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Holiday films, from classic to claptrap


''Pocketful of Miracles" (1961)

''It's a Wonderful Life" may get all the attention, but Frank Capra's other holiday movie, ''Pocketful of Miracles," is gooier and sweeter than a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. It stars Bette Davis as a gin-soaked Times Square panhandler named Apple Annie. She has a heart of gold, but also a problem: Her daughter (played by a dewy-eyed Ann-Margret in her first film role), raised by nuns in Spain, is coming to New York for a visit, and she thinks Mom is a society matron. Fortunately, Davis's character has some good friends in the mob who set her up in style just in time for her daughter's visit. Cue the Tchaikovsky and get the Kleenex ready.


''A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965)

This TV classic is that rare thing, a Christmas special that actually mentions Christ. Even rarer, it's one of the few public expressions of Christian faith in American life that does not make me embarrassed to be a Christian. Gentle, simple, and kind, it accomplishes its central aim -- to cut through the holiday frenzy and remind us of what we're celebrating -- without ever pounding us over the head. And it's funny! Genuinely funny, not just to nostalgic me but to my increasingly cool 7-year-old. We howled and smiled together the other night, and I thought: Mel Gibson, you could learn a thing or two from Charles M. Schulz.


''A Christmas Carol" (1938, 1951)

There are exceptions to every rule. While Christmas movies as a genre should be dispatched down the disposal with the boiled onions, ''A Christmas Carol" remains the one keeper. Why? Two words: Charles Dickens. The man was the best storyteller in the English language and simply incapable of descending into the cloying bathos of Frank Capra's insufferable ''It's A Wonderful Life." Dickens's eye is too good, his pain too real, his sadness too deep. We are presented with a joyful ending only after having been inoculated against the virus of schmaltz. There have been dozens of adaptations of ''A Christmas Carol," but you can never, ever go wrong with two classics: the 1938 rendition with Reginald Owen as Scrooge and Leo G. Carroll as Marley's ghost, or the 1951 ''Scrooge," starring the incomparable Alastair Sim in the title role. Period.


''Fanny and Alexander" (1982)

A flaming punch bowl. Red velvet dresses. Candles flickering on every open surface. It's Christmas with the Ekdahls in Ingmar Bergman's sumptuous coming-of-age masterpiece. The night before and the holiday morning fill the first hour of Bergman's 188-minute opus, and rarely have the comforts of bourgeois family life been presented so lovingly. It's all prologue, in a way, as the Bergman stand-in, 10-year-old Alexander, finds himself and his sister expelled from this plush paradise when their father takes ill. This portrait of the Swedish artist as a young man takes some harrowing turns. But the giddy joy of pillow fights and sleigh rides stays with you even as the film ventures into more bracingly familiar Bergman territory. A plus on the Criterion Collection DVD: the plummy commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie.


''A Christmas Story" (1983)

''A Christmas Story" is a Christmas movie for people who don't really like Christmas movies. Yes, it unfolds during the holiday season in 1940s Indiana, and 9-year-old Ralphie, played to perfection by Peter Billingsley, schemes and dreams about getting a Red Ryder air rifle. But this movie is mostly about being a kid -- challenging buddies to stupid dares, running from menacing bullies, and trying to put one over on your parents. Free of cheap holiday treacle, it manages to nail Christmas for what it has become -- an opportunity to strong-arm our loved ones into giving us what we want -- without resorting to postmodern cynicism. In one of the most hilarious scenes, it even presents a visit to department-store Santa as a nightmarish experience filled with cranky elves and a clock-watching St. Nick.



''It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)

I hate ''It's a Wonderful Life."

I love ''It's a Wonderful Life."

It all depends on which scene. Some are so well worn and predictable, or so painful, that it's difficult not to fast-forward past them. Uncle Billy losing the money makes me want to scream, ''It's in the newspaper, you idiot!" On the other hand, I adore the honeymoon scene, with the phonograph hooked up to the spit that turns the cooking chicken.

And sap that I am, I believe in the premise of the movie, that few of us have any idea of the good we've done in our lives, and that's why we should stick around.


''Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (1964)

Forget the let's-put-on-a-play props and goopy green makeup. Never mind the unintentional camp and awful performances. This cinematic fruitcake marked the movie debut of Pia Zadora, playing a Martian moppet with minimal screen time. In a plot with unmet promise, Martian elders kidnap Santa and two Earth kids in hopes of appeasing TV-addicted teens on the red planet who are envious of the free toys and fun their human counterparts have. Of course all ends in requisite schmaltz, with Santa proving the Christmas spirit is not bound by space and bringing happiness to everyone except the by-now-moaning movie viewer.


''Comfort and Joy" (1984)

The best Christmas movies are all really about something else. ''It's a Wonderful Life" is about suicide. ''Holiday Inn" is about home renovation. And Bill Forsyth's ''Comfort and Joy" (1984) is about breaking up. Its hero (Bill Paterson, who has one of the all-time-great hang-dog faces) is an early-morning DJ in Glasgow, perhaps the least Christmas-y city in the English-speaking world. His girlfriend has just left him. He inadvertently gets embroiled in a feud between two warring ice-cream-truck companies. And, of course, it's Christmastime. It's a combination of elements only Forsyth could have cooked up -- let alone brought off. And bring them off he does. Forsyth's best known for ''Local Hero," but ''Comfort and Joy" even better distills his unique blend of wryness and melancholy.


''A Very Brady Christmas" (1988)

It was 1988, seven years before the irony-drenched ''Brady Bunch Movie," as we filed into the dorm's common room for a special broadcast. And ''A Very Brady Christmas" did not disappoint. Its gleefully corny subplots could have made Johnny Bravo blush. Adding to the intrigue, of course, is what we already knew.

That Mr. Brady was gay. That Cindy had died, either from the Pop Rocks cocktail or a tragic bus accident. (Never mind that the actress Susan Olsen was simply unavailable for filming.) We could revel in this insider knowledge as the Bradys, who would make a couple more attempted comebacks but none as artistically or commercially sweet as this, reminded us of the true meaning of Christmas. Everybody has a secret, whether it's a dissolving marriage or shame at having a dominant wife. All it takes is having your dad trapped in a collapsing building to get it out.


''The Ref" (1994)

Not a sports movie, unless bickering is your sport of choice. In this foul-mouthed, Ted Demme-directed holiday comedy, Denis Leary is a cat burglar who picks the wrong Connecticut family to take hostage while he hides out from the bumbling local police. OK, not such a fresh premise either, but Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey are razor sharp as the dysfunctional homeowners who can't stop arguing even when they're bound and gagged. ''The spirit of Christmas is either you're good or you're punished and you burn in hell," one character spits. Parumpapumpum.


''La Bche" (1999)

Anyone who thinks American families have a hammerlock on picturesque dysfunction hasn't seen this comic free-for-all by French director Daniele Thompson. Named after a sticky Gallic holiday treat, it includes a funeral, mismatched siblings, affairs, inopportune cellphone calls, and loads of intergenerational tension -- and that's just the opener. Thompson, who penned hits such as ''Cousin, Cousine," ties all the bows up a little too neatly, but watching it at least puts one's own familial discord into sweet relief.


''Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights" (2003)

When this cartoon Hanukkah musical came out, more than one person wanted to regift it. But maybe it works better at home. It's another holiday redemption extravaganza, only this one jams the Jewish festival of lights into a Christmas movie formula. Sandler gives his likeness and voice to a handful of characters, including Davey, the adult juvenile delinquent who hates the holidays. Naturally, in a wave of shockingly good show tunes, he's reformed. Some of the stars of mass-market capitalism even pitch in: The store logos at the local mall come to life and force Davey to cry! Trust me, you haven't lived until you've seen the Foot Locker ref rock out with the bear from Panda Express.


''Elf" (2003)

From snarfing down maple syrup-slathered pasta to squeezing into those Keeblerific tights, ''SNL" alum Will Ferrell throws his goofy all into director Jon Favreau's Rankin/Bass riff as a human adopted by Santa's helpers. (Misfit, indeed.) Zooey Deschanel is appealing as a department store elf amused by Ferrell's sense of wonder, and Bob Newhart is a hoot as his adoptive dad, but biological father James Caan's Grinch-like character is a dud.



''Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2002)

Or: How Ron Howard Buried Dr. Seuss Under a Ton of Crud. Let's keep this simple: The original book (and, fine, the 1966 TV special) is a slender classic of antimaterialism that comes down to one line: '' 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store.' " The season, in other words, is not about stuff. Howard's ''Grinch" is all about stuff, from the ugly styrofoam sets to the Twilight Zone faces on the Whos to Jim Carrey's hairy man-breasts. And don't forget the Collector's Edition DVD! It made a mint, yes, but it's still a clangingly vulgar debasement of a class act.


''Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964)

Truth be told, this TV special creeps me out. It always has. Even as a child, its herky-jerky animation and grating voices came across as more eerie than fantastic, and the effect worsens with age -- the show's and mine. (The question ''Why doesn't Rudolph blink, Mommy?" has become ''Why does Donner talk like a mobster?") There are many reasons to cringe when this classic airs: the blustery narration by Burl Ives as a slip-sliding snowman, the cheesy songs, and the thin plot, which is to be expected from a story based on a song. But the biggest irritation is the message: Sure, it's fine to be different, just as long as you also save the day -- or, better yet, save Christmas.


''Jingle All the Way" (1996)

The best parts of ''Jingle All the Way" are the close-ups of Arnold Schwarzenegger that make you realize that he's really a very weird-looking guy -- especially when he's punching a reindeer, tripping Sinbad with a remote-control car, or flying through the air powered by jet packs. The worst part about the movie is everything else, however: the formulaic scenes of the kid in karate class, looking at the door for his absent father while Mom sits alone in the crowd; the mind-numbing plot about the desperate search for the perfect Christmas toy to win back a son's affection. It's beyond even the powers of the future governor of California to save this turkey.


''Santa With Muscles" (1996)

What's the worst Christmas movie you've never seen? How about the one starring Hulk Hogan as an amnesiac millionaire who thinks he's Santa? Dressed in red tights and a snug red jacket with cutoff sleeves trimmed in white fur, he saves an orphanage from Ed Begley Jr., whose character wants to tear it down to get at the magic crystals in the caves beneath it. Yes, it's ''Santa With Muscles." Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else, and with good reason. After calling seven video stores in Cambridge and Somerville, only one copy turned up, and it hadn't been rented since March of 2000.


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