Movies

The holidays on film

Movies that appeal to all sorts of family members

The holidays are here, and that can only mean one thing: hours upon hours spent with relatives you barely know. Hopefully you'll get to hear Uncle Clifford's hilarious reminiscences about the old days (again) or share some quality bonding time with the cousins.

But what if the family get-together feels less "together" and more, well, awkward? Simple: Let Hollywood save your holiday. Gather everyone in the living room, pop in a DVD, and in two short hours, you'll all be holding hands 'round the Christmas tree and singing "Fah who foraze" like Whos down in Whoville.

To help you find just the right movie to help your unique family recall the spirit of the holiday season, Palo Alto Weekly/Almanac/Mountain View Voice film critics Peter Canavese and Tyler Hanley have selected some of their favorites, from the classics to the not-so-classic.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

No movie says Christmas to me ... or David Packard ...or ... Well, most adult Americans like "It's a Wonderful Life." Director Frank Capra's endlessly influential, constantly reinterpreted film became a Christmas classic largely with the advent of television, which made it an annual holiday tradition (so too has the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, which screens it Christmas Eve on actual celluloid and in glorious black and white).

A funny-sweet-sad emotional roller coaster, "It's a Wonderful Life" follows the development of George Bailey (James Stewart) from adolescent to family man, his love story with a girl named Mary (Donna Reed), and the misfortune that befalls the Bailey Building and Loan Association and pushes George to the brink of suicide (only to be rescued by an angel named Clarence).

Yes, it's a movie for the 99 percent, but there are other reasons to occupy Bedford Falls: vibrant characters, great performances (Stewarts's is one of the great movie-star turns of all time), and that "what if you were never born?" story -- adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern's "The Greatest Gift" -- which makes a virtue of unabashed sentiment.

Some call it "Capra-corn," but most want to return to it again and again. Certainly for me it's one of those movies indelibly stamped on my psyche from endless childhood viewings, so familiar that it practically qualifies as family. -- PC

Home Alone (1990)

Then-adorable Macaulay Culkin delivers one of Hollywood's most memorable child performances in the heartwarming and often hilarious "Home Alone." Actress Emmy Rossum ("The Phantom of the Opera") recently Tweeted: "At 7, I was in love w/ Macaulay. I'd watch Home Alone over & over. I used to pause the video and go and kiss his virtual face." Plenty share Rossum's affinity for the film -- for many viewers in their 20s, "Home Alone" is considered the ultimate Christmas flick.

Rambunctious youngster Kevin McCallister (Culkin) is inadvertently left unaccompanied in a large house when his massive, frenzied family rushes out the door while running late for a Christmas vacation to Paris. Although Kevin initially celebrates his newfound freedom, his enthusiasm is quickly tempered by the introduction of two dim-bulb burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) and their repeated attempts to break in to the house. Meanwhile, Kevin's distraught mother (Catherine O'Hara) desperately tries to get back to her son, turning to help from a gregarious polka musician (John Candy).

Somewhat ironically, family is the binding theme in "Home Alone." The familial undertone is not a surprise considering the subject is a common one for both screenwriter John Hughes ("The Breakfast Club") and director Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire"). The slapstick that ensues in the picture's final act -- when Kevin cleverly fends off the bumbling crooks -- is downright riotous (Stern's high-pitched screams are inspired). A cornucopia of Christmas tunes (such as Kevin lip-syncing Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") also helps bring home the holiday spirit. -- TH

A Christmas Story (1983)

Another more recent Christmas classic that's become a TV tradition is Bob Clark's comedy "A Christmas Story," the subject of an annual 24-hour broadcast marathon. Though 12 consecutive viewings would be overkill, at least one is mandatory.

Clark's hilarious, irreverent reclamation of Rockwellian America derives from the comic tales of Jean Shepherd. Set around the turn of the 1940s, "A Christmas Story" could be the ultimate nostalgia movie, charmingly making viewers long for an innocent time most of them didn't even live through, if it even existed to begin with. Nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) suffers the indignities of youth while being embarrassed by parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) and longing for the ultimate gift.

Though perhaps most memorable for Dad's leg lamp, a tongue stuck to an icy pole, and a dangerous BB gun ("You'll shoot your eye out!"), the secret weapon is Shepherd's deliciously wry narration, a precursor to TV's similarly rueful-wistful "The Wonder Years." (And, having first seen this movie when I was Ralphie's age, I get nostalgic just thinking about it.) -- PC

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

This animated gem narrated by the incomparable Boris Karloff and directed by legendary cartoon auteur Chuck Jones is a Christmastime "can't miss." Dr. Seuss' unique and imaginative imagery sparkles throughout the 26-minute short that has become a holiday staple for families around the globe.

Based on Seuss' 1957 children's book, "Grinch" weaves the tale of a grumpy loner who dwells on a mountain peak above the jubilant town of Whoville. The Grinch bemoans the Whos' festive Christmas celebrations, making scowling complaints to his pet pooch, Max. One Christmas, the Grinch sneakily snatches all of the Whos' decorations and gifts, thus putting the kibosh on their seasonal bliss (or so he thinks). But the olive-hued curmudgeon has a change of heart (literally) when the Whos prove unfazed by the dearth of presents, instead reveling in the simple joys of song and fellowship.

My wonderful mother does Christmas better than anyone I've ever met, for which I am ever grateful. And one of her regular rituals is watching this colorful short with my brother and me. I still get choked up when the Grinch, desperately clinging to a sleigh full of the Whos' pilfered goodies, hears the Whos singing down below and finally grasps the true meaning of Christmas. Messages about fellowship, generosity, sharing and empathy toward others are wrapped nicely in the picture's narrative. Just what the doctor ordered. -- TH

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

I love the Muppets, so the shocking 1990 death of Muppet creator Jim Henson, at age 53, struck a terrible blow. 1992's "The Muppet Christmas Carol," then, had more riding on it than the average Christmas movie. Dickens' heartwarming journey from bitterness to love is emotional enough as it is, but as reinterpreted by the Muppets, it became an unavoidable tearjerker for fans still mourning the loss of Henson and fellow Muppeteer Richard Hunt.

Directed by Henson's son Brian, the film casts Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) and Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) as the Cratchits, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) as narrator Charles Dickens, and Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. Paul Williams, who with Kenny Ascher penned the tunes for "The Muppet Movie," contributes seven lovely new songs, and beloved Muppet screenwriter Jerry Juhl crafts a surprisingly faithful adaptation, even while striking comedy gold with the double-act of Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat (also Whitmire).

Add Caine's powerful performance -- good enough to carry a straight, human retelling of "A Christmas Carol" -- and you get a heartwarming family film with serious replay value. With "The Muppets" still in theaters, there's no better time to dig into the Muppet catalog, and no film more seasonally appropriate than "The Muppet Chistmas Carol." -- PC

Die Hard (1988)

Believe it folks -- one of the most celebrated action films of all time also happens to be a terrific holiday movie. Granted, most people prefer their holiday offerings to have a lower body count. But "Die Hard" is Hollywood's only edge-of-your-seat Christmas flick.

New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in Los Angeles for a Christmas shindig at his estranged wife's office building, Nakatomi Plaza. Things spiral from merry to scary when a group of armed thieves invade the plaza and take the party guests hostage. Only the wily John is able to escape, sneaking his way through the plaza's unpopulated floors and keeping an eye on the criminals and their sophisticated leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). John's guile and guts prove invaluable as he slowly picks off the terrorists, leading to a final confrontation with Hans.

Willis is spectacular in the film that built his career, and the thrills are visceral as John daringly veers from one dangerous situation to the next. Rickman is a revelation as Hans, going down as one of cinema's all-time great villains. John's selfless actions ring true with the holiday season, even if fighting, gunfire and explosions don't exactly elicit thoughts of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. The dynamic that develops between John and a Twinkie-loving patrol cop proves endearing, while John's obvious love for his wife (and vice versa) breaks through the chaos.

"Die Hard" is the season's guilty pleasure -- it isn't so much a Christmas movie as it is a "Christosterone" movie. Enjoy in moderation. -- TH

A Christmas Tale (2008)

Part and parcel of the holidays is the dysfunctional family, the stuff of many a Christmas movie from "Home Alone" to "The Ref." If alcoholism, mental illness, leukemia, and general family strife make you feel at home, "A Christmas Tale" may be the film for you. French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin is given to expansive domestic dramedies, and this one's no exception. Around the same time he bedeviled James Bond in "Quantum of Solace," Mathieu Almaric stars as the most neurotic of the Vuillard family, heading rapidly for a strained reunion on Christmas. Catherine Deneuve plays the ailing matriarch trying to keep the family together.

A feast of individual perspectives, "A Christmas Tale" offers many a character the opportunities to deliver, directly to the audience, a monologue composed of the poetry of the troubled mind. Can this family be saved? It's the elephant in the room, or perhaps we should say the wolf in the cellar. The invisible beast, named Anatole, is an aging imaginary threat to the household's past and present children. For a family on the edge of madness, the solution is simple: Stop believing the wolf is at the door and start believing in each other. With his artful approach, Desplechin makes the well-worn family-weekend plot endearing again. -- PC

Scrooged (1988)

Funnyman Bill Murray lends his sharp sense of humor to this edgy adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." Murray is exceptional and director Richard Donner ("Lethal Weapon") sets the perfect tone, serving up a delicious Christmas blend of hilarity and sincerity.

Murray is at his sarcastic best as TV executive Frank Cross, a modern-day Scrooge so corrupted by greed and power that even his only brother gets slighted during the holidays. Frank, deep in the throes of producing a "Scrooge" television special set to air live on Christmas Eve, is visited by the cobwebbed specter of his old boss, Lew (John Forsythe). Lew warns his former protege that three unique ghosts will be paying him a visit. Soon Frank is being transported to his past by a wisecracking cabbie (David Johansen), through his present by an abusive fairy (Carol Kane) and to his future by a skeletal phantasm.

Donner and company overwhelmingly succeed in taking one of literature's mostly widely read Christmas stories and twisting it without losing what makes it so memorable in the first place. The original score by musical mastermind Danny Elfman (who frequently collaborates with director Tim Burton) is phenomenal and gives "Scrooged" that Burton-esque flair. Murray's supporting cast, which also includes Bobcat Goldthwait as a down-and-out ex-employee and Robert Mitchum as Frank's boss, is excellent. A subplot involving Frank and his former flame (Karen Allen as Claire) is also surprisingly effective. And in something of an ode to the family spirit that permeates the holidays, Murray's three brothers also have roles in the film.

"Scrooged" is entertaining, witty and uplifting -- a cinematic holiday treat. -- TH

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