(Editor’s note: With Christmas nearly upon us, we decided to try something a little different with Total Recall this week. Alonso Duralde is not only an esteemed film critic and an RT compatriot, he literally wrote the book on Christmas movies (check out Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas here), so we asked him to share some of his favorite underrated holiday pictures.)
I grew up in a household that owned four Christmas albums — Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, and the Boston Pops. And that was it. So part of what I enjoy about Christmas as an adult is the discovery of the vast thicket of vintage holiday music out there, from Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne to the Ray Conniff Singers and the Three Sons.
Same deal with movies; I came of age in the 1970s, the golden era of It’s a Wonderful Life being in the public domain and airing all day, every day, throughout the month of December. As I got older (and wrote the book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas), I was delighted to find that I had as many new buried treasures among Christmas films as I’ve had with music.
If you’re looking to diversify your holiday viewing past A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street (which are both great, don’t get me wrong), you should pick up the book. In the meantime, here’s a taste of some great Christmas movies that may have gone under your radar but which might become part of your December viewing routine.
Lost in the holiday shuffle last year opposite The Muppets, Hugo, Tintin and Happy Feet 2 was this thoroughly charming kids’ movie from Aardman Animation. My chapter on the worst Christmas movies is loaded with films about Santa Claus, so for this 3-D cartoon to get jolly old St. Nick just right feels like a holiday miracle. In this film, the job of Santa Claus is actually passed down from generation to generation, so while the current Father Christmas (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is getting ready to retire, his hyper-efficient next-in-line son Steve (Hugh Laurie) has souped up the sleigh and computerized the whole gift-giving process. But when one little girl doesn’t get her present, it’s up to Steve’s younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy), gift-wrapping elf Briony (Ashley Jensen of Extras and Ugly Betty) and grouchy old “Grandsanta” (Bill Nighy) to save the day. (I remember feeling self-conscious about tearing up at the press screening, until I looked over and saw Rotten Tomatoes’ Grae Drake doing likewise.)
While Die Hard successfully combined gunplay and holiday cheer, other violent and darkly funny Christmas movies haven’t fared so well at the box office, from the hilarious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to this twisted caper about lowlifes trying to get out of town on December 24 with stolen mob money. Said lowlifes are John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, trying not to draw suspicion to themselves on a frozen, slushy night in Wichita, Kansas, where they will dodge strippers (particularly Connie Nielsen), crime lords (Randy Quaid), and enforcers (Mike Starr), while Cusack drives around his ex-wife’s new husband (Oliver Platt), who has a tendency to get unwell while drunk and riding in a car. If you’re looking for some bleak humor to cut through the seasonal sweetness and light, this black-hearted cult fave should do the trick.
Despite boasting a script from the legendary Preston Sturges and starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (playing characters much, much nicer than they did in Double Indemnity), this holiday treat languished in the vaults until recently being rediscovered by TCM. New York D.A. MacMurray takes pity on shoplifter Stanwyck and takes her home to Indiana with him so she won’t have to spend Christmas behind bars. After a chilling visit with her unloving mother, Stanwyck blossoms in the loving care of MacMurray’s mom (Beulah Bondi, who also played Ma Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life). Sweet, smart and funny, Remember the Night offers a quick course in rom-coms done right that today’s practitioners would benefit from studying.
Here’s a movie that, despite rave reviews out of Sundance, got little attention upon its original release. Part of the problem was that MGM was teetering on the verge of one of its bankruptcies, but few studios would know how to sell a movie this eccentric and unusual: a sophisticated American sex comedy. Patrick Dempsey (post-Can’t Buy Me Love, pre-Grey’s Anatomy) comes to Quebec City to visit college girlfriend Jennifer Connelly (post-Labyrinth, pre-A Beautiful Mind) for Christmas, only to have her inform him upon his arrival that she no longer loves him. Throw in two beautiful sisters, an academic father (played by Andre Gregory) who can only write in the nude, and a grandmother (Lila Kedrova) who thinks Dempsey is her late husband reincarnated, and you have a witty, naughty romance set against a gorgeous wintry backdrop.