A version of this story appears in Tuesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
The 13 movies of Christmas
Make merry with a wide array of classic films and television specials.
After months of preparations, the relatives have been greeted, the gifts have been unwrapped, the feast consumed.
That was quick. Now what?
Whether you’re too tired or full to move, need to entertain a crowd or have miles and hours to pass en route to your next yuletide gathering, a movie just might be in order.
Given the wide array of films and TV specials centering on or set around Christmastime, picking a holiday movie or planning a whole marathon is a whole lot easier than shopping for your average teenager. With the convenience of instant streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, you don’t even have to wait for the stores to open again to celebrate the season cinematically.
Since ‘tis the season for excess, instead of the 12 movies of Christmas, here are a baker’s dozen of my favorite Christmas films and specials. plus a few “second helping” bonus options:
1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946): I don’t care what day the calendar says it is, if you haven’t seen Frank Capra’s classic about George Bailey’s (James Stewart) encounter with his guardian angel (Henry Travers), it’s not Christmas.
Second helping: If you’re looking for more yuletide merriment from the era, check out 1945’s “Christmas in Connecticut,” starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet.
2. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965): Charlie Brown’s (voice of Peter Robbins) search for the true meaning of Christmas in the face of rampant commercialism never gets old — or less topical for that matter.
Second helping: The 1970 stop-motion Rankin/Bass special “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” explores the origins of the Kris Kringle legend, including the meaningful themes of generosity, love and childlike joy.
3. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964): Based on the song popularized by Oklahoma-bred singing cowboy Gene Autry, the first of the legendary stop-motion Christmas specials produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass is about “a couple of misfits” — the titular crimson-snozzed caribou (voice of Billy Richards) and a toy-building elf who really wants to be a dentist (Paul Soles) — looking for a place to fit in. Along the way, they save Christmas. It manages to be surreal, uplifting and classic at all the same time.
Second helping: Rankin and Bass based several of their animated specials on Christmas carols and pop songs, including 1969’s “Frosty the Snowman.” It isn’t as wacky as “Rudolph” — there’s nothing as bizarre as a Charlie in the Box or a lion named King Moonracer — but it’s got Jimmy Durante as the narrator.
4. “Die Hard” (1988): Bruce Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop trying to rescue his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) from a group of ruthless robbers (led by Alan Rickman’s love-to-hate-him Hans Gruber) who have taken her company Christmas party hostage in what is widely regarded as one of the best action movies ever made. Yippee kai yay, the R-rated adventure obviously isn’t for the whole family, but if you’re of age, it’s worth watching again, particularly with the fourth sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” due out Valentine’s Day.
Second helping: Director Richard Donner’s influential 1987 buddy-cop movie “Lethal Weapon,” starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, also is set around the holidays. Plus, ‘tis the season for nostalgia, like remembering when ol’ Mel was only frighteningly unpredictable on celluloid.
5. “A Christmas Story” (1983): Bob Clark’s now-beloved adaptation of narrator Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has become so popular it spawned this year a well-reviewed hit Broadway musical. The movie has so many uproarious and now-iconic sight gags — the leg lamp, the pink bunny suit, the Chinese turkey — but it’s young Ralphie’s (Peter Billingsley) relatable quest for the perfect Christmas gift that makes it favorite for young and old alike.
Second helping: For more yuletide hilarity, 1990’s “Home Alone” not only has plenty of pratfalls but also a surprising measure of heart. Plus, it hearkens back to more innocent times, when John Hughes was still alive and Macaulay Culkin could drive through Oklahoma without getting arrested.
6. “Elf” (2003): Before he brought “Iron Man” to the big screen, director Jon Favreau teamed with Will Ferrell to create one of the most gleefully quotable Christmas comedies in recent memory. Apparently, Broadway now shares the movie world’s affinity for elf culture, since this is another well-loved holiday film with a musical version playing on the Great White Way this season.
Second helping: Also released in 2003, writer-director Richard Curtis’ British romantic comedy “Love, Actually” stars Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy.
7. “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (1977): Muppets creator Jim Henson used a variety of puppetry techniques to adapt Russell and Lillian Hoban’s children’s storybook, which puts an animal twist on O. Henry’s famed holiday tale “The Gift of the Magi.” This Emmy-nominated TV special is like three of my favorite things all in one.
Second helping: If you’re looking for another family-friendly, book-based, unique-looking seasonal story, check out Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 motion-capture animated film “The Polar Express.”
8. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947): Edmund Gwenn won a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a man claiming to be Santa Claus in this stirring family drama co-starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and young Natalie Wood.
Second helping: I’m not sure why you’d want to watch a remake of this classic, but Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott and Mara Wilson starred in the 1997 do-over.
9. “A Christmas Carol” (too many to list): Charles Dickens’ beloved Victorian saga has been adapted for the screen a multitude of times since the turn of the 20th century. I generally begin my annual holiday viewing with the 1984 telefilm starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, but Alastair Sim’s 1951 film “Scrooge” is better known. The Muppets, Mickey Mouse and a motion-capture Jim Carrey have all brought the “bah humbug” to the screen.
Second helping: In Richard Donner’s 1988 modern-day “Carol” “Scrooged,” Bill Murray plays a self-centered TV executive who is haunted by three Christmas spirits.
10. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966): Looney Tunes mastermind Chuck Jones co-directed the definitive screen adaptation of one of Dr. Seuss’ kaleidoscopic rhyming tales. He even produced the musical TV special with Ted Geisel himself. Boris Karloff is brilliant as the narrator and voice of the emerald-hued grump, but Thurl Ravenscroft steals the show with his deep-voiced crooning (unfortunately uncredited) of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Second helping: Makeup maestro Rick Baker won one of his seven Oscars for the 2000’s big-budget live-action adaptation, directed by Duncan-born Ron Howard with Jim Carrey playing a particularly zany Grinch under layers on green latex.
11. “Trading Places” (1983): John Landis’ satirical comedy about a pampered commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a broke street hustler (Eddie Murphy) who unwittingly swap lives as part of a scheme by two coldhearted investment bankers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who want to solve an ongoing debate about nature vs. nurture is set during the holiday season. Not only does it feature two comedic geniuses in their prime, but it also seems just as relevant today as it did nearly 30 years ago.
Second helping: Another 1980s comedy, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” written by John Hughes, just might be the perfect movie for anyone who feels governed by Murphy’s Law, as Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) efforts to pull off a perfect family Christmas continually go awry.
12. “White Christmas” (1954): Irving Berlin’s musical starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen is my most likely choice for Christmas Day cinematic entertainment. Snow on Dec. 25 is a rare occurrence here in Oklahoma, but that doesn’t make hearing Bing croon the adored song any less heartwarming.
Second helping: Berlin actually wrote the song “White Christmas” for the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn,” starring Crosby and hoofer Fred Astaire, and he won the best original song Oscar for it.
13. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993): Add a horror-fantasy flair to your musical Christmas with director Henry Selick’s and producer Tim Burton’s stop-motion tale of bored Halloween Town leader Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon provided his speaking voice, while Danny Elfman sang for him) who becomes obsessed with Christmas and decides to overthrow Santa Claus.
Second helping: An old woman explaining to her great-granddaughter why it snows provides the seasonal framework of Burton’s 1990 live-action fairy tale “Edward Scissorhands.” Of course, the most memorable scene — of Winona Ryder’s Kim dancing in the “snow” that falls as the Johnny Depp’s title character rapidly crafts ice structures — takes place at Christmastime.