DVD columnist and online movies editor
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 2:00 PM
There's more to holiday movies than George Bailey and Red Ryder BB guns. To prove it, Jen Chaney, movies editor and DVD columnist for washingtonpost.com, created her fourth annual list of unconventional Christmas-themed movies that provide an alternative to the usual screenings of "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Story" and "Elf." (Here are links to the first annual list, the second and the third.)
Chaney will be online to discuss that list, hear your gripes about what was omitted and discuss your favorite all-time holiday movie moments during an online discussion on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET.
Chaney oversees movie coverage for washingtonpost.com and writes the Bonus Points DVD column, which appears every Tuesday on washingtonpost.com and each Friday in the Post's Weekend section. Along with her co-hort Liz Kelly, she also obsesses daily about the TV show "Lost."
Jen Chaney: Happy holidays. These chats -- and the lists -- have turned into annual occasions, ones that I hope you all enjoy as much as I do.
Throwing out references to "Diner" and "Penny Serenade," singing the praises of "It's a Wonderful Life" because we can't help ourselves and getting to engage in my yearly bashing of "Love Actually" ... it's all such a heart-warming tradition.
I've added the links to this year's unconventional holiday movie list, as well as all three of the previous ones, to the intro above. (Neglected to do that earlier. This is what happens when you publish the discussion *before* the list itself.)
I'm eager to hear your thoughts about this year's list -- yes, including your complaints -- and to celebrate all manner of holiday-season pop culture.
So let's do this, Heat Misers.
Anapolis, MD: Bad Santa! I normally hate movies about alcoolics, but this one made me laugh out loud.
Jen Chaney: Well, there's a genre we haven't explored in list form -- films about alcoholics. "Bad Santa," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Leaving Las Vegas" ... that's got potential!
I like "Bad Santa," too, I just leave it off the lists because I think people already think of that as a Christmas movie. So while it's unconventional in terms of most modern Christmas movies (darker themes and humor), I think most people are fairly familiar with it.
If I'm wrong, though, feel free to tell me!
Can't figure you out: How can you correctly deem The Ref as being worthy and not Love Actually? These are my 2 favorite holiday movies of all times, though they are obviously very different. Explain, please!
Jen Chaney: I am confusing like that, aren't I?
Well, here's the deal. "Love Actually" is technically worthy. The only reason I haven't included it is because I really don't like the movie. And now it's -- probably unfairly -- turned into a principle of mine.
Of course, if/when I get to year eight of doing these lists and I am starting to run out of movies (if that's possible) it may show up!
BTW, I appreciate that your two favorite holiday movies so widely span the gamut from the almost toxically comic ("Ref") to the saccharine ("Love Actually"). The mark of an open mind.
Harrisburg, PA: My favorite "nontraditional" Christmas movies are
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS -- both a Halloween AND a Christmas movie!
DESK SET -- Hepburn and Tracy at Christmas time
Jen Chaney: Nice call on these. And I don't think "Desk Set" is on my master list of unconventional holiday movies that I am continually adding to ... consider it added!
Not just movies are overlooked...: I submit for your consideration the oodles of Christmas episodes that viewers should consider this season. These are not unconventional, but rather, blatant Christmas episodes but still overlooked. Some of my favorites: "I Love Lucy" Christmas special, "Andy Griffith Show" Christmas episode, the first "Simpsons" that aired (Christmas episode), "Frasier" (one in particular from season 6: Merry Christmas Mrs. Moskowitz), "the Office" and all of its awful parties, etc.. There are plenty more - I get giddy in July when I catch a Christmas episode!
Jen Chaney: I didn't do it this year, but I have mixed in TV shows -- "Simpsons," "Office" -- on some past lists.
I also wrote a list of awesome holiday TV episodes in Celebritology last year, which touches on a couple of the ones you mention.
For people looking to watch at home, these are definitely worth mentioning since most are viewable on DVD and easier to watch if your time is limited. You can also create a nice little TV holiday marathon that way!
Arlington, VA: I have two unconventional favorites. First, The Dead, John Huston's film version of James Joyce's story of a Christmas Eve dinner in turn of the 20th century Dublin. Alternatively funny and sad. It starred Huston's daughter Angelica, and I believe that his son did the screen play. The other is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The last scene takes place at a gas station on Christmas Eve when the two young lovers, now older and married to others, have a chance meeting. Michel Legrand's music plus Catherine Deneuve--I still watch it every year.
Jen Chaney: Oh, "Umbrellas" is a very nice suggestion. Thanks for that.
And "The Dead" very nearly made the list this year. I had to make some tough calls ("Lion in Winter" and "Trading Places" also didn't make the final cut, but surely will in future years).
Thanks for sharing these.
Conventional?: Even 10 years ago, I would never have labeled "A Christmas Story" as a conventional holiday movie. Has the movie been around so long that it's become conventional? Or is it that the the standard for unconventionality is higher than it used to be?
Jen Chaney: Conventional is sort of a dicey word, I'll grant you that.
But I think "A Christmas Story" has become a pretty standard holiday movie choice. Once you start showing a film for 24 straight hours on TBS, I think it enters the collective consciousness as a yuletide favorite.
Not saying I don't love it, because I do. And I will be watching that aforementioned marathon come Christmas Eve, as I wrap gifts. Oh, and yes, I do have a leg lamp that sits on an end table in my home. Thank you for asking.
We could use a little Christmas...: Jen :
I think Hollywood has really overlooked the Christmas horror genre -- you know like the homicidal Santa in "Tales From the Crypt" that stalks poor Joan Collins. I think Slay Bells and murderous elves would really set some box office records. What say you ?
Jen Chaney: I should probably chuck in a horror movie or two one of these years. "Silent Night, Deadly Night" just seems like it's in such poor taste that I don't want to touch it.
But maybe "Crypt" or something else would be a good choice. I did mention "Gremlins" in the first list I did, back in 2006.
Greenbelt, Md.: Have you ever seen "Black Christmas"?? It is a horror flick from the 70's. Never has Christmas been so scary, where the singing of carolers masks the screams upstairs. It's very creepy, at times funny, and Olivia Hussey (Juliet, from that Romeo & Juliet we all had to watch in high school) is just lovely and sympathetic. I think this is the perfect movie for the dark side of this holiday season.
Jen Chaney: I ask for a horror holiday movie, and I get one. Excellent.
It's going on the master list -- thanks, Greenbelt!
Nevermind....: I just looked through your previous lists and noticed references to TV shows. Bravo!
As I mentioned in my comment to the story, please add "Funny Farm" to your list next year. The whole end of the movie centers around the townspeople of Redbud pretending to be like the iconomic Christmas celebrants depicted by Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post.
Jen Chaney: "Funny Farm" has been duly noted.
A couple of others, from France: Credit goes to Netflix for the summaries, but here are two good ones:
1. Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noel: As the French, Scottish and German soldiers prepare to open their presents on Christmas Eve, 1914, a momentous event occurs that changes the destinies of four people: an Anglican priest, a French lieutenant, a world-class tenor and his soprano lover.
2. A Christmas Tale/Un Conte de Noel: Arnaud Desplechin directs this artfully unconventional tale about members of a dysfunctional family who come together for a strained and animosity-filled Christmas reunion.
Jen Chaney: "Joyeux Noel" is another one that's been on the list for a while but hasn't ended up in the final 10. Definitely will consider it for next.
And the only reason I didn't include "A Christmas Tale" is because I recently reviewed it so I felt like including it might be a bit redundant. But it's a good one to recommend, totally agree.
couple other: Some newer ones: "The Holiday," "The Preacher's Wife," and "Serendipity."
Jen Chaney: More to add to your lists, kids. Thanks.
Portland, OR: Admittedly, this is a Thanksgiving movie but it's all in the same month-long holiday season. After years of hearing about what a great movie Home for the Holidays is, I finally watched it. What is its appeal? The characters--all of them--were annoying to the point of being painful to watch. Every moment of this film was hellish. I turned it off about 20 minutes before the end because I just couldn't take it any longer.
Jen Chaney: I included "Home for the Holidays" on my Thanksgiving movie list this year. I agree that it isn't exceptional, but I find both Ann Bancroft and Robert Downey Jr. compelling enough to carry it.
That said, I can see why you would find the characters annoying.
Montreal, Canada: Thanks for including "Christmas in Connecticut" on your list this year. It's been my favorite Christmas movie since I first saw it at least 25 years ago. (There's a made-for-TV version from the 90's with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, but I would refuse to watch it on principle.)
No one, though, has made the one Christmas movie I'd like to see someday...a movie about what the world would be like if "It's a Wonderful Life" had never been made.
Jen Chaney: You're very welcome, Montreal.
And what a great concept -- what would the world be like without George Bailey, the fictional character? For starters, all those "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building & Loan" references would make absolutely zero sense.
Few more....: Stepmom (particularly touching exchange on gifts on Christmas), The Family Stone (a painful movie to watch), While You Were Sleeping - I like this one the best of all these.
Jen Chaney: "Stepmom" had its moments, certainly. It will make you weep despite yourself.
I remember not liking "While You Were Sleeping" when I first saw it, which was years ago, and I have no idea why. I suspect I was too hard on it and maybe should give it another chance.
Anyway, thanks for these.
Alexandria, Va.: Canadian Bacon. A war with Canada at Christmastime with John Candy is just what everyone wants.
In a similar vein, I'd have to say Strange Brew is one of my favorites, and usually pops up at Christmastime.
Jen Chaney: Is there a Christmas scene in "Strange Brew"? It's been ages since I've watched that. Do they sing their version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" in that?
Perhaps it's the '80s child in me but the Bob and Doug McKenzie version of that song -- "And a beer in a tree" -- still cracks me up. May have to check out that and "Canadian Bacon" before next year. Canada deserves to be better represented!
My favorite: My favorite Christmas movie is "Men in Black". I don't know how it started, but it's become a family tradition.
Jen Chaney: Interesting, and definitely unconventional.
Falls Church, NC: I am looking for a good holiday movie to show my kids (ages 4 and 7.) They especially like musicals. They are both very easily scared and almost all Disney type things are too scary. Also, they believe completely in Santa, so nothing where there is reference to him not being real! Any suggestions?
Jen Chaney: Hmmm ... Universal released a Curious George Christmas movie on DVD this year that has some songs in it and doesn't contain much in the way of scares. That might be a good option.
Other ideas that immediately come to me -- "Nightmare Before Christmas," "Meet Me in St. Louis" -- definitely have some potentially frightening material. That's a tough one.
Richmond, Va: Thank you so much for reminding me about Penny Serenede. What a great move that hardly anyone knows. The pageant scenes are wonderful and heartbreaking. I can't wait to see the movie again.
Jen Chaney: How good is Cary Grant in that movie? The scene where he pleads with the judge is just a crusher.
Glad you appreciated that one. Turner Classic Movies recently aired it, and may do so again. And it's on DVD, of course.
Olney, MD: Am I the only person in the world who hates A Christmas Story? I hate, loathe, despise that movie. I'll be watching Scrooged with Bill Murray (and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim!) or A Muppet Christmas Carol with Kermit T. Frog as Bob Cratchit and Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit (she finally got her frog!).
Jen Chaney: Yes, Olney. It's just you. You, and Scut Farcus.
Just kidding, you have every right in the world to loathe it. "Scrooged" and the Muppet Carol are certainly fine substitutes.
I'm sure you know this, but for your own sanity: don't turn on TBS on Christmas Eve night. You might blow a gasket.
Wash DC: Yay, Lethal Weapon made the list! I mentioned it last year during this chat. I used to watch it every Xmas. And there is nothing like a movie that has both Christmas and Southern California.
Jen Chaney: I promised during last year's chat that I would watch "Lethal Weapon" and I kept that promise!
I have to say, though, that movie has not aged well. The score practically collapses beneath the weight of cheesy saxophones. On the plus side, I love the fact that there is a showdown for the title of Capt. Crazy between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey. Tough call, that one.
Jolly Holly: Perhaps next year in addition to the Canadian list you could also do a list of the best Boxing Day movies. Good luck with that one.
Jen Chaney: Or how about a list of the best Boxing Day movies made by Canadian filmmakers that also are about alcoholics?
I mean, for starters there's .... and also ....
Chesapeake Beach, MD: I can't believe you skipped "Die Hard," which takes place entirely during a Chrismas party on Christmas Eve and put in Lethal Weapon for a gun fight on a Christmas tree lot.
Jen Chaney: I didn't include it this year only because it made the list the first year out of the gate. I would never overlook John McLane.
Columbus OH: Then there's the Robert Mitchum classic, "The Night of the Hunter" that has its climax at Christmas...not exactly a holiday movie, but maybe a link.
Jen Chaney: Oh, that's a goodie. Thanks, Columbus.
Love Actually: Thank you! Everyone raves about the movie and I couldn't even bother to finish watching it. Now I know I am not the only person who receives aghast looks when I say the movie was blah. Lets all watch Shaun of the Dead - what better way to celebrate Christmas cheer than to know you aren't being eaten by a zombie...even if it really has nothing to do with the season.
Jen Chaney: Finally, someone is on *my* side in all this.
Relating "Shaun of the Dead" to the holidays would be a stretch, but if you watch it while wearing, like, reindeer antlers, I'll give you a pass. Huge fan of that movie, at any time of year.
Almost Famous: begins at Christmastime. And you get to hear the always-delightful Chipmunks Christmas song.
Jen Chaney: Wow, I had forgotten that.
And ... it goes on the master list!
Mixed Nuts!: That early-ish 90s Nora Ephron movie with the absolutely divine Madeline Kahn. Or, better yet, the French 80s version called Santa Claus is a Bastard.
Jen Chaney: On the master list, but again, duly noted. You guys are good.
Merry Christmas to you Queen of the DVDs: Maybe it's because I have so much gray in my hair but I really like some of the older movies like The Bishop's Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant. That film makes my season every year!
Jen Chaney: Hey, it doesn't matter if you're gray or not. I love that making this list gives me an excuse to watch some of these old gems. They're wonderful.
Washington, DC: The most overlooked and/or underrated Christmas movie of all time....
Jen Chaney: It is overlooked, although less so by us Gen Xers. (Evidence: Bradley Cooper's "Gremlins" reference in "The Hangover.")
I think the fact that it was originally released as a summer movie makes people forget about the holiday factor for some reason. But who doesn't love Gizmo?
Lost episode: I'm racking my brain and figured you would know - was there a "Lost" Christmas episode?
FWIW, I think the poster who hates "A Christmas Story" is a Communist - I've got a good Seinfeld episode for you.
Jen Chaney: There was a "Lost" Christmas episode of sorts: "The Constant." When Penny calls Desmond, it is Christmas time -- you can see the tree behind her.
That's one of the best episodes of the series, and a beautiful fulfillment of one of the show's key love stories. Though admittedly, it resonates a whole lot more if you've seen every episode that came before it.
And now, now, let's not starting people Commies. Let's use a nicer word. How about Ralphie-challenged? Anti-Mommy's Little Piggy, maybe?
For the 4 and 7 year old: My tradition (as a 32-year-old woman) is to watch a Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. I used to watch it as a kid with my dad every year (until my mother taped over it by accident). The scenes with Cookie Monster writing to Santa make me smile every year. Just my 2 cents.
Jen Chaney: Oh, that's a nice suggestion.
It also reminded me of Elmo's Christmas Countdown, another more recent holiday DVD of the Sesame Street variety. That has lots of songs in it and is only an hour max in terms of run time.
A good one to watch with the younger ones whose attention spans are limited.
Nashville, TN : My personal taste runs to "The Ref" and "Bad Santa" but I try to play nice when it comes to family viewing.
Last year I played "We're No Angels" (1955, Humphrey Bogart) for the group and it was fabulous! It was fun for me to watch my teenage nephew go from humor-the-aunt mode to all-out enjoyment when he realized that the movie was off-the-wall quirky. "We're No Angels" is about escaped prisoners on Devil's Island at Christmastime; it's sentimental, true, but redeemingly funny.
Jen Chaney: Another great suggestion. It's always nice when an older film sneaks up on a younger viewer and wins them over. Thanks, Nashville, and happy holidays.
Great idea: Jen, I love the idea of unconventional holiday films. since it's the list-making time of the year, how about some other lists: Best cube-farm movie ("Office Space"), best current release ("Up in the Air"), best animated gem ("Spirited Away"), best kick-a-& film("Kill Bill")....
Jen Chaney: Well, we'll have plenty of lists coming you way, believe me. All of our critics in Style are doing their decade compilations. And I'm doing another list of 10 most important blockbusters of the past 10 years.
Oh, and yesterday, I posted this item about Ann Hornaday's top movies of the year, which also included my favorites as well.
So plenty of lists these days. In fact, I'm surprised I am not speaking or writing in bullet points...
Martian Capital , Mars: Two outside the mainstream classics I always try to see the holiday season are "Trading Places" and the MST3K version of "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," a riot.
Jen Chaney: Nice, especially the MST3K option. Thanks!
The Snowman: Animated version of a classic British (I think) children's book. Beautiful illustrations.
Jen Chaney: Forgot about this one, too! As long as my master list is, there are always a few that get neglected.
Thanks for mentioning this one.
Sci-Fi Christmas: For fans of British sci-fi, there's always the "Doctor Who" Christmas specials that have become a new tradition in the UK over the past decade (and can be seen here on BBC America or on DVD).
Jen Chaney: Good call -- thanks!
Alexandria, VA: No offense, but I'm not sure why movies that contain a few minutes of film around Christmas time (ie. Mean Girls), are now "Christmas movies!" They just happen to cover a span of time that briefly includes Christmas ...
Jen Chaney: None taken, Alexandria. I hear what you're saying.
The point of these lists is to highlight movies that, as I explain in the intro to this year's list, are either set during the holidays or contain at least one crucial scene in that time period. They don't necessarily need to be "about" Christmas. I like to include a mix each year. The point is to introduce people to films they may not have seen that have enough yuletide flavor to feel appropriate for this time of year.
In that same vein, it's worth noting that a good portion of "It's a Wonderful Life" isn't about Christmas. Certainly enough of it takes place during that time to qualify it as a holiday movie -- and Lord knows we all think of it that way now -- but it's not "about Christmas," in the same way that, say, "A Christmas Story" is about Christmas.
I like to use the term holiday movie as a pretty broad umbrella.
Die Hard: Since Christmas is incidental to the plot, I wouldn't call that movie a Christmas movie. It would still be appropriate to watch it during the season, but it's not in the same category as movies that are about Christmas.
I want to see quirky filmmakers make quirky Christmas films. What would the Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze do with a Christmas theme? Too bad Stanley Kubrick is deceased.
Jen Chaney: Point taken on "Die Hard." As I said, most of these fit more in the category of "appropriate for the season."
Would love to see an overtly holiday-themed movie from the Coens Jonze. As for Kubrick, "Full Metal Jacket" has a a brief holiday scene or two. And "Eyes Wide Shut" definitely takes place during the season.
McLean VA: Don't forget the Star Wars Christmas Special, on YouTube. Nothing says Christmas like Carrie Fisher on drugs
Jen Chaney: That is so true. Here's a sampling:
Austin, TX: "Female Trouble" is screening here tonight for the holidays. Nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels.
Jen Chaney: Nothing says merry Christmas like John Waters, does it?
Planes Train and Automobiles: I know this was on your Thanksgiving list, but I had to ask about this movie. I love it, except for 2 things: (1) Awful dated soundtrack (much like Lethal Weapon), (2) Weird moments w/Steve Martin's wife. She acts like she knows John Candy ("Hello....Mr. Griffith"). It's so strange. Plus she's so cold and just odd ("I don't understand what a snowstorm in Chicago has to do with Wichita" - really? hello...)
Jen Chaney: That's a problem with so many '80s movies. The scores are just dreadful.
I hear you on both points. I think the interplay between Candy and Martin is why people love this movie so much. It helps us overlook the other stuff, I think.
I've run way over but will answer a couple more...
Another old one: The Bogie' reference reminded me of another old unconventional Christmas movie - Stalag 17 w/William Holden. The movie climaxes around Christmas after the prisoners receive the gift of ping pong balls. Great movie.
Jen Chaney: Nice. Consider it under consideration for next year. Thanks!
re: Gremlins: Definitely popular with a particular generation (much like "Saved by the Bell" and "Back to the Future"). In a recent "Simpsons" episode, Homer talked about getting his hands on a Gremlin. He rubbed his hands together and said "I'm gonna get him so wet...."
Jen Chaney: Ha! I can't believe "The Simpsons" will celebrate its 20th birthday in January. So hard to believe.
I'm afraid I do have to wrap up. Thank you all so, so much for sharing your recommendations and memories of all these holiday -- and pseudo-holiday -- movies.
I really do mean it when I say I look forward to this every year. And I will spend the next 11 to 12 months looking forward to the next time.
Until then, happy holidays. Hope you watch a good movie or TV show this season ... or, if nothing else is available, "Love Actually."
(Sorry, had to get in one last dig...)
Merry, merry, everyone!
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