Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Festive List of Festive Films for the Festive Season

By Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche

I LOVE CHRISTMAS! It is a time for fireplaces, duvets, creamy soups and hot chocolate; it is a time for shiny lights, red wine, scarves, gloves and boots, but most of all it is a time for good books, good television and good films.

In celebration of the season and the holiday, my dear friend and guest writer, Leslie McMurtry, and I have put out heads together and came up with a festive list of films for Christmas. Not all the films in this list may be considered Christmas films by definition, but they are all, at least for Leslie and myself, films which have what I like to call, the Christmas effect; they keep you warm and fuzzy inside.

Leslie and I chose different films and we shall indicate which one of us chose what film. However, naturally there are films we both feel are a Christmas must and therefore, to differentiate between Leslie’s thoughts and mine, I shall give Leslie’s words a celebratory look in the form of italic writing. I would also like to add that the order of the list is not descending or ascending in its quality or Christmasness, the order is quite random, but I tried to build up towards our collaborative choices. So without further ado, here we go, read and rejoice.

Little Women
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

This is not a Christmas film, but the Christmas element is so strong, plus its pull on my heartstrings so potent, that I had to include it.  Using Gillian Armstrong’s gorgeous direction, we are deposited in frozen Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War.  Far away from the fighting, the March sisters are living a Christmas of deprivation, but on that snowy Christmas Eve, it doesn’t seem to matter.   I have fallen in love with and internalized everything about this film. Christmas to me now has to include “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “The Wassailing Song,” and a full rendition of “Deck the Halls” as they are portrayed in the film.  Where Dickens would suffice to show us an Old English Christmas, Little Women sensitively shows us one that is both personal and universal.

Peter’s Friends
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Considering it is set in the 30th and 31st of December and end at midnight of a New Year, Peter's Friends would probably fall under a New Year’s film rather than a Christmas film, or if you’re willing to stretch the definition; a Boxing Day film. Nevertheless, I join Emma Thompson in giving you this untimely gift of the best of the Brits and a delightful treat of warmth, humour and friendship,which makes you want to be a part of, and turns the horrible a little more tolerable.  

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Okay, there’s no way this can be considered a Christmas film. Wizards don’t even have Christmas, they have “Yule” (yeah, it makes about as much sense as Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).  That said, it was always my favorite of the books and the films, as I absolutely love the Yule Ball sequence, visually arresting, quite amusing, and adding fuel to the Ron/Hermione ship  (utterly canon, of course). 

Miracle in Milan
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

A lot of people will probably consider this the kind of film one might watch if one has taken a film history class, but for me Miracle in Milan is as Christmasy as the Christmas spirit of past, present and Christmases yet to come, put together. Of course Toto's character (not Dorothy’s dog) could be interpreted as a Christ- like figure, but what makes this film so wonderful and Christmasy is its charming naivety, stripped of all cynicism, and its simple yet very funny humour, its happiness and love of people. You’ll have to have a heart of stone not to melt with joy and laughter in still one of the most original and simply lovely and joyous films.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Chosen By Leslie McMurtry

Rudolph’s plight has now been realized in stop animation for more than forty years, and yet I love the characters of Herby the Elf who wants to be a dentist, Yukon Cornelius, the red-haired prospector, and Burl Ives as the singing snowman. 

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

OK I admit, it is not the most cheerful of Christmas films, and perhaps will be considered a war film more than a Christmas film.  However, despite its depressing and often cruel nature, or perhaps in spite of it, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is still a film I love to watch during this season. I like it when sadness comes with beautiful men, beautiful music and forbidden love. It may not fill you up with Christmas cheer, but a good cry is guaranteed and that too is an important part of Christmas. 

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Once again, the music takes center stage; the only traditional Christmas songs here are “O Christmas Tree” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with wonderful Mancini-penned tunes (“Christmastime is Here”) which have become modern classics.  The story is simple, the characters never aging.  Linus tells Charlie Brown the true origins of Christmas, citing a Biblical passage with no frills or frippery.  Yet it is the symbol of the Christmas tree that unites and uplifts, showing, I suppose, that religious and secular Christmas can co-exist.

Bad Santa
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Continuing with the slightly bleaker side of Christmas, but with a dash more optimism sprinkled on top; Bad Santa is a Christmas film for adults. At first the idea of a Santa that is bad seemed very juvenile and a cheap comic device, but actually Bad Santa is refreshingly grown up and sensitive. There is no Christmas miracle, or any kind of Christmas magic, there is only a wonderful little boy that captured the heart of a miserable Billy Bob Thornton and changed his life.Bad Santa is the only Christmas film I know that is rated 15. I like that the Christmas of Bad Santa belongs to the older generation and not, as Christmas usually does, to the children, yet it maintains a Christmas spirit, a grown up one. We like Christmas too.

Home Alone
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry, but Aya Vandenbussche concurs!

There are a lot of firsts associated with Home Alone for me.  The first time I heard “Carol of the Bells,” the first time I saw clips from It’s a Wonderful Life, the first time I realized pizza could cost over $100 (I was only five or six when it came out!).  There is a lot of enjoyable escapism in watching it when you are a kid—secretly, you too wish you could defend your house from bumbling burglars while your family is halfway across the world.  A nice soundtrack put together by John Williams is the icing on the cake. 

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

The original Broadway musical actually concluded with a Christmas party, which in the film turned into a more generic “YAY! Annie is safe!” kind of party. Either way this marvellous John Huston adaptation to the story of the feisty ginger orphan who won over an even feistier billionaire has made me happy since I was a little girl, before I even realised just how brilliant the cast is (insert a sigh of joy right here).Needless to say that the movie going scene and the movie watching sequence that follow are still one of my favourite cinematic moments. 

A Christmas Story
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Only when I read the book, In God We Trust All Others Must Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd, did I understand the extent of the man’s satirical genius.  Here is the other side of the coin of glamorous, Hollywood 1940s; here is a Midwest where sod’s law reigns for one ordinary kid seduced by the lure of the Red Ryder BB gun.  Life is not fair to Ralphie Parker.  His old man covets a leggy lamp and his kid brother is stuck in deep sea diving gear.  The nostalgia here is genuine, and it’s only fitting that radio should be at the heart of this candy-colored reminiscence with a hard edge.  There is little period music used in A Christmas Story; instead, the Grand Canyon Suite was used and gives it a wonderfully eccentric soundtrack.  The end, where Ralphie’s parents watch the snow falling while a choir sings “Silent Night,” sums up exactly what Christmas means to me.    

The Kid
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Keeping with the theme of happy orphans and winners of most adorable kids in films, I chose, probably my favourite Charlie Chaplin film. Chaplin himself describes it best in the films opening title: “A picture with a smile- and perhaps a tear”. 

Bernard and the Genie
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

From the pen of Richard Curtis comes this silly yet ultimately heartwarming story about Bernard Bottle, a kind and mild-mannered art dealer who has a terrible day before discovering a Genie who helps resolve his Christmas woes.  Rowan Atkinson is hysterical as Bernard’s evil boss, and Lenny Henry absolutely ebullient as the genie, Josephus, whose attempts to come to grips with the modern world had me rolling around on the floor with laughter the first time I saw it.  “THE KITTENZ!”

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

In complete contrast to Bad Santa, Elf is soaked in childish Christmasness and it’s wonderful. Will Ferrell’s comic talent, charm and charisma knows no limits and he is, to me, the perfect person to portray a gigantic magical child with a heart so big it swallows me whole.

Love Actually
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry with the support of Aya Vandenbussche

A later and more commercially successful Richard Curtis, this colorful film was a glimpse of the real, contemporary UK long before I ventured to these shores.  Therefore, the identities of Ant and Dec and Michael Parkinson did not make sense to me at the time.  With an all-star cast, the film does not entirely succeed in wrapping up the stories of its many, interconnected protagonists, with some of them coming off as much less profound than others.  Nevertheless, the most important stories are also the most complex and heartfelt.  There is a streak of insane optimism running through this that steadies the tearful sentimentality spun up by the opening lines of Hugh Grant, playing the Prime Minister.  It warms the cockles, as they say.

Nightmare Before Christmas
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche, Leslie McMurtry approves

Ho such magical film! I love Jack Skellington and his good intentions that go wrong; it’s the story of my life. I love the animation, the music and the combined forces of Halloween and Christmas which create together a different kind of Christmas, and maybe a different kind of Halloween. 

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Probably few adults could stomach this now, but having grown up with it, it’s difficult to imagine Christmas without Cookie Monster trying to call Santa Claus and accidentally eating the phone.  The songs have an incomparable warmth to them, from the joyous, united “True Blue Miracle,” to the heartrending “Keep Christmas with You,” which never fails to elicit tears from me.  Also of note is Grover interviewing small children about how they think Santa gets down chimneys. 

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche, Leslie McMurtry agrees

There are not enough words and phrases for me to express my love for Bill Murray. He is by far my favourite Scrooge, and I say that with all the love to Michael Caine, Albert Finney and all other great actors who portrayed him. The difference of Murray is that he makes Scrooge loveable right from the start, even before the ghosts appear and his past is revealed. While all other Scrooges start as intimidating and gradually soften as the story progress, Bill Murray has a kind of magic that makes me fall in love with him despite his initial nastiness. Moreover, to this day, Scrooged still makes me laugh so much, and laughter, as you know, is an important element of Christmas films.
A Muppet Family Christmas
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

I only discovered this two years ago, when a friend said he and his family watched it without fail every Christmas.  Not an overly sentimental guy, my friend, so I was intrigued.  Bringing in the characters from Sesame Street, Baby Muppets, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock, there isn’t much of a plot as such—just loads and loads of hilarious gags and tons of singing—nearly every kind of Christmas song and carol is explored, brought together in rollicking, joyous style that only the Muppets could achieve.  “Even weirdoes were cute when they were babies!”

A Muppet Christmas Carol
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche

Unlike other choices, this film, for me, is exclusively for Christmas. There is something about it that I am not sure would have the same effect any other time of year. This doesn't take away from how much I love this film. On top of the well-known and loved Muppets there are other gorgeous creatures unique to this film. I particularly liked the Ghost of Christmas Present which seemed to evolve into a version of Santa as it progresses through the story. I absolutely adore Gonzo as Charles Dickens in the role of the storyteller. It is a lovely addition that I haven’t seen in other Christmas Carol adaptations. It gives the whole film more of a cosy-sitting-by-the-fire kind of feel, which is strangely more Dickensian in mood than one would expect from a Muppet version of a Christmas Carol. Perhaps this is why it is the one film that, for me, is reserved for Christmas only.

I don’t know if Dickens would have ever considered that adding songs and puppets to his story could improve it, but both meld together with this most Christmas-y of tales seamlessly.  Gonzo playing Dickens himself works wonderfully.  Michael Caine is menacing but also full of pathos as Scrooge, and as every good Christmas Carol should be, it’s both elating and terrifying.  Stadler and Waldorf as the Brothers Marley is something they just about get away with.  It’s difficult to reach the end without shedding a tear.

It's a Wonderful Life
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche (and probably by many others)

This is shown on Christmas Eve every year in the US.  Most of the time I would only get home in order to see the last half hour, so it wasn’t until I saw the whole film that I appreciated how good it really was.  There is as much that’s dark about this story as there is that’s sentimental, and perhaps that’s why it succeeds so well.  The humour and the happy ending create such joy.  The story at the heart creates such poignancy.  Jimmy Stewart’s performance is as wonderful as it is deathless.  It is also a well-made film, with techniques ahead of its contemporaries, even the meta Holiday Inn.    Bedford Falls is the perfect setting for a morality play where the bad guy wins but ultimately loses. 

Christmas isn’t Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life. For many years It’s a Wonderful Life was, for me, simply a wonderful film with the most wonderful Jimmy Stewart, for whom I would build a time machine so I can go back in time and marry him. That there was a Christmas element to the film was accidental, and as someone who grew up without it, it didn’t mean very much. Its genuine spirit of kindness and idealism, and for me the power of Jimmy Stewart, is what makes this film timeless.

So there you have it, Leslie’s and my choices of films to watch during the Christmas time. You could argue the Christmasness of some of these films, but I think they all have something in common other than being our favourites of the season; they all give us that  feeling that looks just like Jimmy Stewart 1.10 minutes into this clip. 



  1. Ahhhh! I love Xmas! We are such bad, bad jews! :D

    Of all the wonderful films you guys mentioned, none is more Christmasy than a Miracle in Milan, because what is more jesusy/ birth of our savior-y than a miracle?

    Also, It's a wonderful life never fails to bring me to tears, despite the tens of times I've seen it. I love you Capra, I love you Jimmy, I love you Zoozoo. :'D

    Merry holiday season, everyone!

  2. Great job, Aya, I'm glad we did this.

  3. great selection of christmas classics will have to update my viewing list thanks merry xmas viewing