One of my favourite versions of the classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is one of the latest. She & Him reverses the roles, with Zooey Deschanel taking the role of the wolf and M. Ward taking the role of the mouse. That having been said, I don't think Zooey would have to beg me to stay inside with her and away from the cold!
Monday I posted a video of "Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue. It happens to be one of my favourite modern Christmas carols (modern defined here as anything after 1960). I then thought I should go ahead and share my top five favourite modern Christmas carols ("Merry Christmas Will Do" would be number six) in reverse order (from #5 to #1).
At number five is, of all things, a cover of a Mariah Carey song. If you're like me, then you did not particularly care for Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" nor any of its various covers over the years. Fortunately, it was several years ago I discovered it was actually a good song just waiting to be discovered, and it was one of my favourite bands who discovered it. Here then is My Chemical Romance's cover of "All I Want for Christmas is You."
At number four is "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" by The Killers. BTW, the video was directed by Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds
At number three is another cover song, although in this instance it is not a cover a Yuletide song. "Christmas is All Around" originated as a parody of The Troggs' "Love is All Around" in the movie Love Actually. In the context of the film "Christmas is All Around" is a holiday single released by washed up rock star Billy Mack, played by Bill Nighy. Although in the movie Billy consistently derides the song, I not only think it is very good, but possibly the best cover of "Love is All Around" ever performed.
At number two is "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon. The song was released in the United States in December 1971, not long before Christmas. As a result it failed to make an impact on the Billboard charts. Due to a publishing dispute its release in the United Kingdom was delayed, so that it was released in December 1972. There it did somewhat better, peaking at #4 on the UK singles chart. While it is one of my favourite holiday songs, I must confess I sometimes find myself crying when I hear it. John Lennon having been murdered in December, the song was receiving airplay at the time.
My favourite modern, holiday song of all time is "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. It was the only original song included on the 1963 Christmas compilation album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. Originally Ronnie Spector was meant to sing it, but her vocals seemed a bit lacking, so Darlene Love sung the song instead. Although it is now considered a classic (in December 2010 Rolling Stone named it number one in its list of the Greatest Rock and Roll Christmas Songs), "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" flopped on its initial release. It has since been covered several times by other artists and Darlene Love performs it each year on The Late Show with David Letterman
Those of you living in the United States may have seen Best Buy's "Game On" adverts, in which people try to top Santa Claus when it comes to giving gifts. To many these commercials may seem like mildly amusing spots of no importance. As for myself, I find them somewhat disturbing. To me they portray gift giving as a competition, in which the importance in giving gifts is not their significance to the individual but instead the amount of money spent on gifts and the sheer number of gifts given. Indeed, to me they point to something that has disturbed me for some time. I think that the meaning of the holidays may well be getting lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that now accompanies the season.
Of course, complaints about the commercialisation of Christmas are nothing new. Complaints about commercialism with regards to the Yuletide have existed as far back as the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. It seems to me that as the years have gone by such commercialism has grown even worse, to the point that not only is too much emphasis placed on the buying of expensive gifts, but people are becoming downright rude and even aggressive during the one time of year when they should be treating everyone else well. One need look no further than an incident this past Black Friday, in which a woman in Southern California pepper sprayed fellow shoppers at a WalMart simply because she wanted an Xbox gaming console. If this was simply an isolated incident one could simply dismiss it, but the plain truth is that acts of violence throughout the United States while shopping occur with alarming frequency on Black Friday and other times during the Christmas shopping season. Quite simply, it seems to me that people are putting more emphasis on buying expensive gifts than on the goodwill towards one's fellow man that is central to the season.
The phrase "goodwill to men (often accompanied by the phrase "peace on Earth") " has long been associated with Christmas. The line "peace on Earth, goodwill to men" occurs in various Christmas carols, most notably Longellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The phrase has its origins in Luke 2:14 from the Christian Bible, which reads "Glory to God, and on Earth peace, and goodwill towards men." That having been said, the idea of "goodwill towards men" during a holiday season in December probably pre-dates the advent of Christianity. Modern Christmas in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand owes a good deal to the pre-Christian, Germanic holiday called in Old English Géol and in Old Norse Jól--modern English Yule. Not only was Yule a time of gift giving and merriment, it was also a time of peace and goodwill. Violence appears to have been forbidden during the holiday. In Svarfdæla saga a man postponed a duel until three days after the Yuletide. Grettis Saga referred to Yule as "..greatest mirth and joyance among men." Even if one is not Christian (as I am not), to celebrate the holidays without expressing goodwill towards one's fellow man is then ignoring one of the most ancient, most central, and perhaps most important aspect of the season.
Of course, I suppose some might point out that we should always treat one's fellow man with goodwill, regardless of the time of year. I certainly cannot argue against that. That having been said, I see no harm in having a time of year when goodwill towards men is emphasised, so as to serve as a reminder of how we should behave all times during the year. Whether the pagan Yule of centuries ago or the Christmas of more recent centuries, I think that was one of the purposes the holiday served. Sadly, I think it is this goodwill that has been lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that developed during the late 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century. Quite simply, the emphasis is being placed entirely upon the wrong things during the holidays.
Here I must point out that I do not believe that gift giving is one of those wrong things being emphasised during the holiday season these days. Gift giving was a part of the pagan holiday of Yule and has been a part of Christmas for centuries. The problem is not an emphasis being placed on the giving of gifts, but on how much those gifts cost and how many gifts are given. Indeed, as a child it seems to me that gift giving was actually more common. One did not simply give gifts to those in one's nuclear family, but one's extended family as well. That having been said, the gifts given were not expensive Xboxes and IPhonees, but gifts of a much simpler nature. My aunts would bake cookies and candy to give as gifts during the holiday. My godmother always gave our family a fruitcake. As a child I received hand sewn Christmas stockings. As a child I appreciated all of these gifts. Even though they were not expensive, they showed that the individuals giving them had placed time and effort in creating them. Indeed, as an adult some of my most prized gifts have not been very expensive--DVDs of my favourite movies from the $5 bin at WalMart, a calendar of pinup art, and so on.
The problem is then not the gift giving at the holidays, but the idea that one should buy expensive gifts and buy many gifts with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed the average American for nearly the past 100 years. The purpose of giving gifts at the Yuletide is to show one's appreciation for others, not to show how much money one can spend or to buy a more expensive gift than others. Gift giving should be an extension of showing goodwill towards one's fellow men, not a competition to see whose gifts cost the most.
Sadly, I do not know if there is any way of returning to a time when goodwill played a significant role in the holidays without a total sea change in the way Madison Avenue and corporate America approaches the season. As long as companies insist on emphasising the cost of gifts and how much one buys, there will more incidents such as pepper spraying fellow shoppers just for an XBox and very little goodwill to be seen in sight. This is sad to me as not only in emphasising crass consumerism has Madison Avenue and corporate America reduced goodwill during the Yuletide, but in reducing the goodwill that should be inherent in the season they have also taken away much of its joy and fun as well.
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.