beginning. Bathed in Christmas style, Eyes Wide Shut uses Christmas lights, a ton of background Christmas trees (go ahead ... count 'em) and traditional colors of red and green with almost perverse relentlessness. And perverse relentlessness is really what we'd like this year. Pretty please!
7. Edward Scissorhands (1990) We know, we know. Where's the obvious The Nightmare Before Christmas? That's the Tim Burton Christmas movie. But is that the favorite Tim Burton Christmas movie? Not for us. Edward Scissorhands, which doesn't take place strictly during the holidays, is his most fairy tale Christmas best. Depicting the moving story of an orphaned boy (Johnny Depp) with scissors for hands, the fantasy reveals both the pure intentions of goodwill and human understanding and how quickly it can dissolve into fear and distrust. And its got one heck of a holiday scene in which Edward makes a gorgeous snow angel for his beloved (Winona Ryder) only to be forced back into hiding. A lovely, dark tale, Edward Scissorhands makes the misfit in all of us bawl like little babies.
6. The Thin Man (1934) Though we drain our savings accounts for an Xbox 360 and attempt to ladle big old spoonfuls of good cheer on our fellow man, there are still really two things that happen copiously during Christmastime -- eating and drinking. In the case of The Thin Man, we'll just say drinking, drinking, drinking. Not that the droll, debonair sleuthing of Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles is just about the booze -- this charming gumshoe screwball does involve a murder mystery. But as the story unfolds during the holiday season, we are allowed to enjoy the dipsomaniac duo in their natural habitat of swanky cocktail parties, here occurring on both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Frothy, fun and witty, The Thin Man is the perfect tonic for the sometimes saccharine season, especially when Nora, tiring of good tidings, responds to a partygoer's "Merry Christmas" with "The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em."
5. Gremlins (1984) A funny, scary creature feature or a cautionary tale about getting last-minute trendy gifts for your kids? "Gremlins" is both. It's also hilarious, clever and oddly, for young ones, amazingly freaky at times. After a father nabs a unique present (the seriously cute Mogwai) for his son, their picture-perfect town is ultimately besieged with havoc-wreaking green monsters. Why? Because the owners didn't abide by the rules: 1. Keep it away from bright light, 2. Don't get any water on it, and 3. Do not feed it after midnight. Let us pray this never happens with this year's popular Bratz dolls.
4. The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton's masterful Night of the Hunter is renowned for Robert Mitchum's stunning turn as murderous preacher Harry Powell, but it's also a terrific Christmas story. Two children, Pearl and John, orphaned after Powell murders their mother, escape the certain doom of their new stepfather. They wind up in the household of the kind, elderly woman Rachel (Lillian Gish) who gives one heck of a gift by saving them from the psychotic Powell. But she also gives the film one memorable Christmas. John, so thankful for Rachel but too poor to afford a gift, wraps an apple in a doily and shyly presents it to his new matriarch. It's tough not to lose it when she remarks, "that's the richest gift a body could have." And after John is amazed by the watch Rachel gives him, she delivers yet another one of the movie's most famous speeches: "Lord, save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide ... They abide and they endure." Sigh. Required viewing for every spoiled brat on the planet.
3. Shane Black's trinity of Christmas movies: Lethal Weapon (1987) / The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) / Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) Either Christmas was the ultimate holiday for future million-dollar screenwriter/director Shane Black, or it served up the most miserable memories of his childhood. Because Black loves setting his cynical/sweet/crazy action extravaganzas during Christmas, we can't decide. There's an insane, bereft, suicidal Mel Gibson partnering up with Danny Glover during the holidays (Lethal Weapon); there's amnesia victim Geena Davis driving home from a Christmas party and hitting her head after running over a deer (to which she puts the animal of out its misery by snapping its neck) only to remember she's an ace assassin (The Long Kiss Goodnight); and there's petty-thief (he's stealing Christmas presents)-turned-unsuccessful-actor Robert Downey Jr. embroiled in a murder mystery with a snarky gay detective played by Val Kilmer (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). Again, all set during Christmas and with Christmas music and even, in two films, cute Christmas outfits. We understand that Christmas makes for a good dramatic backdrop. And we get that Black's underrated pictures comment on the real and supposed goodness during the holidays. But we're still wondering why everyone is on the brink and in some cases, completely psychotic so consistently. Really, we want to know. If you're reading, Shane, please illuminate.
2. Die Hard (1988) Sure there's that touching movie about a cynical man at odds with his wife and family, questioning the meaning of life (ahem, It's a Wonderful Life). And then there's that one where a guy does the same thing, only he takes on a pack of German terrorists, worms around an under siege L.A. office tower and throws bad guys down elevator shafts with notes that say: "Now I have a machine gun, ho, ho, ho." You know, the one before the vengeance. Bruce Willis is John McClane, a New York City cop visiting his estranged family during Christmas Eve when his wife's office party is taken hostage by Alan Rickman's nefarious Christmas song-humming gang. No angels are needed for McClane to re-assess his life, just some machine gun fire. Mirroring both the strong bond we should have for family during such special times and the stress we undergo while making everything "special" (some mothers really do feel like they're scaling a tower riddled with terrorists as they elbow through the mall), Die Hard is in many ways, an incredibly thoughtful, message-laden Christmas movie. Yippee-ki-yay, mother ... er ... father Christmas!
1. Bad Santa (2003) Though Ron Howard tried in vain to remake How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it was director Terry Zwigoff who actually got "Seussical" with the ribald, nasty, hilarious Bad Santa -- a movie in which every 10 minutes you think, how did they get away with that? How did this get made? This Christmas fable stars Billy Bob Thornton as a lovable and hateable drunk mall Santa/con man. The film isn't based on The Grinch per say and (as far as we know) we've not read any book by Seuss where a department store Santa makes very vocal whoopee in a ladies' changing room, but its subversive spirit and Thornton's melting dark heart does the Dr. proud. Thornton's Kringle and his dwarf partner (a hilarious Tony Cox) are set to rob the Phoenix mall that employs them. But the bad Santa undergoes a transformation when the unimaginable happens -- he actually feels something for a kid that won't leave him alone. And what an annoying, bullied, chubby little tyke at that (the perfect Brett Kelly). What's so wickedly wonderful about Bad Santa is not just that it dares to be so raunchy (and on Christmas!), but that it really is at heart about a man understanding the importance of a child's inherent sweetness. Without saccharine sentiment, without swelling strings befitting a Tim Allen movie, without uh, sobriety, Bad Santa may be one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.
Want It's A Wonderful Life? A Christmas Story? Read my MSN Classic Christmas List.