Jared Bratt’s Fav Holiday Movies
Well it’s that merry-Ol’ time of the year again — It’s list making season! And besides the obvious very broad (and festive) sense of what I’m referring to, and outside of the fact of whether you believe in Santa or not (I do — I believe in aliens – is a jolly old bearded-guy and some flying reindeer really such a far stretch?) there’s no denying that (this time of year) lists are paramount.
If you’re you’re reading this then I’m assuming that, even when you’re at work, your cerebral-cortex is firing on and fueled by your whole-hearted love of/for film. Yes, if your dry eyes are indeed gazing at this article right now, than dare I assume that you probably have a list on you at this very moment? A list that possibly pertains to your ten best films of the year? It’s to the right of you… no wait — It’s directly to your left… in any case, we’re now in that glorious time of year when everything around us, from our loved-ones to the ritualized gift-giving, and the films we chose to praise and adore, all of these elements can be lovingly categorized, affectionately referenced, and intimately scrutinized.
So in reflecting upon all things holiday-related (specifically all things Christmassy!) some warm memories in the film-watching department definitely rise to mind. While I’m basically leading into chatting-up some of my favorite holiday classics, I should also note that most of the thirteen films below are all movies I generally watch on a regular basis, and I certainly don’t just wait around until the holidays to pop one of these nostalgic-gems into the player. I grew-up seeing most of these films in theaters, in or around Christmas, and for that reason alone, the films that I did see during this time of year are only all the more special because of this aforementioned festive-factor.
Getting right into the WTF?! section of this list is the sixth sequel in the long-running, iconic Star Trek film-series. This is the one film (on this list) for which it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve peeped it through and through. Due to this , I want to say, but I can’t be sure, thatthis entry into the Trek-universe still does not take place on, and subsequently has nothing to do with Christmas — The film features a lot of cringe-inducing cold-weather, but last time I checked — no Christmas. That said, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country annually makes me think of the holidays because as a child, at this exact time of year, was when I first laid eyes on this flick. I remember waiting outside with my parents at the Imperial cinema in that bitter infamous cold (that icy jitteriness that only a town like Montreal can deliver) to see this one. The Imperial was a Montreal-monument of sorts (unfortunately the theatre has long-since closed its doors). The cinema was elite in its sacred unheard-of protocol of only screening one film within its spacious art-deco designed establishment. Also way before this idea of souped-up sound ever became a mainstream-multiplex marketing commodity, the Imperial was prestigiously known for its high-quality audio design/ presentation. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country wasn’t just going to see any old ordinary movie in cinemas, it was a family-bonding event, fighting off the elements and traveling to a seemingly different world to see a film that fittingly-s0 takes place on an undiscovered planet (snow, however, does keep things in check making all the space-opera happenings unexpectedly relatable weather-wise).
I only got around to seeing this slew of flamboyant comedy hi-jinx ensue when the film hit VHS back in the day. And maybe because I did indeed miss watching this film in theaters, when I finally rented Trapped in Paradise on video, I proceeded to watch this film every single day for what sticks to mind as a solid week and a half time-period. I was either compensating for the apparent lack in theatrical trips with this one, or I was preparing future-me for my love of Nicolas Cage, Wayne’s World, and everything Jon Lovitz. Who knows, there was just something that grabbed my initial undivided interest even at such a young and tender age. It’s a question future-me (now present-me) can only answer today. The chemistry between Cage, Dana Carvey, and Jon Lovitz is absolute comedy gold, and the more I think about it, the pairing of these three brilliant comedic-talents was a masterful stroke of true inspired, genius casting. The film itself is kind of like the dark-comedy/heist Christmas version of Groundhog Day meets U-Turn. Bordering on manic-frustration meshed with the expected jovial coming-together of that warm holiday-cheer, Trapped in Paradise is worth the watch alone just to see Cage, Carvey, and Lovitz bicker amongst each-other like a troupe of modern-day three stooges.
Directed by the great/late Ted Demme, The Ref is a criminally-underrated film featuring (for me) my second favorite all-time Dennis Leary screen-performance. This is also one of the first films to ever introduce me to the greatness that is Kevin Spacey. On the run from Johnny-law, Leary plays a petty thief who unavoidably takes an above middle-class family hostage (on Christmas Eve) as a means to hide out in their home until he can properly evade the clutches of the heavy police-patrolled suburban-neighborhood. The catch is that Leary’s character has unknowingly taken captive a couple of high-strung, no-nonsense feuding spouses who absolutely refuse to let their apparent downward spiral of a marriage take a backseat to the far-more concerning hostage scenario that theyand their children have now become unwilling participants in. The Ref is an impossibly witty, razor-sharp dark-comedy designed to highlight and showcase the undeniable explosive energy that Leary could emote when landing just the right material. Combine an equally impressive supporting cast here, and the real brains of this film shines trough. A verbally fought sparring-match moderated by a foul-mouthed crook turned holiday saint — There are worse things than prison and The Ref satirically points its subversive finger towards marriage.
My favorite of the Muppet movies, and maybe that’s because I have always found the story of Scrooge itself (no matter what incarnation of the tale I was watching) to always be so unavoidably engaging. Kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in that sense, whatever version it is, there’s always an immediate appeal or interest for me. Automatic investment. And maybe because of this deep-seated impactfulness (within the Scrooge story) I have always found The Muppet Christmas Carol to be the most, dare I say, hard-hitting of the Muppet movies? Now maybe you’re thinking the words “hard-hitting” and “Muppet” should never go hand-in-hand and maybe you’re right. Maybe what I mean to say is that the Scrooge story, and its core identifiable roller-coaster of a character-arc makes this variation of the Muppet-universe seem the most “real” if that makes any bit of sense? Michael Caine defined my knowledge of Scrooge growing-up and the film’s accompanying songs and orchestral-score tuned my ears towards classical/instrumental fare, specifically to “Carol of the Bells” (though I could probably credit Home Alone 2 for doing the same). Unlike many of the Muppet sequels that would later follow The Muppet Christmas Carol, this Muppet-saga possesses a marvelous heartfelt screenplay that proves (long-before any contemporary reboot did) that a film starring lovable furry puppets-slash-marionettes could still intelligently pile-on the smarts.
I’m not about to run out and purchase Junior any time soon (though if I have to be totally honest, it’s only a matter of time) but I honestly still champion Jingle All the Way as fun holiday-watch, made even more hilariously fun by the fact that it stars Schwarzenegger as the everyman father desperately trying to find his son (a pre-Star Wars Jake Lloyd) the coveted Christmas gift that every young-boy so badly desires. Unfortunately due to workaholic neglectfulness, Schwarzenegger’s father-figure has obliviously forgotten to jump on buying his son’s desired action-figure, Turbo Man, until the last possible second when the toy itself has become scarce in availability. Back in the days of Sinbad still casually being a recognizable name you’d periodically see plastered across movie posters, Jingle All the Way made good use of the comedian’s talents by pairing him up with someone debatably even more “in-your-face” when it comes to comedy — Arnold Schwarzenegger. And when it comes to dealing with the Schwarzenegger-realm of comedic-timing and playing a role for laughs, I place this flick alongside Kindergarten Cop. I find it endearingly entertaining to see the Terminator non-terminate for a change. You also have Phil Hartman playing the obnoxiously festive nosey-neighbor here, and in my books, Hartman was always a welcome-plus to any comedic-ensemble. Sure, Jingle All the Way won’t magically excite any new found interest in seeing the rumored Twins 2 sequel, but I think the film does have some earnest charm up its slapstick-drenched sleeve — Either that or I’m just a die hard Schwarzenegger fan for life.
At the height of Shane Black’s boy-wonder popularity for penning hard-boiled action opuses full of fast-talking, grizzled characters speaking “snap-crackle-pop” dialogue while overcoming explosive adrenaline-fueled odds at every turn, Black sold his high-profile, high-in-demand script for The Long Kiss Goodnight for a whopping three million dollars. This well-publicized transaction of art and commerce was definitely some sort of new world’s record in terms of money shelled-out by a studio in exchange for one writer’s screenplay, but Lethal Weapon was already an absorbed pop-culture phenomenon as it single-handedly slapped the action genre upside its crusty old head, and thus gave Black some massive credibility and clout back in his still-developing heyday. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes news of The Long Kiss Goodnight’s script- acquisition antics overshadowed any possibility for the film to actually hit home with anyone or find its audience. When movie was ultimately released, it tanked at the box-office and shortly-there-after, so did the careers of Shane Black, Geena Davis and her then-husband, the film’s director (and once action filmmaking maestro) Renny Harlin. It’s too bad too because all Hollywood-hoopla aside, this film really does have a great, witty script at its disposal. The words are made all the more memorable when you have fiery Geena Davis playing double-role duty alongside Samuel L. Jackson as one-part innocent housewife and one-part badass government assassin. The Long Kiss Goodnight is basically Lethal Weapon meets La Femme Nikita meets Die Hard meets 48 Hours, and yet it all seems so strikingly fresh here, again, largely in part because Davis and Jackson are such an unconventional on-screen match-up for this type action fare that I think the uniqueness of their casting truly shines through. Their chemistry is as energetic as the holiday fun to be had with this watch, and the film itself sill accounts for one of my favorite action films of the long-gone 90′s. Renny Harlin — What happened?
Forget about getting a dog or a cat, or fish… chances are, if you grew up on Gremlins, all you wanted for Christmas was Gizmo! Horror-based comedy mixes with spurts of Animaniacs type levels of violence, all well-balanced and wrapped together with a Capra-esque ability to bring the entire family together under one roof despite just a slight case of holiday hecticness – Gremlins pretty much covers all the bases for me. I am indeed a fan of the sequel as well (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) but still it’s this original that stands out as a classic film for that little inner-mogwai in all of us. You know what also makes Gremlins hold up so exquisitely well? How about the fact that to this day, you can hand-pick any one scene featuring Gizmo and co. and I bet you top-dollar you will believe what you are looking at. The Gremlins are in front of the lens, and tangible, and hence, even my older, more cynical-self will never stop believing the cinematic magic and seasonal spirit that is Joe Dante’s family friendly (yet still partially creepy) creature-feature. If for whatever reason, you haven’t seen Gremlins already, you’re missing out on some of the best FX cinema has to offer. The practical kind.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a tremendous film. Is it a Halloween movie? Is it a Christmas movie? It’s both, but covering two holidays for the price of one is only scraping the surface of what makes this film so entertaining. The soundtrack has always felt steeped in levels of Broadway quality production values. Each song is more memorable then the tune that proceeded it, while their lyrics have everything to do with identifying character emotion and simultaneously moving the film’s mythical narrative full-steam ahead. The funny thing is, for the longest time I was under the impression that Tim Burton directed this film himself, but he actually didn’t — You had me fooled because this ghoulish family-classic legitimately feels like Tim Burton is at its helm, and by all means, he certainly is, but by technical standards… Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually directed by Henry Selick (he later went on to do Monkeybone). In any event, The Nightmare Before Christmas hits all those beloved Burton beats, and like so many of the director’s most cherished of works, it’s a timeless visual masterpiece.
And speaking of visual masterpieces, Batman Returns comes to mind as just that. When I was younger, long-after seeing the film in theaters, I received Burton’s second Batman installment on VHS as a holiday gift. I recall unraveling the wrapping, seeing that box-cover with the vertical head-count of Batman and his two toughest foes yet (Catwoman and the Penguin) and then I remember subsequently screaming with excitement running laps around my house (and I was generally a pretty calm kid). I’ve always adored this film regardless of my main criticism being that there’s just not enough Batman for my money in this film. Nevertheless, I possess nothing but love for Burton’s two incarnations of the caped-crusader, and to this day, I long for the third Burton Batman film that unfortunately never transpired beyond anything more than a one-time boardroom meeting. When TIFF Lightbox ushered in their tribute Tim Burton gallery-exhibit, I finally re-visited Batman Returns on Blu-ray and immediately gained a new found respect above and beyond the respect that I had already pent up for this film. Watching the movie recently enough, all I could think was “which art-director didn’t get nominated?” and “Pfeiffer and DeVito are transformative.” I think both of their performances would have been much more critically acclaimed now then they were at the time of this film’s release. In my opinion, Batman Returns is still the darkest Batman film to ever be produced, Keaton is still the choice Batman in my books, and that slow-dance sequence (at Christopher Walken’s masquerade ball) between Keaton and Pfeiffer? Sexy as all hell and utterly powerful in its bursting, palpable emotional stakes. Batman Returns appropriately disturbed my soul as a child, and yet it has still always been a massively fun holiday gander. Leave it to Tim Burton to relate goggly-eyed suicidal clowns and Christmas all under one big bow.
Even though I can come to this conclusion now, I’m not going to sell my own child-like smarts short either, as I’ve always felt that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is actually somewhat of a shockingly violent family-film. I just can’t shake the notion that there’s a level of nastiness here, a sort of unfitting depraved sense of humor that wasn’t present in Home Alone. Sure it’s classic seuqelittis here, taking everything that made the first movie so great and doubling up and duplicating all those elements, but in this second Home Alone, everything feels unavoidably less genuine. Still, Culkin is plucky, Williams’ score is lassic, and OH YES, I’ve probably seen this flick about a billion times over in my life. But all nastiness aside, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York still defines Christmas with its depiction of the happiest place on earth, Duncan’s Toy Chest. If there were two structures that I wish actually existed when I was younger, it would have been the Ghostbusters’ firehouse and Duncan’s Toy Chest. Even though I knew this fictitious New York toy-store didn’t even carry the kinds of toys I’d actually want to play with, I still dreamed to be part of its blossoming wonder-like universe. Oh, and Home Alone (the original) — CLASSIC.
It’s that time of the year where everywhere I go makes me feel like I’m about to crash that Nakatomi Plaza Christmas party at the beginning of Die Hard. I guess that just means that for me Christmas is Die Hard, as Die Hard is Christmas. But we all know how high up the ladder the first flick stands, so let me just wrap up all this list-driven festiveness by saying that Die Hard 2: Die Harder, while not bringing anything entirely new to the table, is still a masterfully crafted action movie that feels like a genuine fitting sequel to its predecessor. So if the first Die Hard made you feel all warm and cozy inside, drinking eggnog, smoking cigarettes, and watching Captain Kangaroo — I’d say give this second one another go this year — Different body count, same season, classic humbug McClane. Nothing says Christmas like a therapeutically loud ”Yippee-ki-yay” TWICE!!
Some of my favorite film-festivities right here, but really, all potentially incriminating humor aside, thanks for sticking with me on these list ones. If you’ve disagreed with absolutely everything I’ve stated thus far, well then, at the very least, you can go back and re-read this piece, and take a shot every time you come across the word “holiday”. As always, thanks for reading, stay safe, and happy holidays everyone!