It's a Wonderful Christmas Story, Charlie Brown
"A Charlie Brown Christmas": I've always empathized with Charlie Brown as a kindred spirit. Throw in the Zoloft™ blob and we're a regular trio of disenfranchised neurotics. I do often feel hopeless, anxious and exhausted, and it all comes to a head right around the month of December. The holiday season guarantees that I will have to update my address book, stress over gift giving, witness random acts of family drama and worry that I may not be the calm, non-homicidal person I should be. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, I'm definitely one of the Charlie Browniest. A Charlie Brown Christmas, however, never fails to remind me what Christmas is really all about. Linus, with his timely plot assist, lisps it better than I ever could, but it's a welcome relief to realize that Christmas has little to do with crowds, presents, decorations, stress, self-analysis or even religion. Instead, it's about making a conscious decision to drop my 5¢ in a coffee can and admit that what I really want for Christmas, other than real estate, is a fair share for everyone. The warm Vince Guaraldi score, adorable animation, and candid humor make A Charlie Brown Christmas a true, televised tradition, but what makes the cartoon timeless is that creator Charles M. Schulz doesn't shy away from the hard part of the holidays. Insisting that there will always be a market for innocence, Schulz shows us our silly, grown-up selves through the eyes of earnest children and insists that we stop taking ourselves so darn seriously. Which, I like to think, might also be what Christmas is really all about. -- Constance Howes
A Christmas Story: In a wasteland of feelgoodery holiday crap, this classic slice of life comedy combines familiar themes of hope, disappointment, conflict and humiliation, making it the quintessential holiday film for both Bah Humbuggers like myself and Christmas-philes alike. Because who among us hasn't, at some point, been forced to grudgingly endure the ill-advised gift of our own clueless Aunt Clara? Although the film is now a quarter-century old, thanks to 24-hour Christmas marathon airings on basic cable and enough memorable scenes and quotes to chock fill the film's 94 minutes, the holiday exploits of the cherubic, flaxen-haired Ralphie and his family in 1940s Northern Indiana are unfamiliar to few. How many can think of A Christmas Story without the flagship ubiquitous line "You'll shoot your eye out!" popping sing-songingly into one's head? Not to mention the Old Man's famous prized leg lamp, inspiring the following bit of narration:
Only one thing in the world could've dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
The bane of Ralphie's mother's existence, and arguably the most unforgettable device of the film, has become as much a part of Christmas as candy canes and fruitcake. In A Christmas Story, no lessons are learned and no one gets filled with any bullshit Christmas spirit, and the film concludes with the sweet dreams of a small boy joyously clutching a loaded firearm and drifting contentedly off to sleep. --Stacey Nosek
"The Happy Prince": Because I'm not much of a Christmas person, and react against yule-type sentiment like I've been scalded, I submit an old British animated special that has little to do with the holiday, except that it used to play on CBC every Christmas season. Sure, it's all about charity and sacrifice, but there must be some kind of bite at the core of The Happy Prince, because I sensed an interesting otherness about this particular show even as a kid. That bite comes from the fact that the special is based on an Oscar Wilde fairy tale, so the lesson about giving to others is laced with a fine melancholy, and an underlying cynicism about general humanity. The Happy Prince is the anti-It's a Wonderful Life because, apart from one gold-leafed statue and a shivering swallow who sacrifice themselves to help others, the community is made up of oblivious fat cats and the starving paupers who sew dresses in freezing garrets for fat-cat daughters. Michael Mills' grainy animation reflects the dreariness of the situation, as does Christopher Plummer, who voices the prince-statue with the regretful tones of someone so disgusted with humanity, he's ready to ascend to that promised glory. Of course, the story's title has multiple meanings, but I was just a stupid, areligious little kid who only saw what was in front of her; there was nothing happy about any of it, and I credit Wilde and Mills with teaching me one of my earliest lessons about irony. -- Ranylt Richildis
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas": How beloved is "How The Grinch Stole Christmas"? Unlike other classic holiday staples, it began with and still has a massive following. This tale of anti-materialism and anti-humbuggery resonates with just about anyone who sees it, helping us remember the real point of the holidays: getting together with loved ones and just being happy with that. While the book is excellent on its own, the 1966 animated short should be considered the definitive take on the tale. The cartoon does what the book couldn't do fully and the live action film completely obliterated: It made the Grinch a low-down bastard who felt real, instead of like a man in a rubber suit. We could relate to the Grinch and his rotten attitude, and even project our own disillusionment with Christmas through him. With animation giant Chuck Jones helming, every gesture and glance spoke volumes. This only got better with the voice of Boris Karloff both narrating and voicing the villain. I mean, when Dracula himself thinks you suck, you must really be something. But the key attribute that differentiates this short from the other adaptations and makes it a classic is the music. From beginning to end, the soundtrack, while seemingly sparse, really conveys the story in a way that straight dialogue could not. The best example of this is, of course, the centerpiece song "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Hearing Thurl Ravenscroft (he was mistakenly left out of the credits until after the special edition documentary in 1994) croon about the myriad ways the Grinch made a person's skin crawl was, for lack of a better word, scrumtrulecent. -- Claude Weaver
It's a Wonderful Life: It's a Wonderful Life almost shouldn't work. The first section, where Clarence the angel is watching George Bailey go from hopeful young lad to beaten-down middle-class dad who just wants to support his family, never quite shakes the feeling of being one giant prologue. The angels' narration makes you think the "real" action is just around the corner, and it is, once Clarence finally shows up and grants George's suicide wish, showing him what the world would be like had George not been around. Simlarly, the second section is almost too short, the kind of Cliff's Notes take on how bad things got without George around. A sad film gets even sadder when you realize just how much poorer and rougher George's town would have been had he not done his best to help out his friends and neighbors. But the film is flawless on an emotional level, and plunges into some deep, dark water before emerging for a finale that never fails to make even the toughest viewer get misty. When George races through town to get home to his family; when he embraces his wife and picks up his children; when those friends and neighbors flood his house with food and cash to see him through the bad times; and when George's brother calls him "the richest man in town" while lifting a glass in honor of George's gentle and giving spirit --it's impossible not to feel broken down and put back together again all at once. My father, who knows what it is to skate the raggedy edge of financial liquidity just to keep food on the table, cannot bear to watch the movie because he identifies with it too much. That's amazing, when you think about it: Capra is usually mentioned for his pie-in-the-sky populism, but there are parts of It's a Wonderful Life that are too painfully truthful to bear. -- Daniel Carlson
The Nutcracker: As a ballet, The Nutcracker is based on the 1816 original German story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffman. In 1891-92, Tchaikovsky went about composing a score that traversed two acts and three tableaux. Although several ballet versions have followed, the most captivating version came to the stage in 1976 with the American Ballet Theatre production, which was choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who also starred as the Nutcracker/Prince. In 1977, this version came to television (without a distracting live audience) and was remastered for a 2004 DVD release. Baryshnikov's version was faithful to the original Tchaikovsky score and built upon Hoffman's story of young Clara's (Gelsey Kirkland) Christmas Eve dream, in which the Nutcracker comes to life and battles the Mouse King. Thematically, Baryshnikov created a darker version of the familiar ballet, and he set this mood through expressive choreography and lighting cues that took Clara away from the soft lighting and minimal shadows of her home to a darkened stage with dramatic shadowing and spotlights. Costuming was also used to great effect, and in particular, the Waltz of the Snowflakes presents an overhead vision of dancers moving fluidly in their white tutus and leotards to form snowflake-shaped patterns within the choreography. Just as Baryshnikov's dazzling grand jetés ascended to great elevations, his presence enchanted and generated a larger audience for ballet. The appeal of the virile and muscular Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, was unmistakable in the success of this version of The Nutcracker. -- Agent Bedhead
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: All Neal Page (Steve Martin) wanted to do was get from New York City to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family. But, as Dell Griffith (John Candy) -- his obnoxious, overweight, blabber-mouthing shower-curtain ring selling travel companion -- would say, that trip would become more difficult than playing pick-up sticks with your butt cheeks. Their plane is rerouted to Wichita, where they end up at a seedy motel where they're robbed; they ride in the back of a pick-up truck in one-degree weather to the train station; the train breaks down halfway to Chicago; a bus only takes them as far as St. Louis; their rental car bursts into flames; and they end up in a refrigerated trailer for the last three-hour leg. Everything that could possibly go wrong does, but there is not a single 30-second stretch that doesn't have something funny in it. While most modern comedies take one joke and run it into the ground, every scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has at least five. John Hughes' buddy road-trip comedy would go on to be one of the greatest Steve Martin comedies of all time (second to only The Jerk) and the best movie John Candy ever did. And while most holiday films (excluding those on this list, of course) rely too heavily on the holiday aspect of the film to the detriment of plot, characters, and humor (see, e.g., Fred Claus and all Tim Allen Christmas films), the holiday is incidental to P, T, and A, though, in the end, Hughes manages to pack in enough holiday poignancy into the last five minutes to make Capra blush. And the last shot, of a close-up on John Candy's face, feels almost like a tribute to his life. -- Dustin Rowles
"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer": There's just something about those Rankin/Bass "animagic" productions, including their staple as perennial holiday specials, that never fails to arouse in me nostalgia's wistful bite. That their primitive stop-motion often looks unintentionally creepy somehow adds to the overall feeling of bizarre coziness. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the most famous and enduring of the Rankin/Bass canon, has become a televised institution in its own right; the damn thing has been broadcast annually on CBS since 1964, leading me to believe that others are subject to the strange inertial pull of this crazy little production too. Viewing it now, much of "Rudolph" seems just plain weird: there's a subplot about an elfish malcontent who wants to be a dentist (how random is that?), Santa and most of the other reindeer are bigoted assholes, the "Island of Misfit Toys" seems disturbingly Wellsian, and the part where a fucking Wampa tries to kill Rudolph never fails to unsettle me. The whole show just bashes us over the head with its indescribable madness, but that's fine; an entire lifetime of re-broadcasts can smooth the roughest stone into a strangely joyous gem. -- Phillip Stephens
Scrooged: Remakes of A Christmas Carol arrive with depressing frequency, but Richard Donner's comedic modernization is a shotgun blast through sentimentality. Going against loveable-goofball-type, Bill Murray's über-cynical television executive spends his life avoiding his loving brother, abusing assistant Alfre Woodard, and ruing his lost shot at happiness with old flame Karen Allen. Scrooged capitalizes brilliantly on Murray's dark genius as a nihilistic network boss churning out hilariously vomitous programming while leaving tire tracks on everyone in his path. When Murray fires a schlubby employee on Christmas Eve (an enjoyably restrained Bobcat Goldthwait), moldering former colleague John Forsythe and three Christmas ghosts, highlighted by loopy Carol Kane, deliver an ominous ultimatum. The opening faux TV promo sets the tone with an Uzi-toting Santa rescued by Lee Majors -- The Night the Reindeer Died! -- and Murray takes over from there, dealing sadistic, deadpan abuse and one-liner take-downs like an Ebenezer Pez dispenser. The network's "Scrooge" Christmas special provides narrative structure with a biting parody of overblown holiday "spectaculars" featuring has-been celebrities (Jamie Farr as Bob Cratchett! Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim!). But Scrooged exists as a fast-and-furious Bill Murray delivery vehicle, at once foreshadowing and surpassing his signature role in Groundhog Day:
Stagehand: I can't get these little antlers to stay on the mice. We tried super glue, but it just doesn't work.
Murray: Have you tried staples?
It's a simple, well-executed formula: Like Bill Murray, love Scrooged. The obligatory sappy ending is blissfully short, and Scrooged takes its place at Christmas dinner as the fun-but-scary cousin who gives Vicodin and whiskey for Secret Santa. -- Ted Boynton
"Sports Night," "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee": If you're looking for an unapologetic cornball, you could do worse than Aaron Sorkin. "Sports Night," the raw predecessor whose plotlines and emotional arcs would be polished to a perfect sheen on "The West Wing," offered warm gooey moments by the truckload. It seems like every episode built toward A Very Important Monologue About Life, and the Christmas episode from the first season, "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee," offers two such moments for the price of one; there's so much unabashed heart crammed into these 22 minutes you could choke on it. The episode deals with a Southern university whose star tailback quits the team to protest the school's tradition of flying the Confederate flag, and the B-plot follows Casey (Peter Krause) as he realizes the errors of his selfishness and comes to appreciate the crewmembers that help make the show-within-the-show possible. The big moment comes when managing editor Isaac (Robert Guillaume) takes to the airwaves to deliver an editorial that rails against the school for displaying the flag, calling it a "banner of hatred and separatism ... of ignorance and violence." Guillaume's delivery is stirring, but Sorkin goes for the knockout by transitioning directly from Isaac's plea for tolerance and growth into a segment in which Casey and Dan (Josh Charles) rattle off the names of some of their crew, thanking them for their service. The scene is playful and serious all at once, like smiling through tears, and many of the names mentioned are actual staffers from the show. The episode rides up almost to the edge of sanctimony, but instead ends on a note of magnanimity, warmth, and the importance of all manner of family bonds at this time of year. It doesn't matter how I often I see it; the final scene always gets me. Always. [Here's a clip of the scenes in question: Part 1 and Part 2.] -- Daniel Carlson
"The West Wing," "Noel": My level of "West Wing" fandom is Trekkie-like. Josh would call it a fetish. It's impossible to pick a favorite episode but I can narrow it down. The second season Christmas episode, "Noel" is up there. From a technical perspective, it's as close to perfect as any episode of TV is going to get. It's a shining example of the potential magic in the Sorkin/Schlamme collaboration. Oh yeah, and then there's Yo-Yo Ma. Sorkin's got two tricks in his bag: witty banter that often belies a turbulent emotional subtext and a samurai-like ability to chop the shit out of a linear narrative. In the hands of a lesser director, his scripts could become muddy and overwrought. He and Tommy were meant for each other. As Christmas episodes go, this one's emotionally devastating. It's structured as a mystery, returning time and again to a therapist saying, "Josh, how did you cut your hand?" We learn it was the end result of a nervous breakdown triggered by, what else, Toby's attempt at bringing holiday cheer to the White House in the form of a brass quintet playing in the lobby. In Josh's post-traumatic stress disordered brain, music and sirens are one in the same. It's a fantastic reveal that comes at the end of a stunning sequence underscored by Yo Yo Ma's performance of Bach's Cello Suite #1. It's certainly not a happy, feel-good 43 minutes, but you get Allison Janey in gorgeous red evening gown. How much more Christmas cheer do you need? [More clips to enjoy: Part 1 and Part 2.] -- Beckyloo
This Guide was originally published in 2007.