What is the all-time greatest Christmas movie? Ask just about anyone my age and the answer will seem fixated on coal, not sugar plums.
Scrooged, a network TV-era rework of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, remains one of Bill Murray’s most underrated efforts, with strong comedic support from Robert Mitchum, Bobcat Goldthwait and Alfre Woodard. (“Mom, when can we get a real tree?” “When they FREE!”) But Murray is so great at self-loathing, the redemptive climax comes off as the height of insincerity.
Bad Santa is a gloriously ill-tempered hoot with more “Bah, humbug!” catharsis than a hundred versions of Dickens’ fable, but I’d rather watch it any of the other 11 months a year.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation now seems more agreeable than riotous with the years, but for Aunt Bethany’s absent-minded recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in place of saying Grace (who passed away 30 years ago) and the class warfare being enacted between the Griswold’s next-door neighbors.
I refuse to speak about Elf.
No, when it comes to the question of what the best Christmas movie ever is, only two movies are even in the running so far as I’m concerned. And, happily, both are playing at the Riverview Theater this week (OK, until tomorrow; forgive me, I got behind on my Christmas shopping). Both films have understandably soured for some thanks to the now decades’ worth of TV repeats, but give them a chance on the big screen and see if they don’t blossom anew.
First, and closest to my heart, is Bob Clark’s nostalgia-drenched A Christmas Story (1983), the not-at-all-universal tale of a 9-year-old boy and his quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, set in Norman Rockwell’s 1940s middle America. Though his mother, his teacher and even Santa himself seem against his plea to get the gun “with a compass in the stock,” young Ralphie persists.
Clark’s movie is only lightly salted with the sardonic humor that confirms the directorial presence of the man who also made Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and Jean Shepherd’s warm, humorous narrative interjections resonate with the retroactive respect for what our parental figures are really thinking during our formative years.
If A Christmas Story refuses to treat the previous generations with outright contempt, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is now the movie that seemingly can’t get any attention at all from anyone who didn’t actually grow up during the depression. Not exactly sure why. Frank Capra’s movie is not just it’s final five minutes. The two hours leading up to that bell ringing and that angel getting its wings constitute one of the most hard-bitten, embittered looks at the American initiative (i.e. let me get mine before I worry about yours) in Capra’s or anyone’s filmography.
George Bailey’s faith is tested, and no one (not even his scatterbrained guardian angel Clarence Von Deus Ex Machina) actually tells him his real-life situation isn’t bad, or denies that he’s been ground up within the gears of small-town commerce. George learns the hard way the fact of life that a friend earned is a penny saved, that you won’t die by your community’s hand, but you also may not live without it. The finale, which looks downright saccharine out of context, seems exceptionally queasy following the purgatory that is the rest of the film.
Neither movie is simply a holiday classic. They’re classics period.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.