By Cameron Rasmusson and Chris Balboni
Everyone has their own holiday traditions, and movies and television are no exceptions. For many people, the Christmas season hasn’t truly begun until they’ve watched their favorite cinematic celebrations of the holiday. Here are a few of Reader film contributor Chris Balboni and editor Cameron Rasmusson’s essential holiday movies.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
The perfect film to bridge the Halloween and Christmas seasons and still a technical marvel, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is one of the most visually impression stop-motion animation films ever made. But even the most gorgeous movie is empty without story and characterization. “Nightmare” delivers on that front, too, offering both laughs and sentiment when Halloween Town resident Jack Skellington discovers Christmas Town and decides to celebrate the holiday himself.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1991)
The Christmas season has inspired a few great movies but also a lot of saccharine drivel. “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” would be completely unwatchable if it weren’t for cult classic “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a show that skewers awful movies with biting wit.
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” sees jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas and two horrible child actors kidnapped by Martians, who hope to cheer up their depressed alien children. MST3K wisecrackers Joel Robinson, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot give the film their usual hilarious treatment, mocking the laughable costumes, atrocious acting and the most insufferable comic relief character ever put to film (seriously, Jar Jar Binks has nothing on Droppo) with relish.
“Die Hard” (1988)
People sometimes forget that the action classic “Die Hard” is also a Christmas classic, using the holiday to distinguish its setting and enliven its set pieces. As far as I’m concerned, no December is complete without a viewing of the 1988 film that launched Bruce Willis’ career and redefined the action genre for an entire decade.
When NYPD officer John McClane visits Los Angeles in the hopes of reconnecting with his estranged wife and child, he expects a routine Christmas vacation. That’s blown away when terrorists led by iconic villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) seize control of the Nakatomi Corporation headquarters. McClane escapes the terrorists and begins a one-man operation to take them down. “Die Hard” is a near-perfect distillation of thrills, humor and a little holiday cheer: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho!”
“Christmas Vacation” (1989)
“Christmas Vacation” finds Clark and the Griswold family at home in the suburbs of Chicago during the holiday season. As previous “Vacation” films have shown, things always go horrible awry for Clark and his descent into madness is gradual but inevitable.
Written by the legendary John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller”, “Breakfast Club”) the film is very much the feel-good comedy he’s known for, but with a glaze of adult humor that makes it stand out from typical family-fare. Chevy Chase is at the height of his comedic game here, and Randy Quaid steals every scene with his appearance as Clark’s disgusting redneck cousin Eddy.
“Bad Santa” (2003)
It’s easy to pick “Bad Santa” for a Christmas movie if you’re sick of holiday clichés. It’s an unflinchingly dark comedy about Willie Stokes, an alcoholic, sex-addicted, suicidal mall Santa-for-hire. Stokes ends every Christmas by robbing his employers with the help of his dwarf assistant Marcus, who is clearly the only reason Stokes is still alive. It’s the anti-Christmas-film film, essentially.
That said, there’s some true comedic gold found here. Thornton’s performance is brilliantly poker-faced, making everything from his drunken stupors to his unfettered hatred for children all the more hilarious. And there’s a poetry to the foulness of the dialogue (co-written by the Coen brothers) that results in more than a few unexpected laughs. As Stokes accidentally develops a relationship with one obstinate child, there’s even a slight character arc that allows you to hate him just slightly less by the bullet-riddled finale.
“A Very Murray Christmas” (2015)
“A Very Murray Christmas” is worth a look if only for its absolute absurdity. Bill Murray plays himself, trapped in a hotel as a snow storm brings New York City to a halt. He’s supposed to be taping a TV special, but with the storm raging outside, nobody can make it. So Murray adventures through the hotel, singing with and finding solace in the holiday spirit of the random guests he stumbles into.
On the surface it’s a musical, but one that doesn’t take itself seriously because … Bill Murray. The film is rife with holiday gimmicks that might otherwise be easily dismissed. However, the endless parade of cameos and the sense that this is wish fulfillment for the real-life Murray make this a short but fun ride. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to see Bill Murray sing “Let it Snow” with support from George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, it’s got that going for it too. Which is nice.
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