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Christmas Movies 2023

Yesterday’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at a variety of Christmas-related movies. Here is a recap of the titles covered on the show.

Elf and Love Actually

2003 was an exceptional year for holiday movies. That year saw the release of three extremely popular and very good titles: Elf, Bad Santa, and Love Actually. In fact, Elf and Love Actually were released in the United States on the same day. Elf was the sophomore theatrical feature for filmmaker John Favreau and Love Actually was the directorial debut of Richard Curtis. In terms of box office, Elf was the winner domestically, making $178 million in the United States but Love Actually was the top earner internationally with $249 million worldwide. All three of these films have continued to play and Elf in particular is now one of the most popular holiday titles.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas is generally credited to Tim Burton who got his name above the title but the film was in fact directed by Henry Selick and the screenplay is credited to Caroline Thompson. However, Burton did come up with the characters and produced the film and The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the best collaborations between Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The movie was financed by Disney but in 1993 The Mouse wasn’t sure what to make of the film’s dark and oddball qualities and so it was released under the Touchstone Films banner. The Nightmare Before Christmas has since become one of Disney’s most heavily merchandised titles.

 The Family Stone

The Family Stone was a 2005 meet-the-in-laws comedy in which a conservative woman spends Christmas with the free-spirited family of her would-be fiancé. The film was a box office success. It had a mixed critical reception but it earned several award nominations.

Candy Cane Lane

Candy Cane Lane is the a family-friendly holiday picture starring Eddie Murphy has yet another workaholic father who must reconnect with his family. Reworking the Faust tale, Murphy’s character inadvertently sells himself to an elf who is out to punish those who have chosen consumerism at the expense of the Christmas spirit. Candy Cane Lane is nice and inoffensive to a fault. The moviemakers are so determined to create a polite, family friendly piece of entertainment that they file off any sort of edge or substance.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is another film that’s become perennial holiday viewing. It was written by John Hughes and continues the story of the Griswold family and in particular the father played by Chevy Chase. The best Vacation films are funny but also dramatize the pressure felt by suburban middle-class parents to give their families a classic American holiday. Christmas Vacation is so beloved because it is so funny and so quotable but also because it is so true of so many people’s holiday experience.  

The Polar Express

The Polar Express is a popular children’s book written by Chris Van Allsburg. The story concerns a boy who is invited aboard a train that takes him on a tour of Santa Claus’ home at the North Pole. The book was adapted into a computer animated feature film in 2004 directed by Robert Zemeckis. The Polar Express began Zemeckis’ foray into motion capture filmmaking which would later include another holiday film, 2009’s extraordinarily creepy version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Christmas Horror

2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse might be the only Christmas-themed musical zombie film. The undead lay siege to a high school during a holiday music pageant and the film mixes zombie movie thrills with sugary holiday musical numbers. It’s a novel idea but not a great movie. However, Anna and the Apocalypse does have a great musical number in “It’s That Time of Year” performed by Marli Siu.   

Silent Night, Deadly Night was a notorious horror film released in 1984 about an ax murderer in a Santa Claus outfit. The movie caused a furor with parents groups demanding that the film be pulled from theaters; Silent Night, Deadly Night’s west coast theatrical run was cancelled. Censorship ensured the film’s notoriety and Silent Night, Deadly Night is still remembered despite not being very good nor is it even the best killer Santa movie of the 1980s. (See: Christmas Evil.)

As its title implies, It’s a Wonderful Knife is a spin on Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is shown what life would be like if he had never been born and learns to appreciate his blessings. It’s a Wonderful Knife borrows the basic idea. A woman kills a masked murderer on Christmas Eve. A year later, still mourning the loss of her friends, she is transported into an alternate universe in which she does not exist and the killer roams free.

It’s a Wonderful Life

One of the films most associated with the holiday season is Frank Capra’s 1946 feature It’s a Wonderful Life. However, at the time of its release, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office failure that received mixed critical reactions. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the film became popular due to its repeated showings on television during the Christmas season which came about due to a lapse in the copyright. It’s a Wonderful Life has since been named one of the 100 greatest American movies by the American Film Institute and the organization named George Bailey and Mr. Potter on its list of the greatest movie heroes and villains.

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story has displaced It’s a Wonderful Life as the movie that is always on television during the holiday season. A Christmas Story was a modest success in 1983 but its stature has grown over the years, largely because of its marathon runs on cable television. Two sequels followed: A Christmas Story 2 in 2012 and A Christmas Story Christmas in 2022. Neither sequel was particularly memorable but the 2022 film was passable. A Christmas Story Christmas picked up the story decades later with actor Peter Billingsley returning in the role of the now adult Ralphie who spends Christmas in his childhood home with his recently widowed mother.

Christmas Specials

One of the distinct qualities of the Christmas season is the ritualistic broadcast of classic animated television specials. The 1960s saw the premiere of animated network events that have become a big part of the holiday including 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. Among the most popular of these was 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas in which the Peanuts gang rediscovers the meaning of Christmas.

In between the release of the original Star Wars in 1977 and The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, George Lucas authorized the production of the Star Wars Holiday Special which aired on CBS in November 1978. The special was a bizarre disaster that has never been rebroadcast or officially released. The documentary A Disturbance in the Force takes a close look at the making of the Holiday Special and explains how this very strange piece of television was produced. It ought to appeal to Star Wars fans and casual viewers due to its good humor and the trainwreck nature of the subject matter.

The Lion in Winter

One title that’s generally been left out of the popular Christmas movie discussion is The Lion in Winter. The 1968 film was an adaptation of the stage play and it’s about the family of King Henry II. They gather over Christmas and Henry’s sons jockey for position to take the throne. The Lion in Winter is a story of a dysfunctional family getting together for the holidays and it’s an alternative to the more typically saccharine Yuletide viewing options.