Every family engages in its own shared holiday traditions around this time of year, from gift giving to ill-advised overeating, and many of them include some time spent huddled cozily in front of a screen, watching a seasonal favorite film or TV special. Film critics are no different, but since they watch movies for a living, we thought it would be interesting to find out what holiday entertainments resonated most with them when they were young. We asked a handful of our friends in the film journalism community to chime in, and while we received a fair share of the classics, we also got some unexpected — and fascinating — responses.
“Having grown up in the 1970s, it was pretty much a guarantee that It’s a Wonderful Life was constantly showing on one TV channel or another throughout the entire month of December. I would catch bits of it here and there — and sometimes my family would all sit down and watch it from start to finish — but I always remember that movie as the wallpaper of the holiday season, even with its bleakest moments playing in the background as we wrapped presents or baked cookies or did something that was very un-Pottersville. As an adult, I still love it, but I only watch it from start to finish, and (since we’re lucky about this sort of thing in Los Angeles) on the big screen with an audience.” — Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, author of Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas
“My favorite movie to watch during the holidays wasn’t a movie at all. It was A Charlie Brown Christmas. In some ways it was more exciting than a movie – movies played in theaters for weeks at a time, offering several opportunities to catch them. Charlie Brown came on once a year, and if you missed it, you missed it. You had to wait till the next year. (And yes, this was before the days of DVRs and VCRs and other ways of recording and storing shows and movies. And yes, that means I’m old.) I loved everything about the special – certainly Vince Guaraldi’s music, the snow, the kids having the stage to themselves (I was a kid at the time, so that was important), the way Linus says, ‘Lights, please’ before delivering the True Meaning of Christmas speech (actually a reading from Luke). The word “classic” gets tossed around every time something is better than worse, but A Charlie Brown Christmas lives up to the description.
It was special in a couple of ways. For one, you never outgrow it. My thrill watching it in the third grade was in no way diluted by 10th grade. I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t going to watch it – everyone did. It’s timeless in that regard. Just check the reaction of anyone who hears “Linus and Lucy” for proof. The other thing that was special was that it meant a visit to my grandmother’s apartment, and the cookies that this promised. She loved Charlie Brown – and she had a color TV, which my parents did not. Of course we had to watch this in color, and going to see her was the only way. It’s a great memory.” — Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
“I loved watching, and still do love watching, White Christmas. This film, plus A Charlie Brown Christmas, were the two seasonal offerings that put me in the holiday mood, even though I didn’t see it in color until my family purchased a color TV in the early 1970s. We also enjoyed watching its predecessor Holiday Inn — this was probably my first experience with a major Hollywood remake. I dig the musical numbers, which strangely now seem nostalgic rather than silly, but most of all I love the innate sense of optimism. That post-war mood that anything can be achieved if everybody pulls together, and ain’t America grand and who doesn’t enjoy Christmas? Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are the Fab Four of the Yuletide season.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star
“It’s a totally obvious answer, I realize, but I have to go with The Sound of Music. For whatever reason, it was just on TV every year at Christmas as I was growing up, ostensibly because it’s a family movie with singing siblings and seems like wholesome holiday viewing. (Really, it’s about increasing Nazi oppression in Austria and doesn’t even take place around Christmastime, but whatever.) But I’m old enough to recall when there weren’t that many channels and something like the annual showing of The Sound of Music was appointment viewing — a ritual, even — for me and my parents, who were huge influences on my career writing about movies. My dad loved musicals and loved singing along with every song; my mother tolerated us being goofballs, basking in the sound of our own voices. To this day, now that I’m a mom myself, I can’t help but sing along with Liesl in the gazebo during ’16 Going on 17.'” — Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com
“I’ve always had a gooey soft spot for Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Kim Novak is a modern-day witch in Manhattan who’s all alone for Christmas because witches can’t fall in love. Her only companions are goofy brother Jack Lemmon and spooky cat Pyewacket (who’s excellent!). Then James Stewart turns up, bringing the promise of romance. It’s a great-looking romcom — the Greenwich Village we see is pure backlot, and the snow is big fat fake Hollywood flakes (the best kind). But today the movie seems marred by serious flaws: Stewart’s once-beloved mannerisms are now irritating, and a very little bit of Lemmon goes a very long way. This is a picture that cries out to be remade. Alicia Keys was going to do it, but then didn’t. Somebody else needs to step up.” — Kurt Loder, Reason Online
“Liza With a Z, the television special with Liza Minnelli directed by Bob Fosse. Our family did not have the typical holiday movie traditions because (1) we are Jewish and therefore would observe the ritual of our people: Chinese food and a new movie release in a theater, and (2) I grew up before video recorders, cable television, Netflix, and streaming video, so even if there was a film we wanted to share every year, there was no way to obtain it. Whatever was on the three commercial networks and the early days of PBS was all there was to choose from. So sometimes we would watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life, but we always watched Liza with a Z. My mother had met Bob Fosse at a dinner party and he was — like everyone else who meets her — utterly captivated by her. So, of course he sent her a copy of Liza With a Z. It was on a big metal reel, a 16mm film with an optical track. Now, it just so happened that my family not only owned a 16 mm projector, like the ones used by schools of the 1960s, but we even had a very cool screen that pulled down from the ceiling in front of the bay window in the living room. My dad had a client who provided films for schools and they let us borrow titles from their catalogue. Our family favorites were Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and On the Town, both of which we watched dozens of times. But the only film we ever owned was Liza With a Z and we never got tired of it. We showed it all the time, and as we grew up and left for college and jobs, showing it when we came home for winter vacation brought us back together. Decades later, when it came out on DVD, I bought copies for my parents and both of my sisters. We still love Liza. You gotta ring them bells!” — Nell Minow, Beliefnet
“My parents took me to movies at least once a week when I was young, but I suddenly realize to my surprise — and dismay — that we didn’t have a movie-going ritual during the holiday season. My only recollection that might be useful is being taken to see The Wizard of Oz a couple of months after it opened at the end of August in 1939 and being upset by the opening sequence. It wasn’t the storm that upset me but the black-and-white photography. I had heard, god knows where, that the movie was in Technicolor — a big treat at the time — and I felt cheated by the lack of it. My parents had no explanation to offer, and must have been relieved when Dorothy finally entered a multicolored world. I look back on that moment not so much as reflecting what a troublesome kid I could be as predicting how my love of movies — and in that case briefly thwarted expectations — would send me on a long and winding career path that culminated in my becoming a movie critic.” — Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
“My family wasn’t sentimental about the holidays. Instead of a tree, my father strung chili lights on a giant wooden cactus. Naturally, our Christmas movie was one of the weirdest disasters ever made: a goofy sci-fi flick about aliens who kidnap Santa so he can teach martian children to have fun. There’s tin can robots and TV-antenna space helmets and even an early starring role for Pia Zadora, who would grow up to be declared the Worst Actress of All-Time. Fittingly, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is actually officially ranked as one of the Worst Movies Ever, which seems a bit unfair because its theme song, ‘Hooray for Santy Claus’ — yes, Santy Claus — is a cruelly perfect earworm that will rattle around your head for days. Watch at your own peril.” — Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly
“I loved all the old Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation classics. But this was my favorite, largely for the songs, the best of which was ‘One Foot in Front of the Other.’ I found it wonderful and unexpected that the villainous Winter Warlock was able to find such moral redemption. This was only made better in adulthood when I realized he was voiced by the ubiquitous-for-decades character actor Keenan Wynn, who was terrific in (among many, many others) Song of the Thin Man, Kiss Me Kate, Dr. Strangelove (Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano!), and Once Upon a Time in the West.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
“I had two favorite movies that I watched with my family during the holidays when I was young: It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis. They both were movies my parents loved, made in their era. MMiSL had a special significance since my mom — who was born in Mexico — had been on contract with MGM, in her 20s, to dub films into Spanish, and she had dubbed the role of Judy Garland. (She had a very mellifluous voice, as did Judy Garland, of course.) Also my mother’s name was Esther and the Garland character in the movie was named Esther, so she felt particularly connected to it, while I think I identified with the young mischievous Margaret O’Brien character. My mom had lots of funny stories associated with doing the dubbing on that film, including a line that drove her crazy. The older brother’s name was Lon and in one scene she had to greet him after coming in from seeing the boy next door. It was the most innocuous of lines: ‘Hello, Lon,’ which of course translated to ‘Hola, Lon.’ But the Spanish version sounded to my bilingual mom like she was saying ‘All Alone’ with a weird accent. She had the hardest time dubbing the line without cracking up. I’ve carried on the tradition with my own daughters. We watch Meet Me in St. Louis on either Thanksgiving or Christmas, or both. And my husband and I like watching It’s a Wonderful Life late on Christmas Eve.” — Claudia Puig, longtime critic for USA Today
“This is going to be hard for anyone under 40 to believe, but when I grew up there wasn’t even cable, let alone DVDs or streaming. So your movie choices were always limited to whatever the TV channels were showing. In New York, because of a weird tradition on local TV, that meant Thanksgiving started with Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, followed by a triple-feature of King Kong/Son of Kong/Mighty Joe Young. (I don’t know what was particularly Pilgrims-and-Indians about the Kong series, but the story was the owner of Ch. 9 had kids, and so always made sure the station programmed things to keep them out of his hair.)
For Christmas, you could usually count — at least from the time I was 6 or so — on CBS to run Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and I loved them all. They were events, too. Missed them? Wait til next year. (Another hard-to-believe fact? It’s a Wonderful Life hadn’t been rediscovered yet, or claimed as a seasonal classic; if you knew it, it was only because it had showed up randomly one night on late-night TV.)
By the 1980s, though, I had cable and VHS (and by the 1990s, my own kids). So I’ve kept some old traditions (still love Charlie Brown and the Grinch, and occasionally put on King Kong, to the confusion of out-of-town turkey-day visitors) and started new ones. Musts sometime before Dec 31: A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim only, please), Great Expectations (David Lean version) and maybe Kind Hearts or Coronets (there’s something about British Victoriana that always works for me, whether or not its holiday-themed), and yes, It’s a Wonderful Life. A good New Year’s Day choice? The Apartment.
The family favorite of all of these is probably still either Charlie Brown or the Grinch; my wife and I love It’s a Wonderful Life, and I always tear up at A Christmas Carol, at the scene where Scrooge hesitates going in to see his nephew, and the maid nods at him. But we’ll need to add some new movies to this tradition I know. Something that speaks to the season’s message of brotherhood and self-sacrifice. I’m thinking Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Seriously. ‘We are Groot’ and ‘I have been and always shall be your friend’ — Is there anything better?” — Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger
“I’m sure it drove my parents insane, but my siblings and I must have watched Home Alone a hundred times. We had a small but overtaxed VHS library growing up, and admittedly watched Home Alone all the time, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a version of Top Gun recorded off a TV broadcast, and two versions of Robin Hood — the animated Disney one and the 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. So what made watching Home Alone special during the holidays was that it was actually seasonally appropriate, unlike all the other times we watched it. We were what the French call ‘les incompetents.'” — Alison Willmore, Buzzfeed