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Best all-time Christmas movies: our staff favorites

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'Elf' starring Will Ferrell turned 10 this holiday season. 'Elf' starring Will Ferrell turned 10 this holiday season.
The Yule Blog, Dec. 12
13 days until Christmas

Rather than provide a list of one writer’s top 10 Christmas movies, this year just for fun we decided to let each member of The Current and Gazette Newspapers editorial staff choose their favorite, tell us why and provide a film clip.

The response from our staff was so enthusiastic that we had to divide the story into two parts. The sad thing is that, even though the writers range in age from their early 20s to well into their 60s, most of the movies picked were made a long time ago; in fact, only three, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Elf” and “Joyeux Noël,” were made this century. And even at that, “Grinch” is 13 years old, “Elf,” believe it or not, saw its 10th anniversary this year, and “Joyeux Noël” has already turned 8.

I’d say it’s time for Hollywood to turn its attention toward creating some quality Christmas classics for a new generation.

Here is Part 1 of The Current and Gazette staff’s top Christmas movie picks, presented in no particular order:

A Christmas Story

I have to confess I was a late arrival to the quirky charms of “A Christmas Story.” I didn’t grow up with it, and its release 30 years ago coincided with my late college years, when childhood wishes and family traditions were on the back burner.

But the subtle pleasures of this film, a series of vignettes based on stories by author and radio personality Jean Shepherd, have really grown on me, with classic scenes such as the triple-dog-dare-ya tongue on the icy pole; the Lifebuoy soap-in-the-mouth punishment; the Old Man’s leg lamp “Major Award;” the holiday store Santa and his evil minions who expel Ralphie and friends down a huge slide; the pink bunny rabbit suit; the voracious pack of neighbor dogs that nab the family’s precious turkey; and, of course, the coveted Official Red Ryder Carbine Action, 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle that was Ralph’s holy grail of Christmas wishes, despite every adult’s warning that “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

My wife still doesn’t like this movie much; she says it’s one of those things like the Three Stooges, that only men reliving their boyhood fantasies can appreciate. Maybe so, but I know that it’s a funny, honest portrayal of the Christmas experience from the wide-eyed wonder of a kid’s point of view – and that’s what makes it one of the best holiday movies ever made.

--Bill LeConey

Even after three decades, the triple-dog dare doesn't get old:

A Muppet Christmas Carol

“A Christmas Carol” is a classic, and The Muppets’ telling of the Charles Dickens tale just does it right.
 
Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge among the usual cast of Muppet characters, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit, Gonzo as narrator Charles Dickens, and Fozzie Bear as Mr. Fozziwig, Scrooge’s first employer.

While the movie, released in 1992, has its fair share of contemporary comedy and musical numbers, the script follows the Dickens story closely, even borrowing some of his novella’s original lines. For example, Gonzo starts the tale with “The Marleys were dead to begin with,” almost exactly the first sentence of the book, slightly adapted to accommodate for the two Muppet hecklers, Staler and Waldorf,  playing Jacob Marley and an added character, Jacob’s brother Robert Marley.

“A Christmas Carol” is hands-down my favorite holiday story; I love the backdrop of a Victorian Christmas, and how when Scrooge sees his past mistakes and possible future, realizes Christmas isn’t something to “bah humbug” about.

The Muppets bring a certain lightheartedness to the story, which tends toward the gloomy. For instance, when Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present and tells him, “You're a little absent-minded, spirit,” the spirit responds, “No, I'm a large absent-minded spirit!”

Though aimed at kids, “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” like The Muppets, appeals to adults and never gets old, and Christmastime doesn’t officially start until I watch it.

--Christie Rotondo

Joyeux Noël

World War I, once known as The Great War, raged for years before the United States got involved in 1917. The first year of the war, over Christmas in 1914, what began as an unofficial holiday cease fire in the trenches of the Western Front grew to the point where peace broke out along wide stretches of the lines. Soldiers met in the blasted wastes of No Man’s Land to sing carols, play soccer and bury their dead. Afterward, an English captain said that if he saw it in a film he would not have believed it.

That film would not be made for more than 90 years. The French movie “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas in English), limits and personalizes the truce, focusing on six main characters, German, British and French. They include a Scottish priest, a French lieutenant, a German opera singer and the Danish soprano he loves.

Written and directed by Christian Carion, it screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005.

After a bloody start, the characters slowly begin to trust one another. The film is really about their common humanity, which transcends nations and religion.

Too soon, the holiday is over, and so is the truce, but how can these soldiers see a man through a gun sight so soon after sharing songs and brandy? Or seeing photos of his family? And how can the generals get the war back on track?

--Bill Barlow

Trading Places

Released in 1983 and starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, “Trading Places” is one of my favorite movies, so when I remembered it was set during Christmas I figured it had to rank as one of my favorite Christmas movies as well. As a bonus, it is set in Philadelphia, and you can spot a number of familiar Philly locales during the opening credits.

The story has been done a dozen times in many different variations. Usually a noble but poor man is plucked from obscurity and gets to see how the other half lives for a while. His rich counterpart, meanwhile, is cast down into the dumps.

“Trading Places” flips the script with Murphy’s con man, Billy Ray Valentine, getting a chance at the big time. Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III, a dull, humorless stock trader, is fired by the Duke brothers as part of an experiment to see whether Valentine can do just as good a job. The brothers have been arguing that old “nature vs. nurture” question, and they bet each other $1 that the other one is wrong.

The movie still makes me laugh out loud. The train scene at the end, where Valentine and Winthorpe steal an orange crop report, is a classic.

One interesting tidbit I learned while looking over the movie’s Wikipedia entry is that orange crop report stunt actually served as the inspiration for a new rule in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Commodities Futures Trading Commission chief Gary Gensler testified to Congress that the movie had led him to recommend banning the use of misappropriated government information to trade in the commodity markets.

“In the movie Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy, the Duke brothers intended to profit from trades in frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts using an illicitly obtained and not yet public Department of Agriculture orange crop report,” Gensler testified.

In other words, using stolen government information to gain an edge trading commodities stocks was not a federal crime until 2010. Manipulating the price of the stocks using the information was a crime, however, and still is.

I doubt that has always stopped a Wall Street shark from doing it, though. I didn’t have to trade places with one to figure that out.

--Columb Higgins

Elf

Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), the lead character in the 2003 holiday classic "Elf," grew up at the North Pole not knowing that he was human. He was proud of his elfin heritage, but knew he did not fit in.

When he accidentally discovers he is an adopted human, Buddy goes on a quest to New York City to find his real dad, with the blessing of his adoptive father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and Santa (Ed Asner). Ala Tom Hanks in “Big,” “Elf” entertains as we watch the unpredictability of putting a child’s innocence (and Will Ferrell’s comic genius) in a grown-up’s body let loose in New York City.

“Elf” would be a good movie if it were a mere collection of funny sight gags – an enormous Buddy sitting on Papa Elf’s lap, a brawl between Buddy and a department store Santa, or a Central Park snowball fight where Buddy shows off his North Pole skills by firing snowballs like a human cannon.

But these are woven through a story of Buddy as a noble defender of Christmas as he falls in love with Gimbels employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and reunites with his biological father, publishing executive Walter Hobbs (James Caan), his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and son Michael (Daniel Tay). Combine these with a great sound track of Christmas classics, and the film keeps you in a holiday mood throughout.

It’s my all-time favorite because me, my wife and kids saw it together when it came out in 2003; my oldest was 8 and my youngest 6 at the time. It brought us all together then, and still brings us together today, not only because it’s entertaining for all ages, but it will always be for us a shared experience.

--James FitzPatrick

It’s a Wonderful Life

I like so many Christmas movies, but if I had to choose my favorite it would be the 1946 Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s sappy and predictable, as are most Capra movies; that’s why we love them. This film in particular works so well because George Bailey, played so well by Jimmy Stewart, is a little bit of all of us.

Bailey has sacrificed much over the years to keep the Bailey Building and Loan Association going, including his dreams of going to college and traveling the world, his honeymoon, and a more lucrative career outside of Bedford Falls, N.Y. But when Uncle Billy loses the daily bank deposit on Christmas Eve – the very day a bank examiner comes for an audit – and with the greedy slumlord Mr. Potter scheming to take over the bank, George hits rock bottom and considers ending it all.

Along comes his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, out to earn his wings and played with humble delight by Harry Travers. Clarence shows George what his hometown would have been like if he had never been born, and George comes to realize all he has accomplished in a lifetime of helping others and what a truly wonderful life that has been.

--Suzanne Marino

Die Hard

“Die Hard” (1988) may be a dark Christmas movie, but it is a Christmas movie all the same.

Some of the travails Bruce Willis faces to save his wife and her co-workers from a Christmas Eve kidnapping can be seen as reminders of the problems that Mary and Joseph faced more than 2,000 years ago.

The beginning is all Christmas, with Willis taking a vacation from his job as a New York City cop and visiting his wife and children on the West Coast – the ultimate Christmas gift for the youngsters, and from appearances not an unwelcome present for his estranged wife.

While Willis battles the bad guys in what is one of the greatest action pictures of all time, his chauffeur remains waiting patiently, locked in a limo in the basement parking lot of a high-rise, listening to what is perhaps Christmas music that is there to remind us of what time of year it is.

Much like in the Christmas Nativity story, besides the real bad guys, there are other baddies, like the FBI bureau chief who mistakenly thinks that taking over the scene places him in control.

The L.A. cop who believes in Willis fulfills a role in the Nativity analogy. He represents the Three Wise Men – finally overcoming the incident that led to his being reduced to deskwork as he saves the life of his new friend.

While good arguments can be made that Die Hard is a bad Christmas movie, the evidence is convincing that it is a Christmas movie. If you disagree, the video below should settle the argument.

And even if none of the analogies really works, it’s a great watch – and ’tis the season to watch it.

--Steve Prisament

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

For me, the holidays aren’t complete without watching “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation” at least once, or maybe five times.

The 1989 comedy stars “Saturday Night Live” veteran Chevy Chase, who, as Clark Griswold, wants to have the best family Christmas. 

But things don't turn out the way he plans. Far from it.

From the cat getting electrocuted after chewing on the Christmas tree lights to a squirrel and dog attacking the next-door neighbor, the movie provides plenty of laughs. The family members also get on each other’s nerves.

My favorite part of the film is Clark’s rant. He buys an in-ground swimming pool in anticipation of receiving a big Christmas bonus, but instead of a bonus, he learns that his boss has enrolled him in the jelly-of-the-month club.

“Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one: I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, bloodsucking, dog-kissing, brainless, d***less, hopeless, heartless, fat-a**, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey s*** he is! Hallelujah! Holy s***! Where's the Tylenol?”

What happens next? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

--Alex Davis

Check shorenewstoday.com tomorrow for Part 2 of our staff Christmas movie favorites.

 

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus


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