Best Christmas Movies
The Ultimate Movie Collection: Christmas Edition
By Daniel Radosh
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Wholesome, cheerful, sweet… somewhere along the line this movie picked up a bad reputation. But watch it again with a fresh eye and It’s A Wonderful Life will kick your punk ass. The story of a “warped, frustrated young man” — played with stunning subtlety by Jimmy Stewart, such a brilliant actor that people still tend to think he was just being himself — Frank Capra’s film was a whip-smart tragicomedy (and a box office flop) long before it sank to the status of beloved family classic. Other movies made Capra’s name is synonymous with shmaltz (we really can’t take You Can’t Take It With You) but It’s A Wonderful Life deserves no such derision. The script, with its un-credited contributions from Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo, is a masterpiece of crackling dialogue, mordant humor and heart-wrenching existential despair. In context, the ending isn’t the eggnog-drenched sap-fest it’s usually recalled as, but a genuinely cathartic release of redemptive joy. The black and white cinematography is as gorgeous as any film noir. If you’ve only ever seen It’s A Wonderful Life chopped up on TV or fuzzed up on VHS, seek out the THX-certified DVD and it really will be like seeing it for the first time.
That bracing chill in the air isn’t just the winter weather, it’s the frosty attitude copped by the wealthy young habitués of the world of Whit Stillman (Barcelona, Last Days of Disco) — and they’ve never been more passionately disengaged and ferociously subdued than in Metropolitan, Stillman’s first and best film. Set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in an illusory, time-suspended week between Christmas and New Year’s, Metropolitan plumbs the depths of holiday — and early twenties — ennui. Eight preternaturally articulate friends band together for a series of socially mandatory parties. They pair off, split apart and come together again with wary, weary conviviality while engaging in hilarious social and intellectual one-upmanship. For most of its course, Metropolitan is a twinkling, Christmas tree of a movie, dripping with verbal tinsel. There are quotable lines on subjects ranging from fiction (“I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking”) to hedonism (“Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it”). But as cruel, smutty gossip and abstract philosophical conundrums compete for attention, something interesting and unexpected happens: the tyro elitists manage to blunder their way to something approaching maturity and sensitivity, and the frost, very slowly, begins to melt.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Wait a second… aren’t there any great Christmas movies that are just plain old deck-the-halls, laughing-all-the-way, golden-days-of-yore affairs? Only one, but it’s a doozy. A Christmas Story, adapted from the nostalgic reminiscences of writer Jean Shepherd, is a funny, finely-observed child’s eye view of the holiday about a boy named Ralphie and the true meaning of Christmas: getting stuff. Specifically, a BB gun. More specifically, a Red Ryder carbine action, 200 shot, range model air rifle. Ralphie clings tenaciously to his dream despite the fact that every adult from his mother to an unusually ominous department store Santa tells him the same thing: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Meanwhile, good-natured chaos builds all around him in a series of loosely-woven, unforgettable episodes involving hungry dogs, schoolyard bullies, meatloaf and a lamp shaped like a chorus girl’s leg. A Christmas Story is warm and winning and there’s nothing the least bit sordid about it. Except maybe this sad but absolutely true footnote: the actor who plays Flick, the kid who gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole — he’s doing porn now. God bless us all, everyone!