For many of us movie buffs it must sometimes seem that truly good holiday movies are a thing of the past. Indeed, the Yuletide films of the past thirty years often seem like a miserable lot. They range from romantic comedies that are mediocre at best to inane comedy fantasies to inept attempts to revive the themes of holiday classics of old. To those of us who do not want to watch Elf (2003) for the 200th time that it has been shown on the USA Network, it must seem that truly good Christmas movies are a thing of the past.
Fortunately, there have been a few, if very few, truly good movies that have touched upon the holidays since When Harry Met Sally was released in 1989. Here is my short list of truly good holiday movies by the year in which they were released.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): I honestly believe that there has never been a bad Muppet movie made. This is particularly true of The Muppet Christmas Carol. While many comedic re-tellings of Charles Dickens' classic have relied upon low humour and cheap laughs, like The Muppets' other movies The Muppet Christmas Carol is a class act all the way. Indeed, the movie actually follows Mr. Dickens' novella very closely, adding only a bit of comedy and a bit of song. Aside from The Muppets themselves, The Muppet Christmas Carol features an inspired bit of casting--Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge. As might be expected, Mr. Caine delivers a great performance. The Muppet Christmas Carol also has a great soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams. In the end, it could well be the only truly good adaptation of A Christmas Carol made in the past twenty years.
While You Were Sleeping (1995): Anyone who has read this blog know that I am not a huge fan of modern day romantic comedies. If good holiday movies are a rarity these days, good romantic comedies are even rarer. Most modern romantic comedies seem to me to be trite, shallow, and, well, not very funny. Fortunately, While You Were Sleeping is one oft he exceptions. Not only is While You Were Sleeping a good romantic comedy, but a good holiday movie as well. The film centres on Lucy Moderatiz (played by Sandra Bullock), a token taker for the Chicago Transit Authority, who saves a man's life on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the man is in a coma and Lucy is mistaken for his fiancee. As might be expected, complications upon complications develop from there.
What sets While You Were Sleeping apart from other modern romantic comedies is that it has a very good script and an excellent cast featuring not only Miss Bullock, but Bill Pullman, Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, and Jack Warden. In fact, the movie reminds me of the classic romantic, screwball comedies of old, so that would actually make a good companion piece to the classic romantic, screwball, holiday comedy Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Indeed, while many modern romantic comedies seem to be written exclusively for women, like the romantic comedies of old While You Were Sleeping can be enjoyed by both sexes with equal enthusiasm.
Serendipity (2001): Fortunately, While You Were Sleeping is not the only good romantic comedy released in the past twenty years. It is not even the only good romantic, holiday film. There is also Serendipity. Indeed, Serendipity could be one of the romantic movies insofar as it deals with the existence of true love itself. The movie centres on Jonathan Trager (John Cusack), who meets Englishwoman Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) during the Christmas shopping season. The two spend a pleasant evening together, but at the end Sara decides that they should let fate decide if they should be together. She writes her name in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, while Jonathan writes his on a $5 bill. Seven years later Jonathan and Sara are in relationships with other people, which is naturally when that copy of Love in the Time of Cholera finds its way back to Jonathan.
Serendipity benefits from an excellent cast. Aside from the two leads (John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale), the cast features Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, and Eugene Levy. The film is also very well written, with fully developed characters rather than the cardboard cut outs that populate most modern romantic comedies. What is more, Serendipity is one of those few modern romantic comedies which both men and women can enjoy. Indeed, it is the only romantic comedy made in the past twenty years I can remember that is mostly told from the male point of view!
Love Actually (2003): Although it is often called a romantic comedy, Love Actually is in reality a comedy set during the Yuletide that follows ten different storylines exploring the various forms of love, from romantic love to familial love to friendship. As a result there is no single character who can truly be said to be a main character, so that Love Actually is very much a film with an ensemble cast. For decades it seemed to me that only Robert Altman could execute such a film and do it well, but Robert Curtis proved he could do such a film very well too. Indeed, he not only directed the film, but he wrote it as well.
Love Actually is such a well done film that it is actually hard to pick just one element that makes the film so great. It truly is more than the sum of its part. Mr. Curtis's screenplay is both intelligent and funny, with just enough sentiment to make the film touching without being schmaltzy. The film also has an incredible cast, including Bill Nighy as washed up rock star Billy Mack, Hugh Grant as a lovestruck prime minister of the United Kingdom, Liam Neeson as a stepfather coping with his wife's death and advising his stepson on how to handle a crush, and many others. The film also features some incredible photography from Michael Coulter. I don't believe London has ever looked so beautiful on film before or since. Of course, that brings me to another point. The film is almost entirely a British production, featuring a mostly British cast. This makes Love Actually a must watch film for any Anglophile. Here I must put in a word of warning that Love Actually is not exactly family viewing. There is material in the film that would be inappropriate for younger viewers.
Regardless, Love Actually is a very well done film that not only evokes the holiday spirit very well, but captures the essence of London and explores the various types of love in great fashion as well. Of the films I have mentioned here, it may well be the one destined to become a classic.
The Polar Express (2004): There can be no doubt that The Polar Express is an incredible technical achievement. Indeed, it was the first film ever almost entirely shot using performance capture technology. The end result is that for its time The Polar Express had the most realistic looking characters of any computer animated film. Indeed, it may have been the realistic look of the movie's characters that alienated many critics at the time (as an example, Paul Clinton of CNN referred to the characters as "creepy"). Nearly a decade later, when such realism in computer animated films is much common, the film is much better appreciated and has developed a cult following.
Indeed, even at the time those critics who were a bit creeped out by the film's characters admitted that it had amazing visuals. Even today when computer animation is much more advanced, The Polar Express is still impressive visually. If The Polar Express was simply a visually stunning, but empty technical achievement, however, it would not have achieved cult status in the seven years since its release. Instead The Polar Express is a paen to Christmas of the past, at a time when crass consumerism had not yet taken over the holiday and goodwill to one's fellow man was still very much a part of the holiday. Although the time period is never made clear in the film, it would appear to be set sometime in the Fifties or Sixties. Herpolsheimer's department store is still the primary centre of holiday shopping in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the hometown of the protagonist), while the technology, fashion, and even the music (except for an anachronistic appearance by Steve Tyler--apparently Santa's elves had Aerosmith before the rest of us) point to an earlier era.
That is not to say that The Polar Express is simply another mindless exercise in glorifying Christmases of the past. It is a movie of some depth, even going so far to explore some of the darker aspects of the holiday, including the greed that often accompanies the receiving of gifts and the inequity of good, but poor children not always having the happiest of holidays. The film also has the benefit of truly great vocal performances by its cast, including Tom Hanks (in multiple roles as the Conductor, the film's protagonist, and Mr. C. himself) and Michael Jeter (in his last performance). In the end The Polar Express is a well done film that can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike.