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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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In Holiday Guide Commentary

"A Christmas Story" is, in this author's estimation, the perfect Christmas movie.

The nice list: The five best Christmas movies


Oh, to be a child on Christmas again.

Things certainly change over the years. You start off as a spry, eager youth, absorbing every festive element and detail of the season with pure wonder and belief.

Then you grow up, and reality breaks in.

First, you discover the truth about Santa. Then you get a job that requires working on Christmas Day. Then you head off to college and become too "mature" and cynical for things like sentimentality and wonder. Your Christmas list changes from consisting of LEGOs and video games to money for gas and a new cooking pot for making ramen.

Sigh ... you really never realize how good life is when you're 11 years old.

But enough memorializing. If there's one thing that can wrangle the Christmas spirit out of even the most crotchety Scrooge, it's a great Christmas movie. True, there are several stinkers, but the classics are more heartwarming than a mug of hot chocolate next to the fireplace. Here are five holiday movies that can elicit carols from the most hardened cynic.

"A Christmas Story"

I'll keep this relatively simple: "A Christmas Story" is the perfect Christmas movie. I can watch the iconic film every year (normally several times) and not worry about diminishing returns. Director Bob Clark (who also directed the original "Black Christmas," a, um, very different brand of Christmas movie) manages to combine the biting reality and disappointment of Christmas with the sweet sincerity of the season, as well as the childlike glee with an adult's nostalgia.

The biggest thing, though, is that the film feels uniquely personal and exact, while at the same time feeling universal. It's Ralphie's Christmas memories and all of our holiday experiences tied together into one heartfelt, hilarious story. "A Christmas Story" is a predictable choice for the best holiday movie, but it's really the only choice.

"It's a Wonderful Life"

Unlike a lot of fans of this Jimmy Stewart holiday classic, I came to the party late. I never really watched it on television when I was a kid, and my family never made it much of a ritual (ours was an "A Christmas Story" household). As a result, when I finally got around to sitting down and watching "It's a Wonderful Life," I was all ready to tear into Capra's cornball Christmas spectacular.

And, 130 minutes later, my heart had grown three sizes. Sure, the film is sentimental as all heck, but Capra and Stewart earn it by spending a surprising amount of time on the suffering and pain. Capra ("Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") was always a master of emotions, able to control his audience and turn them into jelly in his hands when he so desired. Here is no different; he spends just enough time setting up George's misery and then just the right amount finding his redemption. It wouldn't work without Stewart either, who perfectly and soulfully taps into the everyday person's struggle for meaning and worth (he was just returning from serving in WWII, so his weariness seems even more authentic).

So yeah, "It's a Wonderful Life" is sentimental and a big ol' pile of cornball. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

"Home Alone"

There are two things people remember about 1990's "Home Alone:" the traps and Macaulay Culkin screaming like he's trapped in a real-life adaptation of an Edvard Munch painting. What is more or less pushed to the back burner is the movie's charming Christmas timing. It adds just the right amount of grounding in between hot irons and paint cans bonking burglars on the head. Scenes like those give "Home Alone" its laughs, but it's moments, such as when Culkin and his mysterious old neighbor bond in the church while listening to Christmas music, that give the film its heart. Without scenes like those, it'd just be a soulless cartoon. You know, like "Home Alone 3."

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas"

I don't mean the excessive Jim Carrey version from 2000. Ron Howard must've had too much of a different kind of Who Hash when he thought he could outdo the original 1966 animated TV classic. Yeah, it was never in theaters and isn't technically a movie; I've cheated before on these countdowns, and I can do it again, especially for a film that fits more wit, charm and spirit into 26 minutes than most Christmas movies can wrangle in two hours.

Monster movie legend Boris Karloff is a brilliant choice as the story's narrator, adding the perfect sinister bite to the Grinch's devious plan, as well as the warmth when redemption time hits. Plus, the animated classic has the boundless imagination of Dr. Seuss' writing and creations in its original, hand-drawn glory. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is so charming that you might even find yourself singing "Fabu foray, dabu doray" (whatever that means).

"Die Hard"

No, it's not a typical Christmas movie. There are more explosions in "Die Hard" than reindeer and Santa Claus references combined. There isn't much holiday cheer or a theme of hope and wonderment; it's just Bruce Willis running and jumping around a skyscraper, participating in secret Santa with some terrorists except everyone awkwardly got each other the same gift: bullets. But it ends with a Christmas song and the notion of family, and those are good enough reasons for me to watch arguably the greatest action movie of all time on Christmas Day. There's no limit to how awesome a holiday classic can be.

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