Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Top 5 Holiday Movies to Watch

Whether you like it or not, now that Halloween is over, the holiday season is officially upon us. And depending on your feelings about the holidays, this season can give you a case of the warm fuzzies as you think about spending time with loved ones, sipping hot chocolate by a roaring fire, and all the delicious goodies you get to eat because “the diet starts the first of the year!” Or it can ignite a slow, burning pain in the pit of your stomach as you dread preparing your home for undesirable houseguests, worry about how not to go into debt while still getting gifts for everyone on your list, and loathe the idea of seeing those special few relatives who always make you feel like crap about yourself.

But as any movie junkie knows, the holidays are also a great time for watching movies. Everyone has their favorites that they dust off the shelf every November and December, whether they be movies that are actually about the holidays, or just an enjoyable distraction from the insanity that ‘tis the season. Here are my top five movies that I look forward to watching during the most “wonderful” time of the year:

5. Home for the Holidays (1995) – “Dysfunctional family gets together for the holidays” has really become its own sub-genre of holiday movie over the years, but I still find the underappreciated Home for the Holidays to be one of the best in this category. Directed by Jodie Foster, it stars Holly Hunter as single mother Claudia (daughter is played by a young teen Claire Danes) who heads to her crazy parents’ house for Thanksgiving. She’s commonly known as the family screw-up, which makes arriving just after being fired from her job all the more painful. Her sister is a total suburban snob (and married to Steve Guttenberg), her mother is hypercritical and shrill, her aunt is losing her mind, and her father has no interest in anything other than not dealing with anyone. Her one refuge is her beloved younger brother, played both hilariously and tenderly by Robert Downey, Jr. The entire movie is great, but the best parts are seemingly throw-away moments that stick with you afterward because they are all too familiar. Case in point: Claudia loses her stylish winter coat in the airport, and is forced to wear her mother’s hideous, lumpy old coat throughout the rest of the movie. Which always reminds me of how I forget to bring my winter hat with me to my mother’s every year, and she then tries to offer me some ugly pom-pom hat from days long gone by to wear when she wants to talk a walk after dinner. But obviously I’m not as good a daughter as Claudia, since I prefer to freeze than wear that hat.

4. Little Women (1994) – Little Women is fantastic to watch pretty much any time of the year, but I particularly like it at the holidays because it showcases the sort of family love and understanding that nearly everyone wishes they had. It’s especially poignant to watch now as the four March sisters (played by Trini Alvarado, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst) and are struggling with a newfound poverty while their father is off fighting the Civil War. But despite the hardships they’re facing and the things they’re forced to go without, they find happiness and support in each other. Which sounds really lame and cheesy, I know, but the movie manages to be warm and moving instead. And it’s not all soothing talks by candlelight; the March girls know how to throw down when push comes to shove (youngest sister Amy can be an absolute devil child). Little Women also features Christian Bale in one of his first big roles, as boy-next-door Laurie, and since this was the movie where I first “discovered” him, accepting him as the new Batman has been a bit of a process. And in case you’re wondering, no, the rest of my holiday movie picks do not feature Claire Danes.

3. Elf (2003) – Will Ferrell movies are hit or miss, depending on both your sense of humor and whether he’s doing anything other than screaming with his shirt off. But he’s so hilariously spot-on as Buddy the elf, I really think he’s missing his calling as a family movie star (hey, if The Rock can make it work…). While it is family-friendly, there’s plenty of laughs for adults in Elf, mainly due to the oversized child-like reactions Buddy has to everything Christmas-related (so it’s perfect to put him in NYC, which in December looks like Christmas puked all over it) and the collection of hilarious one-liners (“Smiling is my favorite!”). James Caan is also perfectly droll in his role of the curmudgeon who lost the spirit of the season, and Peter Dinklage’s cameo as a perpetually pissed off children’s book author nearly steals the entire movie.

2. Love Actually (2003) – Love Actually embodies nearly everything I hate in romantic movies: sappy love stories, unrealistic relationships, promotion of the idea that no one can be happy while single, etc. And yet somehow, when all this is presented in Love Actually, I adore it. I blame this on the fact that it’s a British movie (everything seems to look and sound better when presented with a British accent). The movie also manages to make Christmas in London look like the most wonderful place to be and I just want to pack up and move there and have intertwining stories with all those crazy characters. Not all of the vignettes presented are winners—I couldn’t care less about Colin’s quest to get laid in America—but as soon as you grow bored or disinterested in one story, another one stumbles in to reengage you. And with a cast that reads like the who’s-who of British cinema (or the adult cast of the Harry Potter movies), you can’t help but to eventually fall under its spell. Every year I devote a Sunday afternoon to wrapping all of my Christmas presents while watching Love Actually, and every year I have to stop to wipe away tears during the scene when Emma Thompson has her very controlled breakdown to a very melancholy version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now.” Bloody brilliant.

1. A Christmas Story (1983) – I think of A Christmas Story as the holiday movie for people who don’t like holiday movies (I’m looking at you, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street). Sure, it’s a movie about Christmas, but it focuses on a boy’s quest to get a BB gun as a gift and includes scenes of kids torturing other kids, cursing, and an abusive department store Santa. All the things that make the season merry and bright! Just don’t shoot your eye out, kid.


  1. the last time i watched Love Actually, i realized January Jones was one of the women Colin hooks up with in Wisconsin. good times.

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