It’s not that I don’t love the season, but I’ve found, as I get older, that there are certain tropes and traditions that have, as far as I’m concerned, worn out their welcome.
For instance, as much as I love Hank Garland’s innovative guitar work, I can’t listen to Jingle Bell Rock any more. It’s been done to death.
There are a lot of holiday movies that fall into that same category. I can’t watch Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life any more. Repetition has robbed them of much of their substantial magic. The same goes for A Christmas Story and most versions of A Christmas Carol. I’m afraid that Elf, a movie I was initially quite fond of, will soon experience a similar fate. Curse you, basic cable! Curse you and your movie marathons!
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some movies out there still capable of bringing the holiday cheer. There are movies that, because they aren’t aired every other day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, still manage to divest me of a little of my Grinchiness. A little.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944): While not strictly a Christmas movie, this musical melodrama about a St. Louis family faced with leaving the city they love just before the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair does feature an outstanding holiday moment. Judy Garland’s take on the classic Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas transforms the tune, making it at once hopeful but also a little mournful. It’s about the promise of Christmases to come and regret over the Christmases that might have been. That’s a powerful sentiment.
JOYEUX NOEL (2005): The battlefields of Europe in 1914 were unspeakable places, bloody and violent. Humanity and compassion had all but been replaced by gas and steel and men fighting and dying over invisible lines on a map. Which is what makes this movie so remarkable.
According to this movie, an informal – and most probably unstable – truce was called on Christmas Eve 1914. Joyeux focuses on a No Man’s Land meeting between Scottish, French and German soldiers. It’s an uplifting film that has something important to say about the nature of war and the nature of man.
HOLIDAY INN (1942): Set at a New England inn/performance venue that opens only on holidays, Holiday Inn follows the familiar boy-meets-loses-gets-girl-back model from one Christmas to the next. While a lot of holiday songs get some screen time, it’s the classic White Christmas that steals the show and lends this great Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle its emotional resonance.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940): Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. Two employees (played by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) at a gift shop feud in public while carrying on a romance through correspondence that is so secret that not even they know who their paramour is. Years before the now-dated dial-up comedy You’ve Got Mail, Shop explored a similar snail-mail courtship. While the whole movie is endearing, it’s the film’s holiday climax that is the true gift.
BAD SANTA (2003): A mall Santa falls in with an adorable waif. Holiday gold, right? Well, yes and no. Consider this. The Santa, played with shameless appeal by Billy Bob Thornton, is an unrepentant drunk, womanizer and criminal, intent on using his jolly persona to rob department stores on Christmas Eve. Bad Santa is cynical, crude, and does and says unthinkable things with Christmas traditions. It’s also very smart and very funny.
Hmmm. Perhaps there is a little Grinch in me after all.