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, darkly outrageous realities of Christmas with the sweet sincerity of the season, the childlike glee mixed with an adult's nostalgia.
The biggest thing, though, is that the film feels uniquely personal and particular while at the same time feeling universal. It's Ralphie's Christmas memories and all of our holiday experiences tied together into one heartfelt and brutally 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 be cynical and tear into Capra's cornball Christmas spectacular.
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 all-too-relatable struggles and pains. Capra ("Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") was always a master manipulator of emotions, able to control his audience and turn them into jelly in his hands when he so desired. Here's 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 sometimes a big ol' pile of cornball. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
"A Muppets Christmas Carol"
There are so many variations on "A Christmas Carol" out there, and they're all wonderful in their own ways ... but there's only one with the Muppets. So yeah, we have a winner.
And what a winner it is, featuring beautifully realized sets, a few great holiday songs and an endless stream of excellent performances tapped into the legendary tale – yes, from the iconic puppets, delightfully integrated into the classic Christmas tale, but most of all from Michael Caine as Ebenezer. Some actors might look down upon starring next to talking felt animals, but the British icon fully understood the assignment, playing it straight and sincere, capturing that powerful Scrooge arc transforming from chillingly cold to a reborn caring human – all while interacting with talking fabric rats and making them feel genuinely real and emotional. It's everything you love about Charles Dickens' perfect story and everything you love about the Muppets, blended perfectly into one magical holiday movie.
"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, but 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).
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 takes place at a holiday work party and ends not only with a Christmas song but also the notion of family – which I think are totally acceptable excuses to watch the greatest action movie of all time on Christmas Day. There shouldn't be limits on how awesome a holiday classic can be.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.